By Dan Woog
Straight readers say that it takes them about 80 pages before realizing that the two high school players at the heart of “Rounding Third” are attracted to each other.
Gay readers figure it out in the first few paragraphs.
If anyone needs proof that, even in 2009, Americans view sports and athletes differently depending on their sexuality, Walter G. Meyer’s recently published book offers it.
The story follows two 17-year-olds in a small Ohio town. One is a benchwarmer; the other, a star pitcher. But their lives intersect both lyrically and ominously, with twists and turns seldom found in a typical baseball novel.
Meyer has constructed a complex and compelling tale, in part because he knows the territory. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, he was – like his fictional character Rob Wardell – small and often picked on. Like Rob, he rode the baseball bench.
Like Rob too, he had crushes on teammates. “I always wondered how people would have reacted if I did something about it,” Meyer says. “What if…”
Unlike Rob, he did nothing about it. Rob does, and both he and pitcher Josh Schlagel pay dearly.
“Parts of me are very visible in Rob,” Meyer says. “But I was never as noble or brave as he is. He’s an idealized version of me.”
Meyer handles his characters’ attractions with an intriguing combination of gentleness and ferocity. There are no graphic sex scenes – but the intensity of the teenagers’ feelings is never far from the surface. At the same time, he does not shy away from describing the violence that those feelings – some perhaps shared by supposedly straight boys – arouse in others.
He knows those reactions well. He witnessed some of them, years ago as a boy. He has researched more recent ones – beatings of teammates suspected of being gay, the indifference of adults to intervene, the inexplicable rejection of gay children by too many parents – and weaves them all into his narrative. Some readers may think the scenes of violence are overdone. Meyer assures them that those scenes are all too commonplace – and real.
Yet “Rounding Third” also shows heroism. Baseball coach Hudson emerges as a powerful, if surprising, voice for gay youth.
“He was always that person,” Meyer explains. “But no one had ever challenged him to be an advocate before. It’s just like war: No one knows whether he’ll turn and run, or stay and fight, before the bullets start to fly.”
The lack of action by adults in the face of anti-gay rhetoric and violence – there is no mention in the book of school law, or of supportive organizations like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network – surprises some readers.
Meyer – who now lives in San Diego, where he writes on a broad range of topics and volunteers at a GLBT youth center – counters: “In large parts of the country, what is natural for us does not exist. In my own hometown in Pennsylvania, the school board is so out of touch about things much less radical than this, that I can’t imagine going to them about any gay issue. Most kids in Ohio wouldn’t know what a Gay-Straight Alliance is. We like to think we’ve come a lot farther as a country than we have.”
Even in Southern California, he notes, a high school student was recently prohibited from giving a report on Harvey Milk.
The book has been out for only a few weeks, but Meyer is heartened by the reactions he’s heard. One reader commented: “I feel like you followed me around when I was in high school. You captured my life.”
Meyer’s hometown library heard about the book and asked him to speak. He did not immediately accept the invitation.
“I told the librarian to read the book first,” Meyer says. “We’ll see how this works out after she reads it.” In the high school he graduated from, he knows of only one openly gay student. The total population is 2,000.
Some readers wonder about the title. “What does a baseball player do when he ’rounds third’?” Meyer asks. “He heads for home – and tries to get there safe. This book is about finding your way home, safely.”
It is also a book about freedom. One character tells his father: “You went to Vietnam to fight for our freedom. But we’re not even free to walk down the halls of our high school.”
“I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam,” Meyer says. “America has always talked a good game about bringing freedom to others. We’re doing the same thing today in Iraq. But gay people in America are still not free to marry. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
(“Rounding Third” is published by MaxM Ltd)