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“Calico Joe” – A Baseball Book Review

You’re probably more familiar with the works of John Grisham than I am.

I’ve seen a couple of movies based on his books — “The Firm” and “The Client” –but I’d never actually read one of his novels.  Based on my experience reading “Calico Joe,” I will have to go back and rectify that mistake.

“Calico Joe” is a 194-page masterpiece of story-telling that has become one of my favorite fictional baseball tales of all time.  I picked it up on a whim at my local public library.  I sat down with it after my kids went to sleep, and stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the next morning enraptured by this stunning story.

Let me tell you about it.  Set in the summer of 1973, as well as the present, the story is told to us through the eyes of Paul Tracy, son of fictitious Mets pitcher Warren Tracy.  The Mets and Cubs are locked in a mid-season pennant race.  Young Paul is a huge Mets fan, and, of course, wants badly to root for his dad.

But Paul’s dad has little interest in what his son Paul wants and needs from him.  Warren prefers the nightlife, and is often abusive to Paul and his mom.  Paul’s tenuous loyalty to his dad is then abruptly tested by Joe Castle, a young phenom just called up by the Cubs due to injuries to some of their other players.

“Calico Joe,” as the press begins to call him, is an immediate sensation like nothing baseball has ever seen before.  He breaks rookie record after record, and baseball fans all over the country become virtual Cubs fans overnight as the nation is riveted by the unbelievable on-field exploits of “Calico Joe,” who hails from a small town in the Ozarks.

Warren Tracy, fighting for his career as the Mets fourth starter behind Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, is also suddenly in a fight for his son’s loyalty, if not for his love.  The inevitable on-field confrontation between the young phenom and the journeyman pitcher yields tragic results, expertly handled by an author at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

Unlike other baseball novels in which the story-line revolves primarily around a father-son axis, this one jettisons all saccharine melodrama from the start.  Told in starkly rendered primary colors of love and hate, there is no ambiguity in how this son feels about his dad.  His entire adult life, as is true for many of us, is irrevocably shaped by the history of his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father.

An aging Warren Tracy, later riddled with cancer, is confronted by his angry, uncompromising son who demands that  his father face his sordid past, and  make amends for it.  The emotional storm between them unfolds like a Gulf hurricane, gathering power slowly and deliberately, before unleashing its fury.

Joe Castle himself is the vehicle through which the story is told.  His character is the tragic center of the universe that mirrors all the hope and ultimate despair that confronts humanity in general, and many young ball players in particular.  His archetype, the handsome young man from nowhere who bursts onto the scene and into the hearts of an adoring public, is classic American mythology.  Yet seldom has this archetype been handled as deftly as it has in “Calico Joe.”

For baseball fans, you will delight in the recreation here of the 1973 N.L. East pennant race, and in the recalling of so many stars of that era, including Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays (who has a “cameo”), Catfish Hunter and so many others.  If you’re lucky enough to still have some of your old baseball cards, you may be tempted to pull them out of whatever shoe-box you’ve stored them in all these years to recapture some of the magic of when you first pulled them out of a Topps wax pack.

Keeping in mind that this is a novel, the dates, schedule and scores in the story are not necessarily accurate to real life, nor are they intended to be.  But you can feel the excitement in the batting cage when the rookie takes his first batting practice, and you can practically hear the crowd in your head during the ultimate showdown between protagonist and antagonist in a mid-summer Shea Stadium sell-out.

There are, of course, obvious parallels between actual young players today like Bryce Harper (and Mike Trout), and the fictitious Joe Castle.  Most of us realize what precious commodities they are to baseball, and, freed momentarily from our ever-present, and not always pleasant, real-life responsibilities, to our ability to dream.

Yet sometimes, as in “Calico Joe,” dreams have the life-span of soap bubbles.

The question, then, is how do move on?  And what role, if any, does the act of forgiveness play when life’s tale is nearly spent? In short, can a son ever really forgive a father for his dad’s utter, ugly humanity?

Grisham pushes the reader into some uncomfortable emotional territory, but respects the reader enough to provide his or her own answers to these compelling questions.

If you read just one baseball novel this summer, allow John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” to expertly and efficiently transport you into a time and place as magical as any ballgame you fondly remember, in a world that, for better and worse, looks a lot like our own.

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