By Jason Wojciechowski on August 5, 2013 at 8:22 PM
A Chance to Win: Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City
Henry Holt and Co., May 2013
288 pages, $11.04 on Kindle
I'll be honest with you: when I got an email from a Henry Holt marketing coordinator asking if I wanted a review copy of the above book, I read the title and kind of scrunched up my face. I've made it a mission to review every baseball book I can get my hands on, though (e.g. here or here), so I said "sure."1 With that kind of lede, you have every idea of my next move: I was pleasantly surprised by the book.
The title, the subtitle, and even the cover (hit the Amazon link above) smelled of schmaltz and, worse, of middle-class white people drawing inspiration from Those People (in this case, inner-city African Americans) and Their Circumstances and How They Overcome Them. The book, though, is more nuanced, and in particular does not shy away from the screw-ups of its central characters: a paraplegic drug dealer turned Little League coach named Rodney,2 two of the players on his team, and a father/stepfather of two other kids. Nobody here is perfect, and Schuppe, a young veteran crime reporter in Newark, walks a careful line: he lays out the impossible circumstances of inner-city poverty (and, in Rodney's case, the additionally impossible circumstances of major physical disability) while not absolving his subjects of the blame for the choices they make.
Most importantly, the book does not come off as an exploitative poverty safari through inner-city Newark. Schuppe brings in a sprinkle of city history and politics to give larger context to the events he describes, but the time the reader spends with all of Schuppe's major and minor subjects do not feel voyeuristic. The depth and breadth of the work (despite weighing in under 300 pages) probably goes a long way toward avoiding that particular problem: Schuppe spent years with these people and illustrates their lives through episodes that give a view of the larger whole. I did not get the sense of Schuppe dropping me in to a war-zone, pointing out a list of horrors, then extracting me safely.
Baseball, as it happens, is a comparatively minor part of the story. There is no triumphant run to Williamsport for the Little League World Series. There is not even a local Newark championship for our heroes. Baseball is more Schuppe's accidental entree to the lives of Rodney and the rest, the spoke of the wheel from his perspective. There are baseball scenes, and one of the many struggles depicted is that of keeping a league (and team) running without resources or infrastructure or heavy community involvement or any of the other trappings of suburban Little League programs.
Prose-wise, you won't see anything new in A Chance to Win, though I know plenty of readers would count that as a positive—the book reads like a well-written long feature in a daily newspaper (though I'll admit to wondering whether I'd come up with exactly that description were I not to know that Schuppe is (was?) a writer at a daily newspaper). You've seen the structure before—the story is more or less linear, with divergences as needed into the past or the lives of people around the central subjects—but it works for Schuppe because the focus remains on the people above all else.