The Might Have Been: A Novel
By Joseph M. Schuster
Ballantine Books, 2012
List Price: $25.00
In one of the most quoted lines in Jim Bouton’s classic “Ball Four,” he muses “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” This is what makes it so difficult for men to walk away from the game, why men, whose own playing days are well behind them, are willing to ride buses across the heartland, hopping from small town to small town, missing their families, eating fast food at irregular hours, sleeping on lumpy mattresses in a different motel every third day.
The game is a drug many old ballplayers are too weak to resist, its allure perhaps strongest to those whose career didn’t follow the course they had mapped out as kids. Edward Everett Yates never envisioned it would take him ten years to reach the St. Louis Cardinals. His long-imagined debut hadn’t included being ordered to bunt in his first—and only official—plate appearance. He may have dreamed of hitting for the cycle, but nowhere in that vision was the game washed out of the record books as he hung by his cleats from the outfield fence in Montreal, rain pelting his face as pain pulsed in waves from his shredded knee up through his body until he finally blacked out.
To tab Yates, or Edward Everett as he’s called throughout, the hero of Joseph Schuster’s “The Might Have Been” is to upsell his lot in the baseball landscape. There’s little heroic about him, next to no glamour in his life once he returns to the bush leagues, never again to sniff major league air. As a young man his self-absorption sows the seeds of the loneliness that will plague him well into middle age.
His only constants are baseball and regret, and in many regards the former fuels the latter. Had Edward Everett been willing to allow it, the catastrophic knee injury might have been his ticket to a happy life. Released by the Cardinals, he soon settles into a world of semi-prosperity, working as a flour salesman with his uncle and sliding an engagement ring over the finger of a former high-school classmate.
His baseball stories help break the ice on his sales rounds, giving him enough of an edge that he can easily foresee the day when he takes over the territory that made his uncle wealthy. If he embellishes them from time to time, well, what does that hurt? If folks wanted to believe he knew Gibson and Musial, let them. But something inside won’t allow Edward Everett to be satisfied trading in old baseball tales when he could be making new ones. Without telling his fiancée, he slips away to a tryout camp and winds up back on the minor league circuit, hopping from town to town, organization to organization, until the final release pushes him across the locker room into the coaching ranks.
Nearly three decades later, his second marriage collapsing as he manages out the string in a dumpy Class A town, Edward Everett finds himself drawn to the records from his past. The 1977 “Street & Smith’s Baseball Yearbook” containing proof that he made it in the form of a 0-for-0 batting line. The note cards he maintained of all his former players, most of whom were well out of baseball by now. And the photos of the son he has never met, sent to him with no return address at random intervals early in the boy’s life by the woman Edward Everett twice jilted.
What might have been for Edward Everett had he not leapt for that home-run ball in Montreal? His life, in his reflections, is a series of what-ifs, not all of which date back to that fateful game. When he, as manager, is burdened with informing his players that the organization no longer desires their services, he wants to tell them to find something else to do with their lives. Sell flour. Sell straw. Move on. “Be grateful for the life you have rather than regret over the one you don’t.”
Given that nine out of ten minor leaguers will fail to ever set cleat to a major league diamond, Edward Everett is surrounded every day by young men whose own lives are just as subject to the what-if game as his: the petulant-but-gifted shortstop whose head-strong nature jeopardizes his career; the young pitcher whose stuff goes from unhittable to BP when his focus wavers; the willing, but unable, outfielder clinging to the game more desperately than life itself. What have they traded to be here? What will they trade? What might they have been, had they taken another fork in their road?
Through Edward Everett, Schuster illuminates a side of the game utterly devoid of glamour and often even hope. For every young man who dreams of making a living under the lights, or every middle age office worker imagining how things might have turned out differently had he only been able to hit the curve ball, here’s a reminder that the game doesn’t always romance those who sacrifice their life and heart to it.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. His novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, is now available. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.