Under Further Review: I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies

ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian’s recent book, “I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love,” isn’t an analytics-based exploration of baseball’s nuances or an ode to days gone by. Rather, it’s a celebration of the lore and absurdities that make baseball so beloved and perpetually astonishing. It’s the kettle corn of baseball books, chock full of tasty tidbits about the game and entirely too easy to binge on.

Few people exult in every aspect of baseball as effervescently as Kurkjian. As he says in the book, “the game always tops itself; it never disappoints, if you’re paying attention.”

As noted, “Sac Flies” is a far cry from the sort of numbers-crunching exercise that would unearth profound aspects of the game undetectable by the naked eye, like “Baseball Between the Numbers.” Rather, it’s an addictive confection of the author’s takes on the myriad facets of the game that make it unique. What does it feel like to be hit by a big-league fastball? At what point in a blowout does it become verboten to swing at a 3-0 pitch, steal a base, or bunt? How idiosyncratic are fielders about their gloves and hitters about their bats?

The conventional wisdom is that the NFL long ago supplanted Major League Baseball as America’s true pastime, but Kurkjian’s fundamental thesis is that baseball is “the best game.” He lays out a compelling and frequently laugh-out-loud case for it. He points to “its degree of difficulty, its rich history and tradition, the odd, quirky results that it so often brings, the odd, quirky players that it so often produces, and the leisurely pace at which it is played.” What other professional sport, he asks, offers a shot at stardom to athletes of every shape and size, from five-foot-five Jose Altuve to slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who stands six-foot-five and weighs in at 250 pounds—with a 34-inch waist? In what other sport are the unwritten rules nearly as important as the written ones? Where else are superstitions so strongly held or as bizarre? For example, outfielder Torii Hunter’s shoes must be “sparkling clean” at all times and, when they inevitably get dirty, Mr. Bubble must be used between innings to return them to a pristine state. And some players will wear the same underwear—dirty—for weeks to prolong a hitting streak. (A recounting of pitcher Randy Choate’s eccentricities is worth the price of admission in itself.)

Baseball is the best game, Kurkjian maintains, because the preposterous is routine. It’s unlikely you knew, for instance, that Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner’s two grand slams in a single season are one more than legendary Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter hit in his entire career. Or that there have been two 18-inning postseason games in MLB history, and in both Tim Hudson was a starting pitcher. Or that, having gone 299 games without a grand slam, the Mets hit two in a single game—in consecutive innings.

Kurkjian delights in baseball players’ fierce competitiveness both on and off the diamond, their obsessiveness about the tools of their trade, the art of keeping score, and the abundance of oddballs and—yes—brainiacs in their ranks.

As the great baseball writer (and occasional political pundit) George F. Will explained in his own bestseller “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball,” baseball is not child’s play but a dangerous, dirty, and extraordinarily hard job performed by hard men. Kurkjian makes a strong argument that it indeed might be the most difficult of all sports to master. The major leagues demand the “breathtaking athleticism” of NBA players, the “insane courage” of NFL players, the “incredible toughness” of NHL players, and the “stunning skill” of PGA golfers, he contends. Additionally, not only is it nearly impossible to play baseball well while injured, the daily grind offers virtually no time to recuperate before the next game. And he quotes a number of multi-sport athletes who agree that hitting a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher may be the hardest task in sports.

“Sac Flies” sheds light on cobwebbed corners of baseball to which even the most ardent fans likely pay little mind. In one intriguing chapter, Kurkjian describes the lonely position occupied by official scorers, medieval monks of baseball performing the holy work of meticulously preserving the game’s history for fans unborn. And with infectious enthusiasm, he ruminates on topics ranging from sounds that are unique to the ballpark and ballplayers’ notoriously peculiar rituals. (Pitcher Andy Pettite, for example, reportedly had to preface each start by listening to the entire Rocky soundtrack.  And when Choate was on the mound, he felt compelled to pick up balls only from the grass and, if one came to rest in the dirt, would kick it onto the grass before retrieving it—and that’s just for starters).

Kurkjian also explains why he collected and archived every box score published over a 20-year period and, of course, why he finds sacrifice flies worth pondering.

In a more wistful part of the book, he reminisces about his relationships with late, all-time greats such as Tony Gwynn, Don Zimmer, and Earl Weaver. And he supplies abundant colorful anecdotes about the many characters he’s worked alongside at ESPN, including Buck Showalter, John Kruk, and Terry Francona. (Among other tales, Francona recalls Michael Jordan regularly cheating at Yahtzee on the Double-A Birmingham Barons’ team bus in 1994, the year the Bulls great fruitlessly tried his hand at pro baseball.)

Most irresistible, though, are what the author dubs “Quirkjians,” statistical oddities and a cornucopia of the other “strange, stupid, and senseless stuff” that makes baseball so delightful. He fills up page after page with just the tidbits he collected from 2008 through 2014, but a handful suffices to convey their tastiness:

* “In the decade of the 1960s, teams scored 20 runs in a game six times. The Phillies did it twice in three weeks.” (2008)

* “When Jayson Werth hit a grand slam, scoring Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibañez, it marked the first time in baseball history that a player with 30 home runs hit a home run that scored three other players who had 30 home runs in a season.” (2009)

* “In a 12-day period, Jose Reyes was thrown out for stealing by all three Molina brothers [Jose, Yadier, and Bengie].” (2008)

* “The Rangers became the second team in history to win all three games of a series with a walk-off home run, meaning they had more walk-off home runs in three games than the Mariners had in the last four seasons.” (2013)

* “The Royals’ Vin Mazzaro became the only pitcher in history to allow 14 runs in fewer than three innings in one game. So, in 2⅓ innings, Mazzaro allowed as many runs as Bob Gibson allowed from June 2 to September 2, 1968, a stretch of 19 starts, and 165 innings.” (2011)

So if you love to gorge on baseball trivia, if you revel in the arcane, the you-can’t-make-this-up coincidence, the downright weird stuff that happens routinely in baseball, “Sac Flies” is for you.

Minor quibbles: As a prose stylist, TV commentator Kurkjian is no Roger Angell or even George Will. And the editing could have been better. Pervasive references to “players that” instead of “players who,” for instance, put one’s teeth on edge. But grammatical misdemeanors aside, the book goes down as easily as a .160 hitter.

To be sure, Kurkjian doesn’t offer a hearty meal to readers who prefer to delve into the deeper math and science of baseball.  In fact, the calories can feel somewhat empty at times (even a guilty pleasure). But the book could go a long way to help non-fans comprehend the endless allure of the sport. And there’s enough sustenance in parts of the book about giants who have passed away, the agonies of slumps, and the many reasons to be optimistic for baseball’s future—from the innovativeness of managers such as Joe Maddon to the rise of superstars such as Mike Trout—to hold the attention of even analytics-inclined students of the game.

As Jon Snow incessantly warns, “Winter is coming.” Anyone who joneses for baseball in the offseason should consider picking up Kurkjian’s savory “Sacrifice Flies” to help while away the looming long, cold nights.

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Mike Moore is a Crooked Scoreboard editor who grew up in a city without an MLB franchise and fell in love with baseball in lieu of a midlife crisis. You should follow him on Twitter.

Image credit: Keith Allison

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