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When the Sparrow Sings: Pregame

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A first chapter look at the debut novel written by Jason Linden.

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Brooke Howell

Since we are bunch of intelligent folks here at Red Reporter, and we all love books (getting giddy for the RR book club this year) I am going do a review/summary of a book written by Jason Linden.  Jason is a writer for The Hardball Times, Redleg Nation, and has had his work appear in the Louisville Essentric Observer, ESPN.com, and the Louisville Lip, as well as teaching in the Louisville City Schools where he teaches English and Creative Writing. I just wanted to give the little teacher shout out because teachers are cool.  When the Sparrow Sings is Jason's debut novel, and is being published by The Hardball Times.

I've only read the first chapter of this novel, but I'm already really drawn to the story.  I wasn't sure if I was just going to read the novel and give a review, or if I wanted to break it down into chunks and talk more in depth about the novel.  I still haven't decided, but after reading the first chapter, I figured I better stop reading and start talking.  I am very interested in how Linden captures the actual game in his writing.  I think Joe Posnanski give a good indicator of what we will see.

"Baseball fiction is hard. Well, all fiction is hard, but baseball fiction is particularly so because the game is so hard to capture. What makes Jason Linden's When the Sparrow Sings so compelling is that it is easy to forget that it is fiction. The baseball feels authentic and close and -- like the real thing -- so fleeting." -- Joe Posnanski

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The story is about an ace pitcher named Zack Hiatt.  He is living the dream.  He is the best player on his team, rich, famous, and he is about to pitch in the biggest game of his life, the World Series.  Only one thing is keeping Zack from enjoying this moment.  Days before the his scheduled appearance in the World Series, Zach lost his father in a car accident, and is now struggling with his emotions, commitment to the game ahead, and the thoughts in his head.

I didn't know about this novel until BK asked if anyone wanted to write about it.  I didn't have much going on, felt like reading a new book,  and figured I might as well write something.  I read the first page and instantly had an "Oh shit" moment.  This is going to bring up some rough emotions and feelings.  I also think it can bring up some good discussion because as Reds fans we have seen a player on our favorite team go through this type of situation before.

One of the most terrifying moments in our lives is the loss of a family member.  At my age, it is usually the loss of a grandparent, but the greater fear is that it will be a parent.  I am 26 years old.  I'm not supposed to be thinking about things like that, but it is something in the back of my mind.  In time, we'll all lose our parents, some of us sooner than others.  It's a constant fear that I'll receive a phone call and one of my parents will be gone.  I've watched my parents go through that, and I've watched my friends go through it.  It is heartbreaking.

Professional athletes are people.  They are just like you or me, the only difference is they are paid millions of dollars to play a game and have cameras and social media watching every move.  Players lose loved ones.  We find out about players losing loved ones because of transaction pages, ESPN, Twitter, and any other stupid media conglomerate you want to name.  However, much like it is in our lives, it is a private matter and usually handled as such.  It is rare that a player's private tragedy becomes a public discussion.  This novel is about an athlete's struggles when they are no longer private but very much public.

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In 2008, Joey Votto lost his father to a heart attack.  He went on bereavement, people sent their condolences, and in the public eye that was about it.  It was a private matter.  In 2009, situations arose that no longer made it a public matter.  Joey Votto was hurt, went on the DL, and with no baseball fell into depression.  With the depression came panic attacks, hospitalization, and Joey Votto needed more time off to deal with the personal issues.  It became a public discussion because Reds fans wanted their young stud first baseman back.  Why can't he play?  What's wrong with him?  Is he weak?  Hell, people were even speculating that Joey Votto was gay.  Stupid, bad people, but people that consider themselves Reds fans.  That's because some people are awful.  Those things still follow Joey Votto today (not the gay thing because he has quite the attractive lady friend).  These things followed Votto when he was signed to his extension.  They followed him when he went through his injury problems last year.  All because Joey Votto is a professional athlete and sometimes their private life becomes public.  When something becomes public there are assholes that will speculate about things they shouldn't speculate about.  This is an example of an athlete that didn't exactly get the support he deserved from the media and his fans, which was shit.

There is another account of a player playing through the death of a father where it raised him to an even bigger national prominence, if that was even possible.  I'm sure most people remember in 2003 when Brett Favre's father passed away from a heart attack the day before his Monday Night Football game against the Oakland Raiders.  Favre and his father were especially close.  Favre's father was his high school coach, mentor, I believe agent, and was right by his side his entire career.  It was questioned whether Favre would play or not.  In the end he did, because he believed his father would want him to, and his father would have expected it.  This is very similar to Zack Hiatt in this novel, at least from the beginning.  I still don't know how Hiatt fares in the game.  Farve on the other hand had one of the greatest games of his career, and just added to his legacy of hard nosed toughness and football gritty-rah-rah-ness.  Whether it was deserved is up to you.  Favre probably doesn't care either way.

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This is what Zack Hiatt is dealing with.  His father is dead, and he is facing the biggest game of his life.  He isn't with his family in their time of need.  He is at a stadium, giving a press conference saying he will pitch.  He's in the clubhouse by himself because no one is talking to him.  He's trying to keep his thoughts in check because he has to pitch.  Hiatt has never pitched well when he is thinking.  His father told him that.  He thinks about that.  It's a cycle that is throwing him off his game.

Hiatt thinks about what his family is going through.  He is thinking whether or not he made the right decision.  He wonders if people would disparage him if he made a different decision, but will play because that's what his dad would want.  After all, it wasn't just his career, It was their career.

Many of these are things I would guess most athletes would think in a time like this.  What I'm finding intriguing about this novel is getting into the athlete's head when he tries to kill the thoughts and get ready for the game.  How can you prepare yourself to pitch in the biggest game of your life when one of the most important people in yours is no longer there?

Hiatt walks out to warm up.  He's wild, very wild, think Aroldis Chapman hitting the backstop or spiking his slider wild.  It's cold and he is thinking.  Again, he can't pitch when he thinks.  His father told him that, and his father taught him how to clear his mind.  He can't clear his mind because everything is reminding him of his father.

Somewhere, there is a seat my dad would have sat in and someone else is there. We all know this, but we're not talking about it. Normal jitters. That's all it is, right? Normal jitters. Just get it out now.

Hiatt is announced and goes to the mound, and he has eight pitches to use as warm ups.  Everyone is watching him.  Everyone knows, and are waiting to see how he reacts.  They want to see what his warm-ups look like.  He thinks about the mound, the rubber, digging into the rubber, how it's not perfect anymore, and if that makes the grounds crew mad.  I thought that last part was funny.  His thoughts are a slave to his environment.

He throws three pitches, two good and one bad.  It's cold.  The leadoff batter is watching his pitchs and timing him.  His glove is stiff from the cold.  He feels out of his routine.

As I settle in, the wind shifts and the smell of fresh hot dogs and popcorn finds its way to me on the mound. Maybe it is my imagination, but I swear I can feel the heat of the concession stand. It breaks through the cold and I lose whatever zone I have been in because I am thinking of dad now and how he always used to buy me a hot dog before the start of a game.

Man that quote is the one that got me.  It punched me right in the gut.

I am thinking of this and Brian is looking at me and I realize I have been standing without moving for longer than is normal. I shake it off and throw. It bounces just in front of him, but he stops it easily.

It's the 1000 yard stare, a man lost in his own mind.  The game is getting close to starting.  Hiatt is terrified of the lead off hitter.  The crowd is getting louder, and he is thinking too much.  He never thinks during warm up pitches.  They are just routine.

I cannot hear anything else but every so often, voices come through and as I am winding up I hear one and it sounds like my dad. I don't know how it makes me feel, but it grabs me so that everything else falls away and the ball rolls out of my fingers and snaps into Brian's glove right where he wanted it.

The pitch was true, and it was hard.  Hiatt nods to the umpire and the batter steps in the box.  The most important game of his and his teammates' lives is about to start.  It doesn't feel so important to him anymore, but he has to pitch anyway.

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If I'm going to say something to Mr. Linden it is congratulations.  You got me.  I'm hooked.  The introspective into the thought of a Major League pitcher leading up to a game like this is fascinating.  The first person view into his thoughts and preparation, and even the view of his personal anguish is amazing, even though it makes me a bit uncomfortable.

It makes me think back to the 2010 NLDS before Johnny Cueto pitched.  What was he thinking?  Did he know something was wrong?  Did anyone else have a clue or was he keeping it to himself?  It was the biggest start of his career.  Taking yourself out of the realm of the fan and thinking about the player is totally different.  I was sitting there drinking beer with friends watching, but really was just a fly on the wall.  I'm a fan, not a player.  I'm a watcher, as we all are, and we really don't know what is going on out there.

Hiatt is out on the mound thinking about normal things players think about, the fans, the game, and the business aspect of the game.  There are even thoughts of how this game could change his career, an upcoming contract, and if he'll still be with the same team the next year.  All of that combined with the thoughts of his father.  It took me from being the Joe Schmoe sitting in his recliner reading a book, to being the tortured pitcher on the mound.

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I went a little longer on this article than I meant to, and I talked a bit more about the first chapter than I wanted to.  It was only 15 pages in length, but hopefully going as far as I did gives you a good idea on whether you'd like to read the book or not.  After all, I'm trying to get you to like it so Mr. Linden can make some cash monies.

I don't know if I still plan on summarizing the novel just in case you guys are intrigued and want to read it all yourself.  I never planned to do more than a cliff notes and a reflection anyway.    I'll probably give some snippets from what I felt as I was going along.  I can say that the first chapter really got to me, and I'll probably get through the rest of this book very quickly.  Hell, I'll probably have the book finished by the time you read this.  I failed at following the rules when reading The Art of Fielding, too.

If you are interested in reading When the Sparrow Sings, which you should be, you can buy it at CreateSpace or Amazon.

Update: I wrote this a week ago.  I was going to finish this book, but then Walt had to go out and do his job and stuff.  I got caught up in the real baseball world.