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Review: Hard to Grip by Emil DeAndreis

An up-and-coming pitcher struggles with his new reality after a chronic illness makes baseball impossible for him.

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Courtesy of Schaffner Press

This is not a book about the Detroit Tigers.

I feel it’s important for me to make that clear right out of the gate, since this is a Tigers site. Which will naturally beg the question: “Why are you reviewing a book that isn’t about the Tigers?” The answer is simple: because beyond loving a team, we are all united in our love for a game, and this book is about what it means to love a game so much it almost destroys you.

The name Emil DeAndreis won’t ring any bells for most of us. Even the most devoted of prospect watchers likely won’t recall the UH Hilo pitcher. He wasn’t drafted by any major organizations, didn’t participate in any minor league camps. In fact, I had to ask him why it was he thought his story merited being told when he was an almost-was rather than a has-been.

When I asked him why readers might be interested in him, he explained, “I never ascend to unreachable heights as a ballplayer. I am constantly getting humbled by the game. I am constantly NOT the best player on any team I'm on. I feel like my story is one degree-less separated from a professional, and thus one degree closer to the average reader, the average sports fan, the average human who has strengths and weaknesses.”

That’s where the heart of Hard to Grip is found. It’s the story of a young man who got close enough to his dream to touch it, and then was betrayed by the one thing a player needs in order to succeed: his own body.

DeAndreis’s story follows him from high school, where he recalls pitching championship games in San Francisco’s AT&T Park. He remembers with perfect clarity receiving a card from a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, that he carried in his wallet for years like a talisman, something that proved he was worthy of note from the pros. But his call up never came. Even as his best friend Charlie — Charlie Cutler, who is still active in the independent league — is drafted, Emil still clings to hopes for a future in the game. He’s a talented player, but suffers from being the big fish in a small pond, or rather being the most talented guy in a sub-par league. He soon realizes there may not be any team offers around the corner and takes a scholarship offer from University of Hilo in Hawaii.

What plays out through his college experience is nothing short of an updated version of Animal House. He drinks to excess, lives recklessly in a house with other players, and takes terrible care of himself physically and academically. DeAndreis has a way of writing these stories that is compelling and cringe-worthy all at the same time. You feel the highs of his excitement as the team plays on the Astros’ turf, and the agonies of defeat as he struggles to find himself far from home and without any direction aside from “baseball.”

Arguably the best parts of the story have nothing to do with the sport, but rather involve DeAndreis meeting his future wife Kendall, who keeps him on his toes and makes him reassess his preconceived notions about girls as baseball fans. Their initial interaction at a basketball game was one of the book’s standout moments for me.

DeAndreis’s prose is loaded with beautiful metaphors that he drops as casually as “likes” and “ums” in a press scrum. As the narrative progresses and Emil watches his chances of international play vanish when he is diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he manages to keep the story humorous and engaging while also letting the reader fully feel the weight of that crushing disappointment.

This is not a book about an underdog succeeding and reaching the heights of fame so few of us can imagine. It’s about a man who came closer than most of us ever will, and found the dream slipping through his fingers. A pitcher’s instrument is his arm, and for DeAndreis, while still in his early twenties, found himself unable to lift his arm, let alone hurl a fastball. That kind of crushing blow should have been enough to destroy someone who wanted to make a life in the game, but he managed to drag himself through it, and what he’s written is a fascinating narrative about loving, then hating, then loving the game again.

Baseball is a game played by superhuman men. What Emil DeAndreis does with Hard to Grip is remind us that at its core, the men who play this game are still human, still breakable, and when they are no longer able to play, what that can do to them. It is a moving, human portrait of the way baseball can impact a life, and how difficult it can be to change the mindset from being a player to being a fan.

For a relatively new author, DeAndreis has the voice of a natural storyteller. His recollections are crisp, and each scene makes to feel for him and want to shake him in equal measure, as he is so perfectly able to capture the brash arrogance of his youth. Though it may not be a book about a superstar, it is still a refreshingly emotional look at the people who play the game we love.

It is a great read for anyone who loves the quieter aspects of baseball, who thinks about how physical illness impacts mental health, and anyone who just can’t get enough baseball books. If you want something different from the typical baseball book fodder, Hard to Grip would be the perfect book to add to your list.

Courtesy of Schaffner Press

Hard to Grip was published by Schaffner Press and now available wherever print and digital books are sold. It is available for Kindle and Paperback on Amazon. Bless You Boys was provided with an advanced copy in return for an honest review.

Emil DeAndreis is the author of Beyond Folly (Blue Cubicle Press). He is a high school baseball coach, and he teaches English at College of San Mateo. He lives in San Francisco with his wife.