If publishing a book is akin to hitting a baseball in its reliance on timing, Tim Wendel has gone yard with “High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time.” The book’s 2010 release coincides with the Summer of Strasburg during which, according to Sports Illustrated, Pitchers Rule.
Pitching is in vogue, and there’s a 100-mile-per-hour phenom leading the charge.
While Wendel’s premise is simple – determine the fastest pitcher in baseball history – finding the answer is less so as the task defies numerical measurement for reasons outlined by the author.
Wendell wisely begins this journey by re-telling the tale of the rather fantastic stunt undertaken in service of timing Bob Feller’s legendary fastball. Beyond providing the book some early color, the anecdote articulates from the outset that determining the best fastball has never been a a matter of simply looking at a radar gun.
Stories rather than stats inform High Heat as Wendel simultaneously chases the answers to two primary questions: Who? and How? At times the latter distracts from the former, but the author ultimately serves as a likable protagonist facing an antagonizing question with which he actively engages – conducting research at the Baseball Hall of Fame, conversing with the game’s legends, and even challenging his own arm in an aerodynamic testing lab.
The book is populated with tales both small and tall as Wendel chooses to humanize rather than deify the game’s greatest hurlers. Nolan Ryan’s story, for example, is more compelling as told through the lens of the early struggles that nearly led him to give up the game rather than the obvious successes that later informed his Hall of Fame career.
Orioles fans will enjoy the generous helping of references to the team that are sprinkled throughout the book, mostly in relation to the almost mythical figure of Steve Dalkowski.
Dalkowski, the real-life inspiration for Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham,” provides a sad counterpoint to the more recognizable figures in the book. Even Earl Weaver was unable to tame Dalkowski’s prodigious talent, though he came close during the player’s stay with minor-league outfit Elmira.
On a related note, Weaver’s advice factors into Wendel’s final decision at the conclusion of High Heat when the author reveals his “top-10 list of the fastest pitchers of all time” (p. 227) that in fact features 12 pitchers.
Wendel ultimately demonstrates that the God-given gift to register triple digits on a radar gun is not always the blessing it is perceived to be. The current examples of Strasburg and Joel Zumaya, both of whom make cameo appearances in the book, illustrate this dichotomy in real time.
The challenge of harnessing a supreme fastball involves physical demands, as seen in Zumaya’s case, as well as potentially crushing mental demands to achieve out-sized success. This and other revelations throughout High Heat help Wendel succeed in adding fresh perspective to an age-old baseball argument.
[Note: I’ll post my interview with High Heat author Tim Wendel in the coming days.]