Palo Alto Weekly

- May 7, 2010

Breaking the codes

Paly graduate delves into the tales and rules of baseball in his new book

by Rick Eymer

"The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime," by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca; Pantheon; 294 pp.; $29.99

Jason Turbow developed an interest in baseball the old-fashioned way: His father brought him to his first game at Candlestick Park, with the hometown San Francisco Giants the main event. Baseball became an instant attraction and reading box scores on a daily basis his passion.

Turbow's father, retired Palo Alto oncologist Mike, followed baseball but not as intently. He certainly did not immerse himself in the reams of minutia surrounding the game — the action that separates the true believer from the casual fan. His son did.

Jason Turbow, a 1988 graduate of Palo Alto High School, went on to combine his passions for baseball and journalism, writing for SportsIllustrated.com, Giants Magazine and Athletics, as well as for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Now he's produced the book "The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime" with co-author Michael Duca.

"It's not often you get to do exactly what you want to do," Turbow said. "I was doing what I wanted to do for three-and-a-half years (creating the book). It couldn't get any better."

These days, Turbow lives in Albany, but he'll be back in Palo Alto on May 19, when he's scheduled to give a reading with fellow baseball author Dan Fost ("Giants Past and Present") at Books Inc. in Town & Country Village.

Besides crediting his father for his interest in baseball, Turbow attributes his love of journalism to Esther Wojcicki, the Paly instructor who has introduced generations of students to the world of reportage.

Wojcicki attended high school with Turbow's mother, retired Palo Alto estate-planning attorney Ellen, in Los Angeles. Wojcicki received an acknowledgment in "The Baseball Codes" as a result of pointing Turbow in the direction of journalism.

Turbow was writing and editing articles for the "Giants Today" section in the San Francisco Chronicle when a conversation with Duca in 2006 turned into the idea for the book.

"He wanted to do a book with Dusty Baker and he had all these stories," Turbow said. "It dawned on me that there are so many great baseball stories that there was something there. Baseball is made for great stories. I always say that sportswriters are the perfect example of failed novelists. They all tell good stories and the characters are already there."

Duca, an official scorer for major league baseball, said the book with Baker would have to wait until the former Giants manager retired from the game. He didn't have to wait to start working with Turbow.

Used to interviewing players and coaches on a regular basis, Turbow and Duca didn't take long to accumulate an extensive database. The book slowly began to take shape out of a mountain of raw materials, interviews and research work.

During the process, Turbow and Duca traveled the length of the country, from AT&T Park in San Francisco to Cooperstown, N.Y., home to baseball's Hall of Fame. Duca researched materials at Stanford University's microfilm library, pouring over old newspapers. Turbow spent long hours in the press box transcribing notes and interviews the pair had gathered during pre-game access.

"I interviewed people in five states: California, Iowa, Missouri, Arizona and New York," Turbow said. "I talked to (former Oakland A's pitcher) Steve McCatty in the bullpen at Sec Taylor Stadium (Iowa). Jerome Williams was pitching for the Iowa Cubs at the time and he told me a great story."

That story, recounted in "The Baseball Codes," illustrates one of the great unwritten rules of baseball: A pitcher has to protect his team, and if a teammate gets hit by a pitch, there must be retaliation.

In 2004, when the incident took place, Williams was a young pitcher and Barry Bonds a legendary home-run hitter. The Giants and Dodgers, two teams involved in one of the game's fiercest rivalries, were playing. L.A. pitcher Jeff Weaver put a hard tag on Giants' outfielder Michael Tucker as he ran toward first base. The tag might have been ignored had it not been delivered to Tucker's face.

Tucker and Weaver exchanged words. Bonds came up to Williams afterward and told him Dodger players do not get away with disrespecting the Giants. He told Williams to, as Williams recalled it in the book, "take care of business."

It was only after Williams allowed a single and saw the reaction — a Giants pitching coach holding his head — that he realized Bonds meant for him to throw a pitch at a Dodgers batter.

"I was young. It was my second year, and I didn't know these things," Williams said in the book. "Now when that kind of thing happens I know that I have to take care of it right then and there. Then, boom, it'll be done and over with."

While working on the book, as with every journey, Turbow found himself avoiding pitfalls, following dead ends and surviving a computer crash that could have been disastrous.

"It happened in Des Moines. It was terrible and I lost very important information," Turbow said. "I lost a few key interviews. There were a couple of them so great that I had transcribed them and sent them to Duca, so those were saved."

Unfortunately other key interviews were lost.

"(Retired pitcher) Mike Butcher was so good, so vibrant and vital," he said. "Duca tracked him down and got him to re-interview but it wasn't the same."

These days Turbow is searching for new avenues, while living with his wife, Laura, and their 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

"I am concerned with earning a living," he said. "I have other pitches with agents that (ideally) end up being attractive."

Turbow's background also includes visual arts; he attended the University of California at Santa Cruz as a fine arts major. He added journalism on his own.

"They didn't offer journalism as a major, but at Santa Cruz you can design your own, so that's what I did," he said. "I discovered I was more comfortable being creative with words than a paintbrush. Before kids I tried to keep up with my art and I'll get back to it. Right now I want to spend time with my family after spending so much time on the book."

Info: Jason Turbow and Dan Fost are set to give a free authors' talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 19, at Books Inc., 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. Call 650-321-0600 or go to booksinc.net. For more about Turbow's book, go to thebaseballcodes.com.

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