By Ron Keurajian
One of the greatest things about the game of baseball is the memories. We all cherish those warm recollections as if they were precious gem stones. I loved listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey broadcast a night game over the radio – and a doubleheader? Forget it! I used to sit in front of the TV and sort out all those baseball cards; matter of fact I still do. To this day I still covet my signed 1977 Topps Mark Fidrych rookie card.
Thoughts of childhood, springtime, and the sounds of the ballpark are the stuff of magic. Whenever I can read about baseball, I do.
The book I’m Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies (St. Martin’s Press, 2016) is a wonderful compilation of insightful and funny baseball ramblings by Tim Kurkjian, long-time commentator for ESPN. The book begins with a foreword penned by George Will.
Kurkjian’s extensive access to the players, managers, and inner workings of the game shines through in the pages with great stories and detailed quotes from many a major leaguer. It makes for an enjoyable read. Kurkjian seamlessly blends humor, history, and in-depth analysis of the game that grabs the reader. There are a lot of side splitting anecdotes found within the pages. You become immersed and feel as if you are right there in the clubhouse with the players.
Each chapter is dedicated to a specific aspect of the game; Unwritten rules, Box Scores, Strikeouts, and so on. Each chapter is packed with little known facts, stories, and insight from the players themselves. I learned that Hughie Jennings is the all-time leader in being hit by the pitch, an incredible 287 times; talk about taking one for the team.
I think it was Ted Williams who once said that hitting a fastball is about the hardest thing to do in any sport. In the chapter titled “The Hardest Game” you get the sense of how tough it is for a player to rise to the major league level and stay there. Kurkjian writes, “The ball is rock hard and it travels at an incomprehensible speed….you can’t feel that unless you are on the field.”
The mental stress of playing the game at the MLB level also is well documented in this chapter. You really get the sense of how difficult the job of playing ball is – it’s more than just a game.
One of the biggest battles among today’s baseball fans is the measurement of the game. Sabermetrics vs. Traditional Analytics. Myself, I am of the traditionalist school of thought. I don’t give much weight to sabermetrics and WAR.
Kurkjian dedicates a lot of text to sabermetrics, it is clear he is more on the traditional side of the coin, though he did tell me that “he finds value in both schools of thought.”
Kurkjian greatly values the intangible skills of a player; “Sabermetrics can’t measure instinct” or “the innate feel for the game.” It is clear Kurkjian finds much worth in the opinion of the men who play and manage the game, like Buck Showalter. The book presents a different way to look at how to measure a player’s worth to the team.
I really like chapter 5, titled “Superstitions.” I have always been amazed at how adult men playing a game can be reduced to irrational thought to gain an edge. Years ago Detroit Tigers legend Charlie Gehringer once told me that you never wanted to see a crossed eyed boy in the stands before a game; “that was the kiss of death” he said; “you knew it wasn’t going to be a good day for your team.”
Some of the routines players go through to secure good luck is delightful. I love the story of journeyman infielder Elliot Johnson and his bubble gum obsession. According to Kurkjian, when Johnson is in the field it was grape bubble gum, but when he was up to bat he switched to watermelon flavored Super Bubble because, quoting Johnson, “the hits are in the watermelon gum.” And then there is Wade Boggs and his routine of eating chicken every time before the game. It must have worked given Boggs has a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.
Ballplayers take seriously the unwritten rules of the game. Certain lines you don’t cross; for example stealing a base when your team is up eight runs in the top of the ninth. I learned a new phrase from this book: pimping around the bases. Players take these rules seriously and Kurkjian gives many fine examples of what happens when an unwritten rule is broken.
For all the humor and levity in this book, it does have a serious side and not only of analytics. The greatness of Tony Gwynn and his untimely passing makes for a somber read. Kurkjian recounts his last meeting with Don Zimmer in the fall of 2013. Zimmer was very ill then and it was the last time the two met – it made me a bit misty eyed to be sure.
There is one shortfall with this book: It does not include an index. This has always been a peeve of mine.
There is so much going for I’m Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies; it is simply a great baseball read. The inside look at the humor and humility of the game of baseball will make this book required reading for decades to come.
Ron Keurajian is a long time contributor to the Sports Collectors Digest and the author of the award winning Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs – A Reference Guide (McFarland Publishing 2012)