Stealing Home, Philip O'Connor's amiable and entirely engaging first novel (Knopf, $8.95), has to do with a young father named Benjamin Dunne who becomes coach of a Pee Wee League baseball team in hopes of repairing relations with his surly, uncommunicative 12-year-old son, Bobo. Against rather overwhelming odds—as the season opens, his band of ragamuffins make the Bad News Bears look like the New York Yankees—he leads them to the city championship; what matters more is that he unwittingly leads himself to a new understanding of who he is and what he owes to himself, not to mention to others.
When Dunne tells Bobo that he will be taking over as coach of the Gray's Cleaners team, he gets an icy reception: "...I don't want you to be the coach, because I have to be two people, the player and the son, and I don't like that. I wouldn't like it even if you were a good coach. Which I doubt you are 'cause you're so—you're so av-erage. It's like everything about you. You're not big or little, smart or dumb, thin or fat, crazy or not crazy. You're just—av-erage."
The other players seem to share that view, for Dunne is greeted with sullen hostility. But in his av-erage way he is a stubborn fellow, and slowly he molds his hilarious collection of oddballs, misfits and malcontents into a surprisingly tight team. After they win a few games that they thoroughly expected to lose, the Gray's Cleaners kids gain confidence and unity. They learn that winning is fun, and they learn how to do it.
The team's story unfolds along with Dunne's own, its crises and triumphs reflecting his own. His wife, Marilyn, goes off on a strange tear, trying to find a purpose to her life; he in turn has an affair with the mother of one of his players. But in his very av-erage way Dunne is a good and decent man, and in the end the urge to stay with his family is stronger than the urge to leave it, at least for the present. The double implications of the title need no elaboration.
Stealing Home is a modest novel—breezy and colloquial, good-humored and unpretentious—but it is also unexpectedly moving. That's because O'Connor has created a cast of wholly believable characters, from the kids on the team to the various villains who attempt to make their lives difficult. The novel is very funny—any book that makes me laugh out loud automatically gets three stars—and it leaves you feeling very good.