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Hard to Grip

Hard to Grip: A Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness by Emil DeAndreis (Schaffner Press, $16.95, 326 pages)

hard to grip

“You, see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  – Jim Bouton (Ball Four)

Emil DeAndreis is an excellent high school baseball player in a weak conference.  He gets his chance at Division I baseball at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  Hawaii at Hilo is far from a top tier program, but Division I is Division I.  DeAndreis is a borderline D-1 player, but he is a left-handed pitcher – always a commodity.

Hard to Grip is DeAndreis’s story, subtitled a memoir of youth, baseball, and chronic illness.  Shortly after he graduates from college, he signs a professional contract to play baseball in Belgium, only to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  There are flashes of promise in his writing.  He saves the best for last.

As a high school pitching coach, he tries to express to his players that everyone’s career ends one day, and closes the book with the line, “I tell them it’s like a disease you learn to live with.”

DeAndreis chronicles his passion for baseball, his disillusionment following his diagnosis, and his battle to come to grips with the fact that his life is irrevocably changed.  He does find love, and ultimately reconciles with his loss of having to prematurely let go of the game.

The book is good.  Those who have dreamed of playing and had their careers cut short for whatever reason can probably relate.  It is an honest telling from the get-go, and the parallel of his best friend Charlie – who is more talented, and his challenges in pro ball constitute another side of the story told by DeAndreis. (DeAndreis leaves it up to the reader to determine what happened to Charlie.)

Unfortunately, the book does not have many engaging moments.  Too much of the book is a retelling of events that fail to resonate with the reader.  DeAndreis might have done more to draw the reader in; to see that the events that happened in his life (“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” John Lennon) are the types of unexpected things that happen with others.

hard to grip too

DeAndreis is currently working on a novel, and his fledgling talent may well make it a successful one.  There are high points in Hard to Grip, but not enough of them to sustain the typical reader’s interest from start to finish.  This is a niche book for hardcore baseball fans.  Perhaps the writing promise hinted at in Hard to Grip will fully manifest itself in his future work.

Recommended, for sports fans and/or one-time athletes.

Dave Moyer

Hard to Grip was published on April 1, 2017.  “A vibrant depiction of a ballplayer that finds his way (in life) despite losing his ability to play the game he loves.”  Mike Krukow

Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent, a drummer who hopes to play on stage with The Who one day, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

 

 

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The Arm

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The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports by Jeff Passan (Harper, $26.99, 376 pages)

One of the first things nearly all of us who picked up a baseball as a little boy – dreaming of one day playing in the major leagues, heard was, “Now remember, son, you only have one arm.” Jeff Passan has written a must read for any baseball fan called The Arm, which delves deeply into the mystery of how this limb withstands the continued trauma of throwing a baseball until it finally breaks down.

Anyone who has taken the pitcher’s mound in any relatively competitive situation from youth travel ball, to varsity high school baseball, to college, to pro ball, has said on numerous occasions, “I can throw. Gimme the ball.” That is how pitchers are wired. In the pitcher’s mind, he can’t pitch and beat you if you don’t give him the ball. But, how much is too much? What is the right number for a pitch limit? How much rest is required under what circumstances? What types of training, conditioning and preventive measures work best? What actually causes the arm to break down? According to Passan, nobody knows for sure. He faults organized baseball for not being more proactive in this regard, though he does cite some progress in this area over the past couple of years.

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In 1974 Dr. Frank Jobe made history by drilling holes into Tommy John’s elbow and weaving a new ligament into it to replace John’s torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This, of course, came to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” which now seems about as common for pitchers as putting their spikes on. According to Passan, instead of naming the surgery after himself – which is common when coining an innovative surgical procedure – he deferred to John, who he said is the one who had to undergo all of the pain and hard rehabilitative work.

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Two hundred and eighty-eight major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Just two have had it twice: journeyman reliever Todd Coffey, and Dan Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. A significant portion of the book chronicles their professional and personal highs and lows as they attempt to return to The Show.

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The book addresses how travel ball and specialization has taken over youth sports and delves into one of the preeminent organizations in the country, Perfect Game. It goes back in time to trace the evolution of arm care, from Sandy Koufax and the premature end of his career, all the way up to Kyle Boddy of DriveLine baseball in Kent, Washington, and his controversial training approach using over and underweight balls. Also included are discussions of alternatives to going under the knife.

While Passan seems intrigued at the possibilities offered by some of the new approaches to training, prevention, and treatment, the book does not conclude with an answer as to how to better protect young and old pitching arms. That’s because nobody has the answer. It may be that throwing a baseball as hard as you can, thousands and thousands of times – over decades beginning at age eight or so, is simply a destructive act.

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One final note: assuming both World Series teams carry 12 pitchers on their roster, 12.5% of the pitchers throwing in the 2016 World Series have had Tommy John surgery – John Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians and John Lackey and Hector Rondon of the Chicago Cubs. Tomlin was drafted in 2006, reached the big leagues in 2010 and had Tommy John surgery in 2012. He went 13-9 this year in 29 starts and sports a 49-39 career win-loss record. Lackey was 11-8 this year in 29 starts, and boasts a 176-135 win-loss record over 16 seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011. Rondon, a reliever, had 18 saves this year and has a 14-14 career win-loss record. He missed some playing time this year with a non-arm injury and had Tommy John surgery performed in 2010.

While The Arm does not supply a solution as to how baseball can protect the arms of Little Leaguers and college pitchers and professional throwers like Tomlin, Lacky and Rondon, it performs a service in focusing attention on the ongoing issue of constitutionally fragile arms. It’s a good start.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Arm was released on April 5, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a school administrator in Illinois, a member of the Sheboygan A’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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The Game of Life

The Pitcher: A Novel by William Hazelgrove (Koehlerbooks, $15.95, 241 pages)

The Pitcher (nook book)

Everyone has a dream. Ricky’s is to pitch for the baseball team of the high school that he’ll be attending in the coming year. The Hispanic youth has a great fastball but no control, so the dream appears unlikely to come true. But then he meets The Pitcher, a former major league baseball player who pitched his team to victory in the World Series. The Pitcher is not only gruff, he’s in mourning for his late wife and wants nothing to do with the world.

William Hazelgrove has fashioned a near classic baseball story with a few unexpected elements. Because Ricky is Mexican-American in a predominantly white and prosperous community, he faces discrimination based on his ethnicity and poverty. He’s willing to do almost anything to prove that his athletic skills are good enough, knowing full well that life generally gives you only one shot at success. Can he somehow convince The Pitcher to be his coach and mentor?

This novel is completely unlike Hazelgrove’s previous book, Rocket Man, but it’s engaging and uplifting. It would be a perfect story for a young athlete-to-be who needs inspiration and encouragement. Ricky demonstrates that grit and determination are essential qualities for dreamers.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

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Coming Up Next…

One Last Strike (prev.)

A review of One Last Strike: 50 Years in Baseball, 10 and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season by Tony La Russa.

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Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard (Hyperion, $24.95, 254 pages)

“He loved us boys…  He loved us, and we loved him – and we still do.”   Steve Shartzer on Macon high’s former baseball coach Lynn Sweet

One Shot at Forever proves that Bad News Bears stories do happen in real life.   This is the tale of the 1971 high school baseball team from the rust belt town of Macon, Illinois.   The Macon team represented the smallest high school to ever qualify for the Illinois state championship playoff, and they did it not once, but two years in a row.   The talented team with the mismatched uniforms and an unconventional coach (he was said to look like a hung-over version of Frank Zappa) was headed to Peoria in 1970, before being disqualified on a strange technicality.   It looked like the underdog’s day was over, until the slight, long-haired players very improbably made another championship run in ’71.

The boys from Macon adopted Jesus Christ Superstar as their theme song, and they made it all the way to the state championship final game.   Did they win or lose the big game?   You’ll need to read One Shot to find out.

Chris Ballard has produced a great, small but big, book about life’s lessons and the value of competition.   This one’s especially recommended for younger readers whose wins, losses and draws are still ahead of them.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A beautiful and unforgettable book.”   Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard.

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Shine On

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky (Riverhead Trade, $16.00, 352 pages)

The Eastern Stars, subtitled How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, by Mark Kurlansky, chronicles the evolution of baseball in this town, the island in general, and – in some cases – the surrounding Caribbean islands.

At its conclusion, the book has a listing of the first 79 players from San Pedro de Macoris that made it into the U.S./Canadian major leagues.   Many readers will likely assume this book has more baseball content and less history, and from the middle toward the end, baseball plays a more prominent role in the story.   The beginning of the book is a long history lesson, which may prove to be quite frustrating for some readers.

The most interesting parts of the book are the tales of how the local men who did succeed in playing major league baseball viewed their hometown.   The decisions they made during and after their careers relating to how they supported the needs of their families and brethren had outcomes ranging from remarkable generosity to outright dismissal.

Extreme poverty is the one common denominator affecting all.   The subjects of steroids, scouts, and how MLB organizations handled their affairs in Latin America also permeate throughout.

The book dances between trying to satisfy the history buffs and the baseball fans and, thus, falls short in both areas.   However, it does add up to a satisfying story, especially after it manages to leave the ground.   Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mark Kurlansky is also the author of the nonfiction books Cod and Salt. 

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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