Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Opposite Field

Learning to hit consistently to the opposite field can transform an average hitter into a baseball star. More importantly, the ability to “hit 'em where they’re pitched” in the real world can be the difference between being a failure and being a success at life itself. Jesse Katz is one of life’s better opposite filed hitters.

The hook of Katz’s The Opposite Field is what Katz experienced as a youth league baseball commissioner in Monterey Park, California: irrational parents, deadbeats, suspicious parents, fundraisers and budgets, tricky player drafts, prima donna coaches more interested in winning than in kids, complicated game scheduling, parental custody disputes, dishonest uniform and trophy suppliers, and all the other headaches that seem to come with the territory. Admittedly, it was fun to read about all the things Katz never saw coming and how he handled the league’s problems on the fly, often barely managing to keep things together. But the real story in The Opposite Field is Katz’s immense love for his son Danny, a boy he largely raised alone after he and his Nicaraguan wife separated.

That is precisely why Katz, not the most athletic guy in the world, decided to sign his five-year-old up for baseball – with himself as team coach, to boot. Then, when it appeared that the league might fold before his son’s second season, Katz made the life-changing decision to run the entire facility, not just his son’s team. He had little idea of what he was getting himself into but, with the help of a few other dedicated parents, Katz would oversee several of the best years La Loma Park’s families ever experienced.

Despite the fact that La Loma Park dominated Jesse Katz’s time, he did have a life outside its four ballparks, and he is remarkably honest in sharing that life with readers of The Opposite Field. Katz explains how he got to be the man he is: only child of high-achieving New Yorker parents (who divorced when he was 16) who raised him in liberal Portland, Oregon; a man with a great love of Latin cultures around the world, especially, it seems the women of those cultures. Fluent in Spanish, Katz chose his Los Angeles neighborhood in large part because of his fascination with the racial diversity of the people who lived there.

The neighborhood would become home to Katz despite its distance from his mother and father. He met and fell in his love with his wife there, a full-of-life woman from Nicaragua who was in the United States illegally but who was not at all apologetic about her status. Over the years, the two would experience much together, some of it good and some of it not so good. Katz would grow close to his Nicaraguan family members, several of whom eventually made their way to Los Angles, but would struggle to relate to his out-of-control stepson. He would watch helplessly from afar as his mother battled cancer and would marvel at the support his father would lend his mother despite their divorce.

As young Danny approached his teenage years, his natural yearning for more independence would both test his relationship with his father and lead to one of life’s more beautiful gifts: one final season in La Loma Park playing baseball for his father. The Opposite Field can be a bit rambling at times as Katz moves between tales of his own youth and that of his son but, by the book’s end, it all comes together beautifully. This is a book for those wanting to be reminded of their own Little League days but it is more than that; it is a book for fathers and their sons.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by Crown)

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