THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN
By Joseph M. Schuster
This time of year, professional baseball reawakens. Even the owners, their lawyers, and the obscene payouts to young players cannot completely destroy the healthy fantasy of a sport that is larger than a game and, if you’re nostalgically predisposed, other than a business. It’s the original “level playing field” and a source of some of the best nicknames the world has known.
From Bernard Malamud’s The Natural to W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and Steve Kluger’s Changing Pitches, baseball fiction has given us grit, humor and outsized musing. Joseph M. Schuster’s new novel is one of those memorable works that turns baseball culture into a course in human understanding. It is surrounded by baseball but not confined by it. Schuster’s protagonist, Edward Everett Yates, is a bit taciturn and less than fully accessible when we first meet him. A St. Louis Cardinal for the blink of an eye in the mid-1970s, a strong hitter on the verge of a major league career, he goes up for a fly ball in Montreal and comes down with a career-ending knee injury.
Only now does his story really begin. It’s not the blow-by-blow tale of a championship season or an exposé of disreputable behavior on and off the field; instead, it’s a quiet epic about a man and his choices: minor league scuffles, poorly timed relationships, and the nature of the game of baseball as it is lived and felt by players like Yates who had just enough talent but not enough lucky breaks to get called up to the big leagues for any length of time.
The novel’s power comes from the author’s refusal to dictate the emotions of his characters — but still you feel them. In the loathsome locker room of a double-A team in Iowa, losers don’t think they’re losers. Manager Yates, wiser as the years advance, negotiates in his mind between the crises of his current life that the players know nothing about, and an old, festering secret he has not told any of his wives or girlfriends.
Forced to fire half the team at the end of a season, he dutifully anticipates his own firing, year after year. His fate seems to have little to do with his performance, which is pretty much what keeps him treading water half his adult life.
Yates, who as a manager is professionally enveloped in the outlandish dreams of 19- year-olds, regards himself ever more as an island of “might have been” in a sea of hopeful (and unruly) male passions. Never entirely disconnected from his near-heyday as a player, he is still a cog in a minor league machine; he is nearing 60 before he starts to realize that his life is more than a series of half-adventures and misadventures. He reaps knowledge, perspective — and it’s almost enough.
Yes, that’s it. Schuster’s debut novel is a study in “almosts.” Almost knowing. Almost scoring. Almost living large. The author, a married father of five who resides near St. Louis, is clearly much older than the average rookie. But to borrow some baseball parlance, he throws well, demonstrates control, and knows how to pace himself.
Andrew Burstein is Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is http://www.andburstein.com.