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Sarasota author delivers purpose pitch

Posted Apr 15, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Apr 15, 2012 at 09:44 PM

Pitching high and tight is a dangerous, yet acceptable part of baseball. Pitchers like Sal Maglie, Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson made their living off chin music, reasoning that fear and intimidation could tip the balance in their favor.

But what if the unthinkable happens and a “purpose pitch” causes a batter’s death?

It has happened before. On Aug. 16, 1920, Ray Chapman of the Indians was hit in the head by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays and died the next day from a severe skull fracture. Mays voluntarily turned himself in to the police, and even though he had a reputation as a headhunter, he was quickly exonerated of all blame.

“I’ve always been haunted by Carl Mays and Ray Chapman,” Sarasota-based author Harold Kasselman said.

If that incident happened now in today’s litigation-happy society, would criminal charges be filed? Would there be a trial? Would it be prosecuted as manslaughter or as a homicide? And what would be the verdict?

“The verdict would come down to a value judgment as to whether the pitch was worthy of condemnation in a criminal court,” Kasselman writes in “A Pitch For Justice,” a thought-provoking novel that combines baseball and legal themes. It is available as an e-book for $2.99 on Amazon.com.

Kasselman, 67, is a lifetime Phillies fan who “cried like a baby” when Philadelphia beat the Rays in the 2008 World Series. He came up with the idea for “A Pitch For Justice” while watching a testy game between the Phils and the New York Mets.

“I was like a man possessed,” Kasselman said from his Sarasota home. “I’m not a writer, not in a million years.

“I sat down and it all came out.”

He wrote his original draft in three months, and then revised it by putting in another subplot just before publication.

Kasselman is no novice to the legal system. For 30 years, he worked for the Camden County (N.J.) prosecutor’s office, spending his final eight years as deputy first assistant prosecutor until he retired from the post in October 2004. He then worked in a private practice until retiring in 2010. Since 2005, he and his wife Robin have spent their winters in Sarasota.

“A Pitch For Justice” is the story of Tim Charles, a Sarasota-born pitcher with pinpoint control and even more sharply defined, high moral values. Charles begins the 2015 season in the majors as a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies. In a key, late-season series against the New York Mets, the 6-foot-6, 210-pounder is thrust into an uncomfortable position by his tough, old-school manager, Buck Sawyer.

The Phillies and Mets have been having a contentious three-game series, with knockdown pitches and spike-flashing slides. Sawyer wants retribution and tells Charles to deliver the message during a Sunday night game that was being televised nationally by ESPN.

Mets sparkplug Kenny Leyton is the victim. He squares to bunt with two runners on base in the sixth inning, but Charles comes inside and hits him in the head with a 95 mph fastball. Leyton apparently froze as the pitch was delivered, and Charles reacts with dismay and tells the umpire that he did not mean to hit the batter.

Leyton is taken to the hospital and later sent home, apparently with nothing more serious than a concussion. But the incident sparks debate in the sports talk show community and poses this question:

Does that intentional beaning, even if it is part of baseball’s unwritten code, rise to the level of criminality?

That answer comes swiftly enough, as Leyton’s condition deteriorates and he dies from swelling of the brain shortly after returning home. For the first time, the question of prosecution becomes real.

That’s where “A Pitch For Justice” takes off. Kasselman uses his legal expertise to take the reader through the grand jury process, with prosecutor Jaime Brooks assuming the lead role.  It’s a fascinating read, and if you’ve ever wondered how a grand jury works, this is a good way to find out.

Kasselman introduces some interesting characters, including Brooks, a prosecutor who envisions a career someday as a singer in a piano bar; Theresa Leyton, the widow of the Mets player who pushes the prosecution and contemplates taking matters into her own hands; Barbara Jay, a dismissed grand juror who becomes the romantic interest; and Chris Meyer, a corrupt grand juror who will play an interesting role as the novel steams to its conclusion.

Sawyer is a cantankerous character who cannot believe he is even in court. During one memorable exchange, he opts to “take the Fifth Commandment,” to the amusement of the lawyers and the courtroom audience.

“That actually happened in court, but not by a baseball player,” Kasselman laughed.

Sawyer reminded me of Dallas Green, who led the Phillies to their first World Series title in 1980, but Kasselman said the character was mostly a composite of managers from the 1930s era.

Kasselman is a lifetime Phillies fan, who idolized pitcher Robin Roberts and saw his first game at Shibe Park in 1951, a doubleheader against the Pirates (the Phils won both games that day — June 3 — 11-2 and 8-3).

“I saw Ralph Kiner that day. I loved it. When I saw that green field, I was in heaven,” Kasselman said.

While taking his father to a World Series game in 1980 was a big thrill, Kasselman said his biggest baseball thrill was meeting members of the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia.

Back to the book. The romantic subplot between Jaime and Barbara is a good diversion from the legal battles in the courtroom, and Kasselman writes it in a sly, winking style. He switches sports metaphors in one passage, writing that “after some heavy-duty breathing on the couch, just shy of the goal posts, Jamie headed back home ...”

I have to admit I had a good laugh out of that line.

“I still fantasize that George Clooney will play Jaime Brooks in the film of the book,” Kasselman said.

And who plays the Barbara Jay role?

“Maybe Jennifer Aniston. When I sign over the movie rights, I’ll let them worry about it,” he laughed.

It’s hard not to have sympathy for Charles, who exudes a wholesome, Tim Tebow-like quality. And surprisingly, it is easy not to have sympathy for Theresa Leyton, whose outbursts during the trial and inflammatory comments to the media make the widow a very abrasive character.

“You do come across a true believer and it’s understandable,” Kasselman said. “Where they are totally inflexible.”

So how does the book end? Is there a conviction? Is a legal precedent set?

Sorry, I am taking the Fifth Commandment on that one. You will have to buy the book to find out. The ending might surprise you.

 

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