Friday, April 15, 2011

"The Pitch"

I just finished reading another enjoyable baseball novel called "The Pitch." It's written by Hank Owens, and it chronicles the life of a 40-something year old that masters the knuckleball. It's really a wonderful novel about the minor leagues, about wish fulfillment, about getting that one chance in life to live out your dreams. I recommend it to anyone that loves baseball. You can get it here at amazon, or here directly from his publisher Pocol Press.
(As an author myself, let me just tell you that the publisher makes a lot more if you buy it directly from them--Amazon really rips off publishers.)

I got a chance to chat with the author about the book yesterday...

Rick: Your novel takes place in Keokuk, Iowa (mostly), home to the minor league Keokuk Westerns. I know there really isn't a minor league team with that name but I didn't realize until I researched for this interview that there was one in the 19th century. Is that the inspiration for your team's name?

Hank: Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in the history of old minor leagues. We’re used to A through Triple-A, but there used to be leagues down to C and D. Keokuk was one of those. Iowa today has a handful of semi-pro teams that play in small towns, and it seemed like the right place to start. And Keokuk is a great minor league town name.

Rick: For me, personally, as a Cubs history buff, I loved the names of the characters. For instance, the narrator, Orval Sheckard, is a combination of Orval Overall and Jimmy Sheckard from the 1908 Cubs. There are all sorts of examples like that in the book, and I'm certain it's no coincidence. Did you pick those names to pay tribute to the Cubs, or because you just liked the sounds of their names?

Hank: I should have known you’d figure that out! Actually you’re half right. The players’ names are borrowed in part from that year’s Cubs roster, but there’s another part to the roster names, too. Maybe I’ll keep that one under my hat for the moment. There’s something about old baseball names that seems completely timeless, and when I was writing the book I could never quite pin down exactly what decade we were in. The names all seemed like they could be minor league players from any era, which I thought made sense. It’s too bad parents don’t name their kids “Orval” anymore, isn’t it?

Rick: The minor league atmosphere in "The Pitch" really struck me as authentic. How much research did you have to do?

Hank: If by “research” you mean sitting with a beer in a minor league park, then plenty. I live near Des Moines, so every summer has a few I-Cubs games in it. I think what’s great about the minors—especially the lower divisions—is how close you are to the game. You can hear the swearing, you get a real sense for how fast the pitches are, etc. And in A-ball, you’re usually sitting with the scouts and the players’ families, which makes things more interesting. There were a handful of minor league stadiums that I used to set the stage for the Westerns. All of them were old, crumbling, but obviously much loved, and one in particular was in a notoriously buggy swamp. And all of them smelled like stale beer.

Rick: In the movie "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman's character is advised to go into plastics. After reading your novel, I'm guessing you'd disagree with that advice.

Hank: Ha! Yeah, I guess I’d advise some other field. Or at least don’t take that advice literally.

Rick: "The Pitch" provides wish fulfillment for all of the middle aged former high school baseball players out there. Did you see that way while you were writing it?

Hank: Totally. This is the classic middle-age Faustian bargain. If you could sell your soul for an unhittable pitch, would you do it, and what would that look like? Rube Tyler doesn’t sell his soul, of course, and to me it was important that his version of that was much less abstract—no devil at the crossroads, just something very real and concrete that he looked at every day. There’s no doubt that any of us would want the ride Tyler gets—even just the first couple of games in A-ball would be enough, right? And I sort of think that this is how it would play out, from a late night tryout in an abandoned parking lot to a few weeks of pretty grinding, unglamorous work, hoping someone up the ladder takes you seriously. What you’d trade for that, though, is the real question.

Rick: Finally, the entire novel really is an homage to the knuckleball. (That's "The Pitch" the title refers to.) Do you think this current crop of knucklers will be the last, or will that pitch live on after they retire?

Hank: No other sport has a knuckleball. It’s almost like cheating, but it’s cheating using physics, and I’ve always been completely fascinated by that. There’s no special technique in, say, football that would let someone in their 40s play professionally. But in baseball, if you can figure out how to throw a ball without any spin, you’ve got at least a modest career, because even if you’re not great, the pitch has all these knock-on effects. A knuckler can throw forever, since he doesn’t have to throw it hard, so if he’s even moderately effective the bullpen can get a day’s rest. And it does apparently screw up hitters—batting averages the day after facing a knuckleball are apparently a tick or two lower since hitters’ timing has been so wildly thrown off. Of course when it’s not on, it’s hard to watch, but as long as it’s a ticket for 40-year old players to stay on, aging pitchers will keep toying with it and they’ll keep making rosters.

I think most Cubs fans this year would be really happy with a miraculous knuckleball or two…