With Calico Joe, John Grisham finally takes a stab at the baseball novel he says that he has wanted to write for the last twenty years. It is the story of two very different baseball players, one an aging pitcher in the decline of a mediocre career, the other a rookie who seems destined for one of the most amazing careers in the history of the game. When the two face each other for the first time, their careers will be changed to a degree that neither could have imagined just one week earlier.
The rather slim novel (my edition, including the Author’s Note, numbers only 198 pages) is told from the perspective of the pitcher’s son, now a grown man who has been estranged from his father for years. The heart of Calico Joe, however, is told in flashbacks to the summer of 1973, when the Chicago Cubs – in desperate need to cover injuries to two position players – bring Joe Castle up all the way from Double-A ball and plug him in to their starting lineup.
Joe, a youngster from little Calico, Arkansas, turns out to be much more than the Cubs expected. After less than a dozen games, he is breaking rookie records that have stood for decades and displaying hitting skills that could turn him into the best hitter in the history of the sport. Joe, though, is still making his way around the league for the first time, and pitchers still expect to find the batting weakness that can be used to shut down his remarkable start.
Paul Tracey should be living a boy’s dream life; his father, after all, is a major league pitcher with the New York Mets. Warren Tracy, however, is just barely hanging on to his job as a Met starter and he takes his problems out on Paul and his mother. Seldom does Warren bring Paul to the ballpark or even talk baseball with his son. However, despite his father’s resentment of baseball, Paul is still an avid fan of the game, and his favorite player in the summer of 1973 is Joe Castle – a choice greatly resented by his jealous father. Thus, is the stage set for the initial meeting of Joe Castle and Warren Tracey.
Grisham’s plot is one that baseball fans, especially those who enjoy the intricate recordkeeping of the game, will find intriguing. However, although Calico Joe has all the makings of a great baseball myth, something along the lines of Malamud’s The Natural, most of its characters are not developed deeply enough to make them entirely believable or sympathetic. Surprisingly, this is the case with both of Paul Tracey’s parents and, when the book moves back to the present, with Joe Castle’s brothers – key characters, all of them. This left me both wishing for a book twice the length of the one Grisham produced, and having a difficult time buying the book’s ending. This one could have been so much more.