I just read a really fun novel about minor league ball, sabermetrics, urban decay, loss, Coney Island, the Mets, and a vast hidden network of ballplayer spies doing dirty work for Uncle Sam.
It’s a thriller. It’s moving. It’s seriously intentioned. It’s half whacked out. I started reading it because I felt like I should, and I finished because it beat out the other stuff on my night stand and my grad school work and the 2013 Mets.
Full disclosure. Hang a Crooked Number was written by a fellow I’ve never met named Matthew Callan, who writes for this blog. Naturally, he’s an ally. But few of my allies could write a novel, and none to this point could write a good novel, so I didn’t at all expect to find what I found, which was a bang-up character-driven story doused in Raymond-Chandler-meets-Shoot-the-Freak atmospherics and juiced with gamely implausible spy craft this side of too much.
The story. It’s about a Quad-A type catcher, a Queens native, who was years ago recruited into… but I’m not gonna spell it out. It has to do with spies and a Bill James-type mastermind called only The Guru, and counterrevolutionaries who write books like, Stats Not All, Folks.
Stats Not All, Folks!
As the book opens, The Backstop—that’s our guy—is buried in Triple-A Coney Island, where he’s alienated teammates with his rather grim detachment and pops pills to get by. Callan’s Coney Island, and Callan’s New York in general, is what you might call realistically dystopian. The Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel have closed, Nathans wrappers and vodka handles lay about, and the players lodge in a dorm where, if you "were at the end of your rope and wondering how vile you could get," would be "a good place to find out."
"A shit-splat of a city," as The Backstop says.
But The Backstop, we learn, is more than just a tough-guy cynic. Born of a baseball-obsessed father who lost his wife to cancer and dragged his son to baseball schools all over the country in pursuit of vicarious meaning—but without the money to make that less-than-torture—The Backstop looks at the world through the lens of his father’s failures:
Dad’s only recourse was to stand at the kitchen window on a Saturday morning, coffee cup in hand, look out on the idle dump trucks and grumble, curse, or sigh, hoping the world would catch his drift and give him a break already.
The Backstop doesn’t expect a break.
In the course of a twisting, neighborhoods-hopping plot, a jovial reclamation project lands in Coney Island, a promising second baseman called The Swing. The Swing is odd and funny and guileless, and somehow someone seems to know when and how he’ll get his hits before he gets them. He also has a nice cut:
His namesake is smooth and violent at the same time. There are no seams in it at all. Most swings can be broken down. You can see when one motion changes over into another, where the batter’s hands take the lead from his arms, or elbows dart inside toward his chest. But The Swing’s is so fluid, it has no discernible transition points between one motion and the next.
The Swing is edging up on The Killer, a reviled, past-prime superstar playing second base for the Mets. Somehow, as The Backstop negotiates a disappeared teammate, an inquisitive reporter, "Buckners" and "Bartmans" (code for inside and outside saboteurs), and an unknown entity who might just be Ken Griffey Jr., the book lands us at Flushing’s door. Where it all…
But that sounds nuts. It isn’t. Or at least it doesn’t feel that way. Callan is a skilled prose writer—"crimson kielbasa glimmering in the window"—and keeps you anchored in a mood, a feeling, embodied by its dark and angry and honorable protagonist.
At one point he describes a pack of howling kids scuffling on the F train to Coney Island: "It’s a joke fight teetering on the precipice of real violence." It’s not a bad way to describe baseball, or this engaging book.