Book review: The King's Game, by John Nemo

I am trying something different here, which will hopefully be the first in a series of posts in this space: A book review. I am planning on reviewing baseball-related books and when feasible do a question and answer session with the author.

I am happy to present you the first book in the series, The King's Game by John Nemo as well as a Q&A session with the author.


John Nemo’s book, The King's Game (available from Amazon.com just click on the link to order), really surprised me. From bylines and reviews I read prior to reading the book, I thought that it would be based on a story line similar to that of The Natural (A grizzled veteran player comes in out of nowhere and becomes the major star in a clinching game). Little that I knew…

The King’s Game is like a baseball: a solid core of pitch by pitch action in a futuristic game seven of a World Series inside (think rubber core), enveloped by an allegory (think leather), stitched together by a thread of Christian Spirituality (think red stitches in a ball). A great line in the book (in the “postgame” chapter; the book is cleverly structured in chapters based on baseball innings) perfectly describes the use of baseball in the book: “Baseball is a wonderfully submerged metaphor. A study of its subtleties reveals endless truths about our world.” Frankly, I have never read a single statement that can summarize the single more powerful force that makes someone a baseball fan… The baseball action in the book is spellbinding. The mind of the main protagonist, one of the most highly regarded pitchers of his era, is dissected as he delivers each pitch in the game seven of the World Series. I cannot think of a single baseball fan that would not like to have a insider’s view of such a situation. How much would you pay to sit on single synapse of Jack Morris’ brain in the game seven of the 1991 World Series? Well, this book is pretty close to that. Nemo is faithful to his baseball (he even has a box score of the game at the end of the book). I utterly enjoyed the exaltation of a game of baseball (albeit game 7 of the World Series; and we all know what those mean) into something more than baseball. And this is really what the book is all about. If I ran a bookstore and had to place the book under one single section, I couldn’t do it. I would place some copies under “Sports” and some under “Christian Spirituality” to be fair to Nemo’s work, because he excels in both. And for the people who automatically think “Christian Spirituality” is a preconceived red flag of sorts, this book is more than that. There is no “preaching” in this book. This book speaks to intelligent spiritual audiences of any (and no) religions. The two parallels that crossed my mind (more than crossed, actually, kind of smacked it like a fat curve that doesn’t break enough) when I was reading it were: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, while experiencing Cody King’s character’s development; and that huge Dylanesque rain allegorical overtones through out the story line (albeit, I suspect that“rain” –or water- has more of a “baptismal” notation for John Nemo than it has for Bob Dylan.) Yes, this is an existentialist book…

Go buy it (it is offered at Amazon, click the picture of the book below) and read it; if not for any other reason, get it because this is one of the extremely few places that perfectly describes a palmball. This book will make you think a bit more than balls and strikes and E-7s and has an amazing baseball action (it even make me grab a score card and keep score); it is a very fast read (I started and finished it last Saturday, a lazy morning, over a cup of coffee or two) that you don’t want to put down before the end. A total winner; but don’t listen to me, listen to Joe Nathan and Mike Cuddyer who both provided testimonials on the book.

Q&A with the author

The Tenth Inning Stretch: You describe baseball action like someone who actually pitched. Do you have any experience playing baseball?

John Nemo: Not beyond eighth grade baseball for the venerable St. Rose of Lima squad. However, I did grow up with a father who was a baseball fanatic and an English professor, and he used to hold court in the upper reaches of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome during the 1980s and early 1990s, teaching me everything he knew about the game - its beauty, poetry, symmetry, etc. Along with that, I spent 10 years covering the Twins and other MLB teams for media outlets including Minnesota Twins Magazine, the Associated Press, MLB.com and others. I spent many, many hours in the press box, on the field and in the clubhouse talking with players and getting inside their heads. Because of that I was able to get some of the Twins players - Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan in particular - to look over portions of The King's Game for me and give me feedback on the baseball action and authenticity.

TTIS:My understanding is that the game describes takes place in the future. One of the teams is the visiting St Louis Cardinals and the other is the Warriors from an undetermined city. There are some hints that you are describing the Cleveland Indians. Fictional team or do the Indians change their nickname sometime in the future?

JN:Actually in my mind's eye the game takes place in the present day or perhaps in the past. The Warriors are a fictional team - definitely inspired in part by the New York Knights in "The Natural." I intentionally left their city unnamed - it didn't feel right to put them in any one place.

TTIS:A friend of mine who is a writer told me that he always models his characters after people he knows. When you build your characters do you model them after particular ball players or are they imaginary, composed by different things you see in different players? Also, how do you decide on names for your characters?

JN:Some players are shadows of real guys - including David Eckstein, Rick Ankiel (the young stud pitcher version, not the current slugging outfielder edition) and others. Other players in the book embody certain characteristics - great bat/frying pan for a glove, great glove/toothpick for a bat, etc. - you see all the time in MLB. Names are usually done quite random - whatever pops into mind, really. The big thing is I try to avoid using names of real people I know - I'm not a fan of that at all, and it makes the book lose its magic for me. I also try to come up with names that I like the sound of, or names that seem to fit the personality of a character. Things like that.

TTIS:The World Series in the King's Game, took me back to the two Twins' World Series appearances. Was there any particular game 7 you watched that inspired the baseball action in the book?

JN:Definitely Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Can anybody forget Jack Morris going 10 innings and looking ready for 10 more? Lonnie Smith getting faked out by Knoblauch? That was a game where you literally felt the pressure on every single pitch - a true Game 7, its outcome in doubt until the very final moments. Another one, though not a Game 7, is probably Game 6 of the 1986 World Series - the insanity and craziness of a New York crowd, everyone going nuts when Ray Knight scored the winning run, the chaos of it all - I love that atmosphere, and it shows up at times in The King's Game.

TTIS:You perfectly described the action of a palmball. This is very intriguing to me because the pitch, which I believe is one of the most effective pitches out there, has become obsolete, like the screwball. The only current pitchers who uses it (very rarely, are Roy Halladay and Trevor Hoffman) and the last pitcher of note to use it with any frequency was Mike Cuellar. Today, most people (even pitching coatches) think of a palmball as another changeup grip (which is of course wrong) Why a palmball?

JN:I've always been a fan of sneaky, tricky pitchers - Luis Tiant gets mentioned early on as someone the book's main character, Cody King, models his pitching style after. I always fooled with it playing in the backyard and especially playing wiffle ball with my buddies. I've always been a fan of it, and having artistic license with The King's Game, I decided to let it fly, so to speak.

TTIS:Let's change gears for a second. I could not help notice the rain/water allegory in the book. My first thought was that it was a baptismal symbolism. The more and more I got into the book, I had more and more doubts about that. What is the water symbolism in your book?

JN:The way I write, I am really not conscious or intentionally putting any type of metaphors or symbolism into my stories. It just happens. I literally just begin with a scene and then let the film in my mind begin to roll, and I just try to keep up with it, describing what I am seeing as the story beings to unfurl. The characters in the scene just start saying and doing things. It really is magic - a gift from God. Looking back at The King's Game, what comes to mind is the idea of a flood, of being overwhelmed, drowning, desperate, fighting against an unforgiving, rising tide. There are several instances in the book where that happens, and other scenes where water brings about great fear for Cody King.

TTIS:A couple of personal questions: Twins Fan? Since when? Who are your favorite all time and current players?

JN:Twins fan since moving to the Twin Cities at the age of 6 in 1981. Grew up on Gaetti, Hrbek, Bruno, Viola, Blyleven and the rest. Loved Kirby Puckett - what Minnesotan fan didn't? He was my favorite player of all time, hands down. When I was in college (early 1990s) I interned for Minnesota Twins Magazine and walked onto the field for the first time as a bona fide journalist. I had to interview Puckett for a feature on the magazine's kid's page, and I was so nervous. My job was to find out how Kirby broke in new gloves. He looked at me, straight-faced, and said, "I run my truck over it." I stuttered and stammered, thinking he was going to bust out laughing, but Kirby was dead serious - he said he put new gloves down in his driveway, then ran over them a few times with his truck. My favorite current Twins are Denard Span, Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer.

TTIS:Are you currently working on any other books? When should we expect to see them in print?

JN:I do have a couple other novels that were recently published. "Miller's Miracle" is the story of a young man who discovers quite by accident that he's been given an incredible gift when it comes to the game of golf. "Jumper" is the story of how a teenager's curiosity about a dark family secret ends up propelling him back in time to the Roaring Twenties in gangster-friendly St. Paul, Minnesota.

For a complete biographical information on John Nemo and for information about his books, make sure to visit his web site johnnemobooks.com

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