The book: “Calico Joe”
The author: John Grisham
The vital stats: Doubleday (Random House), 198 pages, $24.95.
The pitch: From the lawyer-turned-prolific fiction writer who has already sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide comes his first baseball-based novel that, for some strange reason, involves no lawsuits being filed, steroid litigation or bankruptcy court action.
Although, if what happens in this book really did happen, there’d be some kind of civil, or even criminal, suit considered.
Grisham has already taken a commercial leap into the fake-sports genre with the football-related “Bleachers” (2002) and “Playing for Pizza” (2007), which must have turned enough of a profit to get him the green light from his publishers to try a baseball tale that involves a damaged relationship between a son and his cancer-riddled father intersecting with the storyline of a “coulda been” superstar whose career is cut short by a pitch to the noggin.
Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Ark. — Grisham, incidentally, was born in Jonesboro, Ark. — is the title character, one with an uncharasticially ridiculous start of a career that lasts just 38 games as a July callup for the 1973 Chicago Cubs.
A near-fatal at-bat against aging, bitter pitcher Warren Tracey of the New York Mets isn’t where the story hits a climax, but it only the start of a so-called redemptive attempt by Tracey’s estranged son, Paul, who provides the catalyst for trying to set up a meeting between the Castle and his pops some 30 years after the beaning. Paul thinks it was deliverate. Warren sticks to his “it was an accident” excuse. We don’t know what to make of Castle, who, after suffering a subsequent stroke, is content on saddling up to a power mower and taking care of a high school field named after him in his hometown, as he’s taken care of by his two brothers.
An excerpt: A four-page pull in the April 9 issue of Sports Illustrated didn’t leave much to the imagination — it took everyone right up to the point where Tracey plunked Castle on page 96, which is about the halfway point in the book. Here’s a slice of what SI ran (linked here):
As promised, my mother awakened me at 6 a.m. so I could watch the early news programs. I was hoping for a glimpse of Joe Castle. Channel 4 did a quick rundown on the National League games. The Mets had won in Atlanta to put them two games over .500. Then there was Joe Castle sprinting around the bases in Philadelphia, once, twice, three times. The drag bunt, though, got as much airtime as the three home runs. The guy could fly.
I loved it when the Mets were on the road. My father was gone, and our house was peaceful and pleasant. When he was around, the mood was far different. He was a self-absorbed, brooding man with seldom a kind word for any of us. He had never met his potential, and this was always the fault of someone else–the manager, his teammates, the owners, even the umpires. On the nights after he pitched, he often came home late and drunk, and that’s when the trouble started. I suspected, even at the age of 11, that my parents would not stay together. I know he hit my mother a few times, probably a lot more than I realized. And he drank and chased women and lived the hard life of a professional baseball player. He was arrogant and cocky, and from the age of 15 he was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, because he, Warren Tracey, could throw a baseball through a brick wall. …
The score was 1-1 when Joe walked to the plate in the top of the third with two outs and no one on. The first pitch was a fastball outside, and when I saw it, I knew what would happen next. The second pitch was just like the first, hard and a foot off the plate. I wanted to stand and scream, “Look out, Joe!” but I couldn’t move. As my father stood on the mound and looked in at his catcher, Jerry Grote, my heart froze and I couldn’t breathe. I managed to say to my mother, “He’s gonna hit him.”
The beanball went straight at Joe’s helmet, and for a second, for a long, dreadful second that fans and writers would discuss and debate and analyze for decades to come, Joe didn’t move. For a reason no one, especially Joe, would ever understand or be able to explain or re-create or reenact, he simply lost sight of the ball. …
That was not the sound of Joe being hit. What we heard was the sickening thud of the baseball cracking into flesh and bone. For those of us in the crowd close enough to hear it, the sound would never be forgotten. I can, and do, still hear it today. The ball made contact at the corner of Joe’s right eye. It knocked his helmet off as he fell backward. He caught himself with his hands behind him, on the ground, and paused for a second before passing out. …
Minutes passed, and Joe was not getting up. We could see his cleats and uniform from the knees down, and at one point his heels appeared to be twitching, as if his body were in a seizure. The Cubs fans began throwing debris, and security guards scurried onto the field. Grote walked past the mound and stood next to his pitcher. I watched my father closely and at one point saw something that did not surprise me. With Joe flat on his back, unconscious, seriously injured and convulsing, I saw my father smile.
How it goes down in the scorebook: Happy Father’s Day.
Somehow, we see this as likely one of the better, less-expensive gifts that dads will find themselves with from their sons a few weeks from now. That is, if they have thoughtful children who do a little Google research.
Both Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com have nearly 100 commenters on the book, both giving it a four-out-of-five stars. But more indicative of the target audience might be this review that we found on Powells.com: “I’m not that knowledgeable about baseball, so the baseball stats in ‘Calico Joe’ didn’t register with me, the way that I expect they will for more baseball savvy readers. But the real story and its drama was easy to follow.”
Easy does it.
The statistical resume that Grisham decides to bestow upon Castle, meanwhile, is so preposterous, it distracts from the believability factor. We’ll let you absorb those numbers for yourself if you choose to read this.
Castle will remind you of a cross between Tony Conigliaro (left) and “Super Joe” Charboneau. And then there’s Tracey, if he really was on the ’73 NL champion starting staff with Tom Seaver, Jerry Kossman and Jon Matlack, who could be the equivalent of a Ray Sadecki or Jim McAndrew is you need to wrap your head around someone’s baseball card (see the ’73 Mets roster here). But that wouldn’t be much of a compliment to either Mets throwers.
Grisham explains in the author’s note that “the mixing of real people, places and events into a novel is tricky business. … please, all you die-hard fans, don’t read this with any expectation of accuracy … this is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction.”
Kind of a cop-out, eh? It is if you are baseball-savvy enough to read between the lines.
Grisham can also get a little over-the-top in some of his baseball-related description, so we’re not going to let him slide off that easy. For example: In Chapter 2, Grisham writes that a foul ball roped down the first-base line by Castle in his first game with the Cubs missed hitting coach Ernie Banks, who “would have been seriously maimed” if the ball hit him. Skip to Chapter 6, where the Giants’ Juan Marichal faces Castle and knocks him down with a pitch aimed his shoulder. “Joe hit the ground and barely missed being maimed, and Wrigley almost exploded.”
You ever seen anyone actually maimed by a pitch, foul ball or … anything else baseball related? If Grisham is trying to foreshadow the purpose pitch that Tracey will deliver to Castle in a couple more chapters, we’ll give him that literary device, but it’s hardly realistic.
Oh, and Grisham also describes the scene after a bases-loaded double that Castle hit, which breaks a rookie record for safely hitting in his first 13 at bats (a mark that Grisham explains “had been labeled ‘unbreakable,’ ” although we doubt any baseball fan even knows of its existence):
“The Giants catcher, Dave Rader, had the ball and when the dust settled called time. Slowly, he walked past the mound to second base, where he ceremoniously handed it to Joe Castle … Joe removed his helmet and acknowledged the adulation. The umpires were in no hurry to resume play. They were witnessing history, and the game is played without a clock.”
Thanks for the “clock” update thing, and creating a scenario that would never happen.
As a long-lasting piece of Grisham-esque literature, this can’t be in his top 20 list. But for marketing and book-sales purposes, it must be acknowledged as a fine novelty item.
== A review in the Boston Globe (linked here).
== Ron Kaplan’s website has a list of video links to Grisham’s promotional appearances on local network news shows (linked here)
== Grisham meets up with another couple of mystery writers to fill a story for the Chicago Tribune (linked here).