baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Yogi Berra, Throwback Hitter

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The photo above was taken for Yogi Berra’s 1962 Topps Baseball Card.  (The stats on the flip side actually belong to the ‘61 season, but the card was of course published the following year: the dates can be kind of confusing at first.)  At this historical point, cameras were not yet accurately freezing players’ swings or throws in mid-flight.  You’d therefore see a fellow posing with bat or glove in some relatively neutral, waiting position, or at most crouching as if about to field a ground ball.

So I mustn’t make too much of Yogi’s position on this card.  Nevertheless, it’s suggestive.  Notice that his top hand is secured somewhat more firmly on the handle, while his bottom one shows rather loose middle and index fingers.  Yog was a natural right-hander; it couldn’t have been that he just didn’t want to use that bottom hand as much in the swing.  Indeed, I think we may infer that he intended to use it more smartly, if not more explosively.  The fingers are loose because he needs his wrist flexible in order to pull the knob in and down, tight to the body.  The top hand has the “dumber” job of simply punching straight down into the pitch (and Yogi, by the way, was a pretty good amateur boxer as a kid.)  Both hands are somewhat projected from the torso, which frees them to deliver this collaborative “pull-push” attack on the ball.

If all of this sounds like a page from one of my books about Deadball hitters… well, that association of ideas struck me squarely between the eyes as I was reading Allen Barra’s (no relation) excellent biography, Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee.  I’d always heard that Yogi was a notorious bad-ball hitter, but Barra offered details that made me sit up: how Yog could drive the ball to all fields, how he could pull outside pitches, how he could tomahawk balls coming in at head-level.  How does one do such things with a bat?  Joe DiMaggio didn’t know.  Ted Williams didn’t know.  All the uppercutting power-hitters of the Fifties were mystified.  It seemed to me, however—based upon all the research that I’d done into the Deadball Era—that I was reading about a Joe Jackson or a Sam Crawford: someone who walked seldom and struck out yet more seldom, who aggressively attacked pitches that his barrel could reach rather than pinning himself within the legal strike zone… who really loved to swing the bat.

Okay… so what evidence could I find that Berra was a throwback hitter whose “swing down on the ball” style had begun looking alien after World War II?  Online footage wasn’t helpful in reconstructing where Yogi’s hands rested before the load, or even where they went during the load.  I’ve seen extensive outtakes of the televised 1952 World Series (Game 6), however, that establish that Berra definitely didn’t rock back in a far-rear load, hugging his hands into the armpit as his teammates Mickey Mantle and Johnny Mize (and his frequent October adversary Duke Snider) did, and then spin his hips open and roll his shoulders back to generate that Fifties uppercut.  The camera was very far away from the action, and I wasn’t quite sure exactly what Yog was doing… but I knew it wasn’t this.

Unfortunately, the convention in editing highlight reels was to focus on the pitcher’s delivery until the ball was released, then switch to the hitter’s swing; and at that point, naturally, you’ve already cut out a lot of preparatory activity in the batter’s box.  As weak and tendentious a prop as it is, I again recur to the 1961 baseball card.  As I’ve just stressed, the hands are held somewhat away from the torso, not tucked in tight in the Mantle/Mize fashion characteristic of the times; nor are they far aloft, like Roger Maris’s high cock that almost anticipated our boppers of the Nineties.  In my experience of trying to squeeze every clue from dubious hints, it’s rare for a guy to strike a position like Yogi’s in the card just to freeze for the camera—rare, unless it approximates what he truly does in action.  If the hitter is just offering the photographer his mug, he’ll simply rest the bat on his shoulder in a patient kind of “on deck” mode.

I’m inclined to conclude that Yogi never actually drew his hands very far above or back from his rear armpit.  That would imply that the hands followed the front foot’s touchdown closely into the pitch… which would further imply, all but irresistibly, that this was a front-foot hitter—a guy who didn’t stay back after his stride to elevate, but rather shifted his weight forward virtually 100 percent.  Again, that’s what I’ve been seeing for years as I researched hitters before the wars.  There would have been many an exemplar, either on the Cardinals or the Browns, that Larry Berra could have seen practicing the Old School stroke when he was growing up in St. Louis.

Could I confirm some of these further assumptions, at least, from the video record available to me?  See for yourself.  These shots are frozen from a home-run stroke that Yogi uncorked in the 1956 World Series (the second of two homers, in fact, that he clubbed in the same game).  You can find the short video from which I culled them on YouTube here.   They’re grainy and blurry, as I warned you to expect of the time’s technology; but I still think we see a lot of confirmatory evidence.

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I’ve made a video recently about the error of expecting a front-foot hitter to shoot erectly up on his forward leg.  This might happen if the batsman arrived a little early: I’ve seen shots of a tall, lean Stan Musial finishing very erectly.  But Stan (a possible model for the young Berra) would more often catapult himself onto a bent forward knee—as would Tris Speaker, to name only one great Deadballer.  I’d say that Yogi is in the process of doing that in these two frames as he launches into the pitch.  Notice that his hands are not particularly trailing in the stride: they’re already following the weight transfer forward.  The bent back leg isn’t bearing any weight: it’s dragging as the front knee catches all of the rear-to-fore thrust.

Contact is about to be made/has just been made in the next two blurry shots.  I can only keep stressing the same points.  The front knee isn’t locked as the opened hip cycles weight up and back in an uppercut: it’s bending more than ever.  Some observers would call the attack a “lunge”.  (Comments from coaches of the day about how Yogi “did everything wrong” to get the right results are too numerous to count.)  The barrel, never carried very far back, appears now to descend straight into the pitch like a club on a hunter’s quarry.  I have discussed dozens of times in videos and publications how the “parallel-reverse” motion of the hands—bottom one levering the handle down and in, top one punching the barrel down and out—can drive through the heart of the ball with just the right touch of backspin.  The forward weight shift allows that driving plane to be very straight and long.  My theory is that this accounts for how Yogi could smack so many pitches so hard in such diverse locations around the zone—and, specifically, how he might have pulled an outside pitch if he arrived early, just by staying on it.  That appears to be what has happened here.

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The high finish tight over the front shoulder—not high as in the whirlybirding one-handed finish so common today, but two-handed and tight—seals the deal for me.  You can find the same profile in photos of hitters pretty much until the eve of World War II.  The weight has carried far forward instead of rocking back, so the torso scoots under the barrel’s abrupt, parabolic about-face rather than drawing it into the huge backward wrap that we see in classic shots of Mantle and Ted Williams. There’s more than a bit of Babe Ruth in this follow-through.

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I’d like to study Yogi Berra further, though I don’t have the resources to do much beyond what is offered here.  My considered opinion is that, when Berra stepped to the plate, fans of the Fifties were peering through a window in time and seeing what a Rogers Hornsby or a Chuck Klein might have been doing before the war… but most wouldn’t have known what they were seeing.  The war had snapped a lot of threads.  Few men who were in their prime in 1941 returned to the game in 1945 with much gas in the tank; and, perhaps even more importantly, few boys who grew up in the Forties had any word-of-mouth or “heritage of wisdom” contact with the game of the Thirties.  I was a kid in the Fifties and Sixties: I know I never suspected that there was any other way to swing a bat than the way Mickey did (and Ted: but I was too young to have seen Ted).

I’m glad that I appear to have unearthed in Yogi an ambassador for many of our SmallBallSuccess lessons.  He’s always been one of my favorite players, because he’s always been one of my favorite human beings.  Faithful to his wife and family, meeting constant derision with good humor, accepting caricature with the philosophical shrug of a man who knows that true adversity goes far beyond bad jokes and caustic comments, Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame person.  Whether or not he is a surprise model for front-foot hitting, I am grateful for his example in other things.  May he rest in eternal peace and glory.

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

Kids and Hitting Coaches: Baseball’s Russian Roulette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Tame Fear at the Plate by Taking Hints From It

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Something took me by surprise last Thursday that probably would have left me dead by Friday if I had lived a century ago.  Without going into gruesome detail, poisonous fluids would have backed up into my kidneys within hours—and I imagine that I would have flipped off my own switch soon thereafter, for the exit route provided by a purely biological meltdown would have been incredibly unpleasant.

At any rate, I won’t be doing any more baseball videos in the immediate future.  I’ll need a couple of weeks, anyway… and then I’ll see what amplitude God has given me to play about with bat and ball.  When I began writing these words, Their Lordships of the medical establishment were still consulting their busy schedules to decide whether I might be granted an appointment within the next month to supply a permanent fix for the Emergency Room’s temporary rigging.  (The latest flash is that I’ve been penciled in for next week… hallelujah!) Those of you who long for socialized medicine had better hope that your prayers aren’t heard.  Believe me, the waiting and waiting in our present system is already almost beyond endurance.

Ironically, I’ve just begun reading David King’s book about Ross Youngs, the Hall of Fame right fielder who died of Bright’s Disease (a rare and mysterious kidney ailment).  I may have more to say about Ross later.  Turns out that he stood a mere five-foot-six, so he’s a natural for us to study at SmallBallSuccess.com.

In the meantime, inactivity has placed me in a perfect position (though it’s hard to think of anything about this position as perfect) to upgrade our humble website.  I’m working on a new page that will break down what is currently my favorite version of the Deadball swing.  I’m convinced that small players (and big players) everywhere could use it with devastating effectiveness.  They probably wouldn’t drive many pitches over the fence—but they’d likely be driving more than their fair share to the fence.  It’s a line-drive stroke, of course, with a high probability of contact.  It also has several features that would allow the hitter to be physically more protected from wild pitches and provide more time for appropriate reaction to any pitch.

Now, I know we aren’t supposed to let fear of the ball enter our psyche.  Even though it’s surely there somewhere (unless you’re as revved up on adrenaline and drugs as Lenny Dykstra), you mustn’t admit its presence to yourself.  That’s the old “be a man” school of coaching.  My son had one of those blowhards during a particularly forgettable Little League season.  The boy very nearly quit baseball at the age of nine, because the pompous ass to whose genius I’d surrendered him had all the kids who weren’t already explosive hitters (i.e., all who weren’t big for their age) stand on top of the plate in a bid to get a hit-by-pitch free pass.  Be a man… according to an idiot’s definition of manhood.

I’ve had many occasions to think about “mindset” at the plate (Coach Blowhard being only the most obvious).  Obviously, you want to carry a certain aggression into the box.  That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you’re seeking to attack the ball in a fearless, spherocidal rage.  A dead-pull hitter, granted, might inch up to the black and then prepare to wallop anything that moves.  I should think a clever pitcher would be very happy to see a guy like that step in.  If I didn’t have confidence in my breaking ball that day, I’d feed him some slow stuff that he could majestically pull foul, then chance some of my mediocre but collar-high fastballs.  I could readily devise a promising plan for Bruno.

Now let’s picture a smaller lad who has been taught nothing by his coaches except to keep the stick on his shoulder until he has two strikes… or maybe he can crowd the plate like Big Bruno and get himself hit.  Speaking of confidence, this boy has not a shred, does he?  He’s been given no useful map to success, no tools for making good contact.  Instead, his batsmanship has been denigrated to the point that he believes an HBP—or a four-pitch walk, if the pitcher’s radar is crossed up by plate-crowding—should be the objective of every trip to the dish; and in pursuit of that objective, he needs to silence any “unmanly” peep of apprehension about thrusting knee and elbow into the strike zone.  In a nutshell, his only chance of escaping “automatic out” futility is to fight down the vile inward surge of cowardice.

Gee… why wouldn’t that kid want to sign up for baseball every time a new season rolls around?

Let us now redirect this self-sabotaging mindset so that it becomes an offensive weapon.  I’m going to step into the box, not imagining that the baseball killed my parents and burned our house down, but that it’s a determined little rider galloping from A to B through Home Plate Pass.  And me?  I’m a highwayman, a stick-up artist just waiting to swoop down on the arrogant traveler—you know, the way Robin Hood would swing out of Sherwood Forest on a festoon and unseat the coach driver.  (Okay, my pop-cultural references are really dating me… I’d better stop right there.)  In other words, my design is not to meet blunt, rude force with blunter, ruder force: it’s to snipe at the unsuspecting mark and pick him off.  I’m no longer trying to deny to myself that he carries serious firepower.  I’m just denying him the opportunity to deploy it against me.

How can I do that?  By standing well back from the plate—not on top of it, for the love of Pete, but so far off that the pitcher will suppose that I’m scared of his fastball and will quickly decide to hum some hard ones over the vacated outside corner.  He’ll rush right into my ambush.  I actually want to swing at pitches far away from me, for three reasons: 1) I have more time to react when deliberately “swinging late”, 2) I can get my arms extended into an outside pitch (though the desired point of contact is really just before the back elbow locks—certainly before the wrists begin to roll over), and 3) I can drive an outside pitch hard to the opposite field.

And how, you ask, am I going to make said contact from so deep in the box?  For the answer, you’ll have to wait until I finish and post the page, “My Favorite Deadball Swing”.  Or you can go to YouTube right now and watch a video titled, Why (and How) Deadball Batsmen Swung Down on the Pitch.  That title, of course, transmits a clue.  I’ll just stress for now the importance of following the forward foot’s stride very closely with the hands.  You do not “get the foot down early” with this stroke, contrary to the refrain of countless well-paid batting instructors and TV color commentators.  You get it down very late—you shift your weight onto it as fully as you can, with your hands pursuing it straight (and slightly downward) into the pitch.  That’s how they did it over a century ago, and pretty much until World War Two.  That’s how Ross Youngs did it, for sure.  I can tell by photos of his tight-over-the-front-shoulder finish, with rear leg dragging.

Let the big guys lean back and hack.  You little dynamos, stand back from the plate and shoot the pitch the other way.  Don’t try to bully it, and don’t make a ball magnet of your forward shoulder.  Pick it off just as it’s about to nestle in the catcher’s mitt.  Play your own special game: don’t listen to Coach Blowhard, who doesn’t really even want you in the line-up or on the team. In fact, if you’re on his team… find another team.

When I pass through the Big Door, I hope I’ll get to shake Ross Youngs’ hand.  He’s from my grandfather’s stomping grounds—they may have played against each other in central Texas.  In the meantime, and for whatever time I have left on this earth, I’ll always devote a few minutes a day to baseball.  It makes heaven seem a little more familiar.

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, 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.