Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: Living on the Black by John Feinstein

In a post-Mitchell Report world, baseball has to place emphasis on the finesse and strategy of the sport. John Feinstein's Living on the Black does just that, focusing on control and location pitchers Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina for the entirety of the 2007 season.  Feinstein provides knowledge and insight to an aspect of the game that had long been ignored by Bud Selig and the powers that be in Major League Baseball, namely pitching.

In the 2007 season, veteran pitchers Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine were nearing important milestones in their careers. Mussina was seeking 250 wins, while Glavine was trying to achieve his 300th win, and an almost guaranteed place in Cooperstown. However, neither pitcher has ever really been a power thrower, with Glavine in particular having to rely on breaking balls and careful ball location over the plate.

The title of the book says it all: Living on the Black refers to home plate and the one inch of black rubber that serves as its border. A control pitcher wants his pitches to  brush that inch of black so that umpires have to call the strike, but hitters are loathe to take a swing. The book details the intricate art of pitching and the amount of skill a pitcher must have to excel in the majors.

John Feinstein is considered one of the leading sports journalists in North America today. His articles are regularly published in the Washington Post's impressively well written sports section, and he has written over twenty-three books. Living on the Black was my introduction to him and his writing, and it was an impressively solid read.

More importantly, it is a well timed book. Although he'd been planning this project for nearly six years (originally with the Yankees' David Cone as the subject), he could not have picked a better year then 2007. Mussina did make his 250 wins. Glavine did make his 300 wins, possibly the last man to ever accomplish the feat. Most importantly, it preceded the Mitchell Report and serves as a harbinger of the new style of baseball that is going to be championed by Major League Baseball: small ball.

In fact, just this week Jose Mota had an article on what he calls "National League-style baseball" which emphasizes aggressive base-running, solid defense and generating runs. A rose by any other name is small ball. I expect that this is the tip of the iceberg. Soon many members of the baseball intelligentsia will be singing the praises of small ball and the importance of starting pitcher. Although I doubt this was Feinstein's intention, his well researched and interesting book Living on the Black will likely be the first major piece in this new wave of baseball thought. I recommend you give it a read and beat the curve.

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