Steven V. Roberts, who teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University, has been a baseball fan since 1949.
Tyler Kepner quotes two baseball historians as saying that Sandy Koufax possessed the best curveball ever. Reading that sentence, I recalled a story told by Jane Leavy, a former sportswriter for The Washington Post who wrote a wonderful biography of Koufax, winner of 165 games for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers between 1955 and 1966.
Leavy invited Koufax to her son’s bar mitzvah in Washington, and she showed me a photo of the legendary left-hander demonstrating how to throw a curve to a gaggle of 13-year-old boys. No, one of the youngsters protested, that’s not how you do it, my coach showed me a different way. Koufax gently corrected the dissenter but still the lad persisted. Finally the Hall of Famer lost patience and growled, “Look, kid, this is how you throw a goddamn curveball!”
If those neophytes didn’t heed Koufax’s counsel, many others have. In his engaging book “K: A History of Baseball in 10 Pitches,” Kepner describes a dinner in the winter of 2014, when Koufax was seated next to Max Scherzer, the ace right-hander of the Washington Nationals. They talked pitching all evening and “for Scherzer, it was a master class on the curveball,” writes the author, who covers baseball for the New York Times.
“My God, could you imagine a better person in life to ever talk to about throwing a curveball?” Scherzer told Kepner. “I literally sat there on my iPhone just writing down notes. ‘How are you doing this, what do you do on that?’ There’s definitely some principles I still think about from that conversation.”
That scene embodies a basic theme from Kepner’s book. Pitching is best taught through the ancient system of apprenticeship. Wisdom is passed down from master to initiate, coach to player, father to son. (And let’s not forget Mike Montgomery, who won a World Series with the Chicago Cubs — he perfected his curveball by throwing to his mother, a former college softball player.)
This teacher/student relationship imparts more than technique. It conveys the most critical quality a pitcher (or any athlete, for that matter) really needs: self-confidence. Fred Martin, a coach for the Cubs, taught Bruce Sutter how to throw a split-finger fastball and something else as well. “With Fred’s personality, he knew what to say around me to get me relaxed,” says Sutter, a relief pitcher with 300 career saves. “He knew hollering at me is not gonna work. Bull-------- me is not going to work. You had to tell me something that I believe that’d work. He had that knack.”
Kepner’s book lacks a compelling narrative and well-developed characters. His descriptions of how to throw various pitches can be hard to visualize; detailed illustrations would have helped. Accordingly, this volume will appeal more to hardcore fans than to casual readers, but for us baseball believers, there are plenty of nourishing nuggets here, starting with the essential nature of the pitching profession.
It’s different from any position on the diamond, from any position in any sport except perhaps for a football quarterback. “The pitcher is the planner, the initiator of action,” Kepner writes. Jamie Moyer, who pitched for 25 seasons, adds: “It’s about being in control — who’s in control of the game?” That’s why mindsets are as important as muscles. And why it often takes even the best big leaguers many years to mature. Koufax won only 36 games during his first six years in the majors, from age 19 through 24; over the next six, he won 129 games (and then retired with a sore arm).
Mike Mussina, who was recently elected to the Hall of Fame, explained what every pitcher must consider before every pitch: “Who’s hitting? Is he hot or cold? Where are the base runners? What’s the situation? Where are we in the game? Are we on the road? Are we at home? Is it nighttime? Is it daytime? What has he done the other two at-bats? Let’s say it’s the seventh inning. Where’s he at in the box? How’d he look taking that pitch, or how’d he look fouling that pitch off? There’s all these things going on in your head.”
Sure, physical attributes matter. Carl Hubbell, a nine-time All Star, always said he could throw a screwball because his left arm “hangs from my shoulder strangely.” Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox had “ridiculously long” fingers, according to his teammate Curt Schilling. “That’s one of the reasons why he had such a good change-up. Bigger fingers allow you more control over the baseball.”
But pure athleticism is not enough. The essence of great pitching is deceit. Every successful practitioner is “part magician.” The key to success is not bludgeoning hitters, it’s bamboozling them. Orel Hershiser, who played for 18 years before becoming a TV commentator, quotes an adage from Hall of Famer Greg Maddux: “Make strikes look like balls and make balls look like strikes.” He adds: “That’s pitching.”
Not so much lately however. Teams are stocking their rosters with power arms that can throw 100 miles per hour, and they want them to go full speed in very short bursts — like hockey players on a shift. “These guys know only one thing, because organizations are telling them one thing: give me everything you have and we’ll take care of the rest,” says John Smoltz, Maddux’s teammate on the Atlanta Braves and now a broadcaster. “It is not a healthy trend,” Kepner writes. It leads to more pitching changes, more strikeouts, longer games and more fan discontent. (Total attendance at big league ballparks dropped by 3 million last season.)
In response, baseball recently announced that it would experiment with changes at the minor league level this season to speed up the action: requiring each pitcher to face at least three batters, for example, and moving the mound back two feet. Good ideas. Baseball needs some freshening up, but the essence of the game has remained the same since the major leagues formed in the late 19th century. The magician on the mound is in control. And he passes on the secrets of his sect, expert to acolyte, season after season.
By Tyler Kepner
Doubleday. 302 pp. $28.95