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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 gregory@baseballevolution.com.

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