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“Ho, Ronald, ho, Ronald, ho, Ronald, ho!” It’s just past nine in the morning on a clear summer day in rural Albemarle County, Va., and Gary May is already in a full sweat. The 39-year-old coach of the Cove Creek Park Blue Jays is standing at home plate hitting fungoes to his team of 11- and 12-year-olds before their championship game against the rival Reds. The Jays seem crisp until Bradley, May’s son — one of two he coaches on the team — bobbles a routine fly ball. “Bradley, I don’t know what time you went to bed last night, but you better wake up. We got a ball game at 10 a.m. All right, Scooter-roo!” May yells, launching a high arching shot toward right fielder Scooter Stevens, who catches it cleanly. “Scooter-roo, looking good! Everyone is looking good! Blue Jays are ready to play!” May has been coaching youth baseball for 17 years, most of that time in neighboring Orange County. But about five years ago he heard something surprising: John Grisham, the best-selling author of legal thrillers such as “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief,” had moved next door to Albemarle County and was building a new little league baseball park just south of Charlottesville. Curious, May made the hour-long drive over to Cove Creek to check things out. And he’s never really left. “When I first walked in, I was just in awe. I thought, ‘This can’t be for little league.’ It looked like Yankee Stadium,” recalls May, who grew up playing ball in an abandoned rock quarry. Laid out across 40 acres of prime Virginia farmland nestled between three mountain ridges and flanking the old Southern Railway line, Cove Creek Park is kind of a little league Xanadu: an earthly paradise decreed by a benevolent deity. A central two-story gazebo is ringed by six exquisitely maintained fields that serve as home to 43 baseball and softball teams. For a modest entry fee of $25 each, more than 500 kids from six surrounding counties play at Cove Creek, ranging in age from 5 to 15 for boys’ baseball, and five to 17 for girls’ softball. And, like Kublai Khan, Grisham is the undisputed master here. The league is private and independent with no affiliation to the local or national Little League systems. As commissioner of the league, Grisham not only pays the bills and hands out the trophies, but can often be seen chalking the base paths and grooming the infield dirt between games. Problem parents, the perennial scourge of little league, are noticeably absent at Cove Creek. “It’s simple: If you cause problems you’re not coming back,” says pro-football Hall of Famer and Fox Sports television commentator Howie Long, whose eldest son plays at Cove Creek. “There’s no board to fight. John runs things, and it’s very fair.” Long says that through the league he and Grisham have grown to be friends. When Long’s wife, Diane, released a book of photographs of famous athletes and their children earlier this year, Grisham penned the introduction. Grisham declines to say how much money he has pumped into Cove Creek, but it’s clearly in the millions. Everything, from the lush Bermuda grass, to the crushed gravel warning tracks, to the tidy cinder block dugouts, is immaculate. Cove Creek is the kind of place where the T-Ball field has foul poles and the maintenance crew puts out freshly painted buckets of sand for cigarette butts. Postmodern sculptures of baseball players, fashioned from scrap metal, dot the grounds. Cove Creek even has a playground to help keep restless kids out of their parents’ hair while they watch the game, just like the new big-league retro ballparks. Baseball has always been a big part of Grisham’s life. Born in 1955 in Jonesboro, Ark., Grisham says that one of his earliest memories is sitting on the porch of his family’s small farmhouse listening to radio broadcasts of the St. Louis Cardinals — the adopted team of most southerners in the pre-Atlanta Braves era. When Grisham was 7, his family — he’s the second-eldest of five kids — left the farm. His father went into the construction business, working on traveling crews that took jobs all over the midsouth. During the next six years, the family moved every summer, to towns with names like Crenshaw, Delhi, Parkin, and Ripley. When the Grishams arrived in a new town, there were three immediate priorities: joining the Baptist Church; getting everyone a library card; and checking out the local diamond. “We could judge the quality of life in the town by the quality of its baseball field,” recalls Grisham. “My younger brothers and I would get our stuff — bat, balls, gloves — and just head out the door looking for a game.” Some things don’t change. Thirty years later, when Grisham moved his family to Virginia, one of his first priorities was scouting out the local baseball scene. And he didn’t much like what he found. His 12-year-old son Ty was getting ready to move up to regulation baseball, and Grisham wanted him — and other local kids — to have the kind of field he and his brothers could only dream of when they were beating around those dusty southern towns. So he did what any self-respecting multimillionaire novelist and baseball fanatic would do: He built his own diamond. Originally, Grisham just wanted to build a practice field, but then things just sort of snowballed. One field became six. Before he knew it, Grisham was battling to make sure the cinder block dugouts were painted “Old Virginia” white instead of the earth tones favored by the local planning commission. That either Grisham or Cove Creek Park are in Virginia is somewhat improbable. Seven years ago Grisham and his wife Ren�e, along with their two young children, son Ty and daughter Shea, were living happily in a Victorian-style farmhouse outside Oxford, Miss., hometown to both the University of Mississippi and the South’s greatest novelist, William Faulkner. Flush from the success of his own last three novels — all number one best-sellers and slated for the big screen — Grisham seemed set to take his place in the pantheon of Mississippi writers. But it wasn’t long before small-town life got a lot smaller for Oxford’s most famous resident. When the tour buses started unloading camera-toting fans at his gate, Grisham knew it was time to get away. After considering several options, including spending a year abroad, Grisham settled on Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and, in his final years, none other than William Faulkner. By the time Grisham arrived in the fall of 1994, the hills and dells around the college town were already home to notables such as football great Long, actors Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange, and media mogul John Kluge. Grisham purchased an eighteenth-century farmhouse situated on 200 acres just south of Charlottesville and settled in. “I always thought we’d go back [to Oxford]. It’s still home, I guess, but we don’t talk about moving back anymore.” Like many of the kids playing baseball at Cove Creek Park, Grisham grew up dreaming of being a big leaguer. In 1967 his family settled in Southaven, Miss., a suburban town just across the state line from Memphis, Tenn. Grisham was good enough to start for the local high school and play one season at a nearby junior college. Then, in 1974, he transferred to Delta State University (an NCAA Division II school) to try out for coach David “Boo” Ferriss, a Mississippi baseball legend whose 25-6 record led the Boston Red Sox to the American League pennant in 1946. After three weeks, Ferriss called Grisham into his office and gave him the bad news: He wasn’t destined for the big leagues. In fact, he wasn’t even going to make the cut for Delta State. Like many young prospects before him, Grisham says, he was done in by the curve ball. “Pitchers can be cruel when they spot a weakness,” Grisham noted in an essay about his failed baseball career. With the athletic dreams of youth behind him, Grisham moved away from baseball for a time. He transferred to Mississippi State, where he majored in accounting and planned to be a big-time tax lawyer (not unlike Mitch McDeere from “The Firm”). In 1981 he graduated from Ole Miss law school, married Ren�e, a girl from his hometown, and hung out his shingle as a sole practitioner back in Southaven. These days, it’s easy to forget that there was another John Grisham, one who had a life and a career and prospects before he ever wrote fiction. Two years after finishing law school, Grisham decided to run for a seat in the state legislature. Campaigning as an insurgent without the support of the local Democratic party, Grisham beat the 20-year incumbent. He was 28 years old. But from almost his first day on the job, Grisham had a sinking feeling that politics wasn’t for him. “The people who support you think they own a little piece of you, and I hated that,” he says. Edwin Perry, a veteran lawmaker who is now clerk of the Mississippi House of Representatives, served with Grisham and recalls a personable young legislator whose career was nonetheless “a little lackluster.” Perry says that Grisham often seemed distracted. During floor debates, while others worked the aisles or droned on about their pet bills, Grisham was usually reading quietly at his desk. “He’d be looking at a Faulkner novel or a thesaurus or something,” recalls Perry. Though elected to a second term in 1988, Grisham already knew his political career was over: “I thought I owed it to my constituents to run again but I really didn’t want it anymore.” One of the reasons Grisham disliked being in the legislature was that it took him away from his family and his fledgling law practice. There wasn’t much demand for big-time tax lawyers in Southaven, so he did what most sole practitioners end up doing: some personal injury work, a little workers’ comp, a few court-appointed criminal defenses — all the time dreaming of that one big case that would put him over the top. “In a good year I’d clear $100,000, but the next year it would be $30,000,” he recalls. Grisham did end up catching a big case, just not the way he planned. Like a lot of young litigators, he liked to hang around the county courthouse studying the styles and tactics of the local big shots. In 1984 he happened to hear the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. Grisham was horrified and became obsessed with the idea of what would happen if the girl’s father exacted revenge on the perpetrators. Would any jury convict him? The question became the basis for Grisham’s first novel, “A Time To Kill.” Written over a three-year period, during which Grisham would rise at 5 a.m. to work on it before going to the office, the tale recounts how a small-town Mississippi lawyer named Jake Brigance defends a black father, Carl Lee Hailey, after he kills two white men who raped his daughter. In a story that has become legendary in the publishing world, no fewer than a dozen publishing houses passed on the book before tiny Wynwood Press bought it and printed 5,000 copies in 1989. Nine years and eight books later, Publisher’s Weekly crowned Grisham the best-selling author of the decade, ahead of such worthies as Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancy. To date, Grisham’s 11 novels have sold more than 90 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 30 languages. Gross revenues from his book sales and related ventures, including seven feature films, are well in excess of a billion dollars. Though Grisham’s exact cut of that pot has never been disclosed, Forbes estimated his 1999 income alone at $36 million. Part of Grisham’s extraordinary success is due to his prodigious output. He has written and published a novel a year every year since 1991. His writing is largely seasonal. Soon after a book comes out in early February (sometimes referred to in the publishing world as “Grisham Day”), he begins to ruminate about the next novel. For a couple of months he’ll outline the plot and go over ideas with Ren�e, but his spring and summer are largely reserved for baseball. When the mornings grow cool in late August and his kids are back in school, Grisham returns to his early morning routine, writing every day with an eye toward a December 1 deadline, the latest he can get the manuscript to his publisher in time for a February publication date. Though all of Grisham’s novels so far have dealt with lawyers and the legal profession, the author claims no sentimental attachments to his former vocation. He keeps his license current, but jokes that it’s only because he has a recurring nightmare that he’ll “have to go back and earn a living with it.” Asked to compare himself with Scott Turow, who still maintains an active practice, and who, along with Grisham, is credited with creating the modern legal thriller, the normally affable Grisham bridles just a bit: “I admire Scott, but he writes a book every three years. He likes the practice and has a calling. I had that too when I left law school, but soon lost it.” Grisham says that when he got the call from his agent in 1990 saying that the film rights to “The Firm” had been sold for $600,000, his ten-year career in law and politics was over on the spot: “It took me about a year to wind up my practice, but that was basically it.” These days Grisham concentrates on his twin loves of baseball and writing. Two years ago, when Grisham’s son Ty turned 16, making him too old to play at Cove Creek, Grisham built another baseball field and donated it to his son’s high school, St. Anne’s-Belfied in Charlottesville. He also organized a softball team at St. Anne’s for his daughter Shea and — yes — built yet another ballfield. Both are as pristine as Cove Creek. In the early summer, Ty plays outfield for the Charlottesville Reds, an independent team of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds sponsored by Grisham. In late June, the team hosted a ten-team invitational tournament at its home field. To watch Grisham host the tournament is to gain an appreciation of his devotion to the game. When the umpires don’t show on time, Grisham gets on his cell phone and rounds them up. When he passes the concession stand, he checks in to make sure there are enough cold drinks. In between contests he jumps on a John Deere tractor and drags the infield. Then he rechalks the first base line, rakes the area around home plate, and rechalks the hitters circle. When a foul ball arches into a cow pasture behind the parking lot, the multimillionaire author hustles over to retrieve it. Grisham used to coach his son’s team, but says that both were smart enough to abandon that when Ty turned 13. Now 17, Ty has developed into a solid collegiate prospect, and the former coach is not above offering a scouting report, giving his son high marks for speed and baseball savvy, but worrying that, at 5 feet 10 inches, he may be disadvantaged by his size — a trait, the record should reflect, he inherited directly from his old man. When the righthanded-hitting Ty smacks a slider for a home run against the Chattanooga Colonels, Grisham grunts, “He was due.” Ty had apparently been mired in a hitting slump, and Grisham thinks his son may be coasting a bit during summer ball. “He works hard in spurts,” Grisham says, his arms perched on the backstop. The same could be said for Ty’s father, who admits that his back is against the wall a little on his next novel, “A Painted House.” As the absence of a legal term in the title indicates, the book is a sharp departure from Grisham’s previous, lawyer-centric work. Set in the early 1950s, it chronicles a month in the life of three generations of the Chandler family on a cotton farm near Black Oak, Ark. The central character is 7-year-old Luke, who picks cotton, writes to his Uncle Ricky fighting in Korea, and roots for Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals, whose games are broadcast by a young radio announcer named Harry Caray. The book, which is currently being serialized in the Oxford American, a literary magazine Grisham rescued from extinction six years ago, is his most autobiographical since “A Time to Kill.” Grisham moved the setting of the novel from the early 1960s to the early 1950s to pick up the career of “Stan the Man” and the Korean War, two events central to life in the rural South at the time. Grisham also chose the early fifties because it marked the only time that two groups of people featured in the book converged to help bring in Arkansas’s cotton crop: migrant workers coming up from Mexico and hill people coming down from the Ozarks. “After the early fifties, the hill people stopped coming,” says Grisham, who notes that, unlike most of the South’s cotton region, his native county was almost devoid of African Americans. “Historically, I think it was too poor for slave owners.” The lives of all the characters in the novel are largely governed by three powerful forces: the crop, the church, and baseball. Perhaps Grisham was giving away more than he intended at the end of one chapter of the book where Luke confronts the end of baseball season: Baseball began in spring, when we planted and when hopes were high. It sustained us through the summer … from the drudgery of the fields. We listened to each game, then talked about the plays and the players and the strategies until we listened to the next one. It was very much a part of our daily lives for six months, then it was gone. Just like the cotton. … I got my glove and went for a long walk down a field road, tossing the ball in the air, wondering what I would do until April. For the first time in my life, baseball broke my heart. The season is over now at Cove Creek as well. On a ridge above the park, a lone fielder made of metal watches from his pedestal as the fields below are seeded with rye grass for the winter. The kids are back in school, and a few miles up the road, the author is back in his autumn lair, rising each day before dawn to finish his work in time for a looming December deadline. But they’ll both be back in spring when crops are planted and hopes are high, and kids shag fly balls on long cool evenings, their laughter mixing with the crack of bats and drifting out across the valley as a freight train rattles down the old Southern Railway and into the gathering twilight.

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