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Baseball and Books: Author Josh Berk Joins Us

March 29, 2013

The baseball season opens today in many cities, and it seemed only right to celebrate this rite of passage by inviting  Josh Berk, author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator and the recently released baseball mystery Strike Three, You’re Dead . He joins us to talk about books and baseball!

Strike Three You're Dead

It’s snowing stupid snowflakes outside my window as I write this here in late March, but I know spring is near. It’s on my calendar in big letters. I’m not speaking of the vernal equinox (although I do enjoy saying the words “vernal equinox”). I’m speaking of Opening Day! Baseball is almost here, which is the main reason I look forward to spring (and also because I am sick the aforementioned stupid snowflakes).

When I was a kid, playing baseball was without a doubt my favorite activity. I wasn’t particularly good at it (okay, terrible) but I loved it. It was what I thought about all winter. I used to imagine that I had a ray gun that could melt snow, which I shot at stubborn patches from the bus window on the way to and from school. I played Little League and also in a strange neighborhood league. I say “strange” because it was one-on-one baseball, played in our suburban backyards. Someone pitched a tennis ball, someone hit it with a wiffle ball bat, and then we immediately began debating (arguing) if it was a hit or if it would have been fielded for an out. It is perhaps remarkable that these games did not always end in fist-fights. They took quite a bit of diplomacy and imagination.

What was also remarkable about these games is that they featured full line-ups, with both sides being The Phillies. We had the lineups and starting rotations memorized. If a lefty was up, we batted lefty. If chewing-tobacco-loving Kent Tekulve was on the mound, we’d stuff our mouths with chewed carrots to simulate his mouth full of dip. We had platoons and bullpens. And thus we had the chance to answer such burning questions as what would happen if Juan Samuel batted off teammate John Denny. (Usually what happened is that he hit a groundball which was followed by a two-hour argument.)

I was an obsessed Philles fan through the 1980s, a time which the Phillies were mostly terrible. I did get the chance to see them lose in the World Series in 1983, but mostly I had the chance to see them finish in last place. I feel as though it built character and shaped my personality in some indefinable way, to always root for a last place team. I’ve talked this over with some of my friends who grew up Red Sox fans and they feel the same way. We’re not quite sure how to reconcile our place at the top (or at least not the bottom) of the standings these days.

It was this psychic weight, this strange fascination with a perennial last-place team, that originally inspired me to write the book that would become my new middle grade baseball/mystery novel STRIKE THREE, YOU’RE DEAD. I had the idea that this group of kids would group up always rooting for the losers. I even had the idea that the main character would be literally conceived on October 23, 1993, when all of Phillies fandom had our hearts broken by Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays in that year’s World Series. I had this idea several years ago, when this main character would be twelve or so, a prime age for baseball fandom, and another era where the Phils were pretty bad.

But then something happened in the latter part of the first decade of this new century. The Phillies got good! They had second place finishes, first place finishes, and of course their World Series victory in 2008. I was thrilled, but had to rework this book idea! A friend of mine suggested making it be about the Cubs, a franchise for which a World Series trophy is never a concern. Instead, I took out the parts about being a fan of a losing team and just focused on fandom in general. It’s such a strange thing, to cheer so fanatically for a team whether good or bad. I always think of the Jerry Seinfeld routine: “Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify.  Because the players are always changing, you’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it… Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him.  This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now.  Boo!  Different shirt!!”

It’s irrational and thus funny to me, even if I do it myself. So I started playing with plot points about rivalries and insane fans and all the quirkiness that makes baseball so great to me. I worked in references to some of the great eccentric baseball players over the years – Bill Lee, Al Hrabosky, and Satchel Paige (who actually is a major inspiration for the sequel to STRIKE THREE).

And I created a young fan – Lenny Norbeck – who is yes, in no small way, very similar to myself at age twelve or so. He loves baseball, stinks at baseball, and so decides to devote himself to his fandom. He also decides to become an announcer, which is the dream of many a strike-out-prone Little Leaguer. What could be better than to be paid to talk about baseball all day? Lenny enters a contest where he gets to announce a live inning of a Phillies game on TV. It’s a dream come true! Until tragedy strikes and Lenny has to switch from announcing the game to solving a crime. I love creating mysteries for young readers and this one was so fun because it let me set the whodunit right inside a baseball stadium where I could fill the cast with all sorts of wacky players and evil villains. And, because it’s fiction, Lenny cracks the case and the Phillies always win.

Josh Berk RAoR no-hitter.

Here’s a picture of the highlight of my Phillies fandom: the ticket from Roy Halladay’s 2010 no-hitter in the play-offs. I was lucky enough to be there. It was a beautiful day. As irrational as fandom can be, as much as we’re just cheering for a shirt, I can tell you that the emotion in that stadium was real. Some people even shed a few tears. Not me! (Okay, fine, me.)

So let’s get this snowstorm over with and bring on the spring. Play ball!

Many thanks to Josh Berk for joining us on RAoR today!

Please share your thoughts about books and baseball in our comments section.


One Comment leave one →
  1. March 29, 2013 8:11 am

    I’ve loved his books and now I know why – he’s a Phillies fan! My parents lived in Philly after they were married in 1950 and my dad was a Phillies fan for the rest of his life. I root for them now in his memory.

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