Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Book Review: Throwback, by Jason Kendall

Kids and historians should read this book.

Serious baseball fans should read it too, of course, but if you’re one of them and you didn’t realize Jason Kendall has a book out, the rest of this sentence is purple monkey dishwasher. Everyone back from Amazon* yet? Ok. Now that you’ve bought Throwback and are gnawing your fingernails off in anticipation, let me reassure you: It’s precisely what the title says. Kendall describes, in almost too much detail, exactly what’s going on around the diamond in the most common baseball situations. He tells you some things you can’t see from the stands– the way the batter sets his feet as he digs in, for instance, and what that reveals to a seasoned pro catcher – but mainly focuses on what you can. There are about a million covert messages being relayed before every single pitch, to every corner of the field, and Kendall tells you how to read all of them. It’s pretty sweet.

The less serious fans will get a lot out of Throwback, too. I normally hate cutesy puns like this – the catcher “throws back” the ball to the pitcher, see, but “throwback” also means “atavism” – but it works here, because there’s really no other word to describe Kendall. He embodies a style of masculinity you just don’t see anymore. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you. Some will say it’s macho bullshit, which is everything wrong with sports these days. Others will say that macho bullshit is pretty much the only reason to watch sports in the first place. Either way, Throwback is worth preserving as a cultural artifact, if nothing else – I’m just a year younger than Jason Kendall, and I have a hard time believing guys like him really existed. Guys who say things like this:

One thing I can’t stand is a guy who gets hit by a pitch and stands there huffing and puffing. If a guy gets hit by a pitch – if he wears one – and then stands at the plate pointing at the pitcher and yelling, he’s weak. The hitter just wants to look tough while he waits for his teammates to arrive. Guys who actually are tough? They don’t wait around: charging the mound is a split-second decision, and they’re just gone (p. 30).

Or this:

I can’t stand the pitchers and pitching coaches that tell you a guy hit a ball 400 feet on a good pitch. It must not have been that good of a pitch; they just went up three runs. If it went off a sixty-year-old lady’s head, twelve rows up in left center, it was not a good pitch (p. 71).

Or this:

If you drop a knee on me, I’ll come up swinging. Another way for a runner to retaliate is to come in spikes-up the next chance he gets. An infielder gets spiked and he won’t drop a knee on you anymore – word will get around and it will stop. If you don’t retaliate, infielders will just keep doing it: they know you can be intimidated. Don’t drop a knee on me unless you want a fight. If you drop a knee, you better know who you’re dropping it on (p.131).

(Nowadays, of course, infielders courteously inquire about the baserunner’s feelings, and pitchers apologize if they accidentally cram a fastball up a batter’s nose).

Love them or hate them, it’s those kind of comments that make Throwback come together as a book. Which is crucial, because there’s no narrative structure to hold your interest otherwise. Libraries will have a tough time filing it – it’ll probably go in “player biographies / autobiographies” because of the author’s name, but it’s really a manual. A casual flip-through reveals a thousand little sections, all with titles like “Runner on third, less than two out, a suicide or safety squeeze is in order:” or “The stolen base and the stopwatch.” It’s meant to be read as a how-to guide, as in: You’re watching a game on tv, this is the situation you see, flip to page 95 to find out what all the players are thinking about. Kendall and Judge are upfront about this, but it’s rather off-putting when you first start reading.

The less said about coauthor Lee Judge, the better. I mean that as a high compliment to Mr. Judge. Bad coauthors are always butting into the text; you’ll get purple passages about how Randy Johnson’s fastball is like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or the hit and run as the Hegelian synthesis of hitting and running. I have no idea what, if anything, Judge did on Throwback. Maybe Jason Kendall talks like a Regius Professor of Literature in real life, and Judge helped him dumb it down for the American public. Whatever it was, it worked — Kendall comes off like some kind of weird genius caveman, which is exactly what you’d expect a crafty, crusty, fifteen-year-veteran big league catcher to sound like. Together, they make Throwback the world’s most entertaining instruction manual.


*Official disclaimer: I’m not getting paid by Not that I wouldn’t take their filthy lucre in a heartbeat — if you’re reading this, Mr. Bezos, call me!! – but I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about the fine upstanding folks at Last Word on Sports.


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Main Photo by Gene J. Puskar


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