baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Faith, Reality, and Baseball

One of the enterprises I wanted to pursue in retirement was my work on involving boys of short stature in baseball.  The game itself, and the instruction surrounding it, has turned as regimented and mechanical as everything else in our digitally obsessed society—yet learning complex games is no small part of a young person’s education.  The child learns fast and hard rules, he realizes that certain rules put him at a disadvantage to other players, he figures out how to turn a liability into an asset, and he emerges from it all—with honest, sustained effort—in a triumph of self-discovery and successful adjustment.  These moral lessons are terrifically important.

Football and basketball virtually require extraordinary natural endowments: skills there are an adorning cornice, not a foundation.  By no accident, these latter two sports are also much the most popular with spectators on college campuses.  As spectators, we seem to be growing ever more distant from the spectacle’s participants.  They almost represent a different species; and perhaps, with the aid of hormones and nanobot supplementation, they will soon become precisely that.

I think it well worthwhile, then, to persuade young people that they can excel at a game by identifying their particular (if not spectacular) strengths, perfecting these through practice, and offering a significant contribution to the team’s effort that draws more upon reflection and self-discipline than upon raw sinew.  That’s where baseball comes in—and where boys, especially, come in.  Contemporary Ivory Tower propaganda (which quickly filters all the way down to kindergarten, make no mistake) wails about “toxic masculinity”, labels all males as rapists-in-waiting, and applauds only the gender-uncertain who cede decisions, authority, and initiative to the Nurturing Mother. Now, mothers are great, as we all know; but boys, if they are to become independent and upright young men, need to learn a regimen that introduces them to self-control and vigorous persistence.

Unfortunately, the history of baseball has almost always garbled this hygienic message with incidental static, at least in the United States.  (In Japan and Korea, the game appears to have followed an educational trajectory more like what I should like to see.)  In America’s late nineteenth century, professional players were viewed as rowdies who shirked the productive labor of farm and factory.  Early in the next century, its practices were submitted to a considerable clean-up before any pay-at-the-gate contest was thought fit for ladies to attend. Even as figures like Babe Ruth (and Ty Cobb, too, before Fake News claimed him as one of its early victims) ushered in a heroic era, baseball’s practical and commercial parameters continued to gravitate against a positive moral message.  Games were played almost daily in numerous far-flung venues, so the players’ normal Circadian rhythms—eating habits, sleeping habits, and other bodily demands that needn’t be specified—were forever being nudged hither and yon.  As a result, late-night frolics and heavy drinking became associated with the pro athlete’s life.

Mill teams or municipal squads that squared off on Saturdays (never on Sundays!) somewhat counterpoised this unflattering image; but on the whole, women even of my mother’s generation did not wish to see their sons inking a professional contract.

Today the interference with the constructive message comes primarily from different sources.   The obvious one is the professional game’s saturation in money (following the demise of the nefarious Reserve Clause, which legally classed players as virtual slaves of their owners).  Fathers are so eager to see their sons get the free scholarship ride through college—with a shot at being professionally drafted—that, in a couple of cases I have seen personally, they start the boys on the syringe at the age of ten or eleven.  Even in less depraved cases, dads push their sons too hard to succeed in Little League, thinking that they are helping the boys get a huge headstart on money-making and all the happiness supposed to come with it.  But, Dad, if you will stop and think about that oath that the kids are uttering before each contest, it’s not drawn from the Gospel of Mammon.  On the contrary… search your Bible for the verse, “Love of money is the root of all evil.”

That our boys need a moral lifeline of some sort thrown to them has been underscored for me during the past two weeks by the grotesque volleys exchanged over a Supreme Court nomination.  I have my own very strong opinions about where the truth lies; but in the context of this discussion, I will say no more than that the addiction of both men and women to alcohol and sex as a routine path to social integration on elite college campuses is a national disgrace—and even more: an epidemic of moral degeneracy such as no nation can survive. To the extent that my own son was able to steer clear of debauchery during his college years, I believe his devotion to baseball was the cause.  I would like to write, “his devotion to the Christian faith”… but the organized Church, as represented by most mainstream denominations, is itself in vital need of an infusion of backbone.  St. Paul was fond of comparing the spiritual life to the athlete’s rigorous program of training—but I’m afraid that today’s Church more resembles the party-animal superstar whose contract guarantees him a fortune whether he stays in shape or not.

I posted a very sophomoric video a few days ago (which became 1st part and 2nd part when I overshot YouTube’s time restrictions) entitled “Faith, Reality, and Baseball”.  I truly hate addressing cameras… but I attempted to speak on these issues with what eloquence I could muster off the cuff.  Young men, I find, will actually watch such a presentation with infinitely higher probability than they will read an essay like the one before you; and some of them, even, will be quite generous to the stammering old fool trying to reach them through their generation’s preferred avenue.  It’s clearly not the singer: it has to be the song.  Let’s sing it louder.

low arm angle, pitching, Uncategorized

I Love Paul Reddick, BUT…

I first encountered Paul Reddick through his online 90 mph Club.  My son was about twelve years old at the time, as I recall.  Reddick was so devoted, not just to growing his business, but to helping young people that one could actually book a free online counseling session with him after sending a video.  My son did so.  I think he learned a few things.  As the years passed, he probably soaked up a lot more from and other sources because of his unique motion.  Mr. Reddick never had much use for sidewinders or submariners.  I recall his writing very publicly to one dad that the submarine pitch was a “gimmick”.

This, I’m afraid, is one of the weaknesses “that flesh is heir to” (in Hamlet’s phrase).  We start out small and fight bravely.  Perhaps we prevail and begin to grow large… but we still carry the scars of those earlier skirmishes.  We perceive challenges to our triumphant method (hey, it’s selling, isn’t it?) as renewed attempts to pull us down, so we ignore them.  We develop a thick hide.  Criticism is all lumped together into a black plastic bag and hauled to the landfill.  I’ve lately heard and read a lot of talk from Mr. Reddick that follows the pattern, “I can hear the screams from coaches right now over what I’m about to say… believe me, they’ve called me every name in the book….”  A bit of persecution complex there, don’t you think?

I must have landed permanently in the Reddick doghouse when I lately broke the rules—which I didn’t know at the time—with an attempted post on one of his discussion groups.  There’s that voice within me which wants to respond, “Heck with you, Jack!  I’ve been in classier doghouses than this one!”  I’m very much a small guy, of course, and one who sees no convincing signs that he’s on the way up.  You can easily get defensive, and even combative, in this game of trying to teach a game.

I’ve retained enough sense, though, to say this: if you ever see a recommendation about pitching on my site and a counter-recommendation on Reddick’s, follow Paul’s advice.  Despite his offhand dismissal of submarining (which isn’t really sound empirically: the altered arm angle, besides being tough for hitters to pick up, puts different spin on the ball), he’s the expert.  The things I volunteer on any mound topic are mere suggestions, and all come with the urgent caveat to cease and desist what you’re doing the first time it feels uncomfortable.  Always listen to what Mother Nature’s telling you through your body.

The video (or videos) that I’m planning to cut soon under the title, “I Love Paul Reddick, BUT…” are all going to address hitting topics.  Mr. Reddick has categorically condemned a whole list of ideas and practices: swinging down on the ball, using hitting tees, relying on pitching machines in the cage, etc.  I actually agree with him on most of these issues… up to a point.  But what disappoints me is the sweeping condemnation.  “Never do this!”  Um… don’t you mean don’t do this in a certain way or in certain circumstances?  I’m sure that the “categorical imperative” approach markets better over the Internet.  I’m also sure that it doesn’t serve the cause of truth.

But then, I don’t really believe that Reddick uses this formula because it markets well.  As I said before, I think he just can’t sheath his sword and trade a few prisoners.  The en gaile of the Old Irish heroic epics is fluttering about his chariot and filling his ears with her shrieks.  “Never… always… never!  Attack, attack, attack!”

bat acceleration, hand-spreading, hitter reaction time

Hand-Spreading: The Bat May Be Wrong, But the Technique Is Right

I absorb a certain amount of contempt and derision for meddling in the “science” of baseball.  What are my credentials?  Where is my bubblegum card?  (As Lucy tells Linus–in reference to Beethoven–nobody deserves much respect who doesn’t appear on a bubblegum card!)  I understand.  Sometimes, frankly, I even ask myself, “Can I really have anything helpful to say about hitting?  Wouldn’t the guys who have coached in the field for thirty years already know this stuff if it were valid?”

Apparently not.  Sometimes we respect authority too little… and sometimes too much.  When I was an adolescent, I was troubled that the brilliant John Maynard Keynes’s theory about spending money even when you’re in debt made no sense to me.  Turned out that the stupid teenager was right and the brilliant scholar was living in Cloudcuckooland.

Now, most baseball coaches don’t have the cerebral equipment of John Maynard Keynes… so should we be surprised that they mock any suggestion concerning the hitter’s spreading his hands on the handle?

Now that I’ve lived for two months of retirement on a farm in North Georgia that needs daily “rugged loving care”, I’ve found that hand-spreading on the haft of implements like picks and swing-blades is unquestionably, indisputably advantageous.  You get instant acceleration out of your tool in tight places, especially if you use the “parallel-reverse” technique that I describe in my books about Deadball Era hitting.  (That is, the top hand drives forward and down as the bottom hand pulls back and in.)  We know that a great many of those legendary strikers, from Wahoo Sam Crawford to the Waner brothers, were farm boys.  They grew up with such thick, sturdy handles in their grip.  I hope to make a video shortly that will illustrate how many of yesteryear’s techniques flow naturally from doing hard labor around the barn and in the field.

How would a player, or even most coaches, in twenty-first century America know anything about these techniques?  They can find their way around a gym, all right–but show me the workout in the gym that builds up hand strength and hand-eye coordination by having you swing a weight quickly in a narrow space at a small target!

To top it all off, yesterday I just happened to be watching video highlights of the 1968 World Series (dominated by the pitching of Gibson and Lolich).  In just these few fragmentary shots that seldom featured close-ups, I caught both Al Kaline and Dick McAuliffe spreading their hands modestly.  This wasn’t the age of cardboard collars and penknives to cut the pages of magazines, brothers and sisters: it was the time of Vietnam and the Hippies.  Those who played the game best at its highest level still knew about hand-spreading.   Why are today’s “experts” in the dark?  That’s not for me to say.  Why do you think?

I just know this: if I had to pick out one technique from Landing Safeties (just out this week) to pass along to a struggling youngster, I’d choose hand-spreading.  It works, if you know what you’re doing (and read the book if you don’t, please; I’ll send you a copy free if you can’t afford it).  The single great obstacle to the technique’s success might be the proportions of our New Age bats, with their toothpick handles and their frustratingly cramped length.  But there are possible ways around that roadblock.  Just don’t allow the ultimate wall across your path to success to be a know-it-all coach who condemns and sneers at methods he hasn’t ever so much as tried.

(Photo at top shows Tim Jordan, c. 1905: courtesy of Wikipedia.)

hitter reaction time, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching

Socrates to the Pitching Oracle: “At least I know that I know nothing!”

I found myself shifting to defense at several moments as I filmed my first videos for the page on pitching.  It had been explained to me just hours earlier that my hitting videos were pretty low-tech and soft-sell, without a hint of Billy Mays (or even Billy Graham).  As the immortal Dr. House might say, “Well, duh!”  Yes, we’re low-budget around here; and as far as designing sophisticated “quickies” for a generation of iPhone addicts whose thumbs can’t stay still, we’re also pretty low-skilled.  Guilty as charged.

Everything on this site is intended for thoughtful students of the game in search of real solutions.  I know our hitting advice can lead to good results.  I’ve tested it myself.  At 64 years old and with a touch of arthritis in one foot (not to mention a slow-healing sprain in the opposing knee), I’m not exactly the athletic equivalent of Deion Sanders; yet I can hit low liners pretty consistently off a machine that’s giving me about the same reaction time as if I were facing 90+ mph fastballs.  (See the two hitting videos marked “demonstration”.)  A young person who doesn’t have the physique to jack pitches over the fence could nevertheless be getting himself on base very reliably in front of those guys if he would take my advice.  Games are won by runners crossing the plate: you get no extra points for batting yourself in.

Now, pitching is another kettle of fish.  I don’t claim to know much of anything about pitching, and I say so in my first video on the subject.  I tried to unpack that remark somewhat in the second video, and I’ll try again here.  Pitching coaches can teach you the inside move and the slide step.  They can (let us hope) teach you the change-up grip.  They can advise you about how to pace yourself, and maybe about how not to get rattled when your fielders let you down.  All good stuff.  Some of them—the best—also know really helpful tips about how any pitcher may be effective while staying healthy.  Paul Reddick’s simple “wall drill” works for everyone.  When Jimmy Vilade used to coach at my university, he offered summer clinics that my son often attended—and I’ll always remember Jim’s urging his young understudies to “show the ball to the center fielder” as their front foot came forward in the delivery.  I diagnosed a little problem in my own experiments the other day by recalling this tip.

Nevertheless, not even Paul Reddick or Jim Vilade knows what it’s like to be “serving a life sentence” in a short, broad body type.  Pitching coaches (though not these two, as far as I know) will typically not even let a short guy on the mound, starting in lowest Little League.  They have no advice for us; or, rather, their advice is to go somewhere else.  I recollect a response that Paul wrote publicly to a father who inquired about his son’s maybe seeking more lethality from a lower arm angle: “That’s just a gimmick,” he said unencouragingly.  Now, I do not recall if Reddick was specifically targeting the submarine pitch with this comment or all sidearming below the nine o’clock angle; but gimmicks, you know, can get people out, especially in a short reliever.  My old pitching machine makes me swear like a sailor when it decides to chew on the ball a while after giving the green light for imminent release.  This is none other than the “Cueto technique” of varying release time.  Don Larsen was using it when he pitched his World Series perfect game entirely without a wind-up.  For crying out loud… all of this is “gimmickry”!

My son set a season record for appearances at his competitive D2 institution by throwing somewhere between sidearm and submarine.  Granted, he got great movement on the ball—but the odd release angle itself must have diminished the hitter’s reaction time.  Through my own trial-and-error methods, I have found that the “8:30” slot actually permits my ancient body to throw with maximal speed and accuracy; and if my increase in velocity only nudges me up from 52 to 60 mph, the same proportion would bring your 70 close to 80.

Can I guarantee that?  Of course not!  Furthermore, “I know nothing about pitching”—meaning that I really don’t want you to hurt yourself trying to do things that might strain tendons and ligaments in ways of which I’m unaware.  I can only tell you that a) I have a low-stature body type, b) I can throw most effectively at 8:30, and c) I haven’t yet run into any nagging arm or back pain at all because of this delivery.  Could my “nothing” be more than some professional pitching coaches know?  Well, if they’re telling you just to give it up… aren’t they really telling you, in “always preserve the illusion of omniscience” coach-speak, that they don’t know how to work with someone like you? ~ JRH


The Ideal Lead-Off Man… “But He’s Too Short!”

Everybody has now heard about the minuscule miracle which is Jose Altuve–the Flying Munchkin!  Dedicated baseball fans also recognize the name of .Marcus Stroman  But it takes an oldtimer to remember the remarkable Albie Pearson, who was well under the stature of either of these All Stars.  At 5’5″ and 140 lbs., Albie was one of the smallest men ever to play in the modern game.  And play he did!  In the three season spanning 1961 to 1963, he scored well over 300 runs, leading the AL in ’62 with 115.  That season also saw his lowest BA of the three, at .261 (sandwiched between .288 and .304).  In each of these yearly campaigns, Pearson’s walk totals tallied into the mid-90’s, as one would expect of so small a strike zone.

Yet Albie’s career was essentially over after 1963.  He continued to produce runs in greatly reduced plate appearances, so one has to doubt that injury had damaged his wheels.  I have tried to contact him for a fuller explanation, but without result.  In my experience, a ballplayer who refuses to talk about his career usually doesn’t have pleasant memories of how it ended.  My bet is that Pearson’s diminutive height haunted him even during his glory years.  He was an acceptable lead-off man for the expansion LA Angels until they got things going… but afterward, some genius in the front office must have decided to “get serious”.

Scouts, coaches, and general managers have harbored a blind, reflexive prejudice against short players for most of the game’s history; and, Altuve notwithstanding, that prejudice has probably never been more rigid than it is now.  With so many young adolescents topping six feet (thanks to hormones in our food, perhaps?), coaches even at the Little League level don’t feel the need to take a chance on a smaller build when filling out the line-up card.  Tall boys with lousy technique still tend to get fair results, after all, whereas smaller boys have to execute perfectly–and then the suspicion that they “got lucky” clings to them like pine tar.  No wonder so many of this latter body type simply give up baseball before they ever reach high-school age!  Why put up with that kind of treatment when you could play soccer or tennis?

I’m afraid I’ve seen some pretty stupid coaching in my time, and in no regard stupider than in the mis-estimate of talent based on height.  Shorter kids often have better balance, better coordination, quicker hands and feet, more explosiveness, and even a more competitive attitude.  I want to see them get a fair shake and do well.  I believe this site can help.   ~  JRH