Retroactive Review: Changing Pitches and Other Tales of Love

Over the years, various writers—of both fiction and non-fiction—have tried to envision a world in which a gay or bisexual major league player could come out of the closet. It can, at times, be difficult and even discouraging when you consider how steeped in homophobia professional sports have been and still are; no active major leaguer has ever come out.

Baseball is the sort of sport that seems to frown on shows of individuality. Players often are disparaged and sometimes even threatened or injured for celebrating their on-field achievements, being a rookie, speaking foreign languages, being Bryce Harper, or even having the audacity to be really, really talented. One can only imagine the kind of attention an openly non-heterosexual player might garner, especially in a sport that favors so-called “discretion” and “tradition” and still finds itself handing out discipline to active players for past homophobic remarks.

A few months ago, I picked up Changing Pitches with the idea that I would read it concurrently with Billy Bean’s memoir, Going the Other Way, Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, and Peter Lefcourt’s comedic novel, The Dreyfus Affair. Bean, who came out after his career as major league outfielder ended and who currently serves as baseball’s ambassador for inclusion, detailed his life in and out of the closet in his memoir, while Lefourt’s satirical novel looks at a star shortstop who falls in love with his second baseman in the midst of a championship season. Changing Pitches, which features a veteran pitcher who develops feelings for his catcher, would complete the trifecta.

My plan involved putting the the three works in conversation with one another to try to find kernels of truth in the fictional novels compared to Bean’s story. Was there something we could learn from The Dreyfus Affair and Changing Pitches? Did some universal truth exist that spanned the three books?

Written by Steve Kluger in 1984, Changing Pitches follows former ace Scotty MacKay as age saps him of his once-formidable fastball. Desperate to hang on to his career, Scotty begins to develop a curveball and knuckleball with varying levels of success. Adding to his personal sense of upheaval is an injury to Scotty’s best friend and personal catcher, Buddy Budlong, who’s knocked out for most of the season.

Scotty, advised by his agent to start keeping a journal, details this tumultuous season and, perhaps surprisingly, concludes he’s in love with new catcher Jason Cornell. Though the book deals with a baseball player who’s fallen for his teammate, it bears more of a resemblance to the Lardner classic, at least in style, than the more recent LGBTQ-themed The Dreyfus Affair.

Similar to Lardner’s epistolary novel, Changing Pitches is constructed as a journal kept by Scotty, with the pages dotted with newspaper clippings, articles, notes from his teammates, and the occasional scripted mound conference between Scotty and Jason. Like You Know Me Al, Changing Pitches also peppers in real-life baseball contemporaries such as Reggie Jackson, Kirk Gibson, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter, to name a few. Only Scotty and his Washington Senators teammates are fictional.

Kluger has an ear for dialogue as well as an authentic voice. The characters are all fairly well-drawn and distinctive, from Scotty to Joanie, Scotty’s girlfriend, down to a briefly mentioned former minor league teammate who comes to an unfortunate end. For the most part, the characters who populate the story are realistic; they sound and act and feel like real ballplayers (or, in Joanie’s case, actresses). There are also several legitimate laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Scotty opens his journal-writing exercise noting that the Jefferson Memorial resembles a woman’s “well-developed breast,” or when his injured teammate Buddy starts a (terrible) country band with fellow major leaguers that is forced to disband when one of the player’s contracts is sold to Japan and another is demoted to the minors.

While Kluger exhibits real skill as a comic author, he also knows when to take his foot off the gas pedal to sell the more emotional moments of the novel. Like the clubhouse and field-level scenes, these moments are drawn with a sense of realism, showing Scotty’s humanity as he expresses his grief and guilt over the loss of his friend, and the non-starter of a relationship with his distant father. These personal moments are when the book truly shines. They also brought to mind Bean’s own difficult childhood with the separation of his parents and his absentee biological father. While The Dreyfus Affair might have been more commercially successful—there was even talk of the book being adapted into a film—it lacks the kind of deeply touching moments Kluger deftly sprinkles in to Changing Pitches.

This book doesn’t really fit neatly into any one box or under any one label. It’s not strictly a comedy, nor is it entirely a drama, and it’s not exactly a romance, either. The novel—much like its main character, who is forced to redefine and rediscover himself after losing his once-high-octane fastball and his “ace” title—defies most applicable labels.

The main issue with the book is that while it seems to have been advertised as a gay-themed baseball romance, there’s hardly any romance to speak of. Indeed, what little romance there is is between Scotty and his actress girlfriend, Joanie. Reviews of the book around the time of publication registered the same complaint: There really is no actual romance between Scotty and Jason. The book is more focused on Scotty and how he deals—or doesn’t deal—with his burgeoning feelings for Jason. In fact, when Scotty realizes he fell in love with him, he says, “The problem wasn’t Jason. The problem never was Jason. The problem is me.”

The book is more about Scotty and his fear of commitment, aging, and failure than it is about his relationship with Jason. Scotty’s therapist helps him conclude that his love for Jason is born out of transference due to Scotty’s fear of asking Joanie to be his wife. Scotty, for his part, immediately undercuts these findings, doubting the psychoanalyst’s ability. He routinely disparages him and even questions his credentials.

The book handles these themes fairly well, managing to keep its light, comedic tone—except for a poignant passage that deals with Scotty learning of his former teammate and friend’s untimely death—while examining Scotty’s fears and neuroses. It would be understandable, however, if you picked up this book expecting a gay-themed baseball romance and came away with a fair bit of disappointment at what is primarily a tale of mid-life (twilight-of-career) crisis.

Changing Pitches is a strange little book, and not just for its unresolved ending. It was clearly written by an author with a gift for dialogue and comedy. Kluger has gone on to write other novels that mix these themes—baseball, acceptance, and sexuality—more successfully. However, all the parts don’t exactly come together into a perfect, cohesive whole in Kluger’s first novel. There are digressions that drag on a little or seem out of place.

There are also a couple passages that are jaw-droppingly tone-deaf. A character makes juvenile, racially insensitive jokes about Asian people (though online reviews indicate this offensive strain of humor doesn’t perpetuate itself in Kluger’s other more recent works). That the disparaging comments about Asian people inadvertently lead Scotty to realize he is in love with Jason is particularly absurd. (When they take place in the novel, Scotty is panicking, and Jason makes the comments during a mound conference to get him to loosen up a bit, which leads to Scotty coming to his realization.)

Those racist comments almost inspired me not to finish the book (your friendly neighborhood reviewer is an Asian baseball fan), but finish it I did, and, for the most part, I liked it. The insensitive comments did sour me a bit on the overall project, though I’m happy to see Kluger seems to have grown as an author and doesn’t lean on tired stereotypes in future works.

When the Best Hitter Isn’t the Best Hitter
Most years, advanced statistics would argue that the batting champion really wasn't.

It is interesting to look at Changing Pitches through the lens of The Dreyfus Affair, Going the Other Way, and You Know Me Al. Though Kluger’s book is fictional, it bears a greater resemblance to the epistolary You Know Me Al—Scotty has shades of the arrogant Jack in him—and some of the more solitary or poignant moments in Bean’s memoir than perhaps the comedic gay baseball romance, The Dreyfus Affair. And Changing Pitches’ dramatic, serious moments echo the emotional passages of Going the Other Way. Scotty’s anxiety and desperation to keep his feelings secret (as well as the desire to tell Jason the truth) feel real. Scotty could easily be a contemporary of Bean, another side to the same coin.

In The Dreyfus Affair, Randy and D.J. get their happy ending (gluteal gunshot wound notwithstanding). In Changing Pitches, Scotty is simply left with feelings for a teammate that he can’t do anything about. As Scotty aptly points out, he might have fallen for Jason out of fear of commitment to his girlfriend, but that doesn’t make the feelings any less real. Unfortunately for Scotty—and the readers expecting a happily-ever-after—he’s not offered any real resolution. He and Jason simply agree to put it aside and focus on their upcoming postseason series.

This lack of a resolution isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Changing Pitches isn’t so much a romance as it is a coming-of-age story, despite the fact Scotty is pushing 40. Falling in love with Jason wasn’t the point of Scotty’s story, after all; it was the catalyst for Scotty’s personal growth. The novel doesn’t need the typical neat, tidy resolution that often comes hand-in-hand with a romance novel. The real emotional resolution of the novel is Scotty realizing his fear of commitment. As such, it makes sense that neither Scotty nor Jason would want to dive into the emotional quagmire of a new relationship and way of being at the start of the postseason as their team makes its improbable run to the World Series.

This ending isn’t nearly as sweet and optimistic as Lefcourt’s The Dreyfus Affair, which concludes with protagonists D.J. and Randy embarking on a relationship after overcoming a league-wide conspiracy to keep them from playing baseball. Some previous reviewers found Changing Pitches “cowardly,” taking the ending to be shying away from depicting a gay romance. This assertion struck me as a bit unfair as Kluger himself is a gay author. Also, Peter Lefcourt was already an established author and Hollywood screenwriter when his novel came out; he simply might have had more leeway than the newcomer Kluger did with how their books ended.

It’s understandable why Changing Pitches didn’t work for those readers and reviewers. However, when one picks up what they believe is a love story, they generally aren’t looking for a realistic ending in which the only closure the main character has is with his subpar psychoanalyst or the game of baseball. They expect the payoff of a happily-ever-after as its main characters are finally free to be together. One can understand, in a landscape largely devoid of portrayals of gay romance, how disappointing it would be to have such a relationship go largely unrealized and unfulfilled. In the case of Changing Pitches, both Scotty and Jason prove to be unavailable to each other in more ways than one, due to the looming postseason and their respective relationships.

But what of the future? Perhaps the suggestion of hope—a hope that the conversation will be had when there’s time and they’re both free to have it—must be enough.

At the outset of this piece, a question was asked: Was there some universal truth to be found in all three books? Was there something readers could learn from these three books about what it might be like to be a gay major leaguer?

It’s difficult to say, at least when it comes to The Dreyfus Affair. Lefcourt’s novel is more fantastical than realistic. Additionally, certain plot points that likely rung true when the novel came out would no longer be realistic in today’s major league baseball. We likely can expect the days of an out player conceivably being exiled from the league for being gay are over.

Though Scotty is completely fictional, he and Bean do feel like they were cut from the same cloth. Scotty’s story resonates with the life experiences described in Bean’s memoir. If any of the novels could provide a deeper insight into the experiences of a closeted major leaguer, it’s Changing Pitches. The work gives us a far better, more realistic idea of what it might be like to be a gay or bisexual major leaguer than the other works of fiction considered for Retroactive Review.

While The Dreyfus Affair is more of a “fairy tale” with its generational superstar, perfectly tied-up loose ends, and the happy ending, Changing Pitches feels more realistic because Scotty himself strikes the reader as an actual person, a fully developed character, and his experiences feel more emotionally true and rooted in reality. Much like real life, in Kluger’s novel there aren’t any tidy resolutions. This isn’t meant to be a knock on The Dreyfus Affair, of course. The two novels just operate in different spheres, with The Dreyfus Affair offering hope for a happy ending, while Changing Pitches is a bit more pragmatic.

With Going the Other Way, we’re presented with the real life example of a gay major league player in Billy Bean. Though he didn’t come out until his playing career was over, Bean has used his platform to speak out on issues that affect the LGBTQ community. In addition to his memoir, MLB Network  produced a documentary on Bean and his work, which aired in 2015.

Bean, like the fictional Scotty, came from a broken home. His father left the family when he was young, and Bean spent much of his youth excelling in athletics in an attempt to win him back. In some ways, Scotty himself resembles Bean. Bean struggled for years to conceal his sexuality from everyone around him, from teammates to friends to family. He believed even his closest friends in baseball wouldn’t understand or accept him once they found out.

In fact, when Bean finally revealed to his former teammates Brad Ausmus and Trevor Hoffman that he was gay, he wrote “…their kindness also reminded me of what a fool I’d been…I remembered all the times I’d wanted to tell [Brad] only to back off for fear that he wouldn’t know how to handle it. Why had I insisted on imputing the worst possible motives to the people I loved most?”

Like Bean, Scotty also struggles with whether or not to tell his best friend, Buddy, he’s in love with their teammate. When he finally does reveal the truth to Buddy, Buddy simply responds with, “Sometimes these things happen.” Scotty is both immensely relieved and shocked by Buddy’s acceptance, having acted out scenarios in his head in which his best friend rejected him.

Also like Bean, Scotty could have used someone to look up to and offer guidance as he struggled with his feelings for Jason. Although Scotty hastily agrees with his therapist that his feelings for Jason are transference, and he and Jason agree to table any discussions, his struggle with his feelings was still very real.

At the end of Going the Other Way, Bean writes that if he’d had a role model to look up to—someone like himself—he might not have put so much pressure on himself. He might have allowed himself to enjoy his career and live openly with his late partner, Sam. Bean speaks of growing up with little guidance or understanding of who he was.

“Baseball spent years teaching me how to hit a curveball,” Bean writes, “but not one second on how to be an adult.” Scotty Mackay definitely can relate.


Alexandra Simon is a pragmatic but somewhat rabid Detroit Tigers fan who enjoys candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @catswithbats, and also @glasshalffulmer, where she also tweets about baseball.

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2 Comments on "Retroactive Review: Changing Pitches and Other Tales of Love"

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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

The title “Changing Pitches” reminds me of an old song by Kaye Starr called “Changing Partners.” Interesting point about the culture of baseball. If an MLB player celebrated a home run the way an NFL player does a touchdown or an NBA player a slam dunk, he would have fastballs drilled through his stomach the rest of his career.

Gracie
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Gracie

The e book across the time of book registered the same complaint There actually isn’t any actual romance between Custom Coursework Help and Jason. they also introduced to mind Bean’s own hard early life with the separation of his dad and mom and his absentee organic father. It turned into certainly written by using an creator with a present for talk and comedy.