December 2 , 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 52  

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SPORTS

Once upon a time in sports... Matt Christopher

By Dan Perry
Gazette Staff

Dan, an un-athletic 12-year-old boy, has trouble making all the sports teams; despite his understanding of the games' strategies and his memorization of all the stats, he can't quite fit in with his sports-obsessed, small-town classmates. One day, he finds a series of books in the library, but will they be enough to keep him out of therapy when he's in his 20s?

A typical plot line -though slightly less realistic- greets the sixth-grader on the back of every book in the exciting world of Matt Christopher, the serial novelist who carried -the little guys-through their every fantasy of becoming an unlikely sports legend.

The Hockey Machine, Soccer Halfback, Tough to Tackle and Too Hot to Handle are some of his more notable works, all of which rolled the joy of sportsmanship and victory into moral lessons. Through the magic of sport, any problem -including academics, drugs, family trouble and even the much-feared opposite sex- could be solved for Christopher's young protagonists in about 120 pages.

In The Hockey Machine, Steve Crandall takes a ride home from a stranger in a limousine. Before he knows it, he's held prisoner with his teammates on the madman's elite junior team in an obsessive quest for a league title. Though the boys don't win it all, they manage to get away before it's too late and learn a valuable lesson in the end -after some well-described games of kick-ass-and-take-names hockey, of course.

New Matt Christopher books are still rolling off the presses, though like Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene before him, the author has a secret -he passed away in 1993- and several writers have carried on the series under his incredibly successful identity. Boys and girls everywhere can still relive the magic of Mr. Baruth in The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, then watch the ghost's magic be dashed by his counterpart Cheeko in the sequel Return of the Home Run Kid.

One of Christopher's most memorable novels, Red Hot High-Tops, broke new ground by focusing on a girl named Kelly's magical shoes that carry her basketball team to win after win. Of late, though, I'm skeptical of works starring girls like Windmill Windup; the sport of fast-pitch, sadly, has been reduced to a weaker, more ladylike baseball. Christopher's progeny have forgotten his early, uplifting tales and replaced them with marketable, oppressive filler.

At www.mattchristopher.com, you can see the complete disillusionment of my childhood, as the site hocks Christopher's new books about snow boarding and other "extreme" sports. He now lends his name to cheap biographies of Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal and Mia Hamm, completely cashing in on children's most unrealizable dreams by introducing them to their favourite sneaker salesperson at a younger age.

Though co-opted of late, I'm reminded of Boots Raymond's struggle in Tough to Tackle. Like Boots, I wanted to be the quarterback, too. But despite being assigned to tackle (read: the bench) because of my size, reading Christopher's books was all that kept me from quitting the team -at least until a combination of girls, cars, beer and academics accomplished the feat a mere three years later.

 

 

 

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