“A Day for Heroes,” based on the life of its author with a little poetic license thrown in, tells the story of a young boy, Ray, as he grows up in the 1950s and transforms himself from a holy terror of a child to an amazing baseball player, and most importantly, it is a story of fathers and sons coming together to play a baseball game like no other. These fathers, most of them World War II veterans, believed the boys, who had never lost a game, had had it easy because of them, and now it was time to teach them a lesson.
The novel’s early chapters detail Ray’s comical misadventures growing up and the rivalry that developed between him and his father as a result of the trouble he constantly caused. Ray just always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which led to his paranoia-perhaps justified-that his parents, grandparents, and teachers were all out to get him. But after all, he did set the house on fire, burn up his grandpa’s player piano, rip up the new car’s seats, create abstract art out of a fellow kindergarten student, and have to make a deal with the school principal to keep his mouth shut in choir-his singing was that bad. Ray’s grandfather threatens revenge on him for the player piano destruction, but it’s Ray’s dad who carries it out in a way that will keep the reader cringing-between laughs, of course.
Then Ray’s life suddenly turns around when he gets to fifth grade and meets Mrs. Harrison, a gym teacher so old she must have been teaching since Old Testament times. Perhaps her old age has made Mrs. Harrison wise because she’s the first person to see Ray’s potential. She makes him a teacher’s assistant, and in time, they form a baseball team out of the class. Before long, Ray is part of an unstoppable youth baseball team, and by the time he and his classmates turn sixteen, they are playing in the Detroit baseball league against men’s teams. The other teams find them laughable, and no one wants to play them at first, but the laughter doesn’t last long.
By the time they graduate from high school, Ray’s team has never lost a game. But then their fathers approach them to play one final game on a Sunday afternoon in 1965. Ray and his teammates are surprised but up for the challenge. After all, their fathers are all on the wrong side of forty. But they have underestimated these men, most of whom are World War II vets and play baseball like they are out to win another war.
The book’s title, “A Day for Heroes,” refers to that big game between fathers and sons-World War II vets and the next generation. The final showdown is hilarious, moving, will have readers cheering, and has the same effect as a terrific feel good movie. Every page of the book is filled with a laugh, but beneath that laughter is a deep respect for the veterans who saved the world.
Danescu makes sure every character on both teams is fully realized. For example, Deacon, the aptly named second baseman on Ray’s team, is described as having “a slow steady gait, almost biblical in nature, while surrounded by an aura of poise and composure. He had the self-assurance of a spiritualist. When he showed up at the game, it was like he was entering a revival tent to fulfill hopes and dreams.” And then there is Jack, whose parents are German immigrants. Jack grows up to be so large that muscles just pop out everywhere on him until his teammates are convinced he’s the result of some secret lab experiment in Germany during the war. Jack is such an incredible ball player that “the other team walked off the field, demanding to see a birth certificate and other ID that proved Jack was human. Jack never spoke during these investigations; we had another player represent him. We knew his accent would ignite accusations about test tubes, German labs, and artificial organs.”
As for the World War II fathers, here are descriptions of two of them:
“Mr. Grant brought home a noticeable limp from the war and was currently working as a foreman on an assembly line in Detroit. With every step he took, there was hesitation. We didn’t think he could play baseball, but Mr. Grant showed up to play because he didn’t know what limitations we were talking about.”
“For almost two years, he had faced death every night on patrols around islands held by the Japanese. So, Mr. Danson came home with nerves of steel and eyes so cold and sharp he could carve a turkey with them… it was scary having someone around with that background. And if he said we still had things to learn, who was going to argue with him?”
Danescu, despite some kidding, is reverent toward these men, asking in the prelude chapter before the big game:
“Where do you find heroes? You find them inside innocent unsuspecting people put in dangerous or desperate situations. They react in ways that show how personal identity and importance become secondary to another cause or purpose. Their acts of courage and bravery can be spontaneous or last for years.”
For me to describe the big game between these fathers and sons would be to take away all the fun for the reader, and my descriptions could not do justice to the book’s humor, comical incidents, and the overall toughness of these players. “A Day for Heroes” is a triumph in so many ways-from nostalgia to heroism and from humor to deep emotion. Ryan Danescu can write a tear-jerker paragraph and end it with a comic relief sentence like few authors can. After burning down houses, destroying car interiors, and becoming a heck of a baseball player, he may have finally found his calling in writing this moving tale of two generations at war on the baseball diamond. This book is destined for a home run.