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November 4th, 2009 HENRY STERN | Books
 

The Opposite Field

A father and son connect by way of the summer game.

     
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The market is awash in memoirs and paeans to baseball.

So a reader might ask what Jesse Katz could possibly add by writing The Opposite Field (Crown Publishers, 352 pages, $25), a memoir centering on his role as commissioner of his son Max’s Little League program in Monterey Park, Calif.

The answer? A lot. Like a crafty pitcher, Katz is deft at mixing speeds in his book so that readers are always surprised at what’s coming next.

The Opposite Field blends Katz’s both painful and comic struggles as a single dad to remain connected with his growing son through baseball. And with taut and vivid writing befitting a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Katz delivers trenchant observations about relationships, parenthood and his immersion in Latino culture in his love life, at work as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and at play in Max’s Little League.

Though the book does suffer from too much re-created dialogue long after events happened, Katz’s writing is honest—unflinchingly direct in spots about himself and those closest to him.

The book has two extra payoffs for Portland readers.

Katz is from Portland. And he salts his memoir with recollections of a childhood here when the city “was monochrome and pedestrian, a dreary river town built on lumber mills and container ships” before it became what he calls a “boutique city, indie handcrafted, pedestrian-friendly, the paragon of managed growth.”

He also is the son of former three-term Portland Mayor Vera Katz and local sculptor Mel Katz. His memories on that score are equally penetrating. He unsparingly recounts his mother walking with him on the beach when he was 9 and telling him years before she and his father divorced, “Be anything you want to be, just don’t be an artist.” (One piece of remembered dialogue it’s not hard to imagine sticking with a child.)

And he just as faithfully records telling details from his mother’s groundbreaking political career—he remembers seeing Katz lawn signs defaced early on to read “Kuntz,” for example—to her later fights with cancer.

Even readers who don’t care about baseball can be touched by the successes and failures Katz goes through as at first the accidental, then the growingly assured commissioner of a Little League rife with petty feuds, attractive moms and, yes, some life lessons.

In Katz’s hands, those lessons aren’t clichés. In but one example, he describes the transformation of his son at age 6 as a “guileless kindergartner, with no choice but to trust the decrees of his dad” to one who at age 14 has a “MySpace page and a life I will never again know everything about.”

Perhaps. But readers of The Opposite Field will come away knowing a lot more about Jesse Katz, and be very entertained along the way.


READ: Jesse Katz appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St, 228-4681. 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 9. Free.
 
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