“I’m going to be all right” Rodney Mason said out loud three times to his social worker to convince himself, in between sobs, at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey, where he was enrolled in physical therapy. Mason, then a 27-year-old former pitching star, had been in and out of trouble on the hardscrabble streets of his native Newark since high school, using and selling drugs, but this time a dispute over a woman led another man to shoot him. That bullet paralyzed him from the waist down and set in motion a transformation—of Mason and the young men he would mentor—that’s chronicled with nuance and sensitivity by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jonathan Schuppe in A Chance To Win: Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City.
In 2009, Schuppe was learning how to be a dad at the same time as he spent countless days and nights with the subjects of his book: people whose parents were absent, who didn’t have strong, present fathers, had failed at parenting themselves, or had good parents but were still stifled by poverty. “I learned a lot from seeing—how to be a good dad—from both the negative and positive experiences,” he explains. For about three years, Schuppe reported on Mason, who formed and coached a scrappy Little League team in the South Ward; DeWan Johnson and Derek Fykes, two of his players; and Thaiquan Scott, a father whose two children also played baseball. This thoughtful piece of urban reportage is embedded journalism at its best: meticulously detailed and emotionally aware without lapsing into sentimentality or caricature. Newark’s political and cultural history is rendered with authority thanks to the depth of Schuppe’s research.
The book grew out of Schuppe’s reporting at The Star-Ledger of Newark, where he earned his dues covering politics, drugs and crime. Through a confluence of life circumstances and professional changes (Schuppe took a buyout at the newspaper), he was able to devote himself full-time to the writing of the book. The prestigious J. Anthony Lucas Work-in-Progress Award (bestowed by Columbia Journalism School), which Schuppe was awarded in 2010, provided a much-needed boost in morale and finances ($30,000). For the early chapters of the book, when Schuppe was not around, he relied on the recollections of Mason and his friends, corroborated with official documents when possible. But the vast majority of the book’s detail comes from Schuppe having spent most of his waking hours with his subjects—at the baseball field, in their apartments and cars, at birthday parties, concerts, court hearings and basketball games, in church and even at school. In the beginning, Schuppe recorded everything and transcribed all of his own interviews; halfway through, he felt transcribing was detracting from his reporting so he stopped doing it and took copious firsthand notes instead. “I didn’t hire someone to transcribe,” he says. “I took a laptop with me and typed right into it or used traditional notebooks.”
It’s easy for journalists to lapse into clichés and stereotypes when writing about the people of Newark, yet Schuppe’s reporting is grounded in a sincere desire to portray the lives of its residents in all their complexity—in contrast with the parachute journalism some white reporters are guilty of when they cover communities that are primarily black, poor or working-class. “I knew that I could have gone with people who I saw as having more ‘troubled’ or ‘dramatic’ lives,” says Schuppe over coffee in Midtown Manhattan near his office at NBCUniversal, where he is a senior correspondent for the company’s local news websites. “I consciously did not want to go in that direction. I knew that no one had told these stories—involving the circumstances that [they] were going through.”
His keen, compassionate eye and descriptions of Mason and the book’s other characters as complicated and contradictory human beings sets this work apart, putting it on par with Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up In the Other America. “I wasn’t so confident that I thought I could match any of those people like Jonathan Kozol or Alex Kotlowitz,” he says. “Those are books that inspired me and I emulated.”
The truth for many of these kids is that Mason’s Little League team, propelled forward at times through sheer force of will, provided a glimmer of hope amidst an otherwise perilous landscape. At one point, Mason adds players to his team who could not meet the requirements (parent’s permission, doctor’s note, $25 registration fee). He turned to Schuppe and said, “How can you tell a kid he can’t play? What if he’s shot and killed the next day hanging out on the street? I couldn’t deal with that.”
Schuppe’s skills are clearest in passages where he fuses incisive detail with big-picture analysis, such as this one at the start of the Little League team’s second season: “Everyone expected [Mason] to do something special again, something better than last year, to prove that he’d deserved all the publicity and donations. Yet in some ways he felt as if he were back where he started. Practices were still chaotic, with kids often looking as if they had just wandered off the street—ripped jeans hanging low off their butts, unlaced high-tops, no glove. They volleyed fat-and-ugly jokes, did handstands, slipped away to the corner bodega without asking permission. … He still struggled with how to discipline the kids—to many of them, he remained ‘Uncle Rock,’ the reserved but kindly neighbor who handed out money for snacks and never raised his voice. And he still could not persuade them to show up on time.”
Over the course of more than three years, Schuppe stayed focused and, with time, became invested in Mason’s well being. The two men are friends: Schuppe said that Mason, who is coaching this season, is excited for the book’s release, seeing it as a culmination and outgrowth of the evolution of his life’s work. Yet as Schuppe notes in the prologue, there is no easy and tidy conclusion for the people he’s writing about. “Life doesn’t work that way,” he writes, “especially for the children, who, as I write this, still have high school ahead of them and are navigating the perilous road to adulthood. For them, this is just the beginning.”
Christopher Carbone is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Capital New York, L Style G Style and elsewhere.