Grisham’s work moves from the pages to the big screen

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Sitting in the stands of Charlottesville watching his young son Ty play his final season of &uot;true&uot; little league baseball a few years ago, John Grisham knew that things would never be this good for him as a sports dad.

Oh, Ty would still play in the local league. He’d eventually go on to play at St. Anne’s Belfield (even making a few stops in Suffolk to torment Nansemond-Suffolk Academy along the way). He’d even hit the fields of the University of Virginia.

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But Grisham could feel things changing for him, as a father and a coach. &uot;When kids are 12, and not quite 13, they still listen to coaches,&uot; one of the literary world’s legends told the crowds at the 2003 Little League International Conference on Saturday evening at the Virginia Beach Pavilion. &uot;They still believe that their parents know what they’re talking about. But the coaches and parents think, ‘What will I do next year, when my son is 13, out playing an ugly game on a field with 90-foot basepaths? What I wouldn’t give for just one more year.’&uot;

Like virtually every American boy, Grisham himself played little league, on the fields of Jonesboro, Ark., and dreamed of one day stepping onto the major league baseball fields. As is all too often the case, he realized that his skills weren’t quite good enough, and hit the books for his future. But baseball has always played a huge role in his life – besides coaching and cheering on his own child, Grisham has been the commissioner of the Charlottesville little league.

So when Grisham faced the dilemma that every sports parent must confront sooner or later, he did what he has become world-renowned for doing best – he wrote about it. After churning out legal-based thrillers such as &uot;The Firm,&uot; &uot;A Time to Kill,&uot; &uot;The Client,&uot; &uot;The Chamber,&uot; &uot;The Runaway Jury,&uot; and &uot;The Rainmaker,&uot; all of which have made the journey from the pages of a book to the screen of a movie theater, Grisham took a slight break from his usual area with his latest creation.

&uot;Like I do with all my novels,&uot; he said, &uot;I started by saying, ‘How can I show this to the reader?’&uot; He realized that he might not be able to do so; unlike Grisham’s usual introspective, dialogue-heavy style of writing, his new story was filled with action and outer emotion, which are often more effective seen then read about.

Eventually, Grisham decided to forego his novel, and make it into a screenplay, as he did in 1998 with the Kenneth Branagh flick, &uot;The Gingerbread Man.&uot; In 2000, he came up with the finished product of &uot;Mickey.&uot;

It’s the story of a young lawyer, about to embark on the darkest side of his career as a sports dad; the day when his son, a preteen pitching prodigy, finishes his season in the 12-and-under league and makes ready to become the youngster again, in a league filled with the older and more experienced. Recently widowed, the lawyer comes under fire for tax evasion, and he and his boy skip town, assuming new names, faces… and ages.

That’s right – there is a small silver lining in the move: the youngster’s new persona is still 12, meaning that he’s got an &uot;extra&uot; year to play with the little ones.

What no one foresees is that the boy will become even better. That his new team will win, win, and win some more. That they’ll not just be the best in the state, not just in the region, but have a shot at visiting Williamsport, Pa. for the Little League World Series – and put the small fugitive and his papa right under the national spotlight (To find out more about the film, visit

Starring Harry Connick Jr. as the lawyer and Shawn Salinas as his son (Grisham has a cameo as the league commissioner), the film was mostly shot in Richmond, Petersburg and Charlottesville. But in June 2001, Grisham and director Hugh Wilson, a former little leaguer himself, spent two weeks in the most realistic setting possible – Williamsport itself.

&uot;I always wanted to make a movie about baseball,&uot; said Wilson, who directed &uot;The First Wives Club,&uot; &uot;Guarding Tess,&uot; and &uot;Blast from the Past.&uot; &uot;I wanted to direct a movie with a lot of non-actors. Actors don’t require, or really need, a lot of direction.&uot; He got that chance -1,000 extras showed up to play the fans, coaches and opposing players.

But just as the fictional project wound down, tragedy struck in the form of reality; in August

2001, it was revealed that Danny Alamonte, who had pitched his Bronx Rolando Paulino (Dominican Republic) team to third place in the 2001 Little League World Series (throwing a no-hitter along the way) was actually 14 – two years past the cutoff age for the competition. His father had falsified a birth-certificate, and Alamonte and his coach had gone along with the facade.

&uot;That was a nervous time for everybody,&uot; Grisham said. &uot;When that story came out, I though, ‘Wait a minute! This is our story! You can’t take our story!’&uot;

Nearly three years later, the family film is finally ready for release. &uot;It makes you squirm, because it deals with cheating,&uot; Grisham said, &uot;but the message and the moral outcome is strong, and, in the end, it’s the right outcome.&uot; The Pavilion audience thought so; an advance screening of the film drew a slew of teary eyes and a long ovation. The film will open in select cities throughout April and May, and go nationwide this summer.

&uot;I might start my next novel in late spring or early summer,&uot; said Grisham, whose 17th novel, &uot;The Last Juror,&uot; was released in February (he considers his 2001 work, &uot;A Painted House&uot; to be his personal best yet). &uot;I don’t write much during baseball season!&uot;