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The Grip

Book #1 of Marcus Stroman
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About The Book

In this first book in the semi-autobiographical middle grade series from MLB pitcher Marcus Stroman, a young baseball player learns that perfect games only come with a lot of practice—and some strikeouts.

Young Marcus Stroman is determined to make it to the highest playing level he can, despite every coach telling him he’s not tall enough to become a “real” pitcher. He’ll show them…with some struggling and a whole lot of learning.

It’s easy to forget that for every professional sports player there was a kid just learning that sport, dealing with nerves during try-outs, dropping the ball when all their teammates are counting on them, and learning how to stay friends with someone who doesn’t make the team. These hard lessons are universal whether in the majors or on a school playing field, and so are teamwork, competition, and believing in yourself.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
THWACK.

That’s the soundtrack every morning.

Thwack.

Every morning, I am in the backyard, throwing balls to my dad. The rhythm of my baseball crashing into his glove is the soundtrack of each day. The reason? Because Earl Stroman is a professional butt kicker and he’s training me to become the greatest pitcher the game of baseball has ever seen.

Dad believes I have what it takes to become one of the greats. He also believes that in order to be great, you have to practice every single morning. Every. Single. Morning. It doesn’t matter how hot it is, how cold it is, how much our bones ache, or how loud our stomachs growl. We don’t stop until Dad stands up and says we’re done.

We’re at the twenty-minute mark, and I’m hot, thirsty, and hungry all at the same time. The smell of bacon grease coming from somewhere teases my nose hairs. Too bad for me.

Even though my mind is pinballing all over the place, I keep my eyes on Dad.

His dark skin glistens like he just walked through drizzle. He is muscular and can squat for a long time. He tosses the ball to me, and I catch it with a mitt bigger than my face.

A pesky insect buzzes close to my ear. I try to flick it away and miss. I try again, but it’s still too quick. Dad would tell me I should have a faster response than the bug. I wait for the bug, but it has flown away.

I stand on the little mound in the backyard. Dad is patiently squatting on the other side of the yard. My eyes drift to the kitchen window before the ball leaves my grip.

Thwack!

I shake my head and grunt a little at that last throw. I know I can do better.

“Are you distracted,” Dad asks, but not really as a question.

“No, but I’m getting hungry,” I say.

Dad glances at his cool black watch. “Ten more minutes,” he says.

I shake off the bacon smell. I think about all my friends sleeping late during summer break. I shake out my feet and shoulders. I line up my body just right for the next throw. I focus on becoming the winner everyone thinks I can be.

Since I first played this game, everyone has had high hopes for me. I don’t know what I could have done that was so great when I first started playing. I was probably still in diapers when I swung my first bat and Dad saw something, and then everyone else saw it too. I’m now a starter on my baseball team, and I want to keep it that way. Dad also wants to keep it that way.

Dad says that this means no days off. But the rising August sun is starting to beam straight into my eyes. And the banana I swallowed just before practice is starting to feel like a distant dream.

“Ugh, I left my water bottle inside,” I call out. My throat feels like a desert.

Dad stands up. It feels like he’s towering over me even from the mound. He cocks his head to one side and looks at me like I’m some weird piece of artwork. I know what he wants to say.

You ever see a game pause because a pitcher got parched? This is his one-point lecture about spontaneous water breaks while practicing.

I hold Dad’s stare. I’m pretty sure there’s been a very thirsty pitcher in the history of baseball, is what I want to say to him. But I say nothing, and neither does he.

Dad squats back down and holds up his glove for my next fastball.

Besides the birds, it’s dead quiet. Not a kid, lawn mower, or delivery truck making noise. Still, my mind drifts to a few miles away from here, to my mom’s house. Well, our house. Our other house. It’s complicated. But I’m sure my mom is making her delicious pancakes, the ones I love that have really crispy edges. I can almost hear the butter sizzling in the pan.

“Marcus!” Dad calls me out of my daydream.

People have been gassing Dad’s head up about me ever since I started T-ball. When people say that I’m headed for the pros, he just smiles and plays it cool. His response is always a Let’s wait and see kind of thing. Like he’s just going to let me figure it out on my own. But that’s not entirely true.

I love baseball. It’s just that now that I’m getting older, people are expecting me to get better and better. Especially Dad. He pushes me hard. Mom thinks he pushes me too hard. Sometimes I agree that he goes a little overboard, but I’m mostly okay with it. I know he wants what’s best for me, and he sacrifices a lot to help make me great, so I always try to give my best right back. But still… sometimes I wonder why everyone thinks I’m so great. That’s when I feel like maybe I’m not.

Dad says that when I’m on that pitcher’s mound, all eyes are on me, and I have a job to do. And it’s to not disappoint.

Sometimes in my head, I can see myself on the mound in a professional game. Blocking out the sounds of the world, my thoughts drop to a whisper. I get in formation and grip the ball just right. As it leaves my hand, I imagine the stadium holds its breath. Then… wait for it… the amazing thwack of leather meeting leather, and the crowd goes berserk! That’s when I know I’m ready to throw.

Now I straighten my spine, trying not to curve forward or back. I turn my head toward Dad, with the rest of my body turned sideways. My pivot foot rubs against the dirt on the mound. I bring both of my hands together in front of my body and launch the ball across the yard with speed. It feels like a good throw.

Thwack!

Nailed it!

I can tell when Dad is satisfied with a throw of mine. It’s a thing he does with his mouth, like he’s trying to swallow a smile.

I do want to go pro. But I want other possibilities too. Whatever I end up doing as an adult, I just know I want to be the best thing since sliced bread at it.

I mean, it would be awesome to be a boss at baseball and basketball. But it would be really cool to be a video game designer or musician. Whatever it is, I just know I want to be amazing enough to afford the lifestyle I want. A big, cool, top-dog lifestyle.

Dad’s not as open-minded as I am about my future career. He’s putting all his eggs in this baseball basket. This is why he comes over to Mom’s house in the mornings to practice when I’m not at his house, even on weekends.

Since the divorce ripped us apart, my sister, Sabria, and I have been ping-ponging between two houses. It’s been a while since the split. My parents get along better now, I’ll say that. They’re not exactly besties. They still get mad at each other, just not all the time, and not for long. I guess it’s better, but sometimes I still get sad about it, and sometimes I still get mad about it.

I nail the next few pitches, and Dad stands up. He is a giant in my eyes. He looms large.

“Okay, now get yourself some water,” says Dad, smirking.

Before my parents separated, they sat my sister and me down and gave us this whole spiel about “family rules” being consistent no matter the house. Like, “keep your rooms neat” and “you eat what we serve for dinner” and that kind of stuff. But this didn’t turn out to be true at all. Now each parent rules their planet how they want.

Dad makes us get our own breakfast and do laundry and doesn’t care if we leave our rooms a mess. Mom cooks breakfast, packs my lunches, and freaks out at the sight of a sock on the floor.

Speaking of breakfast, Mom would be serving up stacks of her pancakes this instant. Her amazing breakfasts used to make Dad roll his eyes, and sometimes Mom and Dad would argue over it. Dad thinks it’s giving us kids the wrong idea about the real world, or something like that. He believes in his way of preparing us for the future, whatever that is. I just know he wants us to be independent enough to fend for ourselves. Mom does too, but she wants us to do it with really good food in our bodies.

I kick off my sneakers at the back door. Dad’s been living here awhile, but the house still smells newly built. It’s weird, but maybe because it’s kind of empty. My eyes pass over Dad’s bare walls on the way to the kitchen.

After the divorce, Dad found this house across town. Even though I was really sad the day I came with him to see the house, because it was kind of like everything was really happening, I did like that the backyard had some size, and I know he was thinking about that too. On some summer nights we pitch a tent and camp out here like a couple of bros in the wilderness.

Dad’s kitchen cabinets are this weird pea-green color and almost empty. I open a cabinet for a bowl, but I see cups instead. I pause. In Mom’s kitchen the bowls are in the cabinet next to the fridge. Here they’re on the other side of the kitchen, next to the sink.

Annoyed, I slam the cabinet shut and turn around to see Dad looking at me. He doesn’t say anything as I grab the rest of what I need to make this cereal thing happen.

I reach into the nearly empty fridge to grab the milk, and close the door with a soft kick behind me. I slide into my usual chair at the small oak table, facing the window to the backyard.

Before Dad goes upstairs to finish getting ready, he spreads his newspaper out in front of me.

“Read up,” he says. I know the drill.

None of my friends are made to read the paper like I am. What does Dad think I am—the president, who needs news briefs? I mean, I guess it’s good for me to know what’s going on in the world, like the latest laws being passed, and I do find out some fun stuff, like what celeb fell on their face on live TV the night before.

The paper Dad handed me is the local one. I flip to the front page and scan the small print. I munch my cereal quickly before it gets soggy, and pour another bowlful, and more milk.

The local news has the usual: traffic accidents and lost puppies. The town is putting in a new playground close by. The town-wide garage sale war happens at the end of summer. Big stuff.

As I keep reading, something catches my attention just as my nose fills with the smell of Dad’s aftershave when he returns to the kitchen. His skin shines against his white shirt. His face is smooth like a beach stone. He walks over to the fridge and reads my schedule stuck to it.

“Okay, you have basketball camp. Then Mom will pick you up for lunch and take you to baseball camp. I’ll pick you up from baseball camp and take you to Mom’s house.”

“Fine,” I mumble.

This is what I can’t stand about having divorced parents. It’s like I’m always being handed off between them. I mean, when they were together, they always took turns dropping me off and picking me up, but we ended up at the same house back then. Now it’s different, and everyone keeps talking around me, and all they talk about is The Schedule.

Mom reminds me that the most important thing is that someone will always be there. And it’s true. If it’s not Mom or Dad, it’s a friend’s mom, or Grandma.

“My Marcus,” Grandma always says, greeting me like she didn’t just see me the day before.

I start to look on the bright side and smile a little. It’s almost time to slide on my basketball shorts, lace up my sneakers, and pack my cleats, because I’m playing both sports today.

“So I’m sleeping at Mom’s tonight?” I ask. Dad nods.

Dad hates my summer schedule because basketball camp and baseball camp move around a lot, depending on when they can get a court or a field. It also makes it really confusing for my schedule. “Consistency is important,” Dad says.

I finish up my cereal, put my bowl in the sink, and run to the front bedroom. It’s the room my sister didn’t want when Dad moved in, so I kind of got stuck with it. It’s the closest room to the street, so I can hear every car that passes by.

Good thing I’m at Dad’s house today, because it looks like my duffel bag exploded everywhere, but I don’t need to clean it up. I have to rummage around to find a bunch of the gear for each sport. I pick up my baseball cap to stuff into my backpack.

With a bedroom in each parent’s house, I’m always forgetting something I need, and Mom usually helps me pack when I’m at her house. I try my best to organize my gear for both sports and pack everything as Mom would.

I tidy my room a little just out of habit and return to the kitchen with a packed bag and a smile.

“Ready for your favorite kind of day?” Dad asks me. He knows how much I love playing both sports.

“No doubt!” I answer.

When we get to his black car, I toss my stuff into the back and flop into the passenger seat. Dad revs up the engine and lets it idle a bit before taking off. When we hit the first red light, he casually asks, “So, what caught your eye in the paper today?”

This is Dad’s thing. It’s not enough that I read the newspaper. He grills me on it.

“School might start later, yay,” I say, recalling the one article that got my attention. “It’s only an hour, but still, it’s something.”

“Why do you think that’s important?” Dad asks.

“Kids need more sleep, according to the article,” I say. “And it also stinks to get up when it’s still dark outside in the winter.”

Dad nods. “Did you catch the article about the new playground?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s for little kids, though. They’re putting in a new swing set and stuff like that….”

I actually didn’t read that whole article. I just guessed there’d be a new swing set; every playground has one.

“If you’d read the article,” Dad says, tossing me some side-eye with his eyebrow arched, “you’d know they are updating it in a part of town that has been ignored. Those kids have been playing on a broken playground for years. It’s important to understand the news behind the news, Marcus.”

“The news behind the news,” I repeat.

I nod. I know I’m lucky. My neighborhood has nice parks and shiny playgrounds that feel safe. When we go to other towns for games, I notice some neighborhoods that are definitely struggling.

And then there are other neighborhoods that are out of this world, with huge houses with pools and yards that look like whole parks. The houses are at the end of crazy driveways that look like separate tree-lined streets leading up to the front door. Sometimes I dream of becoming a sports star and living in one of those houses.

“Work hard,” Dad reminds me as we pull up to the gym. We bump fists and I nod. I always do.

About The Author

Courtesy of Marcus Stroman

Marcus Stroman was born and raised in Medford, New York, where he attended Patchogue-Medford High School. Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the eighteenth round of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft, Marcus opted to delay the start of his professional career and instead chose to attend Duke University to further his education. Marcus has pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets and now plays for the Chicago Cubs. Off the field, Marcus is passionate about his work with the community through his charitable foundation HDMH (Height Doesn’t Measure Heart), where he helps kids achieve their own dreams and to instill confidence in themselves. Through his idea of believing in yourself more than believing in what anyone says about you, Marcus strives to be a positive role model both on and off the field. Marcus has always believed in himself and has proven all his critics wrong at every step of his journey. He is known for his determination not only on the field, but in bettering himself off the field and building his confidence in whatever he sets out to do. He hopes to instill that same confidence in kids.

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