McCarver's view of game compelling

Thursday, April 16, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gene Mauch was miscast as a baseball manager. He should have been a cryptographer, a detective, a spy.

A man who can read minds by studying necks squanders his talent when he works in a dugout. Mauch was meant for intelligence work or, at the least, the psychic hotline.

True story. Before the Montreal Expos moved to the broad expanse of the Olympic Stadium, their games were held in the quaint intimacy of Parc Jarry. The close quarters enabled Mauch to steal the signs between middle infielders as they determined who would cover second base in the event of a steal.

An open mouth typically means "You cover." A closed mouth means "I cover." The infielders would hide their faces behind their gloves, but Mauch would find clues in the veins in their necks. Tim McCarver figures Mauch's espionage meant about five extra hits on his 1972 stat sheet. As a baseball anecdote, its value is priceless.

McCarver's new book, Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans, is full of the sort of inside stuff active players are obliged to lie about. It reminds brain surgeons and bleacherites alike that no matter how closely they watch the game, there is another level of understanding available only to insiders.

Personally, I'm always grateful for a glimpse of it.

Calls game candidly

The most valuable asset of any baseball announcer is a sense of humor. The season is long, and despite the undying urgency of Chris Berman, not all of the games are Armageddon. You have to entertain. If you're an ex-ballplayer, you should also be able to educate.

Tim McCarver is one of the few former jocks who do not make me reach instinctively for the mute button. The others are Dave Campbell, Joe Morgan and Chris Welsh. Each of them can be counted on to illuminate some situation in the course of a baseball broadcast, to enlighten us with their experience, to call a game candidly.

I started McCarver's book because I was sure he would teach me something. I finished it as Casey Stengel.

McCarver's book is not aimed entirely at brain surgeons, but neither is it pitched at the casual fan. Entire chapters are devoted to bunting mechanics, productive outs and the intricate nuances involved in varying ball-strike counts.

This is not some breezy account of life in the big leagues, but a serious effort to explain subtleties often lost on spectators. It is also an argument for closer attention from the people who play the game.

McCarver is aghast at the lazy state of baserunning in the big leagues, appalled by mediocre pitchers who throw too timidly, and annoyed with Darryl Strawberry's tendency to play too deep in the outfield.

"Because they stand so far from most of the action, outfielders are less inclined to understand the finer points of defense," he writes, "including their own responsibilities."

Strategically, McCarver's model is Robert E. Lee, whose battlefield philosophy was to keep a superior force on the defensive. He advocates an aggressive, unpredictable and sometimes unconventional style of play. Lest anyone mistake him for baseball's Answer Man, he cautions that his book is more a matter of interpretation than gospel.

"Food for thought," he called it Wednesday in a telephone interview. "I don't really care if people agree with this. It's the way I was trained."

McCarver spent 21 years as a major-league catcher. He speaks with the authority of a man who called pitches for Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, and the candor of a guy who has left the clubhouse for good.

"Gary Carter and Johnny Bench were very predictable catchers in their early years," McCarver writes. "They would call for too many fastballs when they were behind in the count. Until later in their careers, they didn't apply their knowledge as extraordinary hitters to how they called the game."

Tim McCarver has applied his knowledge productively in this book. Brain surgeons should take note.