King steps to the plate

By David L. Ulin

Los Angeles Times

“Blockade Billy” by Stephen King; Cemetery Dance Publications (112 pages, $25)

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.

“Blockade Billy” takes place in New Jersey, and the team, 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 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.

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?

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.