Two great American traditions merge when horror icon Stephen King turns his attention to baseball.
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Then matters really unravel. “One of the deputies bent down to put the cuffs on him, and Johnny threw up on the back of the guy’s head,” Grantham says. “Johnny Goodkind’s career in baseball was over before the puke dried.”Skip to next paragraph
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With that, a desperate search for a replacement begins — and leads to the signing of Blakely, an unheralded stopgap backstop who arrives with no expectations.
For the next month, he’ll build an instant legend, delivering clutch hits and becoming an instant fan favorite with his impregnable stance blocking home plate and tagging out opposing base runners. Fans pack the stands, snapping up orange cardboard diamonds bearing the words, “Road Closed By Order Of Blockade Billy.”
There are more than a few clues of something amiss, but players and coaches alike cast such concerns aside. Blockade Billy can hit and catch, and as for the rest, hey, it’s a baseball team, not the Rotary Club. Still, Blockade Billy borders on the bizarre even with benefit of the doubt. The rookie catcher has no clue what a Cy Young Award is, substitutes echolalia for conversation, and sports a mysterious Band-Aid on a finger bearing no discernible cuts or injuries.
Then, too, there is the Red Sox pinch runner who, in Billy’s debut, crashes into the young catcher, gets tagged out, flips over – and emerges with a mysterious, debilitating slashed ankle.
The baseball sequences move as well as the character sketches, helped by King’s preference for “Bull Durham”-style baseball pragmatism rather than the weepy “Field of Dreams” nostalgia too often plaguing baseball literary efforts.
“I won’t drag out the suspense; this ain’t no kids’ sports novel,” Grantham says at one point while recounting details from a game played a half-century ago.
King employs his salty baseball lifer to take a few shots at modern-day aspects of the game (sideways caps) – and players, too. Grantham mentions Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds with a sneer, dubbing the controversial sluggers “a couple of bushers, if you ask me.”
A one-off assignment managing the Titans includes being tossed out of the game for arguing a controversial call, an episode Grantham says “would have made Billy Martin look like a peacenik.”
King knows his way around the dugout and makes fine sport of the game’s rhythms and gallows humor, too. The Titans’ manager, Joe DiPunno, has the hangdog manner of, say, Jim Leyland – and a nicotine habit to match. DiPunno smokes four packs a day to deal with the stress of finding a catcher, managing the head cases who fill his roster, and coping with the endless grind of baseball season.
All in all, “Blockade Billy” merits a curtain call for the endlessly prolific, and inventive, King. His novella makes a perfect companion for scanning the summer box scores and, most impressive of all, even conjures a momentary twinge of empathy for that most scorned baseball species: the umpire.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.