By Steven V. Roberts, Published: April 7
John Grisham’s legal thrillers are dense and hefty, full of twists and turns and tension. His latest novel, “Calico Joe,” is not like that at all. It’s a sweet, simple story, a fable really. And like all fables, it has a moral: Good can come out of evil; it’s never too late to confess your sins and seek forgiveness.
Writers who deal with baseball seem drawn to its mythic dimensions. Whether they produce a novel (“The Natural”), a movie (“Field of Dreams”), a play (“Damn Yankees”) or a song (“Mrs. Robinson”), they often focus on outsize heroes, their feats and their flaws. Maybe it’s the grass or the lights or the uniforms. Maybe it’s the strict geometry of the playing field that turns players into archetypes, characters in a morality play: stars and bums, good guys and bad guys. And so it is with “Calico Joe,” a story about two men whose lives are fused together by one terrible instant on Aug. 24, 1973.
Wearing the white hat is Joe Castle, a 21-year-old rookie first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Calico Joe (the nickname comes from his home town of Calico Rock, Ark.) bashes home runs in his first three at-bats in the major leagues and is hitting above .500 six weeks later when the Cubs play the Mets at Shea Stadium in Queens.
Wearing the black hat is Warren Tracey, a 34-year-old journeyman pitcher for the Mets with a reputation for hitting batters — and the bottle — with equal determination. His first time up, Calico Joe whacks a homer off Tracey. When he comes to bat again, an 11-year-old boy in the stands, Tracey’s son, Paul, has a very sick feeling.
He’s obsessed with Joe, keeping a scrapbook that records all of his dazzling deeds. And he knows his father is about to throw at Joe’s head. Paul knows this because Tracey has called his son a “coward” for not challenging batters with inside pitches in Little League. Years later, as he narrates this story, Paul recalls the game at Shea: “I wanted to stand and scream, ‘Look out, Joe!’ but I couldn’t move.”
The next moment changes many people’s lives, including that of the boy, who is tinctured by guilt over the warning he never uttered. Years later, Paul becomes determined to arrange a meeting between the old antagonists, the pitcher and the batter, his despised father and his boyhood idol, and much of the story revolves around his effort to make that happen. I won’t reveal the outcome, but if you believe in redemption — and who doesn’t — you won’t be disappointed.
Grisham knows baseball as well as he knows crime. He coached Little League, roots for the St. Louis Cardinals (the closest team to his boyhood home in Mississippi) and says: “Friends have asked me a thousand times, ‘What about a baseball novel?’ To which I have always replied, ‘Sure, but I need a story.’ ”
He’s found one, but it’s not just about baseball, of course. It’s also about relationships — between Joe and his brothers, between Warren, the father, and Paul, the son, between a small town and the wounded young athlete who comes home to heal. This story is also about faith, which is appropriate because there’s every reason to believe God created baseball. She’s not invoked directly in Grisham’s little book, but as in all good myths, She’s behind the scenes, pulling the strings.
There’s one question that goes unanswered, however — the one posed by the noted philosopher Paul Simon: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and often reviews sports books for The Post.