If one were to write a novel about a warrior who somehow entered a walled and fortified city, and sought to function within that city, the first question the writer would have to answer is: How did the hero manage to enter the fortress? A fortress which for nearly two centuries was closed to the hero’s tribe. A fortress whose defenders perhaps catapulted boulders down upon the hero’s tribe if it drew too near. If not boulders, then vats of boiling oil.
The seriousness with which a writer attempts to answer this question is a good sign of the seriousness of the book. In Throw Like a Woman, Susan Petrone answers the question seriously. It is clear that she knows what has happened in both the remote and recent past when female baseball players have pushed the barriers and tried to enter professional baseball, and she uses that knowledge to create a realistic story.
Brenda Haversham is a 40-year-old recently divorced woman with a low center of gravity. As the mother of two sons, ages nine and thirteen, she struggles to provide them with a few of the perks they were used to when their father’s income supported them. Nothing extravagant: a new baseball glove, an mp3 player as a birthday present, a summer camp that they bike to each morning, and, come September, a few new clothes and supplies for school.
When their father, Ed, fails to show up as promised one Saturday morning to take the boys out, Brenda takes them to the park and pitches to them. When she was a child, her father taught her to pitch, and the kinesthetic memory remains with her. She throws heat to her 13-year-old. And when she takes her sons to Progressive Field to see an Indians-Tigers game, they take turns at a Test Your Speed pitching cage. The 13-year-old is clocked at 48mph, the 9-year-old at 33mph. Brenda then takes a turn and her three pitches are clocked at 79, 77, and 82 mph. She is throwing heat because she is imagining throwing at her ex-husband.
An unknown somebody videotapes this, and the next thing Brenda knows, she’s on YouTube. From there the story escalates. She agrees to pitch for a local team. A sports agent pursues her and signs her. She is signed by the Cleveland Indians and sent to their Class A Lake County Captains as a reliever, and from there to the AAA Clippers team in Columbus. And then: she’s called up.
Not necessarily for her pitching, but because her presence will help sell tickets. Of course, her presence will sell tickets only if she pitches, and pitches well.
Petrone is a good writer, one who understands the art and craft of the novel. Her characters are empathetic. The story moves forward easily, with the reader wondering what will happen next. The baseball conflicts are totally real: Brenda faces what every woman in a formerly-all-male profession faces. For starters, that means disdain, disgust, graphic sexual harassment, juvenile fixation on items such as tampons and jock straps, threats of violence, and the ever-present “invisibleness,” as if she’s not there.
Realistically, not every man behaves in this fashion, and Petrone brings to life not only the women haters, but also just regular men who judge other human beings by their performance, not their sex or the color of their skin. There are plenty of these men in baseball, and it feels good to see them in Petrone’s novel — they are signs of hope.
Throwing Like a Woman is about more than baseball, though. Face it: life is about more than baseball. In Petrone’s story we can see the distance between pampered 20-year-olds and wiser-by-life 40-year-olds. Maturity, or lack of, is one of the themes running through the book. I especially liked the character development in Andy, Brenda’s 13-year-old son, as he begins to take steps into adulthood.
Petrone, along with Stephanie Liscio, writes an Indians-fan blog itspronouncedlajaway, and although there’s no blog in the novel, Petrone is clearly familiar with the media world. In her novel she creates an ESPN show, “Today in Sports,” with host Charlie Bannister. The “transcripts” appear throughout Throw Like a Woman and are great fun.
Brenda Haversham’s name calls to mind Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted in love, Miss Havisham turns into a bitter character who grips others too tightly, molding them to her wishes and warping their lives. At the beginning of Throw Like a Woman, Brenda Haversham stands on the cusp of her new life. She, too, has been jilted. How will that play out? She is clearly unhappy. Will she become bitter? Will she mold her children into people who cannot experience love?
Or will she understand that life is like the four-seamer — a failure if you grip it too hard. But if you grip it “loosely, gently, to minimize friction between the hand and the ball,” the pitch will fly like a bird.