Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Up at Bat

By Frank Murtaugh

APRIL 13, 1998: 

“Baseball is one of the respites for those with Type A behavior, who want everything over with quickly, whether it is sex or baseball.” – Tim McCarver

Among baseball’s many intrinsic beauties is the fact that watching a game requires a certain level of thought. You need to know the pitch count, the inning, who’s on deck, and a pitcher’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Most importantly, you need to know how all of these relate to one another.

Native Memphian and current broadcaster Tim McCarver takes his best shot at a thinking fan’s guide to our national pastime with Baseball For Brain Surgeons and Other Fans. For no fewer than 21 years, McCarver donned “the tools of ignorance” as a catcher, primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals during the Sixties and the Philadelphia Phillies during the Seventies (McCarver has the distinction of having suited up in the big leagues during four decades). For almost 20 years now, he’s kept his eye on the game from the television booth, calling Mets games out of New York for WWOR-TV and, since 1996, the national “Game of the Week” on Fox. The graduate of Christian Brothers High School and former Memphis Chick aims to “elucidate and illuminate” the sometimes-complicated strategies that unfold on the baseball diamond.

McCarver’s powers of observation are derived from a career spent behind the plate. Baseball’s catcher is likely the most challenging position – both physically and mentally – in all of team sports. Aside from calling every pitch of the game, the catcher’s sharpest skill is that of observing. Positioning his teammates, tracking opposing base runners, picking up the subtleties in a batter’s stance that may reveal his opponent’s strategy . . . a catcher’s job is as strenuous between pitches as others are when the ball is actually in play. McCarver’s aim with Baseball For Brain Surgeons is to provide the casual fan some of the finer points, often overlooked, he has come to appreciate after 40 years of catching and broadcasting. “What is routine to the player is not necessarily routine to the viewer,” writes McCarver in his introduction. “So you have to tell viewers at times what is and is not significant.”

The most enlightening parts of the book are where McCarver explains and simplifies some of the nuances that are unique to baseball. A section on “working the lineup,” for instance, describes a pitcher’s focusing on retiring the eighth hitter in a lineup as often being just as crucial as punching out the sluggers in the third or fourth position. McCarver explains how, particularly in the National League where pitchers still bat for themselves (and ninth in the order), the eighth-place hitter takes on an important role, particularly with two outs. If that batter is retired, the weak-hitting pitcher must lead-off the next inning. Considering it’s the leadoff hitter who largely determines whether or not an inning can be “big,” forcing a team to lead off with their pitcher essentially steals an inning for the defensive team.

It should be noted that Baseball For Brain Surgeons at times reads like a baseball dissertation. No matter how articulately Dr. McCarver describes the difference between a cut fastball and a tailing fastball, his audience – baseball observers – would have to actually stand in the batter’s box to understand what McCarver, with two decades of catching these pitches, recognizes with merely a glance. When his focus is the larger picture – bunting strategy, fielding position, gamesmanship – the insights he provides can be applied by any fan watching from his couch or listening on his front porch.

For casual baseball fans not so concerned with a pitcher’s strategy when behind in the count to the cleanup hitter with the tying run on first, McCarver’s anecdotes – divided from the main text by shaded boxes – give the book real flavor. McCarver can tell a baseball story with the best of them, and with a perspective most of us will never share. Early in his career, McCarver’s eye for detail noticed that, as the legendary Willie Mays stepped to the plate and gripped his bat, he did so with manicured fingernails. I don’t care what kind of baseball junkie you may be, it has to be news that the Say Hey Kid buffed his nails! There are plenty of tales about Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, McCarver’s most famous battery mates, that provide personality to the many theories the author “elucidates.”

As the title suggests, this is not your typical jock tome. References to Churchill, Nureyev, and Robert E. Lee aren’t found in your average sports-hero tell-all. Maybe that’s what makes McCarver’s voice worth listening to. He’s a thinking man who values the cerebral side of the game that has made his fame and fortune. Among the myriad points McCarver makes about baseball fundamentals, he doesn’t ignore the favorite fundamental of all for the likes of Hank Aaron and Stan Musial: See ball, hit ball. After all, baseball’s not brain surgery.

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