There may be other novels featuring baseball umpires as lead characters, but I haven't read one. It sounds almost like an exercise in a creative writing class: Set the person who is supposed to remain invisible at the center of a story involving love and hate, success and failure, excitement and tragedy. Author Allen Schatz has done that and done it well.
For a good portion of Game 7: Dead Ball, protagonist Marshall Connors knows he's in the middle of a life-or-death situation. He just doesn't know whose or what to do about it.
Chosen to umpire the World Series as a surprise replacement for the crew chief who apparently suffered a heart attack, Connors must call balls and strikes on his boyhood friend Terry O'Hara, the ace of the Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff, and Terry's former USC teammate Nik Sanchez, catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Terry and Nik's relationship was ruined long ago and now is defined only by animus. A third Trojan teammate, AJ Singer, had an affair with Terry's mother, and when her husband discovered it, things got very ugly for all involved.
As the Series bounces between Florida and Pennsylvania, millions of fans watch the games on television unaware of the real drama swirling around Marshall Connors. Notes are surreptitiously delivered to him at home plate; meaningful looks are thrown by league security men, and an old-fashioned baseball "message" is delivered by catcher Sanchez - a fastball allowed to blast Marshall in the facemask.
Between games, though, Marshall manages to work in a little romance and tries to help his friend Thomas Hillsborough, an ex-CIA spook who is sort of a law-enforcement-stud-without-portfolio, figure out what's going on.
You might expect a mystery involving a baseball umpire in the World Series to center on fixing games. Schatz happily has chosen to go in a less obvious direction.
Without giving away the plot, the crimes here include serial murder, kidnapping, extortion, and felony battery. Throw in the inter-generational adultery and some unpaid gambling debts, and you've got lots of reasons for people not to like each other.
Game 7 has a huge cast of characters - FBI agents, Major League Baseball officials, ball players, bad guys, innocent victims, and umpires among them. It is to Schatz's credit as a writer that they're reasonably easy to keep straight.
If you like baseball and thrillers, Game 7: Dead Ball is a must read. Even those who are only so-so on the national pastime but enjoy complicated plots with well-drawn characters will find Game 7 most satisfying.
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