Book Review: 60’6″
60’6″: Balls, Strikes, and Baseball Mortality, the debut novel from former college and semipro pitcher Mike Arsenault, is a portrait of a young man clinging to an impossible dream and wondering what lies beyond. Arsenault uses baseball as his backdrop, but his story transcends the sport, weaving a universal tale about the sometimes painful process becoming an adult, accepting limitations, and finding one’s place in the world.
The central character is left-handed pitcher Gord Mattis, a former college standout at the University of Michigan who, at age 24, is stuck toiling in darkest depths of the Detroit Tigers organization. We first meet him as an awkward, bespectacled 14-year old, withering under the unrealistic expectations of his coach/father. After another in a long line of embarrassing pratfalls on the mound and the obligatory condescending postgame sermon, an exasperated Gord finally decides to fully dedicate himself to the sport, largely to placate his hectoring dad.
Gord matures into a craftsman on the mound. In high school and college, his cerebral approach more than compensates for his marginal physical talent. But without a big fastball to blow past hitters, his potential as a professional is limited. He lives a humbling, tenuous existence as A-ball roster filler, a disposable warm body who gives the real prospects someone to play with.
As his career founders, Gord stumbles through an uncomfortable relationship dance with Kim Bell, an old flame from Ann Arbor. In college their relationship never evolved much beyond surface-level flirtation, with Gord unsure if, when, or how to make his move. But by a stroke of luck, they reunite in Florida, where Gord is pitching, and embark upon the painful process of patching old wounds and speaking of feelings heretofore unspoken.
Arsenault used his own baseball career as inspiration for the plot and the characters. He pitched at Queen’s University and Durham College in Canada, and then spent time on the mound for the London (Ontario) Majors, a formidable semipro team that has seen eight of its players drafted into pro ball since 2006.
Given the author’s background, it is unsurprising that one of the book’s strengths is the authenticity of the baseball scenes. Arsenault takes us onto the mound and inside Gord’s head as he works over a batter, explaining his thought process pitch-by-pitch. He also vividly illustrates the bullpen subculture, and the odd, vaguely dehumanizing world of the major league tryout camp. This is probably one of the few novels from which even an educated baseball fan can learn something new about the game.
Arsenault uses the word “mortality” in the title, which is appropriate because we witness Gord slogging through the various stages of grief as his career circles the drain. The emotions he experiences resemble the feelings of watching a loved one go through a terminal illness. Sometimes no matter how much we accept reality and tell ourselves that we are prepared, the end is no less devastating. Gord isn’t deluded – he recognizes that he will never pitch in the major leagues and understands that his career will be short. Nonetheless, his ultimate release leaves him shocked, angry, and reeling from his disconnection from a sport that had become central to his identity.
Some of the secondary characters are a bit one-dimensional and fit well-worn baseball archetypes – the crusty manager with the heart of gold, the talented, flame-throwing meathead who eventually sees the light, the unrepentant ladies’ man. Gord’s character, however, is more carefully nuanced, with lots of subtle paradoxes at his core that make him feel realistic and relatable.
By the conclusion of the novel, Gord is in a good place, but it is hardly an idyllic ending where all the bows are neatly tied and everyone’s wildest hopes and wishes are fulfilled. As Arsenault illustrates, success is often less about scaling the heights of fame and fortune and more about forgetting what needs to be forgotten, putting one foot in front of the other, and getting on with it.
60’6″: Balls, Strikes, and Baseball Mortality is available for purchase at the author’s website.
James Forr’s book, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (co-authored with David Proctor) was a finalist for the 2010 CASEY Award. He also was the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award.