In one sense, baseball is a game of numbers, numbers involving runs batted in, earned run averages, singles, two-baggers, homers, attendance.
And there’s another sort of baseball, that involves the battle for first place, the roars of the crowd, the phenoms who come and go, the logic of the game and its finer points, plus the fanatic enthusiasm of this most American sport.
WCCO’s Ray Christensen was such an enthusiast, who told me that when he was a kid he and the neighbor boy played the patented old baseball game in his attic every day and kept records of their players that appeared on cunning discs you worked by spinning the pointer. The neighbor boy was another WCCOer, Dave Moore.
Novelist John Grisham’s 24th novel, “Calico Joe” (Doubleday, $24.95) is about baseball, focusing on the Chicago Cubs’ 1973 season.
Grisham peppers his book with famous Cub names, games and high points of the season.
But there’s more to this book than raw statistics, for Grisham has added several fictional characters, which get at the heart of baseball and of life.,
First, there’s the narrator, Paul Tracey, a baseball fan and Little Leaguer whose father Warren Tracey, a Mets pitcher and proto-sociopath, who drinks, womanizes, beats is wife and kids.
Add to that Joe Castle, a phenom from Calico Rock, Ark., who has signed with the Cubs for 1973.
In supporting fictional roles are Joe’s older brothers and an old small town Arkansas sports writer, Clarence Rook.
In his first several games, the young phenom tears up the league, batting .750. Fans flock to see him wherever he appears.
One day, he bats against Mets pitcher Warren Tracey, in the waning days of his career.
Warren beans the kid, who ends up paralyzed and back in Calico Rock, Ark.
Meanwhile, Paul the narrator grows up, alienated from his father, who is dying from cancer.
Paul, now a writer, has an idea.
He travels to Arkansas and tells Clarence Rook, the town’s editor that he wants to talk to Calico Joe Castle.
The editor’s reply, “Indeed I do [know the Castle family] and I know them well enough to tell you that Joe doesn’t talk to strangers,and he sure as hell won’t talke to the son of Warren Tracey.”
Guess what happens? Just remember the part about “the heart of baseball and life.”
Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.