Part two of my interview with High Heat author Tim Wendel from earlier this summer includes topics such as Orioles minor league legend Steve Dalkowski, Earl Weaver, Bull Durham, and Strasburg mania.
There are so many interviews and conversations that informed your research for the book. How difficult was it to get access to so many different people who could help you in your thinking?
It was a little difficult at times. I was one of the founders of Baseball Weekly so sometimes that gave me some cache. It’s gotten a little more difficult because some ballparks are giving credentials, and justifiably so, much more to the beat credentialed guys as opposed to guys doing books and so that gets a little problematic. Once people kind of realized what the conversation was about doors opened up a little bit more than you would think.
Bob Feller’s a great example. Bob certainly gives interviews, you’re not quite sure how the interview’s going to go. Once Bob Feller, who tends to feel the level of pitching overall was maybe greater in his era and even into the ‘60s than maybe it is now even though I think you can start making an argument it’s coming back in a big way, but once he heard something like Tim Lincecum doesn’t ice his arm Feller perked up and went, “Oh, that’s interesting” because he didn’t ice his arm either. In fact one of Feller’s great lines was “Ice, that’s for drinks.” And once he found out that Lincecum kind of felt the same way and followed in his own sort of more modern approach, kind of the same techniques, suddenly Feller said, “That Lincecum guy, give me his number.” In an odd way, in the course of writing High Heat, you’re able to bring some of these almost odd fellows together. Now say Tim Lincecum and Bob Feller I guess are friends in part because they heard that neither one of them iced their arms.
And I think some people when it came to this wanted to set the record straight a little bit. I spent almost three days down in Texas with Nolan Ryan. Certainly Nolan Ryan’s in any conversation about guys that throw hard, but once he heard that I wanted to talk about those early days with the Mets and how he struggled and how frustrated he was – I didn’t realize how much he really struggled, I mean how close he came to quitting. It’s mind boggling. He said “Yeah, come on down, let’s talk.”
Ryan told me at one point, “I knew I had this gift.” He pretty much said in the next sentence, “I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t deserve it,” and so therefore in an odd way it carries a lot more pressure. You see it everywhere today. Some kid starts throwing hard when he’s 12, 13, 14. Somehow we think it’s easy, we think everything’s laid out for him. If anything I think if you ask many of the guys in High Heat, “Hey, this gift of a fastball, it’s almost kind of like a Midas touch isn’t it?” I think they’d probably say yes. And I think if you asked them, certainly a guy like Dalkowski or somebody, “Hey what if we could just wave a magic wand and take that back, would you agree to it?” I think a great many of them would say yeah in a heartbeat.
Speaking of Dalkowski, what does it say about how good his stuff must have been if he made this list even though he never caught on in the majors?
He almost became the number one guy and actually Earl Weaver’s the one who kind of talked me down off that a little bit, which I found amazing because Earl Weaver did as much as anybody to get Steve Dalkowski in the major leagues or to get him as close as he did, but then Earl said, “No, I can’t make him number one because he never made the majors.”
You know, I think part of it is just the mythic element. You’ve seen Bull Durham, the Nuke LaLoosh character being in a sense the myth of what Dalkowski was. That was certainly helped by the fact Ron Shelton, who went on to be a Hollywood writer and director, was in the Orioles organization about four or five years behind Dalkowski. He never played on the same team as Steve, but he knew all the stories and such. The stories of his fastball are just epic, and I think that’s part of what the appeal is too; here you have a very almost very docile guy who wears spectacles at least part of his career. He doesn’t look like an athlete at all. And yet boy did he have a gift. I think in an odd way that really appeals to people. He didn’t look like a Ryan or even a Feller. He looked like some guy you’d walk by on the street, and yet you put him on a mound, granted he couldn’t throw a first strike half the time, but as near as we can tell he threw potentially 104 to maybe 107 miles per hour.
Hitting a fastball is all about timing, and it seems like with the publication of this book the timing is almost perfect in part because of all the Strasburg mania and attention. How much does that help to have the book come out in a summer where there’s so much attention to Strasburg and so much attention to pitching really?
It’s something you hope and wish for. I’ve had other books that haven’t done nearly as well as this. I’ve got a friend in publishing who talks about a book being like you carve this statue and it’s as good as you can do and you go down to the water and you throw it in and you hope it floats. I think that sums up publishing today.
Strasburg’s a huge part of it. In a way it’s kind of like Halley’s Comet coming around. Each generation seems to get caught up in another great fireballer. Certainly predecessors, you look at Feller’s generation, you go back to Walter Johnson, certainly Ryan, Koufax, JR Richard, that whole crowd. I think it’s somewhat because, you know I can take somebody who doesn’t know a great deal about baseball who certainly doesn’t know a sacrifice bunt from a hit-and-run to whatever, but I can take them to the ballpark and somebody’s throwing like a 100 miles per hour and that gets their attention. It’s something that just kind of translates very well. It’s something that all of us just kind of stand in awe of whether you’ve seen a thousand baseball games or this is your first game, it just translates.
What’s going on too is I think pitching is making a comeback. I’m currently looking at a project that may involves 1968, the year of the pitcher, and I think the pitching today is kind of getting back to that. It’s not only Strasburg right now; we’ve got some other pretty incredible fastball pitchers, too: Jimenez out with Colorado; I mentioned Lincecum; Broxton, the closer with L.A.; even this kid Chapman, the Cuban defector who I’ve been following a little bit from afar, he’s in the Reds organization, it looks like now they may make him into a closer. It’s really intriguing how we kind of went through real down time with pitching and certainly guys that could really bring it, and now we seem to be suddenly back in a golden era again certainly led by Strasburg.