"Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." -- Luke 6:37 (NKJV)
Much baseball fiction is all wrapped up in the kind of juvenile fantasies that grown men continue to indulge. I admire John Grisham for going against the grain and looking at baseball through the lens of what can be wrong about baseball: self-centered players, abuse, sexual infidelity, cruelty, envy, and lying. Rather than just portraying that dark side, Mr. Grisham also exposes the possibility of receiving forgiveness, being reconciled to those who have been harmed, and finding peace. It's a nice ethical journey carried out amid some pretty exciting baseball writing that is soundly based.
Despite my admiration for Mr. Grisham's conception, I didn't feel that he carried it off nearly as well as he needed to. The rise of Calico Joe in the book's beginning is so far beyond possibility that reading those sections makes you feel that Mr. Grisham was just entertaining himself rather than trying to build the best possible story. A less over-the-top biography for Calico Joe would have worked a lot better, in my opinion. The fable-like quality led me to feel outside the story, rather than inside it with the characters.
The dark side of the story also seemed overdrawn. It's as though only absolute perfect white and the blackest black would satisfy readers. That's not giving readers enough credit. What about writing about real human beings of the kind we've all met? That would bring the message home much more than having such an extreme contrast.
I also found that the book lacked suspense. I didn't feel the tension build very much because what came next was kept quite predictable. That's not a good recipe for a fully entertaining novel.
I think part of the reason that Mr. Grisham is such a fine writer about lawyers is that his writing builds on a sound foundation of our skepticism about them . . . but not lots of knowledge. When Mr. Grisham tells us what it's like from the inside (with an ironic sense of humor), it's a great trip.
Those qualities just don't work so well when it comes to writing about sports.