We had 60 degrees Wednesday, a whiteout Thursday, frozen rain Sunday. But some of us take heart from the first robins of spring – pitchers and catchers sighted down south.
Then there are advance copies of baseball books, just being distributed to lucky media types like me.
My first CARE package was a literate and knowing little gem, “Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception,” by Terry McDermott, from Pantheon Books, which will be on the shelves in May but has already rejuvenated me.
McDermott, a writer on other serious subjects like terrorism, is also a baseball buff, stemming from childhood in Cascade, Iowa. He describes his first big-league game – a Yankee doubleheader at Comiskey Park, June 28, 1959, on a road trip that reminds me of a boy’s rambunctious bus pub crawl with Welsh elders in the classic Dylan Thomas short story “The Outing.”
Once a year, McDermott writes, the men of Cascade “would charter a Burlington Line train – who knew you could even do this? -- out of East Dubuque, Illinois. They’d fill the train with Knights of Columbus, cold ham sandwiches, and Falstaff beer – or maybe Schlitz in a good year – and head east. My father, known to everyone as Mac took me along as an early birthday gift.”
McDermott adds: “It was my first game, my first train, my first taxi, my first bus, my first time seeing grown men pass out drunk.” Also, his first time seeing and hearing black Americans on the South Side of Chicago.
The hold of baseball -- a rural game played in urban settings -- reminds me of the great book, "The Southpaw," by Mark Harris I wrote about it for opening day in 2005: The young lefty from upstate New York goes to his first game in the big city where he will one day pitch.
In his first pilgrimage to another great baseball town, McDermott witnessed Yogi Berra catching both ends of a doubleheader loss. The great source Retrosheet does not allude to it, but McDermott is sure he saw a foul pop drop untouched near Berra just before an Al Smith homer, 58 years ago. Fans remember stuff like that.
Cascade is a small town, 15 minutes from where Kevin Costner wandered in the corn fields in “Field of Dreams,” and it fielded a weekend team which won 64 of 65 games one season. The star pitcher was obscurely known as Yipe; every male in Cascade had a nickname.
McDermott could have written only about the enduring pull of baseball in a small town (which still has a team) –– and that would have been fine, in fact, beautiful. But the book does much more, economically – the dissection of a perfect game by King Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 15, 2012 – sunny day game after a night game, McDermott duly notes.
He has taken four full seasons to reconstruct that game, talking shop with the scattered principals, lifers who remember every pitch. He uses each inning to illustrate one of nine different pitches in baseball’s arsenal. Some of the old masters include Walter Johnson, Three-Finger Brown, Candy Cummings, said to be the inventor of the curveball, and Cascade's own Urban (Red) Faber, Hall of Famer and next-to-last (legal) practitioner of the spitball.
And more: McDermott was a ballboy one night in Cascade when Satchel Paige 56 going on 1,000, pitched a few innings. Satchel winked and asked the boy to please not clean the dirt off the balls being rotated back into the game. Let’s have some fun, Paige suggested.
This book taught me some things: hitters who start 0-1 in the count bat .230 on that at-bat but hitters who start 1-0 bat .275. Thirteen pitchers have had their perfect game disrupted with two outs in the ninth. And, in this affluent era when barely-used balls are tossed to the fans, the average game consumes 120 balls.
McDermott provides touching digressions about the numerous shoes in his daughter’s closet, and the time his headstrong dad cooked meat on the lid of a garbage can. (It was for the dog, he quickly adds.) He has a great ear for the verbal excursions and minutiae and great truths that baseball produces, more than any other sport.
“Off Speed” will be out soon enough, but my privileged early peek assures me: baseball lives.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.