The fantasy is universal and inescapable among lovers of baseball. We grow up imagining ourselves as our heroes, patrolling the green of a major league outfield, tapping the plate with the business end of a bat, even standing languidly by the dugout water cooler. Everyday realities evaporate as we dreamily transport ourselves into the stadium, into the pristine home uniform, into our own dreams. We want, for only a moment—yes, that would be more than enough—to play in the majors.
Which is why the premise of Gary Morgenstein's The Man Who Wanted to Play Center Field for the New York Yankees (Atheneum, $14.95) is so arresting. Danny Neuman, 33, caught in demeaning dead-end work as a hack writer, smothered by a claustrophobic marriage and pained by the unrelenting decay of his body caused by, among other things, excessive smoking, decides he's going to try out for—and make—the New York Yankees.
Well, like the novel itself, he makes it and he doesn't. Never mind that one-third of this book is shtick (some of it pretty funny, in fact) straight from the old radio and TV show The Goldbergs. Never mind that another third is humdrum young man's angst (not in the least bit funny). Never mind that Neuman's newfound conditioning program is directed by a pair of transvestite fairy godmothers nicknamed Sadie and Pistol who live upstairs from him. But at least for 90 pages out of 272, Neuman's fantasy glows with such incandescence that one cannot help but be transported by it. Pushed by his dream, he shows up for an open tryout at Yankee Stadium. A familiar Stadium character, a capricious club owner here called only the Boss, likes the potential public relations value of signing this hapless dreamer. When he is sent to the Class A Greensboro Hornets of the South Atlantic League, Neuman sinks into depression because he realizes he's there as some sort of gimmick. He finally gets called up near the season's end, the Yankees' p.r. apparatus now desperate for something to brighten a dull season.
On the glorious day Neuman reaches the majors, he's almost ready to retch from what seems a bad case of nerves. Actually, his constitution is set reeling by a combination of guilt and lost illusions: He suddenly realizes he is sullying his own fantasy, his life's dream, by sitting on the bench where only heroes—his heroes—belong. Propelled by his desperation to succeed as much as by anything else, Neuman smites a home run in his first at bat—and walks back to the dugout, down the runway, through the clubhouse and out of the park. Though his fantasy is destroyed by its fulfillment, his disorderly life is set straight, and the book is brought to an apt and touching conclusion.