Roger Kahn's latest book explores the mental side of pitching and it's a gem. Kahn, author of the legendary baseball book "The Boys of Summer," approaches the topic across 14 chapters from every angle; history, personality, strategy. In his usual mix of literate and lyrical writing, Kahn explores the mind games that successful pitchers try to play on hitters. As the great Warren Spahn says in the book. "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
Kahn got his title, "The Head Game," from his good friend and former major league pitcher Clem Labine, who played in six World Series in his 13 major league seasons with the Dodgers and Pirates. Labine's phrase summed up the game for Kahn who then runs with Labine's notion that the most interesting part of baseball is the duel between the hitter and the pitcher because it is almost entirely mental.
While the book has a thematic center, each chapter can be read enjoyably on its own. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Christy Mathewson, Don Drysdale and Warren Spahn. Kahn also writes about the most vile head game of all, racism, in a wonderful chapter on Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. And students of today's game will enjoy Kahn's observations on Bruce Sutter and Tom Glavine. Kahn feels it is a great injustice that Sutter is not in the Hall of Fame and his argument is persuasive. By the end of the Sutter chapter, you'll also be an expert on the most important pitch of the last 20 years, the split-fingered fastball. Kahn also clears up the lineage of the pitch and who introduced it to the major leagues.
Sutter had a great baseball mind and knew that a mental advantage could be gained by a pitcher who didn't throw 95 mph if he could simply fool the hitter. You can intimidate without power. The memory of a swing at a splitter in the dirt would weigh on a hitter's mind as much the fear of high and tight heater. With variations, every pitcher mentioned in the book felt the same way, although more than a few of them believed in the magic of that high and tight heater.
The Glavine chapter ties it all together. While also an appreciation of Leo Mazzone and the whole Atlanta pitching staff, this essay deals with pitchers you can still see. So if you don't get ESPN Classic, turn on a Braves game with Kahn's book in your lap. You'll appreciate those guys even more. And you'll see just how much they have in common with those guys on Classic.