I had sworn that I wouldn’t read John Feinstein’s Living on the Black. Yes, I was interested last year when I first heard about the book-- Feinstein was spending the season following around Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina, my favorite sardonic right handed pitcher? I was in. But then when it came out this year, I checked with one of the Yankee beat writers (a good superpup correspondent) and he said that the book was a mess—lots of factual errors, typos, etc. So I said thanks for the tip, I’m not reading that one, if for no other reason than to stand up against books by big-time authors that get cranked out without any copyediting or fact-checking. I should at least strike a blow for good books.
But alas, I am weak, and when I saw it on one of those $10 tables on the street, and I knew I had a lot of train rides coming up over the next few days, and none of my reserve books were in at the library, well, I gave in. Hey, at least I didn’t pay full price. Let’s say I struck a small blow. A really small one. And to further exact revenge, I will now write way, way more about it than it deserves.
The premise of the book is to follow two aging pitchers during one season to see how they adjust and work during what is undoubtedly the twilight of their careers, particularly under the hot lights of the New York media. Glavine went into the season in pursuit of his 300th win and a World Series ring with the Mets, who had missed winning the NL pennant by one game last year. Mussina was approaching his 250th win, and a World Series appearance is always the expectation for the Yankees.
Both got the win number they had aimed for, but in other ways the year went horribly awry. Glavine pitched well most of the year, though he lost a number of potential wins due to a shaky bullpen. Then what had been a smooth, easy season turned into a nightmare, with the Mets collapsing down the stretch. They blew their lead in the division and missed their last chance at the playoffs when Glavine turned in one of his career’s worst performances during the season’s final game; he then compounded the error by not seeming upset enough for Mets fans and thus earning himself their eternal, everlasting hatred.
Unlike Glavine, Mussina struggled throughout the year. In 2006, he had had one of his best year’s as a Yankee, good enough to be offered a new two-year contract. But that immediately looked like a bad move, as he didn’t get a win in April, went on the DL, and pitched in and out of trouble all season, alternating good stretches with disastrous ones. The Yankees had a hard time, too, getting off to a terrible start, at one point dropping 14 ½ games behind the AL East leading Red Sox. As the team fought for a playoff spot, Mussina’s inconsistencies became too much, and for the first time in his career he was sent to the bullpen (that didn’t last long as injuries to other starters sent him back to the rotation). In the end the Yankees made the playoffs, thanks to a blisteringly hot winning streak in the second half of the season, but were knocked out in the first round, leading to a managerial change and many questions as 2007 ended.
(I realize that anyone who would be interested in this book is familiar with these stories, but I feel that I would not be a good little amateur book reviewer if I didn’t include some type of summary.)
The tip I got about the book was dead on—names are misspelled, names are just wrong, teams are mixed up (one sentence refers to the Washington Nationals as the team tied for first in the NL East with the Mets at the end of the season rather than the Phillies…take a good long look at that sentence as you’re not going to see that for a long time). Little details that fans know aren’t caught. Yes, it’s an incredibly small thing to know that Phil Hughes doesn’t like to be referred to as “Philip” but if all the rest of us average every day people who just get all their info from newspapers and blogs know that, shouldn’t someone who’s in the clubhouse almost every day know it? Didn’t anyone familiar with the team read the manuscript (then again, if anyone had, they probably would have been concerned with more obvious facts, such as the Trenton Thunder being incorrectly identified as the Yankees Triple A team rather than the Double A team)? And for every Yankee mistake I caught, I’m sure there is an equal number of Met ones that would make their close watchers cringe.
Acknowledging those flaws, there still is some value in this book. The most interesting parts are when they talk about pitching—how to solve problems, what went wrong in a game, who offered what kind of advice. At this stage in their careers, Glavine and Mussina are similar pitchers, soft-tossers who rely more on guile than on power. But they both have different approaches, and both do things differently. Mussina had a lot more problems during the year, of course—in many ways, he goes through what Glavine went through a few years earlier, that is how to change when what you’ve been doing your whole life isn’t working anymore. Glavine never was a hard thrower; his adjustment came when baseball instituted the Questech system that graded umpires calls during games and made them stop calling strikes for pitches that Glavine had gotten away with throughout his career. Mussina threw harder than Glavine but never was a flamethrower. Still, even within the last few years (2005? 2006?) he had ranked in at least the top ten in strikeouts in the AL (I spend way too much time looking at stats, I think). With his velocity dropping in 2007, both due to injury and age, he had to try to learn that you don’t have to strike everyone out, that contact can be okay—there are eight other players behind you who can catch the ball when that happens. But understanding something intellectually and actually convincing yourself at any given moment to take that step and do it are two very different things.
The two pitchers personalities couldn’t be more different. Glavine comes across as a nice, friendly, easygoing guy who tries to be helpful. He probably was the kid the teacher would ask to show the new student around the school. Throughout the book he sounds like he is trying to convince himself that he’s used to New York but never really is quite able to separate himself from the Braves; I don’t know if he would ever say it was a mistake to leave Atlanta, but it’s hard not to think that he feels that way. Judging by how his personality plays in the book, though, I would guess that he would mostly the positives of his time here.
Feinstein sums up the difference between Glavine and Mussina in his intro to the book when he discusses their different reactions to his suggestion of the project. Glavine’s immediate response was, “Sure, okay,” while Mussina more or less negotiated the exact terms of what would be involved: how much of a time commitment it would be, how would it affect the other team members, and other fine points, all boiling down to “be exact and tell me what you really want. This is not unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen a Mussina postgame press conference, particularly the ones early in his Yankee tenure; any reporter back then who made the mistake of asking a vague, general question (“What went wrong today?”) would be rewarded by a long silence and a “Do you actually get paid to ask this kind of junk?” stare. At other times he’ll debate the semantics of a question (“Hey Mike, can I have a minute?” “You know this can’t possibly take a minute.”); he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He does, though, have a dust dry wit, that has made him one of the NY reporters favorites in the Yankee locker room—once they got used to him. Feinstein said he can irritate people because he can come off as the smartest guy in the room, but the reality is that he often is (not a tough task in a MLB team locker room, which isn’t typically stacked with geniuses). Either you like him because he seems like a smirky smart mouth, or you can’t stand him because he seems like a smirky smart mouth. This divide is highly visible on any forum for Yankee fans where those who hate him never seem to remember the good things he’s done for the team and those who do like him have to jump to his defense (and to be fair, when it comes to long-term contracts that have been handed out to pitchers in the last decade, his initial six year deal with the Yankees has turned out to be one of the best buys).
But being able to provide a sarcastic quote doesn’t help much when things are going badly (though I did appreciate his riff on what was good about life when he was demoted to the bullpen, “I’m getting paid to do nothing…I get to go to Kansas City for free…I get to go to Canada for free.”). Fans get angry when players do badly because they only see the results, not the process. Sometimes this anger comes out as a belief that the player isn’t trying hard, or isn’t aware that he’s doing badly, or, as many fans often claim, just don’t care as long as he’s getting paid. In this book, though, you see how hard Mussina worked while trying to figure out his puzzling sudden slump (Glavine too when he ran into problems, though as noted, he really had a comparatively smooth year). It’s both surprising, strange, and maybe a little comforting to see how easily these multimillion dollar athletes, with a lifetime of success behind them can lose confidence. Over and over, teammates, coaches, and family members observe that Mussina’s problem became after a while just a belief that he couldn’t get anyone out anymore. It seems incredible that anyone who has gotten out too many batters to remember over a lifetime of pitching can suddenly feel like he has no idea what he’s doing, but it happens. If you’ve ever really sucked at anything you’ve ever done or lost confidence in your own work, well, it helps a little to see those at the top of their professions go through it too (as long as I’ve been freelance writing, I still feel like every project I ever do is the world’s worst work and I’ll never be hired by anyone again. I keep reminding myself that I must be doing something right, but I don’t really believe it).
Sometimes nothing works.
Sometimes nothing works.
I don’t know exactly how Feinstein wrote this book. Considering that the story essentially ended last October and the book came out in May, I’m guessing that he did an interview after each game, then took that, wrote it into a section, and then pieced them together (there are biographical pieces at the beginning for each pitcher, and presumably those were done before the season started). This is a positive in that it gives each game account a sense of immediacy—there’s no sense as each player speaks of what lies ahead. If you’re a reader who’s familiar with the 2007 season, it’s weirdly fascinating to see how upbeat and positive things are as Glavine talks throughout the book when you know how badly it’s going to end. It’s like when you’re watching a movie and the director shows the audience that there’s a waterfall ahead but the rafters don’t know it. You feel this a little less with Mussina, as well, his season just went from bad to worse, and the resurgence of the Yankees from their awful start doesn’t get much time.
That’s the downside of this almost article-per-game approach (which, as I said, is only what I’m guessing happened). Readers get the game by game details, but little sense of the big picture. While other teammates are occasionally quoted, readers never really get a sense of the turmoil that swirled around both teams during the season. The book is supposed to be partially about what it’s like to perform under the glare of the New York spotlight, but we rarely get a sense of that. One problem after another was not just back page of the tabloid news for these teams during the season, but often front page news. I understand that the story was supposed to be about just Glavine and Mussina and their years, but a large part of the Yankees troubled year also included the focus on whether Joe Torre would be fired during the season, whether Alex Rodriguez would leave at the end of the season (not to mention all the other mini firestorms that always seemed to follow A-Rod), and the problems other players had. These are touched on by Feinstein, particularly Mussina’s belief that Torre was being unfairly blamed for the team’s problems, but he never captures how big they were; they must have affected the team somehow. The deteriorating relations between members of the Mets and their management, and the anger of their fans as the season falls apart never comes through. The book is factual, to the point and contains good and interesting quotes from Glavine and Mussina (particularly Mussina—look, I know I’m biased, but he’s just funnier), but it never really evokes the frantic nature of the season as the fortunes of both teams rise and fall.
The writing is workmanlike and doesn’t sweep you away into the atmosphere of a game or locker room or anything like that. Aside from the errors mentioned previously, I’m sure there are sentences Feinstein would like back or at least could use an editor’s touch, but I guess there just wasn’t time (I know, I shouldn’t be criticizing anyone’s writing, but hey, I don’t have editors and since no one is reading this but me, I don’t feel a real need to spend my own time polishing it. I am already bored enough with myself). Also, while it mostly is a neutral third person narrator, at times he’ll throw in an opinion or an aside that feels jarring. It doesn’t happen enough to make him a participant as a narrator, so instead it just feels like a lapse, which it probably is.
Despite all that, though, it’s quick and readable, even at 500 pages. It’s hard to say who this book is for. Obviously it would appeal to fans of either pitcher. Yankee fans might like it, but I think Mets fans’ anger at Glavine is too much for them to tolerate it. The best audience would probably be for people who want to know more about what it’s like to be inside the mind of a major league pitcher. Aside from that value, though, it certainly wouldn’t rank anywhere on my personal “best baseball books I’ve read list” (and you know we don’t want to get into that…not like you need me to cite the list anyway).
Pitching is like auditioning, in many ways. When you pitch a game, you’re judged on that day’s performance; your past doesn’t contribute to the win or loss. At an audition, what you did in your last show doesn’t matter, just how you do in those three minutes that you have. In both cases, you need to keep in mind what you may have had problems with the last time out and work to correct them, but you also can’t let yourself be paralyzed by the memory of past failures. Both actors and pitchers can get off to a bad start and then find themselves scrambling to recover. They can get in trouble by overthinking (I made a bad song choice at an audition last week for no other reason than that I was trying to both outwit everyone else auditioning and was trying too hard to impress the casting director; I went with something because it was unusual, not because it showed my singing off to the best advantage, and that’s a mistake). Both can do well and not get the win (bullpen blows it, the team doesn’t hit) or the role (you’re not pretty enough, you’re too short, you don’t look like the person who would be playing a family member). And in both cases you’re out there alone, hoping to do your best, hoping you can remember how to do your best, and hoping everyone can see that you’re trying to do your best.
2008 has to be better...doesn't it?