Book Review: The Man With Two Arms
New book adds to the slim field of baseball fiction
The Man With Two Arms: A Novel
By Billy Lombardo
Overlook Press, 2010
List Price: $24.95
When I received a copy of Billy Lombardo's "The Man with Two Arms," my first thought was "Rookie of the Year." For those fortunate enough to have forgotten it, that was the inane 1993 movie about a 12-year-old Chicago boy who stars for the Cubs after elbow surgery allows him to throw 103 mph. But while Lombardo's hero grows up in the Windy City and likewise signs with the Cubs, the similarities end there. Whew.
The novel opens with Henry Granville reading "The Natural" to his yet unborn son, in the hopes that his love for baseball will be passed along. When Danny, not long past his first birthday, uncorks a beautiful lefthanded throw, after previously throwing righthanded, Henry dreams of bringing the boy up to be ambidextrous. He embarks on a symmetry campaign, teaching Danny how to do everything with both hands, with the ultimate goal of producing a major league caliber switch-pitcher.
A high-school science teacher who has spent much of his life studying animal behavior, Henry pushes his son to excel, much to the chagrin of his wife, who only wants Danny to live a normal childhood. Of course Henry's project comes with the unexpected side effect of turning Danny clairvoyant. (Aren't most ambidextrous people able to see the future?) Once Henry realizes he's messing with things he can't control, he backs off. But Danny is already a superstar, pitching from both sides of the rubber as he leads his high school team to victory after victory.
Drafted by the Cubs, Danny instead heads to college until a last minute change of heart sends him rushing back to Chicago to reunite with his much older girlfriend and ink a pro contact. Despite signing in mid-August, he somehow shoots from low Class A all the way up to Triple-A by the end of the year, going 10-0 to earn a spot in the Arizona Fall League, where he wins another five games. Of course he makes the big leagues the following spring, and the All-Star team in July, tosses a perfect game, etc., etc., before it all comes crashing down when a reporter digs the secret of the symmetry project out of his father.
It's fiction. I'm willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. The kid can throw equally well with both hands, and he's ridiculously good. Fine. But given all the precision regarding Henry's animal behavior studies, it's fair to expect details and realism when we get to the baseball. If we can accept the Cubs signing Danny to a current year contract in late August, the minor league season still ends on Labor Day. There's no time for anyone to shoot through four levels of the farm system.
To top that, Danny goes 8-0 in spring training, including a complete game one-hitter. Apparently the Cubs' staff is so established no one else needs to get any innings in. The 19-year-old rookie, now the ace of the Cubs rotation, is on a tight pitch count, which would be realistic if it weren't self-imposed. Danny won't throw more than 80 pitches in a game, a limit so rigid he pulls himself with one out to go in a perfect game. Maybe this willingness to allow rookie pitchers to dictate when the manager pulls them helps explain Chicago's inability to win a World Series over the past century.
Picayune? Perhaps. But none of these violations of baseball reality are necessary. The story would have worked well within a realistic baseball world. There are 19-year-old rookies. There are first-year all-stars. There have even been switch-pitchers (though not to this extent). I could buy all of those, but only in a child's story do we usually find the pitcher who can never be beaten. This, however, is not a child's story. There are too many gratuitous F-bombs for that. Not to mention too many love-making scenes involving Danny's parents.
So we have an adult, or at least teen, novel, loosely following Bernard Malamud's lead, with a ruthless reporter—who happens to be a former student of Henry's—attempting to make a name for himself as a journalist. Much like Max Mercy in "The Natural," he is bent on breaking the story of a baseball freak. But would this expose really be that shocking? We've survived Gregg Jefferies' father training him to swing bats in a pool and take BP with the lights out. I think the world would forgive Henry Granville for teaching his son to throw with both hands.
I give Lombardo credit for coming up with a somewhat original idea. And even with the reality issues, this isn't "Rookie of the Year." You won't wish you hadn't read it when you're done. There's not a lot of new baseball fiction out there, and those who enjoy baseball novels may want to give it a look. But take some of the cover blurbs ranking it with "The Natural" and "The Celebrant" with a grain of salt.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.