BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Local author Tom Swyers’ book, “Saving Babe Ruth,” made a local stir with its fictionalized versions of very real people and places.
One character in particular, Jerry Conway, is both a high school principal and a professional sports agent. So, too, is Niskayuna High School principal Rickert, whose website, agentjr.com, boasts that he has more than 100 clients and more than $300 million in contracts negotiated.
In November of 2014, Rickert voluntarily discussed his second career as a sports agent with the Board of Education in an open community meeting. The meeting was spurred, at least in part, by the book and a blog post Swyers published claiming student’s college acceptance rates were suffering due to the principal’s agent work.
In a summary report issued in May 2015, the district asserted it could not find any clear evidence of specific situations where Rickert’s outside business conflicted with his work at the high school. Nonetheless, the report suggested the district would work to require some district employees to disclose outside earnings and explicitly prohibit outside work on school time. The process is ongoing.
Elsewhere in the country, people have taken notice of the book simply for its plot, in which an impassioned father turns his own life upside down to rescue community baseball from a villainous, cigar-smoking capitalist out to profit from the sport and his cronies in a corrupt school district.
Regardless of what’s real and what’s embellished, Swyers’ debut novel took home several book awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Book Award Gold Winner, “Best First Book: Fiction,” for 2015, and Benjamin Franklin Book Award Silver Winner, “Best Popular Fiction,” for 2015. Benjamin Franklin Book Awards are coveted among independent publishers.
Swyers also won the Readers Views “Best Regional Fiction 2014/2015: Northeast” and was a finalist in the “Best New Fiction” category for the 2014 USA Best Book Awards. It was also listed in the Kindle store’s top ten books in the “Baseball Essays and Writings” category for several consecutive months in 2015.
Swyers recently sat down with Your Niskayuna to answer some questions about the book that caused a local buzz. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: So, first things first: this book is based on Niskayuna, right?
A: Oh, it definitely is inspired by the town, for sure, and I think people who grew up here will see some parallels.
Q: A lot of the book revolves around your changing relationship with baseball. In real life, what does the sport mean to you?
A: When I went to high school, I played football and track. I was co-captain of both, and I was pretty good at football. I was MVP that year of the team. I didn’t pursue it in college because at that time I needed, actually, to work.
I think baseball first started off being an outlet for my son, and then as he grew older, I think it became more and more important because the outlets tend to disappear, especially when you hit high school, and this goes for any town.
From that point on it became more and more important because it represented to him an outlet and a way to define himself, going through all the challenges that any normal teenager would go through at that age. But then it took on a bigger role as a result of that.
I saw that baseball was really being threatened by this whole professionalization of sports. Myself and some others tried to come up with a way where kids could explore their talents fully in playing baseball and yet still support their community. And I’m happy to say that I think we found a way to achieve that balance. I think Niskayuna baseball is much stronger as a result. I think baseball throughout the Capital Region is stronger as a result.
And then, baseball took on a different perspective when the book came out in that I was contacted by communities from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa … there was a lady in Iowa who sent me a whole file on her fight to save community baseball and gave me a complete rundown of the characters that were involved in Iowa.
And then I spoke down at the NJ State little league championships last summer. They were going through something similar and the book really addressed the issues that they were going through. And so it became then something that went national.
It was something that started with my son and ended up going national.
Q: How is Nisky baseball structured now and what are your personal experiences as an advocate for community baseball?
A: At this point in time, I don’t serve on the Niskayuna Baseball board. But it’s structured such that the teenagers can play baseball supporting their community, playing in-house, playing amongst themselves in teams that are structured within a town league.
At the Babe Ruth level, which is ages 13-15, they had five or six teams this year. So they play amongst themselves, but through the Empire State Baseball League, which I co-founded, we’re able to offer the more advanced players an opportunity to play travel baseball among different towns two days a week.
I think unfortunately when things get out of control, as you saw what took place in the book, it can actually harm a community’s program. What do we need? We don’t need one less outlet in our communities for teenagers. We need more.
It was so bad, of course, that I was the target of a lawsuit and that just gives you an indication of how much was at stake back then, I guess.
Q: Can you talk about that at all?
A: I can talk about it, just to say that myself, Babe Ruth, and a couple other people were targeted by a travel baseball outlet. One of the things was some sort of anti-trust violation, monopolization. So basically from our perspective it was a lawsuit filed to intimidate us, to establish this option, this travel baseball option in competition with that actually supports the main leagues.
The conflict in the book revolves around the setting, this baseball field that the main character, David Thompson, cares for so much.
I tried to distinguish what was David’s attitude towards the field and the travel baseball’s outfit toward the field. David had sort of a loving relationship with the field, he saw it as something to be cherished, and on the other side of the coin, the travel outfit in the book thought it was something to be used.
Q: Was there a real conflict over who used what field? Was that something that you’ve experienced, sort of turf wars?
Q: Is that common in a lot of the communities that you’ve talked to?
A: Um, no. I think that was unique to our town at that time. However, field space is definitely an issue. It’s very easy to form a team. All you need is players and some bats, some insurance, which is relatively easy to come by … but what you don’t have is a field. So that’s what the controversies usually center around.
I think it’s important for all communities to try to look into the legal structure of the teams that play on your field. Are they not for profit? Are they registered not for profit 501(c)3’s? Or are they just businesses?
Q: That was something that happened in the book as well. The character David noticed that the elite travel baseball was saying they were a nonprofit but they actually weren’t. Is that something you came up against here?
A: Yes. My view is, private baseball is allowed like private golf. But if you’re going to have a private golf club with membership to the exclusion of others then buy a private field.
I should say, there can be legitimate nonprofit travel teams, in a legal sense.
Q: Your wife and son, in their parallels, Annie and Christy, they play a pretty large role in the book. So what do they think of it? How autobiographical is it?
A: Well … that’s the challenge. I think there are a lot of people out there who ask, ‘How much is it real and how much is it fiction?’ And that’s an understandable question.
I started out with the idea of writing a nonfiction book about the experience, but because of a number of privacy and personal and legal issues, it just didn’t seem to … it was not a good idea. The story also wasn’t working in nonfiction. There were some connections that were lost.
And so I started to fictionalize things. And I think an important thing to realize is once I fictionalized one thing, the whole book became a work of fiction. And so I guess that’s the best way I can answer that.
As far as my family goes, they don’t … they support the idea of the book and they realize it’s fiction from their point of view, to a certain extent.
Q: They’re both great characters.
A: I enjoyed writing that part of the book.
Q: This was your first book, correct? So what did you learn during the process?
A: It was my debut as an author.
I took away that it’s a very difficult, challenging industry to be involved with and looking back on it, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
One of the challenges I first came faced with was I hadn’t decided whether I wanted to pursue an agent or to go about it myself as an independent author. Being in my mid-50s and not having written a book before and not wanting to go through the rejection process that all authors have to go through, I decided to start my own publishing entity, and pursue it that way.
The writing process took an extremely long time. I think anybody today can publish a book. It’s very easy. However if you want to publish your very best effort, a book that meets the standards of the traditional publishing industry, you have to invest a lot of time and money in doing that.
So I hired a developmental editor in New York City and she had edited a number of books. One of them was Walt Frazier’s biography. She was very instrumental in helping me find my voice. And I hired an editor who’s also edited James Patterson books.
The first major debut, you want to put your best foot forward knowing full well that you’re a first-time author. You have to build your own expectations. I just wanted it to be the best book that I was capable of doing at the time and I tried to take every resource that I could to accomplish that.
I took courses at Skidmore. It was quite a transition from writing from a legal perspective to writing something that is fictional.
My intent was to have people really think about what’s going on today with respect to youth sports in small-town America. And I wanted them also to be entertained. So, to inform people, to have them think about what’s going on and to entertain them were three goals that I had.
Q: Is “Saving Babe Ruth” making money for you? Is it going to make money for you?
A: I think the only way it’s going to ever make money for me is if it becomes a raging national best seller for a long period of time. I think the chances of that, when you’re a baseball guy like myself and think in terms of probability, I don’t think the chances are that high.
Q: Did you enjoy the writing process enough to take on another book just for the pleasure of it?
A: I have thought about doing another book. I’ve thought about David Thompson living again, in yet another novel. But I haven’t yet decided whether or not I want to go through with that. It’s a huge commitment.
I miss the practice of law a little bit. I think I’d like to be involved in the practice of law in some way going forward. I think I’d also like to talk to people about the publishing industry. I think I have some great experience, great insights into what it’s like out there, and maybe teach a writing course or something.
But I can’t say I won’t ever write another book. I just might.
Q: It seems like it was a real growth experience.
A: It was a growth experience. It certainly wasn’t a remunerative experience as far as making money goes, at this point, but that was always secondary in my mind. Primary in my mind was the passion for the message that I had and I hope my passion shines through by virtue of the book and by virtue of the risks I’ve taken to actually come out and talk about it.
Q: Locally, you did start a conversation. I’m thinking of the community meeting the school district had with Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert. So was that a success in your mind?
A: I’m a positive person by nature, and so I try and look at the positives that have happened as a result of that meeting.
There are two things we can take away from that meeting: the first is that we’ve addressed an issue within this town that should’ve been addressed years ago. I think over the course of the last six months when they’ve issued their final report, there was a realization that there was a problem and they laid out steps to fix it. I think John Yagielski was faced with a very difficult challenge and he did the best he could with it. Hopefully the administration in charge now will see it to its conclusion.
I think the other thing that came of this was to raise the issue of record keeping with respect to college admissions for students. I think we need to remember… this is not just our town, but it’s every town, it’s the duty of our school districts to provide the opportunity for every child, regardless of who they are, with the ability to see to the next step in their lives.
Whether they’re going to community college, or four-year private or public, or whether they’re going to trade school or anything else … that is something that we need to emphasize just as much, in my opinion, as academics. And so I think as a result of the meeting, I think there’s a renewed emphasis on keeping accurate information with respect to college admission rates.
So those are two things.
Personally, when I was growing up I thought the school district was great. I still think it’s great with respect to the teaching staff. I should say my son had a very good guidance experience there.