Only one player in Major League Baseball history has been hit and killed by a pitch, but bean balls—balls thrown near the head—have ended careers. Grisham’s (The Litigators, 2011, etc.) novel imagines the act and its consequences.
It’s 1973, another magic baseball season. The National League East has six teams contending, among them the traditionally hapless Chicago Cubs, soon jinxed once again when its first baseman is injured. Now the Cubs must add a minor leaguer to the roster. That's Joe Castle, a kid from Calico Rock, Ark. Calico Joe immediately begins to set rookie records, leading the Cubs to the top of the standings. Watching from New York is Paul Tracey, a baseball fan as avid as only an 11-year-old boy can be. In fact, Paul’s father pitches for the New York Mets, but Warren Tracey, “accustomed to getting whatever he wanted,” is a jerk. Warren is a journeyman pitcher, solid in an occasional game, kicked around from one team to another, never an All Star. Warren also abuses his family, drinks and chases women. The novel unfolds from Paul’s adult perspective, with flashbacks. The crucial plot point comes in a flashback when Calico Joe, putting up “mind-boggling” numbers over 38 games, meets Warren in Shea Stadium and hits a home run. During his next at bat, as part of some unwritten “code,” Warren goes head-hunting and beans the young player. Calico Joe’s career is over, and he drifts home to Calico Rock, partially paralyzed, speech impeded, to work as a groundskeeper rather than earning a plaque in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Decades later, long estranged from his father, Paul learns that Warren is dying of pancreatic cancer, and he decides to force his father to confront what he did to Joe Castle. Interestingly, the novel’s most fully formed character is Warren, and while the narrative and settings are solid, the story drifts toward a somewhat unsatisfying, perhaps too easy, conclusion.
A reconciliation story, Hallmark style.