The third and final installment of my interview with High Heat author Tim Wendel considers hard-throwing closers and the brotherhood that develops among baseball’s hardest throwers.
Why do you suppose that more of these guys don’t end up as closers with it being so difficult to put it all together when you have this gift?
I think it’s somewhat the money involved. It’s funny because one of the major characters in High Heat is David Price, and I caught up with David last year, because David was kind of the phenom of last year, and he was kind of going through some of the things that Strasburg and Chapman are going through now. At one point he was down at Durham in Triple-A, which ironically is where Bull Durham is set and things kind of came together on that end, and at one point he’s talking and he says “Maybe I should just go to the bullpen, maybe I could get up there quicker.” But I would’ve been really surprised if the Rays would’ve had him do that in part because I just think once there’s so much money involved and starting pitching is at such a premium then if somebody can make it as a starter you’re probably better off having them do that.
Ironically, I think one of the best closers around these days, Jonathan Papelbon with the Red Sox, went against that grain. It’s kind funny at times in doing this book how certain eras and things are kind of clicked together. Norm Sherry caught Koufax and was very close to when Koufax literally turned his career around in like about two to three weeks during spring training. In interviewing Norm I asked him “Who do you like watching today? Who really lights up your circuits?” And the first guy he named was Papelbon, which I found amazing because Sherry lives out in Southern California, but he watches the games and as he says, “I try not to miss Jonathan Papelbon. He really gets me excited.”
It’s interesting, at times we think everything in baseball is happening right now, but whether it’s Norm Sherry, or Bob Feller, or even Nolan Ryan, they’re all kind of watching who’s coming along and who’s the next fireballer, because they can really relate to them.
Even within this summer we’re kind of seeing the gift and the curse at the same time where Strasburg comes out and is doing so well so far, but then you’ve got someone like Zumaya who’s struggled with injury, and who knows what happens with his career. Do you think that’s fair, do you think there’s an accurate parallel there?
[Note: We conducted this phone interview one day after Joel Zumaya fractured his elbow on June 28.]
Yeah. You know It pained me to see what happened with Zumaya, because Zumaya made the list of maybe the top dozen fireballers in High Heat in part because more of the potential and the promise more than anything he’s done so far. I guess it shows how fine the line is and how much stress, and torque, and punishment the arm takes when you’re talking about throwing this hard. At times we tend to take a lot of this for granted as fans or maybe people who cover the game.
Strasburg, for example, is doing phenomenal right now. I think he certainly has proven he’s more ready for prime time than the eight other guys he’s taking the field with half the time. I was watching the game when he was in Cleveland and he was having trouble with the mound and at one point he slipped and you just go “Oh!” All it takes is something like that and there goes a career.
Will Joel Zumaya ever throw as hard as he once did? I don’t know after watching the tape of what happened last night. You talk about Sandy Koufax who went literally in three weeks from a journeyman to all world and being able to suddenly spot his fastball and suddenly gain control of his curve. You look at the price he paid in terms of what it did to his arm, the arthritis, the types of medications he was taking just to get through those last couple seasons. Even someone like Nolan Ryan who could probably go out today and throw, I don’t know, probably 92 or 93, still just the mental anguish he went through.
I think sometimes we just kind of think “Oh yeah, somebody like Stephen Strasburg, he’s got it made” or somebody like Sandy Koufax, “Yeah, Hall of Fame,” and you don’t see the price and you don’t see the real things they had to go through. They all know this next pitch might be my last one. You had to think that’s what ran through poor Joel Zumaya’s head last night.
Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?
Once these guys get to this point, or even if they get close, I think they realize they’re part of a brotherhood, and they really take pride in that. There are so many different ways you can look at baseball. You can follow the great teams, you can follow the different eras – the Deadball Era and that goes to the Golden Era before and after World War II, etc. – I think another key thread you can follow through the game is just following the fastball pitchers. And these guys, even the contemporary ones, they kind of know that to a certain extent.
Again, I’m back to Tim Lincecum a little bit. Tim Lincecum is not a baseball historian. You ask him “Gosh, 1975 World Series,” and he’ll just kind of be looking at you like “Who played?” and “What happened?” and “Oh, that was Carlton Fisk? Okay, yeah, I think I kind of know him.” But then the thing is you start talking about the names we were just talking about, the names that are through High Heat. Okay, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, JR Richard, Nolan Ryan, etc. And all of the sudden he knows all those people. He may not be in contact with them, but he knows at least in broad strokes what they were about and what they did. And it’s funny you get him talking about his windup or his delivery and a great many of these guys they’ll go “Oh yeah, I do a little bit like Koufax did here, and I then I do a little like Nolan Ryan did here, that was my stride to the plate,” whatever it may be. So early on, and I think it starts way back when they’re at a pretty young age, they start hearing these names, and part of it is I better start knowing their stories, because maybe if I start knowing the stories well enough of the guys that I’m hopefully trying to follow in the footsteps of then maybe I can succeed, too. That was a pretty cool thing to find in doing High Heat.