Prose & Cons
By Chuck Greaves
Frank Ryder is a professional baseball pitcher with a fastball that’s virtually unhittable. We’re talking upwards of 110 mph, and delivered with pinpoint accuracy. Ordinarily, that would be a good thing, both for Frank and for his team, the Baltimore Orioles. And it’s more than good, in the sense that Frank is the most dominant pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball, and the perpetually-underdog Orioles are, thanks to Frank’s golden arm, in the hunt for the American League title.
But be careful what you wish for, Mancos author (and fellow Prose & Cons columnist) Mark Stevens warns us, because success of this magnitude comes at a price, both for Frank and for the sport he so dearly loves.
The internal and external conflicts attendant to Frank’s extraordinary talents are the twin rails on which The Fireballer, Stevens’ exceptional sixth novel, hurtles beyond the trite conventions of the sports-novel genre (Will the Orioles claim the title? Will Frank get the big win?) and emerges as a compelling work of literary fiction.
Externally, Frank’s talents pose an existential threat to the game. Or so say the owners of every MLB franchise that’s not the Orioles. In this, his first Major League season, Frank is a freakish curiosity to which even casual fans are flocking, selling out every game in which he pitches. But for how long will those fans keep buying tickets, not to mention beer and hot dogs, to watch hitless baseball, their hometown sluggers rendered hopelessly impotent? Why go to the ballpark, in other words, just to watch a guy strike out your side, inning after inning?
In this, the aggrieved owners have the ear of baseball’s commissioner, and its Rules Committee, which are poised to impose a speed limit on Frank Ryder’s fastball. Anything over 105, say, is a ball, even in the strike zone. Or maybe they could lower the mound again. Or else move it back, beyond its traditional 60 feet, 6 inches? These are the currents against which Frank must swim every time he takes the mound, not to mention in every post-game interview or SportsCenter pundits’ debate.
Internally, meanwhile, there are ghosts – and one ghost in particular – with which Frank still grapples, thanks to a Little League incident in which one of his nascent fastballs fatally beaned an opposing batter. This tragedy prompted Frank’s parents to uproot their family from Georgia and relocate to Colorado where Frank, only late in high school, was finally allowed to resume playing the game he loves.
These internal and external conflicts soon intersect when an opposing pitcher’s fastball shatters the wrist of Orioles slugger Julio Diaz, and Frank, in a time-honored baseball tradition, is called upon to retaliate. He refuses, given his lethal past, until a rare wild pitch achieves the same result, nearly killing another batter and earning Frank a mid-season suspension. His confidence shaken, Frank uses the break to embark on an odyssey of sorts, back to his roots and, ultimately, to the tragedy that, unbeknownst to his adoring public, has haunted Frank Ryder’s every waking adult moment.
Ancillary to the main story, The Fireballer provides readers with an inside look at life in the big leagues, from clubhouse camaraderie to the temptations of fame to the pressures of the national media spotlight. Stevens, a former reporter, clearly knows the sports journalism beat and he suffuses his novel with the sights and sounds, the lingo and storied legacy of our national pastime.
You don’t need to follow, or even to like, Major League baseball in order to enjoy The Fireballer ($16.99, from Lake Union Publishing.) An appreciation of fully-realized characters, compelling conflict, and confident storytelling will suffice. But congratulations if you do love the game, because Mark Stevens has penned one of the better novels in this uniquely American canon.
Chuck Greaves is the award-winning author of seven novels, most recently The Chimera Club. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.