Mark Stevens is an author and former journalist, but readers may know him better as a designated hitter for the late, great Gary Reilly, who died in 2011 at 61, with 25 unpublished novels. Ever since Reilly passed, Stevens has been working on getting those books into the hands of Colorado’s reading public.
Now Stevens has a new book of his own out: The Fireballer, which tells the story of a game-changing pitcher with a dark secret that threatens to overshadow all the good that his legendary, talented arm delivered in the major leagues. So yes, the novel is about America’s favorite pastime and the hit-the-ball-and-touch-’em-all romance that it implies. But it’s also about grief, forgiveness, home and peace, and coming to terms with both successes and failures. Stevens’s novel debuted on January 1, and he's reading from it at Tattered Cover McGregor Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, February 2. The event is free and open to the public; copies of The Fireballer will be available for purchase and signing.
Colorado Book Award for the 2014 book Trapline, and a 2016 nod as the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year. “I always thought I’d write crime fiction,” Stevens says, throwing up his hands. “This new book is a complete and utter departure from what I’ve been doing.”
Stevens credits that creative departure — and the idea for The Fireballer itself — to former Denver Public Schools superintendent Irv Moskowitz. “We’d been friends since the mid-’90s,” Stevens explains. Back then, Stevens was working for the Denver Post covering DPS, including long nights at school board meetings with lengthy executive sessions that he would have to wait out. But he would always bring a book to pass the downtime.
“One night Irv saw me reading a mystery novel,” Stevens recalls, “and he said he was a huge mystery fan, too, and a devout reader.” Through that connection, they became friends, and Stevens would eventually get hired away from the newspaper to work closely with Moskowitz as DPS director of communications. “We had approximately 1.2 billion lunches together,” Stevens laughs. “Burritos in the park, or pizza at some local joint. Never a white tablecloth for Irv.”
In the summer of 2018, they were having one of those many lunches in a park when Moskowitz casually remarked to Stevens that he should “write a novel about someone who ruins the sport of baseball.” Stevens asked him what he was talking about, and they got to discussing how close modern baseball is to being virtually unplayable.
“Top speed for a fastball pitch right now is 106 miles an hour,” explains Stevens. “It’s so little time for a batter to swing.” Moskowitz’s idea was: What if the main character in a novel threw a ball so fast that there was literally no time to swing and connect with the ball? It would take 110 MPH — not far off the top mark today.
Stevens says he liked the idea right away. “I love, love, love the sport of baseball,” he says. “There are people in fandom who can recite lineups from 1963 or whatever — I’m not that guy. I’m just fascinated by it. There’s no clock. There’s something pastoral about it. There’s opportunity for poetry in every aspect of it. I love that the defense starts the game; the pitcher is in control. Theoretically, if the pitcher is masterful enough, he doesn’t need anybody behind him. In theory, that’s possible. That’s so bizarre and wonderful.”
But Stevens says the idea for the novel really clicked when, later that very same night, the other half of the book occurred to him: What if that same character, playing little league as a kid, pitched a ball that hit and killed a kid with that same speed?
“I wasn’t really consciously thinking about the book,” he explains. “It was just my writerly brain working it subconsciously. I called Irv and explained the idea to him, and his response was, 'Boy, that’s a book.'”
After that origin story, the horsehide coincidences kept piling up. Stevens’s agent, Josh Getzler, used to own and operate the minor-league team Staten Island Yankees, a fact that Stevens was unaware of — but it was a perfect fit.
“The super-sad part of the story is that Irv died just before Thanksgiving last year,” says Stevens. Although Moskowitz just missed the debut of the novel hitting stores, he did get to read it in the editing process. “But I never would have written a non-crime novel if it weren’t for Irv.”
It’s not just Moskowitz that Stevens wishes was still around to enjoy the publishing of his new book. “I so wish Gary were here to help me with The Fireballer,” Stevens says, and smiles. “I don’t think I would have ever been published if it weren’t for Gary. He was a huge part of my first book [2007’s Antler Dust] and helped with the second [2011's Buried by the Roan], even though he passed away before it came out. He even planted the seed of the idea for my third [Trapline]. I’m going to champion Gary Reilly for as long as I’m here. He’s one of the greatest writers in Colorado — he was right here in our midst, and we just didn’t know it.”
Meanwhile, Stevens is still pitching — and he's throwing nothing but strikes.
Mark Stevens reads and signs The Fireballer, 6 p.m. Thursday, February 2, Tattered Cover McGregor Square, 1991 Wazee Street; admission is free.