June 15, 2019

Building a Book on Baseball, With 10 Pitches and 300 Interviews

Building a Book on Baseball, With 10 Pitches and 300 Interviews

In all, I interviewed 22 Hall of Fame pitchers, plus many standouts who made a huge impact in the game but do not have a plaque in Cooperstown: guys like Carl Erskine, Roger Craig, Elroy Face, Wilbur Wood, J. R. Richard, Kent Tekulve, Ron Guidry, Dave Duncan, Mario Soto, Brad Lidge and many more.

In “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” Tyler Kepner, The Times’s national baseball writer, devotes a chapter apiece to the fastball, the curveball, the sinker, the slider, the cutter, the changeup, the splitter, the screwball, the knuckleball and the spitball.

I also tracked down pitchers whose feats I witnessed in my formative days as a fan near Philadelphia: the Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, my first baseball hero; Steve Rogers, the longtime Expo who beat Carlton in the first game I ever saw, in 1981; and Scott McGregor, who clinched the 1983 World Series for the Orioles as I watched, forlornly, from the front row at old Veterans Stadium.

Carlton was famous for never talking to the news media, but he was delightful in our 40-minute chat. He greeted my call with a playful brushback pitch: “So you’re writing a book — don’t you know people don’t read anymore?” But I hung in there and learned all about the pitch that might have been the best slider in the history of the game.

Rogers, whom I found at an All-Star Game in Cincinnati, was a riot; he shared the advice of an early pitching coach, Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish — Cal, for short — who told young pitchers, “All right, son, just get out in front and get whippy!” Quite a contrast to today’s coaches, who calculate every revolution of the ball with precise technological backing.

McGregor, whose name I cursed as a vanquished 8-year-old Phillies fan, was also a treat to interview, reflecting not just on his moment of glory but also on his final day in the majors, in 1988, when he knew he was finished. The Twins were lashing his lifeless pitches, and the Orioles’ shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr., asked McGregor on the mound if he was still throwing his changeup.

“They’re all the same speed anymore,” McGregor told Ripken. “Just back up a little bit. You might be a little safer.”

You’ll find that story on Page 207. I like to pick up the book and flip to a random page like that, to remember the moments of discovery behind every paragraph. For me, it’s like roaming the hallways of the house I finally built, every insight a support beam holding it up.

I hope you’ll drop by and enjoy your stay.

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