Friday, October 8, 2010

Sixty Feet, Six Inches – Tales from the Mound to Home Plate

As I write this, replay footage of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay’s no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds rolls on my television.  Baseball playoffs are here, and they’ve been kicked off in spectacular fashion.

It’s a fitting start to this postseason.  Baseball writers have dubbed 2010 the “Year of the Pitcher.”  Never before have two pitchers thrown perfect games in one season.  A botched umpiring call took away a third perfect game in Detroit.  Five no-hitters were thrown this year – six if you include Halladay’s October gem. 

The relationship between pitcher and batter has changed, and fans can’t find an easy explanation.  Is it baseball’s exorcism of its steroid demons, catalogued in Ken Burns’ recent Baseball epilogue?  Is it the maturation of a class of pitchers suited to dominating the opposition?  Maybe the hitter talent pool’s diluted after two decades of expansion (four new teams since 1993).  The most likely explanation?  All of the above.

Though written in 2009, Sixty Feet, Six Inches couldn’t be more relevant in the Year of the Pitcher.  The book, co-authored by Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson with Lonnie Wheeler, gets its title from the distance between the pitching mound and home plate – the space within which 95% of baseball’s action takes place.  It is that distance, that relationship, which defines the sport.

So what can a book by a Hall of Fame pitcher and a Hall of Fame hitter teach us about baseball in the new millennium?  A whole lot, it turns out.

A Meeting of the Minds

Structurally, Sixty Feet, Six Inches is an odd bird.  Imagine any radio interview you’ve ever listened to with more than guest, one where the guests are encouraged to converse and trade stories.  Remove the voice of the interviewer.  Transcribe the audio.  That’s Sixty Feet, Six Inches.

Lonnie Wheeler collates the back-and-forth, perhaps cleaning up some language and facilitating discussion.  But it’s Gibson and Jackson who own the show.  The men come from two different (yet startlingly similar) eras of the sport.  The former achieved the lowest single-season earned run average since the live-ball era began in 1920.  The latter is a five-time World Series champion who hit 563 home runs in his twenty-one-year career and once hit four home runs on four consecutive swings. 

Despite their careers overlapping by just over seven seasons, they never faced one another.  And Gibson is eleven years Jackson’s senior.  For many major leaguers, eleven years is a healthy, successful career – a generation, in baseball years.  That gap spans the introduction of free agency, advancements and setbacks in civil rights, and the lowering of the pitcher’s mound (perhaps in reaction to Gibson’s epic 1968 season).  Sixty Feet, Six Inches shines when it bridges that gap, not only the one between men of two neighboring eras, but the one from theirs to ours.

The More Things Change…

Jackson swings awaySome baseball truths are universal, timeless, and stupidly simple.  When Jackson asks Gibson how he’d describe the art of pitching, Gibson replies, “It’s making the hitter do pretty much what I want him to do.”  He then adds, “You’ve just go to know who you can do what to.  That’s what pitching is.”  Jackson’s response: “As a hitter, what I had to learn, mostly, was what I could do and what I couldn’t do.”  Ask any player today.  These broad, sweeping statements would make good advice to players at any level.

Chapters of the book are dedicated to elaborating on these ideas.  Gibson’s an old-school pitcher, a flame-thrower who never bothered to wear his prescription glasses when on the mound.  Hitting batters – cause for warnings, quick ejections, and unnecessary brawls in today’s game – was part of the game, a form of retaliation and a way to lay a claim to specific parts of the plate.  Jackson, admitting he had problems hitting pitches thrown in on his hands, tailored his game to hitting the ball on the outside of the plate and driving it the other way.  These men are in the Hall of Fame for a number of reasons, and their ability to elucidate the minutiae of the game decades after their careers ended is certainly one of them.

Home runs are measured in hundreds of feet and the base paths are an even ninety, but the game at the plate is one of inches.  As Gibson says, “Home plate is seventeen inches wide, and most of that is of no interest to the pitcher.”  Jackson had his eyes on a foot-wide section in the middle, edged just an inch away from his weak spot.  They even agree on Gibson’s system of dividing the strike zone into eight three-inch sections (three inches being the diameter of a baseball), conceding half to the pitcher and the other to the batter.  Nuances like this reveal a ballplayer’s mid-game frame of mind.  What is he up to?  What is he thinking about?  It’s fascinating to fans, and Gibson and Jackson don’t skimp on the details.

Seeing the Future in the Past

The conversations in Sixty Feet, Six Inches foreshadow more than just the Year of the Pitcher. 

2010 saw the call-up of potential pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg by the Washington Nationals.  Strasburg dazzled in his major league debut and seemed an early lock for Rookie of the Year honors before a forearm injury sent him to the surgery table, delaying his career by over a year.  Some attributed Strasburg’s injury to flawed pitching mechanics – the motions a pitcher goes through in his delivery.  Gibson was known for his large, leg-kicking delivery, which may have contributed to his success by providing leg power and hiding the ball amidst his gyrations.  He doesn’t subscribe to today’s “homogenized” (to borrow his word) mechanics:

“People come up with all kinds of reasons why some pitchers last and others break down, and I don’t know that you’ll ever be able to pinpoint the reasons why.  We’re all different…If you try to teach one person to do something the way another person does it, you’re usually walking down the wrong road.”

Gibson delivering from the moundJackson is legendary not only for his historic postseason success, but for the way he cultivated media attention and parlayed it into a massive contract with the New York Yankees.  He was the Alex Rodriguez of his time, which caused Sports Illustrated to dub him the world’s first “superduperstar.”  A late chapter, “Towering Figures,” devotes time to baseball’s heroes: Hank Aaron, the Willies McCovey and Mays, Frank Robinson, Sandy Koufax.  To hear great players discuss great players further pulls back the curtain on what it takes to reach the pinnacle of your sport.  Of course, such idolizing led Jackson to craft his sensational personality:

“I wanted not only to play like the great ones and live like the great ones; I wanted to look like them.  There was a certain way that Mays and Mickey Mantle wore their uniforms…I thought it was cool.  I wanted to wear my pants the way the stars did.  I wanted to drive free cars like they did.  I wanted everything about me to be just like them.”

And in a time when the percentage of black players in baseball is in a fifteen-year skid, their discussion of race feels especially important.  Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 – just twelve years before Gibson’s debut, twenty before Jackson’s.  Jackson speaks at length about racial prejudice early in his career, but Gibson sums up the situation simply and poignantly, “Over the years a lot of black athletes have been characterized as playing with a chip on their shoulder.  Well, a chip is usually put there by somebody else.  It’s put there by the way you’re treated.”

Talking with History

Clubhouse1The conversational structure works to the book’s benefit.  Despite it’s statistical bent, baseball is a sport best talked about by fans over a beer or by players around the batting cage.  Lessons from the book are best learned by parable: “There was a day in 1967, for example, when we scored seven runs in the first inning…”  Players are immortalized as warriors of Grecian legend: “Sam Jones had a curveball you could actually hear.  So did Koufax.”   Hearing players talk like fans is like a bouncer unclipping the velvet rope.  They’re inviting us into their club.

Jackson, living up to his Mr. October persona, cuts off Gibson a little too often for my liking, but that might just be because I think Gibson’s the more interesting of the two.  His metaphors are a little rougher, his memories a bit foggier in a way that enhances the story.  The differences do make for good conversation, though.  It’s a verbal game of catch between two of baseball’s giants.

Baseball trades in nostalgia.  Retro parks, centuries of statistics, throwback jerseys.  For all of the ways the game has changed, it’s not much different from how it was over a hundred years ago: one man throws a ball, another tries to hit it.  Sixty Feet, Six Inches captures that simplicity, that elegance, with specificity and personality.  What an entertaining window through which to view America’s pastime.