baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, off-season preparation

The Kinetic Loop

I have advocated baseball as a way to stay sane during these times of lockdown and paranoia—not that you can run out and watch a game, let alone play one; but our enforced confinement is a good opportunity to consider little tweaks that we can play with in the back yard or the batting cage.

I’m also finding a very personal kind of support in my baseball research.  I didn’t have an encouraging report last week about the status of my prostate cancer, although the evidence seems to me to point at least as clearly in the direction of a certain hormone-suppressing drug as in that of cancer-compromised bones.  Earlier this year, I came to know the pain of bones under attack, while muscle strain and I have been close acquaintances throughout my life.  What’s torturing me right now is torn, bleeding muscle—the pain of muscles not allowed to heal.  Baseball distracts me from that misery better than anything else.  I only regret that I’ve had to suspend the creation of new instructional videos on YouTube.  I just can’t make any moves at the moment, no matter how trivial, without suffering the consequences later that evening.

Fun Fact: did you know that medical error (as in prescribing the wrong dose of Firmagon, in my case) is the Number Three cause of fatalities in the US of A?

Well, amigos, I can’t promise to doctor your hitting any better than my disease has lately been doctored.  But I do listen to my own body, I do question even “expert advice” when it doesn’t tally with what my muscles and nerves are telling me… and I bring the same respectful skepticism to the “science of hitting”, as taught by professional coaches.

Most coaches will tell you not to hitch, for instance.  Ted Williams explained very logically in a 1966 video that hitching puts unnecessary motion into your swing and costs you valuable time.  A couple of kind souls who’ve seen my own videos about hitching and been moved to make comments have observed that the Thumper was among those immortals of the game visibly employing a hand-pump in his load: nothing so dramatic as Mel Ott’s hitch, or even Jimmie Foxx’s… but a kind of hitch, nonetheless.  Williams would set up with his hands about as high as his armpit, sure enough… but then he’d drop them as he coiled and allow them to ride back up as he strode into the pitch.  One has to suppose that he didn’t know he was doing this, or he wouldn’t have warned against it!  There wasn’t a lot of film-watching in the mid-Sixties as a means of self-analysis.

The hitch is one example of what I call a kinetic loop in my book, Metal Ropes.  What I mean by that is this.  You don’t make a dynamic movement by starting cold.  You don’t throw a punch from a position where your hands are dead-still in mid-air.  You don’t kick a soccer ball without pulling your leg back, and you don’t throw a football without pulling your arm back.  What you’re doing in all such cases is setting energy in motion through a kind of loop that can be very suddenly exited when the instant for the forward attack is ripe.

Now, Teddy Ballgame may have figured that going straight from dead-still to locus-of-contact was the shortest distance between two points; as I’ve admitted, there’s a kind of logic to the thesis.  But the only hitter I can recall swinging in that manner as I grew up was Roger Maris.  With hands poised high above the rear shoulder, Roger simply lowered the boom on incoming pitches, finishing with just his bottom hand still on the handle.  In many ways, he anticipated strokes of the Nineties and early Two-Thousands: say, those of Juan Gonzalez and Albert Pujols.  Roger was one of my boyhood heroes (and remains for me a kind of moral hero for all the abuse he endured from fans, press, and ownership).  Yet he didn’t have much in the way of a kinetic loop: he was a dive-bomber who could pull pitches over the fence or dribble them to the right side when he arrived too early.  He couldn’t keep his power on tap for just the correct millisecond: he was a constant guesser.  His batting average topped .280—barely—in just two seasons, and the career figure was .260.

Now, Roger’s teammate Mickey Mantle, whose swing generally possessed a lot more swoosh and was capable of generating lofty strikeout totals, nevertheless logged much higher averages, as well.  Mick had more loops.  During his load, he dipped his hands (in Williams fashion) near to his recoiling knee.  Then he unreeled a healthy stride as the hands rode up and inclined the barrel toward the plate just before whiplashing it through the zone.  Too much excess motion, the nagging coach would protest… but would you really prefer to have Maris on your team over Mantle?  Somehow, Mick was able to pour all that rocking and rolling into the pitch with impressive regularity.

I submit that kinetic looping, when done properly, not only doesn’t sabotage timely contact with “hot-dogging”, but that it actually makes contact more powerful by drawing upon energy already set in motion.  And since the bat head is already dipping, circling, or weaving, its accelerated launch at the ball can be withheld for a split second, giving the hitter the immense luxury of locating his target a little more precisely.

To be sure, a loop can get out of hand and pose significant problems to timing.  That’s why, as a kid trying to graduate from sandlot ball to high-school hard ball, I felt obliged to ditch my dazzling Mickey Mantle stroke for a no-nonsense Roger Maris stroke.  By that point, we youngsters were getting a lot of our practice off of pitching machines.  (I find In Peter Morris’s Game of Inches that the first mass-marketed pitching machine was patented in 1956 by a fireman named Wilson.)  Such machines will make a Maris-like “see-react” kind of hitter out of anyone.  When you have no practice synchronizing your load to human motions on the mound, your coil or kick or hitch—the whole bag of tricks—will just make you eternally late on everything.  I noticed recently that the coaching establishment has apparently convinced Orlando Arcia to discontinue his José Cruz-like leg lift of a few years back.  Joe Garagiola once remarked of José Canseco’s pump that, when you hit forty home runs, they start calling your hitch a “timing mechanism”.

I don’t particularly like that characterization of the kinetic loop, all joking aside.  You’re not lifting your knee and/or rolling your hands to enhance your chances of meeting the pitch head-on: you’re setting things in motion so as to get the power flowing—and then timing is addressed by your being able to exit the loop immediately.  If that exit proves too challenging, then you may need to develop a bigger loop rather than jettisoning any hint of a loop.  That is, you may need to create a circling pattern where you feel sufficiently comfortable to spill into a linear attack at any stage of the circuit rather than one which forces you to attack at Turn X whether or not the ball’s there yet.  The most explosive hitters of the recent past, though not so recent that evidence of the loop has vanished—guys like Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, and Ruben Sierra—were “loosey-goosey”.  Their amazing quickness to the ball wasn’t magically achieved in spite of a lot of hand and leg motion, but because of it.  And if such players tend to hail from the inner cities or the backwoods or a Caribbean island… well, couldn’t that be because they learned the game without being tormented by pitching machines?

Try developing kinetic loops that work for you during this prolonged winter.  Relax, have some fun… and then get serious about the lessons your fun is teaching you.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Staying Back

In everything I’ve been writing about baseball for years, I’ve dealt very dismissively with the eternal coach’s admonition, “Stay back!”  When you don’t stay back as a hitter, supposedly, all of the power you’ve released into the pitch cycles through before contact is made.  You have only your hands left to swipe at the ball—and, more often than not, you have only one hand left, because the handle slips away from the top hand.  The feet are so flat beneath you that you rock awkwardly after the barrel makes its pass, perhaps almost falling on your face.  You let everything go too soon: you didn’t stay back.

Of course, the above is a picture of someone who’s been badly fooled by a change-up.  You can have “stay back” problems even on a fastball.  That may well be, indeed, how most young hitters make the acquaintance of the problem.  Fastballs keep beating them, and so they fall into the habit of waiting for nothing—of being early on everything.  Then the finish that’s produced is less often the one-handed flail than a two-handed rip at empty space: great launch angle, feet and hips and core and hands all working in sync… just no ball anywhere near the point of rendezvous.  Additional recommendations such as, “Wait on it,” or, “See it,” are apt to come floating down from the third-base coaching box.

I’m not dismissing the notion that these are real events in a hitter’s life with really unpleasant consequences for him.  No, the reason I’ve been perhaps a little too sweeping in my disparagement of the advice is because it is usually offered in such a sweeping manner, to begin with.  Staying back isn’t always good.  For a front-foot hitter, especially, the idea of keeping your weight transfer from shifting fully forward undermines everything you’re trying to do; and as proponents of a Deadball hitting style, we at SmallBallSuccess.com are big fans of front-foot hitting.  I’ll give you a quick summation of why this is so, and then return to the discussion’s mainstream.

Our species of batsman wants to hit low line drives.  To stroke the line drive, he needs to contact the ball squarely in the center but at a slightly downward angle—downward because he wants a bit of backspin on the ball to carry it beyond the infield.  His hands lead the barrel into the ball, with the barrel trailing so far behind that it often “pushes” the pitch to the opposite field.  Oppo-hitting is actually a secondary objective, because the hitter can wait longer when targeting the off-field and also stand a better chance of spraying the ball around when he slightly misjudges pitches.  So far, so good.

Now, we want the bottom half of the body to allow the hands as long a transit straight into the pitch as possible.  If the front hit is flipping out in classic Ted Williams fashion, then the weight shift is thrust back by the planted leg and the barrel transits up and out of the zone very quickly.  This is just what the Thumper wanted, of course: an uppercut (or launch-angle) swing.  Not only is it difficult to keep the barrel traveling down through the ball for very long with this method, however: the barrel is also diving down and then quickly riding aloft as it pursues the rotation of the hips.  It’s apt, that is, to undercut a pitch that arrives too soon or to topspin a pitch that it beats to the plate.  In this latter case, you could nag the hitter, “Now, Johnny, you need to stay back better”… but just be aware that you’re requiring Johnny to time his swing with absolute perfection if the barrel is to enter the ball’s heart in a fairly level plane.  Your advice isn’t of much more use than saying, “Now, Johnny, you’re not being perfect.”

When a Honus Wagner or Napoleon Lajoie would leave his back foot to reach a pitch, or when a Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker would catch his full shift on a bent forward knee, the descending hands were allowed to carry down along the same plane for perhaps four or five feet through the pitch’s plane.  Williams et al. would indeed use this propensity as the basis of their deriding the Old School method, claiming that there’s only a single point of possible contact if the barrel’s plane descends into the pitch’s reversely descending plane—whereas, with the patented lean-back-and-hack uppercut swing, the barrel would be traveling in the pitch’s plane over a long span.  Sorry, Teddy: this just ain’t so.  The rotational, hip-throwing stroke (as has been explained) is in fact drawing the barrel into and out of the pitch plane very quickly.  The barrel that steadily, lengthily descends at a mild angle, in contrast, may come too late and push the ball rather weakly off the hitter’s shoulder; or it may come too early and catch a breaking pitch on its dive.  Either way, it tends to score some contact.  Especially in the latter case, when contact comes early and the batsman is almost one-handing the ball, the barrel can continue powerfully into the collision.  The forward weight transfer allows it to ride momentum almost into the ground: it’s not fighting to get to the ball against an outward-flung hip.

So… does all this mean that, at SmallBallSuccess.com, we just don’t worry about staying back?  No—and the times when I have appeared to sound that note have been over-reactive.  A front-foot hitter wants his hands to follow his foot-plant very closely into the pitch: none of that “Get the front foot down early!” blather for him!  (Got you again, third-base coach.)  If he doesn’t trust his load to pour his weight shift into the pitch at just the right instant, then his misses will profile with the same ugly qualities that I sketched when I opened this article.  He has to develop what we call in Metal Ropes a “kinetic loop”: that is, a roll of the hands (sometimes invidiously called a “hitch”) or a loosey-goosey leg lift (not a spectacularly high kick, please!) that lets his mobilized energy cycle in waiting until the precise instant for attack.

Today’s hitters have few, if any, kinetic loops.  Hitting instructors convince them that any such lollypopping in the load can only throw off timing… whereas the truth is that, done properly, a well-practiced loop allows timing to be micro-adjusted to perfection.  Try going from zero to 90 with your hands tightly gripping the stick over your head… and then try accelerating the barrel with loose fingers and limber wrists as your hands and forward leg describe a faint loop that can be channeled into a line instantly.  There’s no question which is faster.

Maybe I can discuss the kinetic loop further at another time.  I apologize, by the way, for being so stinting with YouTube demonstrations lately.  I’ve only just discovered that consistent overdosing on one of my medicines—consistent as in “for the past half year”—has been sabotaging the healthy recovery of my muscles after any sort of vigorous workout.  What a year it’s been… God, please see me through the last month of it!

arm health, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching

More on Yesteryear’s Pitching: The Lower Arm Angle

At the moment, I can neither throw a ball nor swing a bat a full speed without risking re-aggravation of strained ligaments.  It’s frustrating, because I have a lot of experimental craft on the runway that I’d like to give a trial flight.  My problems began when I hit the weights too hard after returning from five weeks of very successful cancer therapy.  That pulled something in my right arm.  I wanted to do a pitching video, so… well, I decided simply to throw lefty and thereby put my ideas to a even better test (since natural coordination wouldn’t be able to come to the aid of bad theory).  The only trouble there was that the test involved throwing the stride-leg powerfully open while having the lead arm trail it a bit: the “stretch the rubber band” dynamic.  I appear to have stretched a rubber band high up in my right thigh rather too vigorously.

Some of you will recall reading about Dizzy Dean’s ill-advised effort to return too soon after the 1937 All Star Game where Earl Averill smacked his toe with a line drive.  Through favoring the sore foot, Diz placed inordinate strain on his throwing shoulder… and one of the great pitching careers of the pre-war generation came to an abrupt end.  We should all be mindful of that cautionary tale.  It happens over and over in the baseball world.  Injuries just pile up like cars in a train wreck because of trying to work around the initial tweak.

It’s probably just as well that I discuss pitching indoors now when I make videos.  My demonstrations on the subject aren’t particularly dazzling, anyway.  I did an indoor shoot this past weekend (well, it was actually filmed out in my driveway) which pursued further the topic of the low overhand angle.  As I try to apply to pitching the techniques I used in earlier years to research hitting (digging up old newsreels, isolating clues in old photos, etc.), I find myself more and more convinced that, before World War II, throwing from a low angle—almost sidearm—was the norm.  Commentators of yesteryear often don’t remark upon the degree of that angle.  Overhand is overhand.  Because the almost-sidearm slot was so common, in any case, I doubt that many who observed it would have considered it worthy of note.

Excuse me if the rest of this column repeats in places my comments of two weeks ago. The repetition isn’t intentional. I think I’m going a little loony in my confined-to-quarters state (which compounds our whole nation’s confined-to-quarters state, of course). I believe a good bit of new also nestles in the old. Eventually, I’d like to work this research into a book.

Here are some names you didn’t see before: Robin Roberts, Johnny Sain, Preacher Roe, Eddie, Lopat, Max Lanier… those are a few exemplars of the style whom I’ve identified from film footage taken after the war.  Even in still shots, such as those taken for baseball cards, I can amass reasonably reliable evidence by keying on four giveaways corresponding to the pitcher’s four limbs: 1) his front leg strides out to the side rather than straight toward home plate; 2) his trailing front arm also flops out to the side rather than folding into its driving shoulder; 3) his throwing arm obviously comes through at a low angle; and 4) his rear foot may be left dangling in the air and somewhat to the side rather than dragging the mound’s dirt, this because so much momentum is carrying him off to the opposite side.

Now, Items 1 and 2 above get almost universally flagged by today’s pitching coaches as bad form.  I agree, by the way, that stepping to the side can be bad news.  It can cause the pitcher to arch his back and follow through with over-emphasis on his throwing shoulder (and, yes, I discussed that extensively in the earlier post).  You might say that, in siphoning his thrust away from the plate, the hurler has to make up for that lost energy from the back side.  Eventually, this can lead to career-ending damage of the rotator cuff.  No, not good.

But… but if the front arm trails the striding leg in a low, broad sweep (i.e., what I was trying to do from the left side when I strained a ligament somewhere in my thigh), it keeps the head down.  With that arm extended and low, the back cannot arch; and with that arm continuing sidewise in a sweep, the energy flow is held in a channel that runs somewhat skewed to the rubber-to-plate line.  Everything is working together now: all movement is traveling roughly in the same plane.  You’re not drawing and quartering yourself as this leg goes here and that arm goes there.

I’m pretty sure I wrote all that two weeks ago, as well. What I didn’t add is that my infamous “lefty” video is a negative proof of the “dynamic front arm” theory. My left arm, in attempting to throw from a low angle, never got down nearly far enough: my limbs didn’t reach the same plane.  From one perspective, this could account for my injury. I believe the right arm—the front one—was straining both to resist the opening leg for a split second and to pull the pitching arm down into its path. The rubber band probably would have worked fine if I’d stretched it along a true line… but I wrapped its middle around a nail and then had the far end straining upward as well as backward. Ouch! That hurts just to put into words!

Granted, you would tap more energy if you pointed your plane of movement directly at the plate.  This is what our speed-adoring contemporary coaches emphasize to their pupils.  Yet what if your body type just doesn’t have the slender, svelte, supple cut that allows it to “drive through a tunnel” at the target?  What if you’re wide in the hips and shoulders, as a lot of shorter people are?  Might your maximum of energy not be tapped in a more sidewise motion that utilizes your powerful core muscles?  Even if the straight-to-the-plate delivery shows up on the drawing board as more dynamic, another delivery may best harness the horses that happen to be in your personal stable.  Those horses can pull you to pieces, yes, if you ignore physics… but your own physical profile profile needs to be a factor in the formula.

Ah, but then there’s the question of accuracy, protests today’s coach.  It’s much harder to hit a target falling off to the side than striding straight toward the bull’s eye.  I’ve heard this explained as a physical certainty: i.e., that a sidestepping delivery cannot possibly steer balls through the strike zone with consistency.  Yet I find it no less improbable, considered abstractly, that a human arm—which is built to rotate at the shoulder’s side rather than directly over it—should be able to guide the ball exactly where the foot steps.  Face it: hitting the target from any angle requires practice.

And the low-overhand or sidearm angle has this benefit not to be found in “high noon” deliveries: its pitches show prominent east/west as well as north-south motion.  That’s precisely why accuracy can be a problem—but lively movement along two axes can also be a huge advantage.  It’s something more for the hitter to worry about.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say (and I say this from my much broader experience as a hitter) that, if a little velocity has to be traded for livelier movement, then the trade is well worthwhile.  Good hitters will eventually time the best fastball in the world, and sooner rather than later.  It’s the pitch that darts around in two planes which gives them fits.

I know I mentioned before that, because of my personal body type, I was always a natural sidewinder.  So was my son. By the way (warning: “proud papa” moment)… you can see this diminutive submarine slinger finishing off a D-2 rival here if you run the clock up to about 3:30 (that is, three hours and thirty minutes).  The bases are loaded with only one out.  I have a hard time imagining that a flame-throwing reliever could have handled the two bruisers at the plate as well in that situation.  They’re so cranked up to attack the next pitch that they’ve practically unbuttoned their jerseys.  Do you really want to try to beat those fellows with your best fastball as the game teeters on the line… or would you rather let them get themselves out trying to swat a moth?

I would add to this example of practical success the comment that, in a decade of throwing from down under, Owen never had significant arm trouble.  Neither have I, as a sexagenarian messing around with low angles.  Muscle tears, yes, and even ligament damage from the left side… but never in the arm.  As often as people ask me, “But doesn’t that hurt your arm?”, I can only answer, “Not if you do it right.  If you get your whole body in sync, it’s probably much safer than throwing high-overhand.”

When you take stock of how many guys used to pile up innings from the nine-thirty angle and then look at how many elite pitchers are breaking down today, you have to wonder if the lower angle isn’t actually more healthy.  Once again, apologies for recycling the point… but let me add a brilliant example I didn’t use before. Robin Roberts was often given just two or three days rest and almost never relieved: he logged over 300 innings from 1951 through 1955, leading his league in that category every year.  Eventually, later in the decade, something popped in his shoulder (as he reveals in his autobiography), and he had to learn how to retire hitters with pure control and guile.  What sabotaged his arm’s health, however, was the idiotic abuse of his talents so prevalent among managers of the time, and not the angle of his delivery.

As I stress in my videos on this subject, not all of yesteryear’s low-angle pitchers were short… far from it.  Roberts was a six-footer. Even in the Teens of the previous century, a pitcher under six feet in height was fairly rare.  But if you’re short by today’s standards yet are determined to pitch, a lower angle may be your ticket to making the team.  Tall, lanky guys like to drop down, too (look no farther than Randy Johnson).  That’s why I’d suggest the opening of the front leg, which can transfer stress to places where you’re built to bear it—in your broad, powerful core—if you you do it right.  I’m not talking about slinging pitches over your body from the on-deck circle with your Kraken-like reach: I’m talking about being compact and synchronized.  Learn to harmonize everything, and you will both pick hitters apart at the plate and keep your health for decades to come.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Hall of Fame, pitching, Uncategorized

R.I.P., Tom Seaver: Here’s Hoping Your Departure Doesn’t Become a Political Ad

I just happened to be running a disk of the 1969 World Series’ Game Four this past week as I did my twenty-minute sauna sessions.  That’s the match that Tom Seavers’ Mets won against Mike “Crazy Horse” Cuellar’s Orioles (love the nickname!) in the bottom of the tenth.  Like so many others, I was shocked to hear of Tom Terrific’s death at age 75.  No accident involved: the culprit was Lewy Body Dementia complicated by COVID-19.  Also like most people, I had never heard of Lewy Dementia… who’s Lewy?  (My know-it-all iPad keeps trying to correct the word to “Levy”.)  The disease seems to be very closely related to Parkinson’s, so Tom wasn’t facing any Double A call-up with a .198 average.  Looking at him and Gil Hodges conferring on the mound in the ninth of that great game, I had the strangest of feelings.  One of these great men would be dead in less than half a year of the original filming; the other had passed on as I watched 20-minute segments of the game’s video during the week.

Now, I’ve tuned out the mainstream media to the extent that I can.  The sewage leaks into MLB broadcasts, especially ESPN’s, so I couldn’t insulate myself hermetically.  But having acknowledged the extreme circumscription of my exposure, I have to say that the media hacks appear to show—so far—a laudable reluctance to play Tom Seavers’ end into some idiot cautionary tale about the gravity of “the pandemic”.  The CDC admitted (also just this past week, I believe) that only about 6 percent of COVID deaths are caused by rather than accompanied by the disease: in other words, that in almost every instance, reduced resistance because of a grave previous condition allows the virus to nip in opportunistically and contribute to the body’s decline.  Tom was among the 94 percent.  He doesn’t deserve to be gathered up in the political haymaking as another talking point.

A few very recognizable names in baseball have spoken out against measures taken against COVID that have not only mutilated the Major League’s regular season, annihilated minor league and college/high school seasons, banned the spectator experience, and made mere practice problematic, but have also delayed critical diagnoses (like that of my prostate cancer) and plunged thousands of young people into suicidal depression (as in the case of someone very close to me who fortunately sought help).  In fact, it’s been sensibly estimated that over 40,000 more Americans have died of the lockdown’s collateral damage than have died of the disease.  If COVID is a killer, then our governmental policies to protect us from it have become a mass-murderer.

Aubrey Huff, I noticed, made a public protest… and then disappeared from social media.  Curt Schilling is far more difficult to airbrush from the public arena.  In a tweet I read this past Sunday morning, the Schillster wryly asks, “Over 11,000 college students have tested positive, 0 hospitalizations. Why is the nation shut down again?“  I know that a lot of active players have to share such sentiments.  You can almost guess who they are when the camera pans through the dugout: coaches masked up to the eyebrows, a few players following their lead (has Didi Gregorius even left enough room for his eyes?)… and then several guys just hanging out as they normally would.

Something in me (maybe the part that recalls having to rush to Mexico to get cancer treatment) becomes a little steamed when I see an outfielder kicking daisies in a mask or a baserunner taking his lead in a mask.  I’m not going to recycle Clint Eastwood’s comments… but I do have to wonder: if this bunch is so socially conscious that they can’t stand for the anthem, then where’s their protest against the skyrocketing suicide rate of 18-to-25-year-olds of all races and creeds?  Do they realize that they are actually collaborators in this holocaust?

Then I simmer down, and I begin to see the situation from their point of view.  Here are some of the factors that must make it tough to cry foul on the lockdown while wearing a Major League uniform:

1)      Many big-leaguers are still little more than kids.  Those who hail from the Dominican or Venezuela probably don’t know a bacterium from a backstop.  The state-run media (well, they are state-run in other countries, and the mainstream media here certainly have political objectives) tell them that the Plague is loose.  How are they to know any different?  They do as they’re instructed by their coaches and elders, and what they understand of the broader cultural envelope confirms the alarm.

2)      Our American boys, who must have absorbed at least a smattering of science from their D-1 schools—or even their JUCO vehicles to success—could stand to be more skeptical… but some of them have young children at home.  I don’t really blame Mike Trout for hesitating to play.  My own brother has two degrees in Biology, yet he believes everything he hears on CNN and NPR.  Juveniles, including and especially infants, are virtually impervious to the virus (thank God)… but if you’re a young father and you can strain no consistent message from the warring volleys that reach you through Twitter and FOX, wouldn’t you want to err on the side of caution?  If you end up making a bad call, make it where your bambinos come out safe and sound and the cost of your folly tallies in mere lost dollars and unadvancing stats.  Yes, I get that.

3)      Nobody wants to be the guy who costs his team the pennant.  Just think of it.  You spoke out against the lockdown… and then you test positive.  By the way, tests show a high rate of false positives: as much as 90 percent of positive tests may be in error (according to the New York Times, no less).  But that won’t matter: the tag will already be hanging around your neck.  You’re a “COVID-denier”.  ESPN’s gaggle of gossips will assist at your crucifixion if more members of the team turn up positive and active play is suspended for a week or so.  Momentum is gone; the season’s ruined.  And it was probably because Phil Robertson over there couldn’t process Anthony Fauci’s decrees.  Something like this (I confess I haven’t excavated the whole saga) seems to have happened with Mike Clevenger.  What did he do… wander out of the hotel during a road trip?  It sounded more like he’d roared his way through the Copacabana Club with a bottle of bubbly in one hand and a Glock in the other.  Clevenger has been exiled to a better place, and I’m happy for him—but a lesser player could well have found his career damaged ever after.  No one wants to be that player.

4)      Managers and coaches, whose mugs are always masked, will make you feel it if you expose them to public attack by challenging COVID orthodoxy.  Few jobs on this earth are less secure than a Major League manager’s.  If the media narrative insists that COVID is the bubonic plague, then, by golly, that’s how we’ll play it before the cameras.  Don’t make me look bad.  Who would tell his skipper to go take a hike?  Only a superstar of Brian Harper’s caliber might get away with doing so—but why would he do so?  The old man needs his job; what sociopath would want to send him to the unemployment line in this economy?  So… yeah, we’ll all just play along.

I’m sure there are more reasons why reasonable, decent young men might collaborate in banning fandom from their sport and ginning up a national panic.  We know, for instance, that players of non-European and non-Asiatic origin are more susceptible to infection.  (Europeans may be benefited by a dose of Neanderthal DNA, which turns out to be a real microbe-fighter; Asians have been so saturated by corona viruses for centuries that most likely have a degree of immunity.)  I’m aware that Freddie Freeman fell horribly ill with CV-19.  If I were a medical professional, I’d be really eager to find out why his experience was such an outlier within his demographic.  Of course, the takeaway for the broadcast-grackles was, “He almost died!  This could be you if you don’t follow instructions!”

Will Tom Seaver end up being a mere poster child for the movement to lock down our society?  I hope not.  I haven’t observed that tendency… but, as noted earlier, I deliberately haven’t been sticking my nose in the smellier places.  Even if the media hounds incredibly display a bit of taste, though, it’s a sad way to send off one of the great ballplayers of the latter twentieth century.  There should be moments of silence in ballparks around the nation.  Well, we have that… and nothing but that, all the time.  Will the MLB pipe in a minute of pre-recorded absolute stillness between bursts of pre-recorded cheers?

Be at peace, good man, in those green fields that never fade.  May the eternal sun fall lightly on your high hard one.

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

How to Ruin an All-Star Hitter

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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.

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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.