Excerpt: My Mom Was My Catcher

Originally Published: May 11, 2007
By Tim Kurkjian | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Is This a Great Game, or What?" by Tim Kurkjian. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press. Click here for information on how to purchase the book.

Great Game
It is the best game. Ask anyone who follows it. Ask George Will; he says, "Baseball is the background music in my life." Ask Billy Crystal; he got chills the first time he met Ted Williams. Ask Jon Miller, the best broadcaster in the game today. I once went to his room at midnight in Minneapolis after he had called an Orioles-Twins game. He was playing Strat-O-Matic by himself. "I love the Blue Jays bullpen," he said. Ask the president of the United States. As I went through the receiving line at the White House in 2003, Mr. Bush whispered in my ear, "Who hit the home runs for the Yankees today? Did Ruben hit one?"

It is the best game because once it grabs you, it never lets go; it is so seductive, it really is important for some to know whether Ruben Sierra hit a home run today. I am so incurably hooked by my passion, I check Sierra's batting line first thing every day for a far more important reason: to see if he was hit by a pitch. He has not been hit by a pitch since 1990. How pathetic am I? The daily ritual of devouring box scores at the breakfast table is a rite reserved only for baseball, and intriguing box score lines don't just appear such as Ben Petrick's 3-0-0-4 or Curtis Granderson's 5-0-5-0 -- they fly off the page and hit me in the face. And to be sure I absorb them, I have cut out every box score from every game for the last seventeen years, like a seven-year-old doing a current events assignment with scissors and tape.

"You know you can get all that on the Internet," said my wife, Kathy.

"I know," I said, "but I remember it better when I do it by hand."

It is the best game because the players look like us. They are not seven feet tall, they don't weigh 350 pounds, and they don't bench-press 650. We can relate to them. We can see them -- they're not obscured by some hideous face mask, and they don't play behind a wall of Plexiglas -- we can touch them and we can feel them. I see Greg Maddux with his shirt off, with his concave chest and no discernible muscles, and I marvel: This is one of the six greatest pitchers in the history of the game? I see Tony Gwynn with his shirt off and I see a short, fat guy with the smallest hands I've ever seen on an athlete, and I wonder: "This is the best hitter since Ted Williams?" This game is open to all shapes and sizes, including the Cardinals' David Eckstein, who is five feet six; he can't throw, he gets hit by a pitch thirty times just to get on base, and he was the shortstop for the World Champion Angels in 2002 and the World Champion Cardinals in 2006. Pedro Martinez told me that when he was in the minor leagues, he weighed 138 pounds and threw 93mph. How can that be? Mets reliever Billy Wagner is five feet nine and throws 100mph. "The first time I met him," said six-ten pitcher Randy Johnson, "I thought, 'This guy is a foot shorter than me, and he throws harder than I do.'"

Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer doesn't throw harder than anyone -- about 83mph -- yet he has been one of the game's most consistent pitchers over the last ten years. On the ride home from the ballpark one night after a game he pitched, one of his young sons asked him, "Dad, can't you throw just one pitch 90 (mph)? Just one?" To which, Jamie Moyer said, "Son, that's not how I pitch." As they drove on, Moyer's son noticed how fast his dad was driving. "Dad," he said, "you are driving the car faster than you throw a baseball."

The players, at least most of them, and their stories, are so human. Former pitcher Pete Harnisch helped work his way through Fordham University by appearing in police lineups. "Twenty-five bucks for a regular case," he said. "Fifty bucks for a murder case." Ex-Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek was the only player who showed up for World Series parties in 1987 and '91 because the food and beer were free. In 1990, he met White Sox rookie Craig Grebeck, who wore number 14, same number as Hrbek, and was roughly half his size: 280 pounds to 140 pounds. "You're too small to wear that number," Hrbek told him. "Put a slash between the 1 and the 4 and be 1/4." Hrbek went camping with Andy Van Slyke. "Around the campfire," Van Slyke said, "he played a tape recording of his favorite farts."

Ryan Klesko
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesWhen Ryan Klesko was a high school pitcher, his mother used to catch for him in his backyard.
They are regular guys, at least most of them, who just happen to be really, really good at something that everyone else is not. Padres outfielder Ryan Klesko was a terrific high school pitcher. He had a mound in his backyard. His mother often caught him. "She wore a mask," Klesko said, "but no shin guards." The mother of former major-league infielder Casey Candaele played in the Women's Professional Baseball League, which was glorified in the movie A League of Their Own. "She had a better swing than mine," Candaele said with a smile. "She was the only mother ever to be banned from playing in father-son baseball games at school because she was too good." Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan's seventy-two-year-old grandfather was his catcher in the backyard. "If I threw too far inside or too far outside, he couldn't reach it," Flanagan said. "And if he missed it, he would have to chase it. So I had to learn how to hit the target."

Normal guys? Rangers outfielder George Wright went three for five on Opening Day 1982. "Did you have fun today?" I asked. He said, "Yeah, I'd never been to a major-league game before." Amazing: the first major-league game he had ever seen, he played in and got three hits. Former reliever Bob Patterson used to fix the gloves of teammates as he sat in the bullpen during the early innings. Teammate Gary Redus called him Dr. Glove. In the minor leagues, he was nicknamed Emmett after the fix-it man on The Andy Griffith Show. "He's coming over Saturday to upholster my couch," said Rich Donnelly, one of his coaches. The day Keith Hernandez left home after being drafted in 1975, he packed his Strat-O-Matic in his suitcase. "You're not taking that," his father said. "You're a professional ballplayer now.'" Hernandez said, "But, Dad, I'm halfway through the '72 season!"

Human? Brewers third baseman Jeff Cirillo made the 1997 All-Star team. As he was stowing his overhead luggage in the plane on his way to the game, a man behind him asked, "Aren't you Jeff Cirillo?" Cirillo was shocked that anyone recognized him. "Yes, I am," he said proudly. The man said, "Aren't you going to the All-Star game?" Cirillo said yes.

"This plane is going to Detroit," the man said.

Even the best players, at least some of them, are genuine. There is no finer person, no more unpretentious superstar, than Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson of the Orioles. When Robin Roberts came to Baltimore late in his career, he unsuccessfully tried to field a bunt down the third-base line, preventing Robinson from making his trademark barehand catch-and-throw play. Robinson patted Roberts on the butt and said, "Let me have that one the next time; I'm good on that play." In the late '70s, Gordon Beard, a sportswriter in Baltimore, made a speech at one of the retirement functions for Robinson. "In New York," Beard said, "they named a candy bar after Reggie Jackson. Here in Baltimore, we name our children after Brooks Robinson."

It is the best game because it's a romantic game. Our finest essayists write poetically about it, yet ultimately they're all wrong. In truth, it is a hard game played by hard men; the romance disappears when that ball is traveling at your face at an incomprehensible rate of speed. It is, without question, the hardest game in the world to play, yet it looks so easy on TV. It isn't. My wish is for everyone in America to get one at-bat in a major-league game against Randy Johnson, and to stand even with third base when Albert Pujols hits a rocket down the line. Then everyone would appreciate what I appreciate: the speed of the game and the danger involved. It is a game that requires tremendous skill, athleticism, and courage. It is golf, except with running, jumping, throwing, sliding, and an overwhelming fear of the ball. PGA Tour players are amazingly skilled and disciplined, but imagine hitting an eight-iron into a green with a baseball that's hard as a rock and coming at you at 95mph, or, after finishing your swing, having to avoid a 225-pound man in metal spikes who is coming at your knees at full speed. How hard is it? Ask Danny Ainge, perhaps the best all-round athlete of the last twenty-five years. There wasn't a sport that he couldn't play, and he did play in the major leagues, but when Orioles pitcher Tippy Martinez was asked what he threw to get Ainge out, he said, "Strikes."

How hard? Ask Michael Jordan. His greatest feat was not leading the NBA in scoring by more than eight points and winning Defensive Player of the Year in the same year, it was hitting .202 in Double-A ball after having not played baseball since high school, sixteen years earlier. It was a miracle that he hit that high. I thought he would hit .050, and I wasn't alone. Jordan will tell you that hitting a baseball is a lot harder than hitting a jump shot. A great NBA shooter misses ten shots in a row and he can't wait to shoot the eleventh because he knows it's going in. But a major-league hitter goes twenty at-bats without a hit, and he's a mess. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, and is the most confident hitter I've ever met, told me "I went something like 0 for twenty-five during my second year and I honestly thought I'd never get another hit." Dante Bichette was a really good hitter for nearly ten years, but he told me, "Every day I come to the park I wonder if it's the last day I'll be able to hit in the big leagues."

Michael Jordaon
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWhat was Michael Jordan's greatest accomplishment? Hitting .202 in Double-A ball.
How hard? The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez has been the game's best player for the last ten years. His talent level is astonishingly high, far higher than that of Derek Jeter. Someday, he might be the all-time home run king, and could have the best numbers this side of Babe Ruth.

And yet, due to his failures in the postseason for the Yankees in 2004-06, critics have questioned his ability, his courage and his heart. He has been savaged by the press in New York and the fans at Yankee Stadium, where he has been booed liked an itinerant player with no track record rather than a two-time MVP, and the only infielder ever to win a Gold Glove in a 50-homer season. Only in baseball can the most gifted player on the field perform like the worst player some nights. That can't happen in basketball. On a bad night, Larry Bird was the best player on the court, the guy who always took the last shot.

There's nothing wrong with A-Rod's heart. It's his head. "The guys who are most affected by slumps are the bright guys who think so much and care so much," says veteran outfielder Jeff Conine. A-Rod cares too much about things around him, especially his image, and he thinks way too much. In 2006, he spoke on the phone for ninety minutes with ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale looking for answers for his hitting woes, as if Dickie V. might actually say something that would help A-Rod hit a 98mph heater. Basketball players just react, they let their bodies take over because there's no time to do anything else. In baseball, with so much time to think, a player can think himself into trouble.

"You know what he's thinking right now?" a former teammate of A-Rod said after A-Rod made the final out of the eighth inning of a playoff game against the Tigers in 2006. "He's thinking 'great, I don't have to bat in the ninth inning?'" What? That's what a scared, overmatched, ten-year-old thinks! How can a guy with 460 home runs at age thirty-one think like that? It's baseball. It will strangle you if you let it. That's what makes it the best game.

How hard? Of all the stupid hypothetical questions I like to ask, my favorite is, "How many hits would you get in a hundred at-bats against Randy Johnson?" The answer for me is simple: zero. Any other fifty-year-old who hasn't played since high school, and thinks it's higher than zero, has no idea what he's talking about. Why? Because Johnson would sense my fear, he'd buzz the tower my first time up, and I'd never get back in there, and neither would you. I told this to ESPN's Dan Patrick on his radio show, explaining that he, too, would get zero hits in a hundred at-bats against Randy Johnson. Patrick is a good athlete, so he disagreed. I told Dan that he would get zero hits in a hundred at-bats against 200-game winner Jamie Moyer, whom I chose only because he's left-handed (Dan hits right-handed) and is a finesse pitcher who throws 83 mph, and not quite as scary.

"I'd get a hit off Jamie Moyer," Patrick said.

The next day, Jamie Moyer came on his radio show.

"You would never get a hit off me," Moyer said.

It is the best game because of its unpredictability. Every day you go to the ballpark, you might see something you've never seen in your life. How many other people can say that about their jobs? I saw Brad Komminsk disappear over the eight-feet-high fence in left-center field at Memorial Stadium after making a spectacular catch; his hand, with the ball in it, eventually reached over the top of the fence. I saw Bo Jackson run up the same fence, like a skateboarder on a banked turn, after making a great running catch. I saw Bert Blyleven strike out nine batters in one game, all called third strikes. I saw a deranged fan jump out of the upper deck and land on the netting behind the plate at Yankee Stadium. I saw Jeff Stone make an out at all four bases in one game. Think about that one.

Unpredictable? Look, no one loves basketball more than I do. But in many basketball games, you know who is going to win, and how the game is going to be played, before it starts. When the Clippers would go to Chicago to play the dynastic Bulls, they couldn't win. That's never the case in baseball. No team in baseball goes 39-2 at home. Only in baseball can someone -- in this case, me -- pick the Angels to win the seven-team American League West in 1991, and the Twins to finish last, then have the Twins finish first and the Angels finish last. And I wasn't the only dope who made that call. In basketball, Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan, and Paul Mokeski is Paul Mokeski, and it never changes. The best player always dominates the game. The last guy on the bench never takes the game-winning shot. But in baseball, the best player might not even be a factor in the game, and his team can still win. The last player on the bench, be it Tom Lawless or Lenny Webster, or Geoff Blum in Game 3 of the 2005 World Series, might win the game. Francisco Cabrera was the last guy on the bench for the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Pirates. His only expected role that night was to catch the ceremonial first ball before the game, yet his two-out, two-run single off Stan Belinda won the game and ruined the Pirates for what is now fourteen years: It remains the only postseason Game 7 ever to end on a two-out hit that took a team from behind to ahead.

It is the best game because of its rich history and tradition, from the seventh-inning stretch to my wife's favorite: the simple tossing of a baseball to the first baseman as he runs in after each inning so he'll have a baseball in his mitt for the next inning. It is a game of copiously kept statistics that have real meaning; they allow us to compare eras. At the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway Park, Ted Williams, who was introduced as The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, sat in his wheelchair next to the pitcher's mound before the game. At the subtle urging of Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken -- no surprise it was those guys -- the rest of the All-Stars surrounded Williams to talk to the great man. "Can you smell the smoke on your bat when you really hit one?" Williams asked Mark McGwire. The current All-Stars revered Williams because they knew if he were playing today, he would be the best hitter on the field. And they would be right. If this had been a gathering of NBA basketball players, and that had been George Mikan, the first great big man in the league's history, sitting at center court, with all due respect, Shaquille O'Neal probably would have thought, "Man, I'd dunk every time on this guy," and he would be right.

It is the best game because it's a daily game with great rhythm and flow to it. The game writes itself, and, if you're paying attention, it never disappoints. There are few days off, and, thankfully, fewer off-day stories to write.

Baseball is the only major sport in which some of the standard-bearers have been dead for fifty years, and a team that hasn't played in eighty years, the 1927 Yankees, are still mentioned in casual conversation, as in "The Indians are a good hitting team, but they're not the '27 Yankees." It is the only sport in which we can argue who was better, Walter Johnson or Roger Clemens, Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. Johnson was the best ever, and not because I'm biased because I went to his high school, but because he threw 113 shutouts, more than Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Curt Schilling combined. Who is better, Bonds or Ruth? Entering the 2006 season, Ruth had as many career shutouts as Pedro Martinez (17). When Bonds becomes a pitcher, then we'll talk about who is the greatest baseball player of all time.

It is the best game because it begins in the spring, a time when the flowers are blooming, the snow has melted, and summer is ahead. People build their vacations around baseball trips. Countless times I have met a family that is in the middle of a two-week odyssey in which they are visiting ten different major-league ballparks. They don't do trips like that in the NFL, do they? Baseball fans spend March going to every spring training site. Do football fans spend August visiting every NFL training camp? You're not even allowed in those places for fear that you might steal a team's game plan for next week. Does anyone really say, "We have to go to Arco Arena" in Sacramento? No. Why? Because NFL stadiums and NBA arenas are largely the same. The dimensions of the field and the court are always exactly the same. But in baseball, they're all different. When my family visited Wrigley Field in 2003, my wife, no big baseball fan, was dazzled by the ivy on the outfield walls and the hand-operated scoreboard. Every ballpark is different in its own way. I know. I've covered a game in forty-eight of them.

It is the best game because it is a family game, one that begins every spring with a father, or Ryan Klesko's mother, taking a son to the backyard for a game of catch. The Bell family is a three-generation family of big leaguers. Gus Bell, then with the Reds, would watch his son Buddy play as a kid, but so as not to draw any extra attention, Gus would sit alone in his car beyond the center-field fence. "If I made a good play," Buddy said, "he'd honk his horn once. For a great play, he'd honk twice." The Tyler family works in Baltimore. Jimmy runs the Oriole clubhouse. Fred runs the visiting clubhouse. Their dad, Ernie, is the umpire attendant. He has not missed a home game since he took the job in 1960, a Ripkenesque streak. There are thirteen Tylers, Ernie, Mom, and eleven kids. They once all lived in the same house at the same time. A baseball family indeed.

It is the best game because it's a daily game with great rhythm and flow to it. The game writes itself, and, if you're paying attention, it never disappoints. There are few days off, and, thankfully, fewer off-day stories to write. When Tracy Ringolsby, a Hall of Fame baseball writer, filled in briefly on his newspaper's NFL coverage years ago, he asked a question of Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer, who scolded him, saying, "Today's Monday; that's a Tuesday question." In football, coaches can't completely comment on a game "until we've seen the film." In baseball, there is enough time between plays, between pitches, you have time to analyze it. In baseball, you don't wonder if the home run is going to be called back because of a penalty. You don't have to wait for the referee to stare into the replay monitor for twenty minutes to determine that, yes, now you're allowed to celebrate. And, in baseball, the ground can indeed cause a fumble.