Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Book Chat: With Tyler Kepner, Author of "The Grandest Stage"


The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series

By Tyler Kepner

Doubleday; hardcover; $30.00

Tyler Kepner is the national baseball writer for the New York Times, for whom he has covered every World Series game of the past two decades. He joined the newspaper in 2000, covering the Mets for two years before moving to the Yankees beat for eight seasons before moving to his current role. He is also the author of K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (click here for our coverage from 2019). 

Kepner started his career as a teenager, interviewing players for a homemade magazine in the early 1990s. He attended Vanderbilt University on the Grantland Rice/Fred Russell sportswriting scholarship, then covered the Angels for the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise and the Seattle Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before joining the Times.

In Kepner's new book, The Grandest State: A History of the World Series, he delivers a unique look at the Fall Classic's 117 years, with the story told in seven chapters, which mirrors the most games that can be played in the series.

Kepner writes it in the same conversational style as K, and it is filled with essential tales that go back to the first World Series in 1903, with insights from Hall of Famers such as Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Jim Palmer, Dennis Eckersley, and many others who have both thrived and failed on the game's biggest stage. 

Many burning questions that baseball fans have are answered, starting with, why do some players, like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Madison Bumgarner crave the pressure? How do players handle a dream that comes up short? What's it like to manage in the World Series, and what are the secrets of building a champion? 

Uncelebrated heroes like Bill Wambsganss, who pulled off an unassisted triple play in 1920, are celebrated, and Kepner also probes the mysteries behind magic moments like Babe Ruth's called shot in 1932 and Kirk Gibson's home run in 1988, and he also busts some long-time myths, such as that the 1919 Cincinnati Reds were much better than the Chicago White Sox, who came to be derided as the Black Sox, as eight players were accused of throwing the series and received a lifetime ban.

Tyler Kepner.

I caught up recently with Tyler Kepner about The Grandest Stage and this year's World Series matchup:

Jason Schott: The teams in this year's World Series are quite a contrast, as you have a perennial power in the Houston Astros, making their fourth appearance in six years, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who came out of nowhere to win the National League pennant.

Tyler Kepner: I mean, you go from the number-one seed in the American League to the lowest team in the National League, but it's all about playing your best baseball now. Phillies have a shot, they have lot of power and two really good starting pitchers (Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola), so it could happen, I mean, Houston's the favorite on paper, for sure, but it could happen...I don't have a great feel for it, but (Bryce) Harper's playing out of his mind any mistakes, they're going to have to jump on because they don't typically get a lot of singles, although they did against the Cardinals (in the Wild Card Series), yeah, can't wait.

JS: One thing that comes across in The Grandest Stage is how the World Series can really make a guy's career. How big is it for Harper to make the World Series after a stellar postseason?

TK: This is where legacies are made. I mean, you can be a great player and not go to the postseason, you know, like Mike Trout has only gone once, Ernie Banks and guys like (Ken) Griffey (Jr.) never made the World Series. This is where you really leave your mark and I think Harper recognizes that and is taking advantage of that opportunity and is just letting himself be himself and we're seeing some amazing, amazing performances from him and a bunch of those guys, but he's the one who's kind of legacy is on the line and he's making the most of it. It's always fun to watch greatness like that.

JS: You write a lot about the 2019 World Series, in which the Washington Nationals beat Houston. This was the year after Washington lost Harper, as he signed with the Phillies in the offseason. Has he ever voiced a motivation knowing that the team who let him go, or lost him, whichever way you look at it, won it the very next year?

TK: No, he never talks about that, actually. He is very intent on just making it clear that, when he signed with the Phillies, he moved on. He never looked back, and I think he has shown that because he never likes to dwell on that, never likes to get too deep into it, just, you know, he might say, 'I'm grateful for all my experiences.' I asked if he watched the postseason that year, and he said, yeah, he was happy for his friends on that team.

JS: You open the book talking about how you grew up a Phillies fan and were at the 1983 World Series, which they lost to the Baltimore Orioles. The Phillies haven't been in often but they've been in a lot of memorable World Series.

TK: They have, they've been a fairly, I wouldn't say regular, but they've had a lot of shots at it the last 40 years, when you think about it. '80, '83, '93, '08, '09, and now this, I mean, they're all spaced out pretty good, at least ten years apart, but you know, when you space them out like that, it's a little bit like how the Mets have spaced them out, '69, '73, then you go '86, 2000, 2015, you don't go like a full generation without one. You let each generation of fans sort of have their World Series memories. You know, whatever happens now, this is a World Series team that's going to be well-remembered.

JS: It wasn't a surprise when the Phillies made it in 2008 and 2009, whereas the appearance before that, in 1993, they were. What similarities do you see between the 1993 and 2022 Phillies?

TK: I mean, '93 was coming off the 1992 team, which a last-place team, so there was no real expectations. '93 was a brief window that they had between the Braves joining the division and the Pirates' dominance there. You know, Pirates lost Barry Bonds after '92, and (Doug) Drabek, so the Phillies, there was sort of one year where they had a free shot at it because the Braves weren't in it yet. So, they made some really good lower-level free agent signings and they had no injuries all that year. They had really been banged up for the previous few years; it was hard to tell if they were good or not. Everything came together that year, you know (Curt) Schilling had come into his own the year before and he was great, (Tommy) Greene was good, (Terry) Mulholland, Danny Jackson, they ran the same five guys out there all the time. They didn't get hurt and they played with a real distinctive style and flair, and they had it going on from Day 1. They swept the opening series on the road, good in spring training, they got off to a hot start, the fans took to them immediately. There was never really a letdown until the end, and even that, for me, the whole year was so charmed that there was just, the Blue Jays were better. I didn't hold it against them that the Phillies lost. I think this year was different, in that they kind of had to fight their way in at the very end, and I don't know if anyone saw this coming. '93 was just sort of a charmed season all the way through. This had a lot of frustrations along the way, but the team caught on fire this month.

JS: One thing you bring up in The Grandest Stage is how, from the late '40s through the mid-50s, the World Series was largely played in New York every year, with the Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers seemingly always in it. Do you think younger fans can conceptualize that the league winners went right to the World Series, whereas, this Phillies team showed that, as long as you make the playoffs, you can make up for six months of inconsistency?

TK: Right, now it's all about getting in the tournament. We don't call it a tournament, but it is what is, and that's fine. Without it, the way baseball is set up now, you'd have Yankees and Dodgers every year. I think people recognize that all you need is a chance, so you focus during the season on earning that chance, and then you can make the most of it. I think that it's good that, in the first year of this expanded playoff system, that we see a team that's the six and last seed go all the way to the Series because it'll give you hope that all you need is that shot; all you need is to get in. I think it's good to have an example on one side of greatness (Houston) and on the other side of a team that got that last spot and ran all the way to the top.

JS: Now, to delve into past World Series, I didn't realize that former Met Endy Chavez was on the 2011 Texas Rangers, and should have been in right field for Nelson Cruz when they were ahead 7-5 in the ninth inning of the sixth game and were about to clinch it. Instead, David Freeze hit a double over Cruz's head to tie it at 7, and then he won it with a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. St. Louis won 10-9 and clinched the World Series the next night.

TK: Yeah, looking back, he thought so. (Texas Manager Ron) Washington never took Cruz out for defense, but certainly in hindsight, that might have made some sense, when you think of how good Endy Chavez was. You could have had him there, or David Murphy could have moved to right, something like that. They had this premier defender out there, but they didn't use him for defense, and it was a sort of defensive outfield play that kept them from getting that last out. Tough play, but it would have been an easier play for a better defender.

JS: I like how you gave a window into the press box, how we all end up talking to each other at different moments in the game, when you noted that Tom Verducci picked up on how shallow Cruz was positioned.

TK: That was amazing, like Verducci's really dialed in. He was focused on right field, and the Rangers themselves missed it.

JS: Where would you rank that game in all the ones you've covered?

TK: That's way up there because of everything that was at stake. You know, Game 7 with the  Giants and Royals (in 2014), because of what we saw from (Madison) Bumgarner, and was so tense all the way through. The Cubs and Indians (in 2016) was great because once Rajai Davis got the home run (to tie it in the eighth for Cleveland), really was a huge surprise and then made anything possible. Before that, the Cubs had complete control. But yeah, that (Game 6 in 2011) has to be one of the best games I've ever seen. You had a team down to their last strike twice, two separate innings, and they come back, I mean, I don't know if we'll ever see that again, but it was extremely tense and memorable and heartbreaking for the Rangers.

JS: I appreciate how in the final, seventh, chapter, you have a list of "Rajai Davis Moments," where you capture players like him and Dave Henderson, whose homer had given the Boston Red Sox the lead in the 10th inning of Game 6 in 1986 against the Mets, who were set to be the hero if their team prevailed. How important was it for you to get that in there?

TK: I really wanted to have a space in the back where I could sort of unload a lot of things that I always think about, but maybe aren't worthy of a full chapter, let's say. As you watch these series go along, you start to think, 'this is going to be a story, that's going to be a story,' and those guys deliver in a big way, but the team doesn't hold it. That was fun to kind of get into that, remind some people of who would have been the heroes if only things had played out just a little differently after their big hit.

JS: In Dave Henderson's case, he also had a massive home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship series with the Red Sox on the brink of elimination against the Angels. They won that game and the next two to win the pennant, so he would have had big moments in each round if they held on to beat the Mets.

TK: Oh yeah, definitely, that's what I was thinking at the time. He was mostly with the Mariners, he didn't do much for the Sox, and I think (Tony) Armas got hurt or was replaced in the lineup by Hendu, and I remember thinking how unlikely it was that he'll be the guy they erect a statue of. It didn't quite happen, but I remember him banging it right off the Newsday sign.

JS: You also mention, in the same chapter, in the 'what ifs' part, how Tom Seaver, could have been pitching for Boston in that World Series.

TK: Yeah, he was in the dugout; he was watching the whole thing, and just to have that knee injury that ultimately ended his career. It was crazy to think he was there the whole time, and seeing how it was playing out and thinking, like, this is storybook kind of stuff. I would have loved to see him pitch, let's put it that way; it would have been amazing.

JS: You called the 2015 Kansas City Royals, who beat the Mets, the most significant recent World Series champion; can you explain why?

TK: I really believe that, because I feel like, if the Royals can't win - if there's not an example of a small-market, low-payroll team climbing out from years and years in the wilderness to go all the way; if you don't have that example - it really hurts the game because other teams can't dream that way. A lot of small markets wouldn't dream that way, and so I feel like it was important for baseball that, for all the Pittsburghs, and Tampa Bays, and Oaklands, to be able to look and say, 'yeah, Kansas City did it, so we can too.' If there was no example of that in modern baseball, it would be a lot tougher for those teams' fans to have something to hold on to.

JS: What do you think is the greatest World Series you've covered?

TK: I always look for how many great games were there, and so while '16 (Cubs-Indians) and '14 (Giants-Royals) had really memorable finishes, it didn't have a lot of great games. 2001 (Yankees-Diamondbacks) had a lot of great games, but that had the last games I didn't cover, Games 6 and 7 because my daughter had her christening that weekend, and I was fourth man on the coverage anyway, so I've made every game since then. I didn't cover that entire series, but that would have to be up there. The 2000 World Series (Yankees-Mets) was great; it was just a little too short, but all five games were outstanding. I would have to say '11 (Cardinals-Rangers) just because that Game 6 was so crazy, and it was a cool format. They split the first two games, and then the Cardinals won, but then Texas comes back to win two, so St. Louis has to win twice at home. That format happens sometimes, and it's kind of a fun challenge. '17 (Astros-Dodgers) was a great series, it was crazy, but that was a fun series. I would have to say the best series I covered beginning to end would be '11, mainly because of that Game 6, but there were other good games in that series, too, and great performances by great players. If I had covered the entire '01 World Series, I'd probably say that, but I think I'd have to say '11.

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