Dueling Review, March Smashness

March Smashness: Baseball Week

Reading the Signs by Kiera Andrews (2019)

Heat Factor: Praise kink and ropes and spankings, OH MY!

Character Chemistry: Big D energy. And by that we mean Daddy. Plus serious daddy issues.

Plot: A veteran catcher uses his chill dom energy to tame a hot-headed rookie pitcher.

Overall: Now Holly understands why Erin is obsessed with M/M sports romance.


The Changeup by Nicole Falls (2019)

Heat Factor: Disappointed that the teased phone sex didn’t actually happen, because the sex was fun and sexy.

Character Chemistry: She giggles so much. Enough said.

Plot: On the one hand, Geffri plays baseball. On the other hand, Geffri meets a man.

Overall: This was a weird book.

What do we know about baseball?

Holly: When I was growing up, my family would go to a baseball game at least once per season (go Orioles!), so I have a basic understanding of the sport but don’t know anything about, like, different pitches.

Erin: I know that different pitches exist. My understanding is mostly from playing softball in my work league that I was roped into so there were enough women. So I can swing a bat, and know what a foul is, and know what the basic positions are. And I know that Major League baseball players get to choose their walk out songs. Oh, also I watched Moneyball.

Ingrid: When we moved to Maryland when I was in 7th grade I followed one season of Orioles baseball really closely. I didn’t know what any of the stats meant, but I knew them all, and who all the players on the team were, and who my favorite player was. It was Mike Messina (the pitcher). And we got to go to a game during the time that I was tracking it and my parents let me buy a Mike Messina t-shirt. And then he went to a different team and I was like, “Well, that’s it!” And then I never followed the sport again.

What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting Reading the Signs?

Ingrid: It’s very sports-heavy. This is not a book where they gloss over the sport. It’s deeply interwoven into the story. And it’s a male-male romance.

Erin: There’s a significant age gap and it includes some daddy-kink energy without actually being a daddy-kink book. And Nico definitely acts like a twenty-year-old.

Ingrid: I am so pressed to hear your take on these books Erin, specifically because of the maturity levels. I rub my hands together with glee. I was reading these books being like, “Awww, my sister’s gonna HATE this.”

Holly: There’s a pretty significant tonal shift in this book at about the halfway mark, where the first half of the book is a lot of very internal angsty reserved pining and then the second half of the book is sex and the discovery that the angst may not have been totally necessary.

What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting The Changeup?

H: The initial contact between Geffri and Noah is so, frankly, gross on Noah’s part that I had a hard time overcoming that hump. He’s a troll and I didn’t like it.

I: Readers should know that there’s more than one baseball romance called The Changeup. Because I read the one by Megan Quinn. Which was 700 pages long.

E: It’s first-person and she’s mostly describing everything—I remember one part where there were three “I” sentences in a row. So it’s like your friend sat down to tell you a story.

Reading the Signs is the only M/M romance we’re reading this month. How does the teammates-in-love component of this romance fit your expectations for sports romance? Does it shape the conflict of the narrative differently than (what you’d expect) in other sports romance?

I: So I was excited for this question specifically having read the other Changeup, because both books had an angry, temper-prone pitcher. And both of those pitchers had significant childhood trauma. In Reading the Signs, we watch the character unpack that trauma and be a whole person (a better player and in a relationship). In The Changeup, it felt like the way he dealt with issues on the page was to put a bandaid on it, but there no indication that he was doing the work to be and feel better. 

In the M/M version, there was a lot more exploration of what it must be like to live in that hypermasculine space. In The Changeup he was just in that space, and since I read it after Reading the Signs, I just felt really sad for that character. 

The specific example that I have is that in RtS, Nico gets really defensive and angry when they do badly, and Jake helps him process the pressure that Nico is putting on himself. And when he learns how to process this better for himself, he can be nicer to his teammates too. In The Changeup, he goes off the deep end, and is getting into fights with opposing players and teammates and keeps getting ejected. His teammates coach him on putting a better face on it so he can have better results. None of it has to do with what he’s internally processing, it’s about him acting differently so that he gets better results from others. His coach is relieved. Kinsley texts him back. But he doesn’t feel better.

E: It sounds like a really good juxtaposition read!

H: Speaking more broadly, reading this book, I texted you guys saying “Okay, Erin, I understand why you read M/M sports romance” because it allows you to have this really fraught emotional space between the characters. In RtS, Jake and Nico can use their relationship with each other to help Nico on and off the field really explicitly, but more broadly, you have a forced proximity in a hyper-masculine, homosocial space where traditionally being gay is not acceptable so it makes sense that everybody is closeted.

E: I have found that queer sports romance does diverge slightly from other sports romance, in that, given the very small number of out professional athletes – and the history of out athletes losing contracts or being pushed out of the sport – there’s a natural tension that exists in most of those narratives and I felt was acknowledged really well in RtS. Andrews even mentions by name the only two major league baseball players who had ever been out at the time of its publication as indicators of why both Jake and Nico feel that they can only choose love or baseball, but not both. It is high stakes, whereas in other sports romance there’s not a lot that makes sports romance any different from any other celebrity romance (based on my personal reading experience and what we mentioned of our expectations in our preview post). So I did expect this one to be a little bit different in character than what I expect the rest of the month to be like. 

I think additionally, RtS is different because it’s two athletes on the same team as opposed to two athletes on different sides of the same sport or different sports altogether. Or an athlete and a non-athlete. On the one hand they’re able to help each other play better – Jake is able to coach and support Nico – but then if anything goes wrong in their relationship, it could destroy the entire team. A single player might just feel unwelcome in the clubhouse, but two players falling in love with each other could disrupt the entire dynamic.

Let’s talk more about gay (and bi) male athletes

H: What did you guys think about how accepting everybody was about Nico and Jake coming out, and coming out as being in a relationship with each other? Because it kind of turns out to be a giant nothingburger?

E: That’s the aspirational component that seems to be most prevalent in cis women writing M/M. (See ‘Nathan Burgoine’s essay “The Shoulder Check Problem.”) That is something that I have read with frequency not only in sports romance, but in a lot of M/M romance: there’s a fear about coming out, possibly even with good reason, but then when it comes to the point, we see that there’s a safe space for these protagonists. It’s always seemed very aspirational to me, but I can understand why Andrews chose it here, because it’s a much happier ending than “So you were outed in an unplanned way, and now half your teammates hate you or don’t trust you.”

H: I will admit though, that the scene where Nico goes to pitch and everyone is waving the rainbow flags? I cried.

E: And that’s why it’s there. For me, the more interesting part of the story was Nico’s relationship with his dad. It felt much more authentic than that clubhouse moment. Not because I think everybody in baseball (or wherever) are big homophobes—it’s just that, as Holly said, the clubhouse moment was SUCH a nothingburger. It was VERY SPECIFICALLY a nothingburger. Nico’s Dad having to come to terms with his own biases and having to work (A LOT) on them to prove to both himself and Nico that he does love and support Nico felt more authentic because it wasn’t an “Everything’s fine and of course I have no other feelings” type of thing like the clubhouse scene was. 

I: I had the same impression that it’s the story you want to see, not necessarily the story you feel is accurate, and I think that’s because it’s romance. If there were massive disappointments and hatred reflected in the end of the book, it’s not the same HEA. I get why authors do this because all relationships deserve to have the same level of HEA. So if you have a couple and they’re the lead characters of their own story, then by golly they should get what they want.

Let’s talk about spanking

I: That first scene where Jake spanks Nico, I was CLUTCHING MY PEARLS.

E: Reading that scene, I thought, “OMG!!! That’s so inappropriate!” And then Jake comes in afterward and gets all freaked out, thinking, “OMG…that was so inappropriate!!!” 

H: I was really shocked when it happened, but from a narrative perspective, it was effective in getting them out of this closeted pining because there was no way either of them was going to make a move given their baggage, unless they were in some really heated moment. 

Also Nico has serious daddy issues, and there is a Daddy thing that develops between him and Jake, and this spanking scene set the stage to prepare me as a reader for the Daddy transference that happens later in the book.

E: I would note that that is the only explicitly not-previously-discussed BDSM that happens. The rest of the time they’re talking everything through relatively responsibly. (Though a red, yellow, green as well as a non-verbal code would have made more sense, but armadillo is cute, too.)

I: The thing about Jake is that he’s so in control of himself. If something hadn’t jerked out of control nothing would have happened. (And then he’s so freaked out about it.)

E: I liked the praise kink. “Oh, you’re such a good boy.” OMG.

The sport was kind of sidelined (lol) in The Changeup? How did it fit your expectations of a sports romance?

E: So Holly, it was really interesting to me that you wrote this question, because I didn’t feel that the sports was sidelined. 

H: Okay. What I mean by that was that Geffri is not a professional athlete. She’s a teacher who kind of partway through the book gets tapped to play on a women’s all-star expo team. It’s a one-off and she’s expected to keep her day job. And then she and Noah do this competition, but they don’t do any baseball things? So I guess her love of baseball and talking about sports was part of their relationship, but it didn’t drive the plot. It was integral to their relationship and how they get together but not really her characterization.

I: Oddly coincidental: sports was sidelined in my Changeup too. It was basically how the hero made his money, and they called them the “cleat chasers”, and there was the meltdown on the mound, but really, you wouldn’t have to know a single thing about baseball to read this book.

H: Maybe what this is really pointing to is that RtS is very, very much about baseball and really in the weeds about the sport. And baseball is really important to their relationship. 

I: I think RtS is probably the exception to the rule, and I really liked it that way. Since it involves two players, not having that background information and knowledge about how hard they worked for it to achieve it, and that’s not something that I would have understood otherwise. 

H: I think all that background about what time they go in and what they’re doing in the clubhouse and the icing and all the time they’re spending on their sport gets glossed over in a lot of other sports romance. 

E: I thought it was different because Geffri is involved in a tournament and that’s it—by contrast, in RtS there’s a lot of discussion about the care they’re taking regarding NIco’s arm. But Geffri seems like she’s the starting pitcher for every game they play. She is an elite athlete, she’s playing for Team USA baseball, but the rules are drastically different than those for a full time professional player.

H: I think a key thing for her is that she doesn’t have a desire to be a professional player. It was her dad’s dream. And she’s having a lot of fun doing this tournament, but baseball is not her dream.

E: It seemed almost like a personal exploration of her relationship with the sport. And that exploration diverged completely from her relationship with Noah. They were totally separate storylines in this book that started and ended at baseball games. The structure was like a baseball diamond! It was a strange book.

These books both feature “outsider” athlete narratives. How did that square with your prior expectations of a sports romance?

E: I was thinking of this in terms of having a woman athlete who is Black, and gay athletes. We’ve already discussed the “queer players in the clubhouse” outsider status plenty, but Geffri—she’s a woman playing baseball. Women play softball, men play baseball. Her outsider status is one of the reasons she stopped playing, and when she finally got to play with women, she was so excited. But even then, there are few Black players on the team. Not that this was a particular issue for her on the field, but both she and her roommate did specifically comment on sticking together because they’re both Black players. So I think that it’s very clear in these particular narratives that the protagonists have internalized their own outsider status and it impacts their relationship with the sport. Jake thinks he can never have a real relationship until he’s retired. Nico has a ton of internalized homophobia. Geffri has spent her career feeling like she has to prove to the men athletes she’s playing with that she’s good enough to be on the team…

H: And this is where my beef with Noah is—because Noah is doing the same shit to her that she got all the time she was playing baseball! Like, oh, look at this girl, she’s not good enough, I don’t believe she’s really that good at baseball. Talking smack about a stranger for no reason. 

E: Well and you’ve been very focused on that initial trolling, but it doesn’t really get better in their subsequent interactions, including when she beats him 2-1 in their little competition. (Then accuses him of cheating on that one game he won). He really supports her at the end of the book but it doesn’t jive with the rest of his behavior.

H: But does he support her? He basically gets his boss to let him write a piece about how she’s a unicorn, because she’s such a standout. He doesn’t write an article about women being awesome at sports in general.

Final Thoughts

H: I think we all just liked Reading the Signs better. 

I: I think that’s accurate.

E: This is an interesting initial foray into sports romance because I feel like it’s not going to be representative of M/F sports romance in general.

I: We will never know what you guys would have thought about my Changeup…I’m disappointed, but I can guess.

Next week we’re going to read about that other All-American sport: Football.

Buy Now: Reading the Signs | The Changeup

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