‘Living on the Black’ is a primer on pitching and storytelling

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Sports journalists can learn a great deal about pitching – and storytelling – by reading Feinstein's latest book

Sports journalists can learn a great deal about pitching – and storytelling – by reading Feinstein

I’m always looking for books that can offer insights into sports. John Feinstein‘s Living on the Black does just that, revealing how two future Hall of Famers – Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina – approach pitching in the major leagues. As sports journalists, we need to recognize how much we don’t know, no matter how long we may have played or have covered a specific sport. This book reveals much about pitching by a talented sports journalist. Readers learn how pitchers react to errors, the importance of pregame and off-day routines, and why a first-pitch strike can make or break a pitcher, among other things.

The pitchers themselves are compelling, cerebral characters, something that drives this book. Both are also active union reps. Mussina is far more reserved while Glavine more easily endures the spotlight – although his last season with the New York Mets tested his patience. At one point, Glavine declines a request from a TV reporter, a moment Feinstein uses to offer an insight into journalism.

The reporter wisely waited to see if Glavine would say anything else. Sometimes, especially when dealing with a good guy, reporters know that silence is the best way to get someone to change his mind. Not this time. “I understand the reporter said, sticking his hand out. “Maybe some other time.”

“Almost any other time,” Glavine said. “I appreciate your patience.”

Which he did.

Feinstein also shows the challenges major-leaguers face adjusting to the rhythms of lengthy seasons. “No one goes through an entire year without a bad stretch of some kind,” Glavine says. “I’ve had them every year of my career. It’s like that old baseball saying about bad teams having winning streaks and good ones having losing streaks.”

The first inning can be the most difficult for even skilled pitchers like Mussina. You should count the number of pitches each inning to track trends like this. Halfway through a season, you’ll then be able to evaluate the best and worst innings for a team’s pitchers. That would be a terrific story. Glavine gives up nearly half his total runs in the first inning. Mussina can also be challenged at the start of games.

“The first inning you often aren’t completely comfortable on the mound,” Mussina said. “It takes a while to get yourself to feel exactly the way you want to feel in the game. You throw thirty to forty pitches in the bullpen, then you get eight warm-up pitches on the mound. That’s why a lot of times if you see a guy who is good get through a tough first inning, he settles down and pitches well. When you’re on the bench facing someone good and you get men on in the first, you automatically think, ‘Better get him now because there may not be another chance this good.'”

Some other insights:

■ Pitchers get more excited when facing another team’s top pitcher. “I think it actually gets me to pitch better because I know I have less margin for error,” Mussina says. “It isn’t as if you’re trying harder; it’s just that you’re a little more focused.”

■ Sometimes, pitchers call pitches more than catchers. “With some pitchers, you call pitches,” Posada said. “With Mike and some others, you make suggestions.”

■ The best umpires usually allow players to vent after they have blown a call, but, Feinstein claims, most aren’t that good. Umpires hate to be shown up.

■ Pitchers – and especially managers – care more about quality starts than wins. Sportswriters should also focus on these quality performances. For example, a pitcher can limit a team to two runs and still lose, 3-2, while a pitcher who allows five runs can also win 8-5. Don’t be seduced by wins and losses. Check a pitcher’s other stats.

■ Most pitchers prefer a strike to ball ration of at least 2-to-1, meaning they would prefer to throw 60 strikes for every 30 balls during a 90-pitch outing. Try to chart number of pitches and strikes each inning to get even more insights into a pitching peformance.

You should analyze Feinstein’s work as you read through this lengthy (but quick) read on two compelling pitchers. Also, assess how Feinstein interviews, reports, and describes key moments. This is an educational (and entertaining) book from a masterful storyteller. Check it out.

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