SPORTS

Tales from left field

Baseball books have made Kinsella an all-star

BOB LEVIN July 12 1993
SPORTS

Tales from left field

Baseball books have made Kinsella an all-star

BOB LEVIN July 12 1993

Tales from left field

SPORTS

Baseball books have made Kinsella an all-star

BOB LEVIN

“All right, so we’re building the most stupendous, state-of-the-art stadium in the world. But what I want to know is, will it have the magic?” “Well, chief if you mean—” “I mean the magic, the nostalgia, that special baseball thing they have at Wrigley Field, Fenway, those quirky old places with real grass, crazy bounces. And that cornfield in Iowa.” ‘You mean—” Yeah, that book where a guy cuts a baseball diamond from his cornfield and Shoeless Joe Jackson comes back from the dead to play there. They’re making a movie out of it. And the guy who wrote the book—W. P. Kinsella his name is—he’s even a Canadian. So what about him, will he come to our precious SkyDome?” There was silence in the room. Then a voice, stunning as thunder, clear and common as a train whistle—the voice of a ball-park announcer: “If you build it, he will come. ”

Bill Kinsella stands beside the Blue Jays’ dugout, gazing out across the artificially perfect green of the SkyDome turf. It is two hours before game time, a glorious summer evening with the roof open and the sky a gumball blue, and on field the Jays are taking batting practice and chattering like children. Kinsella, the man who has captured the magic in a kid’s game, is a vision of eccentricity: tall, gangly, with a mustache and muttonchops and long straight hair not quite as yellow as com. He wears sandals and black socks, baggy white pants and a T-shirt featuring the jacket design of his latest book, The Dixon Cornbelt League, which he has come to promote. He has been to the Dome before, and while it may not be his field of dreams, he likes the place. “I wish they had grass,” he says, “but the technology is so wonderful.” He does a quick interview with a local broadcaster, then heads upstairs to the Hard Rock Café where, cheerfully enough, he will sign books. “Sure beats hell out of working for a living,” he says.

Kinsella—the W. P. stands for William Patrick, but the folksy, absent-minded manner belongs to Bill—has carved out a little patch of literary heaven. His 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe, charmed the critics and the public and was transformed into the hit movie Field of Dreams. And while he is known for other writing—including six collections of

short stories about Indians in his native Alberta—his baseball books are what made him an all-star. Kinsella, now 58, has an oftrepeated spiel on why the grand old game is such a natural for fiction: how it is open-ended, with no time limits, and the foul lines diverge, going on theoretically forever—all of which lends itself to myth and larger-than-

life characters. But the lineup at the Hard Rock speaks volumes, as well. Clutching other Kinsella works—The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, The Further Adventures of Slugger McBat—or slapping down $18.95 for his latest (published by HarperCollins), the fans get the author’s autograph on a book just as they might get their favorite player’s on a ball. “I really enjoy the way you write,” says 20-year-old Bram Aaron of Toronto, “not only about baseball but about life.”

Not everyone is so eloquent.

“Will you sign that to Judy?” asks one man. “I’ve got to bring home something to my wife.”

“There were parts of that movie I didn’t un-

derstand,” puzzles another, “like when he gets out of the van and turns into a little boy.” That particular fan may have trouble with The Dixon Cornbelt League, the new collection of stories featuring Kinsella’s usual mix of fact and fantasy. A shortstop turns into a wolf. Pirate great Roberto Clemente paddles ashore on a raft, not realizing that 15 years have passed since he died in a plane crash. Longdeceased pitcher Christy Mathewson teaches his famous fadeaway pitch over the bullpen phone. Kinsella says he will never run out of tales. “I discovered with Shoeless Joe that there were a whole lot of fans who were readers and were dying to read good fiction about baseball. I said, ‘Boy, I can keep writing stories as long as they can keep buying them.’ ”

That discovery was a happy accident for Kinsella, who grew up on a remote farm 100 km west of Edmonton. His father played some organized baseball, an ability not passed on to the son. “There was essentially no place on the field it was safe for me to be,” he admits. But he did love the game, and in the eighth grade he penned a baseball story called “Diamond Doom”—a murder mystery. “The right-fielder did it while no one was looking,” he recalls, “and hid the gun under a piece of turf.” It was not until years later—after working as a clerk, an ad salesman, a cab driver and a pizza-parlor owner, among other jobs; after graduating from the University of Victoria and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop—that he returned to baseball fiction. Shoeless Joe sprang to life as a short story, grew to novel length under the encouragement of a Boston editor, sold well enough that he could end “five horrible years” teaching at the University of Calgary—and supplied Kinsella with his literary z niche. “If it hadn’t been successful,” g he says matter-of-factly, “I’d have I moved on to some other field.”

He is sitting now in the SkyDome stands—third row, just behind third base, his publisher’s seats. A magazine photographer has been snapping his picture. With a sudden smile of recognition, a fan— Arnold Polan, director of a Toronto brokerage house—extends a hand. “If you build it, they will come,” Polan tries, approximating the signature line of Shoeless Joe. Along the aisle, hawkers peddle candy floss and pop— Kinsella buys a Diet Coke—and rock blares over the public-address system. “My first act if they made me commissioner of baseball,” the writer says between sips, “would be to ban all loud music at ball parks.”

The Jays and the New York Yankees are just getting under way. Kinsella is rooting for Toronto—to a point. “All right, Bemie, drive him in,” he yells as Yankee centre-fielder Bemie Williams comes to bat. “This,” he ex-

plains, “is where I suspend cheering for the Jays.” Williams, it seems, is also on Kinsella’s fantasy team, part of a Seattle-based league in which players are selected from assorted clubs and standings are determined by actual game statistics. Across the border in White Rock, B.C., Kinsella and his third wife, Ann Knight, also a writer, have a team called the Memo Lunatics—named, he says, “for a player named Memo Luna who pitched twothirds of an inning for the Cards in ’54.”

“Memo Luna,” says Polan, overhearing. “I remember watching that guy play for the Rochester Red Wings of the International League against the old Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Williams strikes out. “Oh, Bernie,” Kinsella moans.

Like a character in one of his stories, a friend of Kinsella’s from San Diego has been trying to track down Luna in his native Mexico. “He’s a ferry ride across the Baja peninsula somewhere,” says Kinsella. “But I’m not the least bit interested in going. I’ve never been anywhere in Mexico except Puerto Vallarta. And I have no desire to camp out or something. I think Ann may go—she’s more adventurous than I am.”

This is where art and life part ways: obviously, Bill Kinsella is also less adventurous than Ray Kinsella, the narrator of Shoeless Joe. In the novel, Ray drags real-life reclusive writer J. D. Salinger to a game in Boston and badgers him about baseball, pointing out the references to the game in his book Catcher in the Rye. “I am not Holden Caulfield,” Salinger insists of his own main character. “I am an illusionist who created Holden Caulfield from my imagination.” The writer Bill Kinsella says much the same about himself: “My life is not interesting. What you can invent is much better than anything that’s actually happened to you.”

The game is getting interesting—the SkyDome crowd cheers as the Jays score their first run. Kinsella applauds quietly, like many discreet fans around him. “It’s a national trait,” he allows. “But there’s nothing worse than having some moron sitting behind you screaming at the third baseman.” Before the eighth inning—again like the stereotypical Toronto fan—Kinsella gets up to go. He has an excuse: an early flight to Ottawa for more book promotion. He will be on the road a month in all, then head for Palm Springs, Calif., where he spends three or four sunny months a year. Does he enjoy his celebrity? “I sure don’t mind it,” he says. “Some authors get a lot of crazy people. But my fans are gentle. They just want to shake hands and say, ‘Gee, I love your stuff.’

On the cab ride from the Dome, Kinsella hears the radio announcer say that Bernie Williams, his fantasy-league outfielder, is again stepping to the plate. “Go, Bernie,” Kinsella exhorts. But the ride is short, and Kinsella disappears into the hotel without hearing the sad news: Bernie Williams has hit into a double play.

BOB LEVIN