Monday, April 08, 2019

Kepner's K in best tradition of books on baseball

In the acknowledgements to K A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner writes that he has been a fan of baseball since he was seven years old. 

Structured around the idea of various pitches — from the splitter to the knuckleball to the spitball — it’s little wonder then that K reads like fan mail.  Really, really excellent fan mail.

Kepner, national baseball writer for The New York Times, pays due diligence to the 10 pitches featured in K, tracing the history of each pitch and spotlighting its most skilled practitioners.  But where the book rises to excellence — like a Bumgarner fastball defying the laws of physics — is in the stories that enliven each chapter.

Stories of pitchers mastering a particular pitch thus salvaging a career that was on the rocks. Stories of pitchers who nonchalantly skirt the rules. Stories of batters baffled by the ball’s behavior. Stories of hijinks, on the field and off.

Some of the stories unfold over several pages, others are told in only a few sentences.

Anyone who shares Kepner’s love of the game will find passages to linger over. A number of players from my hometown team, the Kansas City Royals, are here, including George Brett, Dan Quisenberry, Kelvin Herrera and manager Ned Yost.

But my favorite story comes early in the book, in the chapter on fastballs.  Kepner recounts the pivotal moment from the 2014 World Series when Madison Bumgarner was in position for a Golden Pitch.   It’s a term used by the Society for Baseball Research for a pitch that could win or lose the championship for either team. 

“By definition, this spot arises only in Game 7 of the World Series, in the bottom of the ninth innning or later, with the visitors leading and at least one runner on base.”

In 2014, the Royals trailed the Giants in Game 7 by one run in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs. Bumgarner was on the mound. Royals’ lelftielder Alex Gordon was on a third after a sinking line drive was misplayed into a triple. Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez was at the plate.   

My wife and I were in the stands that night.   I never expected to attend a World Series (I ultimately made it to two), let alone be in the seats for an elusive seventh game. We watched as Bumgarner enticed Perez into a pop up, and secured the Series for the Giants.  

Kepner’s account is a fine accompaniment to my memories of that night.  Thanks to his reporting I know more about what went on behind the scenes, as Bumgarner and Giants’ catcher Buster Posey decided how to pitch to Perez.  It was going to be a fastball. Anyone familiar with Bumgarner knew that, but location, well, location was a whole different ball game. 

K is a delightful book, solidly in the tradition of the best baseball books. (I’m thinking of the two Rogers here, Angell and Kahn.) In its pages, Kepner demonstrates once again the truth of the adage — Baseball Writes.  

It reads too.   

A quick summary of my other three recent reads:

The pace of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells is slow for the modern reader, but it is worth a perusal simply to understand its significance to current science fiction books and film.  All those alien invasions of Earth started here.   (Incidentally, my favorite book in this sci fi sub-genre is Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  My favorite film would be The Day The Earth Stood Still.)

In normal circumstances I wouldn’t read either Red Dragon or The Dragon  Factory, but these books happened to fill a particular need.  They were free, and they were paperbacks. I was going on vacation and needed a couple of books I could read and discard.  

Both books also met my criteria for the perfect beach read — fast-paced thrillers that didn’t require a lot of concentration.  Red Dragon is about the hunt for a serial killer. It’s the basis for the move Manhunter, which I’d seen years back. I normally don’t like such subject matter, but needs must.  

The Dragon Factory is a thriller bordering on sci fi.  It’s about the hunt for a mad scientist bent on ethnic cleansing.  It’s full of ex-Nazis, secret government agencies, genetic monstrosities  and a hero — Joe Ledger — whose superpower is survival.  This is the second book in a six-book series.

Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig, William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O'Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe's Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking, Colum McCann
27. Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley

Books read -- March
28. Still Life, Louise Penny
29. Golden State, Ben H. Winters
30. Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman
31. The Border, Don Winslow
32. Careless Love, Peter Robinson
33. Dreyer's English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer
34. The Best Cook in the World, Rick Bragg
35. The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
36. Red Dragon, Thomas Harris

Books read -- April
37. The Dragon Factory, Jonathan Maberry
38. K, A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner

Currently  Reading --
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor

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