Doubleday, 320 pages, $28.95, publishes Tuesday, April 2
Baseball is a slow-moving game interspersed with quick action. Similarly, Tyler Kepner, the author of K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, moves from unhurried exploration of strike-zone strategies to spirited insights about pitching techniques. Humans striving for excellence is the central point of both the game and this book, and it emphasizes that we should not look away from either, because anything may happen. Cutters, sliders, screwballs, splitters: It’s hard to know when the author’s small details about pitching choices may lead to a revelation about baseball in general. Almost every page of K provides a compelling fact or insight about well-known players, the game in general, or both.
Learn about the distinction of Sandy Koufax’s 12-6 downward breaking curveball. Or why Roy Halladay carried a particular baseball with him so he could understand the cutter, a fastball that breaks in slightly and is a few miles per hour slower than a fastball. Or how J.R. Richard’s walk along U.S. Route 167 led to what a Hall of Fame executive called the best slider (similar to a cutter but slower) ever. Or the reason the unpredictable knuckleball is akin to “grabbing the wing of a butterfly.” And there are many wonderful childhood stories — like, say, Mike Montgomery’s mom breezily playing catch with him and how that led him to a historic save in a World Series game.
The detailed, fondly told stories and explanations that New York Times baseball writer Kepner relates are reminders of why most of the best sports stories seem to be about baseball. The game is thoroughly embedded in American culture. You’ve heard about Civil War soldiers playing a version of the game to pass time, or writer Roger Kahn’s sentimental acount of the Brooklyn Dodgers, or Bill James and Billy Beane and the statistics of “moneyball.” Or even, as Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks ensured few would forget, that there is no crying in baseball.
Kepner makes clear from the get-go what he sees as the entire impetus of the game. “The pitcher is the planner, the initiator of action. The hitter can only react.” This book can be read from cover to cover, in no particular chapter order, or opened to a page. The narrative isn’t a line drive; rather, it starts as a pop-up but becomes a home run.
There are many discussions with players who rivetingly describe their reactions to and philosophies about certain pitches. Somehow, knowing about the cutter and its relation to Matt Franco’s only World Series at-bat, or how Orel Hershiser and Ferguson Jenkins made the most of the strings technique of practice-throwing, or the story of Joe Coleman’s forkball (yes, forkball — not quite a knuckleball and not quite a splitter) helps the world at large make sense.
The author manages to connect the way pitchers’ life experiences lead to technical alterations in hand positions, and in turn how those seemingly minor changes become crucial to the way they throw. For example, Kepner’s explanation of how Carl Hubbell came to deform his arm through almost crazed practice in throwing the screwball (“it looks as if he put it on in the dark” is how one observer described his arm) morphs into a touching insight about Hubbell’s fundamental character.
No other sport is played so often — 162 games per year played by each of 30 teams — and Kepner makes the most of all that material. He knows the mechanics and finds the poetry in baseball, and whether readers love, like, or tolerate the game, this book reveals more than just chatter about pitches. For lifelong fans, baseball has a depth that moves well beyond strategic particulars. K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches provides a treasure trove of stories, examples, and analyses for those who seek to understand baseball’s sublimity, but it is especially rich for those who are already believers.