Stark truth about baseball

The front cover of Jayson Stark's new book.

JAYSON STARK is a gold digger. A throwback, '49er kind of gold digger. Totes an imaginary pickax into the craggy landscape of a baseball clubhouse, sifts what he pokes loose, sloshes it around in his sluicing pan until he hears something rattle, something solid, something unique and bright and shiny.

"I am always looking for that nugget," he says proudly.

Stark did 21 years of hard time here, covering baseball for the morning paper. Made the move to ESPN, the worldwide leader, in 2000. Digs out nuggets all the time. Uncovers a lot of baubles, bangles and beads. Weird stuff, funny stuff.

The next best thing to watching memorable baseball is reading Stark, writing about memorable baseball. And now they have gathered a sampling of those nuggets in an anthology called "Wild Pitches: Rumblings, Grumblings and Reflections on the Game I Love."

The job has gotten tougher as the players have gotten richer, more aloof, more hostile. The job has gotten easier with technology. Tony Gwynn struck out fewer than 20 times in eight different seasons. Ever done before? Never done before? Often? Seldom? Stark can find out in 90 seconds.

Turns out there were 97 big-leaguers who struck out at least 20 times just last month! And ALL the active players combined have a total of ZERO seasons with under 20 strikeouts.

"I have this sick curiosity about stuff," Stark confesses. "I want to know if it ever happened before. My mom once said I should write a book called 'I Never Saw That Before.' "

Mothers know best. It helps if you have a sense of humor. It helps if you follow Jack Nicklaus' advice and "play within yourself." Let somebody else copy Aristotle or Hemingway or Red Smith. Stark writes like a real fan talks, a fan sitting next to you in a taproom with sawdust on the floor. And he won't hurt your eyes with all those damnable decimal points.

"I use numbers when they fit," he hedges. "I use numbers when they work. Larry Andersen told me he was a lifetime .308 hitter. I said, 'No, you're not!'

"He said, 'I played 13 seasons and I got hits in four of those seasons. That's .308.' "

That's funny. In a rare flicker of bragging, Stark says, "I know the funniest guy in every clubhouse in baseball." Those are his go-to guys, guys who see the humor in the game, guys willing to share their wit and wisdom with Stark and his readers.

"After an October game," Stark says, "I don't always talk to the guys who got the big hit, made the big plays. I talk to guys who may not have even played in the game.

"Where is the law that says you can only talk to guys who made the big plays?"

And if the law existed, Stark would bend it or break it, in pursuit of the nugget, the wit and wisdom that permeates the game he loves.

There is an entire chapter of Phillies stuff in "Wild Pitches." Every essay a gem, beginning with a poignant tribute to Harry Kalas. There's a nifty farewell to the Vet; a play-by-play of the legendary Jimmy Rollins' hit off a Jonathan Broxton 98.8-mph blazer (ah, that's a decimal point I can live with).

There's a stirring remembrance of Tug McGraw and a classic portrait of John Vukovich, "the greatest .161 hitter who ever lived."

Stark grew up in Philly, wound up fulfilling the dream, covering his hometown team. Did he dare visualize this stumbling, bumbling version so soon after 2008?

"In 2011," he reminds gently, "that team, if it hadn't lost a bunch of games towards the end, was headed for 110 wins. Did I see it becoming this bleak 3 years later? No.

"It is not the fault of one man. He did what the fans want to see. The window was still open, he kept the key guys, and wound up locked into long, bad contracts. But it's not the work of just one man.

"When they desperately needed outfield help, they did not have a single outfielder in the farm system they could promote."

Enough gloom, time for one more giggle. "I've been keeping track of position players who wind up pitching in a game for 15 years," he says. "Most we've ever had since 1961 is 14, and that was last year. This year, we had 12 before June 1. I talked to three of them, and they were all very funny."