Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Review: Living On the Black

The title of John Feinstein's Living on the Black refers to the area on the outer edges of the strike zone where veteran pitchers whose fast ones have slowed to under 90 mph must consistently place the ball. The term also reflects the precarious situation that the New York Yankees' right-hander Mike Mussina and former New York Mets left-hander Tom Glavine were in at the start of the 2007 season.

Mussina and Glavine, then 38 and 41 respectively, were struggling to hold on to their jobs and keep batters off balance with a guile accumulated during a total of 36 years in the majors. Both men made it, but just barely; their personal milestones -- Glavine passed the 300 mark in total victories, and Mussina reached number 250 -- were overshadowed by their teams' dismal finishes.

The Yankees did their usual postseason fold while the Mets, leading their division by seven games with 17 left to play, crashed and burned in one of the greatest collapses in baseball history. Glavine took the season-ending loss, failing to last through the first inning. One of the game's most articulate players, he was philosophical when asked if he was devastated. "To me, devastating is finding out that a neighbor's eight-year-old is going to lose a leg to cancer." Less philosophical Mets fans were, well, devastated.

A columnist for The Washington Post and author of 22 previous books, John Feinstein must have known that as a writer he was living on the black himself by picking two aging pitchers for his subject. The resulting book is strong on human drama -- both players come across as noble, bloodied warriors -- but extremely short on baseball drama. Like Mussina and Glavine over the last couple of seasons, Living on the Black starts out strong and begins to run out of steam about halfway through. Yankee and Mets fans know how it all comes out, and baseball fans who don't like these two teams may not care.

Feinstein tries to pump up the narrative by reminding us that "they are two of the best pitchers of all time. And they aren't quite done yet." That's debatable, but even if it were true, it's been so long since either pitcher was at his peak that many may have forgotten. That Feinstein captures them artfully in their decline only serves to make their story painful to read. Living on the Black has a hard time living up to its subtitle: for Mussina and Glavine as well as for Yankees and Mets fans, the season was really one to forget.

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