"TRADING MANNY: How a Father and Son Learned to Love Baseball Again," by Jim Gullo, Da Capo Press, $23, 251 pages (nf)
Joe Gullo is 7 years old, and like many of us at that age, he has discovered heroes. For Joe, those heroes come in packs, their images and feats captured on baseball cards that speak of timeless glory.
A son who loves baseball is a dream come true for Joe's dad, but the dream quickly turns sour when little Joe learns many of his new baseball heroes took steroids.
Jim Gullo is startled by his son's reaction. When the Mitchell Report comes out, naming those players who used steroids, Joe immediately sorts his baseball cards by who cheated and who is clean. Jim also wonders, as he lamely defends the players to his son, what the scandal is doing to him as a parent.
"Trading Manny: How a Father and Son Learned to Love Baseball Again" transcends the normal coming-of-age memoir about a child selecting a hero only to discover flaws. Not only are the heroes flawed in "Trading Manny," but baseball itself is a fallen hero.
Joe starts asking tough questions, and his dad, taking his fatherhood seriously, doesn't have the answers he wants because baseball players, teams and the commissioner do little or nothing to help him explain what happened. Baseball, the glue that has bonded fathers and sons since the 1800s, has lost its way, and it's losing the Gullos.
"If I cheated to win a game in Little League," little Joe Gullo writes in a letter to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, "I would get in trouble."
That's a life lesson even a 7-year-old understands. But in baseball, despite Selig's promise to suspend anyone who took steroids, player after player escapes punishment.
Life lesson broken.
"Joe," his father writes, "knows very clearly that he is not going to idolize a baseball player who cheated."
At the turning point of the book, the Gullos give up on baseball. The steroids scandal has forced its way into their home, and to Jim Gullo it becomes "a game that seemed so wrong to embrace and to share with my son." So he learns to teach life lessons to Joe with baseball and its players as the bad examples, and Joe tries to transfer his passion to football, riding his bike and making new friends in a new town.
Then Jim gets an idea, and he and Joe set out on a literal journey to discover why steroid use is wrong, why players took them and why they weren't being punished.
They find out what it is about baseball, beneath the glamour and star power, that has the power to bring parents and children together.
They find a minor leaguer on the cusp of the majors who emerges as a Prince Valiant, a hero who doesn't drink or smoke or take steroids and who is abstaining from sex until his pending marriage.
And Jim Gullo stops worrying about damaging baseball's image, to be a father and fan who won't pretend the steroids era never happened.
"A good father does things like that," Jim Gullo writes. "He stands up for the people in his community and he questions things that don't seem right. He doesn't let things slide because it makes him uncomfortable, or because everyone else is letting them slide."
Together, father and son unmask the silliness and foolishness of Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez. They look for answers, and they find character and honesty. They learn great players aren't necessarily good people, and that players make mistakes and, like the rest of us, should be offered grace when they fall.
The biggest stars of "Trading Manny" are fatherhood and the relationship between a father who looks for lessons to share and a son who absorbs them from his greatest hero.