baseball ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, mental approach, off-season preparation, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Off-Season Preparation: It’s Not All Physical

The off-season is the time to try experimenting with a new hitting style or pitching motion.  You don’t want to get under the hood and start switching out plugs and wires right before the home-opener; and even spring training is better used for refining new approaches than discovering them.  So… hope you had a rewarding Thanksgiving, as we did, and that a merry and meaningful Christmas will follow… but you should be doing something for your baseball preparation right now besides hitting the weight room.

What I really wish to discuss in this short space, however, goes even beyond rethinking your batting stroke.  If you’re a high-school senior, the Christmas before your final semester can be a time of tension.  In a very few months, you’ll decide whether or not to attend college and—if the answer is “yes”—exactly where to attend.  That calculation, for a ballplayer, can of course involve factors like how big a scholarship you’re being offered, whether the coaching staff seems genuinely interested in your talents, and how close to home the school is.  Be warned, by the way, that certain NAIA schools toss around scholarship money very freely.  The directive handed down to the athletic department is apparently to fatten enrollment and not to worry about whether every “scholar-athlete” can actually swing or throw.  You don’t want to find yourself riding the bench in March after the Assistant Coach sweet-talked you with extra sugar and honey back in the previous June.

Those grants are terrific: don’t get me wrong.  By all means, avoid taking any loan if you can.  Especially avoid the FAFSA loans that our government suckers millions of young people and their families into accepting every year.  They’re toxic.  No other kind of debt is unaffected by personal bankruptcy: you’ll have to pay that money back with interest, though you write the last check on your deathbed (unless, that is, you get conned into taking one of the “cancellation” deals that the Feds sometimes offer if you go to work in the public sector).  My son paid for a good portion of his college by being a ballplayer and achieved his B.A. without incurring a dime of debt.  We’re very proud of that.

The one factor in this equation that’s never mentioned, however, seems to be the student’s choice of major.  Give that some serious thought: in other words, ponder your preferred course of study as well as what you hope to do on the diamond, and select a school that’s strong in your prospective field.  Why go to college at all if the only thing you propose to do for the next ten years is play ball?  Why not play in an Independent League if you can’t walk on and win a spot on some organization’s low-A team?  You can always go to a local college in the off-season and/or take online courses.  Save your money if you think the degree worth having but don’t feel drawn to any heavy-duty area of specialization.

Most of you have to know, after all, that you won’t ever play big-league ball.  By all means, if you think you have a crack at it and are willing to put in the work, chase that dream and see if you can close ground on it.  Please don’t dress up the dream too prettily, though: don’t allow a complete fantasy to destroy your chance at being a really good architect or webmaster.  Most Major Leaguers don’t enjoy ten-year careers, or even five-year careers.  A “cup of coffee” is the typical serving-size.  Even those who stick have to contend with changing time zones every other week, which cruelly disrupts eating habits and circadian rhythms.  You may laugh at all that when you’re twenty-two—but, trust me, you won’t be laughing when you’re thirty-two.  If you happen to acquire a family along the way, you’ll be separated from your wife and kids for several months a year, all totaled; and you may find yourself legally separated if you succumb to the numerous distractions that surround you on the road.  Other ways of fighting the pressure, the psychic disruption, and the loneliness include “recreational” drugs and alcohol.  Nobody has ever accused those substances of being performance-enhancing (unless, perhaps, in the case of Babe Ruth).  Tyler Skaggs was not quite twenty-eight years old when his time on this earth was cut short by an effort, apparently, to level out his mood by artificial means.

I’ve painted an overly grim picture, no doubt.  I just don’t want your image of “life after baseball” to be overly grim, as well.  It’s better to let the game teach you what it can about life rather than become your whole life.  My son’s final game was played in a titularly “Christian” tournament against a team whose players were so heavily caffeinated that they could hardly be kept in the dugout, whose coach ordered his pitcher to throw at our best hitter, and whose assistant coach muttered right in front of me as we all filed out to the parking lot, “Well, we won—that’s all that matters.”  Tell it to Jesus when you stand before him, Coach: see what kind of response you get.  You not only failed to learn the game’s proper lessons—you muddled the issues for the young people in your charge, and you lost the only game that counts.

Avoid that kind of program, if you spot warning signs. We obtained invaluable help from the National Collegiate Scouting Association (NCSA) at www.ncsasports.org. You can share all of your concerns with the staff and rest assured that you won’t be brushed aside or fed a bunch of canned responses. I would strongly recommend that you give these professionals a try.

baseball ethics, baseball history, Uncategorized

Why MLB’s Play-Offs Have Become Turn-Offs

IMG_0115

My son and I had a rather spirited debate last night about play-offs.  The essential problem seems to be that… well, I guess it’s that I’m old.  You see, I can remember when every team in both leagues played every other team in its league an equal number of times—and only such teams—during the regular season.  Then the winners of the two 154-game seasons went to the World Series and duked it out.  The championship meant something.  Nowadays… the one thing my son and I agreed about was that nowadays it’s all about money.  Draw as many teams into the post-season as you can, and keep it all going as long as you can.  More tickets, more ads sold on TV… and, of course, the players are also happy to have the extra revenue.  But it seems to me that our society is less and less preoccupied with matters of basic fairness, in baseball and everything else.  There are fewer and fewer clear winners: everything is always getting scuffed up, discredited, recounted, litigated.

Yeah, whatever my body’s telling me—and I’m in very good shape (thank God) for a sixty-five-year-old—I am indeed aging.  In spirit.  Times were better long ago, in some ways… or am I dreaming?

Consider: wild-card teams have been admitted to the play-offs since 1994.  That’s twenty-five years.  In that span, a wild-card entry has reached the Series thirteen times, cashing in on over fifty percent of opportunities.  And the second wild card has existed only since 2014.  What does that tell you?

It tells me this: teams that heat up in late August are reliably beating up on teams that have logged a hundred victories over a long season when both get to October.  I don’t see the fairness in allowing the former to have an almost equal shot at the latter (and if the Series this year taught us anything, it’s that home-field advantage doesn’t count for much).

My argument, based largely on reading the accounts of players who were active half a century ago and more, is that winning a hundred games is quite wearing.  Guys tend to stumble and stagger into October after posting successes at that exhaustive level.  (Not really such an outdated notion: Freddy Freeman, the heart and soul of the Braves’ offense, did nothing against the Cardinals in the divisional play-off—and then had elbow surgery within a week of his season’s close.)  Teams that have wallowed in mediocrity before striking gold at the trade deadline, however, or maybe recovering a star player who has been sidelined for months are able to come out of the gate in September looking like a wholly different squad from anything you’ve seen all year… and so they are.  Maybe it wasn’t “fair” that Star Player went down in June—and you could say, of course, that everyone had an equal shot at the Trade Deadline Sweepstakes.  But injury would have been considered a “luck” issue rather than a “fairness” question back before our brains forgot how to process words; and as for trades, when you’re on pace to rack up 107 wins, you don’t mess with your line-up.  That allows you to hit three digits… but, again, it also multiplies the wear and tear on your magnificent starters.

My son would come back with two points.  1) The Nationals had the best record in baseball since July; and 2) I just don’t like the Nationals.  Both of these claims are true.  (I hated the Nats from the start because the media complex shoved them down my throat as the game’s new Golden-Haired Child; I actually like them a lot better after reading an article last week that profiled many of their young men as humble people of faith and determination.)  Even conceding—as I do—that Washington would have been a division-winner if the season had dragged on another couple of weeks, I’m still looking at a winner of two-thirds of a season edging out teams that won the whole season, as things now stand.

My son ripostes with the fully valid observation that some divisions are much weaker than others.  Couldn’t agree more.  That’s why I would propose the following.

Two divisions per league.  Add one team to each league so that all divisions will have a total of eight (32 altogether).  Each team will play very other team in the league eight times, and will face teams within its division an additional three times (for a total of eleven).  Add an additional one game with every team in the other league.  These will essentially be exhibition games that count: fans can have a small but complete exposure to the other league, yet standings will not be compromised because the Braves play the Red Sox six times while the Phillies draw the Rangers.  (I’m from Fort Worth, so back off: I get to take that dig after growing up in utter misery.)  That tallies to 157 games: a nice compromise between the Old School 154 and the later 162.  The season is simply too long as it stands for teams that must continue into October.  Now they have a schedule trimmed by one week.

Play the winners of each division against one another in a seven-game series, and play the second-place teams of each division in a series of the same length.  Then… this is where it gets interesting.  The second-place winner plays the first-place winner in a five-game series, in which the former must win four games to move on.  Not only that… but three of the five will be played in the division-winner’s ball park, and that team’s brain trust can determine beforehand which three of the five are played at home.  After this round, we have our World Series contestants.

No, it’ll never happen.  I know that.  And as this world goes, there are things of much greater importance to worry about.  Much, much greater.  I’m only pointing out that there would indeed be ways to make victories count more as… say, victories.  As something that really mattered.  If we’re going to play a game by a set of rules, then prospering within the stated terms of competition should have real-world consequences.  Otherwise, why not just have the team that played best in May and July combined play the winner from June and September combined?  Why not have the home-run-leading team play the ERA leader?  Why not give an automatic slot to a poor franchise that hasn’t been to the dance in decades? Why not… oh, who cares? Who really cares any more?

baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Respect for the Game Is Its Highest Lesson

When we moved out into the country, I thought I would have space and leisure to do my baseball experiments… and so I do, compared to our previous cramped suburban circumstances.  But Internet connection—or the lack thereof—was an obstacle I hadn’t reckoned on.  The online shifts and short-cuts I’m having to make do not always work, and at their best they still leave my connection running like cold molasses.

I’ll partially blame that situation for my having struggled unsuccessfully (until just last week) to create two YouTube channels for my two separate ventures: one about Deadball Era hitting and one about reasons to have faith in a higher power.  I apologize to anyone who may have subscribed to view videos in the former vein and has lately been receiving notice of ones in the latter.  I think I have finally sorted out the problem—but with slow-running Internet, I seldom saw displays coming up on my screen as described to me by “experts” or loading links in the promised fashion.  Even my filming devices have been badly confused, apparently, by the i-Cloud’s insistence on sharing every photo with every device at every instant.

Since I have stumbled and staggered into the subject of metaphysics, however, I’ll say this about baseball—and it relates to why I’m so uninterested in the play-offs.  To me, the game will always be as static as a beautiful picture in a frame.  You can look at that picture every time you pass through the room and find something new… yet it’s always the same old scene.  That’s a quality shared by all great art, even the kind that overtly consumes time in unfolding.  A piece of music obviously needs time to run from start to finish—yet it can stay with you all day, replaying and re-replaying; or it can put you in a mood that lingers like the power of a blossoming sunrise far into the morning.

One of my earliest baseball memories is seeing Mickey Mantle stroke an upper-deck home run off of Hoyt Wilhelm after fouling pitch after pitch weakly into the dirt.  It was very late September, I think: the game was important.  Very important.  It may have gone into extra innings.  I’m sure the contest ended as soon as Mick connected—what we call a walk-off today (a phrase coined by Dennis Eckersley after he had to walk off the field as Kirk Gibson circled the bases).  I was at a friend’s house in the boondocks, and the friend wanted us to go ride his horses… but I wouldn’t leave the room while Mickey was at the plate.  And then… crack!

I don’t even remember if the Yanks went on to play in or win the Series (although I was a devoted Yankee fan until George Steinbrenner arrived and permanently fouled the air).  What I recall, and will recall on my deathbed, is Mickey uncoiling on a knuckler that he had finally tracked just right.  This is surely why baseball documentaries so often feature those slow-mo, golden-filtered sequences of guys rounding second or sliding home, guys chasing after line drives, guys nodding awkwardly to the camera from the dugout: because, I mean, the action itself is frozen.  You don’t know if the runner was actually safe at home or if the fielder actually caught the ball.  The glory of it all was in how eighteen young men (we might as well call them boys, though some were almost old men) were trying their utmost to win one silly game with the skills that God gave them and that they’d honed through hard work.  Silly? Well, yes, in the grand scheme of things. Even if it was the last game of the World Series (or “World’s Series”, as they said originally), the identity of the winner wouldn’t bring peace to Africa.  It wouldn’t even ensure a good wheat harvest in Kansas.  It was a small thing… but it was eternal.  It was intense, directed, peak-performance action snared in an eternal moment.

That’s baseball, to me.  Not the Series or the play-offs (which usually feature, especially now, a worn-out champion trying to outlast a team that got hot in September).  Baseball is about some nameless afternoon in mid-June, when a kid nobody’s ever heard of has won seven games in a row and a fallen All Star is building a come-back year.  As Immanuel Kant once wrote of great art, it’s “purposiveness without a purpose”. It’s an all-out bid to achieve something in a mortal existence where we have to wonder if we ever really achieve anything.  To that extent, the game belongs more to heaven than to earth.

For how golden can a crown really be when the competition for it will begin all over again in three months—every year, all over again?  Are we kidding ourselves? About the crown, yes… but not about the glory of the sun, grass, and dust in June.  The crown is just a gilded frame for summertime.

It pains me to admit what follows, but you know it as well as I do: we’re losing the beauty of the game.  We were losing it when the boys on the field started taking performance-enhancing drugs to “get better” (i.e., to win longer, more lucrative contracts).  We were supposed to realize, they pleaded, that this was no game to them, but a livelihood—and we were supposed to feel guilty, I guess, that we had made a mere game of their bread and butter.  But maybe somebody else should feel guilty (the cheaters themselves, but also a lot of collaborators) for turning our snapshot of eternity into yet another artificial stimulant: visual cocaine.  The Home Run Derby, the JUGS guns nudging young players into arm surgery, the late trade deadlines (moved up this year, but still far later than in 1950)… and—for our own kids—tournament baseball, the trophies upon trophies, the Little League World Series, the grade-schoolers who already have their own “walk-up songs” and mating-cockatoo celebrations at home plate… each of these, in its own small way and from a different direction, contributed to driving the mystical “higher purpose” out of the summer ritual and turning it into a win-win-win, “for profit” enterprise.

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not advocating a trophy for everyone and no scorekeeping.  The participants wouldn’t play their hearts out if they saw no goal line to be reached.  This is the same thing that socialists don’t grasp about capitalism: take away the fat commissions, and you get no Michelangelo and no Rodin—no Sistine Chapel and no Burghers of Calais.  To create something of beauty whose highest purpose we don’t understand, we almost always—most of us—need instrumental lure whose purpose we understand very well.   Most people don’t stand on a stone in the middle of the Mojave to worship God: they build a temple full of human artifice and with a distinctly human design.

There comes a point, though, where preoccupation with the carrot in front of your nose is so great that you forget all about your destination.  Our game has reached that point today.  It’s not a game any more; it’s business, at almost every level.  (And if you don’t think pitching and hitting gurus make a helluva lot of money out of coaching eight-year-olds, you’ve been living in Tahiti.)  Part of the reason I launched SmallBallSuccess.com—the major part—was to give smaller kids the experience of assisting in a complex creation with skills that only they possess.  My objective wasn’t necessarily to help teams win more games.  All things considered, you have a better chance of winning more often with less effort if you only allow big kids onto the roster: that’s true.  It’s also true, as the apostle Paul writes, that people wholly absorbed in the ways of the world can usually run circles around those with one eye on the Other World.

But then, what do you have in December?  Another trophy, a few aches that won’t go away… and in February, it all cranks up again.  For what?  For a chance at a scholarship?  To do what?  To get a Business degree?  What will you do with that?  Wouldn’t you be wiser to commit yourself to studying Physics or Engineering full time?  All things considered, excelling at baseball as a strategy for earning big bucks in later life is about as smart as stocking a team with left-handed munchkins.

What a kid learns from the game when he plays it the right way is that there’s always a path around his deficiencies—an adjustment that can turn them into assets with hard work. Such a lesson transfers well into any degree or job.  But he also learns (and, for my money, this is the more important lesson) that some things you suppose yourself to be doing linearly so as to progress from A to X can become a mystical circle—a scrapbook of snapshots that you’ll carry throughout your life, and that nobody can ever take away from you.  For those who simply watch you playing your heart out on a June afternoon, the same snapshots pass into a kind of i-Cloud that Mr. Jobs never imagined.

Yeah, I remember Mickey’s upper-deck game-winner… but I also remember my son executing a slap-bunt that brought home the game-winner, when the defense was rushing to get him out at first and didn’t see the runner turn third without stopping.  And I’ll forget Mickey before I forget that boy’s joy.

baseball ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Coaches Are Not Kings—And Some Kings Have More Humility

Here are a few excerpted passages from an email that online coach Paul Reddick sent around this past week:

Don’t say the wrong thing and blow it for your kid.
No more confusion about what to say.
No more wondering if you’re gonna say the right things.
No more worrying about saying the wrong things.

This is for parents and players who want to know the right way to talk to Coaches, Scouts and Recruiters.
You’ll learn how to get attention from coaches, scouts and recruiters.

PLUS: You’ll learn how to not sound like an amateur.
You’ll know what to say, how to say it and when to say it.
You’ll know what questions coaches will ask you and what questions you should be asking the coaches.
With this Masterclass, you’ll have an unfair advantage over every other parent that coach is going to talk with.

P.S. I hate to say that I have seen parents and players blow it with coaches by saying the wrong thing, but I have. It’s cringe worthy.
Don’t let that happen to you.

Now, I like Paul Reddick: that’s why I’m on his mailing list. Furthermore, the point I’m trying to draw from the missive above isn’t that Coach Paul “is at it again, doing anything for a buck”. (The pitch being made, by the way, is an offer—and a really good offer—for tutorial on how to talk to coaches.)

No, my problem is with the fact that coaches need to be addressed in some special manner. When Reddick teased this same package a few weeks earlier (and I regrettably no longer have that email), he drew a more poignant picture of a kid who gets cut from his high school team just because Dad dared to approach El Supremo and didn’t use the right words. My own son didn’t suffer this fate, but I’ve known boys who have. These are true stories, and the coaching world offers far, far too many examples of them.

In the first place, as a career educator myself, I’m outraged at the proposition that a parent might enter a conference with a teacher tormented by the thought that the child could be failed if words didn’t come out right. If I, as a teacher, were to treat a child punitively for remarks made by a parent, then I should be fired from my job, unceremoniously, and not given a reference. I would be a disgrace to my profession.

Why is a high school coach any different, or even a college coach? Why must their royal displeasure not be stirred, lest the executioner’s sword fall upon a child’s neck? These stories are reminiscent of Herodotus’s about the behavior of the Persian kings.

In the second place, even if the parent’s “talk” with Coach is obnoxiously confrontational or lecturing (“You’re not using him right—he’s never played third base. And he’d hit better if you’d bat him higher in the order!”), why should an adult professional have any difficulty fielding the proper answer? “I’m sorry you feel that way. But this is my job, and I have to do it as I think fit.” Owners of restaurants or car dealerships or shoe stores all have to handle the occasional irate and irrational customer. What is it about the coaching profession that should insulate its practitioners from any such unpleasant run-in?

And why on earth would that “professional” proceed to take his irritation out on a person who had nothing to do with the unpleasantness? If you are a professional, Coach, then don’t attempt to show it by claiming some locker-room version of Papal Infallibility. Demonstrate your superior understanding by sizing up the talent at your disposal and making good use of it. If Leroy has the makings of a good third-baseman but also a really annoying father… well, so make him a good third-baseman. What’s the problem? The father should have nothing to do with it. What kind of jerk are you, that you’re determined to punish the father by depriving the team of its best answer at a key defensive position?

This whole subject makes my blood boil. Particularly when I’ve had so much personal experience of coaches who do not know their trade as well as they ought—turning weak hitters into weaker hitters, ruining young pitchers’ arms, shattering players’ confidence with sarcasm and contradictory instructions—I should think a little humility would be a requirement for the job. Instead, too many coaches seem determined to hide the limits of their competence behind a wall of intimidation. You do what they say, unquestioningly… or you die. You clean out your locker and disappear.

This kind of behavior is neither professional, nor morally responsible, nor functionally adult. It disgusts me. And that one should need a crash course to address figures within the professions because so many of them appear to behave in just this way is a black eye on the game of baseball.

baseball ethics, baseball history, Uncategorized

Bill Buckner, R.I.P.

Bill Buckner was a borderline Hall of Famer.  He collected over 2,700 hits in his career, which spanned a period of light hitting and low averages (if we factor out a few guys with names like Brett, Gwynn, and Madlock).  Thanks to knee problems, his chances of reaching the magical 3,000-hit mark, otherwise very good, were neutralized.  A batting champ in 1980 and twice a league-leader in doubles, he endured the somewhat seesaw vagaries in his stats that are typical of a man who perhaps presses too hard in an effort to carry a mediocre team on his shoulders.  Bill sometimes tried too hard.

As in the 1986 World Series.  His manager, John McNamara, ought to have removed him and opted for a first-baseman with two good knees (or even one) when the game went into extra innings.  Buckner insisted on staying in—and he was, after all, the Sox’ best hitter in most regards.  The drive he struck in his first at-bat that evening very nearly carried out of Shea.  Had it done so, everything about the game would have changed.

But the only game we can analyze is the one that took place… so let’s look at that one.  The Red Sox carried a 5-2 lead into the tenth.  Buckner’s error allowed the winning run to score.  Hmm.  So how did those other three get on the board?  I haven’t watched the tape for a few years, but I distinctly remember that several errors were made by people not named Bill Buckner.  Reliever Calvin Schiaraldi had a couple in there somewhere.  Other plays were less than inspiring.  I wondered that Jim Rice didn’t lay out for a foul ball that would have recorded a precious out in the tenth—the final out, as I recall.  I may be “Bucknering” Rice now; he couldn’t help it that he wasn’t Ken Griffey, Jr., or even Sandy Amoros.  But… if you’re not going to belly-flop into the stands making the last out out of the World Series, when are you ever going to do it?

Buckner would have done it, if he could.  For that matter, I don’t know that anyone—that Keith Hernandez—could have handled the wicked topspin hopper off the bat of Mookie Wilson.  After boring into the dirt around home plate, it blooped toward first… and then bolted away on impact like a squirrel who has decided to juke one way and take off another under your tires.  If Buckner had taken this steroidal screwball off his chest instead of letting it get past cleanly, the net result would have been no different.

And what was the result?  The home team won Game Six and evened the series.  If the play had been made somehow, then Boston bats in the top of the eleventh—with the winds of momentum sucked from its sails, no effective reliever left in the pen, and the home team awaiting another crack at the piñata.  Younger fans may think that the Series ended with the Bill Buckner miscue.  It didn’t.

In fact, Boston took a 3-0 lead in Game Seven before frittering that one away, too.  Why not portion out some blame to an exhausted and anemic relief corps?  Nope, that’s not the way baseball fandom writes its myths.  We need heroes and goats.  Bill Buckner has become Billy Goat for all baseball eternity.

I’m glad, in a way, that Buckner didn’t draw closer to 3,000 hits.  I’d hate to have seen him denied entry into the Hall for a small gaffe that occurred at the worst possible moment (or at what “fake history” has made the worst possible moment).  He was a damn good ballplayer… and a fine human being.  If we get to play ball in heaven, I hope he’s my first-baseman.