John Grisham — “International best-selling author of 23 novels!” the stadium announcer boomed out moments earlier — took his seat in Row B, alongside the Cubs dugout at Wrigley. Next to him, Michael Harvey, the best-selling crime author and co-creator of “Cold Case Files.” And on the other side of Harvey, Scott Turow, the best-selling author of countless legal thrillers.
Between the three, they have written: "A Time to Kill," "Presumed Innocent," "Personal Injuries," "The Burden of Proof," "The Client," "The Rainmaker," "The Firm," "The Fifth Floor," "The Chamber," "The Brethren," "The King of Torts," "The Associate," "The Third Rail," "The Chicago Way," "The Pelican Brief," "The Runaway Jury," "The Confession," "The Appeal," "The Last Juror," "Pleading Guilty," "Reversible Errors" and "Innocent." There are many others, of course; if Grisham, Harvey and Turow never lived, airport bookstores would sell only People magazine and Snapple.
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Grisham has sold 250 million books. Turow has sold 25 million. And Harvey — who published his first novel just five years ago, two decades after Turow wrote his first, "Presumed Innocent" — less than a million.
The game, the Chicago Cubs vs. the Milwaukee Brewers, early April, nothing special, nothing on the line.
Grisham sat against the dugout. He sat on the edge of his seat. Harvey slouched in his, the collar of his jacket rising up. Turow sat with perfect posture, his hands in his lap, occasionally curling into loose fists. Grisham wore Ray Bans and a Cubs starter jacket and a Cubs hat. Harvey, who lives in the neighborhood and teaches at Northwestern, wore nothing bearing an insignia. Turow, a Chicago guy, an Evanston resident, wore Ray Bans, a starter jacket similar to Grisham's, a Cubs hat with "Tuneful Turow" stitched in the back.
In the first inning, Harvey turned to Grisham and said in his thick Boston accent: "Read the book. Liked it."
Grisham, in his own soft musical Mississippi tones, replied: "It's a sweet story."
They left it at that.
Turow leaned across Harvey. "You know, John, I was with Brian Dennehy last night."
Grisham said: "Dennehy. Great guy."
Turow said: "Terrific guy. He wanted me to say hi to you. He and Nathan Lane are in town, working on 'Iceman Cometh' with Bob Falls down at the Goodman, and he just wanted me to say hi to you. Great guy."
CRACK! Routine grounder to Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. He bobbles. Error.
"Future of the Cubs," Turow said, biting his hot dog, talking through the food. "That's the future, man."
Harvey and Grisham nodded solemnly.
The reason they were here together was Grisham. He wrote a new novel about baseball, "Calico Joe," a pleasant day at the park of a book about beanballs, retaliation, forgiveness, centered around a fateful game between the Cubs and the Mets. Grisham had come in from New York. He'd just driven by Yankee Stadium hours before: "Man, I hate the Yankees. I see Yankees fans wearing Yankees hats and just want to smack those Yankee hats off their heads. You know, slap their faces. Just hate them." He was also here at Wrigley to throw out the first pitch, something Turow's done before, of course, Turow said, with a big smirk. As we watched Grisham slip into a custom-made Cubs jersey with "Grisham" slapped on the back, Turow said: "I told him my advice for this was dress warm. Also, and this is hilarious, but a lot of people plan this out for weeks, train for weeks, throw pitches in their backyards for weeks before they get here, and then they are so nervous, no kidding, they go through the windup and never release the ball!" The caustic stadium speakers blared music and promotions and said nothing. Turow looked into the rafters, annoyed. "They never RELEASE THE BALL! Can you hear me? Boy, they just don't shut up at all with that stuff do they?"
For the record, Grisham's pitch — a little high.
Before the game, before he threw the first pitch, Grisham, unrecognized by the crowd filing in, sat in his seat and watched batting practice, his cap pulled low, a few strands of sandy colored hair poking out of his hat. He didn't turn and talk to me. He stared straight ahead, paying close attention to swings, throw, bunts.
"This summer I'll go to a Washington Nationals game or two. The stadium's not far from me. I'll probably watch the Rangers play. Nolan and Ruth Ryan are friends. I'll probably make it to Fenway. I'll get out to 10 games this summer hopefully. I'll go to St. Louis at least once. Growing up in the South, it was all Cardinals. My father, my grandfather, Cardinals fans. I didn't growing up hating the Cubs like most Cardinals fans. I had a baseball card of every major leaguer as a kid. I was a serious collector. I had Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, who is a buddy of mine. I had their cards when I was 10. That's why I set the book here."
We watched a bit.
"I had serious dreams when I was in high school," he said. "Baseball wise. I had big dreams and small talent. I played everywhere but pitcher and catcher. I loved the outfield. I loved to shag fly balls. When I was in high school, I was at first and in the outfield. I was a .350 hitter. I was good enough to dream of playing in college. There were a lot of scouts around. But they never looked at me. One of the pitchers I played with later went to prison. I was his lawyer. Total head case. Anyway, I tried to play in college. Was not good enough to play in college. I tried out. I played one year of juco (aka, junior college baseball) and sat the bench and for some reason thought I was too good for that, so I tried out at a D2 school (aka, an NCAA Division II school), and that's when my career came to an end. I gave up on baseball then, even as a fan. Until my son came along in the '90s, then I jumped in with both feet. I coached Little League for years. I coached him from 6 years old to the age of 15. Over the years I wanted to write a great kids baseball story and also an adult baseball story but so many of the stories have already been done, for kids and adults. So I wrote two football novels, instead. Then I got the idea for this, about a beanball that changes a lot of lives.
"Tony La Russa (former White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals manager, newly retired) is a friend. We spent hours talking about The Code, the Baseball Code. He told me that's the one thing he'll never miss. Unlike a lot of managers, he makes the decision to retaliate for a beanball. Some managers leave it up to players. That creates pressure on a team. Tony made that decision himself. When someone throws inside, from that moment on, he is wrestling with what to do. It's a fascinating game. You can have a perfectly civilized game, one person is hit, everything changes. Never got beaned myself. I was never worth hitting."
A book about a beanball, I said, that could be a legal thriller, it's not much of a stretch.
"Yeah, but you'd need dead bodies. You'd need lawyers."
But all baseball books are sad.
"Just about. You're right. The biographies are not always sad. But the fiction, almost always sad. Almost."
Grisham, Harvey and Turow ended up sitting together — two of the most successful mystery writers of all time, one acclaimed up-and-comer — because Grisham invited them, Grisham explained to me earlier. They know each other, though not especially closely: "In 1987, when 'Presumed Innocent' came out and I was struggling with my writing at first, it was a hugely motivating thing to watch what Scott went through, so successful right away. But my own first book, 'A Time to Kill,' didn't sell 5,000 copies, not right away. We met a couple of times at conferences and book expos and Scott came to Mississippi a few years back and we did a function for the Innocence Project (the New York-based legal clinic dedicated to exonerating prisoners it feels were wrongly accused). Sometimes we talk books. Most of the time, we talk baseball. He and Harvey have the same agent, too. And anyway, last summer when I was doing this book, Michael read the manuscript for me and pointed out several mistakes and I came here last August and we drove around Wrigleyville to get details. We're writers who get along with each other — and most writers don't get along."
Second inning in, Turow leaned over Harvey: "Did you get your hot dog, Mr. Grisham?"
Turow leaned across Harvey again. The guy who sang the National Anthem, he said, "that guy is a great story, one of the great Chicago stories." He meant Wayne Messmer, the longtime Blackhawks singer who had been shot in the throat in 1994 but eventually recovered his voice. He explained the story to Grisham.
"Wow. A great story," Grisham said. "A terrific story. Guy's a Chicago institution?"
"Chicago institution," Turow said.
The third inning stretched to the fourth.
They talked friends ("Nice guy." "Hell of a nice guy."), steroids in sports, the Justice Department allegations against Apple and several publishers (pointedly off the record). With the blare of the stadium speakers, they had to lean forward to say anything and strain to hear. Snippets popped out — "He died in penitentiary" (Grisham), "Candidly, I've known the president a long time and — " (Turow). Harvey stayed mostly quiet. Cubs filtered from the dugout, shot a glance toward them, then, blank-faced, turned to the field for practice swings.
Alfonso Soriano bounded from the dugout. "This guy," Turow said, "in the race to be the highest-paid player."
"Think he'll win that race?" Grisham said, laughing to himself, then stood and said he was getting beer.
"John, they'll bring it 'round," Turow said, calling after Grisham, though Grisham was gone. A few moments (and, indeed, two beer guys later), Grisham returned and snapped open a bag of peanuts, gently cracking each shell between his fingers and dropping the remains at his feet. The subject swung around to golf.
"You play much ball, John?" Turow asked.
"Just started, few years ago. Started playing at 53, though. It's an ugly game, let me tell you."
"I play a couple times a week," Turow said.
"Yeah," Turow said, "but you got land, right? A lot of land?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Put in a putting green. I got one, up at our house in Wisconsin."
"You go outside when you're done writing? Walk around?"
"Yeah, I do."
An usher appeared with a couple of Grisham books and passed them down the line. Grisham signed each one carefully then passed the books back down the line. A beer guy appeared and Grisham, Harvey and Turow ordered three beers, and then the beers came down the line, passing the books. "If you guys had better seats, you'd be sitting in the dugout," the beer guy said to Turow, passing one, two, three beers.
"Heh," Turow said.
"But then you guys'd be getting paid," the beer guy said, and picked up his beer and hiked up the steps.
Doubleday, 208 pages, $24.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun