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Bob D’Angelo

Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.

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Grisham’s “Calico Joe” has perfect pitch

Posted Apr 8, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Mar 27, 2013 at 10:27 PM

It’s to be expected. A John Grisham novel will have strong characters, an intriguing plot, and will keep you interested from cover to cover. Most of his writing centers around court procedures, or are based in lawyers’ offices or judges’ chambers. Novels like “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief” are taut, gripping pieces of fiction.

In “Calico Joe” (Doubleday, $24.95, hardback, 198 pages), Grisham tackles a different subject, turning his attention to baseball. He creates a light, fun read with distinctive characters and a predictable, yet enjoyable plot.

Calico Joe is Joe Castle, a rookie for the Chicago Cubs who takes major-league baseball by storm in the summer of 1973. Improbably, the phenom from Calico Rock, Ark., opens his career by going 15-for-15 and helps the Cubs take the lead in the National League East. He is a sensation, loved by thousands of fans, including young Paul Tracey of New York.

Tracey’s father is Warren Tracey, the struggling No. 4 pitcher for the New York Mets. The elder Tracey is loathsome: a drunk, a womanizer, abusive to his wife and children, and a pitcher ready and willing to come inside and hit a batter.

Inevitably, good faces evil. Castle homers in his first at-bat against Tracey. But to the horror of Paul Tracey and Castle’s legion of fans, evil carries the day during Calico Joe’s second at-bat. After a well-aimed fastball, the lives of Warren Tracey and Joe Castle will never be the same.

Thirty years later, Warren Tracey is dying from pancreatic cancer. Paul Tracey, estranged from his father for years, wonders whether he should call him at his Central Florida home.

“I sit at my desk and ponder life without Warren, my father. I started calling him Warren when I was in college because he was more of a person, a stranger, than a father,” Paul muses. “He did not object. He has never cared what I call him, and I have always assumed he prefers that I don’t call him at all.

“At least I make the occasional effort; he never has.”

After making a side trip to Calico Rock, Paul visits his father in Winter Haven and gives him what amounts to an ultimatum. Both men are stubborn and unmoving, which gives the dialogue a crackling tension. One can see the contempt Paul has for his father, and one also can recognize Warren’s unyielding principles. When he was a pitcher he followed baseball’s unwritten code; a batter hitting a home run could expect retaliation the next time he batted.

When Paul visits his father, Warren’s time is running out, and both men know it. Ultimately, their standoff melts away and leads to a bittersweet, but moving finish.

“The story of Joe Castle is nothing but a great tragedy. It’s difficult to accept, but after a while you try to move on,” Clarence Rooks, the owner of the Calico Rock Record, tells Paul Tracey. 

“Calico Joe” is a book about clearly defined heroes and villains, fathers and sons, and hatred and forgiveness. Grisham’s writing is crisp; he is at his best with the character of Warren Tracey, as the reader quickly develops a dislike for the pitcher — and the man.

Grisham’s baseball knowledge is excellent, and he used the expertise of friend and former Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger to repair “a few areas in need of more work.” He also cautions the reader not to read the book with “any expectation of accuracy” as far as schedules, player rosters and batting orders.
“This is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction.”

I didn’t see that many mistakes. I did see a quick, easy read that should satisfy lovers of baseball fiction.

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