Play Ball!

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Nine days to Opening Day. Two weeks to showtime at Washington's zippy new Nationals Park. Little Leaguers suiting up, prolific as daffodils. It's baseball season again, and it all feels so hopeful and sunshiny, you almost forget about the thunderhead of scandal hovering above. One thing's for sure, what former Sen. George Mitchell sternly calls "the steroid era" is not evident in this year's crop of baseball books for kids. Then again, isn't a retro, nostalgic feel the game's signature mood? Here are three books that try to put a fresh spin on it.

MY MOST EXCELLENT YEAR A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, & Fenway Park By Steve Kluger | Dial. 416 pp. $16.99 (ages 12-up)

When this effervescent novel opens, it's 2005. But 2003 is the "most excellent year" that three 11th graders at a Boston public school have chosen to write about for a class assignment. So, no, this isn't a Red Sox championship story, even though one of the trio, T.C., is nuts about the team and baseball history in general, all the way back to 1919 and poor Bucky Weaver. Baseball's just one strand in the portrait of a memorable ninth-grade year that unfolds largely via diary entries, e-mails and IM chats written by T.C., his best friend Augie, who's a gay Chinese-American musical theater aficionado, and Alejandra, an ex-ambassador's "stuck-up snob" of a daughter, who nevertheless "could find a social issue in a box of Kleenex" and can dance like Gwen Verdon. In fact, except as a metaphor for social connection, baseball may be the least convincing part of it, with T.C. often sounding more like a nerdy dad than a 15-year-old ("Tuesdays are when we always go to Amory Park and re-play Game 3 of the 1918 World Series."). It doesn't matter. My Most Excellent Year is funny, affecting, smart and surprising, too: There are bit parts here for Julie Andrews and the Manzanar National Historic Site. And when the whole hodgepodge cast is assembled for the climactic moment, it's as good as a Broadway curtain call -- or a neighborhood outing to Fenway.

KEEPING SCORE By Linda Sue Park | Clarion. 208 pp. $16 (ages 9-12)

It's Brooklyn, 1951, when "baseball and the Dodgers were even bigger than the movies." Nine-year-old Maggie-O (named for Joe DiMaggio by her Yankee-dazzled father) wants more than anything for "dem Bums" to win the World Series. Well, that's not happening. So what does Maggie do? She spends her days down at the firehouse, where the guys are all fellow Dodgers fans but for one. Jim is for the Giants, but he becomes Maggie's particular friend and even teaches her the blissful intricacies of scoring a game, which is "way better than just listening." But then Jim is called up to fight in Korea, leaving Maggie with two things to keep track of: a stalemated war and the Bums' heartbreaking championship quest. Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park is a master storyteller, and she proves it again here. The story closes at the end of 1954, and whether or not one knows what awaits the Dodgers in 1955, the quiet thrill she packs into the last three paragraphs is palpable.

SWINGING FOR THE FENCES Hank Aaron and Me By Mike Leonetti Illustrated by David Kim | Chronicle. $15.99 (ages 4-8)

It's 1973, and "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron is out to break Babe Ruth's career home-run record. He falls short by one, but our young narrator gets to meet his hero, who gives him some sound, if stiffly worded, advice ("There are different ways to succeed in baseball, Mark. Players who hit singles, steal bases, and play well in the field are just as important as home-run hitters.") and later sends him a copy of "Hitting the Aaron Way." And then it's 1974, and the tale revs up, because here we are at the game where Aaron sets the mark that will stand for 33 years. There's an afterword about Barry Bonds's big day, but the book doesn't delve into its shadows. It does hint at the Aaron era's own sinister side -- "Some people didn't want a black man to break Babe Ruth's record" -- but the story is mostly as wholesome as David Kim's glowing acrylics suggest. One quibble with the otherwise useful bibliography: Aaron's 1991 memoir wasn't titled "If I Had a Hammer." No ifs about it. It's "I Had a Hammer."

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at warde@

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