Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: DRINKING COFFEE WITH A FORK by Steve Bucci and Dave Brown (Camino Books, 2011)

I attended my first two live Phillies games as a nine-year-old in 1972, but, sad to say, neither of them featured Steve Carlton on the mound.  This was not exactly a guarantee that I would go home unhappy, but it was close enough.  In '72, Carlton, in his first season in Philadelphia after being traded from St. Louis, turned in one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in the 20th century, going 27-10... for a team that failed to win 60 games.  This extraordinary juxtaposition of such an historic season in such a shabby context -- the horsehide equivalent of hanging a masterwork painting in a cheap plastic frame -- is a natural for book treatment, and Bucci and Brown's survey of the season and its context is thorough, well-written, and refreshingly free of egregious errors.

While running through Carlton's 41 starts and 346 1/3 innings pitched, the authors bring back memories of Veterans Stadium when it was fresh and new (yes, there really was such a time), the era of the giant scoreboards in left and right field, Bill Giles' notorious promotions (including Kiteman's ill-fated opening-day flight and Karl Wallenda's famous wire-walk between games of an August doubleheader), and the home run-celebrating animatronic antics of Philadelphia Phil and Phyllis.  Unfortunately, the ball club on the field, despite the presence of youngsters Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski, was usually not worthy of its shiny surroundings.  The exception to the status quo came every fourth day, when Carlton pitched.  Inspired by their new ace, the rest of the Phillies raised their game and became competitive with the best teams in the National League.  The building process would take a while longer, but the franchise had taken its first steps towards the contending and championship eras of the late 70s and early 80s.  Carlton himself proved popular with the fans and, more intriguingly, with the media; his disillusionment with and stonewalling of the press lay in the future.

Bucci and Brown write with a refreshing sense of humor, but they're deadly serious in the last chapter, "The Case for Carlton," in which they suddenly go all "seamhead" on us and use various sabermetric methods to compare Carlton's '72 campaign to some other outstanding one-year pitching performances of more recent vintage.  This is one of those "argue into the night" topics and can never be definitively resolved, but Carlton, ironically, can use the ineptitude of his supporting cast as strong evidence in his favor.  


Joe Torcivia said...

Would R.A. Dickey going 20-6 (in a 5-man rotation) for a 74-88 Mets team, be sort of the modern-day equivalent of Carlton's feat?

Chris Barat said...


Dickey's year was impressive, but I don't think that it can measure up to Carlton's achievement. The '72 Phils were FAR worse than this year's Mets.