Book Review: Home, Away
Gillenkirk's book is one of best baseball novels in years
Home, Away, A Novel
By Jeff Gillenkirk
Chin Music Press, 2010
List Price: $15.00
Jeff Gillenkirk didn't originally set out to write the best baseball novel to hit bookshelves in several years. The project as he first envisioned it didn't involve baseball at all. Nor was it a novel. The divorced father had pitched a nonfiction proposal for a book on fatherhood, portraying single men who were fighting to remain a part of their children's lives. Publishers weren't enthused, however, saying "men won't buy books about relationships."
The California-based freelance writer never completely gave up on the concept, believing the message would resonate if he could find the right way to deliver it. The light bulb went on at a Giants game.
"I had an inspiration one day in Pac Bell Park when I was going through my divorce," Gillenkirk says. "I got the picture of Jason looking into the crowd thinking 'where's my kid?'"
Jason Thibodeaux, the man at the center of Gillenkirk's debut novel "Home, Away," is a major league pitcher who is separated from his son Rafe for nearly six years. From the field he watches strangers sharing special times with their kids while his is a thousand miles away, shielded by a restraining order courtesy of his vindictive ex-wife Vicki and his own impulsiveness. When a teenage Rafe becomes too much for his mother to handle, he is thrust back into Jason's life, forcing the star pitcher to choose between his career and his son.
Less than a year removed from pitching in the World Series, Jason shocks the sports world by walking away from his $42 million contract. Still hurting from the poor relationship he had with his own father, whose job in the oil fields kept him away for most of Jason's childhood, he accepts the challenge of molding his son into a man.
Baseball, the thing that had driven the two apart for so long, becomes a bonding agent, as Jason helps Rafe learn the game. On a dusty ball field far from the spotlight the old southpaw finally realizes the sacrifice he made was as much for himself as for his son.
"Home, Away" works on all levels, whether viewed as a family story about baseball or a baseball story about family. Gillenkirk's original research on divorce and fatherhood pays off here with believable characters damaging and mending relationships. The hatred and anger spewed between Jason and his ex-wife is real, and often heart breaking. As is the hurt felt by Rafe, who was only given a slanted explanation of why his father walked out on him when he was eight.
Equally important, the baseball is credible. Gillenkirk was as thorough here as he was in studying relationships. He spent time at Stanford's Sunken Diamond, where he interviewed players and coaches to bring Jason's college experience to life. He hung out with the Sonoma County Crushers, the model for the fictional team with which Jason begins his comeback. He spent a week with a high school JV club to get a feel for how Rafe would fit in.
But for his best work he reached back a couple of decades to an assignment in Mexico, where he traveled with the Veracruz Aguilas to chronicle the efforts of American pitcher George Brunet, attempting to make it back to the majors to reach the minimum service time to earn his baseball pension. Like Brunet, Jason Thibodeaux pitches for Veracruz while trying to attract the attention of a major league club at the end of his career. Earlier he spends a significant amount of time south of the border during the offseason, living with the family of teammate Willie Herrera, the former cab driver who picked up Jason when he first came to Mexico bent on drinking himself silly.
Alcoholism is another trait Jason shares with his father. Unlike his dad, he overcomes his addiction, though he is seduced occasionally by the bottle. Rafe battles his own vices, experimenting for a time with any drug he can get his hands on. Gillenkirk was wary of making either of their struggles a central theme in the book, however, for fear the story would drift too far from the family arc.
The June 1 release is timed to coincide not with the start of baseball season, but with Father's Day. Gillenkirk has penned numerous articles for Parenting magazine, presenting positive images of fathers trying to do the right things for their children in a world where we hear so much about those who don't.
Like his fictional Jason, Gillenkirk received a crash course in parenting while his wife pursued her education.
"Time constraints required me to take on a lot of child rearing, learning how to take care of an infant," he says. "The bond that grew from that is overwhelming."
Unlike Jason, whose reward for redshirting a season at Stanford to take care of Rafe was losing him soon after in a custody dispute, Gillenkirk had a much more amicable divorce that resulted in a co-parenting relationship. He and his ex-wife were not the models for Jason and Vicki.
While we have yet to see a major league player walk away from a big contract to take on the challenge of full-time fatherhood, there have been special circumstances arranged on occasion. After hitting 32 home runs and collecting 105 RBIs for the Indians in 1997, Matt Williams requested a trade to the expansion Diamondbacks so he could be close to his children in Arizona. He spent the remaining five and a half years of his career there, vetoing a deal to the Rockies in 2002.
"Being there for my kids is everything in my life," Williams said when he nixed the trade. "This responsibility outweighs anything in my baseball career. I must and will be with my kids. I'm a dad first and a baseball player second, and I can only hope that the public can empathize with my decision. Baseball is what I do, not who I am."
Jason Thibodeaux couldn't have said it any better himself.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.