The US Air Force has a tendency to periodically relocate its people and their families so, when I was in my ninth year on the planet, I was living in what was perhaps my fourth or fifth home/house. It was 1968, the year I became a life-long fan of the Detroit Tigers baseball team.
With such shallow geographic roots, rooting for the Tigers has long served as a sort of tether connecting me to place. With no real home town, I imagined one for myself by following the Tigers; always in the daily paper’s box score and occasionally on WJR radio… if the sky was clear.
For more than half a century I have been a fan of the Tigers–and of the game itself–because, as James Earl Jones told Kevin Costner, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”*
I think of this now after reading Calico Joe (2012) by John Grisham; a story about baseball during the summer of 1973. I was five-years-a-fan at that point, and many of the real-life characters in the fictional Calico Joe were immortalized in the shoebox that held all my baseball cards.
Calico Joe is told from the perspective of Paul Tracey, a young boy who calls baseball his “best friend” and whose frustrated, volatile, and alcoholic father is an aging pitcher for the New York Mets. The title character, Joe Castle, is a rookie phenom for the Chicago Cubs and “in mid-July 1973 the game was about to be electrified like never before.”
Like any good book about baseball, this one is about so much more. While in the stands watching his father square off against Calico Joe—a moment of conflicting allegiances for our young protagonist—Paul discovers that, as in life, one brief moment can make all the difference.
Calico Joe is an outlier among Grisham’s prolific body of work which includes dozens of best-selling legal thrillers. Along with his other sports-themed books— Bleachers (2003), Playing for Pizza (2007), and most recently, Sooley (2021)—one of the country’s best-known authors explores how baseball, basketball, and football are woven into the fabric of large swaths of American culture.
You don’t need to be a fan to enjoy these books, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
Spiritually speaking, Bleachers is all about the type of hometown I never had. As to the sports plot, the small town of Messina is focused on burying legendary high school football coach, Eddie Rake: “thirty-four years as Coach of the Spartans, 418 wins, 62 losses, 13 state titles, and from 1964 to 1970 an undefeated streak that ended at 84.” Gathering while Rake is on his deathbed are the generations of young men that survived —mainly—the grueling football rituals overseen by Rake, all the while trying to figure out if they loved or hated him.
In Playing for Pizza, washed-up former third-string NFL quarterback Rick Dockery signs with the Parma Panthers of Italy’s version of the National Football League – think Pop Warner Football with grown men. Each of the teams in the league is allowed three American players who are paid a few bucks—and pizza—to play. The Italian members of the team are there for the love of the game and, in at least one case, the sheer joy of legal violence.
Grisham’s Sooley takes us on a nightmarish tour of eastern Africa; to a village destroyed by marauding soldiers, to a refugee camp overflowing with hundreds of thousands of wandering souls, and into the hearts of people searching for hope in a hopeless situation.
On a recent road trip, I listened to Sooley while pulling my camper along US Highway 40. As a lover of real books, I tend to eschew audio. I made an exception in this case since my hands were busy gripping the steering wheel. Through the brilliantly rendered narration of Dion Graham, Sooley is a wonderful story about a seventeen year-old South Sudanese basketball player who makes his way to the United States.
In America, while attending fictional North Carolina Central University, Sooley navigates the unfamiliar surroundings with the grace he learned in a small village while dribbling a basketball in the dirt. He also discovers that the game might be the means to save his family.
Sooley is fiction, while its backdrop of war is the gut-wrenching reality of the world we live in. Over four million South Sudanese have been displaced from their homes and the world’s newest country—formed in 2011 following civil war in Sudan— continues to bleed.
John Grisham tells us in the author’s note at the end of Sooley that he once harbored thoughts of playing pro sports. At 16 he acknowledges that “my prodigious ability to dream was no match for my glaring lack of talent. So, like most ex-jocks, I finally called it quits and became an avid sports fan. Later in life, I decided that since I couldn’t play the games, I might as well write about them.”
Millions of John Grisham fans should be thankful for this moment of athletic humility.
As I write, the Tigers are 14 games out of first place and have lost more games than they have won. No matter; they have a young crop of players that look like America and they play aggressive baseball.
There’s an old guy on the team (38) and he’s headed for the Hall of Fame. He’s on the roster because he can still hit pretty well while approaching a few numerical milestones; in a number-crunching game with exclusive clubs—500 home runs, 3000 hits —that true baseball fans feast upon.
And, best of all, he still plays the game like he’s eight years-old.
*James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann and Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, a baseball movie about so much more than baseball…