By Bruce Jacobs

The Might Have Been by Joseph M. Schuster
Ballantine Books
Hardcover, $25.00, 330 pp.

Here in Chicago, baseball season has opened in disappointment. As new Cubs manager Dale Sveum has learned, no matter how good you once were, it’s tough to be the manager of a big league team. But it’s tougher still to manage at the lowest rung of the minor leagues, A-ball. And that’s where Edward Everett Yates (“Double E”) finds himself, making a career out of managing the smallest of the small town teams in Joseph M. Schuster’s first novel, The Might Have Been.

Yates lives a train wreck of a life – living out of a suitcase, showering in cheap hotels or locker rooms that smell of sweat and backed up sewers, spending his nights carefully reporting each player’s daily stats to the parent team’s player development honcho while eating Taco-Tico and drinking PBRs. He was once one of these kids with minor league dreams. He even got the call-up to the Cardinals––for three weeks––but it was all downhill from there.

Schuster’s novel is no Baseball Joe, Lester Chadwick’s boy sports series from the decade before the Great Depression when a good arm, a good eye, a sweet swing, and a little luck always beat the odds. No, The Might Have Been is exactly what the title says: the story of a one time prospect who briefly makes the bigs only to spend the next 30 years stuck in a boy’s game.

He’s a broke-knee guy who ends up “celebrating his sixtieth birthday with an epileptic Pomeranian as his only companion, standing in the kitchen, watching a Lean Cuisine lasagna rotating in a microwave in a house with a leaky basement in a town where he managed a team that played its games in an honest-to-God cesspool.”

To Schuster’s credit, this downward spiraling baseball story may be dark, but like the game itself, it has its moments of light and sublimity. At the tail end of the season, Ed’s one pitching prospect in Perabo City, Iowa, Pete Sandford, really has his mojo working. “His pitches moved like a trout through water, slippery, seeming to change elevation and direction on their flight to the plate, as if the ball were avoiding some obstacle only it could perceive.”

During his life in baseball, Ed has many chances to step away into “the world.” His wife’s father offers him a comfortable life selling flour to wholesale bakers, a job he proved to have a knack for when tagging along with his father-in-law in the off-season. But the incomprehensible mystique of baseball pulls him back to the game.

It is the only life he knows, a life “in some sort of limbo…as if he were forever in a train depot, always on the way elsewhere, wherever the club that owned his contract told him to go…thinking he was at the start of everything, the road of his life mapped out like one of the AAA TripTiks his mother ordered before a vacation, the path drawn out in dark black arrows pointing in one direction…leading inevitably to where he planned to end up.”

Only that’s not how it works. It never does. He leaves his wife and a secure financial future for the lure of the game.

As Schuster takes us through the disappointments and mistakes of Ed’s life, a different kind of hero emerges from his long seasons of wins and losses, of errors and flailing strikeouts.

It turns out that Ed has a talent for encouraging talent, for “managing” his young players to pull the best from them that they have to give. He can see the ballplayer behind the statistics. The home office measures performance by OBPs and POEs to decide who to cut and who to move along up the minor league ladder. Ed can see a player’s natural grace when he turns the double play or throws to the cut-off man.

When the team’s wealthy, statistics-driven owner––”Marc Johansen, MS, MBA” reads his email signature––runs the numbers, he discovers that players managed by Ed did better than those managed by others in the system.

The owner bluntly demands that Ed fly from Perabo City to St Louis to meet with him. Ed expects the worst. The meat-packer owner of the Perabo City franchise has already told him that he’s selling the team if he can. What else can go wrong? A lot, it turns out. The landing gear locks up and the plane makes a flaming, screeching, emergency wheels-up landing at a nearby Air Force base.

Ed escapes with his life, but he has no luggage or money – nothing but the phone number of the flirty, frightened, attractive drunk woman sitting next to him. Knowing he will probably be fired anyway, Ed can barely contain his anger when he gets to the owner’s mansion. “Marc Johansen, MS, MBA had made him get on a plane that had nearly killed him and come here to sit in a house that cost more than what he would make in twenty lifetimes,” he thinks. Screw him!

But Johansen has a surprise: “When we started correlating aggregate POE scores to coaching, your numbers were damn good,” he says.  Johansen is not only not going to fire him, but he offers him the chance to move to Costa Rica to find and manage future prospects. The mystique of baseball pulls him in again.

“He had a guarantee of more than a quarter million dollars over the next thirty-six months, all for leaving a town that no longer had any hold on him and moving to a country he couldn’t even pick out on a map.”

Maybe Ed never made it to the big league record books (his one hit-for-the-cycle Cardinal game was rained out and the at-bats never recorded), but hundreds of wide-eyed, dreamy young ballplayers managed to stay on their own TripTik plans thanks to his intervention.

During a reunion over several beers, one of his players who never made it to the majors asked Ed how many games he had “seen from the inside.” Ed toted it up on a napkin: “four thousand six hundred something…more than ten thousand hours.”

“’Wow!’ Mathias exclaimed. ‘You are one lucky son of a bitch.'”

In Schuster’s good hands, we too are lucky to get lost again this year in the story of The Might Have Been when the official box score is all zeroes: no at-bats, no runs, no hits, no errors, and no runs batted in.

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