It’s been a while since I last read a baseball novel. I’ve previously read The Firm and A Time to Kill, so when I discovered that John Grisham had written a book with a baseball theme, I knew it would be worth checking out.
Calico Joe takes place in two time periods: the present day (the novel was published in 2013) with flashbacks to the 1973 season. The book’s narrative mixes fact and fiction. Grisham introduces fictional players who interact with and participate on actual teams, namely the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. The fictional characters interact with actual people, such as Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver, and fictional games take place in real life stadiums. At the end of the novel, Grisham makes a point to include a note explaining just this, imploring, “[P]lease, all you die-hard fans, don’t read this with any expectation of accuracy. I have completely re-arranged schedules, rosters, rotations, records, batting orders, and I’ve thrown in some fictional players to mix it up with the real ones. This is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction.”
The narrator of the tale is Paul Tracey, who, in 1973, was the eleven-year-old son of New York Mets pitcher, Warren Tracey. Paul is a massive baseball fan, and a solid Little League pitcher in his own right. However, his father is a man who parties as hard as he throws, frequently returning home drunk and turning on his own family. Thanks to Warren’s treatment, Paul’s interest in baseball eventually wans.
During the 1973 season, a rookie first baseman arrives in the majors for the Chicago Cubs — a man named Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Arkansas. Castle’s major league career gets off to a rocket start, as he astonishes baseball fans across the country with home run after home run, shattering a number of rookie records. Calico Joe quickly becomes the idol of virtually every baseball fan in America, including the young Paul Tracey.
On August 24, 1973, the Chicago Cubs face off against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Warren Tracey is on the mound, and young Paul is in the stands, torn between rooting for his dad and for his hero, Calico Joe. In his first at-bat against Tracey, Joe Castle hits a home run. Feeling that Castle has shown him up, in his next plate appearance, Tracey throws a pitch that beans Castle right in the head.
In all the scenes taking place in the present day, the results of this one pitch continue to reverberate through the lives of both ballplayers and of the now-grown Paul Tracey. Paul has limited contact with his father, but when Warren is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Paul has an idea on how to bring some closure regarding Calico Joe.
I really enjoyed this book. The combination of baseball and John Grisham made it a page turner, though it’s certainly not your typical Grisham novel. It’s not a thriller, there’s no real mystery in the tale. It’s a simple, straightforward story, full of nostalgia, but not without its tensions. If you’re looking for a fun, casual way to while away a lazy afternoon, this is definitely worth picking up.