Credit: Sam Lowther
“Almost everything good that has happened to me has its roots in baseball.”
In his memoir Hard to Grip: A Memoir of Youth, Baseball, and Chronic Illness, Emil DeAndreis tells the story of how he grew up with a passion for baseball and a dream to play pro ball. A dream that was snatched away by rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A lyrical, often funny, and very honest book, Hard to Grip is a compelling story of how a boy became a man while living and breathing baseball. I recently spoke to Emil about his book and his life.
“I’ve been in love with the game since before I could remember anything,” Emil said. Growing up in San Francisco in the late 1980s, he remembers going to A’s games in his father’s manual pickup truck. “On the way home at night, the radio station would play old swing music and I remember falling asleep across the Bay bridge.” This had a lasting effect, he said. “I have a pretty romantic memory of baseball. My first experience of professional baseball and the heroes in my life back then turned into a very strong aspiration.”
As a child, Emil played baseball with his dad, then continued as a pitcher in high school, and eventually went to the University of Hawaii Hilo on a baseball scholarship. After graduating at age 23, he negotiated a professional contract to play baseball in Belgium.
“I almost immediately got rheumatoid arthritis. It ended my career that never started.”
“It was like my body decided to play the most ultimate prank on me, like April Fools times a million,” Emil remembered. “Right away, I started feeling a burning sensation in my elbow. Then the flexibility in my elbow started to get affected and there was some swelling involved.” A cortisone injection didn’t work, and then his fingers started to swell. When he returned to the doctor for another shot, he instead got a referral to a rheumatologist.
“This began a state of denial for me. It started to spread around my wrist and it suddenly became hard for me to open up doors and I couldn’t play catch anymore. By that point, I knew I had something really bizarre.”
After months of denial, Emil’s condition deteriorated to the point where he had no choice. He started taking a biologic along with methotrexate. He feels his RA is moderately under control. “I’m able to do a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do initially. I can go for runs, if I’m on an airplane I can put a suitcase in the overhead compartment. I can do things that make me appear to the average person like another average person and that’s important to me.”
But there are some significant losses.
“I can’t throw a baseball 85 miles an hour like I used to, I can’t lift weights like I used to. I’m not an athlete anymore.”
Back in love with baseball
Emil had a period of being bitter about his loss of opportunity to go pro, but found his way back to the game. “I feel a stronger love for it now than I ever did as a player. Having been separated from actually playing adds so much depth and romance to the game. I love the smells, and I love the sound of cleats on cement, I love the sound of aluminum bats hitting baseballs… I love the redundancy of the music that’s played at games. Those are elements I always took for granted or didn’t even notice before. Now I really do.”
In addition to being a fervent fan, Emil is also coaching at his old high school, as well as the College of San Mateo where he teaches English. He has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the San Francisco State University. “Being able now to coach and nurture other kids through their own baseball experience, you end up loving everything about the game,” he said.
Living back in San Francisco with his wife Kendall, Emil (now 31) is focusing on writing, teaching, and baseball. Hard to Grip is his second book (Beyond Folly, a collection of short stories about teaching, is his first), and he’s currently working on a new book. The topic might not surprise you.
“I have about 40-50,000 words into a first draft of a novel. Its heartbeat is baseball.”
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Lene Andersen is the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, and Chronic Christmas: Surviving the Holidays with a Chronic Illness. She also writes the award-winning blog, The Seated View.