“Blockade Billy” by Stephen King
It’s hard to write good baseball fiction. The game is so unlikely, so bizarre at times, that it’s a challenge to the fiction writer’s imagination to do it justice.
Who, for instance, could have invented Johnny Damon’s at-bat in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series last fall? He appeared to have been struck out by Brad Lidge (it was a foul tip), only to fight back and hit a single, and went on to steal two bases on a single play. From a near strikeout to third base in just a couple of pitches: You can’t make that stuff up.
This is the challenge Stephen King faces in “Blockade Billy,” a novella (actually more of a long short story) about a player whose career has been literally erased.
Such a setup is reminiscent, in an offhand way, of Philip Roth’s 1973 fantasy “The Great American Novel,” in which a now-forgotten third major league, the Patriot League, is expunged from baseball history after having been exposed as a communist front.
The main part of “The Great American Novel” involves a team from New Jersey, the Port Ruppert Mundys, that suffers through the worst season of all time; “Blockade Billy” too takes place in New Jersey, although the team here, the Newark Titans, appears (at first glance, anyway) to have been blessed instead of cursed. That’s because, as the book begins, the Titans have just brought up a rookie catcher, Bill Blakely, who not only can handle the position but also is possibly the greatest hitter anyone has ever seen.
Of course, “Blockade Billy” being a Stephen King story, there are bound to be complications, and indeed, these eventually lead to the downfall of both the player and the team. It’s not giving anything away to say that: King gleefully telegraphs this from the start. “We contended for a while, partly thanks to Blockade Billy,” the aging coach who narrates the story tells us, “but you know how that turned out.” The book, then, purports to share the saga of what happened: why Blakely was stricken from the record books, even as the Titans were forced to replay every game in which he played.
It’s an extreme situation, one that isn’t entirely believable, and that’s an unintended tension in the story. To his credit, however, King gives it a low-grade urgency, tracing the lowly Titans’ pennant hopes, the belief that their luck may have finally changed.
Perhaps the most compelling character here is Titans pitcher Danny Dusen, an ornery old-timer four games away from his 200th win. He takes the young Blakely — nicknamed Blockade Billy for his acuity at blocking the plate — under his wing, teaching him the slow burn of resentment that has always fueled the veteran player’s game.
“It was funny and creepy at the same time,” King’s narrator tells us of a pregame meeting between the two. “The Doo was intense — leaning forward, eyes flashing while he talked.... I almost said something because I wanted to break up that connection. Talking about it to you, I think maybe my subconscious mind had already put a lot of it together.”
Here, King brings the novella’s themes together: the conflict between excitement and fixation, between what is on the surface and what lurks underneath. In the end, though, “Blockade Billy” suffers from his inability to balance the two. On the one hand, the story has the rosy, backward-looking tone of a John R. Tunis book for boys, with its portrait of an era when “the game was smaller … [and] the players weren’t such a big deal.” On the other, King injects a dose of 1950s darkness (the story takes place in 1957), the sort of bleakness and corruption infused in Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel “The Natural.”
Like “The Natural” — which was based, in part, on the 1949 shooting of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus by an obsessive fan — “Blockade Billy” has, at its center, an act of violence. But unlike Malamud, King is not interested in a morality tale. Rather, he’s spinning a yarn, a shaggy dog story, with no payoff larger than itself.
That’s not a criticism, exactly, but it does give “Blockade Billy” too narrow a focus, especially when considered against the enduring weirdness of the game. In a world with Eddie Waitkus, what does Bill Blakely have to tell us, other than that not even baseball players are immune?
“Blockade Billy” is hardly essential King; it’s a short book that he’s given to Cemetery Dance Publications, a small press in Maryland. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you have to wonder if it would have appeared in print any other way. Like all King’s work, it has momentum, but reading it, ultimately, is like watching a big leaguer sit in with a farm team: interesting, perhaps, but without the giddy excitement, the sheer, explosive sense of possibility, that marks the highest levels of the game.