By Kevin Guilfoile
Earlier this week, as the White Sox and Cubs were read separate fortunes on Opening Day, I was invited to participate in a discussion about baseball literature for local television. Joining me on the panel were Geoff Forsyth, an accomplished short story writer and professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and Terry Sullivan, a former English teacher who is now a scout for the Red Sox. We talked about the long relationship between baseball and fiction, and about our favorite baseball novels, including Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Philip Roth's The Great American Novel, Bernard Malumud's The Natural.
Inevitably the conversation turned to W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the film Field of Dreams was based.
That book of course, is about Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella who, urged on by a voice in his head, carves a perfect baseball field out of valuable farm land and then tries to figure out why he was asked to do it. In his search he drags reclusive writer J.D. Salinger from his New Hampshire home and takes him to Fenway Park. He tracks down a former ballplayer named Moonlight Graham up in Minnesota. The ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson (as well as the rest of the 1919 White Sox) and Ray's own father emerge to play on Ray's field.
If you build it, he will come, the voice had told Ray.
I said the book was about faith. Not religious faith, necessarily, but any sort of compulsion that we don't understand or recognize.
Then Geoff pointed out something that should have been obvious to me.
The story is a perfect metaphor for writing.
Most writers will tell you they don't understand why they do it. Or why they started. Writing a novel, especially a first novel, must seem like insanity to our spouses and friends. A first novel is a diamond carved out of your precious time over months or usually years. If you're persistent enough to finish, there's no guarantee that anything will come of it. In most cases nothing will.
Somehow you're convinced that if you build it, they will come. Agents. Publishers. Readers.
I would bet that four out of five of the American writers I know are baseball fans. Maybe we are drawn to the baseball player's courage and persistence in the face of failure, and the narrow margin between immortality and mediocrity. A baseball player who gets a hit in six-out-of-twenty at bats is an immortal, a Hall of Famer. A player who gets a hit in five-of-twenty at bats is a bust, forgotten except for the record books. That sounds a lot like being a novelist.
Or maybe we're all just Ray Kinsella's following the whispers in our heads.
As long as it's still opening week, what are your favorite baseball novels? Because I still have a long list.