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…

Did the Cubs throw the 1918 World Series?

Comcast Sportsnet opens this subject again, this time on their website, and of course, in the White Sox column by Chuck Garfien. (Photo: The 1918 Cubs rotation--Lefty Tyler, Hippo Vaughn, Shufflin' Phil Douglas, and Claude Hendrix)

An entire book has been written on the subject, an excellent one called "Original Curse" by Sean Deveney. I've read that book cover to cover, and Garfien's column hits the highlights.

In addition to the things in the CSN column, there are a few things to consider. One, the players didn't even know if baseball was going to return at all in 1919. World War I was still going on, and many players were scheduled to report for duty as soon as the season ended. Plus, with the war going on, fans had lost interest in baseball. Attendance was WAY down. In addition, the player shares were cut to a fraction of what they were the previous years, and at one point during the series, both teams even briefly went on strike. (JFK's grandpa, the mayor of Boston, ended the strike by threatening to unleash the crowd on the players). The motivation was definitely there to throw the series.

Then there's the fact that two of the pitchers pictured above actually were accused of gambling later in their careers by Judge Landis (Douglas and Hendrix). The investigation of Hendrix' alleged thrown game, in fact, led to the investigation of the 1919 Sox. And, Douglas wrote a letter offering to get injured in exchange for some cash, and was banned for life. (He was with the Giants by then)

But honestly, the quotes from Eddie Cicotte that are posted by CSN (and featured in the book), and the speculation by sportswriters and a White Sox employee, simply aren't evidence. Neither is the future behavior of those two Cubs pitchers. There is zero evidence they did anything in 1918. No one ever admitted it. No one suddenly started spending money he previously didn't have. No one was ever formally accused. It's just a guess.

I'm not saying it didn't happen. It might have. But until someone has some proof other than a few people speculating or "hearing things," it's not fair to the 1918 Cubs. They aren't around to defend themselves.

I know it's not fashionable to say so, but let me suggest it anyway. Maybe Babe Ruth and his Red Sox were just better.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fans in Four Cities Miss Departed Broadcast Legends

This is a very nice piece in USA Today about baseball announcers (including Ron Santo) that have passed away in the last year or two.

I can't speak for those other three cities, but I think it captures the Ron Santo part of the story pretty well.

Dodgers Fans

The recent story in the news about the Dodgers fans that severely beat up a Giants fan in the parking lot of Dodgers Stadium has been sounding familiar to me all week, and I couldn't place why until last night.

It hit me when I heard a Chicago song on the radio. I remembered that the same thing happened at Dodgers Stadium to Peter Cetera from the band Chicago. It happened in 1969, but it did happen at Dodgers Stadium. I found a quote from Cetera about that incident...

"Four marines didn't like a long-haired rock 'n' roller in a baseball park," Cetera recounts, "and of course I was a Cub fan, and I was in Dodger Stadium, and that didn't do so well. I got in a fight and got a broken jaw in three places, and I was in intensive care for a couple of days. The only funny thing I can think about the whole incident," he says, "is that, with my jaw wired together, I actually went on the road, and I was actually singing through my clenched jaw, which, to this day, is still the way I sing."