Street Talk

Joseph Schuster

Joseph M. Schuster is the author of the novel The Might Have Been. His short fiction has appeared in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review,  and New Virginia Review, among other literary journals. He lives outside St. Louis, Missouri, and is a member of the faculty of Webster University.

"The Temptation of Regret": An interview with novelist Joe Schuster


BAB: It’s clear from the writing in your new novel, The Might Have Been, that you’re a great fan of baseball.  Have you had any other, more direct, connection to the game?

JMS: I never played the game in any organized fashion after little league ball (when I was, frankly, not very good) but I have written a lot about it, for local newspapers and magazines in St. Louis, as well as for the old, now sadly departed Sport magazine, for which I freelanced for a time before it closed in 2000. I’ve also written a lot of articles for the St. Louis Cardinals’ official magazine, as well as a number of biographical essays for the ambitious biography project that the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) is working on. And I produced a small book, One Season in the Sun, for Gemma Open Door’s project to promote adult literacy among “reluctant readers,” about players who had careers in the major leagues of only a few weeks.

Most of my particular (and you could say peculiar) interest in writing about baseball has focused on those marginal players, like the main character in The Might Have Been who spends a decade in the minor leagues before getting called up to the majors, where he has one plate appearance before he gets injured, ending his shot at a major league career. I’ve researched, interviewed or written about more than three-dozen players like that. I find it compelling and a little sad, that someone would be good enough to get to the major leagues (and you have to be a superlative ballplayer just to get there for even a day) and then not be able to stick. I could go on at length about that here but won’t except to say that I think stories like that are far more interesting than nearly any story about someone who becomes a superstar or ends up in the Hall of Fame.

BAB: So often ballplayers in the novel, including the protagonist Edward Everett Yates, see professional baseball not only as a dream to aspire to, but also as protection against the World with a capital W.

JMS: I think one of the primary reasons many people aspire to dreams, especially dreams that may be beyond them, is because they want to avoid being “ordinary.” One of the things that always captures my attention are those early episodes of each season of shows like “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” particularly those aerial shots we see on-screen of thousands of people lined up outside convention centers or theaters, waiting to see if they will even get thirty second to perform in front of the judges and maybe end up on television. Most of those thousands really believe they have the ability to become a star – how many times do we see someone sing off key and have a judge tell them they are horrible and then the person breaks into tears or rage? Those performers do not see themselves as convenience store clerks or elementary school teachers or cell phone sales associates; they see themselves as having the potential for greatness, they expect someone will elevate them out of the ordinary.

Part of the pull, of course, is they want to be lifted out of the World, where everyone else lives.

You see this in baseball all of the time. I’ve come across a lot of players who had a brief taste of the major leagues and then hung on in the minors for years after, thinking they’d get back to the major leagues, but they never do.

Even beyond those players, how many great players hang on when it’s clear they are far past their prime, when they are playing nowhere near the level they once did? Babe Ruth played a horrible last season for the Boston Braves after the Yankees didn’t want him any more when he turned forty. The great Willie Mays played two years that many fans wish he hadn’t when he was in his forties, because Mays didn’t want to acknowledge that he wasn’t Willie Mays any more. Some years ago, I interviewed another player who is in the Hall of Fame. I won’t say who he is since he was a great player and a genuinely nice person and I don’t’ want to embarrass him, but he was in his forties and he was declining as a player and angry that his manager preferred to start a younger man over him. He said that he wanted to be the person who decided when he couldn’t play any more – but it’s the rare player who is willing to recognize that truth on their own. For every Sandy Koufax, who walked away from baseball when he was still in his prime, there are far more players like Ruth or Mays or the player I interviewed who don’t want to admit that they are not the special player they once were, who don’t want to admit that they have slipped back into the realm of being an ordinary, mortal human being.

BAB: American literature has a great legacy of baseball novels.  Were you a student of these books before writing The Might Have Been?

JMS: I’ve read a lot of baseball novels; I love Malamud’s The Natural and the first two of Mark Harris’s baseball quartet about Henry Wiggen, The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, as well as David James Duncan’s The Brothers K, Darryl Brock’s baseball/time-travel novel, If I Never Get Back, W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, and a couple of, sadly, pretty much forgotten novels, Donald Hays’s The Dixie Association and Almost Famous by David Small (which has no relation to the Cameron Crowe move of the same name) and a lot of others that I am just not thinking of right now.

When I was writing The Might Have Been, I was mostly aware of a lot of narratives not on my list, the narratives that center on what is probably the most conventional baseball story: a team of ragged but lovable losers finds an improbable way to win a championship. I did not, absolutely did not, want to write that kind of story. Partly this is because it’s been done to death and, really, do we need another narrative like that?

Beyond that, if you think about it, baseball is more often about failure than it is success. We’re in the middle of the postseason right now and the World Series starts in a few days, meaning that there will only be two teams left alive in the playoffs, two teams out of thirty; within the next couple of weeks, only one of those teams will win the Series, meaning that 29 teams did not win the Series. Twenty-nine teams failed; one succeeded.

One of the biggest clichés about baseball is that it’s such a hard sport to play that even the best hitters in the game fail seven out of ten times, since a batting average of .300 will put you among the top handful of hitters in the league. Beyond that, there are, what, 300 players enshrined in Cooperstown? Since what people call the “modern era” of baseball started, 1900, there have been around 18,000 major leaguers in all – which means that around 98 percent of ballplayers are not in the Hall of Fame. Even more, out of those 18,000 players, 4,000 had careers that lasted only a season or less – so, for anyone who gets to the major leagues, the chances that they will only be there for a few weeks or months are 1200 percent greater than they will end up in the Hall of Fame.

That’s an aspect of the sport that doesn’t get explored in a large amount (most?) of baseball fiction, that the game is more about failure than success, and that’s what I was interested in for my novel. The epigraph of my novel is something I once read in a column that long-time pitcher Todd Jones wrote about baseball for the now departed The Sporting News: “The truth is, we are reminded each day of what we can’t do.” Now, Todd Jones lasted sixteen years in the major leagues; only sixteen pitchers in history appeared in more games than he did, and he was an All Star, and so if any one anyone might know what “the truth is” about baseball, it’s someone like that.

And so, while I admire the books on my list, and a lot of others, more than writing a book like the ones I admired, I most wanted to not write a novel that fell into the cliché that so many, shall we say, less-than-good baseball narratives fall into.

BAB: There’s a tremendous tension between ballplayers in the novel considering themselves lucky to be part of the game and at the same time hating the turn that modern baseball has taken—driven by statistics and mathematical projections of performance.

JMS: So-called SABRmetrics, which is what people call the use of advanced statistics to analyze performance and to make projections about players’ values (after SABR), is a fact of life in baseball now. You have some major league teams in which people who have never played professional baseball are in positions of authority over the game and whose background is mathematical rather than athletic. The general manager of the Houston Astros is such a person, Jeff Luhnow, and the Boston Red Sox have retained the services of probably the godfather of this super-analytic approach to baseball, Bill James, as a consultant. While the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, did play major league baseball, he is probably the most visible face of this sort of approach to the game, largely because of the book and movie Moneyball.

This does create an interesting tension in the game, I think, between so-called traditionalists and the new “seam heads,” as some people call them. I once interviewed Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog and asked him about a notion that Bill James had that differed with an approach that Herzog took to running a game and Herzog said to me, clearly sarcastically, “How many games has Bill James won?” James, of course, later had a hand in the rebuilding of the Boston Red Sox in such a fashion that allowed them to break their 80-something year drought of winning the World Series (sadly against my St. Louis Cardinals in 2004). But Herzog’s comment captures that tension that’s still there. (It’s interesting that Herzog would dismiss James so readily, since Herzog was brilliant at understanding how to use statistics to help him win championships.)

For my book, this tension allowed me to dramatize the way that my character was on a kind of border, that he was a relic of one kind of baseball in an era where we’re seeing more and more of this new kind of baseball. I’m always fascinated with characters or historic figures who live in a time of fundamental change, when one world is ending and another is beginning, and this is one obvious way I could explore that with Edward Everett.

BAB: Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s protagonist in Sportswriter, suggests near the beginning of that book that one of the keys to life is learning how to “live down regret.”  It seems to me the very title of your novel, The Might Have Been, indicates an important relationship to the notion of regret, especially for Edward Everett.

JMS: Yes. Exactly. This is not something I thought a lot about consciously when I was writing the book – when I am writing, I am more interested in characters as a manifestations of flesh-and-blood human beings and the kinds of lives they are leading; I’m more interested in exploring what can challenge them in a fundamental way. But after I was finished, I saw that I had written a book about dreams and the temptation of regret—something I’ve talked about a little in our conversation already—dreams and what happens when we find out that we aren’t going to have them. If there is one central question that I think my book asks (and I stress this question only occurred to me after I finished writing it) is, “What happens to us when we find out that the dream we thought we were going to have is not going to come true? What happens to us when we find out that we are not going to have the life we were certain we would? Who are we then and what do we do with that knowledge; how do we go on?”