The nine-hour drive to the northwest corner of Arkansas, first across the deltas on both sides of the Mississippi River and then up the rocky ridges of the Ozarks, offered time to enjoy the book after I located an unabridged copy of the book on CD.
Grisham, the former Mississippi lawyer/legislator who once dreamed of a career as a college and professional baseball player, has written about sports before. In 2003, Grisham's novella "Bleachers" explored the complicated relationship between high school football and small towns - and between loyal and courageous players and driven, demanding coaches. The character Neely Crenshaw - the faded, jaded Messina High Spartan quarterback - is one of Grisham's most ambivalent literary creations.
In 2004, Grisham's screenplay for the film "Mickey" was produced and released as a vehicle starring Harry Connick, Jr. The screenplay examined integrity versus the "win-at-all-costs" mentality of sports against the backdrop of the Little League World Series. Grisham would say he gained inspiration for his writing from his experiences as a Little League coach.
In 2007, Grisham's 'small' novel "Playing for Pizza" was released. The book recounted failed NFL quarterback Rick Dockery's self-discovery after being drummed out of the NFL and forced to "play for pizza" in the Italian Football League.
Despite the fact that "Calico Joe" is indeed a concise novel, it is in truth no "small" book. As one who has followed Grisham's career since the days he was selling copies of his first novel "A Time to Kill" out of the trunk of his car, this book is without question one of his best works.
Driving across rural Arkansas through hardscrabble towns like Marvell and Brinkley and seeing pristine small baseball fields where the dreams of Little League and high school players live and die, Grisham's novel came to life. The fictional story of Joe Castle's childhood in real-life Calico Rock, Ark., and of his storybook journey from the minor leagues to dominating the majors in 1973 as a 21-year-old rookie first baseman for the Chicago Cubs is one that is captivating for anyone who has ever played the game at any level.
Grisham's book focuses the intersecting trajectories of Cubs rookie Castle's meteoric rise in the majors and the personal and professional fall of veteran New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey. The confrontation comes during one fateful at bat on one fateful pitch - a beanball that is life-changing for both the batter and the pitcher - and the epic tale is told by Tracey's gentle son, Paul.
"Calico Joe" is a wonderful book that begs to be made into an iconic movie. Not since Robert Redford and director Barry Levinson adapted Bernard Malamud's 1952 baseball novel "The Natural" into a film of the same name has a baseball story deserved an appropriate Hollywood treatment.
Driving through Grisham's Arkansas - as I have driven so many times through Grisham's similar Mississippi - I remembered for the first time in a long time the joy that baseball brought to my rural life and the value of the lessons I learned playing the game.
I remembered the joy of my best day ever in baseball - July 16, 1969 - when I hit two grand slams in one Little League game in Florence. After that unlikely game, I signed the baseball I twice hit over the fence for my father. He kept it for the rest of his life - a ball worth nothing but a sweet memory of a fleeting triumph. Baseball's like that - as Grisham reminds us in "Calico Joe."
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or email@example.com.