Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book review: "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop."

Matt Kelsey has won five consecutive Cy Young Awards. He is, by all accounts, the finest pitcher to throw a baseball since the retirement of Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux and quite possibly one of the greatest baseball players of all time. A perennial All-Star, Kelsey is almost certain to make it into the Hall of Fame. At 31 years old, he is on the last year of a 4-year, $100 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, and he's hopeful for a $200 million payday on his next contract.

But Matt Kelsey the unemployed writer and wannabe novelist is growing bored with Matt Kelsey the pitcher, who exists only as ones and zeros in the confines of the SD chip inside my PlayStation Portable and the software of the game "MLB 08: The Show."

I created Matt Kelsey the pitcher in the game and set him off on his now-illustrious career. But as I mentioned, it's getting a little boring. My pitcher has achieved as much success as is possible, and the only upcoming milestone I have to look forward to is signing the next big contract. After that, I'll just be waiting for the Hall of Fame.

In "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop." by Robert Coover, the title character faces a similar problem with the fictional baseball-dice game he has created. The game has become boring to him.

The novel opens, though, with something that could save the league. A brilliant rookie pitcher named Damon Rutherford is "pitching" a perfect game. Of course, the perfect game, the pitcher and the entire league only exist inside Henry's mind.

Rutherford's greatness injects new life into the Universal Baseball Association and gives Henry a reason to continue, but in his next start Rutherford falls victim to an unfortunate dice roll and gets killed by a bean ball.

We get to know Henry best in the aftermath of this disaster. Not only does he mourn the loss of a great player; he also struggles with how to continue with the baseball league and, oh yeah, how to keep his actual, real-life job as an accountant.

You really don't get a clear picture of how involved Henry is with this league until you read the novel. It's incredible detail on every single player throughout the fifty-plus season history of the organization. Here's Henry's description of a backup third baseman for one of the eight teams in the league:

Six foot two, 168 pounds, thirty years old, seven years in the Association. Dazzling fielder out in center, good throwing arm. Smooth-swinging choke hitter who sprayed to all fields. One big year in LII [year 52 of the Association] when he punched out a .281, just missing Star status. Hair sun-bleached blond, skin tanned, cigarette-ad smile. Played pro tennis in the spring.

Henry knows all that and more about every player in the league throughout the league's history.

And it's not just what happens on the field. There's an entire political structure, since the players vote on who becomes the league chancellor. There's folk history, complete with folk music. There's mythology. And there's a plethora of activities in the offseason. Although Henry memorizes most of the info, all of it goes in "The Book," a multi-volume index of league history and news.

It's that incredible detail that makes "The Universal Baseball Association" a bit bogged down in the middle. When Henry is having fictional conversations in his head between players and managers who don't really exist, the book can be a little overwhelming. I compare it to the book "Flowers for Algernon," about a mentally handicapped man (and the narrator of the book) who has an experimental brain surgery to improve his mind. The surgery works and his IQ jumps from 68 to genius level. When the main character, Charley, is at his smartest, the book is difficult to read because Charley is speaking at an ethereal level. It's the same thing in "The Universal Baseball Association" when Henry is plunging depths of the Association to which the reader isn't privy.

But it's a fascinating novel, if only for the examination of one man's utter psychological breakdown.

"The Universal Baseball Association," large part mythology, psychology, psychiatry, ethics and math, is perhaps the greatest example that baseball novels are usually not at all about baseball.

--Matt Kelsey

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