I know what a slider is at White Castle, but…

October 4, 2015 • Posted in baseball, blindness, Mike Knezovich, radio, Uncategorized, writing by

I’ve learned a lot about baseball from my husband Mike Knezovich over the years, but one aspect of the game that still confounds me is pitching. Which direction do curve balls curve? What’s the difference between a slider and a cutter?

Thanks to our generous friends Don Horvath and Juli Crabtree, we were able to enjoy last night’s White Sox win against the Detroit Tigers. Fans were given “Stretch Sale toys at the door to commemorate White Sox pitcher Chris Sale’s single-season record-breaking 270 strikeouts. I fondled my Stretch Sale throughout the game, and now I finally understand why legendary Los Angeles Dodgers baseball announcer Vin Scully refers to him as “Mr. Bones” and others liken the 170-pound 6’7” left-hander’s wind-up to a strained inverted w “ akin to a scarecrow.”

The Chris Sale action figure I got at last night's game -- words alone could never describe this stance.

The Chris Sale action figure I got at last night’s game.

Mike is always around to answer my baseball questions, and good radio announcers like the Brewers’ Bob Uecker, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Dave Wills, and Giants’ Jonathan Miller have been a big help in my understanding the game, but I am still left to wonder how it is that baseball fanatics and skilled announcers can accurately predict that the next pitch will be a change-up or a braking ball, or more simply, a strike or a ball.

And so, at this time each year, as we enter the playoffs, I turn to literature to help me better understand how pitching works. And year after year, literature has disappointed me.

Perfect I’m Not by David Wells taught me more about beer, brawls, and backaches than about pitching a baseball. I found Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, annoying, probably because Jim Bouton reads the audio book himself, and he’s pretty arrogant. Author Buzz Bissinger follows the St. Louis Cardinals through a 2003 three-game stint against the Chicago Cubs Three Nights in August. The book was entertaining because I’d listened to that three-game series myself on the radio (2003 was the year Mike and I moved to Chicago) but I would have learned a lot more about pitching if Bissinger’s book had focused on Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan’s decision-making rather than fawning over Tony La Russa.

I’d just about given up learning anything about pitching from reading books when I opened up my daily Writer’s Almanac online on Saturday, September 19 and learned it was Roger Angell’s birthday that day. The almanac said Angell was born in New York in 1920, and his mother and stepfather were well known in the literary world. His mother was Katharine Sergeant Angell, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor, and his step-father was E.B. White, the essayist and children’s author.

The almanac said Roger Angell started working for The New Yorker in 1956 and is best known for writing about baseball. “He was 79 when he published his first full-length book, A Pitcher’s Story.”

What? A Pitcher’s Story? I looked for Angell’s first “full-length book” on BARD, the Library of Congress National Library Service that provides audio books free of charge to people who are blind or visually handicapped, and bingo! A Pitcher’s Story was available. It did not disappoint.

Example? In Chapter 7 (called “Get a Grip”) Angell is sitting in the Yankee bullpen and asks pitcher David Cone to describe how he holds a baseball for each pitch, and what he expects to happen next. He asks readers to put down their book and “root around the house for an old baseball.” I did as I was told and found mine in my top dresser drawer, signed by White Sox pitcher Roberto Hernandez after I met him in a sports store in the late 1990s and asked to feel the circumference of his upper arm with my two hands. Oh, my.

But back to Roger Angell’s “A Pitcher’s Story:

The ball, it will be seen, keeps representing a horseshoe curve of stitches when rotated. There are four of them. If we grab a horseshoe so that the first and middle-finger fingertips just slip over the top broadmost curve of the stitches, a red row of stiching will appear to run down the aver side of both fingers, as if to frame them. With these two fingers slightly parted, the odd conviction comes that you’re on top of the ball.

”This is the two—seamer,” Cone tells Angell in the book. “You’ve got it!” Cone describes how to adjust the two-seamer into a four-seamer, and how four-seamers are meant to cut the wind, while two-seamers tend to sink. “The one-liner is just a variation on the two-seamer,” Cone says. “Let your finger slip a little toward the wider white area of the ball, and you press down more with your forefinger.” “They moved on from there to the curve, the slider, the splitter, and Angell acknowledges that he’d hoped to sit down with Cone before one of his starts so Cone might go over one of the other team’s batting orders, describe each batters’ strengths and weaknesses and let Angell know his plans. “It was a dumb idea,” Angell concedes, and while I get back to playing with my Chris Sale doll, I’ll leave you with Roger Angell explaining why that was so dumb:

Each hitter and turn at bat presents the pitcher not with a fixed offensive array, but with something fluid and conditional, a cloud chamber of variables. The count, the score, the inning, the number of outs, the position of base runners, the umpire’s strike zone, capability of the outfielders, the quickness of the catcher, how much you can trust this particular receiver to handle the splitter in the dirt, the runner at third, how this next hitter was swinging in his last at-bat and the one before that.

Let the playoffs begin!

Brad On October 4, 2015 at 2:51 pm

Thanks for the baseball lesson, Beth. I never thought I’d learn so much about b’ball from the likes of you. Just kidding. Good luck next year, Sox, but Cleveland will probably be better, too.

bethfinke On October 4, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Ha! I learned everything I know from Mike Knezovich…and Roger Angell.


Marilee On October 4, 2015 at 3:33 pm

I learned something about baseball! I have a lot to learn!! And I am now a new follower of the Writer’s Almanac. Learning something new everyday!

bethfinke On October 4, 2015 at 3:52 pm

You will love Writer’s Almanac. I sure do!


WandaB On October 4, 2015 at 6:53 pm

WOW!!! VER – RY INTER – RESTING. All the years I followed baseball American, National and Negro Leagues on radio, television and in the Parks I was truly a naïve spectator. The players, especially pitcher and catcher have a lot of reading to do.
Reading the pitcher should have dawned on me because, Mr. Branch, our director at Harding Playground always told us to be aware of signals of the opposing team. Watch for meaning of their hand, head and body movements.
In my sedentary years I think I will try to rekindle enthusiasm for the game. Got a lot of catching up to do. (Smile)
Hugs all around. Wanda B.

Cindy Hesselbein On October 4, 2015 at 9:37 pm

Hi Beth,
It’s Cindy Hesselbein the puppy raiser from North Barrington School. You were out at our school 4 or 5 years ago and we would love to have you back this year. Can you email me this week?


bethfinke On October 4, 2015 at 10:09 pm

Will do!


Anne Hunt On October 5, 2015 at 10:40 am

I am forwarding this to my sister who is a baseball nut! She is an artist who loves to draw pitchers (especially White Sox pitchers). This may give her a new way of approaching her drawing! Have a great day!

bethfinke On October 5, 2015 at 11:06 am

Cool! Maybe she can do 3-D visualization. And if she can’t, there’s always that talendted artist granddaughter of yours…


Marian Loomis On October 5, 2015 at 12:07 pm

I’m Marian Loomis,Anne and Bruce Hunt’s Sister.I have a large painting of Chris Sale in my dining room. It’s not 3-D but I’ve done sculpture and I’ll think about it. The White Sox’ season is over and it’s been a tough one. Still, I’m feeling a bit of melancholy for my team even though the post season is always wonderful. White Sox fans on the California Central Coast are rare as hen’s teeth but I’m proud to be a life-long fan…and we will always have 2005! I’ve subscribed to your blog and I’m looking forward to reading it. So much of what Anne sent me of your blog resonated with me.Roger Angell-how I looked forward to his commentary on Spring Training every year…3-D baseball players. I’ll be thinking and looking at my Paul Konerko bobble head in the process. Good to meet you!

bethfinke On October 5, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Marian — I had no idea Bruce and Anne were related to such a rabid White Sox fan, I do hope you have a chance to meet my husband Mike Knezovich sometime, you two could go on for hours! I’m flattered you’re following our blog now, and if you type “White Sox” into the search box here you’ll find all sorts of things we’ve written about our team. Second to my new Sale Stretch doll, my Nancy Faust bobble-head is my fave piece of White Sox memorabilia. PS: I love the saying “rare as hen’s teeth”!


Anne Hunt On October 6, 2015 at 8:56 am

So glad you have met my sister! We will call you when she’s in town as we only talk Cubs up here on the North Side. The baseball conversations could go on for hours! I told her to look for the Nancy Faust piece you wrote on your blog…

bethfinke On October 6, 2015 at 9:01 am

Oh, I hope she does look up my Nancy Faust blogs, I think she’ll like them!


nancyfaustjenkins On October 11, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Thanks to your blog, I never stop learning . Like you , Roger Angell , a brilliant writer with such a fascinating background. Charlotte’s Web influenced my compassion for animals to this day .

bethfinke On October 11, 2015 at 10:04 pm

Ah, yes, and I remember very well our teacher turning down the lights in our classroom and reading E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” out loud to us every afternoon while we put our heads on our desks to “rest.” Roger Angell was in good company!


Bryan McMurray On October 16, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Beth, What a great great column, writing! I loved it! I will read Angel’s book! I have had those pitching questions and followed baseball since I was 7! I admit, not easy to you, that I am a Cubs fan, but it is great fun this time around! You and Mike are just, great! I hope you see this, I am not sure when I hit reply, where this goes! Bryan


bethfinke On October 17, 2015 at 10:35 am

Bryan, I saw (okay, heard) this loud & clear, thanks for sending. Will email you separately to let you know this for sure. But hey, what’s a nice southside boy like you doing rooting for the Cubs?!????


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I know what a slider is at White Castle, but… | Safe & Sound blog

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