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Zach Glasser has put up with a lot for the sport he loves. Endless days on the road, playing half-decent baseball in front of half-full stadiums and endless nights alone, pretending this is the life he’s always wanted.
The thing is, it could have been everything he ever wanted—if only he’d had the guts to tell his family, tell the club, that he was in love with his teammate Eugenio Morales. Well, ex-teammate now. When Zach wouldn’t—couldn’t—come out, Eugenio made the devastating choice to move on, demanding a trade away from Oakland. Away from Zach.
Three years and countless regrets later, Zach still can’t get Eugenio out of his head. Or his heart. And when they both get selected to play in the league’s All-Star Classic, those feelings and that chemistry come roaring back.
Zach wants a second chance. Eugenio wants a relationship he doesn’t have to hide. Maybe it’s finally time they both get what they want.
I’m not a sports fan, but I do like a good sports romance, and having read the synopsis of début author KD Casey’s Unwritten Rules, I had high hopes of finding one within its pages. But while the book gets off to a good start, I’m afraid those hopes were dashed before I got to the halfway point. It doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of the storyline (closeted pro player worried about the effect coming out could have on his career) – and that’s fine; tropes are tropes, and it’s ultimately all about what the author makes of them. But while KD Casey can clearly write and really knows her stuff when it comes to baseball, the book has a number of fairly big flaws that make it impossible for me to offer a recommendation.
The story is told entirely from the perspective of Zach Glasser, a catcher with the Oakland Elephants. He’s Jewish (although not particularly observant from what I could gather), he has hearing loss in one ear, and in the first part of the story, he’s been playing in the major leagues for four years. He’s also gay and deeply closeted, he’s never had a relationship and is so terrified of anyone guessing about his sexuality that he seems to spend his life constantly assessing and regulating his behaviour to make sure he doesn’t give himself away. He knows he can’t possibly have a career in professional sport as an openly gay man and has told himself he’ll be able to have a life after he retires. But that’s quite a few years away yet.
Then Zach meets Eugenio Morales, a young up-and-coming catcher at spring training, and although they’re vying for the same place on the team, Zach is asked to take the other man under his wing. Eugenio is a fast learner; he’s also handsome and outgoing and Zach, who has never really allowed himself to get close to anyone, finds it hard to resist his overtures of friendship. It takes Zach quite a long time to see those overtures for what they really are, however; but once he clues in, he and Eugenio (who is bi) embark upon a very secret, very passionate affair.
It’s in the book blurb, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the relationship crashes and burns. Eugenio can no longer deal with the secrecy – and Zach’s near-paranoia – and Zach, despite promises he’s made, is no closer to coming out than when they first got together.
The story is told in two timelines – “three years earlier”, charting the development of Zach and Eugenio’s relationship from their first meeting, and then the “present day” sections which show them getting their second chance after a long separation. I liked the structure, which means we get to see both first and second-chance romances unfold on the page and it generally works well, although the second-chance romance doesn’t feel as well fleshed-out as the first. And that leads me to one of my major issues with the novel as a whole, which is that the romance is pretty lacklustre. I never really connected with the characters or felt the connection between them because there just isn’t enough of who they are outside of baseball; we spend all of the book in Zach’s head, but I couldn’t tell you much about him, and Eugenio’s characterisation is even sketchier. As a result I never understood what attracted them to each other – other than a mutual interest in baseball. Their chemistry is lukewarm at best, and practically all the time they spend together in the first timeline is spent with Zach terrified about someone finding out about then; his fear of discovery permeates the entire story and I found it exhausting at times. I’m not belittling the very real prejudice still faced by gay athletes in professional sport, but in most sports romances, there’s room for some lightness and the joy of making that important connection, of really being seen – but this is just unrelenting fear and gloom and Zach getting in his own way. (I didn’t blame Eugenio one bit for getting out.) And there’s no let-up in the second timeline, which revolves around Zach’s fears of what will happen when he comes out. A lot of the time, Eugenio feels like an afterthought and I came away from the book feeling as though what I’d read wasn’t a romance so much as it was a story about one man’s journey to self-acceptance. The ending is abrupt and something of an anti-climax, and I’m not sure I ever got used to the third person present tense narrative, which seemed like a really odd choice.
But the biggest problem I had with the book is that it’s very baseball-heavy – and I know nothing whatsoever about baseball. Okay, it’s a sports romance, so there’s going to be some actual sport in it, but this isn’t like Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series or Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s Him books, where the hockey is present in such a way that even a sports-hater like me can enjoy the story without needing to know too much about hockey. In Unwritten Rules, there is hardly a page without some reference to baseball on it, and while the author does a wonderful job of putting the reader there in the stadium dirt with the players, the rest of the time I was completely lost amid technical terminology and talk of triple-and-double-As, stats, opt-outs, trades and various playing techniques. This meant I had no idea what was at stake for these characters and as a result, couldn’t understand their motivations and decisions. At best it was incomprehensible and at worst it was boring, and I skimmed entire pages of baseball-talk because I had no hope of working out what it meant or why it was important/relevant. I felt like I was reading the book from a distance through a sheet of thick glass. Of course, this is a highly personal thing – if you understand the sport, you may well get more out of the book than I did, although that doesn’t negate the other problems I’ve outlined.
What makes it all the more disappointing is that KD Casey is obviously a talented writer, but she gets so bogged down in the minutiae of baseball that the characterisation and romance are sorely neglected. As a result, Unwritten Rules is a book that will probably only appeal to a very small, niche audience – and I’m afraid that audience doesn’t include me.