By Kendra Sitton
A new children’s book written by a lifelong Padres fan includes many Easter eggs about former players from the World Series-winning 1984 team. “Dan Unmasked” by Chris Negron is being published by HarperCollins on July 28, 2020.
The middle-grade book focuses on Dan Summers as he grapples with grief and heroism after his best friend is injured and goes into a coma. His baseball team features prominently in the book and many of his fellow players’ names are taken from the 1984 Padres team.
For example, Greg Dravecky is named after Graig Nettles, Greg Booker and Dave Dravecky. Mark Lefferts is name after Mark Thurmond and Craig Lefferts.
Downtown News spoke with Negron about his debut novel ahead of its release.
In your book, you have a lot of Padres Easter eggs. I was curious how you first became a Padres fan?
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and just like everywhere, at a certain age we were all baseball fans — playing Little League, that kind of thing. But the difference probably with somewhere like San Diego or in bigger cities is that we didn’t have a local team. We have a triple A team and of course everybody wants to be fans of a major league team. In my friend group, I had a friend who was a Milwaukee Brewers fan, a Detroit Tigers fan, and the Cincinnati Reds fan so we kind of just take teams. I think it was around that year  when it was about the age I needed to pick a favorite team, and of course, the Padres were doing very well that year. I was enamored with Tony Gwynn, although he isn’t one of the names that made it to the book. I thought it was too obvious but now I think that’s probably just me being a Padres fan. I didn’t want to pick a team that was what somebody else had right? Like I wanted my own team. So I picked a very faraway one, but it was good because later in life when I got older, I made a mecca out to the ballpark there so it was nice to have picked a warm weather place, coming from Buffalo to go take a vacation to.
Could you explain how you incorporated these Padres Easter eggs into your book?
When I started out in writing this one, it was actually my first book for kids. I had written some books for adults before and I had a different agent and all that kind of thing and it just didn’t work out. I actually had written a short story that was featuring characters that were around this age and my critique partners said that I have a real good voice for that so I decided to make this switch. As I was writing this one, I was really kind of focused on teams. I was going through some changes in my own team, leaving one agent looking for another, that sort of thing. I started with my nephews’ names — Jake and Ollie. And then I got to the other players in the team, there’s so many on the baseball team. You know I didn’t want to be character soup so I actually don’t even name every single player. With the other names, I decided I wanted to incorporate some names from my favorite team. I didn’t really even have to look but I did look just to make sure, at the roster. I pulled it up on the website, and of course, I remember all the players like Kevin McReynolds, Dave Dravecky and all these names. And I did choose a couple of names with Carmelo Martinez, the catcher who was from Puerto Rico. I did choose some names especially for that because my dad was born in Puerto Rico so I’m kind of a mix., very Americanized and white, but I wanted to represent that side. I grew up with those players and I did use the names intentionally on the team for that purpose but also for the purpose of just representing a little more the underdogs. Like the lead characters Dan Summers, his last names was for Champ Summers, who is sort of just a utility guy. I just liked that name too because the book was very much about summers. A lot of middle grade books are about school and so forth. In my book, I thought it would be a little bit different because of summer. I wanted to reflect that in the name too. I think in writing for me when a bunch of things come in are good reasons to do something, it’s like okay, this is the right thing to do.
It seems like as a kid, you picked this Padres team so you were very committed to these things you did as a kid. This is a lifelong fandom so I was also curious about when you started wanting to become a writer.
That’s a good question that actually, the way you phrased that, made me think of something else to just add which is when you write for kids, you start [asking] how it will help kids. So, when I started thinking about being that age of 13 and what I was interested in, it’s how I got a little bit of what the book is about because I wanted to write a book that reflected what was I going through at that time. When I was young, I had a friend who got injured and that’s what happened in the book although the injury in the book is much more serious. I just wanted to reflect sort of what I remember being troubled by because I think a book like that can help kids. If they see themselves in it or some time if they see a friend who’s struggling in the way that the characters are struggling in this book, maybe they can help them out. So that’s an answer to a different question but it just popped into my head.
The answerto the question you asked is, I don’t have a specific year, but it has to be right around that time. The story I always tell is that I used to play Dungeons & Dragons and you basically make up characters and many tell stories to each other. I can remember we played Dungeons & Dragons and I was playing basketball with him in his driveway afterwards and I said ‘I’m gonna write a book about our adventure.’ At the time, I thought I was gonna be a fantasy writer, which didn’t bear out.
What are you hoping middle grade readers get out of this book?
I’ve heard this from a lot of middle grade writers who have this concept of windows and mirrors. So what we want to do in middle grade books, especially for this age of kids, is we either want to hold up a mirror and let them see themselves and that goes for things like race and gender and all kinds of things like that so there’s a lot more representation going on now in the middle grade genre.
And then the window aspect is seeing other kids who aren’t like you. So, if you’re a kid who doesn’t like sports, but who reads this book and says, oh okay I understand why these other kids enjoy the sport, it doesn’t mean you have to become a convert, windows are just about seeing other kids your age and understanding them better. Having that window to them for sports or comic books are a big thing. In the book actually there’s a whole chapter where the main character Dan and this girl that he made a new friend with basically have this whole conversation about what do you love about comic books? It’s sort of a reflection for somebody who’s not into comics, they might think they’re weird and maybe you can understand better from the conversation.
I hope that I tell a story that entertains kids, that makes them care about themselves and other kids. If there’s anything that they struggle with, Dan thinks the accident that happened to his best friend is his fault. So he deals with a mixture of grief and guilt. I just wanted to make sure they see that if they’re struggling it is okay for them to let people know they are struggling. He realizes that all the adults around him, his parents, a comic book writer and also doctors and nurses, all help them in different ways and I think it shows that you can go to adults with things. You don’t have to keep it all inside.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.