WNIJ is re-visting the "Read With Me" library for some summer reading. One novel about a coach for the Chicago Cubs, The Clubhouse Thief, seems ripe for a second look with the Cubs leading the National League Central Division. Here's an encore presentation of our interview with author James Janko.
Billy Donachio is a baseball coach who's been losing since 1969. Billy was in the Chicago Cubs farm system then, playing second base and drinking whiskey with shortstop Nick Glouser. These fictional characters have a lackluster season in contrast to the Major League Cubs who stay in first place for 155 games -- until the New York Mets pass them by in September.
Nick offered a toast so we could drink with purpose. "To the Mets," he said. "May their plane crash and burn before they play in the World Series."
Nick's bitterness foreshadows the next fifteen years when the Cubs were, at best, mediocre.
Billy, Nick, and the Cubs fill the roster of James Janko's novel The Clubhouse Thief, our Read With Me selection for February.
Nick soon enters the Majors as a utility infielder, attracting the attention of managers who call him "a good head, a sharp strategist." By 2018, he's the Cubs' head coach.
Billy stays in the minor leagues, alternately working for the Cubs and Boston Red Sox, coaching and scouting for their farm teams. Whichever team he's on loses that season.
But one season causes Billy to wonder if his absence is equally powerful:
In 2004, I was back in the Cub farm system, a hitting coach for the Diamond Jaxx. After the Red Sox swept the Cardinals, won their first World Series since 1918, I had to wonder if I was the curse, if loss was my shadow. I mentioned this to Nick over drinks, secretly hoping he would disagree. He said, "Well, Billy, the cloud over your head holds some rain, doesn't it?"
I looked up.
"You can't win to save your ass."
Nick's supposition holds true when Billy returns to the Cubs system in 2007 and 2013; the Red Sox win the World Series both years. And where was Billy in 2016, when the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years? With the Portland Sea Dogs, a BoSox farm team that finished last in their division.
"I've never had a lucky day let alone a lucky year," Billy laments. And yet, Cubs skipper Nick chooses Billy to be his bench coach, his number one advisor. Any guess as to how 2018 begins?
Well, we blew the home opener, a heartbreaker, and played piss poor through April and May. Johnny was stealing bases, Jesús Mijango was hitting homers, but we got into the habit of throwing away games in late innings. June was a swoon. At the All Star break, we trailed the first-place Cardinals by eleven games.
"The Cubs used to have this name -- lovable losers," said author Janko, remembering his father's use of the term. "He was a great guy, but his mood would change when they lost. And they lost a lot."
Billy's mood also changes when the Cubs start winning after the All Star break. When the team takes the National League championship, the growing stress exacerbates a lifelong neurosis; Billy is a kleptomaniac -- the "Thief" in the book's title.
Janko says he fell in love with baseball while playing catch with his father at age three or four. "And so I started playing Little League at age eight, and played baseball all the way up to the time I got drafted and went into the Army," he said. "So I had baseball in my blood from very early on."
The Vietnam veteran conceived this book in 2003. "I started writing sketches, and I had this idea which I tried to resist because it seemed so absurd," he said. "I was going to write a novel in which the Cubs won the World Series, an African American was elected President, and a gay Major League ball player would be openly gay -- That's the only one that hasn't happened yet."
In an interview with WNIJ, Janko said he watched the 2016 World Series with friends in his LaSalle, Ill., hometown. "I was certain they were going to blow it," he laughed, "because I'd been down that road a few times."
The author says the Cubs' victory forced him to revise his manuscript. "I had written this as if here in this book was the first time," he said. "I figured there was no hope for the Cubs except in the realm of fiction."
Next month our "Read With Me" series continues with Hook & Jill, a novel by Andrea Jones. As always, we encourage your comments below. And if you talk about these authors or books on social media, please use #WNIJReadWithMe