'Calico Joe': A Would-Be Legend Rediscovered

Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Ark., came up to the Chicago Cubs in the summer of 1973, played in 38 games, and hit an astonishing .488, including 21 home runs. That's all he played before being struck by a pitch. Scott Simon speaks with author John Grisham about his new baseball-themed novel, Calico Joe.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nobody ever saw a rookie like Calico Joe. Joe Castle from Calico Rock, Arkansas came up to the Chicago Cubs in the summer of 1973. He thrilled fans in the 38 games he played, hitting 21 home runs and breaking rookie records. Then he was struck by a pitch thrown by Warren Tracey of the New York Mets as the Mets and Cubs battled to win the National League East.

But that game, that pitch, that player are fiction. They're at the center of a new novel by John Grisham. He's known for his legal thrillers, but he's also a devoted student of baseball. His new book, "Calico Joe." And in it, Warren Tracey's son tries to learn more about what happened on the baseball diamond between the father who terrorized him and the rookie that he idolized. John Grisham joins us from WVTF in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN GRISHAM: Always a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Why'd you want to write a baseball book?

GRISHAM: I've wanted to for a long time, but I had to wait for the story. Played the game as a kid - it's my favorite sport - played it in high school, like every kid on my street, dreamed of playing it professionally and never got close. And then, my son came along in the early 1990s as a, you know, Little Leaguer and I coached him for years. And we traveled around ball parks everywhere. Yeah, it's just my favorite game.

SIMON: Do all baseball stories have to be about a father and son and feature some kind of barefoot rookie?

GRISHAM: No, but they all have to be sad. Almost every baseball story is sad because it's about unfulfilled potential and broken dreams and all that. There are a lot of good baseball stories but almost all will break your heart, just like the game.

SIMON: Narrator of this book is Paul Tracey, and his father, Warren Tracey, is not a nice man, I think it's safe to say. As a novelist, how do you treat a character who is not a good guy but begins with some sympathy from the reader?

GRISHAM: The trick as a novelist was to, in this case, was to introduce him now as a dying old man - not really that old but certainly dying - who's had a hard life of his own choosing and then to take him back 30 years and then go back and forth between 1973 and 2003 - '73 when he was pitching for the Mets and 30 years when it's time to say farewell but not before tending to some unfinished business that arose 30 years earlier.

SIMON: And, of course, that business is throwing the pitch that - I hope I don't give anything away...

GRISHAM: You're getting close, you're getting awfully close to giving out too much.

SIMON: All right. That throws the pitch that strikes...

GRISHAM: Throws the pitch.

SIMON: ...Calico Joe. At the heart of your book is this thing that's sometimes called the code, which is when and how pitchers plunk batters. And you had the benefit of some pretty big-name advice I gather.

GRISHAM: Primarily Tony La Russa.

SIMON: We'll explain to our audience he retired as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals after winning yet another world championship.

GRISHAM: Right. After he retired, last year we were talking and he said the one thing he would not miss is the constant pressure in the dugout of making the decision when to retaliate by throwing at the hitter for the other team. Some managers - Tony insist on making that decision himself. The pitcher does not have the right to retaliate unless Tony says so, and Tony is not shy about retaliating. Other managers prefer to let the players work it out, and this causes incredible tension on the baseball team. Because if you're a batter and you get hit, you tell your pitcher, you know, you expect your pitcher to protect the players, protect your hitters, which means you have to go after one of their players. So, which one do you go after? It puts a lot of pressure on the pitchers. So, you know, how do you hit them? And what's the situation of the game or do you wait until the next series are on? And then these issues, they can just boil over in a dugout in the middle of a game and the middle of the season. So, it's fascinating stuff.

SIMON: In the end, what the story of Calico Joe raises is what's the quality of forgiveness? What is forgiveness worth?

GRISHAM: Well, it depends on who you are. If you're the one who has done something wrong, it means a lot to know that the person you have wronged is willing to not only forgive but truly forget. The forgetting is often the most difficult part. And I think for the person who's on the receiving end of some wrong deed to be able to say, you know, I'm going to forgive you and forget about it and move in is even more liberating. Life is too short to let those things eat at you for years.

SIMON: John Grisham. His new novel, "Calico Joe." Thanks so much.

GRISHAM: My pleasure.

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