What Little Leaguer doesn’t dream of one day taking the mound at a Major League ballpark and striking out one of his heroes?
Three pitchers from very different backgrounds are drafted to take that journey, but they face the curve balls of life’s split-second challenges—not always on the baseball diamond.
Interview with Wanda Fischer…
How many unpublished books do you have lurking under your bed/in your cupboard?
I have at least four unpublished books lurking under my bed. The one that’s most finished (about 75 percent) is a sequel to Empty Seats. I haven’t figured out a title for it yet, but it takes place in 1976, four years after the original novel, in the Boston area, and Jimmy Bailey’s big sister, Debbie, plays a leading role in this one. I had originally thought about writing a sequel that would have my three main characters from Empty Seats when they were in their early 60s, in 2013, set around the Boston Marathon bombing, and I did start that one as well, so there may be a trilogy in the works.
I’m also working on an historical fiction book about the grandmother one of the Empty Seats characters. In my first novel, I presented Maude Ewell Prescott, Bud Prescott’s grandmother, as a suffragist and activist from Georgia. I did research on what someone who’d come out of the antebellum south, and who worked for women’s rights, might have experienced. I started writing that one, but I need to do more research.
I’ve also begun working on a memoir about my personal experiences with baseball, to be titled, Satch in the Bullpen and Other Baseball Memories. This will include my early encounters with baseball greats, including Negro League legend Satchel Paige, whom I watched warm up in the bullpen in Fenway Park in 1965, as well as the day when I served as the public address announcer for a full game for the Red Sox in August 2012.
I’m considering another memoir about my life as a folk music disc jockey on public radio, but that will take research in compiling names of the performers who have joined me live in the studio since I began doing this in 1975. I have my notebooks from those days (’75-’79, then a hiatus until ’82-present), so I’d need to dust them off and get organized.
Many authors use their qualifications to show off their talents, i.e., crime writers have worked in the police/security field. What’s your talent/qualifications for writing this book?
I have always been a baseball fan, since I was eight years old (I’m 71 now). When I was in high school, I wanted to be a sportswriter. Back then, options for women in that field were quite limited. I met and spoke with a man who played Major League Baseball and told him of my plans when I was 15 years old and looking into colleges. He cautioned me that “the guys don’t want women in the clubhouse or the locker room, so you’ll need to develop a thick skin. You seem like a nice girl, so I just wanted to warn you.”
When I actually did attend college as a journalism major, many things were happening in the world—the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights movement—and I became involved in those. After two years of college, I had to drop out due to financial issues. I got a job at Massachuetts Institute of Technology as a secretary and finished college while working full-time. I remained a sports fan and still followed baseball closely through the years.
After receiving my degree in English, I began working in public relations/marketing/media relations and did that for 40 years while still remaining a sports fan. I dabbled in sports writing, freelancing articles to websites and publications. When I retired, I decided to write a novel devoted to baseball. It took me 52 years to put my knowledge of baseball into practice with Empty Seats, and I combined my love of the game with knowledge of interpersonal relationships and things I’d learned by doing my various jobs throughout the years. One of my jobs was in a long-term care association, another was in a physical rehabilitation hospital, and I put those experiences into the pages of my novel.
What is Empty Seats about?
This book is focuses on three characters, all from different parts of the United States, who had been champion baseball pitchers in their respective parts of the country. It’s been characterized as Young Adult, but it can also be General Fiction. When all if said and done, I think it’s a coming-of-age novel with baseball as the backdrop. These three young men are different, yet they face everyday challenges of life.
When Jimmy Bailey, who comes from my real hometown of Weymouth, Massachusetts, speaks, it’s in first-person, present tense. Jimmy is an outstanding baseball pitcher, but he’s trying to live up to his father’s expectations, because his dad had also been an outstanding pitcher who had to decide whether or not to pursue professional baseball or to remain with his true love (Jimmy’s mother).
Bobby Mangino, from Yonkers, New York, lives with his single mother and little brother in a tiny apartment. He has issues with his absent father as well. Bobby tries to make everyone think he’s a tough guy, but deep inside, he is also insecure. He has to put on a façade to be a loner.
Cameron “Bud” Prescott, from Athens, Georgia, is an only child, and he’s the one the entire team looks up to when they have problems. But he has the problems everyday people have as well. He’s close to his grandmother, who’s been his inspiration all his life. What happens to Bud when his grandmother dies? Will he be able to maintain his cool, calm demeanor?
When learning about Bobby and Bud, the reader gets information in third-person, past tense. I can’t answer why this happened. It just did, while I was writing it. Jimmy, for some reason, spoke to me in first-person, present tense.
Does (and how) does your protagonist change/learn by the end of the book?
Jimmy changes dramatically during the course of the book. He goes from being the most sympathetic character to someone who’s confused, hangs out with questionable characters from high school with whom he begins drinking, charged with a crime he doesn’t commit, and can’t pull himself together. He loses his baseball career. He learns that he’s made terrible choices in his life. Then his father makes the ultimate horrific choice.
Bobby’s arrogance is challenged when he’s involved in a serious bus accident after having met an eccentric old woman while waiting for the bus. She’s just quirky enough to pique his interest. He had started to think that this is what his grandmother would have been like—if he’d ever met his grandmother—and then, BOOM! The bus accident changed his life in ways he could never imagine. His baseball career is gone as well—or so he thinks.
Bud’s head spins when he hears about Jimmy and Bobby. He wants to help, but can he? He has to think about his own baseball career, his college plans, and he has a girl from home who’s chasing him. What now? Does he buckle down and make good on his promise to his grandmother to finish college, or does baseball take precedence?
Is there an underlying theme to this book?
The underlying theme in this book is about making choices. I specifically set this book in 1972, when there were no cell phones. I wanted these characters to have to make their own choices—not to be able to pick up the phone and text mom or dad or one of their friends to figure out the best way to confront a dilemma.
I also made sure to include drugs and alcohol as temptations. I knew a young man from my hometown who was drafted to play professional baseball at about this same time in history. When he left home and went on the road with his team at a low level of professional baseball, he began drinking and doing drugs. He’d never done anything like that while he played ball in high school. He ruined his career. This was when the drinking age in Massachusetts was 21, but in other states it was 18. When he came home, he didn’t have anything else he could do. He’d been passed through school by teachers who just wanted to let him be the star athlete in high school. Not a great idea.
My daughter teaches middle school. I wanted her to be able to use this book in her classroom, to show her students that there are better choices that can be made, even when someone is faced with split-second decisions.
I also brought in the themes of racism, immigration and criminal justice, but I made those be more subtle. These are issues we face in the United States, and I’m sure in other countries, but I wanted young people who read this book, in the context of baseball, to see this message as well.
If your main character was one of your friends, what advice would you give him?
If Jimmy Bailey were one of my friends, I’d tell him that there’s no power in external substances. My father was an alcoholic, and I’d introduce him to the problems my family had due to my father’s drinking. I’d let him know that he could never be the same person that his own father was, but that he had to be his own person.
This advice is difficult to pass on to an 18-year old, especially to someone who’s going away from home for the first time. Sometimes, though, when it comes from a person in her seventies, like I am, it’s like coming from a grandparent, and it’s respected advice, or perhaps even something that a young person can ponder, or it can plant a seed for future thought.
In Jimmy’s case, he was on the fence about going to meet up with his unsavory friends on the night he went to the beach and ultimately became linked to the death of a person he didn’t know—a murder he didn’t commit—but one he’d be prosecuted for. If he’d only listened to his father and mother and not gone out that night, his entire life would have been different. Would he listen to my advice? No telling.
Give me the first, middle and last line of your book:
First line: “Neatsfoot oil, as my father worked it into my glove, smelled like an old, greasy body shop.”
Middle line: “Bobby nodded off in the hospital’s ICU, thanks to his pain meds.”
End line: “I throw a strike.”
How did you come up with the title/slogan?
The title comes from the fact that when a ball is thrown from a pitcher to a catcher in a stadium with very few people in attendance, it makes a different sound when it hits the catcher’s glove than when it does in a full stadium. The same thing happens when a ball is thrown and it’s hit by a batter—the crack of the bat makes a specific sound. All of these guys had been used to playing in championship games with full crowds in the stands.
When they got to play in minor-league games, the stadiums were sparsely attended. They had to adjust the way they reacted when they threw the ball to the catcher. The noise didn’t make the same “pop” as it did with a full crowd. Same with the ball coming off the bat.
It’s ironic that there’s no baseball this year (so far), due to the Corona virus. People are asking me if I knew this day would come that all Major League and Minor League ballparks would be empty. Opening day for Major League Baseball would have been March 26. I have no crystal ball; it’s just a concept for players when they’re involved in a game.
Is there a dedication?
Dedication is to several people who were important to me vis-à-vis baseball. Four are deceased Major League Baseball players: Dick Radatz (former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox); Bill Monbouquette (former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox); Harmon Killebrew (former first baseman for the Minnesota Twins); and Kirby Puckett (former center fielder for the Minnesota Twins). The fifth person is Jack Lanzillotti, former producer for the Boston Red Sox on- field broadcasting team.
The Major League players are some of my personal favorites, people whom I admired for the way they played the game, and for the way they treated the fans. I spent time with three out of four of them (all except Kirby). I loved the way Kirby came to bat, with a smile on his face and always thinking he could win the game, no matter how far behind his team was.
Jack was a very special young man to me. When I served as a temporary public address announcer for the Red Sox on August 5, 2012, he was my producer. He showed me how to work everything, gave me the script, pointed to the script when I needed to speak, and was just overall helpful. I used my broadcasting experience to get this opportunity. Again, I knew the Red Sox didn’t necessarily want a woman in the job, but it was a great thrill to me to do this for one day.
About a year later, Jack and his fiancée were walking in Boston when an unlicensed driver mowed them both down, killing them. He was 29 years old. A special young man and woman were cut down in the prime of their lives. I will never forget him or his wonderful family.
Can you share a few lines from your best review of the book?
“This is the story of three young men, Jimmy, Bud and Bobby, playing minor league baseball, and their ups and downs during that time. One thing I enjoyed about the book is the feature of short chapters, a la James Patterson. This resulted in a quicker read, making it easier to pick it right back up when I found it necessary to put it down. That being said, Empty Seats was indeed a page-turner. The stories were well told and intersected nicely. There was a lot of back story to Jimmy, but it was Bobby who really got to me. He grew on me, just in time to break my heart.
“Another factor that I have to appreciate about the book is that it is sports fiction, something that I would not have ordinarily chosen to read. This is something that I enjoy about reviewing, the ability to step out of the proverbial box. But, I had forgotten how much I love baseball! How exciting it was to read this book! Sometimes it made me feel like I was right there. If you are now or ever have been, a baseball fan, then this book will no doubt resonate with you. If you like a good story with characters that you will be drawn to, then this book will be for you too. Wanda Adams Fischer writes a terrific debut novel, one that I was completely invested in.” (This was written by someone I don’t know, and so it wasn’t from one of my relatives!)
One of the other reviews I liked sums the book up this way, comparing it to a popular baseball movie: “This is a tragic version of ‘The Sandlot.’”
Wanda Adams Fischer has loved baseball since she was eight years old. She’s parlayed that into her first novel, which is not necessarily about her favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. Following a 40-year career in public relations/marketing/media relations, she retired in 2014. When she’s not writing, she’s listening to folk music for her show on WAMC Public Radio, “The Hudson River Sampler,” which she’s done since 1982. The Folk Alliance International inducted her into its Folk D-J Hall of Fame in 2019. She lives with her husband Bill Fischer, a retired family physician, in Schenectady, New York; they have two grown children and six grandchildren.
Click below for an excerpt!
Excerpt from Empty Seats
Neatsfoot oil, as my father worked it into my glove, smelled like an old, greasy body shop. He said it was the only way to get rid of the creaks it picked up over the long Massachusetts winter.
I was about four years old the spring my father took me out to the yard, a baseball in one hand, and two leather baseball gloves—one very worn, the other very small and very new—in the other.
My father looked like a giant to me. He was a little over six feet tall with broad shoulders. Whenever he looked at a baseball, his wry smile showed his crooked front teeth, yellowed from many years of drinking coffee. He was only in his mid-thirties, but wrinkles encased his eyes from so many years of squinting at the sun. He was the handsome man who still made my mother giggle whenever he walked by and patted her on the rear. Under the wear and tear was a spark, an energy I knew nothing about.
When we went out in the backyard to play ball. He wore the clothes from under his shipyard overhauls—worn, faded blue jeans with frayed cuffs, a worn white t-shirt, white socks and his steel-toed safety boots. He looked happy and comfortable.
But he looked especially happy when he had a baseball in his hand.