Throwing a change-up, author tells his personal baseball tale

WASHINGTON — As many a pitching coach will tell you, the secret to success on the mound doesn’t lie in overpowering the hitter. Pitching is about changing speeds, hitting your spots, and keeping the hitter off-balance, guessing what’s coming next.

After 35 years of writing about crime and terrorism for the LA Times and other publications, Terry McDermott’s latest offering “Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception” is nothing if not a change-up of his own.

“I’m not a sports writer and never have been,” McDermott told WTOP.

But as a lifelong baseball fan born in the corn fields of eastern Iowa, he’s always loved talking about the game. Finally, he decided he needed a break from the grind of his normal beat.

“It’s an exhausting subject and it’s depressing too, as you can imagine,” he said of writing about terrorism. “There’s just nothing happy about it. There aren’t very many good days. The reporting is interesting, but it just tears you down.”

Initially seeming like a simple distraction, the project turned out to be more of a challenge than McDermott had bargained for. He didn’t put a complex proposal together, and actually sold the book on just three sentences. They entailed basically a list of nicknames for curveballs, how pitches evolve, come into game, and disappear. There was just one problem.

“When I got down to starting on the book, I had no idea what the book was,” he said. “That’s why you do the proposal, I guess.”

There was actually another problem, one that persisted throughout the creative process. Once McDermott finally settled on a format — structuring the book into nine chapters around a pitching performance — he needed to lock down his subject.

We all bring our own personal experience of baseball to our understanding and telling of it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that McDermott’s book revolves around a game pitched by a member of the Seattle Mariners, his favorite team. But it wasn’t the Mariner he had planned for.

His original intent was to use a start from Jamie Moyer, his favorite pitcher of all time and a master of off speed pitches. Moyer initially agreed to sign on, but McDermott got distracted with other projects. By the time he came back around, Moyer had decided to do his own book.

That set off a chain reaction of false starts and stops. In all, he McDermott cycled through 28 pitchers, about half of them actually agreeing initially, then backing out, before he finally settled on Felix Hernandez’s perfect game from 2012. Superstition, largely, was the culprit.

“Many of them would agree. Then a week later, when we were getting serious, they would back out, for the reason I mentioned — they thought they were giving away their stuff,” said McDermott. “Professional terrorists are more eager to tell you what they do than professional baseball pitchers.”

Given the embarrassingly rich and deep amount of data available on every major league pitch thrown these days, he found the reticence something between amusing and annoying.

“I can tell you what you threw last Thursday night at 8:57 p.m.,” McDermott said. “I can tell you what you threw on 1-2 counts every game the last five years.”

In the end he got one of just 23 perfect games ever thrown, perhaps a blessing in disguise. But when he finished, neither he nor his editor were too pleased with the final product. The editor told him to dump the personal stuff in the book. Instead, he cut a bunch of the history and doubled down on his own connection to the game, interspersing his story and memories into the narrative. As a result, the final product moves both slowly through Hernandez’s game itself, but simultaneously to all parts of McDermott’s life, like some combination of the baseball film “For Love of the Game” and Kurt Vonnegut’s quasi-autobiographical “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

There is detail and history that both novice and expert fans can appreciate, and a kind of whimsy about the whole thing that keeps it from taking itself too seriously. That’s a nice change-up from a writer who normally focuses on very grave subject matters, and a nice reminder that just because baseball may be a thinking man’s game, that doesn’t mean we should overthink it.

Or, as McDermott says: “I used to joke that it’s the only sport slow enough that intellectuals can understand it.”

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