We Could Use a Hero
On the day after Anthony Rizzo's first HR (and 2nd game winning hit) as well as the first day of the month that Ron Santo finally gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame...
John Grisham was at Wrigley Field earlier this season while on his book tour promoting his first baseball novel, "Calico Joe". The famed author of Legal Thrillers like "The Firm" decided to take on America's favorite pastime. Born in Arkansas and educated in Mississippi, Grisham weaves a historical fiction in the tale of Joe Castle, the greatest rookie ballplayer ever. It's ultimate Cubbery rivaling the reality of the last 104 years including Brock for Broglio, Lee Smith's 8th inning pitch to Steve Garvey and Moises Alou's tirade against Steve Bartman.
The baseball season is 1973, a year the Cubs were not expected to compete for the pennant (so what else is new?). This team resembled the trailing embers of the infamous 1969 Cubs.
The actual Cub roster in 1973 included a pitching staff of veterans Fergie Jenkins and Milt Pappas, 2nd year starters Rick Reuschel and Burt Hooton, and still younger pitchers Bill Bonham and Ray Burris. The infield seems familiar but aging: Jim Hickman, Joe Pepitone, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Ron Santo and Randy Hundley. The outfield was solid with 35 year old Billy Williams plus Rick Monday and Jose Cardenal. Theo Epstein would have given his eye-tooth to have had a starting point this good. Just add one awesome rookie and presto! To make the baseball story seem more realistic, Grisham accessed his Arkansas/Mississippi roots via Don Kessinger as his main baseball consultant.
The story is told by Paul Tracey, the 11 year old son of 34 year old journeyman pitcher and known headhunter, Warren Tracey. Tracey is still hanging on in the back end of the Mets rotation with Seaver, Koosman and Matlack.
There are two timelines, 1973 and 2003.
Fortunately, Grisham doesn't beat us up with the Cubbery of the 2003 baseball season in his story, such as Alex S. Gonzalez in the 8th inning. Albeit, a missed opportunity to rub salt into that wound. Very kind of Mr. Grisham.
The 2003 season finds former Met pitcher, Warren Tracy completely disengaged from his 1973 family, distanced by four subsequent wives and newly diagnosed Pancreatic cancer at age 64. Tracey was a piece of work in 1973 as well, with all night drinking sessions, extramarital carousing and a marriage and family clearly on the rocks. As we are about to learn, the adult son, Paul Tracey had overcome most of the obstacles that his father in his playing days had set before him. As an 11 year old, Paul was pitching with some success in little league and more importantly loved everything baseball. Paul Tracey made scrapbooks of his hero's and a new and fantastic hero was about to come on the scene.
1973 in fact and in fiction was a year that most of the teams in the NL East were hovering around .500 in early July. Two injuries, including a back injury from Jim Hickman and a pulled hammy by the AAA Wichita first baseman, lead to a callup of AA Midland's hottest prospect, Joe Castle. At the time, Castle was hitting .395 with 20 HR, 50 RBI, 40 SB and only one fielding error at first base. Castle was from a small Arkansas town, Calico Rock and gets some pregame encouragement from outfielder Rick Monday (originally from nearby Batesville, AR) and of course the other Arkansas native (Forrest City, AR), SS Don Kessinger. Did I mention that I'm a sucker for historical fiction?
Then all the Cub fun begins.
July 12th, 1973 versus the Phillies. Calico Joe became the 11th major leaguer to hit a HR on the first pitch he saw. Calico Joe's 2nd at-bat in the 5th hits the LF foul pole and became only the 2nd player to hit HR's in his first two at-bats. Statistically correct, the other is Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns on 9-14-51 at Fenway. Eleven year old Paul, listening on the radio from NY to the Phillies broadcast by Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner is struck by baseball lightening and his newest ballplayer-hero has arrived.
As a side note, yesterday, Padres rookie catcher Yas Grandal hits HR's in his first two mlb at bats, one from each side of the plate. So now there are really two players to achieve career starting back-to-back HR's.
In the 7th, Castle precedes Tuffy Rhodes 1994 opening day history with you know what and of course, no rookie has ever hit 3 HR's in their first three at-bats. Same game, top of the 9th, 2 outs and the score tied 6-6. Don Kessinger on third. You know what's coming. No you don't. Calico Joe lays down a perfect bunt (OMG, he's the ultimate team player).
"The crowd sat in stunned silence. Players from both teams looked on in disbelief. With a chance to hit four HR's in a game--a feat baseball had seen only nine times in a hundred years--the kid chose instead to lay down a perfect drag bunt to score the go-ahead run."
Cubs win 7-6. To quote the Budweiser commercial, "Here We Go."
Calico Joe starts his mlb career going 15 for 15 before he finally makes an out. Additional magic includes a 19 game hitting streak to start his career, first rookie to steal a base in 9 consecutive games plus 2nd and 3rd in seven consecutive games.
August 6th, Joe Castle makes the cover of Sports Illustrated, Calico Joe - The Phenom. We all know what ominous premonition that gives us.
Speaking of premonition (but not to ruin the story, so i'll be vague). August 11th, journeyman lefty for the Braves, Dutch Patton buzzes Joe's head. The Cubs dugout is going berserk. Castle digs in and as the lefty gets ready to release the next pitch:
"Joe dropped his bat and sprinted toward the mound...Patton managed to swing his glove at Joe, who ducked and shot a right cross into Patton's mouth. A left hook to the nose knocked him down and , like a jackhammer, Joe pummeled him with five more shots to the face, each one drawing blood."
Johnny Oates finally pulls Joe off the pitcher and the brawl lasts 10 minutes. Patton leaves on a stretcher and is out for a month. Calico Joe gets a 5 game suspension and the Cubs lose all five of those games.
Castle's first game back from his suspension is August 17th. I must admit I love his description of in-game action. Calico Joe's already had a single, double and triple. Naturally, the Cubs needed a HR to win the game vs the Dodgers. Castle comes up with Ron Santo on 2nd:
"...he poked a blooper down the right field line, and as it rolled slowly to the wall, the race was on. Ron Santo scored easily from second with the tying run, and when Joe sprinted to third, he ignored the coach's signal to stop. He never slowed down. The shortstop took the relay, looked at third, where Joe would have had an easy triple, then hesitated at the sight of him streaking home. The throw was perfect, and the catcher, Joe Ferguson, snatched it and blocked the plate. Fergusion was six feet two, 200 pounds. Joe was six feet two, 185 pounds. In a split-second decision, neither chose to yield an inch. Joe lowered his head, left his feet, and crashed into Fergusion. The collision was thuderous and spun both players in violent circles in the dirt. Jose would've been out by three feet, but the ball was loose and rolling in the grass." (an inside the park-HR and an in-sequence hitting-for-the-cycle, to win the game)
The woven timeline is the key to the story Gresham is telling and I'm not going to ruin it for you other than to say something ugly looms ahead. I just wanted to highlight some of the baseball sequences. Needless to say, it's the fiction that mirrors ultimate Cubbery, not the fact. Or did I get that backwards?