Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book Review: Living on the Black

Pitchers are an interesting breed, and pitching itself has been dissected in thousands of books. So I was a bit skeptical when I picked up John Feinstein's newest, Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember. I wasn't sure what, if anything, new he could tell me, what insights he would discover. But I'm glad I did pick it up!

Feinstein follows two pitchers over the course of the 2007 season: Tom Glavine of the New York Mets and Mike Mussina of the New York Yankees. Both are playing under the glare of the New York press. The Yankees are, of course, expected to be in the post season, and the Mets are struggling to fulfill their promise. Feinstein asked each man for full access all season, access both to him and to his teammates and family. He took full advantage, and the result is a fascinating examination of the men themselves, the mindset of the Major League pitcher, and a portrait of the life of a pitcher. The ups and downs of losses and victories, games that look like victories but are lost by the bullpen, games where nothing seems to go right, games where the pitcher feels great but can't hit the strike zone. Both men faced injuries during the season, and both were working towards milestone career victories (Glavine #300, Mussina #250).

I love some of the insider insights Feinstein offers. For example, just what does a pitching coach say to a pitcher when he comes out to the mound? Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson has six reasons: (pg. 215-16)
  • To counsel the pitcher on something he might be doing wrong...
  • To give the pitcher a rest...
  • To ask the pitcher if he still thinks he can get people out or if he's tired...
  • To stall so the bullpen can get ready...
  • To simply stand on the mound and wait for the umpire to come out to break up the meeting so Peterson can tell him he's doing a lousy job of calling balls and strikes...
  • To discuss specific strategy on the next hitter.

Cool stuff, eh? He's also got some great inside info on what pitchers really think about umpires and vice versa. And of course it's written Feinstein's wonderful style - witty, intelligent, interesting.

I must admit to starting the book as a hater of both men. Glavine - well, we can't forgive him for abandoning Atlanta. And Mussina - come on, he's a Yankee! By the book's end, I liked Glavine. He clearly agonized over leaving Atlanta, and clearly was pining to return. He got his wish - he signed with Atlanta in the off-season and was reunited with his best friend, John Smoltz. It appears, however, that his career might be over. He was examined by Dr James Andrews today, and his arm tendon is shot. If he chooses surgery, it will mean a 4-5 month rehab. At 42, does he want to do that? We'll see.

As for "Moose," I've always considered him to be aloof, clearly thinking his Stanford education makes him better than everyone else. By the time I'd finished the book, my opinion hadn't changed much! Mussina is clearly very intelligent, with a good sense of his place in the game. His comments on pitching were thoughtful, cogent. But he's still a cold fish.

Part of Feinstein's closing (pg 507):
If 2008 is their last season as pitchers, each can walk away from the game - as difficult as that will be - knowing that he got everything he could possibly get from the talent he was given. Neither ever came up short on effort.
If you want to better understand the game, a better understand of that interesting breed of player known as the Starting Pitcher, pick up this book - you'll eat up every word, like I did!

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