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Calico Joe
JOHN GRISHAM
April 09, 2012
In his latest novel, the best-selling author of The Firm—and dyed-in-the-double-knits baseball fan—spins the tale of Cubs first baseman Joe Castle, the most scintillating phenom to hit the big leagues since ... maybe ever. In this exclusive excerpt, the son of a veteran Mets pitcher describes what happens when a fresh-faced star in the making crosses paths with an embittered hurler who knows he's past his prime
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April 09, 2012

Calico Joe

In his latest novel, the best-selling author of The Firm—and dyed-in-the-double-knits baseball fan—spins the tale of Cubs first baseman Joe Castle, the most scintillating phenom to hit the big leagues since ... maybe ever. In this exclusive excerpt, the son of a veteran Mets pitcher describes what happens when a fresh-faced star in the making crosses paths with an embittered hurler who knows he's past his prime

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Joe fouled off the next eight pitches as the at bat turned into a dramatic duel, with neither player yielding an inch. Warren Tracey was not about to walk him. Joe Castle was not about to strike out. The 15th pitch was a fastball that looked low, but at the last second Joe whipped his bat around, scooped the ball up and launched it to right center, where it cleared the wall by 30 feet. When I knew the ball was gone, I looked back at the mound and watched my father. He never took his eyes off Joe as he rounded first, and when the ball cleared the fence, Joe gave himself a quick pump of the fist, as if to say, "All right!" It was nothing cocky or out of line, nothing meant to show up the pitcher.

But I knew my father, and I knew it was trouble.

THE SCORE was 1--1 when Joe walked to the plate in the top of the third with two outs and no one on. The first pitch was a fastball outside, and when I saw it, I knew what would happen next. The second pitch was just like the first, hard and a foot off the plate. I wanted to stand and scream, "Look out, Joe!" but I couldn't move. As my father stood on the mound and looked in at his catcher, Jerry Grote, my heart froze and I couldn't breathe. I managed to say to my mother, "He's gonna hit him."

The beanball went straight at Joe's helmet, and for a second, for a long, dreadful second that fans and writers would discuss and debate and analyze for decades to come, Joe didn't move. For a reason no one, especially Joe, would ever understand or be able to explain or re-create or reenact, he simply lost sight of the ball. He had said that he preferred to hit from the left side because he felt as though his right eye picked up the pitches faster, but at that crucial split second his eyes failed him. It could have been something beyond the centerfield wall. It could have been a slight shift in the lighting. He could have lost the ball as it crossed between my father's white jersey and home plate. No one would ever know, because Joe would never remember.

The sound of a leather baseball hitting a hard plastic batting helmet is unmistakable. I had heard it several times in my games, including twice when I had unintentionally hit batters. It is not a sharp bang but more like the striking of a dull object on a hard surface. It's frightening enough, but there is also the immediate belief that the helmet has prevented a serious injury.

That was not the sound of Joe being hit. What we heard was the sickening thud of the baseball cracking into flesh and bone. For those of us in the crowd close enough to hear it, the sound would never be forgotten. I can, and do, still hear it today. The ball made contact at the corner of Joe's right eye. It knocked his helmet off as he fell backward. He caught himself with his hands behind him, on the ground, and paused for a second before passing out.

There are so many scrambled images of what happened next. The crowd was stunned. There were gasps and a lot of "Oh, my Gods!" The home plate umpire was waving for help. Grote was standing helplessly over Joe. The Cubs' bench was ready to explode; several players were out of the dugout, screaming and cursing at Warren Tracey. The Cubs fans were booing loudly. The Mets fans were silent. My father walked slowly to a spot behind the mound, took off his glove, put both hands on his hips and stared at home plate. I hated him.

As the trainers hovered over Joe and we waited, I closed my eyes and prayed that he would get up. Shake it off. Trot down to first. Then at some point charge the mound and bloody my father's face. My mother stared at the field in disbelief, then looked down at me. My eyes were wet.

Minutes passed, and Joe was not getting up. We could see his cleats and uniform from the knees down, and at one point his heels appeared to be twitching, as if his body were in a seizure. The Cubs fans began throwing debris, and security guards scurried onto the field. Grote walked past the mound and stood next to his pitcher. I watched my father closely and at one point saw something that did not surprise me. With Joe flat on his back, unconscious, seriously injured and convulsing, I saw my father smile.

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