BOOK REVIEW: ‘Calico Joe’

CALICO JOE: A NOVEL
By John Grisham
Doubleday, $24.95 208 pages

THE LAST NATURAL: BRYCE HARPER‘S BIG GAMBLE IN SIN CITY AND THE GREATEST AMATEUR SEASON EVER
By Rob Miech
Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99 368 pages

One of the great taboos in baseball - at any level, from the sandlot to the major leagues - is the beanball. The game accepts the occasional brush-back pitch to keep a batter from jamming the plate, or to chastise him for showboating. A plink on the ribs or rear end is acceptable. But the accepted rule is firm: Do not throw at the head.

The forbidden pitch is the key event in John Grisham’s delightfully readable and lively “Calico Joe.” Joe formally is Joe Castle, who is suddenly pulled from the Double-A team in Midland, Texas, in the summer of 1973 to join the Chicago Cubs as a replacement infielder. The 21-year-old has an admirable minor league record, batting .395 with 20 home runs and 50 RBI.

Castle, quite naturally, is shaking in his socks when he reports to the Cubs for a game in Philadelphia, so much so that he misses most of his batting practice pitches. No matter. He is thrust into the lineup as a first baseman, batting seventh.

And away he goes. To the astonishment of everyone (including himself), he goes on a hitting tear that breaks every batting record in sight. He gets a hit his first 16 times at bat. He showers the stands with home runs. He is suddenly the idol of fans everywhere - and especially from the folks back home in the Ozark village of Calico Rock, Ark., (hence his nickname). In describing Castle’s enthusiasm on the field, Mr. Grisham observes why so many of us love baseball. Castle “played like a kid on a sandlot. He sprinted after foul balls, lunged into the stands, turned lazy singles into doubles, bunted with two strikes … usually had the dirtiest uniform when the game was over.”

Meanwhile, an over-the-hill Mets pitcher, Warren Tracey, is with his sixth major league team (he also bounced in and out of the minors). He is a lout of a human being, a drunken, wife-beating philanderer who berates the baseball efforts of his teen son, Paul. He is also jealous of the accolades showered on “that little punk,” Calico Joe.

So it comes to pass that the Cubs arrive in New York for a late season game, and Castle is pitted against Tracey. Recognizing the truly sour mood of his father, Paul goes to the game with foreboding. Two pitches are far outside, and he suddenly senses that the setup pitches signal what his father is about to do: “He’s gonna hit him!” he exclaims to a friend.

I winced as I read on. “The beanball went straight for Joe’s helmet, and for a second, a long, dreadful second that fans and writers would discuss and debate and analyze for decades to come, Joe didn’t move. … The ball made contact at the corner of his right eye. It knocked his helmet off as he fell backward.” Castle was carried off the field, unconscious. He never played baseball again

Segue forward two decades. Paul learns that his father - now divorced, living in Florida with wife No. 6 - is dying. He decides to force him to confront Calico Joe man to man and talk about the beaning. He goes to Calico Corners, where Joe lives as a recluse, of diminished mental and physical capabilities but lovingly shielded by his friends.

Joe wants nothing to do with the pitcher who ended his career, and I shan’t tell you what ensued, for that would ruin much of the pleasure of this book.

Many writers stray from their normal turf to write about baseball. We know Mr. Grisham as the master of the legal thriller. Suffice to say he knows his way around the ballpark as well as he does a courtroom, lingo and all. For instance, he writes of a pitcher known as a “junk dealer” because his fastball seldom topped 80 mph.

With Father’s Day approaching, “Calico Joe” is a book guaranteed to make Pop happy.

To those of us who have suffered during dreadful seasons of Washington Nationals baseball, the prospect of the team finally getting its own “Calico Joe” has the bleachers buzzing. The hoped-for-great is a kid named Bryce Harper, who dropped out of high school, earned a GED and played at the College of Southern Nevada at age 16. He hit .443 with 31 home runs. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover as “Boy Wonder” and “Chosen One.” He was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2010.

Thus I opened with keen interest Rob Miech’s account of that college season, which he spent, he writes, “embedded” with the team, with access to Harper, his teammates and the coaching staff. Alas, what a disappointment. Mr. Miech’s first 100 pages or so consist of distraction piled atop diversion - repeated and tedious descriptions of the Las Vegas landscape, capsule biographies of other players, including a three-page riff on an auto accident one of them suffered and the like. Tedium drove me away before Harper’s first at-bat.

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