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February 1, 2019
Feb. 1, 2019 — Empty Seats, by Wanda Adams Fischer, wants to be a poignant drama about the life lessons, choices, and pressures affecting three young men, all of whom happen to be baseball players. It does not fully succeed, nor does it succeed as a baseball book. The first half of the book is an elaborate set-up of the characters so that the second half can tell their main stories. The characters themselves are interesting and have some complexity, but neither half of the novel is fully developed or satisfying, although there is a good story buried inside the narrative. If you are a baseball player, coach, or umpire and you’re buying Empty Seats as a “baseball book,” you’ll be disappointed.
The story begins by introducing the main protagonist, Jimmy, and two other players on a Single-A minor league team playing in the short-season NY/Penn league in the summer of 1972. The baseball portions of the novel are described with loving and substantial detail, but those details are often inaccurate. There is no particular suspense in a sports sense, and the featured character, Jimmy, pitches only one relief inning in one scrimmage game and then is not seen on the field again. We are told that Jimmy is a star – pitcher of the year in all of New England as a High School senior and drafted by the Expos. Yet, we see nothing of Jimmy’s talent. He’s a nervous 18-year-old kid and he appears to have no shot at making the big leagues based on what we read in this story. Jimmy’s nervousness may be caused by the intense pressure he’s under due to his father, who gave up his own major league dreams at the insistence of Jimmy’s mother (who is referred to throughout the book, including by Jimmy, only as “The Filly”). The father has been coaching and grooming Jimmy to be a star ball player since the first scene in the book when Jimmy was four years old. Jimmy’s dad needs him to succeed to fulfill his own vicarious dreams, although the father never shows up to watch Jimmy play. We also meet Bobby Mangino from Yonkers, who is a brash, standoffish, and rude older boy, who is a terrible teammate and seems to be the villain of the story. And we meet Bud, a likeable and friendly boy from Georgia, who seems to have the most talent and confidence on the team. The author gives us a lot of unnecessary and often inaccurate detail about two pre-season scrimmages and the first official game of the league schedule, then jumps to the end of the season, so that the games don’t really happen and there is no sense of in-game suspense or win/lose anxiety.
One glaring example of the author’s problems with baseball accuracy is the starting pitching rotation for this Single-A team. Bud starts the team’s first pre-season scrimmage, then is the starter and pitches 5.1 innings in the second scrimmage (the author does not tell us how many days intervened between, but it’s short-season ball so they have no time to take multiple days off), and then is again the starter in the first league game and goes another 5 innings. It seems that this manager is going to have Bud start every game. Jimmy, meanwhile, a supposedly highly-talented and drafted player, is relegated to the bullpen and pitches one inning in middle relief. Then (we’re told this only after the season is over) Jimmy spends the whole season in the bullpen in a “set-up” role in front of the team’s “closer.” This is 1972 remember – when “closers” didn’t really exist (especially at the Single-A level) and any pitcher who was any good at all was a starter. The author botches many other in-game baseball details, from the umpires (calling out “play ball” to restart the game after a hit), to the hitters (a right-handed hitter “pulls the ball” the opposite way to right field), to the pitchers (one adjusts his cap in the middle of his stretch, another thinks he can make his curve break left OR right), to the catcher (two fingers is the sign for a fastball), to the description of a “95-MPH fastball” knocking the catcher over, to the opposing player who wants to charge the mound during a scrimmage game after being hit by an 0-2 curve ball, to having Bud, the visiting team’s pitcher, warming up on the mound while the umpires and managers are having their pre-game meeting before the top of the first inning. She insists on telling us that the righty pitcher lands on his left leg (several times) as if we’ve never seen a baseball game. She finally lost me entirely when she described an infield pop-up that is called an “infield fly rule” with runners on first and third. (This is wrong, and totally unnecessary – just have the shortstop catch the pop-up.) As a book describing baseball, both in-game and during the few practice scenes (where the pitchers never stretch, run, take batting practice, or do any drills, but they do warm up randomly during a game without the pitching coach telling them to), it is just not accurate and therefore more frustrating than captivating. I’m sure it’s great for a reader who knows nothing about baseball, in which case it’s very descriptive (as long as you don’t know any better).
After the short season ends, the book becomes half a book about the curveballs that life throws at young men, how life is not always fair, and how things don’t always work out the way you want them to (unless they do). This half of the novel is similarly disappointing in that the action is clipped, the story lines are sketched with few details, the behavior of the characters is mostly out of step with what we think we know about them from the first half of the book, and ultimately there is no clear point or purpose to the story. If this were a true-life biography, you could forgive the author for not having a better story to tell, but this is fiction, so the story should have been much better.
Bobby (the bad teammate who shamed Jimmy into drinking his firstr beer and by the end of the season had turned Jimmy into a borderline alcoholic) is involved in a bus accident on his way back to Yonkers and suffers a spinal cord injury that leaves him a paraplegic. Bad break for Bobby, but somehow (without any real explanation) Bobby’s attitude totally changes and he becomes a sensitive, caring, and compassionate person as he struggles with his new reality that he will never be a ballplayer again.
Meanwhile, Jimmy returns home and is greatly affected by Bobby’s injury as he questions whether being a ballplayer can ever work for him and laments that he has no fallback plan for his life (unlike his two smart and accomplished sisters). Jimmy struggles to keep himself occupied as he falls into some bad habits and hangs with some bad company. (There is no explanation for why his father, who coached Jimmy relentlessly from age 4 to be a ballplayer, suddenly has no interest in working out with him or supervising his continued baseball development during the off-season and instead allows him to drift.) Jimmy ends up getting into a fight (which seems very out of character for him) and the other boy ends up dead. Jimmy is charged with manslaughter and faces a trial and possible prison. (This is not really a spoiler since this is the main plot of the “story” portion of the book.) Now, the novel becomes a crime/legal drama as Jimmy’s lawyer struggles to defend him. But, the author gives us only snippets of that story, and what she does give us is mostly wrong. I’m a lawyer, and as a crime drama this is not very realistic and in many cases dead opposite of how things really happen.
At the same time, Bud goes off to college (without a baseball scholarship, of course) and completes a year at Vanderbilt as a pre-med. (There is no explanation for how Bud can complete his spring semester at Vandy while also playing a full-season of Triple-A ball.) Bud doesn’t smoke, drink, or chase girls (even when one throws herself at him). Bud has a superior fallback plan for life without baseball, even though he seems to be the most likely of the three boys to make the majors.
So, the second half of the book follows the three stories through the off-season as Jimmy deals with his legal predicament, Bobby deals with his physical challenge, and Bud happily cruises through a charmed life. There is a big “surprise” toward the very end that is frankly not very surprising or tragic (although it’s clearly supposed to be), and then the book is over, without any suspense or closure.
The editing of the book is decent, although there are some obvious flaws. There is an excessive use of ellipses, and the dialogue is often stilted and oddly phrased. The author uses a first person present narrative for Jimmy’s story, and then a mixture of first and third person narrative for Bobby’s and Bud’s stories, including first-person thought bubbles. This is awkward and distracting. The use of an alternate font for some text (rather than italics) is also distracting, as is the author’s clumsy attempt to give a Dominican pitching coach an accent by having him say “chew” (in the alternate font) instead of “you” and “chore” instead of “your.” There are many very short chapters in which nothing in particular happens, and then huge leaps forward in the plot when I wish the author had let me experience what happened by writing about it rather than just referencing after the fact that a bunch of things happened while we were weren’t watching.
There are some inside Red Sox references from that author, who is from the Boston area (like Jimmy) and is a long-time Sox fan, including an appearance by Bill “spaceman” Lee, and there are vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional responses that the characters have to each other and to playing baseball. But, ultimately, the book is not successful as a baseball book, not successful as a legal drama, and not successful as a commentary on life and fate or the value of hard work or whatever the point was that the author thought she was making. There is an interesting story inside this book about a boy dealing with the pressures put on him by his father, about his failure to take advantage of his opportunity as a ballplayer, about his bad choices that threaten to ruin his dream (or was it his father’s dream and he sabotaged it on purpose?) and about how people have to overcome obstacles in their lives. That story is not particularly well told in this book, but it’s down there if you look for it.