Shilstone's 'Chance': wit, humor, baseball

March 10, 1996|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Chance," by Steve Shilstone. Breakaway Books. 224 pages. $20

Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" contains one of the all time great baseball puns, involving "Chapman's Homer" and a newspaper headline which reads "Chapman's Homer Beats Redsox." This is by way of wondering whether or not Nabokov might have left any unpublished manuscripts behind and if so, did they have baseball themes? If anyone reading this knows the answer, please check the files to see if there's a manuscript for a novel named Chance.

"Chance" is supposedly by a first-time novelist named Steve Shilstone, who may or may not be the narrator (who describes himself as "an old weird guy poet") who is probably the biographer of Chance Caine, the greatest shortstop, perhaps the greatest player, in baseball history. There's also a hint that the narrator may be more than that ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Chance - who hits to all fields, flirts with a .400 average and fields so artfully that a French filmmaker has done an Oscar-winning documentary on him - would seem to be a living embodiment of all baseball myths: part gentleman, like Honus Wagner, and part psychotic, a la Ty Cobb. The difference between Caine and Cobb is that Caine left the Mr. Hyde side of his nature on the basketball court where, he says, "I used basketball ... to express adolescent anger at the lack of total universal perfection." Something of a zen philosopher, he choose baseball "where I played against the ball and not against my fellow man."

Through newspaper clippings, recorded conversations, and passages from Caine's diary, a picture of a man emerges who is both simpleminded and complex, driven yet serene, a man who both hits the ball where it's pitched and still gets it over the fence. The problem is: how much of this picture can we trust? After one diary passage the old weird guy poet tells us, "That's not one of my lies. When I quote from the diary, I won't be lying too often." Is that the way baseball biographies - indeed, all biographies - are written? Is all fact simply fodder for legend? Is the book supposed to be chance, or a creation myth? "I hope they put this on the fiction shelf," the narrator says. "We're talking art here."

What I suspect is that Steve Shilstone has written a novel in the form of a sort-of biography. My reason for believing this is that no player named "Chance Caine" is listed in the baseball record book; also, some of the names listed in a World Series box score sound made up. ("Escuela SS" - wasn't Chico Escuela the guy on "Saturday Night Live" who always said "Base-bol been vely vely good to me"? And aren't " Wapshot" and "Cheever" sportswriters or something?)

If "Chance" is a novel, though, it's a very good one, full of wit, good humor and baseball. And if you don't care about the latter, take the advice the book offers in its first paragraph and "Read it anyway. There's some other stuff in it, too."

Allen Barra writes a regular sports column for the Wall Street Journal and he reviews book for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He is a columnist for the New York Observer and a contributing wirter at Entertainment Weekly. Currently he is writing a biography of Wyatt Earp.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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