Archive for Six Innings

My New York Mets Hat


As a diehard New York Mets fan, I’d first like to say this . . .



Also: I sometimes wear baseball caps. Not always, but it happens.

I might throw it on because I haven’t washed my hair in a few days. Okay, in six days. Or because I’m a Mets fan, expressing my allegiance to the team.

But this week, I’m wearing my cap as a signal. I am saying to the world: “Be gentle with me. I’m fragile right now.”


My author photo for the book SIX INNINGS. I still own the same cap. Admittedly, both the cap and my face have experienced a little wear and tear over the years.

My author photo for the book SIX INNINGS. I still own the same cap. Admittedly, both the cap and my face have experienced a little wear and tear over the years, but we’re still hanging out together.

Outpost Center Field: Reading & Writing About Baseball

Willie Mays, "the catch," from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.

Willie Mays, “the catch,” from the 1954 World Series. Arguably the greatest play in the history of center field.


I was recently reading a book by Philip Roth and came across a similarity to something I had written back in 2008. His words struck me as eerily familiar.

The relevant section in my book, Six Innings, focuses on center fielder Scooter Wells. For this book, my original idea came from watching an elaborate tracking shot by film director John Sayles. I actually forget which movie, and I may have all the details wrong, but the essence stands: I admired how the camera followed a character into a crowded room, came across a new face and then trailed after that person until someone else came into view, and the camera again swiveled and changed direction to follow that character. I wondered if I could try a similar device by using a ball in a Little League game. Tell the story of each character as they naturally step into the game’s flow. If you catch the ball, it’s time for your story, and so on.

Anyway, in this moment, we’re out in center field with Scooter. An opposing slugger, Nick Clemente, has just struck a ball far and high. The pitcher, Dylan, immediately figures it’s gone . . .

2874077Out in center field, Scooter Wells knows better. He instantly realizes that the ball is going to stay within the yard. Most important, Scooter figures he’s got a chance to catch it. Somehow he does all that figuring — the mathematics of it, the cool calculus of force and trajectory, distance and wind patterns — by pure instinct. It’s a gift; he knows how to read a ball coming off a bat. To Scooter, center field is like a fire tower in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, an all-seeing observation post, the ideal vantage point to watch as the game unfolds.

< snip >

Now the ill-treated ball, so rudely bashed, travels in a soaring arc toward the right-center field gap. Scooter Wells, part physicist, part Labrador retriever, bolts toward the fence. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” he pointlessly yells, for the ball can be no one else’s. At full gallop, Scooter’s hat flies off his head. He extends his arm and snares Clemente’s bomb in the webbing of his glove.

Inning over.



An aside: I don’t think anybody ever noticed it, but that passage includes a small tribute to the great Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid” had a signature habit of losing his hat, or his helmet if he happened to be tearing around the basepaths, whenever he took off on a mad sprint. At least that’s the way I remember it.

Here’s the section from Roth’s book, Portnoy’s Complaint, that caused me to to reread what I had written. For the record, I never read Portnoy until this past week, so I don’t see how I could have borrowed those images even subconsciously:

220px-Portnoy_s_ComplaintDo you know baseball at all? Because center field is like some observation post, a kind of control tower, where you are able to see everything and everyone, to understand what’s happening the instant it happens, not only by the sound of the struck bat, but by the spark of movement that goes through the infielders in the first second that the ball comes flying at them; and once it gets beyond them, “It’s mine,” you call, “it’s mine,” and then after it you go. For in center field, if you can get to it, it is yours.


As a baseball-loving southpaw from Long Island, I never played second base, shortstop, third base, or catcher. Those positions were and still remain strictly in the domain of right-handed ballplayers. So I pitched a lot, played first base, and eventually moved out to the hinter lands, center field, a position — and vantage point — I instantly loved.

What a great view to enjoy the game.

An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final


Chris Sheban is a talented artist who has illustrated the covers to some books that you might know and love — all without fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

51kBF5AsbfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_         15797693

7f9606c64d69fa641bbfb1e220a2721e        6faa4de923eb9a722682cedf110b7b5a        2874077       018720 6502258611c1303ca57071612896b0a5        cover15


I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.


JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
JP: How big are these sketches?
CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?

JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.

CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”-

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.


CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.


JP: At this point, you turn to color.



CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).

Open Letter to AJ Preller, GM of the San Diego Padres


The name AJ Preller been in the news quite a bit lately, ever since he was named General Manager of the San Diego Padres. I’ve gotten a kick out of that, since A.J. Preller was also my father’s name. Doing a bit of research, I learned that both of our families lived in Long Island. I thought about it and decided, why not? So I sent him this letter:




Dear AJ Preller,

I’m writing because I think we may have a connection. Don’t worry, I’m not seeking anything (I’m a diehard Mets fan). We both love baseball and we might be related.

Fred W. Preller

Fred W. Preller

My family, like yours, came from Long Island. My father’s name was Alan Jay Preller. His father was Fred W. Preller, from Queens Village, NY, where he was a NY State Assemblyman for 22 years. He briefly ascended to Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. I think if there’s a gossamer-thread connection between us, it might be there, since it’s my understanding that Fred was part of a large family. In later life, Grandpa had a summer place in Smithtown, Long Island. I don’t know; I’m not a student of family ancestry. The first time I saw a color television was in Grandpa’s Queens Village home. He was watching the Yankees and the grass was sooo green.


Through his political work, Grandpa even had a baseball field named after him –- Preller Fields (later named the “Padavan-Preller Complex” sometime after Grandpa passed away) -– which is on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, NY. Photo, above.

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300Anyway, I’m a children’s book author and my deep love for the game led me to write this book, SIX INNINGS, an ALA Notable, which I now send along to you.

As you know, Preller is not a common name here in the United States – though it pops up in Argentina and South Africa, curiously. I always get a kick out of reading my father’s name -– your name -– in the sports pages. AJ Preller! My long-lost cuz!

Carry on and good luck with your Padres. I think you’ve done a great job so far, similar to what Omar Minaya accomplished in his first year with the Mets, seeking to make a moribund franchise newly relevant.

Good luck, my best, and play ball!

James Preller

Fathers, Sons, and Baseball

I originally posted this back on July 10, 2008 — before I knew how to insert photos.


Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.

My father, ten years before I came along, with Neal or Billy.

My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four older brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-style parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.

So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.

I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.

He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.

In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.

Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .

Addendum II: Today is 1/16/2015, and I came across this post while hunting for other prey. It’s been a week consumed with writing — I’m trying to finish a book today that I started four years ago — and I’ve neglected the blog. Not that anybody cares. Anyway, here’s something. Also: a curiosity. My father was named Alan J. Preller, and grew up on Long Island. The new GM of the San Diego Padres, A.J. Preller, also grew up on Long Island. It’s not a common name. I’ve talked it over with my brother, Al, and we’ve decided he’s probably a second-cousin or something, connected to my late Grandfather, Fred Preller, 22-year assemblyman from Queens, NY. Ah, baseball.

Everything Was Swell Until the 6th Inning

I came across a photo today and figured I’d tell you about it. Blog fodder, you know.

This is me five years ago, after throwing batting practice on a hot night:



It was the eve of the championship game for the 10-year-old All-Stars. Bethlehem vs. Colonie. I remember it clearly. My son, Gavin, got the nod as starting pitcher that day (I was coach, not manager, and did not make that decision), mostly by virtue of his being rested and available. He wasn’t our best arm, but on that day he was cool and in control. Gavin hit his pitch count limit after five innings and we had to pull him. Our team was ahead against a very resilient group from Colonie, leading 8-5. Time to go to the bullpen. At that moment, everything that could have possibly gone wrong, went wrong. Three outs from an elusive championship, those poor boys got smoked. It still makes me shake my head in grim wonder. We ended up losing by 10 runs, after one of the most brutal innings I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll never forget that game. I wanted to win, and I genuinely wanted for those boys to experience that championship feeling. Alas, and oh well.

It often amazes me how these games can linger in memory. When I wrote Six Innings, back in 2008, I was struck by how clearly I remembered Little League games that I had played back in the early 70s when I was 9-10-11 years old. It gave me the conviction to write the book in the first place. The games meant something to these kids. That I can vividly recall individual plays across 40 years is a testament to that fact. I can still see that ball rolling through Don Cognato’s spindly legs.

This is a place in life where these boys live. Where a lot of life’s momentous events are played out. It’s a cliche to say that a player leaves his heart out on the field, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I know I left my heart on a lot of ballfields across the years, and I wasn’t the only one.

There’s a moment in Six Innings when I try to capture that feeling. Well, not a moment, exactly; I try to achieve it throughout the entire book. But there’s one particular moment when I suppose I try to elevate the language a bit, try to lift off above the turf. The staccato rhythms give way to longer, more poetic sentences. It happens after a thrilling play at the plate in the top of the 5th:

In that instant, everything freezes, a DVD on pause, then explodes into action. Both teams, the fans, the coaches — shouting, cheering, hooting, protesting — every emotion galvanized at once, a kinetic charge of energy rising up through the five layers of the earth’s atmosphere, their cries and dreams climbing from troposphere to exosphere, soaring into the velvet void of deepest space. A roar that happens on Little League fields every day, in every town, city, state, and country all over the world, from Logansport to Osaka, San Cristobal to Little Rock. The sound the game makes when it is played passionately, with young hearts.

Hey, how’s this for cool? The cover of the Korean translation (uh, it’s the one on the left):

korean-six-innings-207x300          paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300


From Fiction to Fact: We’re Playing in the Championship Game

This coming Saturday, I’ll be coaching a Little League team of 11- and 12-year-old boys in a championship game. For the 12’s, this game will be the culmination of their Little League experience. Some boys will move up to play at the Babe Ruth level, on the big fields, jumping from 60-foot basepaths to 90; for others, this game will be it. The end of a boyhood passage, giving way to skateboards and girlfriends, basketball and boredom and who knows what comes next.

For me, this last Little League game is a happy way to conclude a long relationship at Tri-Village Little League in Delmar, NY. I coached my oldest son, Nicholas, for his last four seasons. Then I coached Gavin’s teams for all seven of his seasons, which overlapped with two years of coaching Maggie, too. That’s 11 years of coaching at the Little League level, mostly as manager. Then you can add 7 years of managing in a men’s hardball league, plus Fall Ball, Travel, All-Stars, etc.

A lot of games. A lot of faces. A lot of hanging around the ball field, staring up at the clouds, hoping the rain holds off.

I played, too. This is my age-12 season. Top row, center. Wantagh Little League.

I threw left, batted right, like Cleon Jones and Rickey Henderson.

But this game on Saturday will be my first championship game at the Majors level. I was fortunate enough to coach a team that won at the Intermediate level, some years back with Nick. Took it to ‘em, 6-zip, behind the strong arm of Nick Hodem. Unfortunately, my Nick was sick at that time, fighting cancer, and he missed the final game.

In 2008, I published my first hardcover novel, Six Innings, inspired and informed by my lifelong love of the game. The book, subtitled “A Game in the Life” (and yes, that’s a Beatles reference), is about a single championship game and the boys who play in it. I’m proud to say that it was named an ALA Notable and, by Booklist, one of the TOP 10 BEST SPORTS BOOKS OF THE YEAR.

Here’s a couple of paragraphs that come very late in that book:

Coach Reid watches the boys as they celebrate, resists the urge to join them, to leap arms outstretched on top of the pile. No, this is their moment. It isn’t about Coach Reid, or any other adults. It is enough, more than enough, to stand back and watch.

Branden runs up, ecstatic. “We did it, Dad!” he exclaims. “We did it!”

The son throws his arms around his father, and the father squeezes back, hard, hoping to capture the memory like a summer firefly in his hands, wanting the moment to last forever, burning brightly, and knowing that somehow, amazingly, as sure as they stood, it would.

Wish us luck!

The Similarity Between Reading and Baseball

I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, to the baseball writer, Roger Angell. I’m sorry, that tag does him a disservice; Angell is a writer, period, a great one, a crafter of sublime sentences, a keen observer, a man who feels things and captures living moments. His writing goes deep into baseball and beyond it. Angell’s more than a great writer; I suspect he’s a great man.

I had written Six Innings and wanted him, an important stranger, to have a copy of my book. I wanted him to love it, of course, to recognize me as a fellow traveler, but writers don’t have much say over how the world responds. You release the work into the wild and hope it finds food, shelter, a home, and thrives. Six Innings went on to earn an ALA Notable. And almost as good, Mr. Angell wrote a kind, handwritten letter in return.

Lately I had been thinking about “the ideal reader,” and decided, perhaps cleverly, that my ideal reader would be someone who wasn’t afraid of being bored. That’s been my concern of late, because so many children’s books these days are high concept and plot-driven, because we hear over and over again that boys don’t read, and if they do open a book they will sit still only for wall-to-wall action. And I guess I sometimes fret that I don’t deliver that kind of pleasure. In truth, I only infrequently read that kind of book. So, yes, please, if I may order one to go, I’d like a reader who will hang with me during the slow parts.

And I heard in that wish an echo. And realized, once again, that the notion was not entirely my own. Authentic, yes; original, not exactly.

I remembered something I heard Mr. Angell say at a public reading on March 1, 1989, at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, dedicated to great writing about baseball, created by Roger Angell along with his friend, A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I remember the reading vividly. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and now revisit selections each Spring. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

I recalled, most especially, the night’s opening remarks made by Angell. So I got out the CD, listened and listened again while scribbling on a yellow legal pad, until I could transcribe the brief exchange I’d remembered. As far as I know, there isn’t a transcription available on the net, so here you have one brief moment — an exchange that struck me, and has stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Angell makes a simple comparision, doesn’t extend it much, doesn’t labor over it, gets in and out, yet it made me laugh and it still gets me thinking today.

For here we are: Baseball season, pitchers and Molinas, is almost upon us. The massive spectacle of the Super Bowl has come and gone. It’s time for quieter pleasures. During my workday this past week, I arranged indoor practices for my 12-year-old Travel Team. Sent out emails, talked to the uniform guy about new jerseys. And today in my capacity as a Board Member for my local Little League, I ordered more than $4,000 worth of baseballs and assorted equipment.

All I really want to do is get out that old glove one more time. That simplest pleasure of all, a game of catch.

Well, here’s Angell and Giamatti, as they set the stage back in 1989:

A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Why does baseball appeal to writers so much?”

Roger Angell:

The similarities between reading and baseball are evident to all of us, and may account for the enormous flood of baseball writing that goes on and on, and so much of it very high quality.

Baseball after all is a linear game. It’s the only one that is linear in the sense that one thing happens, and something else happens, and there’s a pause, and there’s a time for writers to think about it, and keep score, and take notes.

A Bartlett Giamatti:

It’s always occurred to me that intellectuals like baseball because it goes slowly enough so they can understand it.

Roger Angell:

Well, certainly I would hate to try to write intensely moving paragraphs about basketball, which is a swirling and beautiful sport of an entirely different nature, with a different feel to it. But one of the things about baseball which is like reading, in addition to the obvious things like chapters and, ah, is that if you think about both baseball and reading, they are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored. But — you can laugh, but — also it really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game. Not dissimilar.

Poetry Friday: “In a Red Baseball Cap” by James Preller

Just dug this unpublished poem out of the file cabinet, must have written it about 25-30 years ago, so might as well finally see the light of day. I always liked this one, that connection between the boy and Willie Mays, the white ball a communion wafer, H.D.’s companionship of the flame across time, space, generations.

Speaking of my lifelong love affair with baseball, one of my happiest moments as a writer was the day I published this book, which felt like an outpouring of years and years of baseball thoughts, dreams, memories . . .

I love the new paperback cover.

More on Book Covers: New Paperback Cover for SIX INNINGS

In 2008, Feiwel & Friends published my first hardcover novel, Six Innings, a book that was eventually named An ALA Notable. The cover was fabulous, featuring the work of gifted illustrator Chris Sheban, whose style you might recognize from the covers of Because of Winn-Dixie, Brooklyn Bridge, Punished, The Tiger Rising, and more.

Six Innings sold reasonably okay, earned some kind reviews (and a Judy Blume comparison!), and nobody got rich; we were happy. When it was time for the book to go to paper, my publisher had to make a decision. Come up with a new cover, or simply reproduce the existing cover in a paperback format, which is what they did.

And the paperback edition did not sell. Understatement. It struck out, looking.

This could be for a variety reasons, but one line of thought was that we were dealing with two different markets. The hardcover, with awards and good reviews, sold well in the institutional market. Paperback was a different animal, targeted more directly to the reader. I want to say the less sophisticated consumer, but that’s not right. Children these days are plenty sophisticated, it’s just that their tastes are their own. To them, these days, the photographic approach seems to hold more immediacy.  At least that’s the current thinking.

So check out the new look (the original is up top in the header):

While I’ve got you (as my dad used to say), Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score was another baseball-themed book that came out at the same time. And I confess: I hated the cover. That poor book, I thought. It just struck me, a former 10-year-old boy, as all kinds of wrong.

Someone must have agreed. Take a gander at the paperback.

Quite a difference, huh? It doesn’t look remotely like the same book. Curiously, in this case, the publisher went from a photographic to an illustrative approach, but more significantly re-thought the cover content and updated the design. A successful change, I think, though a dog and a fire hydrant makes me think of only one thing. Was that the idea? Dog pee? Maybe dog pee figures into the book somehow (I have not read it). The ex-boy in me wouldn’t have picked up that cover, either.

It’s also possible that the book was rewritten, with the girl character replaced by a black lab.

In the end, covers are a tricky business. The author’s job is what’s inside.