A celebration of baseball's quirks and personalities.
Pitching appears relatively simple on the surface. But it turns out there are lots of different ways to get batters out. And lots of different ways as a pitcher to etch your legacy. Whether it’s missing barrels via a dominant sinker or flummoxing hitters with an unpredictable knuckleball. For every pitch there is a user who put together a dominant stretch of seasons showcasing it.
Tyler Kepner’s K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches tells the story of pitching. Each chapter covers a certain pitch type, typically featuring one practitioner as a primary torch-bearer within the narrative theme—Madison Bumgarner’s fastball; Steve Carlton’s slider; Mike Montgomery’s curveball. And you guessed it, Mariano Rivera’s cutter.
Kepner constructs a unique identity for every pitch. He brings them all to life with personification and personal testimonials from its most esteemed practitioners. He paints a picture for each pitch, their evolution and ebb and flow in popularity.
Kepner doesn’t attempt to name the best curveballer, fastballer, etc—although most of them get a mention. The pitches themselves are the characters. The pitchers who throw them are more like the passive agents responsible for delivering them.
This book represents a New York Times writer flexing ability, access and child-like passion for baseball. Namedrops galore. The book is littered with quotes and anecdotes from the game’s legends. Infinitely quotable.
Silly gripes (that aren’t really gripes).
Silly gripe #1. There are moments where this has the Lord of the Rings feel where there are sentences with 2-5 different names. Names are everywhere. Some full, some nick-. I remember bouncing back every once in a while thinking “wait, what was this guy’s first name?”
Self-rebuttal. Lord of the Rings is fantastic.
Silly gripe #2. Kepner’s chapter on the knuckleball doesn’t include Bob Uecker’s famous quote: “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up.”
Self-rebuttal. This quote might be better:
“Trying to hit Phil Niekro, [Bobby] Murcer memorably said, was “like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”
Every handful of pages I’d pick up a little something I didn’t know before. For example, the difference between a splitter and a forkball: if the bottom of the V of your index and middle fingers is flush with the baseball, you’re gripping a forkball. If you there’s space between the bottom of the V and the ball, it’s a splitter.
A small personal favorite.
Kepner recalled a revelatory experience for Pedro Martinez – when he watched Tom Glavine precisely locate his changeup all over the strike zone. Martinez had always relied on the raw change of speed between his fastball and changeup. Glavine triggered a light bulb moment that may have helped create one of the greatest pitchers ever.
Martinez made this great remark:
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Oh Pedro, you were so gifted.’ I say, ‘No, I was just a patch of a lot of players. I wasn’t born with all this.’”
Romanticism and irresistible enthusiasm emanate from every page. Kepner loves baseball and it shows. Many critically acclaimed baseball books, while captivating, can get weighty and a little on the serious side. This book maintains reverence and respect for the game of baseball—with a light and charming touch.
In terms of nonfiction baseball reading, Kepner’s K is as essential as it gets. This is one of those timeless works to re-read every few years or so. A must-have for your baseball library.
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