Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Throwback (2014)

By Jason Kendall and Lee Judge

Jason Kendall might not be the most obvious choice to write a book about baseball, in the sense that he had a good long career but wasn't a household name. In fact, many baseball fans outside of cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City might have trouble picking him out of a police lineup - not that he's likely to be in one.

Kendall had other ideas in mind. He wanted to write a book on how baseball is really played - filled with information that isn't well known. Kendall teamed up with Kansas City sports writer Lee Judge, and the result is the oddly named but quite interesting "Throwback."

One of the major goals of the book is to show that the game of baseball is time-consuming, physically and mentally tiring, and complicated. There's a lot going on throughout a baseball game; multiply it by 162 games and you'll get the idea of the size of the grind.  

Kendall breaks things down nice and neatly. There's a chapter on the batter, one on the catcher, another on the hitter, through the infield and outfield, then to the manager, and finally to random notes. As you might guess, an ex-catcher has the most to say about the first three subjects. The pitcher-hitter relationship is the key to any game, even if the average fan can't see it easily even on television.

Kendall covers the details in a quick, point-by-point method. He presents some information on one particular area, and then moves along. There isn't much wasted energy, making it to be a relatively brisk read.

For example ... ever wonder how the catcher signals the pitcher when there's a runner on second base? Kendall says many teams use the "first, shake, last" approach. In that case, the first signal is the "live" one, and the rest don't matter. But if the pitcher doesn't like it, he can shake it off. Then the catcher will give a string of signals, and the last one is the one that matters. But - teams can just as easily switch to "last, shake, first" at a given moment too. Or vice-versa. There are signals from the catcher on when to throw a pickoff play, signs on which fielder should cover on throws to second when a runner is on first, and so on.

It's fun to read about the relationship between catchers and umpires. Kendall points out that sometimes he'll go out of his way to make sure that the umpire isn't hit by a stray pitch. That sort of favor can pay off on a close call down the line. He also points out how much talking goes on at the plate between batter, catcher and umpire, even though it looks quiet from a distance. That's because an umpire will become angry if a catcher or hitter turn around to make a point. It's all about appearances and respect.

There are a couple of drawbacks to way the way this information is presented. Most importantly, many of the points made along the way do not come with any accompanying anecdotes. That really would have brought the facts home to the average reader. The book jumps a notch when it points out how defenses had to shift infield play a bit when Derek Jeter came up, because he could go to the opposite field so well. Therefore, a second baseman might not want to cover the bag on a stolen base attempt even when a right-handed hitter was up. But such examples aren't that common. The other is that there is a little repetition of material here, although it wasn't a major issue.

The "throwback" title refers to the attitude that Kendall carries throughout the book. He's definitely an old-school type in a lot of ways. Kendall thought that players should hustle all the time, pay attention, and not try anything dirty or cheap. If they did the latter, they should be prepared to suffer the consequences.

"Throwback" isn't for the casual fan who merely watches the game on television at a mental distance (doing other things, etc.). It also might cover familiar ground for those who played the game at a reasonably high level - high school and beyond. But for those in the sweet spot in between, the book will provide an education into the game you might know pick up anywhere else.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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