Thursday, December 17, 2009

"The Man Without a Home"

Last week I wrote about one of John D MacDonald's baseball stories, "A Young Man's Game," and I mentioned that it was one of three stories JDM had written using that particular sport. That number was gleaned from Walter Shine, who declared it in an old issue of the JDM Bibliophile. Other than "A Young Man's Game," he didn't mention the names of the stories, so I don't know if "The Man Without a Home" is one of them, but it should be. It's a tale about a baseball player and, even though no baseball is actually played in the story, it does center on the demands the sport makes on the men who have chosen to make it a career.

The story originally appeared, not in a sports fiction pulp, but in the August 22, 1954 issue of This Week, and MacDonald submitted it under the title "Sure, I Know Lew." Thankfully, the editors changed it to the much more evocative and descriptive title it bore when published.

"Lew" is Lew Sikas, a successful slugger and outfielder for an unnamed major league team. In the middle of his twelfth season, he's still at the top of his game, currently batting .313, with 27 home runs and 94 RBI. Sitting in a restaurant with his wife Joanne in yet another major league city, Lew is "relaxed and fit." Joanne, however, wants to broach a subject she knows will upset him. Like most successful ballplayers, Lew knows his time in the sun is brief, so he is cramming as much baseball as he can into his few playing years. Once the season is over he will depart for an off-season tour, featuring exhibition games in Tokyo, Manila and Havana (this is pre-Castro, of course). But after twelve years, Joanne is tired of it all and wants to talk to Lew about skipping the off-season tour and spending the time at home with her and their children. She works up the courage and reveals her feelings, but Lew isn't buying it: "That's right , I've got a big head. I play a game and hit a ball a country mile and cover left field like a tent, and I've forgotten it's a game. Is that what you mean? ... I want us to be secure. I've got to make all I can. We'll have time for [family]." Joanne argues, but eventually realizes "there was nothing more to be said."

They are interrupted by a young man who has been sitting at a nearby table. He approaches hesitantly, and awkwardly explains to Lew that the two of them once played together, years ago, when the man spent four days in camp as a tryout. He now works in a factory and is dining with his wife and young son. He begs Lew to pretend like they are old friends and to come over to greet his family. Lew quickly understands and accommodates the man. He goes over and sits with them, staying longer than Joanne would have expected. When he finally returns, he seems thoughtful. "Your good deed for the day?" Joanne asks almost sarcastically, but something about the family has obviously touched Lew.

"The Man Without a Home" bears a similarity to "A Young Man's Game" in more than just the sport the characters play: they are both about ballplayers facing turning points in their careers. Wally Prows is looking at a different sort of dilemma, where his skills are in decline, but both Wally and Lew make a decision about the proper balance of family and sport, and both have supportive wives who will go along with whatever their husbands decide. In Lew's case, it's a chance encounter in a restaurant that gets him thinking about what is really important in his life.

The story is typically brief at 1,900 words, as were all of MacDonald's This Week submissions, and is one of only nine works of short fiction he published in 1954. By that time he was devoting most of his energy toward his novels, and in that same year he produced three. To be accurate, two of those short stories were actually novellas, so it's not like JDM was a complete goof-off that year!

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