The time-traveling “Baseball Card Adventures” are a staple in most elementary and middle school libraries, for good reason. Dan Gutman’s novels are lots of fun. Joe Stoshack and the supporting cast of characters are likeable and thoughtful. If I could be 12 years old again, I’d want to be “Stosh.” In Roberto & Me (Baseball Card Adventure #10) Joe travels back in time to meet Roberto Clemente to try to dissuade him from taking the plane trip that took his life in 1972.
As most older baseball fans know, Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering disaster relief supplies to survivors of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente’s charitable spirit and his work for humanitarian causes form the background for this book. How much more could Clemente have accomplished – both on and off the field – had his life not ended at age 38? That’s what Joe wants to know.
(Note: the rest of this post is basically one big “spoiler,” so if you’re a kid and you want to read this book, then stop reading this post NOW!)
As Joe acknowledges is this book, his adventures never go as planned. Instead of landing at the ballpark, Joe finds himself at the last day of the Woodstock festival. He and his new friend – a runaway teenage girl named Sunrise – hitch a ride to Cincinnati where Clemente’s Pirates are playing the Reds. Joe and Sunrise watch the game and have a meal with Clemente afterward, where Joe warns him about the flight and even shows him a newspaper clipping describing his death. Clemente shrugs it off, convicted of his mission to help his fellow man wherever he is needed. Joe then convinces Sunrise to return home to her parents, as he returns to the present time. (Along the way Joe and Sunrise have gotten a little boyfriend-girlfriend-handy-holdy, which is cute and charming and handled very well.) Joe returns home to find that Clemente did not heed his warning.
Then Roberto & Me jumps off the rails and gives us a third act. Joe’s great-grandson Bernard– also a time traveler – takes Joe to the future … a desolate, globally-warmed future. Bernard begs Joe to change his world so that global warming doesn’t occur. Joe returns again to the present – inspired by Clemente, and motivated by what he has seen of the future.
Dan Gutman is one of my favorite tween authors, and the “Baseball Card Adventures” is one of my favorite series. I met Dan at a conference, and later e-mailed with him several times, trying to persuade him to come to sunny Florida for an author visit (he didn’t, but sent a great DVD that my students loved.) Dan is a great guy and a true gentleman. He’s obviously passionate about global warming and reducing fossil fuel consumption – just check-out his web-site. But I would say to Dan: write THAT book. Write that SERIES. In Roberto & Me, it’s just a quick shock that seems really out of place.
Sadly, Roberto & Me is underdeveloped in the areas we’ve come to expect from the Baseball Card Adventures. Joe’s encounter with Clemente is extremely limited and reveals almost none of the quirky insights about baseball heroes that Gutman typically provides. Although the future changes for one minor character, I really wanted to know what happened to two others. What happened to Sunrise? She would be about 60 years old in Joe’s present time. What if Joe met his “first girlfriend” again in the present? Awkward!!!... and just the type of meeting that Gutman would have fun with. And how about the driver of the van that takes Sunrise and Joe from Woodstock to Ohio? He’s intelligent and visionary, and Joe gives him a hand-held Nintendo video game! I want to know what he does with that technology. The whole Terminator movie franchise is based on less, and I really wanted to see this guy in the future/present (maybe a cross between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?)
That said, there’s nothing really wrong with Roberto & Me. But the unexpected and ill-fitting whiplash to the future, the lack of inside information about a baseball legend, and Gutman’s squandered opportunities to show that he is the master of this craft, make this the least fulfilling book in an excellent series.