Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jury Is Out On John Grisham's Baseball Novel

"At long last," it says on the back cover of John Grisham's new novel, Calico Joe, "America's favorite storyteller takes on America's favorite pastime." Calico Joe is a good story, smoothly and movingly told, although after page 19 I was able to predict most of what would happen the rest of the way. A bigger tipoff appears one page from the conclusion of the slender 194-page novel, when the narrator declares his intention of writing this tale we've just read. "Would it be a book?" he is asked. "I don't think so," he replies. "Probably a long magazine piece."

Indeed. Calico Joe falls into that literary limbo between short story and novel, a simple tale stretched and padded to the length of a short novel without the depth and detail needed to sustain a full work of fiction. The plot revolves around the relationship between the narrator, Paul Tracey, and his father, Warren, a relationship that is prickly because Warren is a total prick. Warren pitched for the 1973 Mets, a journeyman starter who slapped 11-year-old Paul around for failing to knock down a batter in Little League. Late that summer, he faced the Cubs, freshly energized by the most phenomenal rookie in baseball history, first baseman Joe Castle. Joining the Cubs in mid-July, Castle homered in his first three at-bats and smacked 15 consecutive hits before making an out. He hardly slowed down, belted 18 home runs in his first 31 games, and led the Cubs to a big lead in their division before his average even dropped below .500.

Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Arkansas, is the batting equivalent of Damon Rutherford, Jr. in Robert Coover's wonderful novel, The Universal Baseball Association. Having read that novel, and noting on page 19 of Calico Joe that the only time Warren Tracey led the league in anything was in hitting batters, I felt suspense only from wondering whether Joe Castle would be killed or maimed when Warren beaned him. It turned out to be a maiming along the lines of Tony Conigliaro, abruptly ending Joe's career and ruining his promise and hopes. The rest of the novel, set in 2003, covers Paul's attempt to get his dying father to apologize to Joe. That effort is moving because of the emotions evoked, but even though Warren is such a hard-nosed bastard that I never found myself rooting for him to experience any redemption, there could never be any doubt on the reader's part that some reconciliation would occur. Having spent half a novel telegraphing the obvious ending, Grisham had nowhere else to go. The unspoken truth at the end--that while Warren and Joe were softened by their meeting, Paul's heart was too scarred by his father's abuse to yield to sentiment--only illuminates the path Grisham could have followed if he had wanted to make Calico Joe a truly moving novel instead of an extended short story.

But I digress, because that isn't my main complaint about Calico Joe. My big problem involves arithmetic. Grisham devotes great attention to every detail of Joe Castle's meteoric 38-game major league career. He goes to the trouble of telling us the specific inning in which each of those first 15 consecutive hits occurred, along with runners on base and other game details. He repeatedly updates Joe's incredible stats, which are more reminiscent of a slow-pitch softball star's. All of this fiction is squeezed alongside the general sweep of the actual 1973 pennant race, in which the Cubs did--oh so predictably--blow a midsummer lead and let the Mets sneak into the postseason. Grisham's research is solid and his references to real players and events are realistically done.

The problem is that the invented numbers and circumstances don't add up. I don't mean that it happens once or twice. I mean that in almost every place where Grisham creates details and numbers, they either contradict each other or are implausible. In an author's note following the text, he offers a disclaimer of sorts: "The mixing of real people, places, and events into a novel is tricky business. This is a story about the Cubs and Mets and the 1973 season, but, please, all you die-hard fans, don't read this with any expectation of accuracy. I have completely rearranged schedules, rosters, rotations, records, batting orders, and I've even thrown in some fictional players to mix it up with the real ones. This is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction."

Grisham is asking us not to mind that the Cubs return from a road trip and begin a homestand on a Saturday, which would never happen. He's asking us not to mind that Warren Tracey starts on three days' rest because that's the day when he needs him to pitch. Or that Ron Santo bats too early in the lineup. Or that the shape of the 1973 National League is different in the novel from its progress in reality. That's fine with me. I don't object to any of those bendings of history for the purposes of fiction.

However, any novel must remain true to its own conception, and the details of what is invented must conform to its internal apparatus. I'll give Grisham credit for following this principle in his novels about the law, his area of expertise. It is all too clear in Calico Joe that Grisham studied the intricacies of baseball only enough to concoct what he felt would be a sufficient scenario for his tale of Joe Castle and Warren Tracey. It isn't. Even if you're willing to accept Joe's incredible stats as possible--which I am--the numbers still don't add up according to the way Grisham designed the story. Let me explain what I mean.

In Joe's first game, he bats seventh for the Cubs. He homers in the second inning and again in the fifth. We're told that the Cubs "chased" the starting pitcher in the sixth inning, and Joe comes up again in the seventh, with the score 4-4. He homers for the third straight time, and in the ninth inning he comes up for the fourth time, with a chance to begin his career with a four-homer game. Does it bother me that he bunts instead? No. If Grisham wants to let him bunt to indicate his unselfish character, fine. What bothers me is that Joe comes up in a 6-6 game with two outs and a runner on 3rd. He bats seventh in the order. If he makes an out, that would mean that the Cubs scored six runs and left a runner on base in the ninth--but had no other runners left on base in the whole game. They didn't even leave runners on base in the inning when they chased the starter. But Grisham needed him to come to bat exactly four times in this game, so he stretched things a bit to do it. It's possible to leave nobody on base while scoring six runs. So hold that thought.

Joe comes up five times in his second game, batting third in the lineup. He doubles in the first inning, smacks a two-run single with the bases loaded in the third, bunts for a hit with two outs and nobody on in the fifth, homers in the seventh, and comes up for the final time in the ninth inning. There are two outs and the Cubs are leading 12-2. If he makes an out, that will mean--yeah, right--that the Cubs had zero runners left on base. It might be possible to leave one runner on base while scoring six runs, but I can't imagine scoring a dozen runs without leaving someone stranded. But that's how Grisham designed it. Oh yeah, Joe homers in the ninth to reach nine straight hits in two games.

The bad arithmetic in Joe's third game is a bit trickier. Batting third, he homers in the first inning and leads off in the third, meaning at least four runners left on base in the first two innings. He singles then and again in the sixth inning, with the Cubs leading, 3-2. When he comes up again in the eighth inning, the Cubs trail, 5-3, so he didn't score in the sixth inning. Even if he was eliminated in a double play and the Cubs didn't leave anyone else on base after the second inning, it would mean that in the eighth inning, the first batter was the #8 hitter in the order. Four men would have to bat before Joe's turn, yet Grisham has two outs and the bases loaded for Joe. That's impossible. That's what it took for Grisham to let Joe hit a game-changing three-run double, but it's impossible according to the game details he has so meticulously provided.

After Joe's startling debut, he does start making some outs after those 15 consecutive hits. We're told that at one point he's batting .725 with 29 hits in 40 at-bats. In the following series, he goes a mere 8-for-16, dropping his average to .661 through 16 games. We aren't given as many details about the ensuing three-game series at Pittsburgh, though Grisham does note that in the second game, a 14-inning battle, Joe goes 5-for-7. But by the end of the series, we're told, his average has dropped to .601. Guess what? That's impossible. That 5-for-7 game made him 42-for-63 (.667) with two games unaccounted for, and there is no combination of hits and at-bats that would result in a .601 average. If he went 2-for-10 in that pair of games (something you'd think Grisham might mention for its contrast to his other performances), that would make him 44-for-73, a .603 average. That's as close as you can get, and sheer carelessness on Grisham's part for not double-checking his arithmetic.

On page 80 is the best example of Grisham's fragile grasp of baseball. Joe singles, doubles, and triples, giving him a shot at hitting for the cycle. We all want him to hit for the cycle, though not as much as Grisham does. He has Joe bloop a ball down the right-field line that rolls to the corner. The race is on, and soon Joe is charging around third base and heading for the inside-the-park home run that can complete his cycle. In his way is Dodgers catcher Joe Ferguson--yeah, the real one--who is already holding the ball and waiting for him. Grisham assures us that Joe Castle "would've been out by three feet," but he collides with Ferguson and the ball rolls loose as our hero touches the plate. That's when Grisham tells us it was an inside-the-park home run--but it wasn't. The rules of baseball tell us that this is an error on the catcher for dropping the ball, and therefore it's a triple for Joe Castle. Sorry, but Calico Joe did not hit for the cycle, and the proof is in the specific details provided by the author.

After this game, Joe has played 31 games, and Grisham parades a bunch of stats before us. Joe is batting .521 with 62 hits in 119 at-bats, including 18 home runs (along with 25 stolen bases, six strikeouts, and one error in the field). There's nothing wrong with those numbers, as extreme as they are. Rogers Hornsby hit over .500 in a month, to give just one example, and sluggers occasionally get hot and smack 18 home runs in 31 games. If that's what Grisham wants Joe to do, that's fine with me.

The problem comes after the beaning which ends Joe's career. Grisham provides his final career totals, covering 38 games. So the differences between the final totals and the 31-game totals cover seven games, including the one in which he is beaned in his second plate-appearance, after homering his first time up.

Here's where Grisham's arithmetic collapses. For 38 games, Grisham gives Joe 78 hits in 160 at-bats, good for a .488 batting average (plus 21 home runs, 41 RBI, and 31 stolen bases). Subtract the 31-game numbers, and it means that he went 16-for-41 in the final seven games. Apart from that last game, we're given numbers from only one of those final games. Not surprisingly, Joe went 4-for-4 in that one. Subtract that one and the 1-for-1 finale, and it leave 11 hits in 36 at-bats--in five games!

You see the problem. To bat 36 times in five games, you would need a succession of marathons ranging from roughly 12 to 20 innings. I'm not saying it couldn't happen. I'm saying that it had to happen, and if so, no self-respecting novelist would fail to note the implicit drama. How many times did Joe come up with a chance to win those games? How many of those 11 hits helped win games? How many of those 25 outs failed to do so? Those might have been the most dramatic games of all, but I'm betting that Grisham didn't even realize what opportunities he missed, because he probably never thought twice about the baseball implications of those eye-popping stats. It is the novelist's job to ponder implications and account for them, and Grisham failed spectacularly. You can't just make up numbers on the run without considering the truth that follows from them.

Another egregiously missed opportunity involves the pennant race. Grisham gives the Cubs a ten-game lead in the race on the day when Joe Castle is beaned on August 24. By the time the Cubs and Mets meet again on September 15, the teams are tied. So the Mets have made up ten games in 21 days. So far, so good. We also learn that the Cubs had a 9-12 record during that time. That means the Mets would've had to go 19-2 to catch up (or 20-3). Well, teams have gotten that hot before, though you'd think Grisham might mention such an extraordinary three-week comeback. He doesn't say a word about it.

What he does tell us about is the quick demise of Warren Tracey following the beaning. In his next start, the Pirates score seven runs against him while he fails to record even one out. Facing the Cardinals a few days later, he lasts only two innings, surrendering five runs. In his third post-beaning start, against the Padres, he is losing by five runs when the manager yanks him from the game. We're told that the Mets have won eight of their last ten games, so to reach 19-2 over a 21-day span, they would've had to win this game plus the next ten in a row. By my calculation, that would make at least a 14-game winning streak by the time they faced the Cubs on September 15, right after releasing Warren Tracey. What about it, Mr. Grisham? Nothing worth mentioning there, I suppose.

My wife says that none of the statistical contradictions mattered while I was reading it to her, that only "baseball nuts" like me would notice or care. (I'm just glad she seconds my literary criticisms of this novel.) She has read a lot of Grisham; I haven't, and I'm not likely to after seeing how careless he is with his "facts" here. Robert Coover, Darryl Brock, and Philip Roth, to name just three, have authored baseball novels with hundreds of baseball details without violating basic principles of internal logic or shredding credibility. I don't think it's unfair to expect Grisham to do the same. Nobody told him he had to write a baseball novel. But somebody should have told him to double-check his numbers or hire someone who could catch his baseball mistakes. It wouldn't have taken a baseball nut to do the job, and then he wouldn't have had a baseball pit-bull like me snapping at his Achilles heels.


Perry Barber said...

This charter member of the "Sticklers For Accuracy" club salutes you.

cheeseblab said...

What this really bespeaks (seriously? he's using the word "bespeaks"? yes, he is) is a grotesque lack of respect for the game and for fans of the game: baseball is a prop for Grisham's fictional purposes, but it's not really important enough to get the most basic elements of it right. I understand Dan Brown did lots of the same sort of careless stuff with the Catholic Church, and those for whom that institution is sacred were fairly incensed; this is why you shouldn't write about something on the basis of a quantity of research that doesn't really get you to the guts of your subject.

Betty said...

I have heard a lot about "Calico Joe," and plan to read it just as soon as I finish the wonderful sports fiction novel I am reading now, "Ark" by John Heldon.