baseball history, mental approach, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Tinkering at the Edges Won’t Correct the Game’s “Speed” Problem

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I’m almost afraid to raise my voice in a peep, having heard both Trevor Bauer and Paul LoDuca taking Rob Manfred to the woodshed… and their venting was powerful.  In the matter of the Commissioner’s brutal chiropraxis on the ailing playoffs, the critics seem spot-on to me.  I’ve long ago aired my own plan for post-seasonal baseball: create a third league, so that you have the East Coast, the West Coast, and flyover America all covered; make all regular play intra-league and shorten the season (eleven teams playing sixteen—or even fifteen—games against each league rival); ditch the All Star Game for the Home Run Derby and other “fan favorites” (place-hitting contest?) to celebrate mid-season, which now has major significance (see following); have a season-ending championship round between first-half and second-half winners of all three leagues; then stage a tournament of five games between the surviving three teams, reverting to a double-elimination format if no clear victor emerges after the scuffle.

The World Series Tournament, by the way, could feature every game in a ballpark familiar to neither of the two participants. One of them, naturally, would be designated “home”; but the Yankees and the Dodgers would fight it out in Kansas City, while the Cubs and the Yanks would go to Seattle. This “Super Bowl” approach to venue would draw spectators to the event whose hometown clubs suffered disappointing seasons. It would also minimize the possibility of some extraordinary home-field advantage (such as doomed-stadium blowers that rev to full blast in the bottom of each inning) producing a warped outcome. Wouldn’t that all be cool?

Instead, we now have… I don’t know.  I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.  I don’t think Rob Manfred has, either.

But as far as other changes are concerned… the “face three hitters” rule for relief pitchers doesn’t bother me at all.  There’s nothing more tedious than watching Aaron Boone or Joe Madden come strolling back out to the mound with an arm in the air just after a new pitcher has induced a fly ball.  By the way, that particular alteration in the rules isn’t undermining the historical game, either.  On the contrary, the manager’s yoyoing between dugout and mound during the late innings is something you’d never have seen before about 2000, or even later.  It most emphatically does slow the game down; but more to the point, it creates a contest of technicians and specialists.  It drains versatility and individual heroics from the performance.

Was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell whom the Mets would alternately nudge off the mound into the outfield during big games, swapping one for the other as righty and lefty hitters stepped into the box?  I’m not talking about a formally “two-position player”, something also covered (rather needlessly, it seems) by this season’s rule changes; I mean literally putting your neck on the block, as manager, by allowing a pitcher to serve in left field or at first base during an at-bat, then switching him (no warm-up tosses allowed) with the hurler who just fanned Rusty.  That was fun to watch—and it was also always perfectly legal, though few skippers had the guts to try it.  The better bet is the pitcher who can frustrate hitters on both sides of the plate.

What really slows the game down, however, continues not to be addressed, or even (in most quarters) recognized.  Maybe it’s so obvious that we fail to see by looking too hard… or maybe the passage of time has produced a smokescreen.  My wife and I were both virtually put to sleep last week by watching a 2019 inter-league match-up between the Phillies and the Indians that should have been critical for both teams.  The Phils were fighting mathematical elimination, and the Indians began the day a half-game out of the second wildcard spot.  I wondered why the whole thing was so dull.  As an experiment, I dug out the first game of the 1975 Reds/Red Sox Series: Gullett vs. Tiant, hard-throwing lefty against Satchel Paige Redux.  Yeah, it was fun watching El Tiante’s gyrations and contortions… but a lot more was involved.  The tempo was entirely different.  Hitters stayed in the box, or stepped out just long enough to study the third-base coach.  Pitchers got their sign and went to work.  (Gullett actually balked at just about every delivery with runners on base, though it was Luis who was famously called for balking—by the other league’s umpire—during one whirlybird wind-up.)

Compared to those innings, the crucial Phillies/Indians contest was a sleeper.  Hitters seemed reluctant to step up and hit, pitchers to toe the rubber and throw.  Everyone was so touchy, so prissy.  “Wait, I have to redo the Velcro on my gloves.”  “Wait, I don’t think I want to repeat that pitch so soon.”  Damn, guys!  Just play the game!

As far as I know (though I haven’t seen confirmation), the rule requiring pitchers to discharge an offering within twenty seconds is now in full effect… but why do we need such regulations?  Why don’t players want to play—because it almost seems that they don’t.  Or, to say it better (because I know that’s not the explanation), they seem focused on an excessively narrow objective rather than on the composite endeavor.  You don’t need a perfect pitch: you just need a pitch that produces an out.  You don’t need a jack: you just need to put the ball in play somewhere.  Instead, due to what appears a kind of over-analysis or misplaced emphasis, pitchers end up surrendering huge tallies of walks on borderline calls, while hitters help them out with huge tallies of strikeouts on those same calls.  Of course, the umpire catches grief from one party or the other, every time.

I particularly noticed that batsmen, in the 2019 game, were swinging from the heels whenever they did decide to offer.  All or nothing, every cut.  Instead of Pete Rose setting up far back from the plate and trying to go the other way, Francisco Lindor was putting a sweet but vicious uppercut stroke on everything within his red zone.  I wonder… could the sheer vigor that goes into these all-out swings require more recovery time?  I’m sure the approach must induce more hitters to let more pitches go by—not because they’re balls, but because they’re not home-run suitable.  It appears to me, as well, that more pitches are fouled in such not-so-precise attacks… which, naturally, runs more time off the clock as a new ball is tossed to the mound and must undergo an introductory scrub.  And I can’t really blame pitchers for trying to hit an exact spot each time, since it’s clear that their adversary intends to punish any mistake to the maximum.

Are umpires, too, not placed more in the spotlight when so many pitches are taken and so much rides on the close call?  I know they don’t always get it right: I’m sitting before the tube fuming at them along with every other Braves fan when slow-mo replay proves that Nick Markakis got burned on something three inches off the plate.  (For some reason, that happens a lot to Nick.)  But Markakis is a superior two-strike hitter; like Pete Rose, he likes the opposite field.  For every one of him, there are twenty others whose afternoon will be ruined if they can’t browbeat the Man in the Iron Mask into relaxing his standards.

Bats are shorter by a good four or five inches than they typically were when I was growing up, and they also carry nothing above the trademark that stands a chance of fisting a pitch over the infield.  So the stubborn wait for a mistake-pitch right in the wheelhouse is understandable, I guess.  Sure, you could warn the managers as they bring out their line-ups that you’re not calling Velcro time-outs today; and if other umpires emulate you, and if the trend continues throughout the season, game times would unquestionably diminish.  But would “action” increase, when premier players are already trading forty home runs for a .228 average?

In my opinion, the dynamics of hitting have to change if the game is both to speed up and also recover its old excitement.  I don’t expect Nomar Mazara or Hunter Renfroe to start taking more concise swings and bid for a batting title… but why are Ozzie Albies and Rugned Odor trying to pump everything over the pull-side fence?  The game is slow because offense is two-dimensional.  Pitchers get hitters out because hitters have made themselves easy to get out.  Nobody has yet explained to my satisfaction how you get away with leaving a single infielder on one side of the diamond against hitter after Major League hitter and win games… yet such is our contemporary sport.

If batsmen occupying a few key slots in the line-up would adopt the approach that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess.com, you’d have a very different—and much more enjoyable—experience from your couch or seat in Row 15.

baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Trying Too Hard for Too Long: Baseball’s Peculiar Penalty

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I honestly don’t pay much attention to the Hall of Fame these days.  On the one hand, political concerns (and I mean “political” as in “woke”) are starting to play far too large a role in the unstated criteria for admission; and on the other, new and somewhat controversial metrics like WAR are beginning to nudge aside common sense as a robotic generation of nerds insists that everything can be reduced to numbers.

In my relative indifference, then, I’m afraid that the selection of Ted Simmons to Cooperstown this past fall blew past me like a quick-pitched fastball.  There I was, getting sucked into discussions about Larry Walker… and the committee finally did right by one of the most all-around productive players of the rather unglamorous Seventies and Eighties.  Maybe there’s some use to Wins Above Replacement, after all (or maybe not: Ted’s WAR is almost identical to Fred McGriff’s, who is supposed to be a mere also-ran).

I mean, a switch-hitting catcher who hits for both average and power… how much versatility can you ask for?  Of course, power stats in those lackluster years would soon be eclipsed by the emergence of Steroids Superstars.  In the long, dark shadow of the Nineties, nobody remembers slugger Steve Balboni, who topped 30 home runs only once in his career; and scarcely more fans will recall Tony Armas (Senior), who reached that plateau just three times.  Ted’s comparatively modest average of 15 homers over a span of 14 seasons might fly under the radar; but the decade-and-a-half figure is highly significant.  Balboni and Armas both did their damage over about half a decade… and I could mention, say, Jeff Burroughs or Reggie Smith, who had more protracted and successful careers, but who likewise didn’t regularly log seasonal home runs in the thirties.

Ted’s 2,472 hits especially catch the eye.  His .285 career batting average matches Yogi’s—but Berra, surprisingly, had over 300 fewer safeties.  Johnny Bench is over a hundred behind Yogi, and his average trails that of the other two by almost twenty points.  Now, Johnny fought hard and bravely against injuries and ill health.  He was also the premier defensive catcher of his generation.  Yet there’s something—indeed, much—to be said for durability, particularly at the backstop position.  Ted had that in spades.

I’m sure that the sabermetricians are aware of such intangibles, and also of the relevance of “the times”… but the essence of such things is that you can’t really quantify them.  I respect anyone who tries, up to a point.  I may begin to grow a little disgusted, though, when Dexter Sliderule forgets that he’s only approximating, and shifts into a more insistent mode.  The numbers are helpful.  They’re indispensable, even.  Yet they cannot be considered as the first and last word, with nothing in between.

I’ll devote the final half of today’s ramble to a thought that first struck me when I was viewing the career of Sam Rice.  The lifetime .322 hitter accumulated 2,987 career hits—yes, a puny thirteen shy of 3.000.  Any fan of today would wonder immediately why Rice didn’t polish off such a superhuman accomplishment.  Did he lose his eyesight?  Was his hand destroyed in an off-season accident?  Nothing so dramatic: he simply hadn’t realized that he was within a sneeze of turning over the “thousands” counter!

Now consider how many later players (Sam hung it up in 1934) desperately plod along just to reach some magic number that almost assures admission to the corridors of Mount Olympus: 400 homers (now 500), 3,000 hits or strikeouts, 300 wins.  Because these somewhat arbitrary figures came to achieve canonical status as the game aged, chasing after one of them often grew to be the obsession of the individual player and—with all the publicizing made possible by television—the prime marketing strategy of many a franchise.

The obsession can be fatal.  In wasn’t to Pete Rose: he found other ways to shoot himself in the foot.  But his career average very nearly dipped under .300 (.303) as he stumbled after Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.  During his final seven seasons on the active roster, Pete topped .300 only once (and .271 only once more).  His official at-bats over that period ranged between a part-time 365 and a nearly invisible 26.  Anything to get Number 4,190!

Craig Biggio at least registered full seasons right to the end, with his seasonal batting average dipping below .250 just once (by four points).  Why the HOF electors treated him like a pathetic nag toppling over the 3,000-hit finish line on three legs, I’ll never understand.

I mentioned Fred McGriff parenthetically above.  Having come short of 500 home runs by a paltry seven, Fred perhaps damaged more than helped his case by hanging around for a final 410 AB’s only to grind out fifteen more dingers.  His average over this span dipped well under the .250 mediocrity mark.

Duke Snider, likewise, may have rubbed more luster off his career than he added by hanging around long enough to tally 407 round-trippers.  Very similar to McGriff, Duke had a bit over 500 AB’s in his final two seasons, hitting well under .250 during the span.  The trade-off was an additional 18 homers.

You could say that Snider at least found his happy ending (though he had to wait sixteen years for the Sportswriters’ approval).  His teammate Gil Hodges suffered what has been the fate—so far—of Fred McGriff.  The cornerstone of the champion Brooklyn Dodgers’ defense, said to have the surest hands of any first-sacker in his generation, Gil sadly ran out of offensive gas in his bid to reach 400 home runs.  Hodges was already at 298 after his first ten full years of service.  You had to figure that he could round up another 102 within three of four years… certainly within five.  But the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA at just that point, and the shift to a track-and-field stadium ridiculously rehabilitated as a baseball quasi-diamond favored neither his style nor Snider’s.  Gil’s offensive totals plunged across the board; he eked out a mere 25 home runs over his last four seasons—which, to be sure, represented scarcely over 500 AB’s.  Two of these seasons saw Hodges returning to New York (again, like Snider) on the expansion-formed Mets in a clever marketing scheme to capture some of the old Ebbets Field enthusiasm.  Like Jackie Robinson, Gil should probably have said “no” to the original West Coast move; he should certainly have declined to be humiliated over those final four seasons (during one of which—1960—he batted .198).

What shall we say, then, of players who were perennial All Stars for a decade, had probably stacked enough lumber over that period to achieve serious consideration for Cooperstown… and then stayed year after frustrating year trying to seal the deal?  Albert Pujols won’t damage his legacy, or even his first-round election… but he should have retired two or three years ago.  Barry Bonds would not be cooling his heels in Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Limbo if he hadn’t allowed majestic numbers to woo him beyond the parameters set by Mother Nature.

Numbers.  They’re too much in our heads, with too little context.  WAR is apparently an attempt to supply context and to substitute a more legitimate number. How, though, do you factor in an allowance for a player who would have been among your elite few if you hadn’t distracted him with other magical numbers?

baseball history, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized

Switch-Hitting and Small Ball: Not an Obvious Pairing

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George Davis, Hall of Famer: formally inducted in 1998, almost a century to the year after his retirement.  As someone wrote lately, the best ballplayer you’ve never heard of.  Okay, I admit that I’d never heard of him, either, before delving into the history of switch-hitting.  George was that rarest of animals, a “bats both” from the nineteenth century.  During the Deadball Era and in the years preceding it, such artists were probably less common than cross-wristed hitters like Dave Bancroft.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  Power-hitting as we know it didn’t exist, so one of the two great motive forces for switch-hitting wasn’t in play.  We think readily of sluggers like Mantle, Murray, Reggie Smith… and more recently, Mark Texeira, Chipper Jones, and Lance Berkman.  They didn’t have to worry about the breaking ball dipping under and away from their bat: they could enter the box with the intent of pulling almost everything.

Slightly less glorified as superheroes, on-base machines like Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith, and the almost-immortal Pete Rose are a bit more of an enigma.  Primarily concerned with contact than power, they hit the ball where it was pitched and—like their mightier brethren—were difficult to neutralize with the slider.  A few batsmen of this category (and I don’t know the story of the three just named) seem to have taken up switching because their career from the right side was going absolutely nowhere.  Maury Wills springs to mind.  I half-believe that Nellie Fox may have adapted to batting south so well that he simply gave up on the right side; I’ve seen him listed both as a lefty hitter and a switcher.

As I say, though, the earliest switch-hitters were certainly not trying to compete with Babe Ruth.  Before stumbling upon Davis (and it took me some stumbling: try Googling “first switch-hitter in MLB” and notice how evasive the search engine becomes), I couldn’t dredge up anyone from my memory earlier than Max Carey and, a bit later, Frankie Frisch.  Now, these two logged plenty of extra-base hits… but that’s what you would expect of any speedy hitter before World War II, when ballparks often had very generous alleys.  Most skilled practitioners of the batsman’s craft would bat left exclusively for the benefit of the step or two they would gain toward first base.  Perhaps Carey and Frisch flat-out couldn’t hit the pitch that broke away from them.  I’m sure neither was trying to be Mark Texeira and ding the foul pole every time they possibly could.

Cobb, Speaker, Collins… all righties who batted left.  (Yes, Speaker: he grew up throwing left only because of a badly broken right arm during his formative years.)  I doubt that the typical big-league striker of the Deadball Era—and these three were far beyond typical—would have objected either to being clipped by a tight pitch or to dribbling it the other way and racing the third baseman’s throw.  Hence the extreme rarity of the switch-hitter in the game’s distant past.

George Davis, then, presents an oddity, to say the least.  At five-foot-nine, he profiles as the kind of batsman we like to study at SmallBallSuccess.com; and yet, his true utility for the New York Giants appears to have been as an RBI-producer.  His homers are pretty impressive for the 1890’s: seven seasons in double digits from 1891 to 1904.  At the same time, however, his seasonal tally of two-baggers (usually in the mid-twenties) stacks up to about half of Speaker’s monumental totals, and his triples are also fairly mediocre for a star batsman of the time.  With 2665 hits in 9045 at-bats, then, George presumably legged out plenty of singles.  So the mystery remains: was he switching to magnify his pull-power or just to put the ball in play more often?

After I made a rather hasty video about switch-hitting last weekend (hasty because our Georgia weather keeps turning on a dime), I confronted the necessity of having to re-do it.  The result wasn’t all that bad… but why would a site post it that claimed to specialize in the Deadball Era?  Or if the point was precisely that batsmen of the glorious past were almost never switchers, then why hadn’t the video explained the crucial ground of distinction?  What exactly was I trying to accomplish for my viewers in those ten minutes?

What, indeed?  The claim I made repeatedly before the camera was that young switch-hitters should stop trying to mirror the stroke from their natural side in the side they’re trying to learn.  Almost nobody on earth is truly, fully ambidextrous.  That failing, you have one hand which is stronger and “smarter” than the other; and when the dominant hand is driving the bat like a piston, it has an effect very different from when it’s steering the bat down near the knob.  Allowances must be made for shifting points of emphatic power or precision.

Except that they don’t—or not nearly so much—when you’re simply hurling the barrel down into the zone from high above your rear shoulder.  What the Deadball approach teaches us, then, is transmitted through its active enlistment of feet, knees, hips, core muscles, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers… everything in the body is so ingeniously, harmoniously integrated into the Old School stroke that you’re much more apt to notice a cog along the edges getting out of sync.  I genuinely believe this.  I believe, in other words, that our contemporary passion for hurling blunt force at the pitch permits us to ignore a lot of energy leaking out along the way.  If you have a ten-ton tractor to do a job, you don’t care that it belches fumes and spins its treads before the burden attached to it gives way.  But if you have ten men with crowbars trying to budge the same mass, you can’t afford to waste a drop of sweat in the process.  Deadball hitting is the precision attack of a samurai, not the screaming onslaught of a claymore-wielding Rob Roy.  (Pardon the analogy’s inaccuracies: yesteryear’s bat, of course, was actually much more like a claymore—so the lighter, smaller player had to be especially clever about how to exploit the weapon’s imposing mass.)

When I take my favorite Deadball swing from the left side and try to replicate it from the right, I discover that major adjustments are necessary to stay somewhere close to the same paradigm.  That’s what I’ll stress when I remake the video—because I do like switch-hitting, at least when it’s done with a Cobb/Collins, “get on base” mentality.  It has to tie into an approach, a mental projection of the at-bat (and my earlier version just couldn’t have been squeezed under the “approach” rubric on our website).  The switch-hitter should be thinking “opposite field” most of the time, for it’s much easier to stay inside a pitch breaking into you (I find) than it is to be productively late on a pitch that breaks away and just keeps breaking and breaking.  In the latter case, you can outsmart yourself, chasing something far off the plate that—you thought—was right between your crosshairs.

Is this how George Davis hit?  I’ve no idea.  What about the ill-starred Pete Reeser, who couldn’t keep himself form colliding with the concrete walls of Ebbets Field?  I rather doubt it: subtlety wasn’t Pistol Pete’s game.  But I wish it could be more of our present game.  Among other things, standing off the plate to put a late swing on a pitch greatly diminishes the young hitter’s chances of getting hit by today’s flame-throwers who are trying to light up the scout’s JUGS gun.  Not having to guard against the fade-away allows you to frustrate the hurler’s plans more effectively without letting his homicidal wildness bully its way into the back of your mind.  That’s a winning strategy for a five-foot-niner.

Anyway… congratulations, George.  Very, very belated congratulations.

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

Why the Super Bowl Makes Me Love Baseball

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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

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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.