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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Not Nearly Enough Baseball

After my appearance on "Jeopardy!" in mid-April, I heard from a lot of people who said "too bad baseball wasn't a category," and I couldn't agree more. What they didn't realize was how close I did come to having baseball as a category. My show was taped in early February, a perfect time to escape winter's grip in Cooperstown and head to sunny southern California. I was lucky that I got to make two trips, because it was much sunnier there the second time.

"Jeopardy!" tapes five shows a day, and I was extremely eager to play in the first game of the day -- not because I was more awake than the other contestants (far from it), but because it would air on my birthday. Randomness is the guiding factor in running the show, however, and my randomness turned out to be shaky. Every morning of taping, the show's producers bring six complete game boards with them, which they turn over to the outside company which oversees randomness and other components of fairness. This system of safeguards is the residue of that little quiz-show scandal they had a half-century ago, and which led Merv Griffin's wife to suggest that instead of dishonestly giving contestants the answers to questions already posed, they create a show where contestants are given the answers and have to provide the questions. Voila! Game-show history. So the outside company chooses which five of the six game boards will be used that day, and in which order. Meanwhile, the day's new contestants gather in the green room, have their names put on index cards which are shuffled and scrambled into randomness. Two at a time are picked, and those are the challengers for the next game.

So I had big hopes for playing that first game and starting a week-long run on the show. But no. I didn't get picked for the first game, and had to remain on the sidelines with the other players, sequestered like a jury, not allowed to talk to anyone except each other, lest we get information from someone who had seen the game boards. Imagine my dismay when they revealed the "Double Jeopardy" categories and the first one was "Baseball". My hands flew up in the air in a gesture of dismay, and the people around me snickered. "Too bad for you," someone whispered. No shit, Sherlock. The five clues were easy, and assuming I had buzzed in first I would have picked up a cool $6,000 on the category. Instead, when I played I got "Double Jeopardy" categories like Physics, Marine Life, Business Talk, World Religion, and Native Americans. Not exactly my wheelhouse.

I had to wait until the final game of the day to get my chance to play. One of the first-round categories was on the NFL, and I didn't buzz in first until the $800 clue, which I got along with the $1,000 clue. That helped me build up a sizable lead by the end of the show, even without any baseball references in sight. Winning that first game was the rush of a lifetime. My mother was on "Jeopardy!" the first year it was on the air, 1964, and I remember going to Rockefeller Center with her for the taping, sitting in the audience while Art Fleming read out the answers, and watching with dismay as she lost to the show's first five-time winner. He won $6,000 in his five games, the amount I would have made just from that Baseball category on my birthday show if chance had acted differently. Still, after a mere 44-year wait, I had redeemed my mother's frustrating loss. Leaving the studio, I was asked by an audience member for an autograph, which will have to count as a sort of baseball moment, a star rookie performer giving a new fan a souvenir.

There was another baseball connection on that first show. One of my opponents--the other challenger--was a woman from Spartanburg, South Carolina. After the show, we talked about her cousin: Shoeless Joe Jackson. Her grandfather played semi-pro ball with Jackson during the 1920s, and she was knowledgeable about the banned outfielder. After the show aired last month, someone sent me a link to the Spartanburg newspaper and its headline about the local woman appearing on "Jeopardy!" The article began "A local woman nearly staged a come-from-behind victory on Friday's episode" of the show. The phrasing intrigued me. At the end of "Double Jeopardy" she had $2,300 and I had $19,600, twice as much as the defending champion, so I had the victory cinched, especially over her. It made me wonder how the folks in Spartanburg, South Carolina define "nearly". Then it dawned on me; they define the word as in "The South nearly staged a come-from-behind victory in the Civil War."

By winning the last show taped one week, I got to return to Los Angeles the following week to defend my championship. Things didn't go as well. I had a small lead after "Double Jeopardy," had to bet almost everything I had, and missed the final question, going down in flames like a doomed fighter pilot in that "most magnificent competition" of all, war. That's show biz!

I heard from a lot of friends around the country after the games aired, and a few people actually wrote to ask "how could you not get the Rangers question?" Yes, there was a baseball question on the second show. The category was Texas, and the clue was about the team that plays its home games in Arlington. Some friends felt compelled to chide me for NOT KNOWING that it was the Rangers. I felt compelled to ask them, "how can you not know that there's more to the game than knowing the answer?" In fact, knowing the answer is the easy part of the game. Most of the contestants know most of the answers. The key is buzzing in first, which is a matter of quick reflexes and timing. I just didn't buzz in fast enough on that clue. I work at the Hall of Fame; trust me, folks, I know where the teams play.

In all the years I've been watching "Jeopardy!" I can't remember seeing Baseball as the "Final Jeopardy" category--until just six shows after the one I lost. I was astonished to see it: "Baseball Terms". The answer was a quote I hadn't seen before, about how "Slugger Willie Stargell described it as 'a butterfly with hiccups'." That was easy enough to figure out. The full quote is a dandy: "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." Only one of the three contestants that day got it, so that was another game where I would have kicked ass. All I needed to do was win six more games and chance would have broken in my favor. It turns out that there was plenty of baseball in the vicinity during the games that aired in mid-April, but not nearly enough in the games I got to play. Oh well--it sure was fun while it lasted.