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Big K

Over the Plate — Tyler Kepner takes a swing at the history of pitching

When Tyler Kepner got a call from four-time Cy Young Award winner and Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, he was at his son Mack’s baseball game. He had no choice—he had to take the call. “I didn’t even have my recorder with me, so I was scribbling notes on the hood of my car,” he says. “Talking to Maddux while watching Mack pitch; it was surreal.”

Maddux was one of 300 baseball greats Kepner interviewed over a three-year span while writing his book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, now available from Doubleday. A national baseball writer for the New York Times, Kepner has met his share of impressive players. But what made him focus specifically on pitchers?

“In the early days of baseball, pitchers weren’t even a consideration. They were just there to put the ball in play,” he says. “Later, they discovered the power of pitches. Pitching is control. I wanted the stories behind that. Where did creativity on the mound come from?”

Writing in the off-seasons and researching when he traveled for work, Kepner found no shortage stories, and plenty of colorful characters, along the way.

“Carl Erskine, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the ’50s, was talking about the curveball, saying the curve is so dependent on a dominant middle finger that the index finger really just gets in the way,” he recalls. “That reminded him of an old pitcher he’d met when he was in the minors; Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown, who lost a finger in a farming accident and went on to be a Hall of Famer. Erskine said Brown must have had a wicked curveball without that finger.”

More recently, at the 2016 World Series, the last curveball thrown in Game 7 closed out the game, giving the Chicago Cubs their greatest victory in 108 years. It was the first save of left-hander Mike Montgomery’s career. As he told Kepner, he was glad he’d been practicing that pitch all season—starting with throwing it to his mom. When she caught it easily, he worked all year to make it better.

Some interviews were particularly special, like when Kepner was able to get former Philly Steve Carlton on the phone for a rare conversation. “He’s a very private guy, he never talks to the media,” Kepner says. “So when I got him on the phone, it was a big thrill.”

Kepner traveled to meet some players, including former Orioles and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. Inducted into the Hall of Fame this past January, Mussina lives where he grew up, in central Pennsylvania. “After 12 years as a writer and eight covering the Yankees, I knew a lot about him. I knew he was a very bright guy,” says Kepner, who met Mussina in a local cafe. “And there he is, living a simple, small town life in Pennsylvania.”

Other interviews were tougher to land, and ultimately priceless.

Tyler Kepner

Wilton resident and New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner.

“I’d been trying to reach Roy Halladay, which was tricky. I was about to give up,” Kepner says of the right-hander who pitched for the Blue Jays and Phillies. “But he came to Philly in 2017 and the guys there knew I wanted to talk to him so they gave him the heads up.”

Halladay and Kepner talked about his admiration for Mariano Rivera’s famous cutter, and how he’d tracked Rivera down at the 2008 All-Star game to learn precisely how he did it. In the end, it would be the last long interview Halladay did before he died tragically in a plane crash in 2018. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame this past January, along with Mariano Rivera.
The stories are endless, spanning generations, epic match-ups, and every era of America’s favorite pastime; all through the lens of the pitcher.

Kepner says he’s proud that most of the book was written right here in town, at two of his favorite work spots. “If I was going over stats or research notes, I was at the Coffee Barn,” he says. “When I was writing, I was at Wilton Library.”

If you want to learn the history of the slider, why the splitter faded out 20-odd years ago, or how the curveball first came about (hint: it involves flipping seashells on a Brooklyn beach), you’ll find it in K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, a collection of great stories told by those who lived them, beautifully captured by a passionate, lifelong student of the game.

 

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