Two years ago, a new name splashed onto the sports fiction scene with the book Match Made in Heaven. The book, which tells the story of a dying man who gets another chance at life by golfing with history’s most influential people, earned Santa Barbara’s first-time novelist Bob Mitchell a surprising level of success. “Your first novel is supposed to be good if you sell 5,000-10,000,” Mitchell explained recently over lunch at Arts & Letters Cafe. “Mine sold at least 50,000.” It also went audio and was translated into six languages.
This year, timed perfectly, as Match had been, for the beginning of summer and Father’s Day, Mitchell is releasing his second novel, a story about baseball, history, family, and life called Once Upon a Fastball. It tells the tale of a middle-aged Harvard history professor/baseball fanatic named Seth Stein who finds an old, scuffed-up hardball that takes him back in time to the sport’s biggest moments. He realizes that this spherical time machine is allowing him to relive the golden-and not so golden-days of his grandfather, who vanished a couple years back without a trace. Will it also eventually lead to finding his Papa Sol?
Fastball‘s 215 pages are a quick, easy read, packed with enough baseball lore and legendary statistics to please the sports lover, but sprinkled with enough heartstring-pulling to keep non-ballplayers interested, too. “It’s not a typical sports story only for the sports guy,” promised Mitchell, who said that when his wife read Fastball, she skipped the baseball parts.
It’s also likely to sell well, if for no other reason than the book jacket features the quoted support of such baseball luminaries as Hall of Famer Tim McCarver (“whimsical and delightful”), former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent (“I liked it immensely”), and iconic sportscaster Chris Berman (“among the most entertaining and touching tales”). And the jacket’s cover quotes newsman and ball fan Larry King as saying, “A wonderful novel that captures the true elements of the game.”
Celebrity support aside, Mitchell, a bespectacled man whose salt-and-pepper beard hides a kind face, is proud of his creation. “I think books should also provoke people’s thinking,” he said, explaining that his novels aren’t just the standard boilerplate genre fiction that flood bookstores. “They should be a way of thinking more deeply about life’s greatest issues.” And in sports, Mitchell has found the perfect arena to contemplate such matters. “Sports are a metaphor,” he explained. “It’s not just about a game. It’s a lesson. It’s about self-discovery.”
Mitchell would know. The “certifiable sports nut since birth,” played soccer, tennis, and squash in college, taught tennis professionally, and has followed the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants since the 1950s. He also knows plenty about self-discovery. An academic who taught French for many years at Harvard, Purdue, and Ohio State and published four books on poetry, Mitchell jumped into advertising for 11 years, consulted with Israeli filmmakers in Tel Aviv, and lived in London, Stockholm, and Paris before deciding to write fiction full-time and move to Santa Barbara in 2001. “I’m here for the duration,” he said.
Three months after moving to Santa Barbara, Mitchell met his wife, artist Susan Love, and has since adopted a rather rigorous 2 a.m.-5 p.m. daily writing schedule, with breaks to walk the dog and rollerblade on the Mesa. It’s a regimen, but Mitchell’s a workhorse writer. “It’s the same as sports,” he said, explaining how he doesn’t worry about hitting his deadlines. “It’s not being cocky, but being confident that you can produce.”
With all this experience, it’s no wonder that he writes with ease about a college professor who loves baseball and has a glass of Balvenie scotch every afternoon, as Mitchell does. “There’s a lot of me in the books,” he admitted. In that vein, his third novel, tentatively titled Everything on the Line, will be about professional tennis players.
For Fastball, Mitchell said he didn’t do much research, as he remembered “virtually everything” of the statistical minutiae and otherwise forgotten ballplayers from yesteryear. The book, he said, took him about six months to write but 50 years of experience to create. And for a man who had his first heart attack at 41, followed by a quadruple bypass, another heart attack, and four more surgeries, Mitchell’s had plenty of time to think about the meaning of life.
His conclusion? It’s not about success or fame. It’s about his work. Said Mitchell, “I write 100 percent for myself.”
Bob Mitchell will read from, sign copies of, and answer questions about Once Upon a Fastball on Thursday, May 15, at 7 p.m., at Borders (900 State St.). See bobmitchellbooks.com for more info.