What I’m Reading: “Living on the Black” by John Feinstein

living-on-the-blackWith Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, John Feinstein meticulously details the 2007 seasons of two future Hall of Famers – New York Mets starting pitcher Tom Glavine and New York Yankees starting pitcher Mike Mussina.

It would prove to be the penultimate season in the career of each pitcher, as both would retire after their 2008 seasons. It proved an interesting season for Feinstein to follow, as Glavine pursued his 300th victory and Mussina battled through arguably the worst season of his career.

The first quarter of the book lays out both men’s careers leading into the 2007 season in a compelling fashion before diving into the day-to-day cycle of wins, losses, preparation between starts, and constant adjustments. Both Glavine and Mussina are near the tail end of their careers. Never a hard thrower, Glavine has relied upon precise pitch location and guile throughout his career. Mussina, meanwhile, finds himself adjusting to a fastball that no longer has the velocity it once did. As a result, we get an interesting contrast even though both pitchers, located in big-market New York and seeing the end of their Hall of Fame careers coming just around the corner, appear on the surface to be very similar.

Part of the appeal is the difference in the pitchers’ personalities. Glavine is obviously the friendlier, more low-key subject, and he happens to be enjoying a more successful season. Feinstein provides an insightful glimpse into how important family is to Glavine and the relationship between Glavine and his former Braves teammates John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. He also does an excellent job documenting Glavine’s thoughts and feelings as he approached his 300th career victory and that pursuit obviously plays a significant part in the book.

Mussina’s season, meanwhile, was much more challenging and so while he doesn’t seem as open about his family and friendships as Glavine is, his season – which would prove to be Joe Torre’s final as Yankees manager – contained much more drama and conflict. It particularly showed how quickly a season can turn on a pitcher.

Throughout much of the book, Feinstein documents a season that seems to be going OK for Mussina. He’s not dominant by any stretch, but he’s having a respectable season when things suddenly spiral. As Mussina piles bad start after bad start, he doesn’t seem to have any answers. In fact, Feinstein writes, Mussina asks five people whose opinion he respects what he’s doing wrong and they give him five different answers. Eventually, Mussina takes pieces of each answer and decides that he’s not being aggressive enough and is trying too hard to live on the black part of the plate, but it’s not enough to prevent him from getting booted from the starting rotation for the first time in his career.

Eventually, injuries – including one to Roger Clemens, who also is making his final appearance in Yankees pinstripes – allow Mussina to return to the rotation, where he helps the Yankees make the playoffs and finishes the year with an 11-10 record. Not exactly an all-star season, but certainly respectable, especially for an aging pitcher who was struggling to hold down a rotation spot at one point.

Feinstein also shares some details that humanize Mussina, a player known for sometimes being prickly. Getting Mussina’s voice certainly helps, but I was most interested in Mussina’s relationship with his bullpen catcher. At least twice in the book, Mussina points out that only a few teammates remain from when he first arrived in New York, and Feinstein strongly hints that it’s actually Mussina’s sensitivity and how hard it is for him to build relationships and then see those people go to other organizations that make him build walls around himself. It’s a fascinating insight into Mussina’s psyche that I really appreciated.

Feinstein’s storytelling ability is always top-notch (A Season on the Brink, documenting a season with Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was one of the first sports books I ever read), and I can’t say that I preferred Glavine or Mussina’s story over the other. They both have interesting details to share, and Feinstein is especially effective in showing the little details of the season – how they prepare for each start, their mental approaches, the ups and downs of their relationships with managers and coaches.

At the same time, there were moments where it felt as though Feinstein was being unnecessarily petty or sarcastic and it distracted me from the story he was telling. The most pointed example was in regards to Carl Pavano. Feinstein points out how remarkable it is that both Glavine and Mussina have been relatively healthy throughout their long careers, but if he has an appreciation for how incredible their health has been, he certainly has no sympathy for the oft-injured Pavano.

Feinstein relates early in the book a situation in which Pavano tells reporters he has nothing to prove entering the 2007 season despite his recent injury history. When this is conveyed to Mussina, he expresses disbelief and tells reporters that Pavano absolutely has something to prove to his teammates, and needs to show the Yankees that he can be counted on to take the ball when his turn in the rotation comes up.

It feels like a minor misunderstanding between teammates, but Feinstein hops back to the subject of Pavano a few times in the subsequent to take a few gratuitous shots. Mussina and Pavano happen to go on the disabled list the same day, and as Feinstein writes, “After his impressive outing in Minnesota, he (Pavano) had reported some tightness in his right forearm. The so-called tightness would eventually lead to season-ending surgery.”

It was the use of “so-called” that caught my eye – after all, that indicates that Feinstein isn’t sure there was any tightness at all, which seems strange given that Yankees’ doctors confirmed the injury and the guy had season-ending surgery to correct it. Pitchers don’t fake injuries that require them to go under the knife. If anything, Pavano seems like a cautionary tale about how hard it is to be healthy and successful at the game’s highest level, but is instead treated as though he’s somehow not tough enough to pitch in New York.

There are a few other small examples in which Feinstein introduces journeyman opponents sarcastically as “the immortal” so-and-so. The book is certainly good enough to overcome this strange tendency, but it’s weird for a guy who is writing a book that analyzes the nuances of a professional baseball career to mock players competing at the highest level.

There also is an interesting point late in the book in which Mussina is pulled from the rotation and Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry inexplicably begins to ignore Mussina. As it’s described, Guidry simply stops talking to Mussina and looks through him when they see each other in the clubhouse. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether Feinstein asked Guidry about this and what the response may have been, but as readers we never really get an explanation from Guidry’s perspective as to why – or even if – this takes place. In the afterward, Feinstein thanks Guidry for all his help with the book, so it’s unclear whether Feinstein doesn’t dive into this more because he likes Guidry or there’s something else going on. He certain isn’t as gentle in his handling of others, whether it’s Pavano or the relief pitchers who lose leads for Mussina or Glavine.

Regardless, as a Cardinals fan who doesn’t particularly care for the Mets or the Yankees, this is definitely a book worth reading for any baseball fan. The analysis of pitching from the perspective of two of the game’s best is outstanding, and following both pitchers throughout their 2007 season makes for an interesting format.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d have loved to see an extra chapter added to a subsequent edition that provides some insight into the close of both men’s careers. While Glavine’s 2007 season was superior to Mussina’s, Glavine would struggle in 2008. After signing with the Braves, he would go 2-4 and throw just 63 1/3 innings that season. The Braves would release him in 2009 and he would retire shortly thereafter, a sharp turn from the optimism Glavine expresses regarding his baseball future late in this book.

Meanwhile, Mussina, who had just struggled through arguably the toughest season of his career, would turn things around after a slow start in 2008. After chronicling how Mussina had won 19 games in both 1995 and 1996, Feinstein may have been surprised to see Mussina finally win 20 games in 2008 while shaving almost two runs off his ERA.

In the book’s final pages, Feinstein also touches on the steroid scandal and the fact that it included several of Mussina and Glavine’s teammates – namely Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Paul Lo Duca. Even outside of the steroid scandal, Feinstein only briefly mentions Clemens and Pettitte, and Mussina’s relationship with his fellow Hall of Fame pitchers is never discussed, a strange oversight that left me wishing Feinstein had seen fit to mention a bit more about the Yankees’ clubhouse culture and Mussina’s place in it.

I guess, though, that that’s the mark of a really good book – even after you’re through reading it, you’d like to read just a bit more.

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