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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Little League dad tells all

We don't do many book reviews on this blog. The biggest reason for that is that it takes us forever to get through a book. For many years, we hardly ever read books for pleasure. As we spent all day at work reading volumes of documents and heavy tax tomes, the last thing we wanted to do in our off-hours was read more printed words. But lately, it's our practice to have a for-fun book or two going all the time. It's just that they may be going for many months before we finish them.

Given the paucity of literary criticism on this site, it's not surprising that we don't get too many free review copies of books sent to us by publishers or publicists. Occasionally one will drift in, though, and so it was last year when, out of the blue, a copy of a new title called The Opposite Field arrived. We read a few pages, saw that it might be an interesting story to read at some point, and placed it on the nightstand with a bunch of other material that fell into the same category. At the time we had just picked up both The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited for a quarter apiece at an estate sale, and we spent the better part of a year exploring those two old chestnuts, without another thought to the modern title.

Months later, we got a note in the mail from an address in Monterey Park, California, a suburb on the east side of Los Angeles. We once spent a few weeks housesitting in that city, but that was more than 30 years ago, and we couldn't imagine who this missive might be from. We opened the envelope and found a card that read as follows:

Well, whaddya know. And sure enough, the paperback version of the book showed up shortly thereafter. Now we had two copies of the darn thing. And so we resolved to get to it as soon as Evelyn Waugh finished picking through the ruins.

Katz, a magazine writer, has written a detailed account of his trials, tribulations, and triumphs as the commissioner of his son Max's baseball rec league, and as the coach of Max's team. He uses that tale as a vehicle for exploring the rest of his life as well, including growing up as the son of Vera Katz, the famous politician, by that artist guy she was married to.

It's quite a ride. The author is dragged into leading the league by its imminent demise; as he tells it, he has to take control or watch his son's opportunity to play organized ball disappear entirely. And like the protagonist in so many stories, he gradually finds himself in the middle of something bigger than he ever expected. Running the league takes over larger and larger chunks of his time, and finally it's dominating his life, defining who he is. It's pretty obvious that he loves it that way.

Unlike Katz's biological son, who seems to thrive, is his stepson, the son of the once-impoverished immigrant mother whom Katz married in a whirlwind, thereby giving her a solid footing in the United States. Katz's devotion to Max's baseball experience fails to work wonders on the other boy, and the eventual success of the revitalized rec league contrasts starkly with the deep decline of the stepson, and ultimately the fading of the marriage.

Of course, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree, and Katz's persona through these many events reminds us quite clearly who his famous mother is. The author's not shy about telling you that he's a visionary, a tireless worker, the victim of his own desire to help other people, and the target of some anti-Semitism to boot. In one rambling passage he actually tries to compare himself to Ben Linder, which is mildly revolting. But maybe that's what memoirs are for -- to tell one's story with one's own spin. Brag it up. And to his credit, on the other side of the ledger Katz is willing to admit, and reflect on, many mistakes -- with other parents and their kids in the league, with Monterey Park City Hall, with his children, with his son's basketball coach, and especially with his women.

One startling aspect of the book is that it names names. Katz claims that no identities have been changed, and no events have been altered, shaded, censored, or embellished, to arrive at his narrative. Given how personal the events he describes are, and how deserving of criticism he finds his predecessors at the league, it's a wonder that he can get away with that. And what kind of person would want to? The rise and fall of his relationship with his wife, the deep problems of his stepson, his dating history -- it takes a certain kind of personality to air that all out so publicly. A kind of personality that's not eminently lovable.

But also surprising is how engaging the writing is. Regardless of how we felt about Katz's confessional bare-all moments, some of which were painful, we found the book to be a real page-turner. The messages may not be as profound as the author thinks or hopes they are, but the story line is remarkably strong. Given his many L.A. connections, Katz may have quite a movie property here, if the screenplay duties wind up in the right hands.

Anyway, we're glad that Katz was assertive enough to get his book into our hands, twice. When a person thinks long and hard about his or her life and tries to tell you what's been learned so far, it never hurts to listen. And if the speaker knows how to tell a fine story, which Katz clearly does, it's all the better.

Comments (3)

Thought I would share latest best book read in our household (and mailed around the country to various branches of the family): "Operation Mincemeat." How a British espionage operation fooled Hitler's generals into believing that the Allied invasion of German-held Mediterranean lands was planned for Greece instead of Sicily. Total cannot-put-it-down page-turner.

As with all books that we can actually get in to and finish, there was a period of mourning at the passing of the last page.

I'm not usually a fan of memoirs. But I did like this book when I reviewed it for Willamette Week


I thought I was the only one who found that the practice of law killed my desire to read for fun.

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