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Playing with the Enemy

Playing with the Enemy

January 17, 2007

Not quite a book review.

I just finished reading Playing with the Enemy, which seems to have created a mini-sensation, at least judging by the number of superlative reviews it has received at Amazon.  Playing with the Enemy is an emotional and remarkable story about a young baseball player who was evidently quite talented but lost his chance to play in the majors after serving in World War Two.  It’s a tale of heroics, lost ways, self-sacrifice and redemption.  In other words, it’s tailor-made for a sap like me.

Before continuing, I should tell you that Field of Dreams brought tears to my eyes.  Heck, so did the book Shoeless Joe.  So does It’s a Wonderful Life.  Still.  So I’m a sucker for stories like this.  And Playing with the Enemy desperately wants you to know that it’s a story like this.

Check out the subtitle: A Baseball Prodigy (like prodigal son?  sob…), a World at War (bluebirds over white cliffs of Dover?  choke…), and a Field of Broken Dreams (Sob!!).  Plus, a ribbon on the front declares that Playing with the Enemy will soon be a major motion picture!  Has Kevin Costner signed up yet?

There is a plethora of recommendations in the front (“a passion play…”) as well as acknowledgements (in which the author expresses his undying gratitude and love to anyone he’s ever known), a foreword (by baseball “legend” Jim Morris) and an introduction (by someone I haven’t heard of).  Yes, the publisher wants you to know just what it is you’ve opened, even if you would prefer to find out for yourself.  This is the sort of publicity usually reserved for bestsellers, not newly published books.

As you can probably tell, I’m not only a sap, I’m a cynic, too.  So I began the book expecting to be disappointed.  I must say, though, that the story is terrific.  It starts with a son finding out that his father has a hidden secret, and there’s a dark reason his Dad never attended any of his baseball games.  It has to do with the Dad’s lost opportunity and the bitterness he still carries inside him.  I don’t want to give away much of the plot, but I will say it concerns the war erupting at the wrong time, guarding Germans in a prison camp, playing ball with them, getting a chance to play in the minor leagues, a terrible career-ending injury and a second chance in which the hero rubs shoulders with future major leaguers.

I don’t think I’ve given too much away, because the manner in which these events unfold is the point of the book.  The author/son admits upfront that he’s not a writer, and it shows.  His doesn’t really have an ear for dialog, his descriptions are mostly flat (though he manages a few good ones) and he likes to hammer home points (how many times can one man be told he would have been a major league star?).  But his pacing is good, and the story carries you along.  And, yes, I did tear up at a point or two.

In the end, however, you’re left with a question: is the story true?  If so, how true is it?  The writer is coy on the subject; he created composites for most of his characters and he freely admits that the story is based on only his remembrance of his father’s story (two decades ago) as well as conversations with other acquaintances.  Nowhere, however, does he explain how much of the story is true or isn’t, or what he found in his research.  In fact, it doesn’t appear that he did much research at all.

Near the end of the book, he drops a heavy hint that his Dad played in the war and in the minors with Roy Face.  But he couldn’t have: Face never served in the war nor did he play in the minors when his Dad did.  In fact, there is no record of a Gene Moore having played minor league ball in Greenville, Mississippi in the Cotton States League in 1949.  The only facts the author presents that can be verified appear to be false.

This is a real shame.  The power of this story lies in its truth; if made up, it’s just an overwrought story.  The details should have been researched more thoroughly (with so many baseball resources available today, there’s no excuse not to) and the author should have been more upfront regarding which portions of the story were verified as legitimate and which were embellished.

So if you read Playing with the Enemy, enjoy the ride and take a hankie, but take it with a grain of salt.

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