Michael Rychlik in his debut novel uncovers the overlooked but fascinating
world of minor league baseball in Florida during the 1940s. Popular
small-town teams with fading veterans and ambitious rookies kept
America's game rolling through a rural and sparsely populated state. In
Journeymen, the waning fortunes of former Babe Ruth teammate Myril
Hoag are chronicled day by day, inning by inning, by greenhorn Gainesville
Sun journalist Jersey Paige. Jersey's tour covering the minor league baseball
circuit helps the young man to understand the complex lives of the players
he writes about and to delve into the center of his own heartaches.
The book's opening chapter sets the tone, as young Jersey badgers
Hoag for a story about the Babe. Jersey and Hoag roll into a bar for drinks
and a pool match, and with each passing moment the old baseball hero,
now a manager for Gainesville's minor league club, drops his guard. Soon
Hoag unwinds a story about how Ruth had been too drunk to play
at Yankee Stadium. Hoag had subbed for the legend
and had knocked six consecutive base hits, a record. The crowd didn't notice.
However, when the Babe pinch hit late in the game and smacked a
double, the crowd went wild. This sense of melancholy, this bitterness from
being both overlooked and forgotten, pervades the narrative and adds to
the story's sense of longing.
Myril Hoag, now past his prime, longs for more than coaching Class
D -- the lowest rung of professional baseball; the man actually sees himself
making a comeback as a pitcher in the majors: "'I played thirteen years
in the major leagues, and now I'm working my way back.' He flexed his
right arm and knotted his bicep. 'And this old soup bone's my meal ticket.'"
Hoag is just one of several characters in the novel who holds onto unrealistic
hopes too tightly.
Jersey Paige, the novel's central protagonist, also has unrealistic hopes.
He's interested in the server who works at Presto, the local Greek diner.
The only problem is that Katina Papadakis's interest has flagged. Additionally,
her father Demetrios, the diner's owner, is definitely not happy with
an "amerikanikos" boy pining for his little girl. He wants Katina to be like
her reliable and malleable mother; but Katina has ambitions of her own,
including becoming a professor.
The love story between Jersey and Katina again reinforces the theme of
longing that courses throughout the book. Jersey always has the Greek girl
on the forefront of his mind, distracting him from his sports beat for the
newspaper, filling him with melancholy.
Another important melancholic figure is Jake Powell, another washed-up
big-leaguer hacking his way through the minors. Powell, an alcoholic
and a malcontent, contrasts sharply with Hoag, his former teammate with
the Yankees. Powell has no illusions about where he's headed. He shuffles
through life wolfing down as many drinks as possible. Hoag's long-shot
hopes of a major league comeback, though delusional, seem noble compared
to Powell's mercenary approach to life.
Despite the book's plaintive themes, the pages are filled with humor.
Cantankerous, funny ballplayers and fans pack each of the small stadiums
described in the novel. Quirky pitchers bring the most grins. Young hurler
Smoky Thomas has a particularly odd warm-up ritual on the mound:
"He was glancing down at the baseball primer still open on the ground,
as he reared back for his next pitch. At that juncture Smoky inadvertently
knocked off his cap, so he froze in mid-windup--his fine, rust colored hair
hung down his face. He stuck out his lower lip and tried blowing the bangs
out of his eyes while he teetered on one foot and eased down to retrieve his
Michael Rychlik's humor and humanity ring true throughout his novel,
and because of these attributes this narrative will resonate not just with
baseball fans but with any reader who appreciates a story with heart.