By John Grisham. Doubleday. 198 pages $24.95
After only a month in the majors, Joe Castle gave promise of becoming the greatest ballplayer of all time. He had 62 hits in only 119 at-bats, with 18 homers, 25 stolen bases and just one error, and he had almost singlehandedly lifted the hapless Chicago Cubs into the midst of the pennant race, challenging the Mets for the title. He came from the little town of Calico Rock, Ark., and after his picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, they began calling him Calico Joe.
Then, he came up against Warren Tracey.
Tracey was a mid-level pitcher for the Mets, fourth in the rotation of Seaver, Matlack and Koosman, and the father of the young man telling the story. Tracey is a violent man, who has physically assaulted both his wife and his son, and is hated and feared by both of them. Despite a life of neglect and abuse, Paul Tracey has turned out pretty well. He has a lovely wife and two children and, while they are ignored by their grandfather, the kids seem remarkably normal. Paul had played Little League ball and loved it, but had quit the game entirely because of his father's abuse.
With Calico Joe on an unbelievable hitting streak, the Cubs come into New York for a crucial series. The phenomenal rookie is facing the old veteran for the first time. On his first at-bat, Joe fouls off a dozen or so pitches and then whips around on a bad pitch and belts it 30 feet over the fence in right centerfield. With the score tied in the third, Joe comes to bat again. Knowing from personal experience his father's sadistic side, Paul wasn't surprised when Tracey fired a fast ball that hit Joe square in the head. Calico Joe was in a coma for almost a month and, while he eventually recovered, he never played baseball again.
That bean ball ended more than one career -- Tracey lost his stuff, and three weeks later he was released.
Paul is now a grown man, a sportswriter, and has always been obsessed with the legend of Calico Joe. He goes to Calico Rock, where Joe still lives -- Joe's job is taking care of the local baseball park -- but Joe refuses to talk to anyone, especially to the son of the man who destroyed his career. Then, Paul gets an idea: He will persuade his father to publicly apologize to Joe Castle. He rarely sees his father (it is a symptom of their estrangement that he calls him Warren, and not Dad) but he goes to his father and tells him the time has come to acknowledge the truth -- that he hit Castle on purpose.
Warren, though he is dying of cancer, refuses. He sticks to the story he has been telling for 30 years: It was an accident. Joe also is approached through his brothers -- he says no, too. Paul decides to put it behind him.
Unexpectedly, weeks later, Warren calls. He has thought about it, and he wants to go. I am tempted to tell you what happens next, but I'll let you find that out for yourselves. "Calico Joe" is a nice story but hardly in the same league as Grisham's legal thrillers, which regularly open at No. l on the New York Times bestsellers' list. "Calico Joe" was on the list for a few weeks, but has already dropped off, and Grisham's "The Racketeer" already has taken over the lead spot.
I guess most of us get to be baseball fans toward the end of the season, and Mississippi-born Grisham is no exception. He is a born storyteller, and this time out he wanted to tell a baseball story. He does it well, and if you're a fan of either baseball or Grisham you'll stay with it, but it's only fair to admit that he hasn't exactly hit this one out of the park.
Call it a ground-rule double.