The crack of a bat … the leathery smell of a baseball glove … the taunting chatter from the infielders. The Boys of Late Summer, by retired actuary Jerry Miccolis, is filled with the sights and sounds that baseball fans love, even if the topic is technically senior softball.
The memoir recounts how the author hand-picked a team of senior softball players in his home state of New Jersey and took them to face off against 60 of the best teams from the U.S., Canada and Cuba in the 24th annual Cape Cod Classic. A tale of underdogs testing themselves against a sport, the book captures the love of the game and the twists and turns of competition — even if the vibe is a little more Bad News Bears than Chariots of Fire.
Miccolis lists his current occupation as writer and cruciverbalist (a person skilled at creating and solving crossword puzzles). Since he retired, Miccolis’s puzzles have appeared in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Yet his interest in writing dates back much further. While an actuary at Towers Perrin, where Miccolis eventually headed up the global enterprise risk management practice, he literally wrote the book on the topic in 2001 (Enterprise Risk Management: Trends and Emerging Practice). After leaving that position to work in investment management, Miccolis wrote a less technical book, Asset Allocation for Dummies, published in 2009. When he retired for good in 2016, he finally had time to tackle a different kind of writing project.
“I wanted to try my hand at something accessible to the general public,” Miccolis says, “to see if I could.” While mulling over ideas — a thriller about corporate intrigue crossed his mind — he traveled to the Cape Cod Classic with his team, Jersey Boys. After the tournament, the writer says, “I was talking to my wife, and I said, ‘I’ve never played worse, and I’ve never had such a great time — what’s up with that?’ It seemed to make sense to really explore that paradox.”
Like the movie The Commitments, in which a group of hardscrabble Irish musicians try to reach the big time playing the blues, Miccolis’s story begins with the process of getting his group together. He joins forces with bear-like catcher, manager and full-time gospel minister John Esposito to pore over the vital stats of New Jersey’s finest age 65-plus softballers. The two then must persuade each man to sign up. The team grows to include a DJ, a former professional mime, a shortstop with a magnificent mustache “not easily categorized as a Fu Manchu, horseshoe, walrus, or biker model,” and a research chemist once approached by “a Mafia operative with an offer to make drugs for the Mob.” (The outfielder declined; his company had a better retirement plan.)
Can this motley group that’s never even practiced together trounce the best senior softball teams in the country? As the answer unfolds, Miccolis intersperses the tournament action with the story of his own road to the championships. It began on his 50th birthday, when his wife Marcella gave him a bat, a pair of spikes and a season schedule for a senior softball team — a gift that he credits with changing his life.
Miccolis suffered a run of injuries on his first team, tearing first his right quadricep, then his left one, and discovering that “there are few things quite so humbling as being pinch-run for by someone 20 years older.” Despite this, he persevered. The writer learned that his new ballplaying friends also refused to give up, returning to the game after cancer treatments and even open-heart surgery. He writes, “They simply decline to be diminished by the inevitable ravages of time. They absolutely refuse to let advanced age and ailments get the better of them.” He sticks with the game too, playing first in New Jersey leagues during the summer, then in Hawaii leagues during the winter, and eventually competing in tournaments including the Cape Cod Classic.
Writing the memoir proved as to be as challenging as playing in the games. “It was a stretch to write something for the general public,” says Miccolis, “and then yet another stretch to make it so personal.” He started the project by running the idea past his teammates, all of whom agreed to participate and sit down for interviews. In the end, Miccolis gathered over 30 hours of recorded material. He also used the stats and records for each game to supplement his own memory.
The first draft was far from a home run. “I ran some early drafts past some fellow ball players who have also been published,” says Miccolis, “and got some brutal, brutal feedback. That part wasn’t all that much fun. But it was very useful.”
Struggling to find a way to organize his material, Miccolis learned about a format called the competition documentary. In books and movies that follow this classic formula, “the structure of the story is identical,” he says. “You’re cutting in and out of the game with the very personal stories of key competitors, and the game action’s almost incidental.” For research, the writer sat down to watch documentaries about unusual competitions, including Spellbound, a behind-the-scenes look at a spelling bee, and Wordplay, a film about a crossword puzzle competition. Miccolis also read Wilt, 1962, a book about the legendary 1962 game in which Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks.
As he began to rewrite the book as a competition documentary, the story started falling into place. But there was one major obstacle: too many characters. While the movies he watched focused on one, or just a few, competitors, Miccolis says, “I just couldn’t bring myself to eliminate half of my teammates. So, I said, ‘what the hell, I’m going to try to include all twelve. And if certain key characters emerge above the rest, so be it.’” Miccolis found the story of outfielder Chris O’Rear, who grew up in an orphanage but went on to start his own construction company, to be the most compelling of all. (The enterprising O’Rear also stands out for being the only player to learn how to play softball by watching online tutorials.)
Although he was delighted to win the contract for the Dummies series book in early 2008, Miccolis was only halfway through the manuscript that fall when the financial markets began to implode during the Great Recession. Even worse, he was working as an investment manager at the time.
The manuscript was shaping up, but Miccolis says that after writing his book, Asset Allocation for Dummies, “I promised myself if I ever wrote another book, it would be on my own schedule.” Although he was delighted to win the contract for the Dummies series book in early 2008, Miccolis was only halfway through the manuscript that fall when the financial markets began to implode during the Great Recession. Even worse, he was working as an investment manager at the time.
“I spent all my waking hours talking clients off a ledge, while I was trying to find time to solve their problems,” said Miccolis. At the same time, deadlines were firm. “The publisher was insisting on a chapter a week. There was no slack. I said, ‘This is kind of a historic event, I really need to devote time to my clients, can we build a little slack into the schedule?’ And they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a contract. If after a week you can’t deliver, we’ll find somebody else.’”
Miccolis finished The Boys of Late Summer manuscript in January 2019. He considered looking for an agent and publisher, but describes that process as “a very, very long road. And the self-publishing road came to fruition sooner. So that’s what I ended up doing.”
This time, publishing the book coincided with another historic event: the coronavirus pandemic. In order to self-publish it, Miccolis had to oversee every step from copy editing and proofreading to creating cover art and designing the book’s layout. “Exploring who does it, who’s good at it, who can do it within my budget, interviewing them, vetting their work product, for each of a half a dozen different steps, that took months,” remembers Miccolis. But because the work corresponded with the lockdown phase of the pandemic, “I had a concentrated couple of months to get that all done,” he says. “If not for the lockdown, I’d still be doing it.” Miccolis pulled the project together and published The Boys of Late Summer on the Amazon Kindle direct publishing platform, where it came out in May. The book is available for either e-reader or as a print-on-demand paperback.
“It’s about doing something meaningful with the last third of your life,” Miccolis says, “and pursuing all the passions you had to put aside while you were working for a living.”
Self-publishing means that the job of promoting the book, and getting it into readers’ hands, falls to the author as well. “The timing is awkward,” says Miccolis. “On the one hand, I think [for] providing something for people to read, the timing couldn’t be better. On the other hand, all the traditional things you would do to promote a book — book signings, book tours — they’re just out of the question at the moment.” Miccolis promoted the book with an email blast to his contacts. The local paper in Kauai, Hawaii, where he and wife live in the winter, ran a feature story. Miccolis also had a banner printed up that he can hang at future softball games, where he plans to sell the memoir to baseball fans who show up at the park.
In a classic sports story, sometimes the hero wins the day — like the moment in The Natural when Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, hits the pennant-winning home run right into the stadium lights and rounds the bases under a ticker tape of exploding sparks. In others, the hero loses, but ends up gaining something more important than a victory. Miccolis doesn’t want to reveal the end of his story ahead of time, but it’s not a spoiler to mention that, for him, softball and sports are not the true focus of the book. “It’s about doing something meaningful with the last third of your life,” Miccolis says, “and pursuing all the passions you had to put aside while you were working for a living.”
Now that the book is available to readers, Miccolis is surprised by some of the reactions he’s gotten, stating, “I’ve heard from people I haven’t heard from in 30 years, saying, I haven’t talked to you in 30 years, but I can hear you talking through those pages. That was clearly your voice, I could hear you talking as if I were sitting across the table from you.” Another old friend said that Miccolis had inspired him to start working on a book he’d been meaning to write about his family, saying that the story deserved to be told, and he didn’t want it to die with his generation. Miccolis finds that the feedback “is gratifying on a level I didn’t expect.”
Will the book appeal to actuaries? “As an athlete, I’m a weekend warrior,” Miccolis points out. “I’m not even a very good amateur athlete. I’m still at heart a nerd and a numbers geek, so I had to include in the book some geeky stuff, like the math and physics of softball.”
The retired actuary would like to write another book, but he’s not sure yet what form it will take. He’ll also have to fit the work into his already packed schedule of creating crosswords for publications, building sets for theaters in New Jersey, and helping kids with math and science literacy.
Miccolis surprised himself recently, when one of the theaters he builds sets for issued a call for short plays. Even though he’d never written a play before — or even thought about it — Miccolis decided to enter the competition. He had 48 hours to write a 12-page play that included a trumpet, unexpected money, a porch, a dance break and a secret (with extra credit for working in the Devil). It’s possible his next project will be as unexpected as his softball memoir. But one thing he knows for sure: If it’s summertime, then somewhere outside, hot dogs are roasting, fans are cheering, and third base is calling — and writing might have to wait.
Laurie McClellan is a freelance writer and photographer living in Arlington, Virginia.