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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Baseball is a sport that lends itself to obsessions, and the sweet innocence of children playing the National Pastime is often clouded by the intensity of overbearing adults. In his cleverly titled book Joy in Mudville, Greg Mitchell reflects on managing his son's Little League team -- while keeping his own obsession in check.
When Mitchell takes on his son's team, he sets goals of a .500 record with significant improvement over the course of the season. He also hopes his son Andy continues developing into a promising pitcher. But Mitchell is careful not to push his son too hard -- he knows that Andy does not share his lust for the game. Writes Mitchell, "He can recite every movie Matt Damon has ever made but can't tell you which team Matt Williams plays for."
Mitchell writes knowingly about how baseball affects its devotees. "As Don DeLillo put it, 'The game doesn't change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.' " For an avid fan, reciting statistics or reminiscing about favorite players and classic games consume countless hours. For a Little League coach, poring over batting orders and deciding which nine-year-old to choose for one's team can do the same. "Need I add," writes Mitchell, "that baseball even gets in the way of writing about baseball?"
Andy's team, named the A's -- then nicknamed the "Aliens" for their inspired mascot -- begins to show promise with a couple of come-from-behind victories. Characters emerge from the ragtag bunch, such as John Marley, a Yogi-esque kid with questions like "Why do they call it a batter's box when it's flat?"
Mitchell peppers the story of the Aliens' season with anecdotes and gossip from a lifetime following baseball. He writes that major leaguers are what we would expect: "Earl Weaver was actually an irascible blowhard; Ozzie Smith was a nice guy, Garry Templeton a wise guy; Eddie Murray was sullen and Steve Garvey eager to please; Jim Palmer was pure ego in or out of jockey shorts."
Baseball historians will enjoy reading Mitchell's account of seeing Willie Mays, at 42, take some final heroic swings for the New York Mets. Also of interest: a pickup game Mitchell played in New Jersey against the E Streeters and their second baseman, Bruce Springsteen.
Throughout the book, Mitchell's prose is more conversational than poetic. This can be tedious. It stems in part from Mitchell's attempt to reconcile his own fixation on Little League with the absurdity, and danger, of others' Little League behavior. Included in the book are a few anecdotes of what enraged Little League parents will do.
However, the book comes together as Mitchell focuses on the Aliens, who, like the Bad News Bears, finish their season in dramatic fashion. A magical pennant race pits the Aliens against the scrappy Pirates and the heavily favored Tigers. Under Mitchell's guidance, the Aliens balance a competitive spirit with joy for the game. Meanwhile, the Tigers crack under an ultra-stiff, sometimes abusive coaching staff.
On the night before the Little League draft, Mitchell visits the fellow manager Mike Witte to garner information on the prospects. Witte, an illustrator, had drawn some celebrity caricatures. Writes Mitchell "I was feeling like a caricature myself -- of an obsessed baseball manager." What Joy in Mudville reveals is that Mitchell, among other things, is an obsessed baseball manager. Mitchell has enough self-knowledge, though, to keep a level head when the games begin. This enables his son and his son's team to experience the pure pleasure the sport has to offer. Let all Little Leaguers be so lucky! (Brenn Jones)