Musings: The Book On Pitching

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

THE BOOK ON PITCHING

Preacher Roe, a pitching wizard for the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the nineteen forties and

early fifties, wanted to get his driveway black topped. So when, shortly after he retired,

Sports Illustrated offered him $2,000 to reveal how he threw a spitball, something which

everyone in baseball knew he did but at which he was never caught, it was an offer he

couldn’t – or at least didn’t - refuse. Back in the fifties two grand was more than enough

to get the black topping done with a few bucks left over.

Here is the secret of how Preacher got away with throwing the spitter: while wiping his

brow, he would surreptitiously spit on the thumb of his pitching hand, then he’d hitch up

his pants and while doing so he’d wipe the saliva with his fingers and - Presto! - he was

good to go. If the umpire asked to see the ball, he would roll it in toward home plate,

destroying all incriminating evidence. In fact, he always rolled the ball into the umpire

whether it was loaded up or not, just to make opposing batters think it was. Pitching, after

all, is in large part psychological warfare.

That’s just one of the anecdotes contained in K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by

Tyler Kepner, the national baseball writer for the New York Times. Now, you’d think that

a book with ten chapters, each devoted to a type of pitch, i.e. The Fastball, The Curveball,

The Changeup, and, yes, The Spitball, among others, would be more than even the

wonkiest baseball afficionado would either need or want to know, but that’s not the case

at all. Kepner interviewed hundreds of past and present baseball people, mostly pitchers,

and their enthusiasm, the stories that they tell, and their love for the game, spills out of

every page and makes “K” one of the most entertaining – and, by the way, informative –

books on baseball that I have read in years.

Pitchers are anomalies. They strive for years to replicate exactly their delivery on every

pitch; they need to trust what a particular pitch will do, how it will break, where its

location will be. They must not tip off the batter as to whether the next pitch is a

curveball, a slider, or perhaps a cutter. At the same time they are constantly tinkering,

experimenting. “What if I grip the ball just a bit differently?” “What if I hold my fingers

just a little bit closer together? Or spread them apart?” They are constantly looking for an

edge, searching for that elusive something that will set them apart. Kepner deftly gets his

interviewees to open up about the secrets, and the mysteries, of their trade – and it makes

for wonderful reading.

Dennis Eckersley, for example, always wanted to develop a splitter to compliment his

devastating fastballs and sliders but he could not spread his fingers wide enough to throw

one comfortably. Even Kepner, it turned out, could spread his fingers wider that

Eckersley. The Eck even went so far as to have a cast made that spread them and he wore

it around in the off-season. He constantly worked on the pitch in the bullpen. But he was

a closer, called upon in the ninth inning, when the game was on the line and there was no

room for error, so his splitter never made it out of the bullpen.

Mariano Rivera, whose cutter led to a record shattering 652 saves, found his signature

pitch by accident one day in Detroit. He was playing catch with a teammate, and what he

intended to be a straight fastball began zinging to the catcher’s right at the very end. It

broke so late, in fact, that opposing hitters were unable to see the break. What looked like

a fastball, and had the spin of a fastball, suddenly was not one at all; batters had to guess

where it would end up, even when they knew it was coming. They’d head back to the

dugout in frustration and Mariano was headed on the road to Cooperstown.

Bob Stanley, who both started and relieved in his thirteen seasons with the Red Sox,

confessed to “cheating” in the pages of “K.” He would wipe the sweat off his brow and

apply it to the ball. There is no rule against wiping one’s brow and perspiration is not

saliva but Stanley said it made the ball act differently. He insisted, however, that he had

not doctored the wild pitch he threw just before inducing Mookie Wilson into hitting

what everyone thought was a harmless grounder to the late Bill Buckner in the 1986

World Series.

Joe Torre, the Hall of Fame manager who was an all-star catcher in his playing days, is

now MLB’s chief baseball officer. He’s in charge of enforcing the rules, yet he freely

admits that he called for illegal spitballs from Lew Burdette when they both played for

the Milwaukee Braves. Just because something is declared to be sinful doesn’t mean that

nobody does it anymore. Spitballs are not thrown as much as they used to be because

they are finesse pitches, and finesse is not in vogue these days. Velocity is the hot

commodity.

That’s why the two-seam fastball has fallen out of favor. It’s a sinker pitch, thrown at the

knees, and is very likely to run into one of those upper-cut swings that are all the rage.

The result, if you happen to be a pitcher, is not pretty. Four-seam fastballs on the other

hand, which can be thrown with more velocity than a two-seamer, are hard to hit with an

upper-cut swing when thrown high in the strike zone or even above it, so they are the in-

things these days. (I didn’t figure any of this this out for myself; I read it in Kepner’s

book.)

But it’s baseball. People will adjust to the current strategy. They always do. Perhaps

someday someone will come along who wins a lot of games by spitting surreptitiously

onto his thumb. Then we’ll be on to a whole new phase.

Musings: Phil Niekro And John Havlicek, Best Friends Forever.

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

      and New York Times Best Selling Author


PHIL NIEKRO AND JOHN HAVLICEK, BEST FRIENDS FOREVER.

We all have regrets for the mistakes we make as we hack our way through the jungle of life. Well, I do, anyway, and I suspect that you do, too. Some of those mistakes are bigger than others, and some, though they don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, gnaw away at us. I made such a mistake recently; it wasn’t something I did, it was something I didn’t do. And I’m really upset with myself for not doing it.

My transgression took place at the reception following John Havlicek’s memorial service.

One of the eulogists was Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame knuckleballer who was John’s best friend dating from early childhood. They lived across the street from each other in Lansing, Ohio, just over the state line from West Virginia. Lansing is one of those little townships that time seems to have forgotten; its population was about five hundred when John and Phil were growing up and is not much more than that today. Neither boy’s home had a television set or indoor plumbing, so life was simple; but Phil and John  had each other and were inseperable pals. They learned to fish in the nearby creek, and one can just imagine them lying in the cool grass on a summer’s day, gazing up at the clouds gradually changing shapes as they rolled silently by. They both loved sports, and as it turned out, excelled at them.

In high school in the neighboring town of Bridgeport – Lansing was much too tiny to have one of its own - they both played football, basketball, and baseball. John was an all-state quarterback but opted for basketball when it came time for college. While he was at Ohio State, football coach Woody Hayes often lamented that the Buckeyes had the best quarterback in the Big Ten but that he played basketball, not football. Phil, armed with the knuckleball his father had taught him to throw back in Lansing, went straight into professional baseball. From there their lives diverged, but their friendship never flagged.

John, after earning all-American honors at Ohio State and briefly flirting with pro-football (although he had never played a down in college) became a Boston Celtic, where he morphed from being the best sixth man in the league into one of the NBA’s greatest superstars. Phil, meanwhile, struggled to get noticed in the minor leagues, not making it up to the Milwaukee Braves until 1964, then spending three years shuttling back and forth to the minors before making the Braves for good in 1967. By then the Braves were in Atlanta and John had already won five NBA championships with the Celtics; he’d win eight of them before he was done. But Phil, like his pal, had learned the value of hard work and perseverance while growing up in Lansing. He had won only 31 games by the time he reached age thirty, but then he went on to become the winningest knuckleballer in baseball history, racking up 318 wins by the time he stopped pitching at the ripe old age of forty-eight.

Through it all they never lost contact with one another. Phil would call John wondering what it was like to be matched up against the likes of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor when all the chips were on the table, and John called to find out about facing the Big Red Machine of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, and George Foster. After finally retiring from baseball, Phil became a regular participant at John’s annual fishing tournament to benefit The Genesis Foundation. That’s where I came to know him and came to appreciate his wonderful, if somewhat ribald, sense of humor. I was always struck by the easy familiarity and obvious regard for the other that both had when they were together.

All that was in the background when Phil Niekro stepped to the lectern in Boston’s stately Trinity Church to say his final goodbye to the first, and best, friend he ever had. His eulogy was heartfelt and filled with emotion as he reminisced about their three quarters of a century together. It wasn’t replete with flowery phrases or even many three syllable words (except, of course, for the surname of his old pal), but it was filled with love, admiration, and emotion. Phil is a tough guy, but there were parts of it he had trouble getting through, but get through it he did; and he did his best friend proud.


His tribute really struck home with me, and I wanted to tell him so. I looked around for him at the reception, which was crowded with people, the great and, like me, not so great. I finally found him chatting with Jim Lonborg. Our eyes met for an instant, but, seeing that he was in the middle of a conversation with Jim, I held back, not wanting to interrupt them. I stood to the side, waiting for their conversation to abate, and while I was standing there, another acquaintance came by, and we chatted briefly about how the Havlicek-Niekro friendship was like a real-life Tom Sawyer-Huckleberry Finn story, except that Tom and Huck never became Hall of Fame legends in separate sports. John and Phil, of course, did.


After chatting with my acquaintance for no more that a minute or two, I turned back toward Phil. He was gone. He had melted into the crowd. I searched for him but to no avail. Normally, with his shock of white hair, he’d have been easy to spot, but there were a whole lot of guys there who, if they had any hair left at all, it was white. Besides, with all the old basketball players in the crowd it was hard to spot anyone of normal size.            


I should have spoken to him when our eyes met for that instant, but I missed my chance. I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Jim Lonborg wouldn’t have minded; we’re old friends. It’s not like I’ll have the opportunity again to tell Phil how much his eulogy meant to me. The common bond we had was John Havlicek and he’s not here anymore. I doubt that Phil and I will ever cross paths again.


I should have told him how much I admired what he’d said about his lifelong friend. When I had the opportunity to do so, I whiffed on it. Dammit. 

Musings: Old Friends And Baseball

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

OLD FRIENDS AND BASEBALL

I went to a Red Sox/Astros ballgame recently with Al Hunt, my pal of more than half a

century. Joining us was David Shribman, who recently retired as executive editor of the

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All three of us love baseball, so it was a great opportunity to

watch a meaningful game between two excellent teams and to just talk baseball for a few

hours.

Al and I don’t see nearly enough of each other these days. We have been friends since the

nineteen sixties (that’s a long time ago, boys and girls), when I was the press secretary for

candidate and then mayor of Boston Kevin White and Al was a young reporter in the

Boston Bureau of the Wall Street Journal. We shared an apartment on Tremont Street in

Boston where we spent an inordinate amount of time selecting coffee table books which

we thought might impress young ladies we hoped to lure up to the place. It was, alas, all

for naught. Too bad for those girls, we had a top-notch collection of coffee table books.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before the Journal moved Al to Washington where he

distinguished himself as a reporter, Washington bureau chief, and columnist. In 2005 he

became a columnist for Bloomberg News from which he retired at the end of last year.

He’s done a boatload of television through the years, and he’s covered and analyzed

everything from Watergate to Bill Clinton’s impeachment to the roller-coaster ride of the

Trump presidency. Oh, and along the way he married Judy Woodruff of PBS. Somehow

through it all he managed to find time to keep our friendship up to date and vibrant.

So there we were, in our seats at Fenway Park where, after a rain delay, the game began

and we set about the serious business of talkin’ baseball. David (no slouch himself at the

journalism game, he won a Pulitzer Prize while with the Boston Globe in 1995), is a

north shore native. He came of age as a Red Sox fan during the Impossible Dream season

of 1967, and he was, and still is, a Carl Yastrzemski devotee. We wondered how the great

Red Sox outfield of the seventies, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, and Dwight Evans, would match

up against the current triumvirate of Andrew Bennintendi, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and

Mookie Betts (consensus: Rice/Lynn/Evans on offense, Bennintendi/Bradley/Betts in the

field; Rice/Lynn/Evans overall; at least that’s my take, but stay tuned). We talked about

the fact that this seems to be an age of great third basemen (Nolan Arenado of the

Rockies, Alex Bregman with the Astros, Matt Chapman of Oakland, and how Rafael

Devers, with a little more consistency in the field, could move into that group (no one

mentioned Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., who appears to be moving up fast on the outside).

Then someone brought up that twenty years ago was an age of great shortstops, with

Derek Jeter, a lead-pipe cinch to be elected to the Hall of Fame next year when he

becomes eligible; Alex Rodriguez, who would have been a lead-pipe cinch had he not got

entangled with steroids then compounded his sin by trying to cover it up; and Nomar

Garciaparra, who might have been the best of them all until nagging injuries got the

better of him.

It was wonderful, three old guys, sitting together in the ballpark, talkin’ baseball on what

turned out to be, once the rain stopped, a perfect Sunday afternoon. No one even

mentioned Donald Trump, so that in itself made it a pretty good day.

Only one problem; none of us talked much about, or paid enough attention to, the game

that was right in front of us, which was a really good one. The Red Sox broke on top

when they scored a run in the first, but Houston came right back to tie it in the second. In

the third Carlos Correa homered to center to put the Astros up by two. Then in the fifth

Michael Chavis hit one of his patented long flies (it should be landing any minute now),

and Bogaerts singled Mookie home to tie it up again. The three of us were all aware of

what was was happening on the field but, to be honest, at least in my case, anyhow, we

were paying more attention to ourselves and to our chatter than to the game.

By the end of the fifth inning it was getting late because of the rain delay and Al and

David had to leave to get ready for a black tie dinner at the Kennedy Library, so I was left

alone - well, not really alone if you count the other 36,000 people in the ballpark. And I

had the ballgame to keep me company. I paid strict attention as the Sox wriggled out of a

bases loaded jam in the sixth and as Bogaerts hit a ringing double to score Betts with the

eventual game-winner in the seventh. Chris Sale, although he had trouble with his

command, struck out 10 over 5.2 innings, and the bullpen held the Astros hitless to close

out the game. The other guys missed the last four innings as well as – like I did - most of

the first five. But we’d all had a great day.

When it was over, I headed home, a happy camper. The Red Sox had beaten the fearsome

Astros to avoid a sweep, and I had spent quality time with great friends. One of those

friends is the game of baseball. I have never felt alone or lonely when there is a ballgame

going on. Baseball has been a boon companion of mine for a long, long time. I’ve been

frustrated by it plenty of times, and I’ve even occasionally been angry - but never lonely.

As for my old friend Al Hunt, he’s gone back to Washington where he has season tickets

for the Nationals’ games, so I know that he’s frustrated.