baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

My Big Inning: Back in the Game

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I honestly didn’t expect to be writing in this space again, unless through somebody’s Ouija board.  When I arrived at the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana, Mexico, on the morning of June 8, my PSA reading (a measure of cancer cell density associated with the prostate) was 295.  No older man of my acquaintance has ever heard of a value remotely that high.  After two weeks of non-invasive (and unrecognized, not-covered-by-US-insurance) therapy, that figure was down to 65.  By the time of my departure, it was 4.3: well within the normal range for a man of my years.  I’m still classed as a Stage 4 case because I continue to receive treatment and take supplements.  Technically, I suppose I have to remain “clean” for a certain number of months to be in remission.  But I’m back in the game after a seven-run inning.  All my American doctors could do was tell me to let the bull pen catcher throw the eighth and ninth.

Many sincere thanks to those of you who sent me messages of encouragement.  They mean more to their recipients in situations like this than you can possibly know unless you’ve walked through the dark tunnel yourself.

While my wife and I frittered away hours in our hotel between terms of therapy, not wanting to stray far into a foreign city on our own and not understanding most of what was on TV (and definitely not wanting to pollute our rest with the political sniping that passed for news on all-English CNN and FOX), I discovered that I could access tons of old ballgames on YouTube.  (Our WiFi connection was actually better than it is back here on the farm!)  One game of great interest to me was the Twins/Red Sox match played on September 30, 1067, billed as the earliest surviving color broadcast of an MLB contest.  The distance of the camera’s focus from the action was disappointing, but still far better than the angles and zooms of the 1952 World Series final match (the oldest complete game on film, I believe).  I didn’t quite understand why regular-season Games 163 and 164 were being played that weekend in September; apparently two previous games in the Twin Cities had been fought to a tie—and halted because of weather events, I presume.  Minneapolis was a fairly humble Minor League venue before the Washington Senators fled there in 1961 from their chronically empty big-league stadium.

You can watch the full game here.  All I’ll say in the context of SmallBallSuccess.com is that Tony Oliva really impressed me.  He appeared to stand so far from the plate—not toward the catcher, but away from the black—that his rear (left) foot was resting on the outer chalk line.  Yet with a closed stance and a deliberately late stroke, he was able to drive the outside pitch on a line to the opposite field.  No wonder he led his league in doubles for so much of the decade!  We’ve discussed such issues on this site a great deal.  For my money, I agree with Bill James that Oliva deserves a spot in Cooperstown.  If Koufax’s arm problems excused his lack of longevity, then Tony’s knee problems should do the same.  Both utterly dominated their span of play, though it fell short of an “era”.

(By the way, situational positioning of any kind in the box appears to be utterly ignored in today’s game.  In a game filmed about a decade later whose details I can’t remember, virtually all of the hitters were cheating toward the mound a bit when they stepped in against… Phil Niekro, maybe?  But you could observe this in any match of the Seventies when a junkballer was throwing.  It doesn’t happen now.)

Then there was the following year’s All Star Game: 1968.  I particularly enjoyed listening to Peewee Reese, who split time on the mike with Curt Gowdy.  It brought back hordes of childhood memories from when Peewee and Dizzy Dean would call the Game of the Week in our living room.  (Diz managed to lose the gig—and apparently didn’t care—by badmouthing the network’s decision to cover only Yankee games after CBS bought the New York franchise in 1964… the root cause of a boy raised in Fort Worth, Texas, becoming a rabid Yankee fan!)  Even though this broadcast was in black and white, and even though its quality seems painfully inferior to that of almost a year earlier, I still enjoyed seeing images of Aaron, Mays, Big Frank Howard, Yaz… images that may have been more ghostly because of the Astrodome’s lighting.  I hope the director whose bright idea it was to film part of the action from the “gondola” twelve stories above the field found employment soon after for which his talents were better suited.

And, of course, there was Mickey Mantle, fanning on a Tom Seaver fastball during his final All Star at-bat (a kind of honorary pinch-hitting assignment).  Like me, the crowd appeared happy just to view the mighty Mantle swoosh.  Rarely has a ballplayer gotten such an ovation for striking out!  What I noticed of greater technical interest was how many younger stars were doing the same thing.  Mays had opened up by now, and he was staying on the ball well despite his lunging cuts.  Aaron was always under control.  But Stretch McCovey?  Ron Santo?  Even the promising sophomore, Rod Carew?  How could they have ascended so high in the ranks when their face ended up planted in the on-deck circle after every furious hack?

1968 was the so-called Year of the Pitcher.  Admittedly, the likes of Drysdale, Gibson, Marichal, and Seaver were pretty special… but how much of their extraordinary success was due to whirlybird hitting that had come to prize long balls over contact?  Little Matty Alou had won a batting crown two seasons earlier at .342 (and collected a base hit in the All Star contest by beating a pitch into the Astrodome’s hard turf).  Our friend Tony Oliva picked up another of his doubles by—yes—going with the pitch and driving it to left-center.  Nobody else seemed to get the memo.  Well, maybe Tommy Helms… but we don’t remember Tommy Helms, do we?  Everybody wanted to drive the home run king’s Cadillac—with the result that good pitchers logged seasons for the ages.

Those who wish to draw parallels with the game’s state since the Steroids Era are free to do so.  I know that a lot of the public loves the Home Run Derby.  And some of you may know that I detest it.

Carl Yastrzemski could get himself in a tighter pretzel than Mickey’s worst-ever hack… and yet, Yaz was having another big season (which would see him lead the American League with an all-time basement .301 average).  How’d he do it?  I think the Green Monster must have been the answer.  When I began researching yesteryear’s hitting techniques over two decades ago, I noticed that Red Sox immortals like Joe Cronin and Bobby Doer would stand on top of the plate and fly open, pulling for a near wall that wouldn’t be green until after World War II—but also, with the barrel’s brief steep descent from the shoulder, allowing themselves to be very late on the outside pitch and, just maybe, to pop one over the even nearer target that would become known as Pesky’s Pole.  Even in our time, sluggers like Dustin Pedroia have embraced a very similar style.

I’m guessing that Carl, though a left-handed hitter, had learned the Fenway style as a yearling.  Why not?  It worked just as well in reverse: Pesky Pole down one line, Green Monster down the other.  A lighter-hitting Pete Runnels was competing for batting titles with that stroke until he got traded (probably without great anguish, for he was a native of the Houston area) to the newly minted Colt 45’s.  End of Pistol Pete.  The method doesn’t translate well to other circumstances: it just creates a lot of harmless pop-ups.  I suspect the old Brooklyn crew—Billy Cox, Peewee, Duke Snider—exploited their home park in the same way; for Ebbets Field, by the way, also had a massive wall down one line (on the right side) and a short poke down the other.

With apologies to Yaz… I wonder how many youngsters ruined their future as hitters by trying to copy his swing?  When you hear your hero draw ooohs and aaahs just for sucking air, your ten-year-old mind may reach the wrong conclusions.

Baseball forever!  I hope the game comes back—the real game, with crowds and scrappy players and long summers of travel for kids out of school.  I hope our nation exits its collective sickness soon.  Until then… well, we have timorous peak-fitness athletes tip-toeing around in empty stadiums.  And then we have the better option, YouTube.

P.S. If you’d like to know more about how to beat cancer using methods that have been banished by our close-minded medical establishment, please write me.  I’ll share everything I know with you.

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