Stephen King loves baseball, or at least he appears to. Characters in lots of his books wear Red Sox jerseys and hats, and several times, I've seen him on TV, sitting at a Red Sox game, reading a book. Who brings a book to a ballgame? At least hide it in a mit, Mr. King.
So King loves baseball, which led him to write "Blockade Billy," a novella that starts off as an old man's romanticized story about the good ol' days of baseball, but eventually turns a horific corner into classic King territory. The narrator is George "Granny" Grantham, former third base coach for the now defunct New Jersey Titans. Granny lives in a nursing home (a "zombie hotel," where "virtual bowling" is the preferred pastime), and because he's got the time, he has invited "Mr. King" to listen to his stories about his time with the Titans, and specifically, what happened to Billy Blakely in the Spring of 1957. Billy's name, and all team stats from during his time with the Titans, have been erased from the record books, and only Granny remembers why.
Billy is remembered as being a very strange character, who talked to himself in the third person and frequently repeats what other people say. Occasionally, an opposing player who slides into home winds up with a bloody cut on his leg, which in once case takes a player out for six weeks. His teammates let these eccentricities slide, since Billy is an unstoppable catcher and a heck of a hitter. Billy's talents lead him to become a celebrity, with fans bringing "Road Closed" signs to the park, and newspapers naming him Blockade Billy. Little clues about Billy's true nature are peppered throughout, which lead careful readers to discover Billy's terrible secret . . . sorry, no spoilers here.
So, how did I like it? I liked it a heck of a lot, and I can't think of a complaint, other than wanting a longer story. I could have listened to Granny for another 300 pages and been perfectly happy. Granny's voice is completely believable, and I felt like there really was an old man telling me this story. He's funny and casually crude, like an ex-baseball coach would be. King has really done his homework here; he's recreated a pitch-perfect view of late 50s American baseball. The story is suspenseful and rewarding, and I'd recommend it to anyone who even casually likes baseball, or to hardcore Stephen King fans. If you're looking for a real-deal, non-stop terror thriller, you'll be let down here. This is a great, fun read for a Summer afternoon, but not a dumb beach read. It's got a soul.
The cover art is what made me really want to pick up this book. Blockade Billy is posing like the Sentry or some other hero, ready to fire a ball of energy at the player trying to slide into home plate. Of course, the story didn't involve any supernatural powers, but Billy's superhuman feats of baseball lived up to the cover.
If there was any doubt King loved baseball, check out his author photo for this book: