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June 1, 2012

Book Notes: ‘Calico Joe’ one of Grisham’s best

Baseball is a beautiful game. Unlike football, basketball, and ice hockey, there is no running clock, but that’s part of its charm. There are also so many nuances to the game. It’s much more than home runs and strikeouts. It’s laying down the perfect bunt, executing the double steal, or making the perfect relay throw to nail a runner at the plate. Baseball is a “relaxed” excitement when compared to the other spectator sports, but it’s just as intense.

As with other sports there is a dark side to the game. In football it’s the late hit. In basketball it’s the flagrant foul. In ice hockey it’s the “goon” blindsiding an opposing skater. In baseball it’s the beanball.

I’ve never quite understood why baseball tolerates it. The specter of a 95 mph fastball being thrown at a defenseless batter on purpose seems criminal, but it’s part of baseball’s unwritten code.

The way the hit-batsman routine works is pretty well scripted. After a pitcher nails a batter as a means of retaliation or to show him who’s boss, the batter charges the mound, the pitcher drops his glove, the two of them throw roundhouse rights that miss, and the benches and bullpens empty. The umpires restore order and throw the batter and pitcher out of the game. It makes for great theater but usually nothing happens unless one of the punches connects. Then all bets are off. It’s all basically stupid and juvenile, but baseball has never tried to stop it. It’s apparently considered one of the “harmless” rites of the game. Of course, it isn’t always harmless.

A baseball can be a lethal weapon. One major leaguer, Ray Chapman, died from being hit in the head (that was in 1920 before the age of batting helmets). The “lucky” hit-batsman might get by with a concussion.

The most famous case in the last 50 years was Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox. He was so talented he was considered a potential Hall of Famer. But, in 1967, after being beaned in the face (presumably unintentionally) and having his left cheekbone shattered and retina damaged, his vision and career were never the same again. Conigliaro sadly ended up dying at the age of 45 after a massive heart attack and stroke left him in a vegetative state for several years.

Against this backdrop comes John Grisham’s latest novel, “Calico Joe.” Grisham is best known for his legal thrillers, but when he steps into a different genre he often produces some of his best work. Calico Joe is no exception. It’s the story of baseball’s ultimate phenom.

In 1973, Joe Castle is called up from the minors by the Chicago Cubs and lights the league on fire. He starts hitting and doesn’t stop. A young 11-yearold Little Leaguer, Paul Tracey, is one of the millions of kids in awe of Castle. What set him apart is his father, Warren, is a pitcher for the New York Mets.

Warren is the type of loudmouth father we’ve all seen or read about and are relieved isn’t ours. He makes Paul’s life miserable by coming to his Little League games and constantly criticizing him. He was the super jock in high school and married the homecoming queen. Although he made the major leagues, he is a journeyman pitcher. He is also a wife-beater and philanderer.

Naturally, things come to a head when the Cubs come to New York to play the Mets. Warren is one of those pitchers who believed in the unwritten “code” of the beanball. He even demanded that Paul use it in Little League. When Joe Castle gets into the batter’s box to face Warren you already know what’s going to happen. As the book jacket states, “Warren threw a fastball that changed their lives forever.”

There are many twists and turns in the novel and Grisham mixes real life ballplayers with his fictional ones. It bounces back and forth between 1973 and near-present day and doesn’t skip a beat. It is easily the type of book you could read in one sitting.

Beyond that, it is a reminder that one of baseball’s oldest “rituals” is perhaps one it can do without. A beanball can literally change multiple people’s lives. Grisham manages to get this point across with an engrossing novel.

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