“K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches”
The publishing info:
Doubleday, $28.95, 320 pages, released April 2
The review in 90 feet or less
Splitter, sinker, slider and screwball.
And, of course, the spitter.
Just spit balling here, but all but the last remain legal tender, correct?
So what else does one need to know about how to strike out against the world with this arsenal?
Kepner, the pitch-perfect New York Times writer who once covered the Angels for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, has more than just anecdotal information about how each of these came into being, and Google-fied bios about who made millions off it with Hall of Fame careers.
“The pitches are the DNA of baseball,” he writes, “the fundamental coding of the game … the pitcher controls everything … (he) is part boxer and part magician; if he’s not punching you in the face he’s swiping a quarter from behind your ear.”
A book with a large “K” prescribing to clarify how each pitch came into being can’t ignore names such as Koufax or Kershaw, correct?
Cutting through the clutter, Clayton Kershaw’s slider comes into focus right away – or is it really a curveball? — with commentary from his former Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis: “The curveball’s so sexy, it’s such a great pitch. Broadcasters can recognize it and they really spice it up and describe it well. The whole stadium oohs and aahs. .. It’s a slow, painful death.”
Kershaw’s slider is “alluring in its simplicity,” writes Kepner, “comfortable and familiar but a knockout at the end.” It also looks so much like a fastball and you can get hitters to chase it. It came about, Kershaw said, because after the success of his fastball, “you adapt to survive and that’s basically what I was doing.”
Sandy Koufax may have had his blazing fastball in the ‘60s, but really was the curveball became his deadly out-pitch, and why he’s focused on in the curveball chapter. Astute explanation by Don Sutton that Koufax threw the curve like a fastball, “where you pull down on the back of the ball,” but with the curve, “you’re doing the same thing but you’re pulling down hard on the front of the ball.”
And there the elbow takes a beating. Koufax didn’t perfect it until his sixth season when he was on the brink of getting sent away.
Jim Palmer talks about facing Koufax in the 1966 World Series – not pitch-for-pitch off the mound, but in the batter’s box.
“I go up there and Koufax throws me the first high fastball .. shoooo,” says Palmer. “Then he throws me the curveball and it looks the same – the same! – and John Roseboro catches it on the ground. And I’m going, this is Sandy Koufax.”
That was actually a reference to the last game Koufax ever pitched in a Major League game
Sometimes, pitchers — or broken-down infielders and outfielders — may adapt by trying a knuckleball. With more position players called into games to eat up an inning, it’s surprising more haven’t learned it.
That’s where another Dodgers hurdler, Charlie Hough, gets reintroduced for the fame that came with his development of a pitch that some can write entire books (and documentary films) about.
“If a robot could pitch, it would throw like a knuckleballer, like one mechanical piece instead of a flexible acrobat stressing multiple leverage points to impact spin,” Kepner writes.
A discussion turns to Orel Hershiser about his sinker. He wanted to develop a expertise in a pitch that not just induced contact (since he wasn’t a strike-out pitcher) but primarily led to weak contact from the hitter.
“Then it’s also about pitch count and being able to complete games and get deep into games. So what you’re looking for is early, weak contact, and the best way to get that is movement. For me, it was about bat stimulus. I’ve got to give him something visual that he likes, and then I’ve got to make it move.”
Bat stimulus? Something so profound can also sound profane.
Ah, and let’s not overlook the comedy of the screwball — taught to Fernando Valenzuela by local L.A. talent Bobby Castillo, which led to Valenzuela’s 1981 Rookie of the Year and Cy Young season and a Dodgers World title.
The spitter — be assured, another Dodger factors in. Kemper turned the story about Preacher Roe into a New York Times Sunday column recently.
The stories can, and do, continue as if you’re reading the transcripts to a masterful TED talk on the subject.
How it goes down in the scorebook
Is it too obvious?
For a book in anyone’s 2019 Top 10 list, we’ll go with the backwards K, since many were caught looking at the book cover endorsements on the back from Bob Costas (“insightful and entertaining”), Joe Buck (“you’ll gain a whole new understanding of the game”) and Orel Hershiser (“(he) captured the essence of the craft with fascinating stories and insight”).
For our purposes, it’s a must read for broadcasters who lazily resort to just saying “fastball” or “off-speed” because they have no clue.
If you need any help, see this T-shirt available at the S. Preston Art + Design gallery in Anaheim: