Tag Archives: Out of Left Field

Why Baseball?

October 13, 1960. Game 7 of the World Series: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. New York Yankees. I left school on a run and raced up the hill to our house, where I found my mother—who never watched TV in the daytime—glued to the set. Ninth inning: the game was tied. At that moment, Bill Mazeroski smashed a home run out of the park. Mom and I screamed and jumped up and down as Pirate fans went beserk. The phone rang: my dad was calling from the office, over the moon. He’d grown up in Pittsburgh and was a life-long Pirates fan. Gritty, blue-collar Pittsburgh had beaten the stuck-up, entitled Yankees.

This statue commemorates Bill Mazeroski rounding second base after his series-winning home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. Photo: Creative Commons BY 2.0

Mazeroski’s home run—famous as the one and only Game Seven walk-off win in World Series history—is my earliest, most memorable baseball memory.

Baseball was like background music in my family: always there. My dad, uncle, grandfather, and brother talked baseball and kept track of their teams. Dad alerted me to writers who wrote lyrically about the game. Without realizing it, baseball lingo and metaphors became imbedded in my brain. In high school, my boyfriend took me to a Red Sox game, where bleacher seats were $5, but I didn’t become a true fan until later in life. Raising my kids in Vermont without television, we didn’t see games often—though our neighborhood watched the debacle of the ’86 Sox/Mets series in a friend’s basement. I’m sure our screams of horror could be heard for miles when the ball skipped through You-Know-Who’s feet.

Out of Left FieldDuring my Vermont years, friends Rosie and Peter Shiras, ultimate Sox fans, talked baseball and urged me to follow the game. A Civil Rights activist, Rosie taught her students about baseball’s failure to integrate, as well as the Red Sox’s shameful distinction as the last team to sign an African American player. When she retired from teaching, Rosie’s students gave her a signed, framed Jackie Robinson baseball card. (Those who have read my baseball-themed novel, Out of Left Field, might recognize her card as that story’s endowed object.) Last year, I attended the annual game honoring Robinson at Fenway—the day when everyone in baseball, from players to coaches to the grounds crew, wears Robinson’s retired number 42. I raised my cup of beer to Rosie and Peter (RIP) in thanks for sharing their love of the game.

Liza KetchumWhen I married a rabid Red Sox fan and moved to Boston, I became an ardent fan myself. Though baseball can be agonizingly slow compared to soccer (a game I also enjoy and have written about), I love watching a team come together through the season. I love the way Fenway Park feels intimate, even with 37,000 cheering fans, and it’s fun to see how the view of the game changes, depending on where you sit. The city and the region bond with the team, in ways that can be heartbreaking or magical. (That was most evident after an impossible World Series win, when much of New England went berserk with joy—but also after the horror of the Marathon bombings, when the team helped bring the city together.) I love the way the park erupts when a player makes a sensational catch or hits the ball over the Green Monster. I appreciate the smell of pretzels and French fries, the first sip of beer on a hot night, the sappy way we belt out “Sweet Caroline,” no matter the score. I’ve been in awe of the grace and intelligence of a pitcher like Pedro Martinez; I admire the grit of Dustin Pedroia, a small player with an outsize heart. For years, we celebrated the strength and dominant personality of David Ortiz—and now it’s a delight to watch fresh young talent coming up. Hope, despair, joy, tedium, pandemonium, astonishment, laughter—you can never predict what emotions will dominate on any given night.

This year, in particular, baseball provides a much-needed escape from the horrors at home and in the wider world. We have tickets to a Sox-Cardinals game, the team we beat in the World Series after our eighty-six year drought. Like the narrator in my novel Out of Left Field, we’ll emerge from the concrete walkway where—as Brandon says—“The first sight of that green expanse, glittering in the sun, never gets old.” We’ll watch the players warm up, making lazy, impossibly long tosses across the field. We’ll find our seats, stand for the Star Spangled Banner, take that first sip of beer, and wait for the announcement we love: “Play ball!”

And the game begins.


Growing Up as a Writer, part two

Liza Ketchum

Question
Harvey Swados, your writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, sent you out into the world to observe and experience before you wrote. Can you share some of those experiences with us? Do you still work this way when you write?

Answer
When I enrolled in Harvey Swados’s creative writing class, I was a naïve young woman with little worldly experience. I wanted to write, but what would I write about? I knew nothing about Swados, but the class description was intriguing and something told me I needed that course. However, I was a transfer student and arrived to find the class had already filled. I was devastated. So I sat outside the classroom every day until Swados finally gave in and let me enroll.

Harvey Swados

Harvey Swados

Each week, Swados sent us into New York City on assignment. The city was just twenty minutes away by train, but the sites we visited were completely removed from our privileged campus existence. “Carry a notebook,” he told us. “Listen, ask questions, use your senses. And always bring a friend.” Turid Sato, my intrepid Norwegian roommate—who had crossed the Atlantic by freighter, and cross-country skied north of the Arctic circle—was the perfect companion. 

Swados sent us to Night Court, a 24-hour courtroom where men and women were arraigned for shoplifting, assault and battery, and gun possession, under the weary gaze of a judge who’d seen it all. Turid and I visited the New York produce market after midnight and listened to grocers haggle with wholesalers over prices. We went to the Fulton Fish Market, at Manhattan’s tip, at four in the morning. There we watched burly men unload crates of fish and heave them into refrigerated trucks before stomping into the local diner. We followed them in, and ate the best pan-fried fish I have ever tasted. We also brought live lobsters home in paper bags—which caused a commotion on the subway when a loose claw started waving at our seatmate.

On the Line by Harvey SwadosHarvey Swados wrote about the working world. Before he was a published professor of writing, he worked as a metal finisher at a Ford Motor plant. His experiences there led to the publication of his story collection, On the Line. The pieces we wrote for his class were full of gritty sensory detail, realistic dialogue, and interesting characters. While I didn’t become a reporter, as my friend Carter Stith did (for the St. Louis Post Dispatch), this class gave me the confidence to write non-fiction.  And I learned the importance of immersing myself in the places that I wrote about; that no question is too dumb to ask; that most people enjoy talking about themselves, their lives, and their work.  

Out of Left FieldSince that class, I have always included workplaces in my stories and novels, and that includes work done by young characters as well as adults. The work may be incidental to the story—as Brandon’s work in a pizzeria is, in Out of Left Field—or the focus of an entire story, such as Newsgirl, where Amelia disguises herself as a newsboy in order to support her family, or The Life Fantastic, about Teresa’s struggle to become a star onstage. My novels have included a woman geologist and “powder monkey,” a photographer, a ticket seller at Fenway Park, a carpenter, a retired electrician, a newspaper editor who sets his own type, a social worker, a baker, a seamstress, a child who labored as an indentured servant (against his will), a Hollywood screenwriter, a banker, a sheep farmer, and a tattoo artist. (Thanks to Swados, I knew that I would have to spend time in a tattoo parlor, watching and asking questions, in order to create convincing scenes for Blue Coyote.)

In addition to helping to reveal character, writing about a workplace allows the writer to use more interesting nouns and lively verbs, since every type of work has its own vocabulary. Most important: even the most tedious workplace could hold the spark that inspires a good story—and that’s a gift for the writer.

[For more about Harvey Swados]


The “White Pine Problem”

The “White Pine Problem”

Often, during a school visit or a reading, someone in the audience asks about teachers who encouraged or influenced me as a writer. In response, I give credit to my 8th grade English teacher, Norm Wilson; to Kay Herzog, whose high standards in high school English taught me to revise and revise; to Harvey Swados, who taught me about the relationship between writing, work, and life; and to the inimitable Grace Paley and her brilliant skills with voice and dialogue. But this morning, as I rode my bike up a country road in Vermont, I realized that one of the most important influences on my writing was not a writer, but the biologist and field ecologist, Ty Minton.

I met Ty when I was enrolled in Antioch’s Masters in Education program and signed up for his course in Field Ecology. The class I remember best took place on a sunny fall afternoon when Ty told us we ready to solve the “White Pine Problem.” We followed Ty into the middle of a forest populated only by white pines. Before we could ask any questions, Ty told us that the trees had not been planted. “Spread out, walk around on your own, see what you discover about these trees. Why are they here?”

I wandered among the pines, puzzled. If no one had planted these trees, how had they grown in such orderly rows? The pines were large. Their heavy branches, laden with long, soft needles, blocked the sunlight, so there was very little undergrowth—or at least, that’s what I thought. As I ducked under branches and knelt to touch soft moss growing on the north side of a tree, I noticed a few deciduous sprouts—a maple or a cherry seedling yearning for sunlight. The seedlings, I noticed, were about the same age and size.

Aha! I stood up quickly. We’d been reading about old-field succession, where abandoned fields give way to perennial grasses, wildflowers such as ragweed and goldenrod, before tough shrubs such as hardhack or hobblebush move in. In New England, paper birch and white pine are often the next plants to arrive. And after that: mature hardwood forest.

I hurried back to Ty, who waited in the shade of the pines. “This used to be a pasture!” I said. “Exactly.” He smiled. As we spoke, excited exclamations rose from different corners of the forest, as classmates also solved the “problem.”

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that afternoon marked a turning point. I was studying for a graduate degree in teaching, with a dream of starting a school—something I accomplished a few years later. I’d also written a few magazine articles and co-authored a book on education. But standing beneath the pines, and for weeks afterwards, I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong path. Ecology was then a new field. Should I change direction, become a field ecologist? My science education, so far, had been very limited, so I’d have to start from scratch. Though I stayed for another semester of field ecology, I kept going on the path I’d chosen—but with a difference. Science and nature and the environment became important threads that informed my work with children, as well as my fiction later on.

I remembered Ty’s class a few days ago as I biked up a dirt road in Vermont. I was headed for the house where we lived when I was born. One of my earliest memories takes place in a field across from that house. I was in a hay wagon, pulled by a team of chestnut-colored Belgians driven by our neighbor, Hope Hazelton. I remember the smell of fresh-cut hay mixed with the scent of horse sweat, manure, and Hope’s cigarette; the sound of creaking wheels; the heft of the leather reins when Hope set them into my small hands and let me drive the team.

As I biked, I worried. Was the field still there? The hollow where we lived, once home to dairy farms, has given way to McMansions. Our former house is twice its original size, with a two-car garage and extensive lawn. Many cow pastures are forested now. What had happened to the Hazelton’s field? As I came around the corner near our old house, I noticed a grove of white pines partway up the hill. Ragweed, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace were in bloom below the pines. I slowed down. Were the pines beginning to create a forest like the one we visited with Ty? I kept pedaling and saw a page-wire fence running along the edge of the road. I stopped. The fence also went up the hill beside an old trail. I couldn’t see any animals, but the clipped grass told me that the field is no longer a hayfield—but it is a pasture.

As I biked home, I realized that I never really gave up on ecology or the study of nature. I’ve been an avid gardener all my life. When I taught preschool, I wove science into our curriculum. In my novels, I pay close attention to the natural world my characters inhabit, whether it is a California gold field (Newsgirl), a bluff above the Ohio River in 1828 Kentucky (Orphan Journey Home), or the tides of the Bay of Fundy (Out of Left Field).

OOLFDraftAnd now my writing life is even more focused on the environment. As the earth warms and nature is under assault, I have joined a bee committee in our town, I’ve planted gardens attractive to pollinators, and I’m writing—with two dear, esteemed colleagues—non-fiction books for kids that focus on positive stories in nature. (Stay tuned.)

When I work with students, I compare the theme or emotional line of a story to a closet rod, something a story’s scenes and intention can hang on. I also imagine that the theme is like the drone on a bagpipe, the single note that hums below a story’s melody. Fifteen books, many articles, and numerous talks on setting later, I see that a passion for the natural world is a note that thrums through everything I write. So the white pine class wasn’t a “problem” at all. It was an opening and a reminder that writers can benefit from diving into other disciplines—and that great teachers can change a life. Thank you, Ty.


What baseball books mean to me:
sharing my all-star favorite reads

On my All Star Book Giveaway page, you can enter to win one of three autographed copies of my novel, Out of Left Field.

Summer is a time for reading and for baseball, so why not ask writer friends and fans for their favorite baseball books? I was interested in books they might have read when young, as well as current titles. Here are some suggestions. I look forward to expanding the discussion:

Lou GehrigMy husband, John Straus, still owns the biography of Lou Gehrig that he read when he was a young Brooklyn Dodgers fan: Lou Gehrig: Boy of the Sand Lots, by Guernsey Van Riper, Jr. (Childhood of Famous Americans Series, 1949). With lots of invented dialogue and action, it reads like a fast-paced novel, but brings the game to life. 

Since we moved to the Boston area, John and I have shared and enjoyed a number of baseball-themed books together. Favorites have been Moneyball, by Michael Lewis; Wait Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir of enjoying the game with her father; and Chad Harbach’s wonderful novel, The Art of Fielding. John also recommends Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy, about one of the game’s greatest pitchers, and David Halberstam’s The Teammates, which profiles four great Red Sox players.

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Long before I became an ardent Sox fan, I followed Roger Angell’s baseball writings in The New Yorker. The New York Post has called him “The clear-eyed poet laureate of baseball.” The Roger Angell Baseball Collection gathers three books of his essays into one. 

As I wrote my baseball novel, Out of Left Field, I reread and quoted from A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. Our friend David Riley, a poet, playwright, and passionate Red Sox fan, called to remind me of John Updike’s brilliant piece in The New Yorker, which chronicled Ted Williams’s last game (Williams finished with a home run).

In addition to these adult titles, I also appreciate baseball books for young readers. For a lively historical overview, I recommend Baseball For Everyone: 150 Years of America’s Game, by my friend Janet Wyman Coleman.

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My former student, Cathy Goldberg Fishman, tells the moving story of the first encounter between Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg in When Jackie and Hank Met (illustrated by Mark Elliot). Virginia Euwer Wolff’s novel, Bat Six, follows a girl’s softball team in Oregon, post-WWII. 

Fellow New Englander Matt Tavares has written and illustrated a number of books about the Red Sox, including his recent Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues. Ken Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us, illustrated by Dom Lee, is a moving story about Japanese Americans who turned to baseball as a way to survive their internment during World War II.

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My good friend Nolan Zavoral, a poet and journalist who briefly covered the Brewers, told me that his all-time favorite baseball book is Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. Nolan wrote: “What stays with me is that last line, a killer: ‘From here on in, I rag nobody.’ …It’s a sad, ironic, funny book, with a first-person narrator who pitches in the bigs. My runner-ups are a tie between [Bernard Malamud’s] The Natural, and Ball Four; the first for all the writerly reasons, the second because Jim Bouton (with a fine assist from Leonard Schecter) made us see baseball players without the halos.”

My cousin George Grayson, who taught himself to read by poring over the sports pages at the breakfast table, also praises Ball Four, which he said “was a controversial book, detailing Jim Bouton’s struggles as a knuckleball pitcher. Of course, as an 11- year-old, I enjoyed it immensely and was convinced it was the best book ever published. Unfortunately for me, it was released in very late August, at a time when I was supposed to be ‘finishing up’ my summer reading list…”

George, a long-time Senators—now Nationals—fan, had a personal connection to Kiss It Goodbye by Shelby Whitfield, about the Senators’ final season and their fatal last night. George told me a story that makes today’s games seem tame: “I went to the final game of that last season with my father,” George wrote. “Our sole remaining good player, the gentle giant Frank Howard, hit a laser shot of a home run that night and the crowd wouldn’t stop cheering. Finally, in the 9th inning, many in the crowd stormed the field, physically uprooting and then literally stealing second base, and the game was declared a forfeit.”

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Readers: what are your favorite baseball titles? On my All Star Book Giveaway page, you can enter to win one of three autographed copies of my novel, Out of Left Field. Share your favorite title before midnight, Tuesday, July 14th, and we’ll enter you in the drawing. We’ll draw names from a baseball hat and notify winners within the week after July 14th. Winners’ names will be posted on that same giveaway page.

Remember: The entry deadline is midnight Tuesday, July 14th (CDT). Sorry, only readers from the U.S. mainland are eligible for this giveaway.

Happy summer, and happy reading!

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Number 42: Jackie Robinson Day at Fenway Park

Liza KetchumApril 15 at Fenway Park was a bittersweet day, my first game after a brutal winter. On that beautiful, warm afternoon, bright colors dominated the ballpark. The players shagged balls under a turquoise sky, their uniforms a crisp white as they threw long, easy tosses across the outfield, into the infield, and back again.

After endless blizzards that buried our cars and left us with eight-foot snow banks, the emerald grass looked smooth as velvet. And every player, from the Sox to the visiting Nationals, boasted the same scarlet number stitched onto his uniform: 42.

April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day, when Major League Baseball honors the first African-American to break the color barrier. In an act of courage that still gives me goosebumps, Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. I assumed, incorrectly, that everyone knew this history.

Out of Left FieldOn a recent middle school visit to discuss my novel, Out of Left Field, I described the autographed Jackie Robinson baseball card and its essential role in the story—and then noticed the blank stares on the faces of many students, including a few African-Americans. Then a white boy in the corner, who had ignored my presentation so far, suddenly announced, “Forty-two.” I gave him a thumbs up. He knew the significance of Robinson’s retired number.

In Boston, Jackie Robinson Day has been a time to celebrate. For some of us, it’s also an uncomfortable reminder of the team’s shameful history. The Red Sox didn’t field an African-American player until Pumpsie Green’s debut in 1959, a dozen years after Robinson’s Brooklyn arrival. Boston was the last team in the majors to break the color barrier.

Now April 15 also carries the weight of the Marathon bombings, and the Sox/Nationals game took place on the second anniversary of that traumatic event. For months, the bomber’s trial has dominated the news, forcing the bombing victims—as well as the rest of the region—to relive the horror. Boston’s Mayor Walsh had asked that One Boston Day become a day of remembrance, service, and random acts of kindness. He also requested a moment of silence at 2:49, when the first bomb exploded.

So I trudged up the ramp with a mix of emotions: pride, sorrow, excitement for the game ahead, regret for the past. I arrived in time to hear and see survivors of the bombings perform “The Star Spangled Banner” with courage and conviction. Flags snapped at half-staff in the breeze. We stood with hats off and hands on hearts, in awe of these survivors who still struggle with the wrenching, long-term effects of the violence.

I reached my seat in time for the first pitch. We didn’t play well, but I’m not sure it mattered. The clock ticked forward with the innings. Just after 2:45, the grounds crew ran out to sweep the base paths. At 2:48 the announcer asked us to stand.

I’ve been at Fenway many times when all the fans rise, but it’s usually a roaring ovation that celebrates a home run, cheers a pitcher’s stellar outing, or encourages a batter with the bases loaded. Sometimes fans jump up in anger, to boo an ump’s bad call.

This was different. 37,000 fans rose in quiet solidarity, hats off. We stood in silent unity, in respect for the city’s grief, determination, and resilience. Because it was an afternoon game, there were many kids in the stands, but they were quiet too. And we knew that, beyond the Green Monster, past the giant Coke bottle and the fancy box seats, the city was silent with us.

The Sox lost the game, 10-5, but that’s not what I’ll remember. Instead, I’ll think about the resolute strength of the survivors and their healers. I’ll think about Jack, my friend and seatmate, who could cite the background, stats, strengths and weaknesses of most players and was generous in answering my questions. I’ll remember Hanley Ramirez, hitting his first home run in a Red Sox uniform, the roar of the crowd as he rounded the bases.

Most of all, I’ll think about the little boy who sat a few rows ahead of us. Maybe five years old, he was dressed in a Sox uniform from head to toe, his eyes wide and eager. He was in the moment, living for each pitch, for the taste of his Fenway frank, the smell of cotton candy, for the joyous singing and pumping fists of “Sweet Caroline.” He shivered when the crack of a bat signaled a hit. That’s when he raised his mitt, every time—just in case a foul ball blistered past the Pesky Pole and into his waiting glove.

These were the feelings I hoped to capture when I wrote my novel: a child’s hope for the future, his belief in the dream. In the end, that’s what the game was about.


Red Sox fans rejoice over spring training at Florida’s version of Fenway Park

A Yankee-Red Sox spring training game at "Fenway Park South" in 2012. By NT1952 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Yankee-Red Sox spring training game at “Fenway Park South” in 2012. By NT1952 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Right about now, Brandon (Out of Left Field) would be turning to thoughts of spring training.

Here are intriguing facts about JetBlue Park and the history of the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Florida: