From the Press Box to the Pitcher's Mound. . .Sort Of
"If I ever get some super-cancer," I say to Alex Rodriguez, "I know exactly how I'd want to go out."
The Yankee third baseman flexes an eyebrow.
"Go ahead, tell me," he says.
"The Make-A-Wish Foundation comes to my bedside and says, 'Anything you want.' I say, 'OK, let me pitch to Alex Rodriguez. One at-bat. I've got him figured out.'"
Now A-Rod is laughing.
"How would you pitch me?"
"I am so below your hitting speed you'd never touch me. All off-speed stuff. You'd be wrapped so tight you'd over-swing at everything and would have to retire on the spot. Then I could die in peace."
Rodriguez, still amused, says, "You figured it out, didn't you? Pretty good for a writer."
I take that as a compliment - sort of. It wasn't the sportswriter in me that was talking to A-Rod, it was the semi-pro pitcher who hasn't let go of the game in his 40s. From Leonia (NJ) High School, to Columbia University to the Hackensack Troasts in northern New Jersey's Majors-Met League, I've led a not-so-secret double life that's set me apart from my colleagues in the press box. As the father of two toddlers, baseball has helped me cope with diaper-hell, as well as stave off a total surrender to the couch.
I've been covering New York baseball since 1984. I love a 2-1 pitcher's duel because I still see the grace and beauty of fastballs at the knees and sliders on the corners. Truth is, I see myself out there, which is ludicrous considering everyone else my age has stopped reaching so high.
I remember Don Mattingly recounting how he and Tino Martinez snuck off to a back field in spring training in 1999. The Yankee captain hadn't picked up a bat since his last plate appearance in the 1995 Division Series against the Mariners, but Tino had convinced Mattingly to spend a few minutes in the cage, tap into his ghosts, just to see if they still were breathing.
"First couple of pitches, it all came back to me, line drives up the gaps," Mattingly said. "Then I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' I put the bat down and never went back there. I know I'm never going to be what I once was. And I'm okay with that."
I know I should be as reasonable as Mattingly. The other New York baseball writers who had successful college careers have moved on, too. John Harper from the Daily News (who played at University of Bridgeport) and Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated (who played at Penn State) play golf now. So why can't I?
Maybe it's because they were never pitchers. From Little League all the way to Cooperstown, there's a fraternity convened by the adrenaline rush of throwing a baseball. Bret Saberhagen once told me, "Nothing matches making a hitter swing and miss. It's the greatest feeling in the world. Guys who retire, they spend the rest of their lives looking for it, but once you stop pitching you never get it back."
Of course, my addiction will be easier to kick because I don't throw all that hard. At 80-mph (on a good day), my two-seamer resembles Kevin Brown's, minus 10-12 mph and the personality disorder. But Saberhagen was right about the miracle a major leaguer creates every time he throws a ball. That's why I laugh when people say writers are jealous of the players' money.
Me? I envy the heat. Just about everyone can toss a football or sink a jumper. In that sense, any amateur athlete can mimic an NFL or NBA star. But the ability to throw 90-plus is a gift from the gods, bestowed upon the (very) few. If you don't believe me, check out the gun readings at one of those pitching-booths at the ballpark. Even the toughest-looking guys, all beered up and trying to impress their girlfriends, have trouble reaching 70-mph. Most everyone else is in the 50's and low 60's.
At 80-mph I'm at least able to picture what Mount Olympus looks like. One afternoon in 1997, I was sitting in the visitor's dugout during batting practice in Atlanta talking to Al Leiter about - what else, pitching - when he suddenly said, "Get a ball, let's see what you've got."
So there I am, playing catch with the then-Mets' ace, sweating through my street clothes trying to make my fastball run. For some stupid reason I wanted to impress him.
"Fucking Klap, give it up," is what I heard John Franco say through a smirk, while Leiter was busy analyzing my delivery. For one precious moment, he no longer saw me as a writer but as a fellow pitcher, although with his harsher scrutiny came a piercing blow to my ego.
"Your ball moves, but you need to throw it harder," Leiter said. "You have to get on top of the ball."
Leiter unleashed a cut-fastball the likes of which I had never seen or caught. He threw it so hard I heard the ball hiss, which was unsettling enough. Then it broke to my left, as if it'd been hijacked by a wind shear. Somehow, the pitch accelerated as it darted, which so completely overloaded the synapses of brain my glove never moved.
I just couldn't catch it.
"That's what I'm talking about," Leiter said matter-of-factly.
"That's what you throw in a game?" I said in disbelief.
"Not really. That was about 80 percent."
All that happened before Leiter and I stopped speaking to each other in 2004, when I wrote that he was partially responsible for getting Scott Kazmir traded to the Devil Rays. Leiter subsequently told Michael Kay on ESPN Radio that I should be working for the National Enquirer. So much for my frat brother.
Sooner or later, writers and ballplayers all reach the crossroads. Sides must be chosen: you're either with the press or with the club and the gulf gets wider every year. I've made my peace with the fact that, A-Rod aside, pitching helps my soul more than it does my standing in the clubhouse. The majority of major leaguers are like Derek Jeter, who've decided there's no upside to getting close to the press. We can only hurt the corporation, is what Jeter's handlers have convinced him.
So why do I keep pitching? Probably for the purest reason of all - it's what I do, at least when I'm not writing or helping feed the kids. To stop now would mean tearing away layers of psychological flesh. I guess I'm afraid of what's underneath. Middle age, maybe.
All this explains why I play in a league populated by college kids home for the summer, or ones who've just graduated and are looking to get picked up by an independent team. I've chosen this universe instead of some creaky over-40 league where no one runs or plays defense anymore. But it's also true the kids don't appreciate baseball like the older players. To them, the games are just one of the leisure options that include, in descending order: girls, the bars and the Jersey shore.
One 24-year-old lefty sat next to me in the dugout this summer and drank Red Bull while listening to his iPod between innings. When it was time to get back on the mound, he didn't even turn the music off - just hit the pause button. Such is the confidence that comes with a 90-mph heater.
It's the kid's utter belief in himself that keeps me in touch with the mindset of a major leaguer. Minus the millions in the bank, the kid is Jeter. He is simple, primal, untouched by neurosis. By the time I come home from Hackensack, I am somehow a better husband, a more playful father. My writing is leaner as I picture myself on the mound, engaged in a war at 60 feet, 6 inches.
The longer I play, the more I understand what Saberhagen meant about chasing the holy grail. It doesn't come from writing on deadline. That's just typing in agony. It doesn't come from being in the clubhouse. Too much standing around. Even delivering a spot-on column has a smaller pay-off than it used to. I worry that everyone's lost interest in the written word.
One thing's for sure - the kids sure don't buy the paper. To them, reading is for the elderly, the sedentary. My career interests my teammates not because of my writing, but because of my access to Yankees tickets, even though I've told them the Yankees don't comp the press. And, of course, I'm the one they go to with questions about Jeter - the most common of which is: who's he banging?
The camaraderie in Hackensack is terrific, but I wonder if any of my young friends will still be playing in ten years. Most won't, I bet. There aren't too many Julio Francos (or even John Francos) left. It takes too much work to keep the addiction alive. I still remember the 1996 World Series and what David Cone looked like after Game Three.
He's stopped the Braves cold in their home park, out-pitching Tom Glavine after the Yankees had been flattened twice in the Bronx. Looking back, if Cone's 5-2 victory didn't save the franchise, it at least kept Joe Torre from being fired. Without him, the Yankees would've conceivably been swept, and it would've been just as easy to think of Torre being dismissed by George Steinbrenner.
As courageously as Cone had pitched, he paid a heavy price. He was limping heavily, pained by the arthritic hip that would ultimately end his career in 2003.
"You know, this gets harder every year. I can't even fucking walk," Cone said grimly. "I don't know why I keep doing this."
"You know exactly why," I said.
Cone stopped and nodded. The more it hurt, the more he actually loved it.
Someday, I hope my son understands why his wrinkled old dad is still pitching. Considering he's only three, I better keep popping the Advils and never look back. The couch might be gaining on me.
* * * * *
Bob Klapisch has covered baseball in New York for the New York Post, New York Daily News and, most recently, The Bergen Record and ESPN.com. He is the author of five books, including "The Worst Team Money Could Buy" (Random House). His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Men's Journal, FHM and The Sporting News.
Klapisch, who pitched at Columbia University, still throws for the Hackensack Troasts in the semi-professional North Jersey Majors-Met League. He lives in Westwood, N.J. with his wife and two children.
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