This will give you a sense of my sportsy prowess. I’m in a bookstore the other day and I see a book with a quote on it from Mike Lupica. The only thing is, it’s an adult book. One that has to do with sports of some sort. So I rub my head and I actually have this thought while standing there: What is Mike Lupica doing writing quotes for adult books? You see the problem here? I know Mike Lupica as one thing and one thing only; this is the guy who knows how to write a fabulous sports-related work of fiction for young readers. He’s the Matt Christopher of the new millennium. Now I don’t like sports myself. They don’t really fall within my perceived everyday reality. I know they exist and I know that people follow them, but as far as I can tell I am interested in virtually nothing that has to do with one or another. But do I head for the hills when I see that Mr. Lupica has written a new title for his young fans? I most certainly do not! The notable thing about The Big Field is that it returns the author to what is undoubtedly his favorite sport to write about. Baseball. Lupica lovea him the natural tension and stress and story arc that comes with the game. You can hardly blame him. The craziness is that in the process of getting excited, this author has the ability to get YOU rather excited too. I don’t love baseball. I know that a lot of kids are like me in this respect, but hand them a copy of The Big Field and get them to read the first few chapters. If Mike Lupica does nothing else, he proves to us that good writing is good writing and can lure you in, regardless of the subject matter.
Fourteen-year-old Keith "Hutch" Hutchinson isn’t the star of his American Legion team, Boynton Beach Post 226, the Cardinals. That honor belongs entirely to his fellow teammate Darryl. Hutch doesn’t even mind all that much since it’s really the love of the game that keeps him going. He’s the team Captain and a pretty swell player in his own right, not that his dad would ever notice. A former local baseball star himself, Hutch’s father had dreams once of hitting the big league. When those dreams didn’t come to fruition he decided to protect his only son by denying him any pointers or chances to share in the game they both love so much. Now Hutch’s team has a chance to make it all the way. To play for the state championship on "the big field" at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. Only trouble is, there are some problems with Darryl and they involve Mr. Hutchinson. Hutch has never allowed outside distractions to keep him from playing his best, but now it looks as if the fate of the entire team depends on him and his ability to figure out why his dad is the way he is.
I saw a lot of similarities between Hutch in this book and the character of House in Deborah Wiles’ The Aurora County All-Stars. In both cases the hero is a kind of Gary Cooper type. Thoughtful and a bit wise beyond his years, but still prone to anger if riled. And riled he gets! The raw jealousy Hutch feels when he sees his father playing baseball with the team star, something Hutch himself has never done, is palpable. It practically sends little ripples down the page. Normally in a middle grade novel a kid will feel betrayed by a parent or a friend and then just sit and stew for chapter after chapter. I was a little afraid that Lupica might go this route as well, but fortunately this wasn’t the case. So it felt strangely satisfying to watch Hutch rip into his dad about everything the man has ever done wrong. It’s excellent. You want to sip a cool drink after reading a passage like that. And what’s even better is that Lupica can make Hutch be entirely in the right one moment and then entirely in the wrong the next without so much as a narrative hiccup.
I’ve read Heat and some of Miracle on 49th Street so I’m not a complete Lupica newbie. And from these books I’ve noticed a trend in the author’s work. Mike Lupica has a deep and abiding interest in and affection for the smart alecky sidekick. The kind of sidekick that ends up being the voice of reason more than once, but is so jokey that the reader isn’t supposed to notice. Some might see this as Lupica getting lazy with his characters, but personally I didn’t really mind. In this book the sidekick is Cody, a kid who’s been friends with Hutch since the beginning. As with many sidekicks he begins by being the untamed fellow who puts down Darryl while Hutch murmurs that they’re all on the same team. Then, at some point, the tables turn and it’s Cody who has to keep Hutch in line (and out of trouble). In Heat this kind of character would help the hero directly in a kind of deus ex machina manner. Here, Hutch has to do all the work himself, and as a hero he rises satisfactorily to the challenge.
Lupica isn’t afraid of putting contemporary flourishes on his book. This will date it a bit more than it might if he left them out entirely, but in a way I enjoyed it. Admittedly, I liked the references to Derek Jeter better than the references to 24, but whatchagonnado? By the way, can I say how nice it is to have a protagonist in a book who isn’t whitey white white? Hutch is part Dominican and it’s not a big deal in any way, shape, or form. It defines who he is but isn’t the focus of the narrative. It’s just part of the story, and it’s something that sets the book apart from the ten bazillion books with white kids in `em that stock our library and bookstore shelves.
You know what it is about this writer? Lupica satisfies a reader, deep down somewhere. You read one of his books and you feel good about… something. Maybe it’s just about a game, or maybe it’s about the characters and what they’ve figured out, but you feel good. Like you’ve accomplished something big. For kids who are already converts to Lupica’s style, The Big Field is not going to be a hard sell. But for kids who enjoy sports and want something a little contemporary and fun, this will be a good Intro to Lupica: 101. Heck, even if they don’t like sports this book will still suck you in. That is, if you can get `em past the initial premise. I hate utilizing sports metaphors when describing literature, so let’s just take the phrase, "Lupica hits another one out of the park," switch it out for its literary equivalent for now.