21 April 2011

The Mental Game

"Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical."

Yogi Berra is credited with that bit of wisdom. Funny thing, it is true. Baseball is a mental game. The pace may be languid, and the physical action sporadic, but the athleticism required to play professionally is a rare trait. A small percentage of the population has that kind of talent. A small percentage of those athletes make it to the big time. What separates the ones who stick from the ones who don't is mental. Fortitude. Perseverance. Desire. And what separates the greatest players is their ability to learn--to adapt and adjust. To maximize what they have and acquire new skills. Jim Kaplan's new book, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century, brought this point home.

Mr. Kaplan relates a story about Juan Marichal telling Willie McCovey that he was going to change his approach before a game, asking him to play deeper in left field. It was June 15, 1963, at Candlestick Park and the opposing team was the Houston Colt 45s (later Astros). McCovey, amazed that the red-hot Marichal would be messing with things coming off a shutout and five straight wins, obliged nonetheless. Marichal explained that the Colts had hit him hard last time, and he needed to give them a new look. Here's Kaplan:
After consulting his notes on opponents, Marichal had concluded that Houston players were getting a preview of the coming pitch by reading his grip. Abandoning his high leg kick, he hid the ball, brought his hands together belt high and pivoted quickly.
McCovey wound up making a play on the fence late in the game to get an out and help preserve Marichal's no-hitter. Warren Spahn had the same attitude. Here's more from Kaplan:
"I don't pitch the hitter the same way from season to season," said Spahn, who could remember pitches he'd thrown 15 years prior. "Why? Well, I think hard about hitters and try to think the way they think. So there's always the possibility that the hitter may have given considerable thought to the way I pitched him in the previous year and he might be looking forward to those pitches next year."
A little later in the same chapter:
Like Spahn, Marichal had an extensive mental book on hitters' weaknesses. "This is a guessing game," he said. "I'm always trying to guess what the hitters are guessing. I haven't gotten any better, only smarter."
On July 2nd of the same 1963 season, Spahn and Marichal would pitch a 16-inning 1-0 game in San Francisco that Willie Mays would end with a home run. Spahn was pitching for the Milwaukee Braves (now Atlanta), the club he had come up with when they were still in Boston. That game is the subject of Kaplan's book, but it's really about two men, two ballplayers from different backgrounds and different generations. Their personal histories and their accomplishments on and off the field are interwoven throughout the account of the great pitching duel. Spahn was 42, and just about at the end, while Marichal was 25 and just beginning his exceptional run of great seasons (familiar to every Giants fan). Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history, died in 2003 aged 82. His son Greg supplies the forward for the book.

Stories about baseball before the era of division play and free agency naturally contrast sharply with much of today's game. But the game itself, and the contest of wills between the participants, remains the same. I get the feeling that Mr. Kaplan is nostalgic for a lost era of baseball, before Twitter and ESPN and whatnot. I was nine years old when the NL West and NL East were created, and I was in high school when Andy Messersmith was granted free agency. I'm not sure I've known anything but modern baseball. I remember though, when people watched the play on the field and not Jumbotrons or iPhone screens. So I can relate to his longing for some of those bygone things.

Read The Greatest Game Ever Pitched and tell me what you think.

20 April 2011

New music

I splurged yesterday at the Music Coop in Ashland. They have a new location right on the main drag and I had to check it out. The owners were happy and in a chatty mood. When I walked in Bob Dylan's Together Through Life was playing. I hadn't heard it, but it sounded much like the stuff from Love and Theft and Modern Times, both of which I like, so I bought it. CD #1. Then I rummaged through the Dylan section and found New Morning, one of my favorites ("If Not For You," "Day of the Locusts," "Went To See The Gypsy") and in need of replacing as the LP is almost shot and the tape made from the LP sounds terrible. CD #2. In the new releases bin I saw Low Country Blues from Gregg Allman and decided to take a chance on it. I've always loved his voice and the Allman Brothers Band made some of my all-time favorite music "back in the day." If the old survivor is going to sing the blues I want to hear it. CD #3. Remember Ronnie Montrose and "Rock the Nation"? Well, that album was up in the display area in the M's and got me looking through the 13th letter of the alphabet. I came across Mink DeVille's Le Chat Bleu, remastered and re-released with oodles of bonus tracks (including an interview with Doc Pomus). Willy DeVille unfortunately passed away in 2009, but his music lives on. "Venus of Avenue D" (from Cabretta) was one of those minor FM hits that got airplay in the Bay Area on stations like KSAN when I was in high school. My older brother Brian had a classmate who was tuned into all the hippest and coolest music, he turned us both on to acts like The Tubes, Patti Smith Group, and Mink DeVille. Thank goodness--I was fixated on Journey, Robin Trower, and Fleetwood Mac at the time! CD #4. I'm always on the lookout for good be-bop recordings, and the so-called Rudy Van Gelder Series from Blue Note is usually a solid bet. I got interested in saxophonist Hank Mobley because of his work with Miles Davis, and I previously bought the excellent Soul Station. The latest addition is Roll Call and features the same band (Paul Chambers, Art Blakey, Wynton Kelly) as well as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. It was recorded on 13 November, 1960, my 1st birthday! CD # 5. My namesake Mark O'Connor is a man of great musical versatility, and any album with my name on it is likely to garner my attention. I love his jazz forays and the one I picked up is called Live in New York and features his Hot Swing Trio. CD #6. The final disc in the shopping spree was playing when I left the store. The owner kidded me about how he wasn't trying to sell the CDs he was playing, he just played what he liked. Yeah, sure. Worked on me. It was a recent Sam Cooke collection called Portrait of a Legend and contains over 30 tracks. No one has a voice like Mr. Cooke. If you looked up "soulful" in the dictionary there should be a picture of Sam next to the entry. Another brilliant artist and performer who died too young. CD #7.

Not a bad haul, eh?

19 April 2011

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

Jim Kaplan's new book starts like this:
For four hours, 10 minutes, and 16 innings, all through the night of July 2, 1963, and into July 3, Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal slugged it out like a veteran boxer and a young contender.
That's what they call a "hook" in the book trade. It worked for me, of course, being baseball fan and a Giants junkie. I was contacted a few weeks ago by some nice folks at Triumph Books asking if I would be interested in a "review copy" of Mr. Kaplan's The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century. Let's see: free book, Juan Marichal, Candlestick Park, Warren Spahn, SF Giants, baseball history . . . uh, sure, OK. Like I was going to say "no." Funny thing, I don't read a lot of baseball books. I mean, I don't actually read The Baseball Encyclopedia (I have the 7th ed.) even though I've spent a lot of time in my life with that book on my lap. (Nowadays I peruse Baseball-Reference.com.) I did read David Halberstam's Summer of '49 and October 1964, both of which were excellent. And W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe remains a favorite (the film version is a bit heavy-handed for my taste--Mr. Costner is far better in Bull Durham and has much better co-stars). I couldn't watch Ken Burns' Baseball, it kept putting me to sleep. Despite the fact that I'm a Giants baseball fanatic and follow the major leagues pretty closely, I'm actually not all that qualified to write a review of a baseball book. I just don't consume that many of them! I'm much better with 40s and 50s noir or post-modern SF. Alas, duty calls!

Look for my review at the end of the week on my Giants blog Raising Matt Cain.

03 April 2011

I rode my bike today

I haven't been on my bicycle since my accident. That fall and subsequent concussion took place on September 15th, 2010. Today the sunny weather gave me a chance to think about a mountain bike ride instead of a trip to the ski park. I chose the ride. I took my time and went slowly. I even got off and walked on some narrow uphill single-track. The creeks in Greenhorn Park were raging. I had to make three crossings. The first was ankle deep and I could push the bike. The second was a bit shallower and I rode across. The third was knee-deep and I had to carry the bike! Good thing I wore my wool socks.