It’s always difficult for a reviewer to critique a book if it’s discussing a subject they’re not intimately familiar with. Fortunately, children’s picture book reviewers have a leg up. Normally I’m not going to have to know the chemical composition of fertilizer for a book about farm life or the migratory patterns of swallows for a book on pretty birdies. The topic of sports, particularly baseball, is another matter altogether. We’re talking about the national pastime for crying out loud. Now the other day I was in the library and woman came up to me with her three-year-old son. "Do you have anything on the Yankees? He loves the Yankees." I looked at him. He was, as I’ve said, three. Quite small. I tried to think of any picture books I’d seen about the Yankees. "Nope, nothing for three-year-olds," I said, which was true. Then I handed them the fabulous You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!and the little boy was happy as a clam (the moving cover helped). My library system, you see, never purchased One Last Time: Good-bye to Yankee Stadium by Ray Negron, which was this year’s Yankee-based picture book. The reason for this? It is perhaps one of the most ungainly creations I have ever set my eyes upon. It’s always difficult for a reviewer to critique a book for kids if it’s about an unfamiliar subject. When it comes to One Last Time, however, there’s nothing for me to fear. This book was never intended for children. It’s for adults from page one onward.
This is, I assure you, the actual plot of this book. I am not making any of this up. So one day George Steinbrenner calls up the batboy Ray to his office. Turns out, Ray is a magic batboy and George wants Ray to tell all the old and dead Yankees that there’s going to be a new stadium. Ray goes to a magic room in the stadium that allows him to speak with all the Yankees of the past and he and Steinbrenner help them reminisce. Then the Yankees decide to play one last game on the pitch. As they do so the stadium begins to fall apart around their ears. Honest. So they all get out, and go into the room with the magic door which inexplicably hasn’t fallen to dust. Ray suddenly pulls a "Take me with you," but George Steinbrenner stops him and assures him that he shouldn’t "worry about the magic, Ray. We’re taking it with us. The Yankees will always have that magic." Comforted, Ray and George walk out to look at the new stadium.
I’m sure a person could lash into this book for the fact that it makes the claim that the old Yankee Stadium was worn out and falling apart and that was why they built a new one. Not a baseball fan myself, so I don’t particularly care one way or another. What I find far more disturbing is that it appears that the sole reason this book was written was to assure Yankee fans that the new stadium is great and that they shouldn’t be whiny crybabies about the destruction of the old one. It’s such a cynical reason to write a picture book. On the surface the book is celebrating the great Yankees of the past, but over and over again the story repeats the mantra that the old stadium is no good anymore. "…all the wear and tear has taken its toll…", "The stadium’s just too old." Etc. etc.
The book is also a great big kiss on the lips to George Steinbrenner. When the batboy is called into Steinbrenner’s office the first thing he says is, "Special assignment? Another sick kid, Boss? A kid who needs some special . . . magic?" Never mind that Ray is saying this apropos of nothing. We are given the distinct impression from the start that Steinbrenner is a godlike figure, sending out his batboy like a little angel to the good Yankee children of the world. This feeling isn’t diminished any when the old Yankees of the past honor and adore Steinbrenner like he’s their greatest Boss. Heavens. I know the book’s written by Steinbrenner’s personal consultant, but to make your employer out to be the greatest Yankee the world has ever seen… woo-boy.
As for the writing itself, it’s just awful. Not much more to say about that.
Alas, the illustrations do not help. I am willing to bet that Laura Seeley is a good artist, and perhaps very adept at animals and such. People, however, are not her strength. At first I thought she just wasn’t comfortable drawing real people. There’s a picture of Derek Jeter at the beginning that looks like he’s trying to style his hair. Closer inspection revealed a tiny baseball leaving one hand, appearing to float there of its own accord. Then I realized that fake people, like Ray, were sometimes far more disturbing to look at. For reasons unclear to me, the pictures in this book keep returning to the batboy’s gigantic looming face with its gigantic looming eyes accompanied by their gigantic looming eyelashes. If you’re not zeroing in on his eyeball then you’re getting up close and personal with his cheek. I also found it a bit disturbing how often Spalding appears in these pictures, prominently. I know that the author Ray Negron is also a director of community relations for Spalding, but did the book have to be so chock full of product placement?
At any rate, it’ll find its audience amongst Yankee fans, I’m sure. The thing is, a good baseball picture book opens itself up to fans of all teams. The aforementioned You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! was written about a Dodger, but I can hand it to any kid today secure in the knowledge that they’ll be reading a fabulous story with even better pictures and they won’t care if it’s their favorite team or not. In contrast, One Last Time is just a cynical, sad tribute to a new stadium meant to comfort grown-ups and throw in some product placement for kicks. Yankee fans, there are better books out there for your kids. Grab Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth by Robert Burleigh or Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man by David Adler. Your kids deserve the best books out there. Don’t settle for pabulum.
Source: Copy borrowed from fellow librarian.
- Don’t expect a tell-all from Ray anytime soon.
- Here’s a piece on it from The Daily News.