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Building a Book on Baseball, With 10 Pitches and 300 Interviews – The New York Times

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For his new book about the history of baseball, Tyler Kepner interviewed 22 Hall of Fame pitchers, including Mike Mussina.CreditCreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

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This is my 20th year as a baseball writer for The New York Times, and to commemorate the occasion, I built a house.

Not literally, of course. I’m the least handy person you’ll ever meet. But as a writer I sometimes think in analogies, and in this case I’m a carpenter. I build hundreds of tables and bookshelves and cabinets each year, taking pride in crafting something stable and sturdy. But I’ve always wanted to apply those skills to something grander. I’ve always wanted to build a house.

As The Times’s national baseball writer, I’ll generate hundreds of articles each year in the 800- to 1,200-word range. A few might reach 2,000. But what about something truly long-lasting: 112,000 words, sold in stores, shelved in libraries, with my name on the spine? What if I built … a book?

Now I’ve written one, called “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” released by Doubleday on April 2. It’s the culmination of a three-year scavenger hunt across the baseball landscape, locating more than 300 interview subjects to ask about the pitches that make up the game’s DNA.

The book devotes a chapter apiece to the fastball, the curveball, the sinker, the slider, the cutter, the changeup, the splitter, the screwball, the knuckleball and the spitball. To write it, I had to find a different voice than the one in the newspaper, one of assurance and authority. To be comfortable doing that, I relied on the tools I use to write daily columns and features: talking to as many people as possible, and always learning to try something new.

My mission was to find every pitcher who threw any pitch especially well, plus catchers, hitters, coaches, umpires, scouts and so on — and, because the book would cover the scope of baseball history, to make sure to get voices of the past, too.

I spent several days engrossed in ancient news clippings at the Hall of Fame library in Cooperstown, N.Y. I leaned on players I covered in my dozen years as a beat writer (at The Times and on the West Coast), reconnecting with pitchers I covered: Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mike Myers, Al Leiter, Jamie Moyer, Chuck Finley — and especially Mike Mussina, the new Hall of Famer, who invited me to lunch in his hometown, Montoursville, Pa. We talked about pitching for hours.

In all, I interviewed 22 Hall of Fame pitchers, plus many standouts who made a huge impact in the game but do not have a plaque in Cooperstown: guys like Carl Erskine, Roger Craig, Elroy Face, Wilbur Wood, J. R. Richard, Kent Tekulve, Ron Guidry, Dave Duncan, Mario Soto, Brad Lidge and many more.

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In “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” Tyler Kepner, The Times’s national baseball writer, devotes a chapter apiece to the fastball, the curveball, the sinker, the slider, the cutter, the changeup, the splitter, the screwball, the knuckleball and the spitball.

I also tracked down pitchers whose feats I witnessed in my formative days as a fan near Philadelphia: the Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, my first baseball hero; Steve Rogers, the longtime Expo who beat Carlton in the first game I ever saw, in 1981; and Scott McGregor, who clinched the 1983 World Series for the Orioles as I watched, forlornly, from the front row at old Veterans Stadium.

Carlton was famous for never talking to the news media, but he was delightful in our 40-minute chat. He greeted my call with a playful brushback pitch: “So you’re writing a book — don’t you know people don’t read anymore?” But I hung in there and learned all about the pitch that might have been the best slider in the history of the game.

Rogers, whom I found at an All-Star Game in Cincinnati, was a riot; he shared the advice of an early pitching coach, Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish — Cal, for short — who told young pitchers, “All right, son, just get out in front and get whippy!” Quite a contrast to today’s coaches, who calculate every revolution of the ball with precise technological backing.

McGregor, whose name I cursed as a vanquished 8-year-old Phillies fan, was also a treat to interview, reflecting not just on his moment of glory but also on his final day in the majors, in 1988, when he knew he was finished. The Twins were lashing his lifeless pitches, and the Orioles’ shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr., asked McGregor on the mound if he was still throwing his changeup.

“They’re all the same speed anymore,” McGregor told Ripken. “Just back up a little bit. You might be a little safer.”

You’ll find that story on Page 207. I like to pick up the book and flip to a random page like that, to remember the moments of discovery behind every paragraph. For me, it’s like roaming the hallways of the house I finally built, every insight a support beam holding it up.

I hope you’ll drop by and enjoy your stay.

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