Book Review: “Hard to Grip” – An SF Native’s Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness

By Connor Buestad |

Growing up on the shores of Ocean Beach in San Francisco’s Sunset District, Emil DeAndreis had little interest in ever becoming a successful author, or even a serious student for that matter. From the moment he picked up a whiffle ball bat on a dirt road and took his first swing at one of dad’s fastballs, baseball was always the top priority in DeAndreis' life. Soon enough, he was throwing heaters his dad couldn’t reliably catch, which led him to high school city championships inside AT&T Park, and a record breaking college career in Hawaii pitching against a cast of Division I stars, many of which were destined for the Big Leagues.

As is so often the case in the game of baseball, DeAndreis career path led him through a forest of ups and downs, featuring stories of triumph, devastation, humor and everything in between. Nothing was more dramatic for DeAndreis, however, than when the professional bound pitcher was diagnosed with a chronic illness, putting a halt to a career and way of life that would be difficult for anyone to come to grips with, no matter how tough they claim to be.

Nearing 30 and void of the ability to pump baseballs past hitter’s bats any longer, DeAndreis tapped into his natural talent for writing to produce “Hard to Grip – a memoir of youth, baseball and chronic illness” which was released this spring. The book is an absolute pleasure to read, with something in it for everyone. From rich, honest, comedic, sometimes vulgar descriptions of what it was like growing up at the turn of the millennium in San Francisco, to heartfelt accounts of baseball battles at all levels, to the pain, insecurities, and resiliency required to stare a debilitating ailment like Rheumatoid Arthritis in the face and not let it beat you, this book comes at its reader in a multitude of ways.

The book doesn’t stop there, as it is also a love story of sorts, as well as a story of the power of friendship, not to mention a story of what is required to chase down a dream with reckless abandon, refusing to take no for an answer.

Throughout the book, DeAndreis does a masterful job of keeping the reader on their toes, with virtually every page producing a quiet chuckle and a painful twinge as he takes you into his world to chase his baseball dream, seemingly alongside him. By the end, DeAndreis reaches a point of enlightenment that takes him far beyond the petty box scores of a college baseball game and into a place of contentment with challenges few people are required to face at such a young age. As a reader, it feels like you are your working your way through the rigors of DeAndreis’ life, never sure of what lies ahead, but always willing to turn the next page.

For over 40 chapters, “Hard to Grip” seems to grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence of every new story DeAndreis tells, and he never seems to let go. The book itself starts with a prologue that puts the reader on the pristine mound of AT&T Park in San Francisco’s city championship baseball game. DeAndreis paints an immaculate picture of the feeling of pitching inside one of Major League Baseball’s cathedral-like ballparks, fending for his identity; a 15-year-old desperate to prove himself to his boyhood brothers of Lowell High School.

The book gives way to the author’s story of growing up in The City with two small parents and one huge baseball dream. We learn of his mother’s arthritic wrists and dashed dreams of a career in music, the awkwardness of being a “baseball junkie” at a college prep school obsessed with the SAT, and of a friendship with a brash, cowboy-like catcher named Charlie forged inside San Francisco’s forgotten batting cages.

DeAndreis’ high school years, like so many others, are full of stories that teach the author “how to be a man,” but they are told from a comedic angle that few authors could pull off with so much color. Part I of the book concludes with DeAndreis’ first trip to Hawaii as a high school senior, a place where his baseball dreams were solidified. An excerpt follows:

“I watched a group of players jogging in black shorts and green, Underarmour shirts with the triangle-studded H logo. Some kids long-tossed down the left field line. I observed two players throwing bullpens. A group was hitting off of tees into a net, another in the cage. The clink of aluminum bats was everywhere. Someone yelled “rotate!” and the action stopped and bodies migrated. The artificial grass was spongy; the ground balls took true bounces. What a place. I wanted to be jogging casually in H shorts, drinking cold water from the cooler after a pen, getting the ice wrapped around my arm by the trainer. I glanced at the stadium: immaculate, with waxy green seats shaded under a hulking cement overhang. Enough seats for hundreds, lights for night games in perfect 80-degree baseball weather.”

Soon enough, DeAndreis finds himself on the islands, with a baseball in his left hand and Division I jersey on his back. For the next four years, there was never a dull moment, from dealing with the onset of chronic illness, to partying into the wee hours on 80-degree Hawaii nights, to falling in love with his future wife, DeAndreis describes college life that has a way of bringing about the best kind of nostalgia out of a reader.

Eventually, “The real world” sets in for the author, in dramatic, gutwrenching fashion. With a professional baseball opportunity in writing, and a life of continued adventure on the horizon, DeAndreis is struck with the crushing realization that his baseball dream has died and he’s the only one who truly knows it at the time. The reader can relate to DeAndreis' valiant struggle to not only beat a debilitating disease, but also come to grips with a changing identity and all that it entails. As is true throughout the book, DeAndreis is able to tie in a degree of humor and drama to keep the reader locked in for every curveball that life throws the resilient lefty’s way.

A passage in a chapter titled “Kansas” sums up this sentiment nicely: “Baseball was a bitch, and it was a savior. I stretched my shoulder against the car hood, finished my beer. I felt the angst, the serenity, and the splendor of the game swirl warmly in me like being in the eye of a hurricane.”

I won’t give away the book’s ending, but it is chalk full of suspense, adventure, hilarity and vivid color that is present throughout the pages of “Hard to Grip.” But as the reader comes to predict as they make their way through the pages of DeAndreis memoir, there is no “happy ending” in a Hollywood sort of way. This book is a far cry from your typical rom-com baseball movie that’s desperate to please the masses and make a buck. Instead, it is a raw, sometimes all-too-real account of a San Francisco native running down a dream.

In the process, you’ll meet his best friend who relentlessly rides the busses of the minors, his girlfriend who refuses to leave his side and a group of friends who don’t know how to say no to a good time. You’ll also meet a chronic illness, that rears its ugly head at the worst time possible, determined to derail a love affair with baseball and life in general.

As it turns out, “Hard to Grip” is a product of DeAndreis’ ultimate battle. Surely, no bases loaded jam in the bottom of the 9th inning even compares. But as we learn from the book, with the thrill of victory comes the agony of defeat. Fortunately, DeAndreis has the guts to share his story, regardless of the outcome.  


To purchase “Hard to Grip” click here.