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rooting for rafael rosales

8 february 2018

Rooting for Rafael Rosales is an artful, original take on the juvenile baseball novel. I don't think that it ultimately gets where it might have, but if the destination isn't reached, the journey is certainly interesting.

Kurtis Scaletta's novel proceeds along two tracks that don't seem likely to converge. In one, several years earlier than the other, the title character Rafael Rosales grows up in the Dominican Republic, crazy for the chance to play baseball. In the other, a Minnesotan youngster named Maya grows up years later, the daughter of an agribusiness number-cruncher. Maya is devoted to the environment – not an easy task for her father's daughter – and to her elder sister Grace. Grace wants to be a sportswriter, and is blogging her way into the profession. Via Grace, Maya gets interested in a Twins' farmhand: Rafael Rosales.

Thus there is little suspense in Rafael's story. We know that he will get to play organized baseball in the U.S. Scaletta keeps things realistic: this is not some sort of Baseball Joe or John R. Tunis story, where the kid would become a big-league hero overnight. But Rafael is a strong prospect and makes as much progress as a ballplayer reasonably could, in one summer of a juvenile-novel protagonist's life. Maya is eleven turning twelve, and the logic of children's fiction won't let her get much older in the course of her story.

So what real drama the book develops is internal to Maya's family, and to her learning about integrity and loyalty. She acquires an electronic pen pal from the Dominican, a Haitian girl named Bijou, and in the course of their friendship she learns more about her favorite ballplayer's colleagues than she likes. Rafael himself is not problematic, but one of his friends may be lying about his age and identity to secure a better contract. Should Maya tell? At the same time, her dad's company is out to kill as many pollinators as possible. Should Maya go along with their attempts to enlist her in greenwashing their sinister business?

Scaletta admits that "it is audacious to write outside one's own cultural experience" (283). He attempts to immerse the reader in Dominican culture, preferring certain island values (reusing and recycling) to the throwaway American ethos (80). But in the end, his picture of Dominican ballplayers comes down to the single caricature many American fans associate with them: they'll lie about their age to get ahead. Meanwhile, Scaletta's portrayal of the buscone system and the baseball academies that chew up so much young talent is neutral-to-positive, and Rafael's transition to the American professional leagues is portrayed on a purely meritocratic basis, unhindered by cultural barriers. Yet the book is clearly earnest and honest, and may open American eyes to the contrasts between well-off suburban travel-team life in the States and the rigors of Dominican youth sports.

Maya and Rafael must eventually meet, but they turn out not to have all that much to say to each other. A sensitive and interesting children's book thus becomes too low-key for its own success. But as I said, Rooting for Rafael Rosales should be praised for its ambition and innovation.

Scaletta, Kurtis. Rooting for Rafael Rosales. Chicago: Whitman, 2017.