Mike Lupica, the veteran sports columnist for the Daily News in New York, is not content to rest on his laurels. In addition to his adult audience, he's reaching out to younger readers, trying to teach them lessons on the field that can be extended to everyday life. His previous works in the genre include HEAT, TRAVEL TEAM, SUMMER BALL and MIRACLE ON 49th STREET.
His latest offering is THE BIG FIELD, the story of Hutch Hutchinson, a star shortstop for his American Legion team who is displaced by Darryl "D-Will" Williams, a better player with a questionable attitude.
Despite the natural misgivings, Hutch is willing to take one for the team, giving way to Darryl and moving over to second base. The parallel to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez is unmistakable. So is the tense relationship as the two 14-year-olds vie for dominance. Darryl has his mind set on being the "next big thing," already attracting the notice of scouts and the media. Hutch, on the other hand, is content to live in the here-and-now, with the sole goal of playing for the regional championship at the minor league venue of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Hutch is joined in his quest by Codey, his best friend and affable sidekick. It's not too far a stretch to think of the trio as a less dangerous version of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy, with bats replacing magic wands.
As the team moves through the rounds of competition to put them in the big game on The Big Field, Hutch must deal with several issues: his continuing resentment of his rival, his perhaps over-consuming love of baseball, and his relationship with his father, himself a heralded player who still has trouble dealing with his failure to make it to the major leagues.
Lupica does an admirable job of presenting the drama of the games, which, with the attention to strategy, often feels more like a chess match. But several elements fall into the area of cliché: Hutch's team is obviously talented, but they're considered underdogs since they are in the low age range, 14- and 15-year-olds competing against players up to three years their seniors (the player pictured on the dust jacket seems more like 10 than 14). And although Hutch does have a couple of momentary setbacks, he nevertheless comes through when it counts, a baseball savant --- wise beyond what should be his ken --- who seems to have no other interest than to excel at his game.
The fact that everything works out to the good despite the blips is also somewhat unrealistic, but hey, this is fiction.
Overall, THE BIG FIELD is a genial, fast-paced adventure that should interest young sports fans.
--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan