Overall, the story is quite good. I read into the night to finish it. Even though I knew it would probably have a happy ending, and I was hoping for it, Pollyanna as that might be, I still wanted to see how the author could pull it off. He did it well. It was not cloying at all. At times, I thought the book seemed more appropriate for a middle-grader. I think younger boys might benefit more, overall, from the lessons in the book about family, broken homes, alcoholism, loss, coping, self-control, citizenship, sportsmanship, perseverance, effort, individual responsibility, pride, taking chances, patience, and so much more. Although it is intended for tenth grade and up, with the exception of some crude dialogue, blanked out curse words, and perhaps the themes of abuse and alcoholism that are touched upon, it might also be appropriate for a wider audience of younger readers. There are so many values touched upon, and they really are developed well. I think that these values are best taught when kids are young and more pliable. I felt that some tenth-graders might have passed the time when it would be most effective and might already be a bit too sophisticated for the subject.
The book examines relationships and does a pretty good job of showing how teens abuse, bully and intimidate one another, how someone who believes he is superior can threaten his victims with only his tongue as a weapon and can do a lot of damage to the person’s view of himself and self-esteem, and also how someone should react to a bully to prevent them from screwing with their heads. Hazelgrove does a pretty commanding job of shining a light on the bigotry and bullying in the schools and playing fields, and he shows its effect on the selection of players for positions and teams, which is an oxymoron since sports should teach kids about sportsmanship and doing one’s personal best, above all!
The nine-year-old boy, Ricky Hernandez, at the center of this story, is Mexican. His mom, Maria, is determined to do everything in her power to help him succeed. Because he is dyslexic, not only his heritage has held him back, but his difficulty in school has disheartened him and sometimes he fails to make the appropriate effort to succeed, already assuming in advance that he will fail. Maria’s ex-husband is an abusive creep who would better serve them all if he disappeared. He only comes around to act like a big shot and get money or be physically and verbally abusive. Maria is depicted as beautiful, capable and hard-working until recently, when she lost her job at Target for trying to organize the workers. She is pretty sick and now has no health insurance. She puts Ricky’s needs first and often provides him with things she can’t afford and foregoes medical treatment instead.
Maria is the assistant baseball coach for Ricky’s team and she is determined to have him make the high school team because she believes he has a gift, a really fast, fastball. Across the street from where they live, there is a has-been pitcher who lives in his garage. To compete with the kids who have private coaches, she knows that Ricky needs more help than she can provide. She would really like to have the pitcher help him out, but the pitcher is a reclusive eccentric and a drunk. The story really gets more interesting when she manages, with feminine wiles and kindness, to entice him to help her son, and in that effort, she also tries to help him overcome his weaknesses. As the story develops there is some violence, but that is overshadowed by the theme of developing patience and of not letting anyone bait you with insults.
Unfortunately, I detected an additional agenda in the book, about “undocumented workers”. Many times, my feelings were not in sync with the author’s. Yes, Ricky Hernandez is a victim of racial bias, but that has nothing to do with illegal immigration or health care. His mom is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican. He considers himself Mexican. He has heard hate speech directed at him and been unfairly punished and/or singled out for reprimand and discipline, instead of the guilty bigot. He tries hard not to let it get the better of him because he knows that is what the bully and the racist want. That will only make them attack harder. Ricky is revealed to be this great kid, polite and respectful, helpful and rarely defiant, although he has his wicked moments. He does admit he lies, doesn’t every kid? (I am not sure that is a good value to put out there.) Eric, his teammate, the white coach’s son, on the other hand, is presented as a spoiled, loud-mouthed brat, an arrogant kid who knows that his mom and dad will favor him and get him out of any trouble he creates.
The white characters in the story were portrayed in a much more negative light as evil bullies, as racists who use their money to garner unfair influence, as cheaters and bad sports, capable of unfair compromise and skullduggery. On the other hand we have Maria who is depicted almost larger than life, as a much more responsible coach, keeping the field and its environs clean, fighting those who call her son names and shout out racial slurs. This tiny Mexican woman is portrayed as if she is invincible and can succeed at anything. Sometimes, I laughingly felt like I should be singing “mighty mouse is on the way, mighty mouse will save the day”, because at certain points, it seemed a little over the top.
Also, the timeline felt a little out of sync, like more than just a few weeks were left to train Ricky for the tryouts. But the book held my interest, and the story flowed naturally and smoothly from page to page. In the end, this is a feel good “Cinderella” story for guys, but it also has its moment as a tear-jerker. Overall, it is a great story about dreams coming true.