baseball ethics, baseball history, fathers and sons, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

The Evil of Being Better Than Your Best

I’ve almost finished the twelve-year-old copy of Jose Canseco’s Juiced that my son gave me.  I’ll admit that I have a lot more sympathy for Canseco as a human being than I previously did.  Any man who loved his mother and loves his daughter as this fellow does… and his father was one of those we know from Little League games who screams at his kid every time he’s not a polished All Star in the field.  Combine that with a generally low self-image, and you have a recipe for foolish choices.  This lad needed some good advice along the way, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten much.

Canseco’s take on baseball’s racism in the Nineties pulled me in the other direction, however.  If you want to take control of your future by changing the rules and moving the foul lines, Jose, don’t complain because you see doors opening for blue-eyed blonds that close in your face.  Haven’t you already pried enough doors open by crowbar that weren’t supposed to admit you or anyone else?  I don’t know why people of color assume that the blond-and-blue stereotype doesn’t work against us Caucasians, too, who are dark around the edges—but my black friends are always shocked when I pull the veil from that illusion.  Van Johnson and Robert Redford: good guy.  Claude Akins and John Ireland: bad guy.

Of course, the stereotype of the little guy who just can’t perform as well as the big guy cuts across racial boundaries.  It’s practically universal.  It’s what I founded this site to combat—in baseball.  I can’t do anything about it in a job interview or on the dating scene, where employers and the ladies eagerly join ranks to elbow shorter men out of the picture.  Jose certainly didn’t suffer from that kind of invidious prejudice.

And if some Latinos were at a disadvantage in professional baseball twenty-five years ago because no one on the coaching staff could speak their lingo, doesn’t that make the duty of a seasoned veteran like Canseco on the Texas Rangers all the more imperative?  And what big-brotherly guidance did he provide to Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and his childhood buddy Rafael Palmeiro (who was quite fluent enough in English and apt in American culture, however, to know better)?  He sabotaged careers and lives by abusing his position of authority to introduce forbidden substances into the clubhouse.

Now, Canseco would say that the stuff was already there—a claim that he often contradicts by virtually celebrating his role in being its special conduit (for instance, in the Rangers’ case).  He would also say, and does say, that he created rather than destroyed careers.  I wonder how Palmeiro feels about that, in retrospect?  I was once one of Rafael’s biggest fans.  I didn’t want to believe that he had cheated—I thought he had probably failed the test because of some drug that he was using to speed recovery from a specific injury.  I have little doubt that he could have reached 3,000 hits without steroids; in fact, I think they probably impeded his ascent to that plateau, inasmuch as they turned him into a dead-pull hitter who tried to jack every pitch he saw over the wall.  Now, as a ballplayer, he is ruined in memory forever.  None of us who considered him a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer would cast that vote today.

To me, the most repellent thing about Jose’s unrepentant, almost boasting autobiography is its failure to grasp the glory of the game.  It makes you recognize your God-given limits… and then you learn on your own how to transform those liabilities into assets.  You become the best you could possibly be.  But for Jose, the formula takes a shocking turn: through the use of outlawed substances, you become better than you could possibly be—you reject what God created and substitute a fraudulent “you”.  You acquire no humility, no wisdom… but perhaps you do acquire lots of money.

There we go: do whatever it takes to get rich.  Thanks for that lesson, Jose—as if it needed another preacher from the pop-cultural pulpit!  And, yes, Don Fehr and the Players’ Union and the team owners like George Bush all must have known exactly what was happening as they feverishly kept brushing the steroids scandal under the rug while pointing at the ceiling.  Are you comfortable having a band of such hypocrites as allies?  “Yes, I did it.  Everyone else was doing it, too—or else they came up and begged me to show them how.  And we were just making ourselves into the superhuman machines that the fans wanted to see… and we would have been sacking groceries or selling used cars, otherwise.  And we Latinos especially needed an inside track to correct for latent racism.  And, anyway, the stuff is physically good for you if you use it right.”

If your lawyer presented arguments like these in a murder trial, you’d have grounds for appeal based on an incompetent defense.

baseball history, mental approach, Uncategorized

Be Selective About When to Be Selective

Several years ago, I remember watching on YouTube the entirety of a game played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Dodgers made their home for a couple of years in the late Fifties.  Seating capacity was about a hundred thousand.  The trouble was that right field was approximately 450 feet from home plate… and left field was 200 feet closer!  To prevent right-handed pull-hitters from racking up five homers per game, a high net was string a good way along the left-field bleachers.  Fans could see through it, but batted balls would strike the netting and plop harmlessly at the left fielder’s feet unless they were really jacked up.  That fielder would often have a play at second.  During the YouTube game, Stan Musial was thrown out at the keystone sack in a critical late-inning play after ripping an oppo-liner into the ropes.

Musial, Gilliam, Wally Moon, Charlie Neal… I really enjoyed that game, even though its dubious black-and-white quality had me thinking in the back of my mind that the whole thing was happening under the lights rather than in broad daylight.  One thing that leapt out at me was the pace.  I believe the contest actually reached ten innings—but it lasted well under three hours.  To be sure, players weren’t stepping out of the box and messing with their gloves (for you youngsters, there were no batting gloves back then).  More than that, however, was the eagerness of every hitter to put bat to ball.  There were very few deep counts.  Everyone was hacking.

Now, I’m not going to say that working the count is a bad thing.  I’m not going to say that it’s good, either.  As a strategy, I find it fully neutral, dependent on specific conditions.  Sleeping under a heavy blanket is a good idea at certain times of year; at other times, it would be idiotic.

The immortal Oscar Charleston liked for his protégés to take lots of pitches during their first couple of plate appearances so as to lull the opposition into thinking that they would keep that approach throughout the game.  Then, as the stakes began to rise during the later innings, Oscar’s boys would ambush groved, get-me-over strikes early in the count.  That makes lots of sense… but you have to assume that his opponents would catch on if the two teams played each other regularly.

It seems like I must have sat through hundreds of my son’s games—between travel teams, high school, and college—where one or both sides had been told to take pitches and wear down the starter.  This could be effective if the starter weren’t pumping strike after strike across the plate.  Let’s say he is, and your side makes a mid-game adjustment.  Now you’re determined to swing at everything, which he very quickly notices, and you soon find yourselves chasing sliders that dip two feet outside.  Yeah, I’ve seen that game a few dozen times, if not a few hundred.

Coaches, for the most part, appear to believe that they do their job well when they put the “take” sign on.  Again… it depends.  Leading off a game, you would surely want to make the pitcher deliver five or six pitches, just so that your bunch could see what he’s got.  Striking out in that circumstance isn’t necessarily bad.  You also don’t want to go up hacking on a hot day in a very close game as the innings pile up for your starter.  For pity’s sake… give the poor guy a few minutes to stay off his feet in the dugout!

The mindset I don’t understand has a middle-of-the-order hitter feeling good about himself after he strikes out looking at four deliveries—all because he was “patient” and just didn’t get his pitch.  What single positive outcome does this approach achieve?  I suppose if our Mighty Casey never misses a mistake and is facing a hurler known for leaving hangers over the plate, patience might be a virtue; but I would prefer to have a line-up of guys who can hit the ball where it’s pitched, at least with two strikes.

I never got a chance to play at a very high level (and I do mean “chance”: what with Vietnam, an unstable economy, and rioting in the streets, my generation had a lot of trouble focusing on things like baseball).  With the Old School style that we preach on this site, however, I imagine that I would be a pretty aggressive hitter at any level.  This is because our line-drive swing is especially well suited to taking outside pitches up the middle or the opposite way.  Pitchers like to stay outside.  I would be looking for that location from Pitch One, without much concern for speed; because if I get a little in front on a change, I pull the ball.  The one pitch I don’t want to see and would probably take until I had two strikes would be high and in.  How many times do today’s moundsmen throw that pitch—and how many times is it called a strike on a take?

Now, if the pitcher has just walked three batters in a row, I’ll naturally be more selective.  If we’re in the mid-innings on a hot day and we know that their bullpen is pitiful, I’ll be more selective.  If I have shown myself to be a tad too aggressive all day long, I’ll be more selective.

It seems to me that in the matter of taking or attacking pitches, everything depends on circumstance: on the count, the number of outs, the score, the inning, the runners on base, the pitcher, the bullpen, your special hitting abilities, your history with this pitcher, your pattern at the plate so far today—and let’s not forget the umpire!

Being patient?  Yeah, sure… but no.  It depends.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Uncategorized

Size as Well as Race Has Been a Source of Bigotry in Baseball

I was almost twenty years in writing Key to a Cold City.  I should clarify that the work began about twenty years ago, and then the project was pushed aside for a long time.  Now that I’ve retired from teaching, I’m paying renewed attention to some of those undertakings that never quite got off the ground.  This was the most challenging of them all.

The book had its origin in a lazy day of looking through the first baseball cards I ever collected: sets clipped with scissors off the backs of Post Cereal boxes in 1962 and 1963.  Believe me, there was a lot of pleasant nostalgia in revisiting those days of early childhood.  Yet as an adult, I found myself puzzled that so many young players with brilliant stats had simply dropped off the radar in the intervening years.  Even today, kids know (more or less) who Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are… but Vada Pinson?  George Altman?  The statistics in the latter cases could have come from the cards of the former two: Pinson and Altman were that good in the early Sixties.  What happened?

I wondered, as I compiled more and more such cases, if racial prejudice had not utterly disappeared after Jackie Robinson’s arrival on the big-league scene in 1947.  The book began in the hypothesis that it had passed somewhat underground without actually evaporating.  Oh, there were white players who raised similar questions.  Why didn’t Don Demeter blossom as his stats promised?  Why did two-time batting champ Pete Runnels seem to spiral into oblivion in the middle of a brilliant career?  These cases, however, were fewer and also less severe most of the time.  I mean, Pistol Pete did have enough of a chance that he carried home two batting titles!

I’m not offering a review of my own book here.  I’ve made access to it available through these links: Amazon Kindle and Amazon paperback.  (I managed to ratchet the cost of the latter way down by ditching the little bit of red ink used in four graphs; the graphs themselves are relatively unimportant, the red letters should remain distinct as a lighter gray, and the price reduction was an incredible $30!)  I will only say further here of the book’s contents that I find racial issues to be immensely complex.  I’ve developed a real dislike—even a kind of smoldering fury—at how the “r” word is tossed about every time a person of color is caught in a sleazy act.  Real racism shouldn’t be deflated in this manner: its existence shouldn’t validate a “get out of jail” card for grafters and shysters.  Guys in the Sally League were having to dodge bottles and batteries as they tried to follow play from left field.  Their ordeal was nothing remotely like that of a corrupt city mayor who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

The specific reason I bring the issue of racial prejudice in the Fifties up here is that I truly believe skin color to have been a secondary factor in the discrimination I researched—a kind of ready-made “yellow star” for front-office dopes who couldn’t express their more abstract concerns.  White owners and managers at that time wanted machine-like offenses powered primarily by the home run.  The black players who were filtered to them through the Negro Leagues were well versed in bunting, chopping, hitting to all fields, base-stealing… all things that the MLB brain trust associated with a sloppy, silly, out-of-control game.  I’m sure that the association fed right into the stereotype of the kid of African descent as wild, fun-loving, and disorderly.  Here’s the point, though: the stereotype didn’t produce the distaste for creative, unpredictable baseball—the distaste came first, and (what do you know?) the young black players on trial were prime offenders.

Now, some of the recruits learned to adjust their game.  These are the household names: Mays, Aaron, Banks, Robinson.  Jackie was actually never a slugger of this caliber: I concluded the study very much convinced that Branch Rickey would have used his Negro League style as an excuse to send him back down if “the experiment” had damaged ticket sales.  It was Rickey who ruined George Altman’s prospects by pressuring him to pull the ball over the fence.  A great many other players who had dropped off history’s radar apparently had the same trouble.  Guys like Curt Flood and Floyd Robinson who could have been the next Pete Runnels were instead trying to muscle up and emulate the young Willie McCovey.  Another Willie by the last name of Kirkland was in fact given a very long leash, considering his series of miserable batting averages, because he showed promise in generating “jacks”.

I know I will irritate some people if I say that this situation comes very close to many we see at SmallBallSuccess.com.  Racial prejudice is supposed to be the ultimate misery that anyone may suffer… but to a boy or young man whose whole life is playing ball, not getting a fair chance to play ball is the ultimate misery.  Kids like Jake Wood and Ted Savage, though they were obviously five-tool players, were benched or demoted because, it was said, they struck out too much—but they were striking out too much because management was telling them to pull the hell out of everything!  That’s the precise situation in which my son found himself during his senior year in high school.  He eventually became a successful college pitcher; not every boy of smaller build has that kind of versatility.  Albie Pearson and Dick Hauser scored tons of runs during the brief time they were given to audition in the big leagues.  Though white lads, however, they seemed to be simply reserving a slot in the line-up until a taller prospect arrived at their position.  A promising Georgia boy called “Coot” Veal was taught four or five different batting styles by the “experts” until he didn’t know up from down, all because he came up as that most loathsome of creatures, a front-foot hitter.  Veal, too, was Caucasian; but I found case after case of young black prospects having to submit to precisely the same “lean back and hack” brainwashing that destroyed their success at the plate.

Well, hitting off the front foot happens to be one of the techniques we preach on this site.  The Negro Leagues, in fact, were a veritable repository of Deadball Era tactics that white baseball had consigned to the dustbin of history.  Funny how, half a century later, the game still seems to be waging that war against smaller players who employ offbeat styles to get on base.  They’re not welcome.  The 6’8” slugger who strikes out once a game and can do nothing to thwart a radical shift is on every GM’s Christmas list.

Let’s keep up the fight.  You can’t argue with winning—and eventually even the densest of coaching know-it-alls will have to give you playing time if you’re always on base.

coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

My Take-Away From the MLB in October

A confession: I have watched very little of the play-offs or the World Series (the “World’s Series”, as they called it a century ago).  I could plead that the chore of getting resettled in a new house and a new state has monopolized my time… but the truth is that contemporary baseball just isn’t quite the game I loved as a child.  Even my son, whose tastes are pretty current in most things, winced at Manny Machado’s inability to cut down on his swing with two strikes.  In my own very brief glimpses at the games in Boston, I saw a hitter stride to the plate with runners on first and third, one out, and proceed to take his usual full cuts, eventually hitting into the shift for an easy double play and leaving that precious run to wilt on the vine.

Now, even a seasoned professional cannot always execute his intention, especially against one of the game’s best mound artists.  But is it asking too much that the hitter come to bat with a drag bunt in mind?  Maybe he can’t drag a bunt.  Why not, if he’s a lefty batsman?  Because he has never practiced it.  Yes, but why has he never practiced it?

Or what about simply directing a slow roller to the vacated shortstop position, or even toward third base?  The objective isn’t to reach first safely, but merely to move the runners up–one of whom will touch home plate.  I know it’s too much these days to ask for a Baltimore chop: I’m sure that nobody practices that!  The ground in freezing Bean Town must have been pretty hard, though–and directing a pitch straight down into it would not have been so very difficult, especially when the pitcher was trying to get lefties out by throwing stuff that broke down and away.

Something I did see that pleasantly shocked me, however, was Chris Taylor’s footwork in the box.  He actually lifts his rear foot and then quickly re-plants it as a way of loading up to swing: Nolan Arenado with a vengeance!  I prefer Nolan’s linear cut straight into the pitch over Chris’s more conventional down-and-up rotational swish… but to see any back-foot movement whatever these days is like spotting a unicorn on your front lawn.  I love the creativity.  I’m glad that two decades of mind-numbing, cookie-cutting instruction haven’t made of this young man another baseball clone.

Yesterday I filmed and posted another of my amateurish (but, I think, improving) videos about Old School hitting.  I titled it, “The Bottom Hand and the ‘Mobile Back Foot'”.  Strikers of the Deadball Era didn’t prep for their stroke by edging the back foot forward only to put the idea of a bunt in the defenders’ heads.  Primarily, they used this load to get their momentum going directly into the pitch.  It works–it works awfully darn well!  But it’s most effective with a very linear cut into the ball (minimal back-loading of the hands involved) and a hundred-percent forward weight shift.  These are all things–all of them: the restless back foot, the projected bottom hand, the heavy shift to front foot–that would make contemporary coaches howl and clasp their aching heads.  You do them at your peril during a tryout… unless, that is, they end each time with an impressive crack of the bat.

That’s the most distressing thing about the methods we teach: not that they don’t work, but that you have to learn them close to perfection before trotting them out in front of a professional coach.  The only way you’ll overcome his prejudices is by producing clear, positive results–then and only then will he let you continue to take your highly kinky swing on his respectable playing field.

Of course, our site is intended for aspiring players who won’t be allowed on that field, anyway, because of their unpromising size.  So if the coaches are going to look right past you because of your height, you have to get them to readjust their vision with hard evidence that they can’t ignore.  Old School hitting is one way to achieve that result.

coaches and trust, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, Uncategorized

Listen to Established Coaches… But Also to Your Body

I’ve been repeating two things in my pitching videos (including one I made yesterday—the first after a six-month layoff): 1) I do not pretend to be a pitching coach or to have been an effective pitcher at any level of competition; and 2) I know more than most pitching coaches about living in a relatively short, broad-framed body.  Because of the first fact, I wouldn’t dream of trying to countermand the advice of a Paul Reddick, a Brent Strom, or the gurus at Sidearm Nation.  Yet because of the second fact, I don’t allow the coaching fraternity to shut me up entirely on the subject of pitching.

A lot of what I say about hitting (where I do profess some degree of knowledge, thanks to decades of research and experimentation) applies here.  Today’s pitching instruction is mostly fashioned for tall, slender body types that enjoy several natural advantages when it comes to achieving high velocity.  Since those types will fill about 90 percent of any high school or college pitching roster, why be concerned about the 5’7” walk-on who throws a mean slider?  Yeah, you trot him out there once in a while to eat up some innings.  He gets people out.  But you also know that he has already hit his low ceiling. Coaches at the next level are not going to woo him with scholarship money, and scouts are not going to blow him away with a signing bonus.  Statistically, he doesn’t exist.

I’ve actually written before, if only in making a brief reference, about Coach Reddick’s public advice to a dad who queried about his kid’s becoming a submariner.  The word Paul chose to use was “gimmick”—this was his estimate of the sidewinding delivery and other low arm angles.  The advice was essentially, “Don’t do it.  Persist with tried-and-true methods.  Don’t fall for some gimmicky quick fix.”

Now, I’ve seen many a boy slinging pitches from down under in tournaments who was cruising a direct course for serious elbow damage.  Odd angles can be effective because the hitter never sees them in ordinary play; and, because they don’t appear in ordinary play, coaches don’t know what to teach about them.  Advice can be very bad, if any advice at all is offered.  So “stay away” is certainly not the worst thing you could tell a parent who’s looking to lower his boy’s release point radically.

At the same time, some of us are so designed by Mother Nature that slopping the ball from belt-high or lower just seems right.  We don’t need minute instruction—and we’re less likely to hurt our arm sidearming than we are by trying to come straight over the top.  I was always that way.  I could imitate Willie Mays’s underhand flick of the ball back to the infield without any particular rehearsal.  (The basket catch was another matter: I never could carry my Willie impersonation that far.)  I’m convinced that the reason for this was simply my broad frame.  Look at any photo of Mays and you can tell that he, too, was very broad-shouldered.  Wide-framed people actually have to work at coming over the top more than “normal people”, whereas coming around the body can often be a very fluid motion for them.

I don’t recommend, however, doing what coaches call “throwing over your body”: typically vague coach-speak for cutting off your straight path toward the plate by landing with your front foot angled toward third base (for a righty).  This is another recipe for arm problems.  Even I, pitching-coach interloper that I am, grow shocked at the number of ex-Major Leaguer color commentators who extol how Jake Arrieta or some other horse enhances his effectiveness by slinging the ball over his body.  I’d never recommend that.

But in trying to work out the ideal sidearming motion for broad-framed guys, I encountered a terrific amount of trouble removing the “over the body” approach from the equation.  Especially for a low submariner, landing on a front foot that goes straight to the plate almost means landing in a face plant.

I still think that the low angle is specially suited to wide frames, which also tend to be shorter than average.  I would dare to disagree with my son (who threw sidearm-submarine very successfully for a D2 university) that his build really wasn’t best fitted to the motion.  Yes, the lanky guys can make up for some of the velo lost through “over the body” motion when they slingshot with their gangly arms… but they’re also, I continue to maintain, taking the quick route to joint damage. Shorter, broader frames appear to me to execute these movements more naturally and less riskily. Just last month, I saw a short submariner on the Single A Rome Braves look very smooth and effective.

Nevertheless, my son Owen was convincing enough that I decided to dedicate my next experiments to lifting the arm angle just above sidearm—to what might be called the 9:30 slot (where sidearm is 9:00 and an impossibly perfect overhand would be high noon).  This plan seemed the more logical in that my review of yesteryear’s best pitchers, brief though it has been so far, shows many of them using exactly the 9:30 slot and avoiding the true sidearm position.  I had downplayed the evidence for a while that was staring me in the face through the examples of Dickie Kerr (5’7”), Dolf Luque (5’7”), Art Nehf (5’9”), Bobby Shantz (5’6”), and others…. but I always end up regretting any act of brushing evidence under the rug.  I did that occasionally when I was analyzing Deadball Era swings: “Ah, that can’t mean anything, and it looks so awkward… let’s just ignore it.”  Always a bad idea.

So… in future months, as I get settled in my new home, look for me to investigate the 9:30 angle with much greater thoroughness.  It has a pedigree of success from the old days, it was popular with pitchers who “weren’t allowed” to have sore arms and had to grind away like huskies in the traces, and I persist in thinking that it must work especially well for broad body types.  These are the coordinates of my newly corrected course.