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Monday, July 16, 2012

Willy's Ballgame


As the Houston Astros struggle through another death march of a summer (and as their asinine, Commissioner-dictated, transfer to the American League rapidly approaches), I find myself turning to baseball novels and memoirs for relief.  I have also adopted the St. Louis Cardinals as my new hometown team even though I have been to St. Louis only once…simply refuse to watch AL baseball on a regular basis…but that’s a story for another day.  Baseball fantasy does have a way of reminding me of what first so attracted me to the game all those years ago.  My most recent choice, Dennis Ricci’s Willy’s Ballgame, accomplishes exactly that. 

Willie Mae Beal has baseball in her blood – literally.  The 28-year-old, who stands two full inches over six feet, is the granddaughter of one Reuben Henry, a veteran of thirty years in the “blackball” leagues who began playing catch with Willy when she was just a little girl.  Reuben gradually transformed her into a pitcher in his own image, and Willy became a dominant softball player at Florida A&M.  Baseball is so much a part of Willy’s life, that despite now earning her keep as a poorly paid high school track coach, she still keeps her pitching arm in game shape.  This is her story.

Willie Mae Beal inherited more than her athletic body from her grandfather; “Rube” also passed on everything he knew about pitching strategy and deceiving hitters.  That he also taught her every pitch in the book, and that she has a 90 m.p.h. fastball and pinpoint control, is the icing on her baseball cake.  When circumstances combine to bring Willy to the attention of a major league player needing a strong arm to fill a spot on the Winter League team he is managing, her performance there surprises everyone. 

Dennis N. Ricci
This YA novel centers on the remarkable friendship of “Rube” Henry and his longtime friend, Amos “Teach” Jones, a man who played with and against “Rube” for an entire generation.  The friendship that Willy and Amos’s sons carry into the next generation turns out to be just as special to them.

Willy’s Ballgame will be an inspiration to young women unwilling to settle for anything less than they are capable of achieving.  And, although it might be less obvious at first glance, there is enough “baseball” in this one to keep male readers just as intrigued as young women will be by the novel’s storyline.  My only disappointment is with the book’s last three words: “to be continued…” I did not come away from Willy’s Ballgame with the sense of closure I like to feel at the end of a novel; younger readers, more attuned than I am to reading extended series featuring the same characters, may feel differently.
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