Cal, Cowherd team up for young adult novel 'Hothead'

First in a proposed series shows a deft touch for the conflicts faced by a young baseball player

  • Cal Ripken Jr., greeting fans at the new youth baseball field at the former Memorial Stadium Site, has authored a young-adult novel called "Hothead" with Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd.
Cal Ripken Jr., greeting fans at the new youth baseball field… (Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore…)
February 25, 2011|By Diane Scharper, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Twelve -year-old Connor Sullivan has anger-management problems. How he grapples with his temper drives the plot of "Hothead," an entertaining first young-adult novel by legendary Orioles infielder and Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd.

With its conflict-driven plot, the story is a page-turner. Add concrete details and strong verbs (Cowherd's signature touch), and the story will engage even kids who might have more interest in baseball than in reading. I had a few minor quibbles, mainly with the preadolescent banter that, while funny, seems a bit too witty for middle-schoolers. But overall, this novel — the first in a proposed series — works well.

The plot concerns one baseball season in a small Maryland town when Connor is out of sorts. Although this is a universal condition for a seventh-grader, Connor has more than an average case of preadolescent moodiness. Normally an easygoing and focused kid, Connor can't control his temper or concentrate on anything, not even the game he loves.

A star player for his Babe Ruth League team, the Orioles (natch), Connor usually hits home runs and throws the ball with perfect aim. Now Connor strikes out, misses an easy catch and throws erratically. When he messes up, he throws his bat, kicks his helmet and generally flies into a rage. His coach wonders what's wrong.

Connor's dad has lost his job at an auto dealership because of an economic slowdown — a situation that adds to the novel's authentic feel. Connor's mom, who was primarily a homemaker, is now forced to spend long hours at her job as a nurse for the local hospital. Neither parent has time to spend with Connor and his older sister, Brianna. Plus, family funds are drying up and there's danger that the mortgage will be foreclosed. Although Connor doesn't quite understand the term "foreclosure," he hears the worry in his parents' voices and assumes the worst.

Everyone is stressed. Connor is doubly stressed. He faces the most important baseball season of his youthful career as the Orioles encounter their chief rivals, the Red Sox, whose star pitcher, Billy Burrell, despises Connor. Burrell taunts Connor, slashes his bike tires, insults him and generally tries to make him miserable. Burrell, though, never seems to get caught.

With his father hunting for jobs and his mom logging long hours at the hospital, Connor is on his own. Loyal to his family and embarrassed by their financial situation, he refuses to confide in anyone else, including Coach, who, sensing the boy's emotional turmoil, reaches out to him.

Connor's attitude toward his parents is refreshing. "Hothead" is anything but a "blame-mom-and-pop story." Connor knows that he's responsible for his errors and his outbursts of anger. Even when his coach upbraids him for his loss of control, Connor doesn't lash out against him. Instead, he apologizes and tries to do better — until the next time.

It might be somewhat hard to believe that a boy in middle school could at one moment act so immaturely and at the next seem so grown up and responsible. Yet this is the nature of the seventh-grader, and the authors capture it well.

As in real life, Connor's difficulties tend to multiply exponentially. Stress causes him to make mistakes, and these lead to eruptions of temper that result in his temporary suspension from the team. Soon it looks as though he's going to be dropped — permanently. If this happens, not only will the Orioles lose the pennant, since Connor even at his worst is their star player. But Connor will also lose his opportunity to participate in a sport that means almost everything to him.

Making matters worse, there's a girl. Mellissa Morrow is a reporter for the school newspaper and seems out to get the scoop on Connor even if it means destroying his reputation. She even films one of his outbursts and threatens to put it on the school paper's website along with a story about young athletes under pressure. But as the story develops, she is won over by Connor's plight and plays a surprising role in helping him.

It doesn't hurt that Connor is, as she describes him, "cute." Connor, though, sees her as not his girlfriend — just a girl who happens to be a friend. The authors handle these tender preadolescent feelings with finesse. Mellissa's change of heart — although not quite believable — works for the age group. It also adds a bit of welcome relief to a tightly written, tense novel about growing up (or starting to) and gaining some hard-won perspective.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her latest book is "Reading Lips."

"Hothead," a novel for ages 8-12, by Cal Ripken Jr. with Kevin Cowherd, Disney Hyperion Books, 135 pages, $16.99.

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