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.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.