Books: Free Baseball

>> Saturday, February 4, 2006

Sue Corbett's middle-grade book Free Baseball is the story of Felix, an eleven-year-old Cuban-American who stows away on a minor league team bus and steps in for the new bat boy who never showed up for work. It's sort of a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler-kids-hiding-overnight-in-the-museum for the sports set. Typically, I have a hard time swallowing such fantasies as realistic, and thus my enjoyment of these kind of stories is always muted. But as charming or as impossible as the idea of living in a ballpark and working behind the scenes at a professional baseball game might be, there is so much more to this story that such issues are quickly left behind.

At the heart of this story are the diplomatic issues between America and Cuba, and the social turmoil those politics leave in their wake. Felix and his mother were "boat-people," Cuban immigrants who took a secret, overcrowded, and ultimately perilous boat ride to seek refuge in America. They left behind Felix's father, a star outfielder on the Cuban National Team, thinking he would be able to defect and join them during the team's travels. But it's been years now - Felix was an infant during the night-crossing - and he despairs that his father will never be able to join them.

The book then becomes something of a father quest - always a good pairing with baseball (see Field of Dreams, et al.) - as well as an exploration of Felix's strained relationship with his mother and his world. Yet despite settling into these well-worn spots in the outfield, Free Baseball stays on its toes and keeps the reader there too, managing to be pleasingly predictable and surprising at the same time. It's an atypical baseball book for this age group - it's not about winning a big game with a clutch hit, but instead about finding one's home in the dugout, and one's family in the stands. A story about that oddly redemptive power of a simple yet multi-faceted game, and the many ways in which it can touch all those who come into contact with it.

Highly recommended for all readers, but particularly those who have already tasted the magic of baseball.


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