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Table of Contents
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.
That’s the soundtrack every morning.
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.
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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
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by Marcus Stroman
About the Book
Young Marcus Stroman is about to enter middle school in the fall, but first he spends the summer participating in basketball and baseball camps. His heart is always on the pitcher’s mound, where he strives to one day be a professional baseball player. Unfortunately, Marcus faces many challenges as he prepares for his big game, and his inner struggles get the best of him. Is he truly too short to be successful as a pitcher? Will he be able to strike out his opponents and lead his team to victory? Can he make it to the next level while competing with other talented players on his team? These tough questions grip Marcus’s mind. In the end, it turns out that the life lessons Marcus learns on and off the field while he prepares for his big game are more valuable than anything he ever thought he’d learn . . . like how you can’t physically improve your game until you work on your mental health.
1. Take note of the book’s title. What do you think the word grip means in this book? Is it a noun, or can it be a verb? What do you think the book’s tagline means: “You grip the ball. But doubt grips you.” Can you think of a time in your life where you doubted yourself?
2. At the very beginning we get to know Marcus and his dad. What character traits do you think best describe his dad? What character traits do you think best describe Marcus? Use text evidence to support your answers. Explain the relationship they have and how these traits influence how they get along.
3. In chapter one, Marcus seems angry. What are some of the circumstances behind his anger? Can you relate to or understand Marcus’s feelings? Explain.
4. We learn that Marcus’s parents are divorced. Marcus tells us that he and his sister “have been ping-ponging between two houses.” How does the divorce affect Marcus, and how does he express his feelings about “being handed off between them”? (Chapter one) Explain the relationship that his parents have now that they’ve been divorced for a while. Has it improved since they first got divorced?
5. Marcus’s height is discussed throughout the novel. How does he feel about his height? Why do others think his height is a problem? Who specifically taunts him about it? Later in the story, Marcus says, “height can’t measure heart.” (Chapter nine) What do you think he means by this? How do you feel about it?
6. Marcus’s mom has a calm demeanor and always gives Marcus advice. Throughout the book, the word bounce is used. She says, “‘Bounce it off, because once it gets in, it’s harder to get out.’” (Chapter two) Marcus uses this bounce technique to help him when he’s struggling. When do you see Marcus use this strategy? Does it work for him? Do you think it would work for you?
7. In books, authors introduce secondary characters that can be sidekicks, advisors, or challengers. Which type of character do you think describes James? Explain your reasoning with evidence from the text. Why do you think he acts this way? Is it fair for us to judge his character? Do Marcus and James have anything in common? Explain.
8. Marcus has two coaches who make an impact on him: Coach Fuller, his basketball coach, and Coach Clark, his baseball coach. Describe each coach’s personality. Do they have similar coaching styles? Do you think one of these styles would produce better athletes and teammates? Explain why you think this. Who would you rather play for and why?
9. Marcus thinks an assessment for a sport is different from an assessment for school. How? Which type of assessment does he prefer? Which would you prefer, and why?
10. Often in books, characters have inner struggles. Marcus is certainly one of these characters. What is Marcus struggling with? Explain how he reacts to Mom and Dad when they try to understand what he is going through. Do you agree with his reaction? How else could Marcus talk to his parents in a more productive way?
11. Danny is a pitcher on Marcus’s travel baseball team. What type of player is he? Does he work hard? Is he worried about the assessment? How do Marcus and Danny get along? Are they friends or competitors? Explain.
12. How does Marcus feel about baseball and school? Why does he prefer one over the other? What is something you do that you feel you are naturally good at? Explain. What is something you think you need to work at to feel successful? Explain.
13. Dad and Marcus have a complicated relationship. Sometimes Dad can be a challenger, but at other times he can be an advisor. Use text evidence to note scenes that support both ideas. How does Dad help Marcus realize you need to use brains in baseball, too? Does this moment show Dad’s challenger or advisor personality?
14. Marcus and his grandmother have a very important heart-to-heart conversation in the novel. After basketball practice and dealing with James, he tells her that “‘every team has to have its jerk.’” She responds with words of wisdom like, “‘You’re not going to love everyone, that’s for sure, but you should try your best to get along with them. . . . And you can respect what they’re bringing, even if you don’t like the way they bring it.’” (Chapter six) How does Marcus respond to this advice? Can you think of a situation you may have been in where these words could have helped you get through it?
15. Sometimes characters say or do the opposite of what you would expect. When we meet Sabria, Marcus’s sister, she expresses her angst that she must spend her weekends at his playoff and tournament games instead of being with her friends. However, later she has Marcus’s back and shares the made-up Namorts program with James. What is “Namorts”? Where did it come from, and why was it created? How does Sabria standing up for Marcus lead to her giving Marcus the best advice he has heard so far? What is that advice?
16. A turning point in the story is when Dad and Marcus are practicing just before the baseball assessments. His dad patiently tells him, “‘everyone can tell you, ‘You can do it Marcus,’ but until you believe it yourself, then it’s like you’re running in place, going nowhere fast.’” (Chapter eleven) How is this moment a turning point for both Marcus and Dad? What life lesson can you take from this advice?
17. Kai, Robbie, and Marcus are considered the “Three Musketeers.” However, they all have very different personalities. Describe each character and how they each feel about baseball. Using text evidence, show how they support one another even with their differences. Who do you think you are most alike and why?
18. When Robbie and Kai are trying to understand why Marcus is struggling with his pitching, Kai helps Marcus express his fears. Kai repeats words like Then what? Explain how Kai uses these words to help Marcus talk about his fear of failing. How would you respond to someone who also has a fear of failing? Did you ever feel like Marcus? Explain.
19. Throughout the story, Marcus asks himself many tough questions. When realizing how worried he is about baseball tryouts, he asks himself, “Can I fix myself, though?” When Marcus takes the day off and skips both basketball and baseball camp, he says to himself, “I love doing both. Why do I feel so relieved?” However, one of the toughest questions is when Kai tries to help Marcus with his struggles and asks him, “‘The question is, Marcus, what are your expectations? Do you think you can do it?’” How does Marcus respond to this tough question? What other tough questions does Marcus have to face?
20. Marcus has a serious talk with Mom about seeing a mental health coach. What is a mental health coach? How does Dad feel about Marcus seeing one? What does Mom say to convince Marcus that it would be a good idea? How is Marcus’s first appointment with his mental health coach, Gary? How is Gary able to get Marcus to trust him?
21. Gary introduces Marcus to the idea of visualization. What is visualization? When does Marcus try this technique, and does he find it helpful? Have you ever tried visualization? Tell us about it. Did it center you and calm you down?
22. During the assessment game, Marcus constantly talks to himself. What are some of the things he says to himself? Is he still full of doubt or does he now have confidence? How does Marcus’s new mental health training get him through the game? Is he successful or not? Explain.
23. After the game, Marcus remembers some of Gary’s wise words. “‘There are no perfect endings. But there are satisfying ones. If you try your best, you have to be at peace with whatever way it ends.’” (Chapter thirteen) Explain what this lesson means, and how it could help you in life.
24. Each story ends with a resolution. What is the resolution in The Grip? How does Marcus feel about himself after the game? What considerate gesture did Marcus make to James after the game? Why did he make this effort? Do you think their relationship will change going forward? Explain.
25. Discuss how the title, The Grip, relates to the book’s major theme, believing in yourself. Explain how relationships, teamwork, competition, and change are also themes. How do they intersect, or run alongside, the major theme?
1. The author uses many expert baseball words in this story, like scrimmage, elite, sprints, assessments, aspirations, and adrenaline. Do you know their meanings? Write down what you think these words mean based on context clues. Add any other baseball terms you came across when reading to your list. Then look up the definition of each word and write out next to your thoughts the exact definition, and then compare how close your thoughts were.
2. The author also uses examples of figurative language to express ideas throughout the book. There are similes such as “My throat feels like a desert,” and personification like “My heart is jogging in place.” Make a chart with examples of this figurative language and explain their true meanings. Add some of your own favorite expressions and examples of figurative language to your chart and share these with the class, explaining in your own words what they mean.
3. Some of Marcus’s friends complain that baseball is boring. However, Marcus thinks it’s fascinating. Create a Venn diagram comparing baseball to another sport or activity. Join other students in your class arguing for the same sport, and debate with another group about which activity is more entertaining and why. Use points from your Venn diagram to form your argument.
4. The author, Marcus Stroman, believes that mental health is the key to success on and off the field. Research what mental health coaches do to help their clients. Discuss with a partner why you think this is such an important job. What are some other careers that focus on mental health awareness, and how do they help the community?
5. Marcus is self-conscious and is taunted because of his height. He plays point guard on his basketball team because he isn’t as tall as the other players. However, there are many short professional basketball players throughout history. Research talented point guards, such as Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Charlie Criss, Earl Boykins, and Greg Grant to learn of their successes in the National Basketball Association despite their height.
6. The author of The Grip, Marcus Stroman, is a professional Major League Baseball player. He has played for the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and Chicago Cubs. Marcus Stroman has made it his mission to share his message with kids who need it most by creating the HDMH (Height Doesn’t Measure Heart) Foundation. Research this charity and learn more about Marcus’s mission off the field. See how you can help. https://hdmhfoundation.org/
Angela Benevento is a literacy specialist and former elementary school teacher who lives with her family in New York.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
- Publisher: Aladdin (January 31, 2023)
- Length: 208 pages
- ISBN13: 9781665916141
- Grades: 3 - 7
- Ages: 8 - 12
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