Any watcher of Baseball Tonight knows what a Web Gem is. For those of you who are staring at your screen blankly, 1. Baseball Tonight is a daily ESPN show that airs during baseball season. It is awesome. 2. A Web Gem is a spectacular defensive play, the best of which involve outfielders catching a ball while running backward into a wall, or a shortstop just barely throwing out the runner at first while on his knees. They are also awesome. This past season, there were a few new features to Baseball Tonight, including the Kurk Gems (named in the spirit of the Web Gem but for the baseball writer Tim Kurkjian). A Kurk Gem goes something like this: Tim Kurkjian's voice over (in a tone that is somewhat professorly with a touch of monotone, but in a likeable way) telling you that X player hit into X number of double plays in the month of July, which is a new record, but only in away parks and only off left-handed pitchers named Joe. It's a lot of information thrown at you at once, some of it weird, some of it awesome. In this past season's Rangers/Orioles game at Camden Yard where the Rangers beat the Orioles 30 to 3 (mind you, in the Oriole's own field), the Baseball Tonight crew got Kurkjian, who was at the park that night, on the phone. The joy in his voice rang through loud and clear, his voice cracking as he tried to not to get his words out through his laughter, he said something like, "And the Ranger's closer! He got the save!" It was probably one of his happiest moments.
Tim Kurkjian's book Is This a Great Game, or What? is awesome. It is awesome like Web Gems are awesome. It's full of stories, much like the Rangers game I mentioned above. I think I read half the book aloud to Jim because it was so funny that I kept laughing so hard. I'm afraid to pick small sections to highlight here because I might not do them justice, so consider this a small sampling:
- On how the White House was a perfectly good place to discuss Pokey Reese:
[Baseball writers] are seamheads; we are the unlaundered, often overweight, usually unathletic baseball nerds who are trained only to cover baseball. We have covered winter ball games, Instructional League games, Arizona Fall League games, simulated games, and we have traveled two hundred miles to watch a "B" game on a back field in spring training. The White House? We know more about pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander than we do about Grover Cleveland. The opera? When you say Placido, we think Polanco, not Domingo.
- On the not so smart players:
I promised never to reveal the name of the player who was told in the early 1990s that Major League Baseball might be moving a team to Washington, D.C. And the player said, "The league can't give Washington a team. It already has two teams, Baltimore and Seattle."
That guy wouldn't do well in the geography category on Jeopardy, but Jeopardy was on TV in the Charlotte Knights (AAA) clubhouse one September day in 1994. I was doing a story on the minor-league play-offs since there were no play-offs in major leagues due to the players' strike. I was watching the show out of the corner of my eye. The Final Jeopardy category was Poetry. Suddenly, a Knights' player ran out of the player's lounge screaming as if he had won the lottery. "Did he get the Final Jeopardy answer in Poetry?" I asked, incredulous. "Oh no, that's not how we play," said Tim Jones, a Knights infielder. "The way we play, if you guess the Final Jeopardy category, you win. Hey, we're baseball players."
- On Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia's reports he makes players give during Spring Training:
One spring, Angels pitcher Jarrod Washburn, and a couple of young players, were assigned to cover a local ostrich festival. For $150 and a couple of autographed balls, Washburn, the team prankster, convinced the workers at the festival to bring the ostrich to the Angels' clubhouse the next morning. . . . "At 9:30, in they walked with the ostrich. It was chaos. Guys were screaming with laughter." Scioscia was one of them. "[Pitcher] Ramon Ortiz jumped in his locker," he said. "He was holding on to the walls and yelling, in Spanish, 'Get that big chicken away from me!' Washburn smiled and said, "It was hilarious. I don't think anything we ever do will ever top the ostrich."
First baseman Scott Spiezio did . . . in a way. "He was given the word 'erudite' to research," Scioscia said. "He got all mixed up and researched the wrong word. He researched 'hermaphrodite,' not 'erudite.' So he's up there talking about all this sexual stuff, and everyone in the room is laughing. From 'caveat' to 'hermaphrodite,' I've learned a lot of new words."
I agree completely with Kurkjian when he says that the best four words in the English language are "Pitchers and catchers report." This book is for baseball lovers, baseball geeks, and baseball nerds. Read it, but only in places where it's okay to laugh out loud. It would make a great present for your friends who love baseball, even if you don't understand the game at all.