The following is an excerpt from Tim Kurkjian's new book "I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies," which is on sale now. For more information on the book, click here. The excerpt below is from the first chapter of the book: 1. The Best Game -- I Put Aqua Net on My Glove.
... Tall or short, the common denominator of every baseball player is strong hands, and no one's hands are stronger than those of the Cardinals' Matt Holliday. "When I signed with the Cardinals, for my physical, I had to take a hand- strength test," said outfielder Lance Berkman. "I had a very low score the first time so they asked me, 'Can you take it again?' I did. I scored low again, and the trainer said, 'For a guy with 300 home runs, you should have stronger hands.' I said, 'Sorry, this is all I got. But don't compare my hands to Albert Pujols's hands, or Matt Holliday's hands. His are stronger than Herman Munster's.'"
The Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia has really small hands. "It's like shaking hands with a seven-year-old," said former Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said Pedroia's hands are the "smallest I've ever seen on a baseball player."
But those hands are really strong. Pedroia is 5'6½" tops, an inch and a half taller than Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who, in 2014, became the second player since Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1945 to lead his league in batting, hits, and stolen bases in the same season.
Royals reliever Tim Collins is 5'6½" and throws 95 mph. In the 2014 World Series, he joined Bobby Shantz (5'6") as the only pitchers under 5'7" to appear in a World Series game. " People don't believe that I'm a major league player, then after I convince them, they think I'm a second baseman," Collins said. "I tell them that I'm a pitcher and they say, 'No way, you're too short.' I'm not. And I read a book about Bobby Shantz."
In spring training several years ago, I interviewed Collins back- to-back, sort of a height-off interview. "I've never won one of these," I said.
"Neither have I," Tim Collins said. " Until now."
The Giants' Tim Lincecum is closer to 5'11", but with his shirt off , he looks like he's 14. "I went to high school at 4'11"," he said. "I was throwing about 85 [mph] then. Then I grew to about 5'2". I was throwing 90 then. Then I went to 5'7", and all of a sudden, I was throwing 95." Lincecum is further proof that the throwing of a baseball is a God- given skill: you either have it or you don't, and it doesn't matter what size you are. Daniel Herrera has it. He pitched for several teams. He's listed at 5'8", but said he's 5'6", 145 pounds.
"The first time I saw him was during the week of the Kentucky Derby, and we figured he would have to leave the team that Saturday to go ride one of the horses," said former outfielder Adam Dunn, who was Herrera's teammate for part of one season in Cincinnati. "I've never faced him. But I haven't faced anyone his size since I was 11 or 12 years old."
Herrera has heard all the short jokes.
"The best one was in 2010," he said. "I was at Louisville [AAA]. One of our catchers, Albert Colina, who is a really big guy, picked me up and put me in his lap as he sat in the bullpen. Then he stuck his arm inside my jacket, and up my back. He wouldn't let me go. I thought, 'What is he doing?' Then, whenever I would talk, he would move his lips. Everyone was cracking up. He was the ventriloquist, and I was the puppet. That was the best one."
It is the best game because the players are so competitive. I played in a charity golf tournament, a scramble, in January 2013 in Orlando. The group behind us included Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who was just over a year removed from winning the AL MVP and Cy Young, but this day was about golf, not baseball, and all he cared about was winning the tournament, and the longest-drive contest. At the turn, I asked him how his group was doing. "We're one under birdie," he said. "In a scramble, you should at least birdie every hole, so I never count under par, I count under birdie." They were 10 under par at the turn, and won at 23 under. Verlander won the long-drive, and twice on the back nine, he hit into our group while we were standing on the green of a par four. Each time we looked around to see who had hit a ball at least 350 yards off the tee, there was Justin Verlander leaping in the air, arms raised, as if he had won the World Series.
That is how he lives his life: everything is a competition, especially pitching, and no matter what it is, he has to win. In spring training every year, the Tiger pitchers run sprints, and Verlander has to win every sprint. As a kid, he said, he always had to finish dinner faster than anyone in the family. "Even now, I'll be walking next to someone on the sidewalk, and I have to walk faster than him," he said. "I don't know why. That's the way I am."
Cal Ripken Jr. is one of the most competitive people I've ever met in my life. I used to play basketball with him and his group. One night, the score was 14-14, game to 15 by ones. No one was waiting, just ten guys on a cold December night in a dingy little gym. Ripken called a time- out -- in a pickup game! -- to figure out how they were going to score the last basket. They missed, we rebounded, we scored, and he was furious. I went about fifteen years without playing with him again until 2002 when I was assigned to do a story on the gym he had built at his house. He insisted that I play in the games that night even though at 45, I was totally overmatched against a 23- year-old who just finished his career at a Division II school.
Ripken flipped the game ball to me and said, "This feels just like your ball." Not only did he remember that we had used my ball as the game ball fifteen years earlier, but he remembered how it felt in his hands. So, thanks mostly to me, our team lost all nine games that night, same 0-9 as my postseason predictions in 2014. That was the last time I played basketball with him, and ten years after that embarrassing night, our friend Rick Sutcliffe asked if I had really played basketball with Ripken. "Yes," Ripken said, "and the last time he played, his team went 0-9." Ten years after a random night of basketball, one of a thousand nights that he played, he remembered what my team had done. Why? It was a competition, it was about winning and losing, not just for him, but for everyone.
"Why would you remember the 0-9 that night?" I asked him.
"Why wouldn't I?" he said.
Nolan Ryan threw a baseball as hard as any man alive for twenty-five years, and was proud of that. So, at age 65, he was asked to throw out the first ball at a Rangers game. Ryan, being Ryan, was not about to just go out there and lob a pitch from the front of the mound. He got loose in the batting cage under the stadium, went to the top of the mound, and fired his ceremonial first pitch at about 80 mph to Jim Sundberg, a six-time Gold Glover. But he was not ready for 80 mph. "I barely caught it," Sundberg said. "I had to bend down quickly to catch it. I split my pants."
It is the best game because the players so value the equipment that they use, especially their gloves. Before a game at Fenway Park in 2012, I watched infielder Nick Punto, then with the Red Sox, playing catch. His glove appeared to be wet. I asked him what he had put on his glove. "Well, today," he said, "I put a little Aqua Net on it, and a little suntan lotion. I do that to keep it lubricated, but it can't be floppy, it has to be stiff . Almost anything on it will work. The other day, I was in the bathroom in the clubhouse, and I'm sitting on the toilet, and when I'm done, I picked up a can of Glade off the floor and sprayed it in the air. Then I thought, 'Maybe this will work.' So I sprayed it all over my glove."
"This is my baby," he said. "I have to take care of it."
And then there's infielder Darwin Barney.
"I am very particular about my glove," said Barney, who carries five gloves, the exact same make and model, on all road trips. "I never use my game glove except to play in the game. I don't use it during BP. I don't play catch with it before a game. The first time I touch it on the day of the game is when I'm running out to my position to start the game. If I play catch with it too often, it can make the pocket too deep. The other four gloves, I rank them. My number 2 glove is next in line. One year in Washington, I went to my backhand and the ball popped out of my glove. That was it for that glove. I threw it away -- in the trash can -- and never used it again. It lasted a year and a half, but that was it. I couldn't use it anymore." His number 2 glove became his game glove. "Each glove I have is at a different level of being broken in," he said. "My number 5 glove isn't ready to be a gamer, but it will be."
Marlins utility man Jeff Baker is nearly as particular about his many gloves. He has a glove to play second base, another to play third base, one for the outfield, and a mitt for first base.
"No one touches my glove for second base or my glove for third," he said. "They are different. My glove for second base is 11½ inches, my glove for third is 12 inches. At second, I need a smaller glove because I have to know when I reach into my glove to grip the ball, it has to be in the same place every time, it can't get lost in my glove. If someone puts my glove on his hand, and stretches out my glove, and now it's a quarter of an inch off, then we have problems. That may be the difference between making the double play or not. At third base, I need the extra half inch in the glove. The ball hit down the line, that half inch might be the difference between getting an out, or the ball going for a double. The ball hit to my left, that half inch might be the difference between a hit and a double play. Even on the ball hit right at me at third, mentally I feel better with that extra half inch."
Baker said he isn't as particular about his outfield glove or his first baseman's mitt. "I used to have [pitcher] Kerry Wood break in my first baseman's mitt because he loves to take throws at first base during BP, and he has really big hands, and I also don't have time to break in four different gloves during spring training," he said. "I used to have our video guy [Naoto Masamoto] break in my outfield glove because he loves to shag during BP. But I would never let either guy touch my other gloves. Kerry's big hands would ruin those gloves. But all my gloves, I'm working about a year behind on each. The four I will use this year, I had broken in last year. The gloves I'm breaking in this year, I'll use next year."
Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips carefully places five gloves in his locker. He has three practice gloves, all significantly smaller than his game glove; a smaller glove helps him "look" the ball into his glove a little better and a little longer. He has a backup game glove and his game glove, which was placed pocket- side down, with a batting glove strategically placed where his hand enters the glove. "You can touch my practice gloves, but no one touches my game glove, no one," Phillips said. "I put the batting glove on top of my glove so I'll know if someone has touched my glove. If the batting glove has moved, someone touched my glove. [Angels pitcher Mat Latos] held my glove once, but he didn't put it on. Defense is important to me. If he'd put his hand in my glove, we'd have fought."
And then there is ex- A's infield coach Mike Gallego, a career .239 hitter who played thirteen years in the major leagues because of his defense, which required the proper care of his glove.
"Earthquake Series," Gallego said of the A's -- Giants World Series in 1989. "We [the A's] are in the club house at 5 p.m. The earthquake hits, the lights go out, everything is dark. The place is shaking. Guys are running all over the club house, trying to get out of there. I was halfway out when I realized that I had forgotten my glove! I ran back into the clubhouse -- we didn't know if the place was going to collapse -- and found my locker ... in the dark. I got my glove. I couldn't leave my glove behind. That's my livelihood, my glove."