Living on the Black: A Review
by Gregory Pratt, BaseballEvolution.com
June 16, 2008
John Feinstein, who writes
for the Washington Post and is the critically-acclaimed author of fifteen books,
has always wanted to write a book about pitching. In the year 2000, he asked
David Cone for permission to follow him around and write about his season, but
Roger Angell beat him to it and wrote A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David
Cone. For years, Feinstein waited on another opportunity to cover a pitcher
who could fit Cone's profile: intelligent, talented, and nearing the end of a
long, successful career. These are not altogether common attributes,
however. It wasn't until the 2006 season that he found the subject for his
latest book, Living on the Black. And then, like a General Manager
signing an extra starter for the minor leagues to protect his team in the event
of injury, he found another. Both in the same city, separated by a few miles,
league and uniform.
John Feinstein found Mike
Mussina and Tom Glavine.
Mussina and Glavine are very
similar, and not just between the lines. Both rely on their offspeed "stuff" and
location, have a variety of pitches, often add to their repertoire, and are
willing to change their style as circumstances mandate. Mussina is constantly
experimenting with different arm angles and pitches, and Glavine drastically
altered his pitching style from living on the outside to bullying right-handers
inside with a cut fastball in an effort to save his career during the 2005
season. "Living on the Black" is at its best when it chronicles these players'
adjustments, and the book's great lesson is that baseball is a game of
adjustments in ways many fans might never consider, although this is truer for
Glavine in the book than Mussina.
While the bulk of Black
is devoted to the 2007 season, the first few chapters are dedicated to the
careers of both pitchers before that fateful year, which saw Glavine win his
300th game and Mussina win his 250th. Early on, Feinstein introduces us to a
young Tom Glavine in the minor leagues, and he is feeling pain in his shoulder
for the first time in his career. The Braves brought in Johnny Sain to advise
them, and Sain recommended that he throw every single day for two weeks. The
pain in Glavine's shoulder went away, and each side was satisfied with the
conclusion that Glavine's arm simply needed to get used to the added workload in
professional baseball. Another good story involves the day Glavine discovered
his changeup, which he had had trouble mastering until one day in which he was
taking groundballs, Glavine had a ball sneak up on him and get caught between
his middle and ring fingers as he threw it. The ball broke, and his patented
changeup was found.
Then there is the 2005
transformation of Tom Glavine, which began when the Mets were leaving Seattle
and Glavine was sulking on the plane about his terrible start. Pitching coach
Rick Peterson came over to tell Glavine that it was time to "blow up" his game.
He asked Glavine, "How many clubs are you allowed to have in your bag?" during a
golf game, and Glavine replied, "Fourteen." Peterson then told Glavine that he
was only "using about seven clubs. Does it make any sense to use only half the
clubs you're allowed to use?" From here, they started to discuss the scouting
report on Glavine, how everyone was simply waiting on him to take him the other
way, and soon it was agreed that he would begin pitching inside. Glavine's
career was reborn.
In 2007, across town in the
Bronx, Mussina had his most up-and-down season. His side of the story is more
notable for that rather than any adjustments he had to make. The drama might be
best explained by the juxtaposition between Mussina as a young man, confident
and ready since the day he was drafted to make the major leagues. described as
"the smartest guy in the room" who wasn't afraid to let you know it, and the
elder Mussina, who is criticized by no less than Joe Torre for "pitching scared"
at times and being "kind of fragile" in terms of "self-belief." Not that Torre
and Mussina have deep problems between them, because Mussina speaks reverently
of him at times and is upset by Torre's firing at the end of the book, but their
relationship is far from perfect. This becomes clear when Mussina is demoted
from the rotation without being informed of it beforehand. The incident
caused friction with Torre, who attempts to sooth him in a meeting, though
Mussina is still upset about it until his next start weeks later.
These conversations between
coaches and players and umpires are another worthy aspect to the book, and it is
fascinating how these relationships bear themselves out at the time. While he
was in the bullpen as a reliever, Mussina worked with Mike Borzello, the
Yankees' bullpen catcher, and spoke with his brother about the need to start
pitching inside so that he wouldn't become predictable, like Glavine had
earlier. Ron Guidry did not join in, however, because he stopped speaking to
Mussina after his demotion from the rotation. Their relationship was
permanently-altered by the fact that Guidry avoided Mussina from the time he was
demoted to his reinstatement as a starter, and so Mussina went to other people
for assistance. Fortunately, Mike Borzello is a great bullpen coach. This book
constantly demonstrates that adjustments are necessary in the big-leagues and
that they don't always come from typical sources.
Off the field, these
pitchers are both player's union representatives who study hitters and pitchers,
care for their families, and give time to the community through their activities
and their interviews. In chronicling their season, and to some extent their
entire careers, John Feinstein forever links them to one another. This
excellent book is well worth a read if you have any interest in understanding
what it means, and what it takes, to be a major league pitcher. That these men
are among the all-time greats and are world-class human beings is a bonus.
Gregory Pratt is a political science and history double-major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His political commentary can be found at the Office of the Independent Blogger, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.