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Calico Joe

In his latest novel, the best-selling author of The Firm—and dyed-in-the-double-knits baseball fan—spins the tale of Cubs first baseman Joe Castle, the most scintillating phenom to hit the big leagues since ... maybe ever. In this exclusive excerpt, the son of a veteran Mets pitcher describes what happens when a fresh-faced star in the making crosses paths with an embittered hurler who knows he's past his prime

IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, the country was slowly emerging from the trauma of Vietnam. Spiro Agnew was in trouble and would eventually go down. Watergate was getting hot, with much more to come. I was 11 years old and slightly aware of what was happening out there in the real world, but I was wonderfully unburdened by it. Baseball was my world, and little else mattered. My father, Warren Tracey, pitched for the New York Mets, and I lived and died with each game. I pitched too, for the Scrappers in the White Plains Little League, and because my father was who he was, great things were expected of me. I rarely met those expectations, but there were moments of promise.

By early July, the pennant race in the National League East had settled into a bland contest. All six teams—Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Phillies, Cubs and Expos—were hovering around .500 and showing little enthusiasm for making a run. In the West, the Reds and the Dodgers were pulling away. In the American League, the Oakland A's, with their swagger and colorful uniforms and long hair, were looking to repeat their championship of 1972.

My buddies and I followed the game religiously. We knew each player and every statistic. We checked every box score, then replayed the games on the sandlots of White Plains. Life at home was not always pleasant, and my escape was on the field. Baseball was my best friend, and in mid-July 1973 the game was about to be electrified like never before.

IT BEGAN QUIETLY enough with a pulled hamstring. The first baseman for the Cubs' Triple A affiliate in Wichita went down as he rounded third and headed for home. The next day, Jim Hickman, the first baseman for the Cubs, injured his back. The team suddenly needed someone to play first, so it reached down to its Double A club in Midland, Texas, and called up a 21-year-old named Joe Castle. At the time, Castle was hitting .395 with 20 home runs, 50 RBIs, 40 stolen bases and only one error at first base. He was the hottest player in Double A and was creating a buzz.

As the story goes, Castle was asleep in the cheap apartment he shared with four other minor leaguers when the call came from Chicago. A coach drove him to the airport in Midland, and he caught a flight to Houston, where he waited two hours for a flight to Philadelphia. While he waited, he called his family in Arkansas with the thrilling news. When he arrived in Philadelphia, a cab delivered him to Veterans Stadium, where he was quickly fitted for a uniform, given number 42 and hustled onto the field. The Cubs were already taking batting practice. Understandably, he was nervous, thrilled, almost bewildered, and when the manager, Whitey Lockman, said, "Get loose. You're starting at first and hitting seventh," Castle had trouble gripping his brand-new bat. In his first round of major league batting practice, he swung at the first two pitches and missed.

In the dugout before the game, Castle huddled with Don Kessinger, the Cubs' veteran shortstop and another Arkansas boy. Kessinger was outgoing and laid-back. He managed to keep the kid loose. His only advice was, "Go up there swinging." The Cubs' centerfielder was Rick Monday, another veteran, who had been born in Batesville, Ark., just down the White River from Joe's hometown. Between Kessinger and Monday, Joe managed to survive the worst case of pregame jitters a player could imagine.

It was Thursday, July 12, a day baseball would remember for a long time.

The Phillies' pitcher was a lefty, Benny Humphries, a wild fastballer who walked as many as he struck out. As Joe strolled to the plate in the second inning, he gritted his teeth and told himself to swing at the first pitch, wherever it happened to be. Humphries thought the rookie should get introduced to major league heat and unloaded everything he had. Joe, from the right side, guessed fastball, made perfect contact and hit a shot that landed 20 rows back in left centerfield. He sprinted around the bases, much too excited for any kind of victory trot, and was in the dugout being congratulated before he caught his breath.

He was not the first major leaguer to homer on the first pitch he saw. Forty-six had now homered in their first at bat, and 11 had done it on the first pitch. Nonetheless, his name was in the record book. It was now open, and Joe Castle wasn't finished with it.

In the fifth inning Humphries started off with a fastball high and tight, a brushback meant as a warning, but Joe didn't get the message. He worked the count to 3 and 1, then yanked a fastball down the leftfield line, where it scraped the inside of the foul pole. The third base umpire was quick to twirl his right index finger, signaling a home run. Joe, who was rounding first and following the ball, kicked into a sprint and slowed slightly as he neared home plate. Now a record belonged only to him and one other. In 1951, Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns also homered in his first two major league at bats.

The Mets were playing the Braves in Atlanta that night, and the game was not on television. I was listening to Lindsey Nelson, the Mets' wonderful radio play-by-play announcer, who informed us of what had just happened in Philadelphia. "He tied a record, folks," Nelson said. "Think of the thousands of young men who've played this game, and only two have homered in their first two at bats."

The Cubs chased Humphries in the sixth, and the Phillies brought in a middle reliever, a righthander named Tip Gallagher. When Joe left the on-deck circle in the top of the seventh, the score was tied 4--4, and the Phillies fans, always vocal, were silent. There was no applause, just curiosity. To their surprise, Joe dug in from the left side. Since there was no scouting report, the Phillies did not know he was a switch-hitter. No one had bothered to notice him during batting practice. He looked at a curveball low, then fouled off the next two fastballs. With two strikes, he shortened his stance and choked up three inches on the bat. The previous season he had led the Texas League with the lowest strikeout percentage of any hitter. Joe Castle was at his most dangerous with two strikes.

A slider missed low, then Gallagher came with a fastball away. Joe went with the pitch and slapped it hard to left center, a line drive that kept rising until it cleared the wall by five feet. As he circled the bases for the third consecutive time, he did so with a record that seemed untouchable. No rookie had ever homered in his first three at bats.

JOE CASTLE was from Calico Rock, Ark., a tiny, picturesque village on a bluff above the White River, on the eastern edge of the Ozark Mountains. It was Cardinals country, and had been since the days of Dizzy Dean, an Arkansas farm boy and leader of St. Louis's infamous Gashouse Gang in the 1930s. His brother Paul, nicknamed Daffy, was also a pitcher on the same team. With a radio on every front porch, Calico Rock, like countless other towns in the Midwest and the Deep South, followed the beloved Cardinals with a passion during the long, hot summer nights. KMOX out of St. Louis carried the games, and the familiar voices of Harry Caray and Jack Buck could be heard on every street and in every car.

On July 12, though, the dials in Calico Rock had been switched to WGN out of Chicago, and Joe's friends and family were hanging on every pitch. The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry was the greatest in the National League, and though many in Calico Rock found it difficult to believe they were rooting for the hated Cubs, they were suddenly doing so, and with a fervor. After the first home run, a crowd quickly gathered outside Evans Drug Store on Main Street. The second home run sent them into a giddy celebration, and the crowd continued to grow. When Joe's parents, two brothers, their wives and their small children showed up to join the party, they were greeted with bear hugs and cheers.

The third home run sent the entire town into orbit. They were also celebrating in the streets and pubs of Chicago.

AS STUNNING as his first three at bats had been, Joe's fourth would endear him to baseball purists forever. Top of the ninth, score tied 6--6, two outs, Kessinger standing on third, a tough righthander named Ed Ramon on the mound. Ramon's first pitch was a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Joe waited, then whipped his bat like a broomstick, crushing the ball and lining it a few inches outside the bag at first base, a foul ball but an impressive one. Ernie Banks, the Cubs' first base coach, did not have time to react, and if the ball had hit him, he would have been seriously maimed. Willie Montanez, the Phillies' first baseman, took two steps back. Joe noticed this and changed his plans. The second pitch was a changeup, high. With the count 1 and 1, Ramon tried another fastball. As soon as he released it, Joe hesitated a split second, then broke for first base with his bat trailing. It tapped the ball and sent it dribbling toward the second baseman, Denny Doyle, who was as startled as everyone else in the stadium. By the time Doyle got to the ball, or the ball got to Doyle, Joe was 10 feet past first base and slowing down along the rightfield foul line. Kessinger walked home with the eventual winning run.

The crowd sat in stunned silence. Players from both teams looked on in disbelief. With a chance to hit four home runs in a game—a feat baseball had seen only nine times in 100 years—the kid chose to lay down a perfect drag bunt to score the go-ahead run.

The Cubs' announcers, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau, had been plowing through the record book during the game and were certain that they had their facts straight. Three home runs in the first game of a career was a first. Four consecutive hits in a debut game tied a modern-day record, though some rookie had five straight hits back in 1894.

Chicago won 7--6, and by the time the game ended virtually every Cubs fan was tuned in. Boudreau promised his listeners that he would soon have Joe wired up for a postgame interview. A half hour after the game was over, Boudreau's voice came across the radio with, "I'm in the visitors' locker room with Joe Castle, who, as you might guess, is surrounded by reporters. Here he is."

Sudden silence on Main Street in Calico Rock; no one moved or spoke.

"Joe, not a bad first game. What are you thinking right now?"

"Well, I would like to say hello to my family and friends back home in Calico Rock. I wish you could be here. I still can't believe it."

"Joe, what were you thinking when you stepped to the plate in the second inning?"

"I was thinking fastball and I was swinging at the first pitch. Got lucky, I guess."

"I gotta ask you—and I know you've already been hit with this—but what were you thinking in the ninth inning? You had a chance to hit four home runs in a game, yet you bunted."

"I was thinking about one thing—getting Don home from third for the go-ahead run. I love playing baseball, but it's no fun if you're not winning."

Few in Calico Rock went to bed before midnight.

AS PROMISED, my mother awakened me at 6 a.m. so I could watch the early news programs. I was hoping for a glimpse of Joe Castle. Channel 4 did a quick rundown on the National League games. The Mets had won in Atlanta to put them two games over .500. Then there was Joe Castle sprinting around the bases in Philadelphia, once, twice, three times. The drag bunt, though, got as much airtime as the three home runs. The guy could fly.

I loved it when the Mets were on the road. My father was gone, and our house was peaceful and pleasant. When he was around, the mood was far different. He was a self-absorbed, brooding man with seldom a kind word for any of us. He had never met his potential, and this was always the fault of someone else—the manager, his teammates, the owners, even the umpires. On the nights after he pitched, he often came home late and drunk, and that's when the trouble started. I suspected, even at the age of 11, that my parents would not stay together. I know he hit my mother a few times, probably a lot more than I realized. And he drank and chased women and lived the hard life of a professional baseball player. He was arrogant and cocky, and from the age of 15 he was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, because he, Warren Tracey, could throw a baseball through a brick wall.

I began visiting the library in White Plains to collect stories from the Chicago newspapers. Using a massive Xerox machine near the periodicals section, I made copies at five cents each. After his historic debut Joe kept on hitting: He set another record by getting hits in his first 15 big league at bats. The papers were packed with stories and photos, and it was obvious that Joe was enjoying the moment. Among many memorable quotes, he said such things as, "Well, if they keep me in the lineup, I'll probably hit .750 for the season."

And, "Oh, sure, we have 74 games left. One home run per game is not out of the question."

And, "The pennant? That's already in the bag, man. We're thinking about the World Series."

The Chicago baseball reporters, a notoriously tough bunch, were in awe and described him as "cocky but not the least bit arrogant" and "at times obviously overwhelmed by what he had done." His teammates were stunned but also realistic. One said, "He'll cool off, but let's hope it takes a few weeks."

The photos revealed a fresh-faced kid who looked all of 21 and was on top of the world. He was handsome, with deep-set blue eyes and curly, sandy hair, the kind of looks that would soon attract women everywhere he went. He was single and had no significant female in his life, according to one story.

Everyone was falling in love with Joe Castle.

MY FATHER was in a foul mood when he left the house, alone. I dropped a few hints about riding to the stadium with him, but he wasn't listening. The New York papers were relentlessly hyping that day's game, and one writer, my father's loudest critic, described the matchup as "a contrast between youth and age. Warren Tracey, age 34 and over the hill, versus Joe Castle, the brightest young star baseball has seen since the arrival of Mickey Mantle."

It was Aug. 24. Joe's big league career was a little more than a month old, and after 31 games he had 62 hits in 119 at bats, with 18 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He had struck out only six times. His batting average of .521 was easily the highest in the majors, though he had not had enough at bats to qualify for the official ranking. Ty Cobb, the greatest hitter of all time, had a career average of .367. Ted Williams: .344. Joe DiMaggio: .325. Joe Castle was not yet being compared to the great ones, but no rookie had ever hit .521 after 119 at bats.

My father had actually been pitching well lately. He beat the Braves in his last start, at Shea Stadium, to even his record at 7--7. When he ran out of gas and was pulled in the top of the seventh, he received an impressive ovation from the crowd. I was on my feet, eight rows up from the field near the Mets' dugout, clapping and yelling as loud as possible. He tipped his cap to me, and at that moment I realized how much I wanted to adore him.

Four days later, I cajoled my mother into taking an early train to the city. I wanted to watch batting practice and, more important, get my first live look at Joe Castle. We stepped off the subway at 4:30, two and a half hours before the first pitch, and the atmosphere outside Shea Stadium was electric. I was surprised at the number of Cubs fans, most of them wearing white jerseys with the number 15 across the back.

Shea held 55,000, and it was already two thirds full when we settled into our seats. The Cubs were taking batting practice, and there was a swarm around the cage at home plate. Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Jose Cardenal and Rick Monday were in one group, and as they rotated through, I searched the outfield until I saw him. As he turned to chase a fly ball, I saw the name castle across the back of his royal blue BP jersey. He caught the ball near the rightfield foul line, and a thousand kids screamed for his autograph. He smiled and waved and jogged back to a group of Cubs loitering in right center.

By then I had read many descriptions of Joe Castle. In high school some scouts had worried that he was too thin. He weighed 170 pounds when he was 18, and this had bothered a few of the experts. However, his father had been quoted as saying, "He's not even shaving yet. Let the boy grow up."

And he was right. In the minors Joe had filled out, thanks to a combination of nature and hours in the weight room. He had broad shoulders and a 33-inch waist. He wore his game pants tight, and one article in the Chicago Tribune gossiped about the avalanche of provocative mail he was getting from women across the country.

As I watched, Joe seemed to glide across the outfield. I saw my father in the Mets' dugout, sitting alone. It was far too early for him to head to the bullpen and begin stretching. Odd, though, that he was in the dugout. Usually, at two hours and counting, he was getting a massage from a trainer. With 90 minutes to go he put on his uniform. At 75 minutes he left the locker room, walked through the dugout and headed for the bullpen, head down, refusing to look at the opposing dugout.

The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. Baseball players, and especially pitchers, are fanatics about their rituals. My father was 3--1 in his last six starts and four days earlier had pitched perhaps his best game in the last five years. Why would he change things?

WHEN HE WALKED to the mound in the top of the first, the fans gave my father a rowdy welcome. When Rick Monday lined to short on the first pitch, the stadium roared again. Two pitches later, Glenn Beckert popped out to rightfield, and Warren Tracey was cruising.

The announcer said, "Now batting and playing first base, number 15, Joe Castle."

I took a deep breath and began chewing my fingernails. I wanted to watch, then I wanted to close my eyes and just listen. My mother patted my knee. I envied her apathy. Not surprisingly, the first pitch was high and tight. Joe, batting lefthanded, ducked but did not fall; nor did he glare at my father. It was a simple brushback. Welcome to New York. The second pitch was a called strike that looked low, but Joe did not react. The third pitch was a fastball that he slapped into the stands near us. The fourth pitch was low and inside. The fifth pitch was a changeup that fooled Joe, but he managed to foul it off.

I was holding my breath with each pitch. I was praying for a strikeout, and I was praying for a home run. Why couldn't I have both? A strikeout now for my father, a home run later for Joe, back and forth? In baseball you always get another chance, right? I pondered these things between pitches, a complete nervous wreck.

The sixth pitch was a curve that bounced in the dirt. Three balls, two strikes. Shea Stadium rocking. The Cubs 10 games in first place. The Mets 10 games back but winning. My father versus my hero.

Joe fouled off the next eight pitches as the at bat turned into a dramatic duel, with neither player yielding an inch. Warren Tracey was not about to walk him. Joe Castle was not about to strike out. The 15th pitch was a fastball that looked low, but at the last second Joe whipped his bat around, scooped the ball up and launched it to right center, where it cleared the wall by 30 feet. When I knew the ball was gone, I looked back at the mound and watched my father. He never took his eyes off Joe as he rounded first, and when the ball cleared the fence, Joe gave himself a quick pump of the fist, as if to say, "All right!" It was nothing cocky or out of line, nothing meant to show up the pitcher.

But I knew my father, and I knew it was trouble.

THE SCORE was 1--1 when Joe walked to the plate in the top of the third with two outs and no one on. The first pitch was a fastball outside, and when I saw it, I knew what would happen next. The second pitch was just like the first, hard and a foot off the plate. I wanted to stand and scream, "Look out, Joe!" but I couldn't move. As my father stood on the mound and looked in at his catcher, Jerry Grote, my heart froze and I couldn't breathe. I managed to say to my mother, "He's gonna hit him."

The beanball went straight at Joe's helmet, and for a second, for a long, dreadful second that fans and writers would discuss and debate and analyze for decades to come, Joe didn't move. For a reason no one, especially Joe, would ever understand or be able to explain or re-create or reenact, he simply lost sight of the ball. He had said that he preferred to hit from the left side because he felt as though his right eye picked up the pitches faster, but at that crucial split second his eyes failed him. It could have been something beyond the centerfield wall. It could have been a slight shift in the lighting. He could have lost the ball as it crossed between my father's white jersey and home plate. No one would ever know, because Joe would never remember.

The sound of a leather baseball hitting a hard plastic batting helmet is unmistakable. I had heard it several times in my games, including twice when I had unintentionally hit batters. It is not a sharp bang but more like the striking of a dull object on a hard surface. It's frightening enough, but there is also the immediate belief that the helmet has prevented a serious injury.

That was not the sound of Joe being hit. What we heard was the sickening thud of the baseball cracking into flesh and bone. For those of us in the crowd close enough to hear it, the sound would never be forgotten. I can, and do, still hear it today. The ball made contact at the corner of Joe's right eye. It knocked his helmet off as he fell backward. He caught himself with his hands behind him, on the ground, and paused for a second before passing out.

There are so many scrambled images of what happened next. The crowd was stunned. There were gasps and a lot of "Oh, my Gods!" The home plate umpire was waving for help. Grote was standing helplessly over Joe. The Cubs' bench was ready to explode; several players were out of the dugout, screaming and cursing at Warren Tracey. The Cubs fans were booing loudly. The Mets fans were silent. My father walked slowly to a spot behind the mound, took off his glove, put both hands on his hips and stared at home plate. I hated him.

As the trainers hovered over Joe and we waited, I closed my eyes and prayed that he would get up. Shake it off. Trot down to first. Then at some point charge the mound and bloody my father's face. My mother stared at the field in disbelief, then looked down at me. My eyes were wet.

Minutes passed, and Joe was not getting up. We could see his cleats and uniform from the knees down, and at one point his heels appeared to be twitching, as if his body were in a seizure. The Cubs fans began throwing debris, and security guards scurried onto the field. Grote walked past the mound and stood next to his pitcher. I watched my father closely and at one point saw something that did not surprise me. With Joe flat on his back, unconscious, seriously injured and convulsing, I saw my father smile.