Tag Archive for Six Innings Preller

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:

 

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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):

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BEFORE YOU GO reviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review

I’m stepping out from under my self-imposed Cone of Silence . . .

. . . to share the happy news that my new Young Adult novel, Before You Go, will be reviewed in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Book Review. In fact, the way these things work, it’s already online.

For authors, the NYTBR is still the paper of record, and it’s a great feeling to be included in that conversation.

When you tell people that you write children’s books there’s a variety of reactions and non-reactions. Some folks are impressed, even jealous. Others are mute, mystified, and possibly suspicious. The conversation quickly shifts. But a review in the Times is the kind of thing that even Uncle Hank in Elmira can respect.

Money quote:

“Preller makes us care about these people.

We wonder about them when they’re gone.”

Here’s the link to the full piece, which includes a review of Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You by Joyce Carol Oates. Some nobody, I guess.

But seriously, Joyce Carol Oates and me. As if we were equals.

More relevant passages:

Preller has created the kind of male protagonist mothers will love for their daughters. Jude is gentle, thoughtful, nonsteroidal and blessedly free of strut. He’s got good friends who don’t tempt trouble, or, at least, don’t tempt all that much. In fact, they are not “geeks, not freaks, not burnouts. In that sense they were like the color black, actually an absence of color, defined by what it was not: not blue, red, orange, green, heliotrope or puce.”

Moreover, Jude is respectful of the girl he likes, and (bonus points) he’s chosen the right girl, the utterly likable Becka. Most of Jude’s friends know his little sister died seven years ago when Jude was only 9 years old. What they don’t know is just how responsible he feels.

The car accident will, of course, change everything; how could it not? It will test Jude’s faith in the world and his relationships. And if sometimes the exposition grows oversaturated with details about, say, beach-side concession stands or boy-quality zombie talk; if the language doesn’t quite lift off the page as much as it might; if, at times, the action slows just a bit too much, Preller makes us care about these people. We wonder about them when they’re gone.

I’m grateful to Beth Kebhart for this kind, thoughtful review. It shouldn’t, but it means a lot to me (I tell myself to be impervious to these things, the accolades as well as the slings and arrows). But still: the Times! Validation, recognition, whatever you want to call it, sign me up. Though I’ve been involved in children’s books for half my life, first publishing an 8″ x 8″ picture book, Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue! in 1986, and later writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series — 40 titles, 10,000,000 sold — I did not get reviewed until 2008 with Six Innings, an ALA Notable Book. If you write paperbacks, as I did, you are something of an ugly step-sister.

So the review process is a relatively new experience for me. Beth’s quibbles with the book (oh, we’ll call them quibbles, whispered softer than complaints) strike me as accurate, and certainly fair. Maybe the narrative is a little slow in parts, maybe there’s too much Jones Beach nostalgia. Too guy? I’m not sure about that (but I’m a guy). It is what it is, and I’m okay with it. Overall, my first YA has been a learning experience. I tried to write the best book I could, I really did strive to make those words lift off the page — and sometimes, here and there, maybe they do. And maybe I stumble at times, stagger around. All these years, still an apprentice. Thanks, Beth Kebhart, for the helping hand, the nod and smile across the cluttered room. At the very least, I’m grateful to have something to show Uncle Hank next time I’m up in Elmira (though, to be honest, we’ll probably skip the literary concerns and complain, instead, about the sorry state of our New York Mets).

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!