William Hazelgrove’s “The Pitcher:” A Novel Worth Cheering About

William Hazelgrove’s THE PITCHER is the story of young Ricky Hernandez, whose main goal is to make his high school baseball team.  Ricky has an arm, you see, and a fastball that’s much better than his peers.  But as he’s extremely poor, Ricky probably already would’ve dropped out of baseball competition except for one thing: his mother, Maria.

You see, Maria is a force of nature.  She’s the mother we all wish we would’ve had, growing up.  She’s an assistant coach on Ricky’s summer baseball team, not because she cares about the game, but because it’s the only way she can assure that Ricky will get any playing time.   Maria’s main drawback as a person is that as she’s so focused on her son, she’s not very good at treating her own health (she has lupus).

When THE PITCHER opens, it’s about three months until high school baseball tryouts.  Ricky avidly wants to make the team.  He knows he has the talent.  But he hasn’t had the advantages of most of the other players (especially an obnoxious kid named Eric); his only real coach is his mother, who has learned all she knows about baseball from books.  She mostly tells Ricky things like “Take a deep breath” — a good, albeit generic, thing to say — which cannot get to the bottom of why Ricky’s aim is poor and his concentration isn’t where it should be, either.

Enter “the Pitcher:” His name is Jack Langford, he pitched in the majors for 25 years, and in Hazelgrove’s conception, was the hero of the 1978 World Series as a member of the victorious Detroit Tigers.  (As a baseball fan, I have to admit that I wish the Tigers would’ve won over the real 1978 American League and World Series champs, the New York Yankees.  They were fifth in the AL Eastern Division; my favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers, was third.  But I digress.)  Langford was a successful pitcher, but since he finished his career life has taken a major turn for the worse.  Langford’s wife died, and after that, Langford felt life wasn’t worth living and turned to drink to help himself cope.

At any rate, Maria wants Langford to help her son learn how to pitch (rather than merely throw with no control), so Langford starts helping Ricky out.  It goes in fits and starts, though, partly because of Langford’s alcoholism, partly because Ricky’s mother’s health, and partly because of Eric’s nasty mother, who will do anything she can — even calling Ricky an “illegal alien” — to keep Ricky away from the high school baseball team.

There’s a lot of plot here that I simply don’t have time to discuss — including a rather low-key romance between Maria and Langford — but suffice it to say that everything works well in this novel.  There are many, many plot elements, but the balance is right, the tone is right, and we can’t help but root for all of the major characters — Ricky, his pitching coach Langford, and his mother, Maria.

So, will Ricky make the team?  Will Maria’s health ever improve?  Will Langford stop drinking?  Or will Eric’s mother win the day despite the nastiness of her tactics?  All of these questions will be answered by the time you finish reading THE PITCHER.

Bottom line?  THE PITCHER is a book that’s more than the sum of its parts.  It’s an excellent baseball story that gets all the issues right, it’s fun to read, and it’s a book that all ages should enjoy.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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