Suitcase full of dreams

For those of us who can’t tell the difference between an RBI and an ERA, the funny nicknames baseball players adopt can be the most interesting part of the game. Just think “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Doesn’t that open up all kinds of possibilities for the imagination, if you know nothing of baseball history?

But Davis author Jay Feldman is a long line drive away from knowing nothing of baseball history. His new novel, Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream, which developed from a nonfiction piece Feldman wrote for Whole Earth Review in 1990, is packed with details of the glory days of the game, before sky-high salaries, player strikes and steroid scandals took all the fun out of it.

Mac “Suitcase” Sefton is a former minor-leaguer turned Yankees scout. He’s the kind of guy who can’t get the game out of his head for more than the time it takes to eat a steak, and he’s on the lookout for the one player that will make his career—less for the money than for the satisfaction. When his car overheats on an Arizona back road, he finds exactly what he’s looking for: the best left-handed pitcher he’s ever seen. The problem is that it’s 1942, and Jerry Yamada, American citizen and the finest prospect Sefton’s ever had, is in an internment camp with the rest of his family.

The baseball scout hasn’t heard about the internment camps. In fact, the biggest effect the war has had on him has been the number of players that have been drafted, forcing the scouts to work extra hard to find replacements. Sefton assumes it will be a simple matter to get Yamada out of the camp and into the big leagues. But he’s up against forces greater than himself—not least among them Jerry Yamada’s insistence that he doesn’t want to be a professional baseball player, especially if it means leaving his sister and aging parents behind in the camp.

As Sefton’s single-minded devotion to the game collides head-on with Yamada’s devotion to his family, the novel invites readers to ask: What is the American dream, really? For Jerry Yamada, it’s quite clear. He just wants to be an American farmer, at home in California’s Central Valley. But “Suitcase” Sefton takes a more circuitous route to finding his dreams; the most compelling feature of the novel is the changes that result for Sefton when he looks up from the baseball diamond and takes a look at the world around him. “Suitcase” Sefton knows his way around the game, all right, but he doesn’t know much about life. It’s up to the Yamada family to teach him.

Feldman blends his love of baseball with the realities of history to tell a truly American story. Yes, there’s baseball and apple pie; there’s also racism and the misplaced patriotism that leads us to do some pretty outrageously un-American things—like locking up our citizens because they don’t look like us. Though never preachy—and with moments of hilarity, as in a passage about what sort of names are baseball players’ names—Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream takes a swing at serious subject matter and connects.