- - Monday, April 29, 2019

K: A HISTORY OF BASEBALL IN TEN PITCHES

By Tyler Kepner

Doubleday, $28.95, 302 pages

Recently, on a perfect April Saturday in Chicago, one of my three perfect daughters and I went to see the Cubs play the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field, meticulously refurbished by the new owners, the Ricketts family. There was modernization, wherever necessary, but never obtrusive. The buildings and facilities had been scrubbed — even the uber-awful restrooms — from top to bottom, the seats were a deep clean green and comfortable, the grass was bright ballpark green and the whole place sparkled.

The hot dogs were delicious, as only ballpark hot dogs can be; and although this wasn’t one of the Cubs’ better games, the capacity crowd seemed very happy to be there — people of all ages, races, sexes — a cross section of real Americans enjoying an authentic American sport together. No meaningless political blather, no ideological sloganeering, no appeals to our baser instincts. Just baseball.



At about the same time, this book, “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” arrived — an exceptionally well written treatment of a significant part of American social history from the 19th century to today. Again, no politics — just baseball and its history, told by Tyler Kepner, the national baseball writer for The New York Times, through the development of its 10 basic pitches: slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball and cutter.

To tell his story, Mr. Kepner interviewed hundreds of baseball greats and near greats, beginning with his boyhood hero, Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. (Mr. Kepner grew up a Phillies fan, thereby undercutting any charges of Yankee-centrism.) Mr. Carlton, who was known for never talking to the media, talked easily to him. (It probably didn’t hurt that Mr. Kepner told him that growing up he’d always wanted to be Steve Carlton.)

Among the topics discussed was the slider, “the pitch [Carlton] threw better than anyone else,” explaining to the author just how to grip and release the ball. Mr. Carlton does the same with “the four-seam fastball, thrown with the index and middle fingers separated slightly across the widest gap between the seams.”

Former Toronto Blue Jay’s ace Ray Halladay, who threw the first no-hitter the author had ever seen, did the same for the cutter, a pitch he was taught by the Yankees’ Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera, rated by his peers as the greatest cutter pitcher ever. When Mr. Halladay beat the Yankees three times in 2008, and “when Rivera’s teammates learned of his generosity to a rival, they fined him in kangaroo court.”

Vivid images run through the book. Curt Schilling is “Picasso with a machine gun.” There’s a description of strikeout artist Randy Johnson’s intimidating physical presence — “the pterodactyl wingspan, the low-three-quarters delivery, the mullet and the mustache and the scowl. Add in a focused rage, and his fastball/slider combination was all but impossible to solve.”

In all, Mr. Kepner interviewed 22 Hall of Fame pitchers, as well as outstanding pitchers who didn’t quite make it, catchers, coaches, umpires and hitters, gathering as much information as possible on the pitches, including the grips, the motions, the deliveries, and of course the anecdotes. The interviews themselves are worth the price of admission, as are the comments and observations of players from all periods on the practices of the day.

There’s the recurring issue about throwing intentionally at a hitter, for instance. Mr. Kepner quotes Bob Feller, the great Cleveland Indians fastball ace, called the game’s greatest pitcher by his contemporary Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter. In his memoir, Feller wrote: “‘If a manager had ordered me to stick a ball in a batter’s ear, I would have told him to stick it in his own ear.’”

Summing it up, Mr. Kepner quotes Tug McGraw, who pitched for the Mets and the Phillies, specializing in the screwball: “‘You know, if somebody called me at four in the morning and said, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play some catch. I’d do it I love this little thing.’”

As does Mr. Kepner: “I’ve seen a lot of baseball, and I’m proud to say I’m not jaded. Neither are the hundreds of folks who gave me their time and insights for this book. We all love this little thing, this miracle: baseball.”

Summer is nearly here, and baseball will be with us until October. So let’s minimize the political chatter, study the box scores and read the sports pages, where journalists like Tyler Kepner still know how to write.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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