Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blockade Billy

No one can read Stephen King’s new novella, Blockade Billy, and doubt the man's passion for the game of baseball. The story is set in the spring of 1957, when most professional ballplayers still made so little money they had to work elsewhere during the off season just to make ends meet. This was the day before big television contracts, free agency, and stadiums that can cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars. It was a simpler, though in many ways, rougher time. Ballplayers were of a cruder cut, too, than the average college-educated sophisticate so common to the game today.

When the Titans lose both their catchers to injuries just prior to opening day of the 1957 season, the team desperately turns to its Iowa farm team for a temporary fix, a catcher that can get them by for the two or three weeks it will take to trade for an experienced backstop. Billy Blakely, as it would turn out, is destined to be much more than a temporary fix. The kid can hit and, just as importantly, he blocks the plate so well that he is soon being called “Blockade Billy” by fans and sportswriters alike.

But this is a Stephen King story - and there is more to “Blockade Billy” than meets the eye. The team’s third base coach, George “Granny” Grantham remembers when he first became suspicious about Billy and the way he played the game, and now, more than 50 years later, he welcomes interviewer Stephen King to the old folks’ home in which he is living out his final years. Granny loves to talk, but seldom does anyone want to listen. Now is his chance to talk about all the games and statistics that disappeared from the record books forever, and talk he does.

Granny Grantham’s narration is what makes Blockade Billy work as well as it does. Granny’s attitude, irreverent way of speaking, and memories are just what one would expect of an old baseball coach chomping at the bit to get his story told before it is too late. He probably enjoys telling his story even more than interviewer King enjoys hearing it.

A longish short story entitled, “Morality,” concludes the book. Readers and movie fans will already be familiar with the theme of this one: a young wife is offered a large amount of money by an older man to do something that is terribly wrong. The money will buy enough time for her husband to quit his job and finish the book he has been struggling with for years. Will she do it? Will she be caught? Will her marriage survive the transaction? And, no, it is not about sex (as it was in the Robert Redford movie of similar theme). King studies the psychological implications of the situation and how the relationship between husband and wife changes from the moment the offer is first presented to them. This is an interesting concept, but it produces a rather run-of-the-mill short story.

Bottom Line: There is nothing particularly earthshaking in Blockade Billy. Hardcore baseball fans will probably enjoy the baseball story because of its atmosphere and old time baseball stories but “Morality” falls a bit flat.

Rated at: 2.5

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