With novels such as "Hang Tough, Paul Mather," "Stranger on the Ball Club," and "Tony and Me," his unique ability to evoke real empathy for his characters influenced countless adolescent readers. His documentary film, "Through the Fire," earned multiple Best Documentary awards at major film festivals during Hock created and directs the ESPN TV series "Streetball," which began its seventh season in , making it the longest running sports documentary series. Hock also directed and produced a documentary called "The Lost Son of Havana," about the lives of the legendary major league pitcher Luis Tiant and his father, himself a great pitcher who played for two decades in the Negro Leagues.
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PLUS: The first two chapters of the book. Once upon a time, I loved Alfred Slote so much that every bookstore trip unfolded the same way. There was no way to know when the next Slote book was coming. You just had to hope. During my peak Slote years — second grade through fifth grade, basically — I only knew that Slote lived in Michigan, which doubled as the locale for his sports books.
I never knew why Slote stopped writing for two years in , after I had already devoured everything, then made his triumphant return in with … a tennis book? In my mind, Slote was filet mignon and Christopher was ground beef.
Screw that guy. I hated that every bookstore favored him over Slote, and as the years passed, it only got worse. I looked everywhere and came up empty. But his finest two books transcended the medium. They really did. I read everything as a kid — you name it, I read it. Mather was a Little League star battling leukemia and hoping to stay healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs. He was the most couragerous kid I knew. Matt Christopher never could have written that one.
The boy was named Jake Wrather, a brash Little League catcher who lived with his semi-negligent uncle Lenny, an aspiring musician who frequently left Jake to fend for himself. I loved Jake so much that, when I was in the fifth grade, I tried to adapt it into a play and wrote nearly a dozen scenes before giving up.
What possessed a year-old child to write a school play about a fictional Little League baseball player? Why did I quit before I finished? Maybe I wanted to see Jake come to life. Maybe I wanted to be friends with him. When you grow up, you start to struggle with separating actual childhood memories from memories of those memories. My handwriting. The memory was real. Somehow, Jake has remained out of print for 31 years. So we know each other fairly well.
Maybe it took 35 years, but I finally met someone else who loved Slote and resented Matt Christopher, too. That was the last I thought about it. And as it turned out, I totally underestimated Hock. Over the summer, he chased down an year-old retired author in Ann Arbor, brought a camera crew and hoped something good would happen.
A few weeks later, a rough cut of his next short film landed in my e-mail box without warning. I clicked on the link. There he was … the great Alfred Slote. Talking about Jake. Talking about writing. Talking about life. But watching one of my favorite writers bring his favorite book back to life while figuring out if his career ultimately meant anything — when it did, it did, it did — was practically an out-of-body experience.
Maybe someday, Jake will be back in print and the world will make sense again. I never knew my father who gave me my last name, and my mother left two years ago to visit down south and never came back.
I like being on my own. Nobody tells me when to go to bed, what to eat. I do what I want to do. I take what I want. I got an Al Kaline glove and nobody gave me that, or my bat either.
I convinced him that I needed it more than he did. I found my glove in a department store when no one was looking. Does this sound like bragging? Just a ball player, and a ball player needs his tools: a bat and a glove.
One good one: John Fulton, the catcher on our team. I eat at his house a lot. Would you like to stay for supper? And Mrs. Fulton is a darn good cook. Fulton, up until a little while ago, was the coach of our Little League team.
We taught her how to do that. But she came to all the games and she was the only parent that did. And when we lost our coach and they threatened to disband the team unless we got an adult coach, there was only one move to make: ask Mrs. Fulton to coach. Not a father on the club had time to coach us, and my Uncle Lenny who could coach us, since he was such a hot-shot college athlete in all sports, was way out of it in his music world.
It was either break up the team or get Mrs. We got Mrs. She thought it was a ridiculous thing, and it was, but all she had to do was shake hands with the opposite coach, discuss ground rules like when the foul balls were out of play, or whether balls hit into the tall grass were doubles or homers and then go sit and read the paper.
I ran the team. Danny Kohl, our shortstop, could outfield me, Andy Black our right fielder could outhit me. Jeff Bigler, our hot-tempered first baseman, could outrun me. Dick Williams, our center fielder, had a better arm, and Jerry Jones, our ace pitcher, was better all around than me.
But I could do one thing better than any of them: I could out-fight them, outgrowl them, outhustle them. I could chew them out. When they were in danger of falling apart, I could keep them together. And I liked doing it.
We were off to a good start. Three victories and no games lost, Mrs. Fulton was reading her paper during the games, and everyone was happy except the opposing teams. They were in second place right behind us, and I guess it all got to be too much for Mr. McLeod and his team. Last year in the Arborville ten-year-old league we beat the McLeod Builders without much trouble. When we met the Builders Tuesday night at West Park, they were two wins and no losses, having played one less game than us, and in second place.
We were up for the game, talking it up. Fulton was reading her newspaper and there were about twenty adults in the stands behind home plate, all parents of the Builders. McLeod was a tall red-faced guy who wore a baseball cap and was always shouting down at his players. They were a well-trained team, you could see that right away, and much improved over last year.
He ran that team like a machine, but we have the better ball players, and if Jerry was on with his rising fast ball, it would be as easy as picking peaches. His first pitch of the game was in the dirt. When Jerry started out this way he usually got worse before he got better. It then depended on how many runs we could score before he got some sort of pitching rhythm again. Playing third base, I liked it less than anyone.
Jerry walked the McLeod lead-off batter Tim Johnson to start the game. The next kid up was Larry Esch who was a lefty and a drag-bunted all the time.
Larry got all right and clutched and struck out. Walking Tim Johnson was one thing, but walking a powder-puff hitter like Esch would be terrible. I felt like kicking him. Jeff Bigler trotted over from first, and that would be no help because Bigler was twice as excitable as Jerry. Catching Jerry had made John the best fielding catcher in the eleven-year-old league.
No sooner did we get together than Mr. I turned to Jerry. I mean, he can hit, run, field, pitch. He never gets mad, never gets happy. I figure him for a fullback.
30 for 30 Short: ‘Jake’