the ball player

Author Clay Snellgrove found me on Twitter after I shared my blog post about The Art of Fielding a few weeks ago. His debut novel, The Ball Player, is similar, so he sent me a free Perfect Paperback copy to check out.

The Ball Player follows the thoughts and experiences of an unnamed protagonist, our narrator, as he journeys through his 20s trying to break into Major League Baseball. He drifts between the present and the past, remembering his childhood best friend Danny and their relentless competitions. Danny’s untimely and unfortunate death leads the narrator to meet Diane, Danny’s fiancée, to whom the narrator finds himself romantically drawn.

Snellgrove’s first effort is impressive, if not without some flaws. The edition I received is peppered with typographical errors—mostly punctuation, some misspellings, some capitalization mistakes. There are sections that are needlessly wordy—a long-winded explanation of the rules of a poker game, for example, or a game of kicking a ball against a wall. As a reader, I don’t mind if I don’t know the specifics behind something like this; it sparks a curiosity in me to research it. Some sentences could be trimmed as well—many of them are structured in a way that involve more words than needed. So, the book felt a bit on the long side to me for these reasons.

The character development was great. Danny was probably my favorite character, followed by Erin (Diane’s sister). They were very realistic, with depth, substance, and personality. Diane I found to be a bit bland, so I had trouble understanding the narrator’s obsession with her, especially when he had a cooler chick right in front of him who liked him back. Referring to Diane repeatedly as “an angel” didn’t help. (Full disclosure: romance is not a genre I find very entertaining or interesting, so… that’s me.) Snellgrove’s supporting players were also fleshed out well, the narrator’s minor and major league teammates and his agent, especially, although some of the repeated mentions of a person’s race was unnecessary. I was sorry to read the women in the book described as either perfect angels or promiscuous hussies (basically). I would have loved to see a kick-ass female agent or publicist character!

I found the unnamed protagonist to be unlikable overall. The technique of never actually saying anything, just explaining what he said, was unnerving to me and came off as condescending. I thought he was smug and fairly rude to the people in his life. The narrator boldly projected thoughts into the minds of other characters. I pitied him for his immaturity, self-centered nature, and lack of insight when it came to his personal relationships. These characteristics are the only things that humanize him. In a very human story, the narrator is missing his humanity, having no name and lacking personal growth. I don’t believe disliking a character is a reason to give up on a book, though, and I never assume to know what an author had in mind while writing, so perhaps this personality was intended. If so, it was affecting and effective!

One last thing about the narrator—the undertones of his Christianity were a bit off-putting for me. He either needed to be staunchly outright Christian and proud of it (which, of course, will narrow the reading audience), or better yet, just leave that element out all together. It is certainly believable that a man, even a professional athlete, can have strong monogamous inclinations and not take advantage of every sexual opportunity to come his way, but the way this was handled—that women just threw themselves at the narrator and he always declined—I don’t believe, since his Christianity was just hinted at but never proclaimed. He toyed with these women, and also with his friends who were innocently trying to set him up. The avoidance of sexual encounters read as arrogant and aloof of the narrator, not respectful or honorable. (That said, the few sex scenes in the book were tastefully written and pertinent to the plot.)

Now for my favorite part: Snellgrove’s baseball writing was simply excellent. The action was well paced, clearly conveyed, and electrifying. His enthusiastic accounts of the games pulled me in, right to the field with the players. The determination, adrenaline, and excitement was palpable. The plot point of the narrator’s steroid and supplement use was the most compelling part of the story for me. Also, throughout the book, anytime I felt the story start to drag, Snellgrove introduced an unexpected twist that spurred me on. His juggling of past and present is appropriate and never confusing. Ultimately I am glad I read The Ball Player. In my opinion it is a good book for summer reading, and I think with a few tweaks and another round of heavier editing it definitely has the potential to be great.

Read from August 26 to September 3, 2012.