Writers who deal with baseball seem drawn to its mythic dimensions. Whether they produce a novel (“The Natural”), a movie (“Field of Dreams”), a play (“Damn Yankees”) or a song (“Mrs. Robinson”), they often focus on outsize heroes, their feats and their flaws. Maybe it’s the grass or the lights or the uniforms. Maybe it’s the strict geometry of the playing field that turns players into archetypes, characters in a morality play: stars and bums, good guys and bad guys. And so it is with “Calico Joe,” a story about two men whose lives are fused together by one terrible instant on Aug. 24, 1973.
Wearing the white hat is Joe Castle, a 21-year-old rookie first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Calico Joe (the nickname comes from his home town of Calico Rock, Ark.) bashes home runs in his first three at-bats in the major leagues and is hitting above .500 six weeks later when the Cubs play the Mets at Shea Stadium in Queens.
Wearing the black hat is Warren Tracey, a 34-year-old journeyman pitcher for the Mets with a reputation for hitting batters — and the bottle — with equal determination. His first time up, Calico Joe whacks a homer off Tracey. When he comes to bat again, an 11-year-old boy in the stands, Tracey’s son, Paul, has a very sick feeling.
He’s obsessed with Joe, keeping a scrapbook that records all of his dazzling deeds. And he knows his father is about to throw at Joe’s head. Paul knows this because Tracey has called his son a “coward” for not challenging batters with inside pitches in Little League. Years later, as he narrates this story, Paul recalls the game at Shea: “I wanted to stand and scream, ‘Look out, Joe!’ but I couldn’t move.”