Watching a lot of baseball comes with the job for New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner. But the Wilton resident has some favorite moments etched in memory.
“To see Sandy Koufax showing Max Scherzer how to throw a curveball was really cool. It was endearing to see Max take advantage of the opportunity, to witness the mutual respect and admiration these guys have for each other,” Kepner recalls of the 2014 Cy Young Award presentations.
After writing about baseball for nearly 30 years, Kepner, has published K: The History of Baseball in Ten Pitches. Released just last month by Doubleday, the book is a masterful tapestry of interesting stories, lively anecdotes and historical research of baseball’s most celebrated pitches. Kepner is a storyteller whose love for baseball brings the magic of pitching to life.
“I am writing about something I am truly passionate about beyond just the job. My passion is pitching. That’s what I gravitated toward as a writer, what I played as a player, and what I find most interesting when I watch a game.”
Kepner’s knack for identifying the essence of each pitch is evident in his colorful narratives, which are imbued with humor and reverence. He writes about everything from the controversial Spitball pitch, to which former NY Yankees manager Joe Torre suggests players “hit the dry side,” to the enduring camaraderie amongst pitchers that reveals a universal appreciation for how hard it is to succeed.
“The skill is not in knowing the secret, it’s making the secret work for you,” Kepner explains. Baseball enthusiasts and novices alike, will be awestruck by the mystique of pitching Kepner uncovers.
Described as a “three year scavenger hunt,” Kepner’s exhaustive work began in 2015 and by the end he had interviewed more than 300 people, including catchers, coaches, scouts, umpires, and of course baseball’s most celebrated pitchers, 22 of whom were elected to the Hall of Fame. Pitchers with the most strikeouts in the history of the sport shared their perspectives with him, including Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.
Kepner was determined to cover the entire history of pitching and entrenched himself in the library at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY to ensure that. Each chapter is dedicated to the evolution of one of the 10 respective pitches and includes insights from the pitchers whose skill and innovation left an indelible mark on the game.
Much like the pitchers he writes about, Kepner’s career has been paved by exceptional skill, dedication, and a willingness to learn. His authoritative voice is the product of his tireless pursuit of his writing craft and his relentless efforts not only to take advantage of opportunity but to create it as well. “It’s all about finding what I do best so I can be around baseball,” he said.
Over the last 20 years Kepner has written for The New York Times, but his baseball-writing career began long before then. A middle school sports-writing assignment proved to be a life-changing discovery. “It was a fun assignment. And I loved reading all these sports writers in the Philadelphia newspapers, especially Jayson Stark, who just seemed to be having so much fun writing about baseball. I thought, ‘that looks like a fun occupation I might be able to do.’”
A short time later Kepner and a classmate pieced together a homemade baseball magazine. As he got more serious about the magazine, the writing got more sophisticated and within the year Kepner was publishing thought-provoking articles. Seeking advice, Kepner sent the magazine to sports writers he admired. George Vecsey, who wrote for the NY Times, was intrigued by Kepner and convinced his editor to write an article about the young sports writer.
Following the article’s publication in November 1989, Kepner received subscription orders for his magazine from across the country. It also generated numerous TV and print interview requests over the ensuing year and a half.
“I realized the media machine then and I had media appearances to show teams,” he recalls.
His next lucky break followed shortly thereafter when David Montgomery, the executive vice president of the Philadelphia Phillies, and a Kepner family friend, put in a good word for Kepner with the team’s public relations department. Fifteen year-old Kepner interviewed his first Major League Baseball player in Clearwater, FL at the Phillies’ spring training, and he was a consummate professional. “I over-prepared for interviews. I treated everyone with respect and I understood I was in their work environment. Like anything in life: give respect, get respect.”
With access to the Phillies’ clubhouse for the following four seasons, he sharpened his craft and prepared for a career in Major League Baseball. Immediately after college Kepner secured his first job in Los Angeles, covering the Angels for a suburban newspaper and a year later moved to Seattle to cover the Mariners. In 2000, Kepner landed at The New York Times where he spent his first 10 years as a beat writer covering the NY Mets and then the NY Yankees. He is now the paper’s national baseball writer.
“I am really lucky that I knew so early what I wanted to do, but I worked really hard because I loved it. I put myself in a position to get the job.”
Writing his book has left him further enthralled with baseball and eager to write another timeless book. “Writing a book is hard work but it was so much fun.” So what might be next? “I’ve always loved the World Series. A definitive book on that would be great.”
Tyler Kepner will be at the Wilton Library for an author talk, Q&A and book signing on Monday, May 6 at 7-8:30 p.m. to discuss K: The History of Baseball in Ten Pitches. There is no charge but registration is highly recommended. Register online or by calling 203.762.6334. Books will be available for purchase courtesy of Elm Street Books of New Canaan. GOOD Morning Wilton is media sponsor for the event.