Stephen King long ago became a big-league author. Now he digs in and stands ready to give whole new meaning to the phrase, “Batter up!”
In 1999, King wrote a short novel, “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” that put a lost 9-year-old girl alone in the woods with only her Boston Red Sox jersey (Tom Gordon’s, of course) and a portable radio (able to pick up Red Sox broadcasts) to help her cope. Five years later, the same season the real-life Red Sox ended an 86-year championship drought, King and fellow New England novelist Stewart O’Nan co-authored “Faithful,” an account of their real-life fandom.
As if those two examples weren’t enough, any regular reader of King’s work is familiar with the ubiquitous references to Red Sox Nation in his books, as well as several laundry baskets’ worth of Red Sox jerseys, T-shirts, and caps worn by various characters in his numerous novels and short stories.
In short, the scariest thing one could imagine about the King of Horror is a Yankees cap perched on his head.
With all of that in mind, it comes as little surprise to learn that King has written his first full-fledged fictional baseball work with the new novella Blockade Billy.
Clocking in at a breezy 112 pages, King’s tale unveils the truth behind a fictitious scandal that rocked Major League Baseball during the 1957 season. It is the time of Ike, Sputnik, and the unexpectedly mighty Milwaukee Braves.
Enter William Blakely, the blockading wunderkind catcher whose nickname provides the title. Today he has, it seems, disappeared from the baseball record books, along with all but the faintest memories of his team, the New Jersey Titans. Yes, Stephen King would have us believe not just that cars can rage and wreak havoc (“Hello, Christine”), but also that the ever-humble Garden State once fielded a Major League Baseball team. In Newark, no less.
If Newark’s baseball glories are to be believed, a credible narrator is a must, much like a reliable play-by-play man in the broadcast booth. Meet George “Granny” Grantham, the third-base coach of the Titans, who looks back on these dark events from the vantage point of 50 years later.
He’s a curmudgeon, bored and irritated with the old folks’ home he lives (suffers) in. Grantham speaks directly to his real-life creator throughout the book, adding a “Mr. King” here and there for point of emphasis.
For the most part, King pulls this off without lapsing into too many baseball clichés. “Sure, I’ll tell you about Billy Blakely,” Grantham begins. “Awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last longest.”
Blockade Billy gets his shot at the big time after emerging from a minor league field of dreams in Iowa. This being Stephen King, that field of dreams devolves into a field of screams. How it gets there is a clever piece of storytelling that rises to the occasion with the precision of a four-seam fastball.
Just before the Titans break camp at spring training, their catcher, Johnny Goodkind, gets drunk and runs over a woman in the road. When the cops pull Goodkind from the car, he smells like a brewery and struggles to get to his feet, as Grantham tells it.
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.”
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.