Joe Castle, a minor-league baseball phenomenon suddenly elevated to the majors, debuts with three home runs in his first three appearances at bat. He goes on to hit safely 15 consecutive times.
Warren Tracey, a journeyman pitcher with a sour disposition, beans Castle in his 38th game.
The episode ruins both men’s lives, ending one career and tarnishing the other. It’s the centerpiece of John Grisham’s stirring baseball novella, “Calico Joe” (Doubleday, $24.95).
Grisham is a masterly storyteller, and he delivers this one with the smoothness of a big-league slider. The years go by and the dyspeptic pitcher is dying. The doomed batter is a near recluse, living with his mother in Arkansas, doing little more than pulling weeds and raking the dirt at the high-school ball field named in his honor.
But there is another victim: the pitcher’s son, Paul, who knows that his father, who had a 7-7 record, also had a bad temper. Paul was in the stands when Castle, coming off a 4-for-4 game and with 21 homers, was smacked by the pitch.
Years later Paul wants to make things right, or at least do the right thing, and decides that the two principals in this baseball drama should meet before his father meets his maker.
So sitting on folding chairs in the high school ballpark, facing the pitcher’s mound, the men confront each other.
“With their shoulders almost touching, they sit for a moment and stare out beyond the mound,” Grisham writes, “their thoughts known only to themselves.” The pitcher apologizes. The batter responds:
“It’s ... OK ... it’s ... OK.”
It’s a breathtaking scene.
There’s another pitching story of merit this season. It’s the tale of an All-American college pitcher, a top free-agent draft choice who ends up spending seven seasons with the minor- league Oklahoma City RedHawks -- reaching the age of 31 and being “darn tired of being mediocre.”
So R.A. Dickey -- yes, the same R.A. Dickey who had a 3.28 earned-run average with the Mets last season -- took on the despised stepchild of pitches, the knuckleball.
“I am defiant,” writes Dickey, a onetime literature major. “I am going to outwork every human being on the planet. I am going to do whatever it takes to make it.”
From the Mound
“Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball” (Blue Rider Press, $26.95), written with Wayne Coffey, is the story of what Dickey does to make it and how, Tim Tebow-style, a sturdy faith in God is part of the quest.
At times he feels like “a used resin bag,” which is to say “completely expendable.” He almost signs to play in Korea. The view from the mound is, well, hopeless.
Not all baseball stories work out, but this one does. Eventually Dickey gets to the majors. Last year he pitched nearly 210 innings for New York. He had 134 strikeouts. In his case, fear did not strike out.
Today we think we know the meaning of the phrase “major league” and we think of baseball as a settled thing, with two leagues, standard contracts, a players’ union and congressional protection. It wasn’t always that way -- and it probably wouldn’t be that way had it not been for an all-but-forgotten entity that failed.
That entity was called the Federal League and it survived (but didn’t exactly flourish) for two seasons nearly a century ago.
Forging Modern Baseball
In “The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball” (Ivan R. Dee, $39.95), Daniel R. Levitt tells how, in the summers of 1914 and 1915, teams in smaller cities such as Buffalo, Kansas City and Indianapolis, plus a bunch of large cities that already fielded American and National League teams, mounted a challenge to the established order.
That challenge was eventually turned back, and the Federal League receded to the mists of time. The bitter battle that the established leagues fought in the courts and in the press defeated what Levitt calls “the last, best chance” that professional sports would “develop along a different path.”
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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