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blockade billy (extended version)

12 july 2010

Stephen King's "Blockade Billy" is a sturdy baseball story in the pulp tradition. I don't know whether it's technically a "novella" or a "novelette," mainly because I have no idea what the difference is, but it's the sort of longer fiction that used to appear in Street & Smith's Sport Story Magazine back in the day. Of course, there are two big contrasts between old pulp stories and "Blockade Billy": the old pulps would have played down the grisly bloodshed, and they would sooner have washed their mouths with carbolic soap than use such nasty language.

The blue vocabulary in "Billy" is the more dissonant when you consider the packaging of the story, one of two printed together in library-binding duodecimo with a hokey cover meant to evoke Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post. The cover, showing catcher Billy tagging out a sliding baserunner, alludes to tales of bushers and veterans, crusty managers and pert girlfriends. The actual story, being by Stephen King, is a descent through several levels of Hell.

Before assessing "Blockade Billy," though, I want to make an intolerable pedantic digression into a baseball passage from the story. Those who can't abide pedantic digressions should resist opening the link below. But for those who don't mind long-winded nitpicking, I do have a point: baseball is very hard to narrate, even if you're a fan (and King is) and a talented writer (ditto). If you accept that point without illustration, just leave the link unclicked.

OK, you've clicked. Here's the situation at a crucial moment in the story of catcher William Blakely's first big-league game, the moment that earns him the sobriquet "Blockade Billy" (p.23). It's the top of the ninth, and our heroes, the home team, are leading by a run. Someone called "The Doo" is pitching. There are two out with a runner, Anderson, on second base; Gernert is batting. Read carefully with me.

The count goes three and two, right? Anderson off with the pitch, right? Because he can run like the wind and the guy behind the plate's a first-game rook.
Well, no: Anderson runs with the pitch because it's a 3-2 count with two outs. All runners are off with the pitch in that situation – in fact, it's more important to start a slow runner than a fast one. The runner cannot, by definition, be doubled off second; he can't be tagged out at third unless the third baseman catches a one-hopper while playing in the baseline, which he won't because there are two outs, so he's playing back. The runner must break, so he can try to score on a shallow single.

But there's no shallow single:

Gernert, that mighty man, gets just under a curve and beeps it—not bloops it but beeps it—behind the pitcher's mound, just out of The Doo's reach. He's on it like a cat, though.
I'm trying to visualize the difference between a bloop and a beep, to no avail. I'm also wondering how a ball could land "behind the pitcher's mound" – hence, be hit over the pitcher's head – and still be fielded by that pitcher instead of an infielder. But whatever. The ball lands fair, softly enough for the pitcher to gather it up immediately. Where's the play? Seriously, I didn't even play Little League and I know the answer: the play's at first. There are two outs: flip the ball to the first baseman and the game's over. But that doesn't happen either:
Anderson's around third and The Doo throws home from his knees. That thing was a fucking bullet.
(Or, "gosh-darn bullet," Mr. King!)

Why does The Doo do that? He does it, of course, so that Billy can tag Anderson out to save the game, and so that the Doo can be involved in the play, since the pitcher is an key character. (Otherwise, why not make the play a shallow single, and have an outfielder make the throw?) But The Doo is supposed to be a veteran of hundreds of big-league ballgames. What he does makes no sense.

It's not that the situation couldn't have happened, even in a way similar to how it's told. Imagine a sharp grounder bouncing off the pitcher's body – a common enough event. By the time the pitcher tracks the ball down, he has no play at first. The runner should hold at third, but he misses a sign or is a fool, and suddenly everyone shouts "Home! Home!" and Billy gets to make his dramatic tag anyway.

So why does King tell things in this slightly-off, not-quite-plausible way? It's not the narrator's fault: though in a nursing home, the old-time coach who tells the story is pretty sharp. In any event, his ingrained baseball sense would be the last thing in his mind to go.

No, King tells it this way because baseball is really, really hard to narrate. Its situations are very precise and very ritualistic. Baseball conforms to a Byzantine catalog of rules but also to the contingencies of friction, gravity, and colliding bodies. While trying to get his characters dramatically in place, King lost track of how baseball games operate.

close intolerable digression

Perhaps because baseball is so hard to narrate, stories like "Blockade Billy," even when competent, tend to be overwritten: overexpository, full of garrulous narration and overexplained plot maneuvers. King's story is no exception. It's not a bad story. Billy is one of the rootless mystery men who populate baseball fiction. He's akin to Roy Hobbs, Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo., the Seventh Babe, or Cyrus Nygerski. He arrives in the major leagues, becomes an instant star, and proves too good to be true.

As always when reading Stephen King, I enjoy the first part of the story, when things are still hazy, much more than the denouement, when he explains each element of the plot s-l-o-w-l-y for the reader so you can g-e-t e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Remember the scene at the end of Psycho where a psychiatrist (played by Simon Oakland) tells us all about Norman Bates, carefully assigning him to the correct pathology and explaining how all that havoc got wreaked in the motel? We get something much like that here. I guess we have to. For all his expostulations about art (and despite his fine novel Misery, which chafes against constraints on art), Stephen King remains a very careful provider for his readership. Letting mysteries stay mysteries is for highbrow foreigners. In America, and especially in baseball, we gotta know "what happened."

King, Stephen. "Blockade Billy," in Blockade Billy. (New York: Scribner, 2010): 3-80.