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Life Lessons from a High School Coach

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

For journalist Michael Lewis, the book trigger childhood memory is not a cookie but a coach, his high-school baseball coach. Book critic David Kipen has this review.

DAVID KIPEN reporting:

There's no substitute for reader rapport. Michael Lewis, the Berkeley-based author of "Liar's Poker" and "Moneyball," has this indispensable quality to burn. Even at his most eye-glazing when writing about high finance, or navel-gazing, as in his recent columns on marriage and fatherhood, we may try to skim him but we almost always fail.

His new book "Coach" consists in its entirety of a March 2004 New York Times Magazine piece about his high-school baseball coach. Yet plenty of readers will come back for this rerun, and who's to be begrudge them another helping of Lewis' smooth, provocative story? Once you get past the cynical graduation-ready packaging, it's still the same smart article it was last year, a wistful, affectionate portrait of how the last generation's motivational genius can somehow look like a bully to this generation.

Billy Fitzgerald, alias Coach Fitz, washed out of the Oakland A's farm system young. He found his true calling teaching and coaching baseball at young Michael Lewis' New Orleans private school. Even today, Lewis still hasn't forgotten Fitz's old-fashioned love of winning and his demanding insistence on the fundamentals on the game.

In just a couple of decades, though, parents have apparently changed quite a bit. Where once they welcomes Fitz's reliance on strict discipline, now most of them see his willingness to bench a star player to teach him a lesson as, heaven forfend, judgmental. It's an irresistible story and the author wrings humor, character and surprising social significance from it.

A couple of misgivings niggle. A brief introduction might have been nice, if only to bring us up to date on Fitz's precarious professional standing and to give people who read the article in its original form a little value added. And what's with Coach Fitz allowing, even encouraging Lewis to grease the bill of his cap with BENGAY so as to put a little extra movement on his fastball? Might it just be dumb luck that another of Fitz's impressionable players didn't grow up to be some crooked CEO instead of a great reporter? At the very least, Fitz's justification of cheating in high-school athletics would have made for fascinating reading.

Despite these lapses, I especially admired Lewis' conclusion where he extends empathy if not quite forgiveness to all the overprotective parents who've made Fitz's job so much less satisfying than it used to be. When a writer is so charming that he can identify even with the villains of his piece, that's reader rapport at its most diabolically instinctive.

CHADWICK: David Kipen is book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and for DAY TO DAY.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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