Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember.
On November 21, 2008, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina retired after eighteen seasons in Major League Baseball, finishing with a record of 270 wins and 153 losses and an ERA of 3.68, with 2,813 strikeouts. In his final game, at the age of thirty-nine, the right-hander won number 20 for the season, the first time he reached this mark in his career; he was able "to go out on my own terms," as he said in the press conference to announce his retirement. Although he never won a Cy Young Award and his teams never won a World Series, he was selected to be an All-Star five times and won seven Gold Glove awards, including 2008; it was "the end of a real special career, a Hall of Fame-type career," according to the Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
Lefty Tom Glavine, aged forty-two, had a disappointing season in 2008. The two-time Cy Young winner, ten-time All-Star, and World Series champion in 1995, returned to Atlanta, his first major-league team, after five seasons with the New York Mets, but he finished the season on the sixty-day Disabled List, for the first time in his long career, with a torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow. He pitched only 63.1 innings, with a 2-4 record and a 5.54 ERA--uncharacteristic statistics for a 305-game winner with an ERA of 3.54 over a twenty-two-year career. He became a free agent at the end of the season.
I include this information because it was not available when Washington Post sports journalist John Feinstein completed Living on the Black before the 2008 season began. Feinstein is an excellent writer, and his books on golf, tennis, and basketball have been well-received. But this book was disappointing, not because it wasn't a good read but because of the premature choice of seasons to examine. He originally planned to write about a pitcher in 2000, but David Cone, his choice, was the subject of a book by Roger Angell; he didn't return to the topic until the 2007 season. The approach in Living on the Black is familiar to Feinstein's readers. He follows Glavine and Mussina, both pitching near the end of their careers for New York teams, through the 2007 season, although he outlines their history quite well.
Mussina began his career with a ninety-five mph four-seam fastball among his pitches, and emerged as one of the best control pitchers in baseball, giving up few walks; he was also an outstanding fielder. He had a good slider, one of the best change-ups, and added a splitter to replace his curveball; he worked both sides of the plate, changed arm angles and speeds, and became a ground-ball pitcher towards the end of his career. He won 10 or more games for seventeen consecutive seasons. He was a dominant pitcher, and in a September 2001 game against Boston, he retired the first twenty-six batters before the perfect game was broken up by a single; but the performance he best remembers was during Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. With the Yankees trailing the Red Sox, 4-0, Mussina entered the game with runners on first and third with nobody out; he struck out Jason Varitek and then Johnny Damon hit into a double play. He pitched three scoreless innings and New York came back to win. These events are noted in the book but take a backseat to developments in the 2007 season.
Glavine had excellent control as well, with a lot of movement on his pitches, relying on an effective circle-change to set up his cut fastball. He was a good-hitting pitcher, winning four Silver Slugger awards and ending with a career average of .188; he also took pride in his ability to bunt. He was a players union representative and was actively involved in the negotiations before the 1994 strike which caused the cancellation of the World Series that year. Although a star pitcher, he was booed by Atlanta fans during the 2005 season. While the union's activities were clearly important to Glavine, the book does not discuss his role with the Major League Baseball Players Association during the 2007 season.
Feinstein developed close relationships with both pitchers and was granted access to them at home and on the road, in the clubhouse and off the field; he also interviewed their teammates, their managers, and their coaches, to ensure that he drew a well-rounded picture. They were not just excellent pitchers over their long careers, they were articulate and insightful about the game and their roles in it. The reader learns about the physical and mental preparations that are essential if an older pitcher is to remain on top of his game as his physical skills diminish. Neither could rely on ninety-plus mph fastballs to overpower batters; they were control pitchers, "living on the black," throwing to spots on the edges of the plate, and out-thinking their opponents. They could make adjustments to their pitching style during the season or during a game, if necessary. They also emerge as good men, successfully balancing the demands of family life with those of their profession. Feinstein captures the ebbs and flows of a long season very well for both the individual players and their teams. Glavine, for example, was trying to win the 300th game of his career, which he finally accomplished against the Cubs in Chicago on August 5. But the Mets, after a fast start, missed the playoffs on the last day of the season as Glavine, who wanted the ball that day, was knocked out of the game in the first inning with his team behind, 5-0. The Yankees, on the other hand, started the season slowly but made the playoffs, although Mussina, a starter for his entire career, was relegated to the bullpen, pitching in just one game in the American League Division Series as New York lost the to the Cleveland Indians.
The book's strength lies with Feinstein's ability to describe the "inside game" to baseball fans. Glavine and Mussina understand pitching and could make adjustments in order to be successful, and the tensions with umpires in an era when it seemed that baseball valued hitters more than pitchers are noted. The reader gets to peek into the clubhouse occasionally; Mussina was taken out of the starting rotation and his relationships with manager Joe Torre and pitching coach, Ron Guidry, noticeably cooled. It was Mike Borzello, the bullpen coach, who had the pitcher's ear. But we don't learn about the distractions that A-Rod brought to the Yankees' clubhouse; did this affect Mussina or did he effectively block them out? The failure of the Mets to strengthen their bullpen not only hurt Glavine's won-lost record but cost the team a playoff spot in 2007 and had longer-term implications for the next season.
Some of the weaknesses of the book are not Feinstein's fault. Who could have predicted that it would have been the 2008 season rather than 2007 that would be more compelling in terms of the end of the story for both Mussina and Glavine? Yet the 2007 season had important storylines that remained peripheral in this book. Feinstein ignores the on-going Barry Bonds saga, but more significantly, the steroid issue in New York is not discussed until the epilogue, even though Roger Clemens returned to the Yankees in mid-season and Paul Lo Duca, Glavine's catcher on the Mets, was named in the Mitchell Report. Did Mussina and Glavine not want to talk about the problem, or did Feinstein not push them on the issue for fear of losing his privileged access to the pitchers? In any case, the result is dissatisfying.
Living on the Black is a well-crafted book by one of the best sportswriters in the business. But it is not a compelling read because it has been overtaken by developments in both pitchers' careers and in Major League Baseball since 2007. In short, Feinstein has missed the plate with this one.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
|Previous Article:||How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit. revised and expanded edition.|
|Next Article:||The Story of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game.".|