baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, general health, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

How to Ruin an All-Star Hitter

thumbnail-18

It’s been a rough week.  Among other things, I’ve spent altogether too much time trying to upload to Amazon the paperback version of Landing Safeties, Second Edition.  After a long series of tests, I figured out that my local Internet connection couldn’t handle the job and managed to send the PDF to another terminal for transfer.  This edition has a great many new photos, even though I haven’t raised its price a penny over Edition One.

The present occasion, at any rate, seems like the perfect time to deliver on my promise about giving out some details on George Altman.  This standout performer of the early Sixties seemed destined for greatness–a five-tool player who could and should have taken his place among the game’s new stars of African descent.  Instead, he disappeared into a galaxy of competing talents.  He became one of my most intriguing cases when I wrote Key to a Cold City.  I have decided simply to paste in below the section of that book where I offered my discoveries about George’s all-too-common (as it turned out) case.  Incredibly, he vanished into the night because front-office fools had urged him to change his swing!

The mystery of George Altman became less opaque to me (though it did not disappear) after a discovery. First the mystery, then the discovery. George spent his first four Major League seasons with the Cubs, and his batting average improved with each year, climaxing in a sixth-place finish for the batting crown after the 1962 campaign at .318. His power numbers observed almost the same glorious ascent, peaking a year earlier with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs—and, by the way, a league-leading 12 triples. Not that ’62 witnessed a sudden power-outage: Altman’s 22 home runs and 74 RBIs were easily the second-best marks of his career, and his 27 doubles fell just one shy of the previous year’s mark.

Nevertheless, the Cubs decided to unload their All-Star outfielder to the Cardinals after the 1962 season. In return, they essentially received pitchers Larry Jackson and Lindy McDaniel. These two starters were a fine acquisition for a team perennially troubled by weak pitching—and, of course, the starting-rotation omelet could only be fried up by breaking a fat egg, such as a potential batting champ. That’s how trades work: teams cripple one aspect of their game to fortify another (often, alas, with a zero-sum result). In retrospect, this particular trade was about as fruitless as most—but it was more defensible than a great many.

Too bad for George Altman that he got packed off to a pitcher’s paradise (which had probably made Jackson and McDaniel look a little better than they were). His average and power figures both took a beating in 1963 (though .274 is not to be scoffed at in any ballpark). The Cardinals had apparently expected Wrigley Field numbers out of their new star, so George was again shipped out in the winter of ’63—this time in a two-for-one deal to the New York Mets, with Roger Craig being the one worth two. Craig had posted 15 wins and 46 losses during his two previous seasons with the Mets: August Busch must have taken George’s 9 homers pretty hard. It probably hadn’t helped Altman’s concentration, either, that he had been trying to fill Stan Musial’s shoes, or that Stan had announced his impending retirement in plenty of time for fans to ride George.

In any case, the bad luck didn’t wear off in New York. Though Altman saw over 400 at-bats in 1964, he batted an anemic .230, and his home runs and RBIs were ironically identical to the previous year’s tallies—which, of course, was a slight upswing if pegged to the reduced at-bats. Yet the statistics show that Altman was pressing by this point. He had always managed to draw about half as many walks as he logged strike-outs: in ’64, the ratio plummeted to 18/70. The Cubs, surely remembering his glory days with them, re-acquired him in a trade after the ’64 season, and for three miserable years George struggled to catch fire again (now, however, spending well over half his time on the bench). There was no combustion left. In 1967 he was released after appearing in only fifteen games.

In the light of my research, the mystery is not why the Cubs traded Altman, to begin with, but why some players rebound so much better than others to having the rug pulled out from under them. On paper, George’s case anticipates that of Leon Durham, another black slugger from the left side whom the Cubs rendered thunderstruck when they traded him to Cincinnati for reliever Pat Perry. Durham—would you believe it?—shortly ended up in St. Louis, where his hot bat turned to ice. He, too, never recovered from the gaping wound of being unloaded after a six year stint over which he hit 20 or more home runs five times. There was nothing ostensibly race-indexed about either of these deals, to be sure (though one may observe that neither Ron Santo nor, in 1988, Ryne Sandberg was made the sacrificial lamb to the Cubs’ ever-deficient pitching staff). Once the Cubs had recovered Altman at a discount, however, why didn’t they at least give him something like a full season to locate his missing confidence? Why obtain the former All-Star a mere two years later just to put him out to pasture?

I could muse, once again, upon the many sub-.250 seasons that Detroit tolerated from Norm Cash and Dick McAuliffe en route to letting them fulfill splendid careers. On the other hand, I could meditate a little further on the resilience that allowed a Frank Robinson or a Tommy Davis to keep floating to the top after every trade. Race was not unconnected to the enormous pressures placed upon young athletes at this time, but neither, I think, was it the primary source of pressure. The mystery of what George Altman might have been had Chicago not disrupted his productive rhythm in his prime, like all mysteries of squandered potential, is at last insoluble.

In Altman’s case, though, a surprising epilogue seems to reinforce the notion that the Cubs wasted a rare opportunity. I recently discovered that George went on to have a very fine career playing ball in Japan. From 1969-1975, he hit 205 home runs for his new employers and batted a combined .309. Though insider’s wisdom has it that Japanese baseball presented less of a challenge to American-bred hitters than what they encountered in the States, one might adjust for inflation and still suppose that Altman could have posted 20 annual homers and an average around .280 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for quite some time if he had been handled with greater care. The Cub’s loss was Japan’s gain and, for once, a happy ending in those chronicles of neglect where the careers of so many black ballplayers may be found.

***

Postscript: Mr. Altman very kindly responded after I had sent him a copy of my remarks above. Below I reproduce this response in its entirety:

Your pressure theory concerning power was partly right in my St. Louis experience. I was batting over .350 three weeks into the 1963 season. Busch Stadium in St. Louis had a short porch [in right field]. Someone from the front office came to me saying Mr. Rickey, the GM or VP, wanted me (a straight-away hitter) to pull the ball to take advantage of the short porch. I mistakenly tried to heed this advice and started “stepping in the bucket” and pulling off the ball. I was pulling the ball a lot but wasn’t getting the loft needed to clear the high stands in right. I started to drop my hands and upper-cut. I also was fouling a lot of balls off my right foot. This caused me to have to wear a shin guard. This led to groin problems in trying to beat out grounders. As my average declined I developed pressure in the back of my eyes causing blurred vision. I tried glasses for a while. Finally, after my average dropped to .230, I abandoned the pull-hitter experiment and got back into the line-up on a regular basis. I was a part of the team surge in late August when we won 18 out of 19 games. I played against left-handers and righties. I had a 19-game hitting streak going when the Dodgers came to St. Louis and pitched four left-handers in the series to beat us four straight. I was benched for that series and used only sparingly as a pinch-hitter.

In 1964 I was traded to the New York Mets. I dove for a ball on the last day of spring training and dislocated my shoulder. I should have been out a month or more. Casey Stengel came to me a week later on opening day and asked me to play. It was too early and the shoulder bothered me all year.

In 1965 I returned to Chicago. I started well, batting .300. Then my groin muscle separated from the bone while I was beating out a bunt. Again I was pressured to return to the line-up too soon and had groin trouble all year.

In 1966 Leo Durocher signed to manage the Cubs. We opened in San Francisco. I hit well in that series, including a home run. I was benched for the next series in Los Angeles. Leo was officially on a youth movement. Regardless of how well I played, I was relegated to part-time duty.

In 1967, I went to the Pacific Coast League and did very well there, playing full time. When I was recalled to the Cubs, I sat for two weeks before getting a chance to play. After one or two games, back on the bench. I knew I could still play, so when the Japan offer came I took it.

I found out in Japan that I wasn’t ever in tip-top shape while playing in the Major Leagues. Even though I worked harder than most players, it wasn’t enough for me. 1961 was probably the only year that I was injury-free in the Major Leagues. I was able to play virtually injury-free in Japan due to their hard training methods.

Obviously, there must be many such cases as George’s in this section’s following thumb-nail sketches where a player’s somewhat irregular career was impacted by injuries far more than I could ever know. Ballplayers would not have thought it wise in this era to complain about an injury or to refuse the manager’s request that they start. [Stengel, by the way, was notorious for badgering injured players to get back on the field.]   In the case of black players, especially, who were routinely cut during a “youth movement” or were instantly assumed to have their best years behind them as soon as they hit a slump, the pressure to play in mangled condition must have been considerable.

I continue to believe that the identification of home runs with job security altered a great many swings besides George’s in 1963, and that theme shall recur throughout this and subsequent chapters. Branch Rickey was actually employed by the Cardinals as a senior advisor at this time (he would be carried away by a stroke within a couple of years). Rickey had always liked the pulling, slightly upper-cutting swing, and he had directed his scouts to look for it in previous years. Anyone can understand why the young George, trying hard to please his new bosses and slipped a word of advice from a living legend, would want to oblige… but the DiMaggio/Williams swing was not his style, and it certainly contributed to short-circuiting his Major League career.

An even broader theme, however, is simply that lurking sense of not being likely to receive the benefit of any doubt—a sense which might, for instance, have made George dive for a ball in a spring-training game. The hunger to silence one’s critics utterly can be almost suicidal when those critics are not susceptible to reasonable proof. Is there another case in baseball history, I wonder, of a player’s being benched after a 19-game hitting streak? I, at least, have never heard of such a thing. Any remotely thoughtful person would be bound to grow a little paranoid in such circumstances.

baseball ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, hand use in hitting, metal bat use, Uncategorized

Kids and Hitting Coaches: Baseball’s Russian Roulette

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 10.28.45 AM

George Altman’s name came up in something I wrote recently, and maybe next week I’ll have more to say about him.  There’s much I’d like to say.  Bill James has labeled George a better human being than ballplayer… which at least places the emphasis on the more important factor.  But make no mistake; Altman was a darn good ballplayer, too—or was before the MLB establishment fouled him up.

That’s really where I thought I’d go with this today: through the overgrown wood, that is, of missed chances and bad advice.  A reader of my Hitting Secrets From Baseball’s Graveyard once posted a review on Amazon to the effect that the book’s author was indulging himself in the illusion that he could have been a great ballplayer.  Inasmuch as I scarcely mention myself after the second chapter, I suppose my authorial failures have to take the blame for this casual browser’s not making it past the first few pages.  But something in me wants to call him on that rebuke, faintly motivated though it was.  Maybe I could have been a good ballplayer, or at least a good hitter.  I know this: a helluva lot of guys (like George) could have ended up in Cooperstown who hardly got a cup of coffee, and a lot of other guys could have held their own in the Big Leagues who never earned a dime playing ball at any level.

How can I say that?  Because the wonderful world of baseball just isn’t as much of a meritocracy as we’d like to imagine it.  Raw talent is immensely important, yes—and hard, well-directed practice is even more so.  The role of mere good or bad luck isn’t negligible at any stage, though.  What could Herb Score have done if Gil McDougald’s line drive hadn’t struck him in the eye?  What would McDougald have done if the Score incident hadn’t soured him on baseball?  What would Roger Maris have done if the Yankee front office hadn’t instructed the medical staff to let him play through a broken hamate bone that, after 1965, would never heal properly?  And those are only a few of the cases involving guys who had made it to the top.

Personally, I never made it off the bottom.  Even so, those playgrounds in fifth and sixth grade, when my classmates would pack right field as far back as they could get and I’d still crank one over their heads, were certainly the gilding on my young existence.  (Forgive me for including the faded testimony of Mr. Bronston, my sixth-grade teacher, at the top of this page; he was an amazing man, and I’m glad he saw me in one of my few moments of joyful play.) At ten or eleven, I’m sure I rode a few pitches more than three hundred feet.  And then… I don’t know.  I took a deep dive into my academic studies because sports provided insufficient cover for the social harassment I was submitted to.  My mother hated all games of any sort, besides: they weren’t “intellectual” enough for her.  There were strains in that household, I can tell you.  Our family didn’t disintegrate, as so many were doing at a steep rate of acceleration… but it wasn’t a happy place to be.  My school, furthermore, being in North Texas, had chosen to throw all its emphasis (i.e., the athletic department’s money) into football—a game I still loathe, mostly because it stole baseball from me.  And then we adolescents had Vietnam staring us in the face every time we turned on the TV.  We were pretty sure we weren’t going to live to see our mid-twenties, anyway… so why bother preparing for the future?  What future?

That’s what I mean.  A million and one things can intervene to keep a kid from developing a talent—a “passion”, as it’s loosely known these days.  You might have been a great guitarist.  He might have been a brilliant architect.  She might have been a world-class swimmer.  Anything from an ill-timed divorce to a sudden move from Nashville to Nome to a sibling with special needs… the factors that can pull our lives off the “best possible course” (and do we ever know what that is?) are innumerable.

There’s one factor, however, that really shouldn’t obtain at all—and I’m afraid it’s the most common influence in destroying baseball dreams.  It destroyed George Altman to the extent that it brought him down from an All Star in 1961 and 1962 to a platoon player by 1965.  That factor is bad coaching.

In my one microscopically brief stint in the hardball game, I tasted the extremes of “professional advice”.  Since the game we’d played as fifth-graders was what is now called sandlot ball, I hadn’t actually seen much overhand pitching, and I had developed a deep hitch.  Naturally, as soon as I stepped in the box against an over-the-top hurler, the ball was popping the mitt by the time my barrel reached the zone.  I’ll never forget our “coach”—a middle-school football coach dragooned into captaining the remains of a baseball team—pacing the dugout and growling, “The Harrises can’t do anything but strike out.”  Another kid named Harris had the misfortune of sitting beside me; neither one of us got the nod to pinch-hit.  Not only had Captain Bligh never given us the least little tip about how to improve; he had now vocally told us we were losers in front of the rest of the team.  Good job, Coach.

The next year—my final shot at playing the real game—another coach (another football coach, but a good man at heart) merely remarked in batting practice that I had a hitch.  This was all the instruction I ever received… but I made enough of it to get into a few pitches pretty good before the season ended, including the hardest ball I ever hit (to dead center).  The shame was that I really didn’t need to throw away the hitch—that I would have hit much better by preserving it and simply adjusting the timing of my load.  Greenberg had a hitch, and Frank Howard (still playing in my adolescence) had one.  Nobody ever clued me in about the timing thing.  Just one little bit of helpful direction… but it never came.

I saw a version of the same cycle replayed, like a recurrent nightmare, during my son’s transit through high-school baseball.  I’m probably too hard on his coach, in retrospect.  The man was only teaching the wisdom du jour: lift the rear elbow aloft, pump the forward leg steeply, get front foot down early, squish the bug with rear foot, unload on the pitch as it passes over the plate… I was modeling that swing the other day for a video, and I ended up with a back ache that still hasn’t quite left me!  But, as I say, it was all the rage under the influence of the featherweight metal bat.

In any case, my own tutelage didn’t fare much better.  I had tried to rear my boy as a Charley Lau hitter, because… well, who was more sensible and stay-within-yourself than Charley?  Tim Raines, in my opinion, was the quintessence of everything good about this stroke.  In my mind’s eye, I could see Tim as I tried to advise my son.  With one hand, bat point bat at pitcher; then guide it slowly to the rear until it perches in the back hand; use the strong rear leg of a widespread stance to dip into a crouch; let the hands trail that dip, so that they’re descending even as the back knee begins to thrust up and forward into the pitch; tap the “wave effect” of this fluid load to slice straight through the ball, taking it smoothly up the middle or the other way.  Beautiful.  As I describe this linear, slightly descending contact, I now recognize a lot of the phrases that I use in praise of the old Deadball swing.

So… was my confidence in the Lau method misplaced?  Or was I simply too ignorant at the time to convey its fine points to a young pupil?  The metal bat that had pulled other peripheries of Charley’s stroke so out of proportion probably also messed with my son’s hands: he probably locked his thumbs around the handle rather than keeping his wrists in a Rod Carew kind of “v”.  In Metal Ropes, I advise young hitters forced to use alloy bats to wrap that handle in at least two layers of tape.  You need something more than a string to grasp if you’re going to keep the stick in your knuckles and out of your palms.

But… I didn’t know that at the time.  I just didn’t know.  It was my frustration with my own child and other boys on his team—my frustration over not being able to give them transformative advice—that plunged me into hitting research, though I had never lost my casual interest in hitting and, indeed, always used a bat in my daily workout.  I’d developed a certain amount of “feel” for bats and grips over all those years when I never saw anything like active play; active players, in contrast, sometimes have no leisure to experiment and speculate.  Yet explaining a “feel” is no mean feat.  I couldn’t do it, obviously, in my first attempts.

Maybe I’m changing my tune as I wind up this discussion.  Just a bit.  Coaching is hard.  Like Hippocrates, you want to do no harm, even if you can do no good… but when a terminal patient comes to you begging for a controversial drug, he doesn’t really care if it kills him.  He’s going to die, anyway.  So for a kid who’s clearly not going to make the team if he doesn’t magically catch fire.  He doesn’t want you to play it safe with him.

So what do you say to him?  We all hate the “my way or the highway” attitude—but if your pupil is just looking for any way, then he’ll have to observe certain stop signs and take certain turns if he goes your way.  You’ll have to correct him.  You’ll have to say sometimes, “No, that’s not it.  Let’s try again.”

George Altman didn’t need redirection.  He was already an All Star ballplayer when he cracked the big team’s line-up… and then was told that the front office wanted him to pull for power.  That was downright stupid.  Younger players may need a nudge, however.  As a kid, I could have done with a clue here and there about how to handle timing.  My son’s generation was ambushed by “experts” who knew “the latest” in hitting and held everything else in open contempt.

I think that’s the lesson for today: back off the contempt.  If you’re a hitting instructor, learn at least two ways of hitting.  Two isn’t twice as good as one: it’s ten times better.  Give your understudies at least one option.  Don’t just leave them free to swing any-which-way that Mother Nature inclines them… but try to see where nature is taking them, and then help them get farther.  I don’t object to Ted Williams’ teaching one bit.  (A commentator on one of my videos insisted that Ted had a hitch.  I think the dip in his load was too modest for that appellation—but, yes, that’s the sort of thing I was doing as a boy.)  Charley Lau would be preferable for someone who can manage a Raines-like crouch… and, of course, I love the front-foot emphasis that I’ve discovered in Old School hitting.  I’d never tell a kid to stay back if he wanted to shift strongly into the pitch.

But then, I wouldn’t tell him to shift forward, either, if he didn’t want to.

My friends, if you can corral Mother Nature, over-coaching, under-coaching, and funky trends in bats so that your horses are all running in the same direction, then you’ve done a masterful job.  But you’ve also been very lucky.  And luck is probably the dominant element here.

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

Why the Super Bowl Makes Me Love Baseball

Screen Shot 2019-06-22 at 9.14.55 AM

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl.  Have never been much of a football fan, since my days of growing up in Texas and being virtually forced to play the sport as our school’s baseball program languished and disappeared.  I don’t respect the game: it’s full of legal cheap shots and out-of-your-mind Dionysian adrenaline… and this, mind you, is supposed to be the recipe for making a man! That’s what we always heard in Texas.

Whatever interest I retained as an adult in watching professional football (and it wasn’t much) vaporized when the “take a knee” movement swept through the sport.  I don’t necessarily condemn the individuals who participated.  I think many of them were gullible marks exploited by cynical subversionists behind the scenes.  That’s precisely the source of my discomfort: it was very apparent, I mean, that the game had become a vehicle for “social transformation” on the part of embedded operatives who want our nation to end up looking like Castro’s Cuba.

Since I didn’t watch the Big Game, I didn’t see the halftime show.  All I’ll say is a slightly tailored version of the generic criticism I would make of “kneelers”.  To these latter, I’d ask, “Why don’t you pursue whatever cause you think is vaguely represented here on your own time and your own dime?  Right now, you’re an employee who has a job to do.”  To the halftime marketers of open borders and family-hostile values, I’d say, “How about you sing an audience-appropriate song and dance an audience-appropriate dance?  Nobody’s denying you the right to work in a strip club—but this isn’t the job you were expected to do in the present venue.”

Of course, that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  Expectation. We’re no longer allowed by our “betters” to expect anything but slaps upside the head. If taste and opinion are mainstream, they deserve to be ridiculed and undermined.  If they’re very marginal, they should be hoisted to the masthead while we all salute.  Expecting to nestle comfortably in one’s own values as one seeks a few hours of peace from the grind is… racist, or something, if one’s values are not extremely edgy.  There’s a “you need to see this” tone of re-education about it all.  I haven’t watched movies or TV shows made later than about 1980 since… about 1980, I guess—and it’s for just this reason.  I’m not interested in having my tastes constantly subverted.  I’ll watch Secret Agent reruns.

So why doesn’t baseball pose these same problems?  The kneeling movement was over on the West Coast (where, naturally, it would first break the surface) almost before it began.  Maybe the reason for that particular flame-out was because thousands and thousands of boys—millions, no doubt—go through the ritual of standing for the national anthem before their high-school or summer-league game every afternoon, from March to August.  Neither they nor their parents want to disrupt the service.  Why not?  Probably for different reasons: probably, for the parents, because they didn’t sign their sons up at no small cost just to see them desecrate the one political system on earth that honors the nuclear family while deploring rabid tribalism.  For the boys, it’s likely much simpler: they just want to fall into the rhythm of the performance.  The flag-raising is like pre-game warm-ups.  Giving the bird to it would be like skipping your preparatory swings in the batting cage or not getting your gear squared away in the dugout.  Baseball is not Dionysian.  It’s much more like Zen.  You withdraw into a meditative state that allows you to access incredible bursts of energy at just the right instant—and to recall that energy, as well, just as suddenly.  You don’t emit blood-curdling screams in baseball.  You don’t fixate on murdering the guy facing you inches away in a crouch.  You have to stay loose.  Yesteryear’s phrase was “loosey-goosey”.

You surrender to the vast sameness of things, in baseball.  You inscribe sharp differences, even aiming at the unique, within the context of that all-dominating sameness.  It’s little short of a genuine mystical experience.  The setting simply doesn’t lend itself to blowing the lid off of human limitation, history, nature, culture, the cosmos: its signature, rather, is vigorous activity within a benign acceptance.

That’s why I’ve always felt that the World Series (or “World’s Series”, as they used to say)—not to mention tournament baseball—is a kind of betrayal to the game’s spirit.  Any such attempt to bring the long season’s motions to a climax, or (of course) to make the season far less long, imposes a finality upon the universe which the universe spits right back out.  There’s always a tomorrow, and tomorrow will always bring another game.  As my all-time favorite baseball documentary (about the Negro Leagues) puts it, “There was always sun shining somewhere.”

As a practical matter, too, it’s hard to saturate the week-long ramble of the World Series with ads that subvert enduring social norms or political claptrap that insists we vote for the right Superman.  Besides, the tension of a between-innings break just doesn’t have the quality of waiting to see if one more set of downs will get the Packers on the board before halftime: there’s less nervous energy for the ad-maker to parasitize.

Could it be, too, that many, many professional ballplayers are far too imbued with culture to understand the virtues of cultural incineration?  Football recruits few stars from the Dominican Republic or Jamaica or Japan or Australia: MLB rosters are top-heavy with young men who have entered this strange new land carrying a massive baggage of ancestral habits.  The notion of trashing the very system which allows you to make millions playing a child’s game probably never occurs to them.  Now, it’s not their system… but they honor other things back home that have been much less charitable to them and their families than the “American way”.  They don’t understand the dishonor.

I’m not making a case here for “diversity”: I’m not suggesting, in other words, that we somehow elevate our system by flooding it with people who don’t understand its motive forces.  In a way, I’m saying just the opposite.  I’m saying that people who grow up in a coherent culture, even one that reduces them to miserable struggle, generally succeed in finding orientation and meaning within their cultural boundaries.  Many of them, I suspect, cannot comprehend why we would not want the same comfort of stable references when our system supplies such bounty.  Why do we Americans so enjoy tearing our nation apart?

I’ll admit that I peeked in at the Super Bowl’s fourth quarter, once my wife went to bed.  Patrick, Jr., immediately threw an interception, which prompted Troy Aikman to remark that he hadn’t so misfired throughout the whole playoff gamut.  Obviously, I was jinxing the kid… so I switched to Ancient Aliens and never gave the game a second thought.  Or maybe I grieved a little.  Patrick grew up mere miles down the road from us.  I once spoke briefly to Pat Mahomes, Sr., during the grand opening of a baseball training facility attended by both our sons.  He was still pitching for the Mets, and I tried to elicit from him an admission that the ball of recent years was juiced.  You’d think that any reliever would be willing to sign off on that proposition; but Senior paused and then replied laconically, “Well, maybe… but the steroids are a much bigger factor.”

Exactly.  Who ever raised a big stink about steroids in football?  Who cares, in football?  The running backs today are as big as downed linemen were when I was a kid; in the Sixties, nobody weighed over 250.  History is almost irrelevant, in football.  Master strategists keep finding new ways to punch the ball downfield, in football.  Forward progress—get to the goal line, and then over it.  Whatever it takes, in football.

In baseball, the Houston Astros have been plunged into ignominy for stealing signs with electronics that any good bench coach should have been able to decipher.  Pitchers are tossed from games if they ding a batter leaning over the plate; and should a “brawl” follow such an incident, nobody ever seems even to scrape a knuckle.  This isn’t a setting that you can readily infuse with notions of tearing down traditional society and building up an Irresistible Machine of the Future.  Thank God.

baseball ethics, baseball history, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, umpires, Uncategorized

“Crime Dog” Permanently Exiled to Sportswriters’ Doghouse

thumbnail-15

I found an article by Matt Snyder that says most of what I have to say much better than I can say it.  The bottom line is that Fred McGriff again came woefully short of entry into the Hall of Fame, that this was his last year of normal eligibility… and that he’s been done wrong.

Snyder observes that the Crime Dog logged ten seasons of thirty or more home runs.  I would add that seven of these came consecutively, and that the two ensuing seasons of 27 and 28 were both reduced thanks to a players’ strike.  (Well… Snyder had to remind me here that 1994 was virtually cut in half—and he finely observes that McGriff would have blown the lid off several categories if allowed to continue his work that year).  Twelve 30+ home-run seasons adorned Fred’s résumé by the time he hung up the spikes (two of them played out under the extreme distraction of a mid-season trade).

Here’s my special gripe about the matter, which a professional sportswriter would probably be ill advised to express as openly as I will do.  McGriff’s totals were compiled right in the heart of the Steroids Era.  They did not fluctuate so as to indicate mysteriously magnified physical power: they reached a plateau and stayed there for a decade.  That McGriff was his league’s home-run leader in only two seasons (36 with the Blue Jays in 1990, 35 with the Padres in 1992) isn’t a sign that he was an “average” middle-order slugger for his time; it is instead evidence, I should say, that the average was being grossly inflated around him by PED’s.  Furthermore, Fred’s ability to replicate his power numbers in Toronto, San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago (Cubs) demonstrates that there was nothing place-specific (e.g., dry, thin air or a secret system for stealing pitches) about his performance.

I’ll diverge from my main point for just a moment.  Let’s stick with hitter-friendly ballparks briefly.  From 1987 to 2002, Fred’s On-Base Percentage dipped into the .350s (still very respectable) only twice.  From 1997 to 2004, however, one of this year’s inductees, Larry Walker, reeled off a really impressive string of nine seasons with an OBP of over .400.  Yet these were Walker’s Colorado years; elsewhere his typical value fluctuated much more than McGriff’s.  Walker’s 383 homers, besides, are not overwhelming when one considers his ten seasons in Coors Field (only one of which—1997—saw his tally exploding up to 49; he topped 30 only three other times); and his career doubles total, while regal at 471, is only 30 ahead of McGriff’s in ballparks where hits didn’t carry with the same force.  Yes, Fred enjoyed about 1,700 more AB’s than Larry… but he also walked almost 400 more times, notably higher than Walker’s rate.

Indeed, I suspect we may see here part of the “reverse mystique” of Fred McGriff.  He was the ultimate in patient hitting.  He consistently gave up the outside corner.  The “damage” he did to his reputation as a savage slugger by exhibiting such self-control makes me recall what I’ve read about Ted Williams’ relative unpopularity when Joe DiMaggio was stirred into the same discussion during their days of active play.  People like to see Mighty Casey expand the zone with two strikes and take his chances on chipping one down the off-field line with a furious hack.  Not only did Fred, like Ted, not fit this model: McGriff, unlike Williams, never had a caustic word for umpires who rung him up on something a little off the plate.  Fred McGriff was as polite a human being as ever wore a baseball uniform.

Another debatable Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, amassed numbers mostly a bit better than Larry Walker’s across the board—and he did so without benefit of Coors Field’s thin air.  Where Cepeda’s figures distinctly underperform Walker’s (BA, OBP), they seem to me to reflect his time’s preference for more aggressive sluggers who didn’t try to work walks.  Again, fans like the “madman with a machete” image of power-hitting—which fact may indeed have impeded Larry’s ascent to the Hall.  (Snyder rightly scoffs at the word-of-mouth “most feared of his day” criterion, another morph of the “wild man” stereotype.)  Cepeda had two other off-the-field factors working in his favor, as well.  One was his Latino identity: the sportswriter clan wanted somebody besides Clemente representing that demographic.  The other was that Orlando ran afoul of laws prohibiting the use of recreational drugs.  The feeling among the chattering white-collar classes (and I lived through those days, so I can tell you that such “feelings” were palpable) was in favor of sticking it to self-righteous “family values” politicians.  That feeling, by the way—in case you’ve been living in a world engineered by your own preferred hallucinogen—has so mushroomed among the Hall’s electors as to overshadow a lot of factual evidence.

Now, I’m not arguing that either Orlando Cepeda or Larry Walker doesn’t belong on baseball’s Mount Olympus.  What I believe we see in an alignment of all three cases is just how subjective the verdict of these “sportswriters” can be.  I’m not even going to tackle the question of Wins Above Replacement: Wikipedia observes that sabermetricians have not even reached agreement on how to make the calculation.  Grounding into double-plays, for instance, apparently brings a mandatory deduction—and I have to say that only a bunch of nerdy eggheads could seriously exact such a sanction.  Double-play balls are hard hit (just ask Hank Aaron, the all-time leader); and any professional batsman will tell you that his objective is to make solid contact and leave the rest to the baseball gods.  You can’t control such factors as how slow afoot the batting champ is who hits in front of you or how slick the middle infielders of your division rivals are.

So let’s return to subjectivity in the voting: to “perception”.  The major issue that seems to me unaddressed in McGriff’s case is steroids.  He didn’t use them.  If the sun rises in the east, this man was clean.  Fred was as thin as a rail, from his rookie year to his last AB with Tampa Bay.  I don’t know how he did it, because most of us bulk up simply from the normal effects of aging.  Larry Walker certainly became “thicker”.  So did Frank Thomas.  Did Walker fall under an unvoiced suspicion among the electors, like Craig Biggio with his Popeye-like forearms in later years—or like Jeff “I ain’t saying nothing” Bagwell (both of them teammates of Ken Camminiti, who lost his life to the effects of PED’s)?  Thomas was admitted to Cooperstown immediately; Craig had to wait three years.  Why?  Was it because the “writers” were afraid to slander the Big Hurt lest their reluctance be interpreted as bigotry—the same dread that made them back off when Albert Pujolz indignantly denied rumors of “using” a few years back?

But the same writers and broadcasters will counter, “No, we never looked at size—you can’t tell by size.  Steroids make you heal faster: they don’t necessarily make you bigger.”  Oh, so… so that lets you conjure up a cloud of steroid-usage pretty much anywhere you want, just to reinforce or justify an existing prejudice.  The astonishing steadiness of McGriff’s output straight through the minefield of the Steroids Era, then, is of no interest to you: you’ll just keep analyzing his performance against the Rafael Palmeiros and Andres Galarragas of his day… and that makes for a mediocre WAR.  Okay.

Fred McGriff deserves to be rewarded for not breaking the rules: besides a career which is distinguished by any measure, he deserves special consideration for that.  How are we to expect law-abiding conduct of our children when they see that (in Leo Durocher’s immortal phrase) “nice guys finish last”?  But the twits who make these calls have little respect for society’s rules.  They’re the same pack, essentially—their intellectual DNA is the same—as persistently ignored Gil Hodges, the supreme first-stacker of his generation who was briefly the National League’s all-time right-handed home-run king, and who served his nation fighting in the heart of World War Two’s bloodiest theater… and who skippered the Miracle Mets… ignored Gil Hodges because he was a quiet man and didn’t vocally, fists flying, champion Jackie Robinson.  So they say, these twits with their algorithms who never had the guts to champion anyone chin-first.

Look at what they’ve done to Curt Schilling.  At least Curt knew what he was getting into by speaking his mind in our “free society”.  As for Fred… Fred is so like Gil, in a way: a quiet gentleman who didn’t spout quotable comments and didn’t fuel exciting controversies.  Just a decent human being who went about his business.  They hate those.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Cheating: Always Wrong… and Always With Us

jackson

First of all, cheating is wrong.  It was really wrong as the Minnesota Twins practiced it in the 1991 World Series: turning on the blowers when their guys were at bat to assist outward-bound fly balls.  (Recall that Kirby Puckett’s critical homer off of Charlie Leibrandt barely cleared the screen.)  It was wrong in 1954, when the New York Giants won most of their final forty games after positioning a spy with binoculars in the Polo Grounds clubhouse beyond the center field fence and running a telegraph wire to the third-base coach’s box.  (Bobby “The Giants win the pennant!” Thompson always swore that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch… but we’ll never know for sure.)  Yet the verdict of neither of those series was overturned.  So I’d like all the people who want the Astros and the Red Sox stripped of their titles to pipe down.  Should we dethrone the ’89 Athletics because a bulked-up Canseco and his new disciple, Mark McGwire, anchored their line-up?  How about retroactively awarding all trophies in the Nineties to last-place teams, on the assumption that their players were shooting up the least?

No, I’m not in any way condoning foul play.  On the contrary, I’m encouraging those who are most enraged at the current sign-stealing scandal to grow up a little and recognize that we who play fair have always contended with such issues—and have usually done so with little support from governing bodies.  The last formal ball game my son ever played was in a “Christian” college tournament whose participants, for the most part, had discovered a lost Beatitude: “Blessed are they who win at any cost, for nice guys finish last.”  I watched the whole team in the opposing dugout hang on the chain-link fence and howl like apes at the zoo with all the Red Bull running in their veins; I watched their pitcher drill our best hitter twice in an obvious attempt to knock him out of the game (and just as obviously on orders); then I heard one of their coaches tell a player, “We won—that’s all that matters,” as we exited the park. Did I give up on the game after that night? No more than I gave up on my religious faith.

Cheating… yeah, it stinks.  My first experience of coaching was when I was told that my seven-year-old wouldn’t have a team if I didn’t consent to manage it, because more kids were signing up than the league could handle.  A much-recycled line, that, as I would learn later.  Every season needed a couple of “punching bag” teams to provide easy W’s.  My fellow punching-bag nominee that spring told me later that he skipped draft night, assuming that the vultures would leave him better scraps just to cover up their scheme than if he showed up and tried to pick from a list of two or three hundred unknown names.  He at least knew what he was getting into.

I could go on and on about how imbalanced the MLB pay scale is… but I’ve never believed the premise of that particular gripe.  The Washington Nationals finally unload their superstar, Bryce Harper, who goes to a Phillies club with a “win or die” approach to check-writing… and the Nats win the Series, while the Phils stumble across the finish line just ahead of the Marlins.  Coaching, chemistry, luck—a lot of variables besides salary must be factored into the equation.

And, in any case… yes, I’ll say it: how do we know that the Nats weren’t stealing signs, as well?  And the Dodgers?  And the Yankees?  If two or three teams are doing it, why would we suppose that every squad in both leagues isn’t doing it?  Maybe the teams that get caught are the ones that are really bad—really clumsy, stupid—cheaters.  Come on, now!  If I’m a struggling 23-year-old, why wouldn’t I buy my girlfriend an iPhone and season tickets behind the plate?  She watches the broadcast, sees the signs from the center-field camera, and gives me a, “Let’s go, Rusty!” every time a fastball is coming… a, “Let’s go, Sixteen!” for the slider… a, “You can do it, Rusty!” for the change.  Do you really think ballplayers, individually and collectively, didn’t figure out a long time ago what electronics can do for them in this area?  Remember the Polo Grounds?

Some players don’t even want to know what’s coming.  I think it was John Roseboro who wrote that he used to drive Orlando Cepeda crazy by tipping him to the pitches.  Baby Bull would turn around and whine, “Stop that!”—but Rosie would keep it up, because it worked.  For that matter, I find it hard to believe that Jose Altuve gives a tinker’s damn (as they used to say in Ireland) about knowing the pitch in advance.  The man who has been baseball’s premier hitter in many categories over the past five years swings at pretty much everything, just like most of the .400 hitters of the Deadball Era.  How on earth did those oldtimers get away with that?  Because, like Cepeda, they were front-foot hitters.  Their default approach was to inside-out everything served up to them, dragging the barrel well behind the hands—which gave them more time to track the ball; and, if the pitch happened to break in on them, causing them to get out in front… well, they were “fooled” into pulling the ball, and the result was often a fouled-up defense and extra bases.

This is how guys used to approach at-bats, I’m convinced: get the barrel on the ball.  Wherever it’s pitched, get the barrel to it, even if you end up on your face or your back.  Some ugly, awkward swings… and some very confused defenses and very high averages.  Of course, those stickers and strikers of a century ago weren’t carrying 31-inch Little League shillelaghs to the plate.  The typical bat of our era almost requires that you single out a certain pitch in a certain spot while taking everything else.  Since all of our hitters today are guess-hitters, anyway… well, why not look for a little confirmation of your best guess?

How many pitchers, even at the Big League level, can consistently get three pitches over on any given outing?  Most of them are throwing two pitches 75 percent of the time.  And how many, besides, dare cross up the hitter’s expectations and throw a 3/2 breaking ball or an 0/2 fastball over the plate?  Realistically, pitch-stealing would provide one of today’s professional hitters little more information than he’s already figured out on his own (with the massive aid of far better scouting reports and video than you could get from Homeland Security).  The Astros, so the stats suggest, have become very good two-strike hitters.  So… how many hitters don’t know what they’re likely to get with two strikes from a given pitcher in a given count and in a given situation?

I’m sorry… but considering our day’s penchant for playing the victim and demanding that bullies be crucified up and down every highway and byway, I can’t find a lot of outrage to vent over this particular scandal.  We’re always on the lookout for another occasion to scream, “Unfair!”  And the MLB, of course (like the NFL, the NBA, and all other multi-billion-dollar industries), is always quick to do damage control when it can’t keep every detail of its sausage-making from leaking out before a gullible public.  If you “cheat smart”, then we up here in the penthouse see nothing; if you get caught… oh, boy, are we going to be outraged with you!  You’re fired!  You’re banned for life!  How dare you soil our sport!

Yeah, okay.  Okay.  Meanwhile… how about young hitters learn to hit something besides a single pitch that they know is coming?