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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 1999 /22 Mar-Cheshvan 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Asking all the right questions takes a special pitch -- THE REASON I like Seth Swirsky -- and I've never even met the guy -- is not because I'm a great fan of baseball. I'm not.

Swirsky is.

The reason I'm a fan of Swirsky is that I'm a fan of precise, quirky questions. I've always thought that the secret to getting people to tell you wonderful stories lies in fine-tuning the questions you ask them, honing in, unleashing the floodgates of memory by making certain that your questions are probably unlike the questions the person you're talking with hears every day.

Swirsky -- a songwriter who lives in California -- is in love with baseball, and during the 1994 major league strike found himself missing the game. To pass the time he usually would have spent watching or listening to ballgames, he began writing letters to his favorite old-time baseball stars. He wasn't asking them for their autographs -- he was asking them questions.

Really good questions. He wrote to a retired ballplayer named Ken Raffensberger, and asked in the letter: "I looked up your major league career record and it says that you were the MVP of the '44 All-Star Game. I wondered if you could tell me if your parents and other family members were at that game to watch your great performance? What did you do after the game?" To a retired pitcher by the name of Bud Thomas, Swirsky wrote: "I wondered if you could tell me if you remember the great Ted Williams' at-bat against you on April 23, 1939, when he hit his very first of 521 career home runs? What was that at-bat like from your perspective?"

Now . . . baseball fans would probably be fascinated with the answers. But it was the questions that impressed me -- there's a lesson Swirsky is teaching there, about how to get people to relax and reflect and open up. Baseball has nothing to do with it -- knowing how to ask questions does.

Swirsky collected some of the letters he received from ballplayers in a 1996 book called "Baseball Letters," which I mentioned in the column when it first came out. Now he has published a similar book -- it is called "Every Pitcher Tells a Story," about his correspondence with pitchers.

Once again, it is not my interest in baseball that draws me to what Swirsky has done. It's my admiration for the way this guy poses his questions.

To Gary Kroll, a member of the New York Mets in the 1960s, Swirsky asked what it was like -- as the last pitcher to start a game for the Mets before the famous Beatles concert in Shea Stadium on Aug. 15, 1965 -- to have the band show up in his home ballpark. ("I was there, got to meet the Beatles . . . ." Kroll wrote in his response to Swirsky.)

To Mace Brown, who was a rookie pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1935, Swirsky asked what he remembered about the day Babe Ruth hit his 714th and final home run -- which Ruth, playing for the Boston Braves, did against Brown's team. (". . . (Ruth) crossed home plate, and he ran directly into our dugout and sat right beside me on the end of the bench!" Brown wrote back to Swirsky. "He sat there for about 4 or 5 minutes. . . .")

To Jaret Wright, the youngest pitcher ever to start a seventh game of a World Series when, at age 21, he pitched for the Cleveland Indians against the Florida Marlins in 1997, Swirsky asked whether Wright's dad, former major league pitcher Clyde Wright, said anything to him before and after the game.

To C.J. Nitkowski, who was was a pitcher for the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts in 1994, Swirsky asked what it was like to pitch five times to a fellow minor leaguer who that summer, like Nitkowski, was trying to make it to the majors: Michael Jordan.

To retired catcher Ed Herrmann, who played for the White Sox, Swirsky asked what he and pitcher Wilbur Wood talked about when Herrmann would walk out to the mound -- what the actual conversations were about, as thousands of fans watched and had no idea what was being said.

How good are professional songwriter Swirsky's questions?

The answer to that lies not in the words of the men who responded to him -- but in the fact that they responded to him, that they took the time to write him back. Questions like those, you almost have to answer -- they're so thoughtful, you feel an obligation to think about them and reply.

Maybe Swirsky should cover the 2000 presidential campaign. His questions might do the impossible -- make the rest of us pay attention.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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