For some twenty years now I have wanted to write a novel about baseball, but there was no story. I coached Little League for years hoping for a story, but nothing. I had a story about a great high school coach, but it turned into a football novel. Then came a football novel set in Italy. Friends have asked me a thousand times, "What about a baseball novel?" To which I have always replied, "Sure, but I need a story."
I watch a lot of baseball, from the kids in my local park, to high school and college teams (my favorite), to the Cardinals in October. There is nothing that upsets the languid and civilized pace of the game like a hit batsman, especially when the pith is a fastball and it lands somewhere above the shoulders. The batter goes down hard; the fans are stunned and frightened; the players in the dugouts inch toward the field; the situation is tense as a collective breath is held to see if the batter will get up. And, always, the immediate question: "Was it intentional?"
Was it a beanball? Was it retaliation? And, if so, why? What is the history between the pitcher and batter, or the two teams? The fans do not always know, but the players do. Beanball wars are complicated and grudges are carried for years.
A few years ago, I read a story about Ray Chapman, the only player in the history of professional baseball to be killed by a pitch. He was hit in the head by Carl Mays of the Yankees in a game at the Polo Grounds in 1920. (Babe Ruth was in the right field.) Chapman played for the Indians and was a popular player. Mays was the Yankees' best pitcher - 26 wins in 1920 and 27 in 1921 - but was not that well liked. Both were from Kentucky and were the same age. For years, even decades, sportswriters and fans debated the issue of whether Mays intentionally hit Chapman. Mays claimed it was an accident, but many were skeptical. Many held grudges; indeed, with a career record of 208-126, Mays had Hall of Fame numbers but didn't make it.
I began to think - what if? What if a pitcher intentionally hit a batter, a young star? What if both careers were ruined? And what if they met years later to try to come to grips with what happened in a split second?
Voila! I had my baseball story.
I remember reading John Grisham years ago - when he first wrote The Firm. More than anything, he draws you in with his stories. I'd very much enjoyed his Theodore Boone books and had been looking forward to reading Calico Joe, his latest novel.
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.
The story is told by eleven-year old Paul Tracey, the son of New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey. As a boy, admires his father but has a healthy fear of him as well.
"Baseball was my world, and little else mattered. My father pitched for the New York Mets, and I lived and died with each game. I pitched too, for the Scrappers in the White Plains Little League, and because my father was who he was, great things were expected of me. I rarely met those expectations, but there were moments of promise."The baseball season of 1973 is marked by the sudden appearance of young Joe Castle. Castle was sharing a cheap apartment with four other minor league players when the first baseman of the Chicago Cubs was injured. Joe was called up and found himself "starting at first and hitting seventh". Joe hit a home run on his first pitch and made baseball history. Joe Castle captured the hearts and imagination of baseball fans all around the country - and our narrator shares his own excitement and admiration of the young player.
Grisham's description of young Calico Joe and the spontaneous surge of affection from baseball fans everywhere sort of reminded me of Jeremy Lin - although I admit that many things remind me of Jeremy Lin nowadays - because of the unexpected show of talent and graciousness. Calico Joe clearly loves the game, is excited by the opportunities opening up for him, and his consistently gracious and likeable. Calico Joe is a great role model -"cocky but not the least bit arrogant" - "a fresh-faced kid who looked all of twenty-one and was on top of the world.
While "everyone was falling in love with Calico Joe", Warren Tracy was jealous of Joe's popularity, success and skill. When the New York Mets face off against the Chicago Cubs, Warren Tracy somehow hits Calico Joe. The action destroys both their professional and personal lives. Decades later, when Paul learns that his father Warren Tracy is dying of cancer, Paul tries to arrange for the men to meet. John Grisham's Calico Joe digs into the what happened that fateful day in 1973 and in the years following. Calico Joe is an engrossing story of rivalry, jealousy, vengeance, forgiveness - and baseball.
ISBN-10: 0385536070 - Hardcover $24.95
Publisher: Doubleday (April 10, 2012), 208 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
About the Author:
JOHN GRISHAM is the author of twenty-four novels, one work of nonfiction, a collection of stories, and two novels for young readers. He lives in Virginia and Mississippi.
Doubleday is sponsoring this giveaway of 1 copy of Calico Joe. Have you seen the NYPL "Read" posters with actors, writers, celebrities and role models with encouraging kids to read? To enter, name who you'd like to see on a "Read" poster. I'd love to see one with NY Knicks - as a group and individually. I started out as a Jeremy Lin fan and have started to really follow and root for his teammates as well. I emailed the NYPL with my suggestion and if you'd like to pass on your suggestion, email email@example.com
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