Baseball Books Reviewed: The Ringer

The Ringer by Jenny Shank. (Permanent Press, 304 pg., $29). PB, 2011.

Absolute truths. Do they even exist in today’s society? It seems that religion, politics, and scientific viewpoints can vary on such a wide spectrum that almost any opinion has some degree of merit for some segment of the population.

However, SPITBALL MAGAZINE is here to assert that there exists at least one immutable assertion, one unassailable fact that each and every rational (and literate) being must agree is an undeniable, universal truth. Cliché kills baseball novels.

Kills them deader than a late-inning rally after a routine 6-4-3 double play.

And if there is a segment of the genre that is most susceptible to this deadly (boring) malady, it is the Little League novel, with its predisposition for stock characters (gruff but lovable coach, uber- competitive parents) and hackneyed plot devices (“The Big Game”, weak-player-saves-the-day, etc.).

So it was with a measure of trepidation that I picked up Jenny Shank’s debut novel, The Ringer. After all, debut novelists are notoriously unaware of what qualifies as cliché in baseball fiction (If we had a dime for every short story submission that ended with a hitter’s beanball fatality…). But Shanks has crafted an impressively mature and engaging story, a complex morality play centered around two very different families linked by an unfortunate tragedy as well as youth baseball.

Intense Denver policeman Ed O’Fallon has decided – with his wife’s urging - to step back from coaching his sons’ Little League team in favor of his daughter’s Purple Unicorn T-ball team, but his dreams of a less stressful summer are shattered when a drug bust goes terribly awry and he kills a suspect. That man, Salvador Santillano, a Mexican immigrant, was separated from his wife and family, but his widow Patricia remains certain that her estranged husband was no drug dealer. During the investigation, O’Fallon begins to doubt himself, as the Latino community rallies behind the Santillano family and accusations of racial targeting and police corruption mount.

Meanwhile, Patricia’s son, Ray, a talented but volatile left-handed pitcher whose father’s death threatens to push him to his neighborhood’s gang-infested streets, receives an opportunity to move up to a competitive Little League team – in the same league, unbeknownst to either family, as O’Fallon’s sons’ team. The tension builds as the communities clash and the two families inevitably learn of each other’s identity, something that never would’ve occurred without the socioeconomic barrier-breaking circumstances of Little League baseball.

Alternating chapters between the two families, The Ringer crackles with a taut plot line, but what elevates book into a compelling read is the author’s decision to present both sides of the issue with equal sympathy and emotion. The reader isn’t manipulated with any mustache-twirling villains or deified heroes, and instead is cleverly forced to confront the ambiguity of an authentic moral dilemma armed only with plausible scenarios and fully realized characters. Additionally, while the game action is kept to an appropriate and realistic minimum, the behind-the-scene activities of parents and coaches are captured by the author’s keen knack for genuine conversation.

Indeed, the issues are black-and-white, blindingly obvious to those involved, but anyone gazing in from the perspective of distance and detachment would be acutely aware of both sides of this tragic conundrum, and Shanks embraces that duality with grace and nuance.

As might be expected for a first effort, The Ringer is not without flaw. The denoument might be considered by some to be a bit unrealistic, and there are more than a few loose ends that are left unresolved. But it is to the author’s credit that the story and characters are rendered so well that the reader will be invested enough to care, and perhaps Shank is asking the reader to supply his own end story. After all, life doesn’t always have all the loose ends tied up in a neat bow, and realistic fiction doesn’t have to, either.

And remarkably, thankfully, nary a cliché is to be found, and that goes a long way in making The Ringer an exciting, intellectually challenging, and altogether worthwhile effort.

Reviewed by: Mark Schraf (April 10, 2011)