New novel explores link between baseball and blues

Michael Lortz’s new novel about baseball, blues and one’s soul.

Editor’s note: Baseball and the Blues. Are there any greater American creations? Nay, I say, and first-time author Michael Lortz has merged these two cultural pillars with his excellent new novel, “Curveball at the Crossroads.” The book unspools the story of JaMark Reliford, a young baseball pitcher who faces the premature end of a promising career and who, subsequently, receives an offer that might repair his arm but also take his soul.

Although “Curveball at the Crossroads” isn’t directly about the Negro Leagues, it reverberates with many of the themes that I attempt to critique on this blog — race, fame, legend and achievement — and that resonate with the future of baseball among the African-American community. In this lightly edited email interview, Michael and I discuss such topics, with a focus on the baseball and the Blues intersect and influence one another. People who know me know I love the Blues — it’s my favorite musical genre, especially Delta Blues — making Michael’s book a must-read for me and anyone else whose passions include the Blues and baseball.

Ryan Whirty: Where did the idea for the book come from? Describe how you developed the idea as a book project?

Michael Lortz: The idea for the book originated in 2012 when I wrote a short story that was basically the beginning and the end — a pitcher hurts his arm, makes a deal with the Devil, and has a confrontation. It was only five pages and was very influenced by Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I sent the story to several friends who told me it needed more. They said there was a concept that could be further explored and that I should get to writing. At the time, I was working as a government contractor in Afghanistan and after working my 12 hours a day, I had a lot of free time. And I missed baseball. So I dove into the creative world of my own baseball universe.

Michael Lortz

I put the story aside for a while when I went back to grad school. I edited a few scenes, but didn’t give it much thought. Then I sent it to Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports. Jay has been a good writing friend for a long time. He had some great suggestions and it wasn’t until the world slowed down during the pandemic that I was finally able to incorporate some of Jay’s suggestions and have a project I felt suitable to send to publishers.

As far as how the project was developed, I had the beginning and the climax already written from the short story. I like to say I had A and W written. The next part was filling in the rest of the story, the character development, the supporting characters, the dialogue, and the post-climax aftermath. That was definitely a creative challenge.

RW: How did popular folk tales and oral tradition about the history and development of the blues — especially the country blues tales found in the Delta — influence you to create a similar story, but for baseball? 

ML: I have been a Delta blues fan for well over 20 years. I made a journey to Memphis and Clarksdale in 2009, a few years before I started the book, that had a profound impact on my understanding of the genre. It went from music that influenced the rock I listened to, to a people that I knew and talked to. When you visit Memphis and then make that drive down to Clarksdale, Miss., and go to the Crossroads, there is a feeling there that is palpable. It is one of the poorest regions in America, but one that created a type of music that has an impact to this day. Visiting there helped me understand the paths that Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King and so many more traveled. I was deep in both music and American social history.

The Crossroads at US 61 and US 49, Clarksdale.

Along with my trip to Clarksdale and Memphis, I also lived near the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, Fla. It is one of the last remaining juke joints in the South and an absolute gem of a place to see live music. It is a small club hidden deep in the woods outside of town. That idea that there is a crossroads and a small historical building nearby plays a big role in the book. As a matter of fact, I visited Tallahassee when the book was in early development. I thought it would be a good idea to swing by the Bradfordville Blues Club. While there, I pulled out my laptop and started working on the story. To this day, I swear I felt the spirits of the blues. I knew then I was on to something good. 

RW: When it comes to essential American creations and cultural foundations, the blues and baseball are two of the most prominent and fundamental. How do the histories of the two cultural pillars mirror each other, and where might they intersect?

ML: It is interesting to compare baseball to the Blues. While we can look at baseball’s predominant demographic of white men over 50 years of age and see their connections to the blues-influenced rock of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, these two pillars of Americana definitely go much deeper. Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement. In music, we have Elvis taking so much from his Memphis roots, and in baseball, we have Dizzy Dean and others admiring the work of Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues, watching what they were doing and learning.

I like your use of “fundamental” in this question. It leads me to think about the conservativeness of baseball and the blues. Each of these creations has rules that guide their rhythm. For baseball, it is the numbers — nine innings, three outs, three strikes, nine batters, nine fielders. There is a measured rhythm. Hence its fascination with statistics. Baseball is not as random, chaotic and uncontrolled as basketball, hockey or soccer. But in the measured world of baseball, there is always a story of people. Of winning and of defeat.

The blues is very similar. The blues is not a very complex musical genre. Twelve-bars, a few chords, a basic beat. The blues is almost as simple of a musical genre as we have in America. Stay in the rules or else it is not the traditional blues. But like baseball, in that measured element, is a story about people. Of winning and of defeat.

Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil.

And we have seen people be very protective of the rules of both baseball and the blues. Almost to a fault. Baseball purists are very protective of the game. Blues purists are very much the same. You look at someone like Gary Clark Jr. pushing the limits of the blues and adding elements of soul and rock and hip-hop. Gary Clark Jr. is still very much the blues, even if he does a remix with rappers — which I can go on about a lot of hip-hop having much of the blues feeling as well. Meanwhile, in baseball, Fernando Tatis Jr. or Jose Bautista flipping his bat after a performance is not unlike Buddy Guy swinging a guitar around his neck or playing with his teeth. Showmanship isn’t something as routine in baseball as it in other sports, such as football or basketball. But maybe that needs to change.

As a writer, especially as a white male writer, I had to take all of this into consideration when writing “Curveball at the Crossroads.” As you know, my protagonist, JaMark Reliford, is Black. His family is Black. The folklore from which the story evolves is from Black culture. Just as I had to be detailed in my understanding of baseball nuances, I also had to be detailed in my understanding of blues folklore. Rightly, we live in a time when being authentic matters. From the nuances of the Delta to the nuances of a clubhouse, I had to be as detailed and correct as possible. I hope I did a good job with that.

RW: While the concept of “selling your soul to the devil” is perhaps most prominent in blues lore, the basic tale is found in just about all American pursuits. Why and how does it fit in with baseball and success at the sport?

ML: The most obvious answer to this is the steroids issue that plagued baseball throughout the early 2000s. Was the juice worth the squeeze for Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and many others? While they have amazing stats, the Devil could be that they might never see Hall of Fame recognition for their accomplishments.

“Neither of these creations would be where they are today without the direct influence of African Americans. It is nearly impossible to tell the story of baseball or the blues without them even before the Civil Rights Movement.”

As odd as it might seem, I never thought about steroids as the Devil until someone brought it up to me after the book was published. I was so into the Devil as a literal figure and not a figurative one that I was oblivious to the comparison. But it does make sense, although I am leery to make a direct comparison of JaMark Reliford to Roger Clemens, for example.

I also think there is something to be said about the commitment to the game that could be a Devil. The cost in travel and time and family in order to live that athlete lifestyle or make that athlete money. When it is all over, will there be a happy ending — both physically and mentally? What if playing professional baseball only means getting stuck in the Minor Leagues for 10 years with low pay in run-down stadiums?

RW: Aside from the blues influences, were there any actual people, places and/or events from which you drew inspiration? 

ML: Many. “Curveball at the Crossroads” is full of inspirations. As a matter of fact, that was probably the most fun part of writing the story. As the book was started in 2012, David Price‘s career was a huge influence on the career arch of JaMark Reliford. Dwight Gooden was an inspiration for JaMark’s repertoire of fastballs and curveballs (Gooden of course faced his own Devil through addiction, but that might be a whole other story). JaMark’s first Minor League manager drew inspiration from a sergeant I had during my time in the Army, a careerist with a no-nonsense approach to developing personnel. Dusty Polichardo, JaMark’s coach and friend, drew influence from Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy Lasorda. As I mentioned in an earlier question, Memphis, Clarksdale and the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee definitely inspired me. The book is also full of announcer’s voices, where people such as Bob Costas, the Orioles’ Gary Thorne, who I grew up listening to, the Rays’ Andy Freed and Dave Wills, and my friends in Tampa radio were big influences. I was lucky enough to have two Tampa people, former Rays pre-game voice Steve Carney and news radio host Mabili Patro, provide their voices for the Curveball at the Crossroads youtube trailer

The Bradfordville Blues Club.

There are also many Easter Eggs throughout the book. There is a Snoop Dogg lyric, a reference to pro wrestling’s Iron Sheik, a Pee-Wee Herman reference, a Star Wars reference, a Casey at the Bat reference, a Field of Dreams reference, a Curious Case of Sidd Finch reference, and of course many, many Blues references. For example, it is not a spoiler for me to mention that JaMark Reliford shares a birthday with Robert Johnson.

The ending was also greatly inspired by a modern sports legend, but I don’t want to say more than that.

What was your goal in writing the book, and what is your hope for the impact it may have on the public and on the evolution of American folklore?

My goal is to make a ton of money and be able to retire after one book. I think that is the goal of every first time novelist. Of course, I don’t think that is going to happen. But I do hope my book can hold its own against other great baseball stories. I would like JaMark Reliford to be in the same pantheon as Sidd Finch, Roy Hobbs, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and many other famous fictional baseball players. By combining these two American standards, I hope the book appeals to a wide audience. I hope it interests baseball fans in Blues folklore and interests Blues folklorists into different ideas for deals with the Devil.

I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious as a white writer, but I also hope “Curveball at the Crossroads” can play a small role in reconnecting the Black community with baseball. African-American players make up a very small percentage of Major League Baseball players. Many of the best athletes from African-American communities are not playing baseball, either because of cost — travel baseball, etc., is very expensive — or because of lack of interest. I wrote my book because I thought it was a good story. In a way, “Curveball at the Crossroads” is my ode to baseball and the blues. It is my way of giving back to those communities and sharing my love for these pillars of American culture. If “Curveball at the Crossroads” encourages an increased love of baseball or Blues folklore in anyone, white or Black or any other background, I will be elated.

For more information about “Curveball at the Crossroads,” including reviews and how to buy a copy — go here. Thank you so much to Michael Lortz for approaching me about this gem of literary fiction.