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Mychael Urban Updates ACES Progress

Back in April, I interviewed Mychael Urban of MLB.com about the book he was writing about the 2004 season, called ACES. The book is due out next year.

Since the season is in the home stretch, I decided to get an update recently on the progress of Mychael's book, and here is the lowdown about how it's evolved and where it stands now.

Enjoy:

Blez: How has the book evolved since we first talked back in April? Is it becoming the book you want it to be?

Mychael Urban: The basic premise of the book is the same, and most of the key elements that I intended to include will be there. For example, the differences between Rick Peterson and Curt Young, the pressure Rich Harden faces as the next ace in line, and the varied mental approaches to pitching are all addressed. But I went into the project knowing that I'd have to be flexible given the inevitable twists and turns of any baseball season, and I've definitely had to switch gears a few times, adding and subtracting as the drama dictates. What hasn't changed at all is my commitment to letting the Big Three tell the story. As much as I fancy my ability to turn a phrase, I think the most compelling material comes straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. In that respect, "Aces" is very much the book I've always wanted it to be: A look at the 2004 season as experienced by Tim, Mark and Barry.

Blez: What's been the most challenging part of writing the book?

MU: Managing the workload and maintaining a healthy balance in my life, without a doubt. My first major deadline was today (Sept. 1), at which point the first 14 chapters -- of between 20-22, depending on playoff scenarios -- were due, and I needed every second leading up to it. I don't want to bore AN readers with anything not relating to the book, but in addition to my MLB.com/A's.com work, I've got a lot going on. That's been the toughest thing about it. As directly relates to the book, the hardest thing for me to do has been resisting the temptation to tell stories that don't focus on or directly impact the Big Three. As we all know, there's a great story in every corner of the clubhouse, and I want to tell them all. But for the purposes of the project, I just can't. It's about Tim, Mark and Barry. Everyone else, with the exceptions of Harden, Chavez and Peterson, play pretty minor roles.

Blez: How did Hudson's injury affect the book? Did you follow him through the rehab process?

MU: I think Tim's injury, as well as Barry's struggles, have made the book better. It would have been a boring story if all three of them had been lights-out all year -- although I'm sure many AN readers would disagree with that for selfish reasons. Adversity equals humanity, and I really wanted to give people a piece of the person behind the glove. Tim's frustration -- he spent the whole offseason trying to make sure this injury never happened again -- and Barry's battles with himself have allowed me to do that more than I'd expected. ... As for his rehab process, I didn't follow it physically. That part of it would have bored readers. But I did follow it in terms of where Tim's head was at throughout, and that wasn't boring at all.

Blez: Did you ever consider adding Rich Harden to the mix since he's coming along so nicely and is at a very different place in his career than Zito, Hudson and Mulder? Then you could call it Four Aces (insert poker joke here).

MU: Harden has more of a role in the book than anyone other than the Big Three, for obvious reasons, but I never considered making it a four-way deal. Tim, Mark and Barry are national stars with 20-win seasons under their belts, and their stories are connected in many, many ways. Harden is still on his way up, and he's still trying to figure out who he is, on and off the mound. Hopefully he's another book, another time. ... In other words (lame poker joke alert!), I don't want to cash out on the kid just yet.

Blez: What's it been like going into the psyche of the pitchers? Have they let you in to talk about things like Zito's inconsistencies, the bullpen struggles that cost them wins and their thoughts on signing long-term contracts? Has Hudson or Zito or Mulder talked with you about their thinking about signing a long-term deal?

MU: It's been fascinating. And yes, they've openly discussed all of the above. Tim and I have talked at length about the future, but I haven't really brought it up with Mark and Barry yet because that's what my last chapter is about, and I want their thoughts to be fresh and raw -- immediately after the season ends -- when we talk.

Blez: Have they talked about the differences between Curt Young and Rick Peterson yet? Are they concerned about losing the meticulous Peterson in terms of their long-term pitching health?

MU: As I said, the differences between Curt and Rick are definitely a part of the book. Not a huge part, though. I found Rick and his different relationships with the guys far more interesting than anything Curt had to say, so Rick gets a lot more play. Are they worried about injuries with Rick gone? No. The system Rick helped build in Oakland is very much still in place.

Blez: Have they enjoyed working with Damian Miller? Does he differ a great deal from Ramon?

MU: I had planned to write a whole chapter about this, but that's been one of the changes I talked about earlier. There just wasn't enough there. The guys loved working with Ramon, but to a man they say there hasn't been a huge difference working with Damian, thought I sense that Barry misses Ramon more than the other two. There was an adjustment period, but the catching change hasn't seemed to have been much of a factor for anyone.

Blez: What do you think is going on with Mark Mulder right now? His ERA has been steadily climbing since the All Star break? Do you think he's completely healthy?

MU: Mark has been complaining about his mechanics for a while, and I think that's where Peterson's absence might be a factor. He and Mulder didn't have great relationship, but if there's one thing Rick knows, it's mechanics. Curt is more of a "feel" guy, and the fact that Mark hasn't been able to correct whatever flaws he's sensing is telling. That said, look at what Mark has been doing while he's "struggled." Pretty amazing. Do I think he's healthy? Yes, but I don't really know. Mark is not nearly as open with me as are Tim and Barry. He just doesn't let many people "in." That's who he is. And he says he's fine, so I have to take him at his word.

Blez: How do they approach the game differently? Billy Beane suggested that Barry Zito listens to too much advice sometimes rather than getting back to basics. Do you feel that's an accurate assessment?

MU: This is a huge part of what I'm writing about, so as much as I hate to do it, this is where I have to play the buy-the-book-to-find-out card. Sorry.

Blez: You mentioned one of your favorite baseball books is Ball Four. Are you targeting something along the same lines? Granted, you aren't the player, but what I mean by that is, will you give up some insider information?

MU: This isn't Ball Four by any means, but there's definitely going to be a lot of inside information dispensed. That's the whole point -- to take the reader inside. Inside the dugout, inside the clubhouse, inside hotel rooms and inside minds. I don't think my book will piss anyone off the way Ball Four pissed off a lot of Jim Bouton's teammates, but it's not tame, either. Tim, in particular, has let loose with me very candidly on a number of occasions.

Blez: How much time would you estimate that you've spent with each of them?

MU: That's tough to calculate. I'm with them virtually every day at the park. Away from the park, I've spent more time with Tim and Barry for the same reasons outlined in my answer to question No. 8, but I can't complain about the amount of time Mark's given me above and beyond his basic commitment to the media that covers the team. In fact, I've been pleasantly surprised by how cooperative he's been. Whenever I need an extra minute of 10, he gives it to me.

Blez: Have you talked with them about their tactical approach on the mound?

MU: Yes. At length. ... How's that for vague?

Blez: Have Mulder and Zito taken you out on the town so you can see what their personal life is like? I imagine Hudson, being married, is probably more low-key in terms of the night life. If so, where have you gone with the guys?

MU: I've been out with them on a number of occasions, from Scottsdale to Arlington to New York City. Tim's a very smart, funny, high-energy guy, as comfortable making fun of himself with a solo spin on the dance floor as he is chatting in the corner with teammates. Barry's a lot like that, too. Mark is King Kong Cool -- everything you'd expect him to be based on his mound presence.

Blez: Is the old adage true with these pitchers? Do they try and maintain an even emotional keel throughout the season without getting too high and/or too low?

MU: Yes, and it's easy for Mark. He has an incredible ability to simplify everything, so nothing overwhelms him. Tim is the most openly competitive of the three, and he admits that it can be a battle to keep his emotions in check. Barry is a mixed bag. The days he dominates, it's because he's in the right place mentally -- the place Mulder gets to so easily. The days he's struggling, it's a struggle upstairs, too.

Blez: Can you give us a sneak peek at any of the book yet? Sorry, but I wouldn't be doing AN a service if I didn't ask!

MU: First of all, let me rat you out here, Blez. AN readers, Blez has seen a portion of the book that I'd never let anyone else see in advance of publication. And if you leak it, Blez, you're dead to me. But I will give you this. It's a scene from the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium during New York's sweep of the Big Three in late April:

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Mulder pitches pretty well after the first inning, but Posada drills his AL-leading eighth home run in the third, and Mulder's line for the night is wholly unremarkable: five runs on seven hits over six innings. The remarkable part of his evening comes after the game, when one of the many Japanese journalists assigned to cover Matsui's every move asks Mulder to go over each of Matsui's at-bats. It's part of the drill.

"His first time up, in the first inning, I walked him," Mulder says before rattling off the type and location of each of the at-bat's five pitches. Ditto his six-pitch strikeout of Matsui in the second. "In the fourth," he continues, "I started him with a four-seamer away for a ball, got away with a pretty average curveball for a strike, he looked at a sinker in for strike two, and then he missed another sinker."

The Japanese reporter eagerly writes this all down and looks up at Mulder, who is towering over him. "So, you strike out Matsui two times. How you do that?" Mulder smiles. "I just told you. Curveball, sinker, sinker." The reporter smiles back and tells Mulder that Matsui doesn't often strike out twice to the same pitcher in the same game. "Well, I guess I got lucky, then," Mulder says.

Dressing at his locker five feet away from Mulder, Hudson waits for the reporter to walk away and laughs. "Nothin' more in the world you want to do right now, Mulder, than go over every pitch to Matsui," he says. "Yeah, no shit," Mulder answers. "At least it's not every single batter."

But what if it were, Mulder is asked. Do you remember every pitch of every game? "Pretty much," he says. "Maybe not every single one, but most of `em, yeah." So Hudson tests him, asking him about an at-bat against Jeter. "Which one?" Mulder responds. "Third one," Hudson says. Mulder thinks for about 10 seconds and says, "OK, fourth inning. Groundout to short," he says, then repeats what he'd done with each of Matsui's at-bats. Only this time he tells not just what pitches he'd thrown, but the location of each pitch, whether he'd hit his spot or missed it, why he'd thrown the pitch, and what Jeter did with it.

Listening to the level of detail he offers brings to mind an everyday scene from the PGA Tour, where the top golfers are brought into an interview room and asked to dissect their round, shot by shot. The difference is that if a golfer is called to this interview room, he's had a pretty good round, and a pretty good round consists of no more than 70 shots. Mulder has just thrown 115 pitches, and he says he could probably go over every one of them. It's an amazing display of recall, but Mulder, of course, is unimpressed. It takes a lot to impress Mark Mulder.

"I don't think it's that big of a deal," he says. "I mean, this is my job. Who doesn't know exactly what they did at their job each day?" Hudson laughs again. "Hell, I don't even know what I had for breakfast today!" he says. But pressed, he says that he, too, can relive most of his pitches in the immediate aftermath of a start. "I don't know if I can do every pitch down to the nitty-gritty like Mulder," he says. "But for big situations, big outs, yeah. I could definitely tell you what I threw and why."

There you have it. A look into the remarkable, almost Rain Man mind of Mark Mulder.

Thank you so much, Mychael, and if I can be the first to say, thank you for writing this book. It's a service to A's fans everywhere.