Thursday, April 7, 2011

New release celebrates Hall-of-Famers' 16-inning epic

The complete game has become something of a quaint throwback in baseball these days, rare enough that a pitcher going nine innings is almost a story in itself now. Two of them dueling to the end is nearly unheard of. With middle relievers, lefty specialists, setup men, and closers on hand, most managers are more than pleased just to get seven strong innings from their starter.

Nearly 50 years ago, two future Hall of Famers dug down for more than that. A lot more. Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn, mirror images kicking high and firing from the opposite sides of the rubber, battled for more than four hours before Willie Mays finally broke the scoreless tie with a one-out solo shot in the bottom of the 16th inning to give San Francisco a 1-0 victory. Marichal, then 25 and in his fourth season with the Giants, threw 227 pitches on the night. Spahn, 42 and nearing the end of an illustrious career that saw him win 363 games, tossed 201.

It was an epic showdown, in which the outcome literally rode on each pitch thrown. San Francisco nearly ended it in the ninth on a Willie McCovey blast down the right-field line. The first-base umpire ruled it foul over the objections of the Giants, and the game went on. With each passing inning, Marichal begged and pleaded skipper Alvin Dark to leave him in the game. His catcher, Ed Bailey, advised him, "Don't let him take you out. Win or lose, this is great."

Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Jim Kaplan recounts the contest in a new book called The Greatest Game Ever Pitched. He does a nice job of fleshing out Marichal and Spahn, but the drama of their extra-inning masterpiece doesn't really come through. Kaplan spreads the action over multiple chapters, working in an inning or three here and there amongst the pitchers' histories. Some of the recaps are detailed and drawn out, other innings receive little more than what you might find in a terse play-by-play. Even the climactic chapter, which spans the final seven innings, is interrupted by a five-page diatribe against pitch counts.

The stretched-out approach is reminiscent of Perfect, Lew Paper's 2009 account of Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, an effort which would also have its supporters for the "greatest game" title. Paper broke each half inning into a chapter, focusing on each of the 18 individuals in the lineup that day for the Yankees and Dodgers. At times it felt contrived to me, though he pulled it off more successfully than Kaplan does here.

It's difficult to stretch any game, even a marathon 16-inning contest, into a full-length book. Any game worth immortalizing would have to be a taut, tense struggle, and that conflict will almost invariably be lost when the action is interspersed among character sketches. Great game stories are more suited for a long magazine or SABR journal article, which is how Kaplan originally envisioned this one, per the book jacket. Once he began researching, he found Spahn and Marichal too engrossing to settle for the events of that fabled July night in '63.

Kaplan expanded the scope into more of a dual biography and hit the road to dig into their histories, traveling to San Francisco, Buffalo (to dig into Spahn's roots), and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (to learn about Marichal). While he quotes heavily from previously published sources, he did spend time with both Marichal and Spahn's son Greg, who contributed the foreword to the book.

At just over 200 pages, there's roughly 100 pages on each pitcher, though some of the space is given over to general baseball talk. The book meanders at points, side-tracking onto rants against pitch counts, specialized relievers, and even the modern day celebrity's lack of privacy. There are also numerous sidebars throughout the text, most of which have only a tangential relationship to Marichal, Spahn, or their '63 classic. Topics include the 33-inning game played by Rochester and Pawtucket in 1981, Johnny Sain's failure to make the Hall of Fame, and a handful of tales of other historic pitching matchups. Interesting stuff, but such sidebars either pose an interruption to the reader or get skipped entirely.

Bound forever by their twin masterpiece, Spahn and Marichal have enough in common to make their union work. But with most recent biographies weighing in more in the 300- to 600-page range, there's just not enough here to allow it to stand for either pitcher. Indeed, there's another Marichal book due this fall (Juan Marichal: My Journey from the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown, by Marichal and Lew Freedman), which is slated for 304 pages. It's been decades since a new Spahn bio has come out, which means there's likely one on the way in the next couple of years. In the meantime, this one will suffice as a solid intro to the game's sixth-winningest all-time hurler.

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