Tuesday, May 27, 2008

All That Snake Jazz

I'm not sure how often I'll write book reviews here, but I do know that I will only discuss books I can highly recommend. That is certainly the case with SNAKE JAZZ, a recent memoir by former major league pitcher Dave Baldwin. The title refers to "wiggly pitches" that do not go straight, and Baldwin became proficient enough at throwing a combination of sliders, sinkers, curves, and the like to fashion a 16-year pro career, including 176 games in the big leagues.

Baldwin is even more proficient with words than he was with a baseball, and his book is a pleasure to read from start to finish. Admittedly a slow starter in school and an indifferent college student/athlete, he blossomed late and eventually got an M.S. in systems engineering and a Ph.D. in genetics. Widely published in scientific circles, he has turned his analytical eye and wry sense of humor on his own career. I only wish he had added another 100 pages to the 300 or so contained in this volume.

Whether discussing baseball, his childhood, or his scientific pursuits, Baldwin uses a kind of snake-jazz style, twisting his prose to give you something you didn't quite expect when the sentence or paragraph began. Occasionally he puts a little too much on the ball, but most of the time it makes for lively, entertaining reading. It is also refreshingly candid and quite revealing.

On the question of nature vs. nurture, Baldwin sides decidedly with nurture as the key factor in any kind of achievement. He learned early on from his father that with hard work, he could maximize whatever talents he had, and he scoffs at "natural" athletes who think they don't need to work to get better. An only child, he spent endless hours throwing baseballs at a box his father constructed, complete with a recessed strike zone backed by springs, and with angled sides that allowed a pitched ball to bounce back to him. Growing up in Tucson, he and his friends played makeshift games on rocky fields where rattlesnakes lurked beneath bushes where a wayward ball might roll. During his pro career, he would winter in Tucson, attending school and throwing to different incarnations of "the box" that helped him learn to pitch.

Describing himself as "goal-oriented," Baldsin seems more fascinated by the process than the outcome. Whether it is learning how to throw a curve, changing his motion to the sidearm/underhand motion that finally got him to the majors after years of struggling in the minors, or collecting fruitflies in remote deserts in Arizona and Tucson, he is always curious and always fully engaged in the task at hand. He has spent a lifetime discovering things -- about baseball, about science, about people and insects, and above all about himself. He willingly shares with us all the good news and bad news connected with such discoveries.

As with most baseball memoirs, the book is packed with stories about people who may or not be household names. One high point is Baldwin feeling the wrath of his Senators manager, Ted Williams, for daring to explain the curve ball in scientific terms. There are terrific accounts of Frank Howard rocketing line drives all over the ballpark, ex-pitchers Curt Simmons and Max Surkont imparting wisdom to the neophyte pitcher, and the irrepressible antics of forgotten minor leaguers like Fred Hopke and Freddy Van Dusen. Even fans get their due, notably the invaluable Cake Lady at the ballpark in Honolulu, a minor-league outpost where Baldwin toiled for several seasons.

Baldwin doesn't waste anybody's time with his delightful stories of people and places. If anything, he says too little about his pitching achievements, such as they were. After spending years developing a repertoire that could baffle major leaguers, he tells us almost nothing about his best season in the majors, 1967, when he sported a nifty 1.70 ERA in 58 games for the Senators. I'd like to know what made such a difference that season, and what caused him to slip to a 4.07 ERA in 1968. I'd even like to know more about his post-baseball careers as a scientist and engineer. In short, I'd like to hear more of whatever he'd like to tell me about anything at all, though I'd prefer more about infield flies than fruitflies.

SNAKE JAZZ is available through Dave Baldwin's fine website, www.snakejazz.com, and at www.Xlibris.com

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