What I’m Reading: Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series

Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series is one of the books my son is reading for his Battle of the Books team at school. (I recently read Re-Start, another of the books he’s reading for BoB.) I can see why Virginia picked this one for the Battle of the Books tournament–it’s about the Washington Nationals, and specifically it’s something of an alternate history where the Washington Nationals made it to the World Series in 2009.

The book is about Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson, two 14-year-olds who work as sports reporters for Washington newspapers. They seem to have made a reputation for themselves as able to ferret out big stories in unexpected places, as they previously uncovered mysteries at the Final Four, the U.S. Open, and the Superbowl. (Apparently Change-Up is the fourth in a series.) In this book, they land an interview with Norbert Doyle, a 30-something journeyman pitcher who learns during the interview that, due to a series of injuries to other pitchers, he’ll be pitching the opening game of the World Series for the Washington Nationals that night. Of course, Stevie and Susan Carol were lucky enough to be present so they’re able to break this news in the national media.

Doyle lost his wife years before to a drunk driver and has raised his two kids by himself while bouncing around from city to city in the minor leagues. For him, his chance to pitch the big game is a dream come true–and after he wins the game that night, publishers and movie studios want the rights to his inspiring story. The problem is, when Stevie starts digging into Doyle’s background, his version of the drunk driving incident doesn’t seem to hold up. Meanwhile, Susan Carol meets with Doyle’s son, an athletic 14-year old boy who appears to have a romantic interest in her–or is he trying to get between her and her co-reporter/boyfriend, Stevie, so they don’t dig up any more on his dad?

This book was a lot fun, moved fast, and kept up a steady beat of snappy dialogue. It was also fun to read about all the players and coaches from a decade ago whose names I remember from attending games, reading newspaper articles, and listening to games on the radio. Only one player from that era remains–Ryan Zimmerman, then-third baseman, now first baseman, but still a pretty good player. (While there are many real people who pop up as characters in this book, all the main characters are fictional.)

Still, there were two things I found hard to accept. One, this maybe more of a quibble, but it’s the idea of the 2009 Nationals making it to the World Series. Fun to think about–but it was never going to happen! The team that year simply wasn’t good enough. They had Zimmerman and slugger Adam Dunn and… well, that was pretty much it. As much as I enjoyed reading about shortstop Christian Guzman or center fielder Austin Kearns or catcher Wil Nieves, those guys were decent but not great players and that’s being generous. In fact, the Nationals won only 59 games that season–this is not a team that was only a hot streak away from the postseason. I believe that was the year I attended seven or eight games at Nationals Park and the team won none of them. (Maybe I was the problem?)

The other thing is that Stevie and Susan Carol do not act like fourteen-year-olds. My son is thirteen, and from observing him and his friends, as well as my own memories, Stevie and Susan Carol are not believable for that age. They are simply too mature in their romantic relationship with each other, their ability to write copy to deadline, their ability to keep their cool in stressful situations. I might have accepted them as sixteen-year-olds. But fourteen just doesn’t work, and having them referred to as that age repeatedly broke my suspension of disbelief.

More because of the latter flaw than the former, I find I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book. Nevertheless, Change-Up would likely really appeal to a middle schooler interested in sports, and it has enough of an eye for detail and ear for dialogue that it would be a fun and quick read for a baseball-loving adult as well.

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