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'Ampaya' a winning anthology of baseball tales

Cluster collects, translates fiction on sport from Latin American writers
MLB.com

No sport lends itself to literate writing like baseball. America's national pastime makes appearances in the works of some of our most fabled authors. It has been used as a stage or backdrop to contemplate life, death, ambition, discrimination, God, sex, fame, success, failure, hope, madness and despair.

"Kill the Ampaya! The Best Latin American Baseball Fiction" is a welcome reminder that inspired writing about the sport isn't limited to the United States.

No sport lends itself to literate writing like baseball. America's national pastime makes appearances in the works of some of our most fabled authors. It has been used as a stage or backdrop to contemplate life, death, ambition, discrimination, God, sex, fame, success, failure, hope, madness and despair.

"Kill the Ampaya! The Best Latin American Baseball Fiction" is a welcome reminder that inspired writing about the sport isn't limited to the United States.

Dick Cluster has done a masterful job of curating and translating this collection of short stories. They are from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Nicaragua. The authors, including three women, are accomplished outside this genre. All but one tale was originally published no earlier than 1989. The exception is "The Glory of Mamporal," from 1935 -- a story that is considered so timeless in Venezuela that it was made into a movie in 1997.

Throughout these pages are references that the average baseball fan in the United States would quickly recognize. Casey Stengel's ghost makes an appearance. Yogi Berra is quoted. Patrons sit in a betting parlor in Santo Domingo and wager on a game between the Braves and Cardinals. Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Greg Maddux, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio are name-checked. Hopefuls sign with the White Sox and Astros. A scene from the 1996 World Series is imagined.

Yet there are striking differences in the approach and sensibilities these writers bring to their work.

For starters, Cluster notes that while most English baseball fiction comes in novels, short stories are the form of choice in the Spanish-language iterations.

Natural disasters or political unrest are recurring themes. "A Notorious Home Run" grabs the reader's attention with the first line. "I owe center fielder Reba Kigali's story to the intersection of genocide and a grand slam."

Most of these stories also tend to be infused with a wonderful mysticism that both reflects and then slyly tweaks its gringo counterpart.

Example: In "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," Douglass Wallop conjured up a fan of the woeful Washington Senators who sold his soul to the devil to transform himself into a superstar player who helps his team vanquish the mighty Bronx Bombers.

"Swimming Upstream" by Eduardo del Llano posits a similar phenomenon, a man who visits a doctor because his soul migrates to the Havana Industriales hitter when the game is on the line and, inevitably, delivers a game-winning home run. The reaction of the physician -- or maybe a psychiatrist -- provides a delightfully unexpected ending.

In "The Stadium" by Arturo Arango, a vendor convinces himself that he can influence the outcome of the games by his actions and then follows that conviction to its extreme conclusion. What fan can't relate to the idea of observing tiny superstitions in the belief that it will somehow help his favorite team prevail?

Baseball is celebrated as the game with no clock. "The Pitcher" by Marcial Gala examines the deeper implications of that seemingly simple statement. What would happen if the game couldn't end because the pitcher simply refused to throw the ball?

In two of the stories -- "The Strange Game of the Men in Blue" by Jose Bobadilla and "Clock Reaches the Emperor's Citadel" by Rafael Acevedo -- baseball is viewed from a distance as a strange and exotic pageant seen through the eyes seeing it for the first time.

Each story reflects a passion for baseball and a recognition that the sport and its lessons are omnipresent, reflecting and informing and mimicking real life.

Cluster leads off his collection with a brisk history of baseball in Latin America, the equivalent of pregame warmups. What follows, fittingly, is 18 stories, the perfect number to fill the top and bottom of nine innings.

Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J. G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing.