Baseball inspires great stories. W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural are two fine examples that mix nostalgia for the game with a moving tale. Stephen King mixed nostalgia and his obvious love for baseball with the genre for which he’s famous in Blockade Billy. It is about as far from a home run as King has ever been.
In Blockade Billy, it’s 1957 and things aren’t going so well for the New Jersey Titans. Their starting catcher is caught in a hit and run of the drunk driving, rather than the baseball, variety, ending his career. Their backup catcher has a physique that makes a scarecrow look hefty. A massive collision at the plate during preseason sends him packing with a couple of broken limbs and a concussion.
Desperate for a catcher, the Titans call up William Blakely from the minor leagues. After several amazing stops at the plate, fans dub William ‘Blockade Billy’. The first such incident ends a pinch-runner’s career.
He went up and over and landed behind the lefthand batter’s box. The umpire lifted his fist in the out sign. Then Anderson started to yell and grab his ankle.… Anderson’s left pants cuff was turning red, and blood was oozing out between his fingers.
Doesn’t that just give you the willies? Yeah, me neither. Unfortunately, it’s about as thrilling as King’s story gets.
The only thing that kept me turning the pages was the story’s narration. George Grantham, Titans third base coach and equipment manager, known to the players as ‘Granny’, tells the story, and it’s as if we’re sitting with King in an assisted living facility where ‘Granny’ lives, while George relates what happened during the month ‘Blockade Billy’ played for the Titans.
Much of King’s writing may have devolved into cliché, but his talent for the conversational tone remains. The story clearly portrays ‘Granny’; unfortunately, it isn’t about him, and all the other characters come off as one-dimensional. Furthermore, nothing of significance actually happens to Grantham. He is simply along for the ride.
There is some attempt at a twist ending, but even the most obtuse can guess what’s coming. Compounding its predictability is King’s insistence on, once again, going for the progressivist cliché of explaining the villain as the product of abusive Christians and “the rich.” Murderers, it seems, are not responsible for their actions if Christians or the wealthy had some influence on their lives.
In addition to these simplistic tropes, an obvious continuity error takes place early in the story. In one scene, Billy arrives at the ballpark, puts on a uniform, and walks out onto the field. It begins:
He walked down to home plate outside the foul line in Faraday’s uniform, the blue 19 gleaming in the morning sun …
and ends with:
… he looked perfectly cool standing there behind the plate in his Levi’s and a light poplin jacket. (emphasis added)
Reading Blockade Billy is like watching a once-great ballplayer take the field long after he should have hung up the cleats. We pray he’ll get a hit off young pitchers half his age, and we cringe when he ignominiously trudges back to the dugout after striking out looking … again.
I would like to think that Stephen King has a great story in him, but with each book he publishes it becomes more obvious that his glory years are long gone.