Contrary to the professors, ”magic realism” wasn’t invented by Gabriel García Márquez, author of Bill Clinton’s favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, but by John R. Tunis, author of The Kid From Thompkinsville and a shelfful of baseball novels for boys. What’s more, despite all the solemnity that has crept into baseball books since Tunis’ heyday in the ’40s and ’50s, he remains the master of the nail-biting pennant race, the brilliant, game-saving catch, and the thunderously dramatic home run. Anyhow, my bet is that Kevin Baker, author of the ingeniously seductive new baseball novel Sometimes You See It Coming, has read a good deal more Tunis than he has García Márquez, and has attended closely to the antics of the game’s more preposterous real-life figures as well. One need not be a baseball historian to recognize in manager Charlie Stanzi, ”the Little Maniac” to his players, some traits of the late Billy Martin. Nor of the insufferable Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner in Ellsworth ”the Great White Father” Pippin. Not that Baker’s story of the wondrously gifted but enigmatic John Barr has any basis in reality. While the plot borrows celebrated incidents from the lives of players as dissimilar as Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente, it’s the psychology of the game, in the broadest sense, that fascinates first-novelist Baker — the origins of his hero’s almost mystical ability (and his need) to escape into the virtual reality of baseball.
Told by a series of raffish, profane narrators, including all of the novel’s major characters except the secretive hero himself, Sometimes You See It Coming is anything but a novel for boys. Indeed, Baker devotes so much space to the antics of bullpen groupies and philandering third basemen that it detracts somewhat from his book’s serious core — dealing as it does with topics like pathological jealousy and child abuse. For all that, the finale is pure Tunis-style cornpone. ”The last inning of the last game of the World Series. The fastest, meanest pitcher against the best hitter in the game. There was no way,” Baker assures us, ”you could avoid it in any good story.”
Well, yeah, you could. But Sometimes You See It Coming is an entertaining debut all the same. B+