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

The Evil of Being Better Than Your Best

I’ve almost finished the twelve-year-old copy of Jose Canseco’s Juiced that my son gave me.  I’ll admit that I have a lot more sympathy for Canseco as a human being than I previously did.  Any man who loved his mother and loves his daughter as this fellow does… and his father was one of those we know from Little League games who screams at his kid every time he’s not a polished All Star in the field.  Combine that with a generally low self-image, and you have a recipe for foolish choices.  This lad needed some good advice along the way, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten much.

Canseco’s take on baseball’s racism in the Nineties pulled me in the other direction, however.  If you want to take control of your future by changing the rules and moving the foul lines, Jose, don’t complain because you see doors opening for blue-eyed blonds that close in your face.  Haven’t you already pried enough doors open by crowbar that weren’t supposed to admit you or anyone else?  I don’t know why people of color assume that the blond-and-blue stereotype doesn’t work against us Caucasians, too, who are dark around the edges—but my black friends are always shocked when I pull the veil from that illusion.  Van Johnson and Robert Redford: good guy.  Claude Akins and John Ireland: bad guy.

Of course, the stereotype of the little guy who just can’t perform as well as the big guy cuts across racial boundaries.  It’s practically universal.  It’s what I founded this site to combat—in baseball.  I can’t do anything about it in a job interview or on the dating scene, where employers and the ladies eagerly join ranks to elbow shorter men out of the picture.  Jose certainly didn’t suffer from that kind of invidious prejudice.

And if some Latinos were at a disadvantage in professional baseball twenty-five years ago because no one on the coaching staff could speak their lingo, doesn’t that make the duty of a seasoned veteran like Canseco on the Texas Rangers all the more imperative?  And what big-brotherly guidance did he provide to Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and his childhood buddy Rafael Palmeiro (who was quite fluent enough in English and apt in American culture, however, to know better)?  He sabotaged careers and lives by abusing his position of authority to introduce forbidden substances into the clubhouse.

Now, Canseco would say that the stuff was already there—a claim that he often contradicts by virtually celebrating his role in being its special conduit (for instance, in the Rangers’ case).  He would also say, and does say, that he created rather than destroyed careers.  I wonder how Palmeiro feels about that, in retrospect?  I was once one of Rafael’s biggest fans.  I didn’t want to believe that he had cheated—I thought he had probably failed the test because of some drug that he was using to speed recovery from a specific injury.  I have little doubt that he could have reached 3,000 hits without steroids; in fact, I think they probably impeded his ascent to that plateau, inasmuch as they turned him into a dead-pull hitter who tried to jack every pitch he saw over the wall.  Now, as a ballplayer, he is ruined in memory forever.  None of us who considered him a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer would cast that vote today.

To me, the most repellent thing about Jose’s unrepentant, almost boasting autobiography is its failure to grasp the glory of the game.  It makes you recognize your God-given limits… and then you learn on your own how to transform those liabilities into assets.  You become the best you could possibly be.  But for Jose, the formula takes a shocking turn: through the use of outlawed substances, you become better than you could possibly be—you reject what God created and substitute a fraudulent “you”.  You acquire no humility, no wisdom… but perhaps you do acquire lots of money.

There we go: do whatever it takes to get rich.  Thanks for that lesson, Jose—as if it needed another preacher from the pop-cultural pulpit!  And, yes, Don Fehr and the Players’ Union and the team owners like George Bush all must have known exactly what was happening as they feverishly kept brushing the steroids scandal under the rug while pointing at the ceiling.  Are you comfortable having a band of such hypocrites as allies?  “Yes, I did it.  Everyone else was doing it, too—or else they came up and begged me to show them how.  And we were just making ourselves into the superhuman machines that the fans wanted to see… and we would have been sacking groceries or selling used cars, otherwise.  And we Latinos especially needed an inside track to correct for latent racism.  And, anyway, the stuff is physically good for you if you use it right.”

If your lawyer presented arguments like these in a murder trial, you’d have grounds for appeal based on an incompetent defense.

coaches and trust, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, Uncategorized

Listen to Established Coaches… But Also to Your Body

I’ve been repeating two things in my pitching videos (including one I made yesterday—the first after a six-month layoff): 1) I do not pretend to be a pitching coach or to have been an effective pitcher at any level of competition; and 2) I know more than most pitching coaches about living in a relatively short, broad-framed body.  Because of the first fact, I wouldn’t dream of trying to countermand the advice of a Paul Reddick, a Brent Strom, or the gurus at Sidearm Nation.  Yet because of the second fact, I don’t allow the coaching fraternity to shut me up entirely on the subject of pitching.

A lot of what I say about hitting (where I do profess some degree of knowledge, thanks to decades of research and experimentation) applies here.  Today’s pitching instruction is mostly fashioned for tall, slender body types that enjoy several natural advantages when it comes to achieving high velocity.  Since those types will fill about 90 percent of any high school or college pitching roster, why be concerned about the 5’7” walk-on who throws a mean slider?  Yeah, you trot him out there once in a while to eat up some innings.  He gets people out.  But you also know that he has already hit his low ceiling. Coaches at the next level are not going to woo him with scholarship money, and scouts are not going to blow him away with a signing bonus.  Statistically, he doesn’t exist.

I’ve actually written before, if only in making a brief reference, about Coach Reddick’s public advice to a dad who queried about his kid’s becoming a submariner.  The word Paul chose to use was “gimmick”—this was his estimate of the sidewinding delivery and other low arm angles.  The advice was essentially, “Don’t do it.  Persist with tried-and-true methods.  Don’t fall for some gimmicky quick fix.”

Now, I’ve seen many a boy slinging pitches from down under in tournaments who was cruising a direct course for serious elbow damage.  Odd angles can be effective because the hitter never sees them in ordinary play; and, because they don’t appear in ordinary play, coaches don’t know what to teach about them.  Advice can be very bad, if any advice at all is offered.  So “stay away” is certainly not the worst thing you could tell a parent who’s looking to lower his boy’s release point radically.

At the same time, some of us are so designed by Mother Nature that slopping the ball from belt-high or lower just seems right.  We don’t need minute instruction—and we’re less likely to hurt our arm sidearming than we are by trying to come straight over the top.  I was always that way.  I could imitate Willie Mays’s underhand flick of the ball back to the infield without any particular rehearsal.  (The basket catch was another matter: I never could carry my Willie impersonation that far.)  I’m convinced that the reason for this was simply my broad frame.  Look at any photo of Mays and you can tell that he, too, was very broad-shouldered.  Wide-framed people actually have to work at coming over the top more than “normal people”, whereas coming around the body can often be a very fluid motion for them.

I don’t recommend, however, doing what coaches call “throwing over your body”: typically vague coach-speak for cutting off your straight path toward the plate by landing with your front foot angled toward third base (for a righty).  This is another recipe for arm problems.  Even I, pitching-coach interloper that I am, grow shocked at the number of ex-Major Leaguer color commentators who extol how Jake Arrieta or some other horse enhances his effectiveness by slinging the ball over his body.  I’d never recommend that.

But in trying to work out the ideal sidearming motion for broad-framed guys, I encountered a terrific amount of trouble removing the “over the body” approach from the equation.  Especially for a low submariner, landing on a front foot that goes straight to the plate almost means landing in a face plant.

I still think that the low angle is specially suited to wide frames, which also tend to be shorter than average.  I would dare to disagree with my son (who threw sidearm-submarine very successfully for a D2 university) that his build really wasn’t best fitted to the motion.  Yes, the lanky guys can make up for some of the velo lost through “over the body” motion when they slingshot with their gangly arms… but they’re also, I continue to maintain, taking the quick route to joint damage. Shorter, broader frames appear to me to execute these movements more naturally and less riskily. Just last month, I saw a short submariner on the Single A Rome Braves look very smooth and effective.

Nevertheless, my son Owen was convincing enough that I decided to dedicate my next experiments to lifting the arm angle just above sidearm—to what might be called the 9:30 slot (where sidearm is 9:00 and an impossibly perfect overhand would be high noon).  This plan seemed the more logical in that my review of yesteryear’s best pitchers, brief though it has been so far, shows many of them using exactly the 9:30 slot and avoiding the true sidearm position.  I had downplayed the evidence for a while that was staring me in the face through the examples of Dickie Kerr (5’7”), Dolf Luque (5’7”), Art Nehf (5’9”), Bobby Shantz (5’6”), and others…. but I always end up regretting any act of brushing evidence under the rug.  I did that occasionally when I was analyzing Deadball Era swings: “Ah, that can’t mean anything, and it looks so awkward… let’s just ignore it.”  Always a bad idea.

So… in future months, as I get settled in my new home, look for me to investigate the 9:30 angle with much greater thoroughness.  It has a pedigree of success from the old days, it was popular with pitchers who “weren’t allowed” to have sore arms and had to grind away like huskies in the traces, and I persist in thinking that it must work especially well for broad body types.  These are the coordinates of my newly corrected course.

baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Faith, Reality, and Baseball

One of the enterprises I wanted to pursue in retirement was my work on involving boys of short stature in baseball.  The game itself, and the instruction surrounding it, has turned as regimented and mechanical as everything else in our digitally obsessed society—yet learning complex games is no small part of a young person’s education.  The child learns fast and hard rules, he realizes that certain rules put him at a disadvantage to other players, he figures out how to turn a liability into an asset, and he emerges from it all—with honest, sustained effort—in a triumph of self-discovery and successful adjustment.  These moral lessons are terrifically important.

Football and basketball virtually require extraordinary natural endowments: skills there are an adorning cornice, not a foundation.  By no accident, these latter two sports are also much the most popular with spectators on college campuses.  As spectators, we seem to be growing ever more distant from the spectacle’s participants.  They almost represent a different species; and perhaps, with the aid of hormones and nanobot supplementation, they will soon become precisely that.

I think it well worthwhile, then, to persuade young people that they can excel at a game by identifying their particular (if not spectacular) strengths, perfecting these through practice, and offering a significant contribution to the team’s effort that draws more upon reflection and self-discipline than upon raw sinew.  That’s where baseball comes in—and where boys, especially, come in.  Contemporary Ivory Tower propaganda (which quickly filters all the way down to kindergarten, make no mistake) wails about “toxic masculinity”, labels all males as rapists-in-waiting, and applauds only the gender-uncertain who cede decisions, authority, and initiative to the Nurturing Mother. Now, mothers are great, as we all know; but boys, if they are to become independent and upright young men, need to learn a regimen that introduces them to self-control and vigorous persistence.

Unfortunately, the history of baseball has almost always garbled this hygienic message with incidental static, at least in the United States.  (In Japan and Korea, the game appears to have followed an educational trajectory more like what I should like to see.)  In America’s late nineteenth century, professional players were viewed as rowdies who shirked the productive labor of farm and factory.  Early in the next century, its practices were submitted to a considerable clean-up before any pay-at-the-gate contest was thought fit for ladies to attend. Even as figures like Babe Ruth (and Ty Cobb, too, before Fake News claimed him as one of its early victims) ushered in a heroic era, baseball’s practical and commercial parameters continued to gravitate against a positive moral message.  Games were played almost daily in numerous far-flung venues, so the players’ normal Circadian rhythms—eating habits, sleeping habits, and other bodily demands that needn’t be specified—were forever being nudged hither and yon.  As a result, late-night frolics and heavy drinking became associated with the pro athlete’s life.

Mill teams or municipal squads that squared off on Saturdays (never on Sundays!) somewhat counterpoised this unflattering image; but on the whole, women even of my mother’s generation did not wish to see their sons inking a professional contract.

Today the interference with the constructive message comes primarily from different sources.   The obvious one is the professional game’s saturation in money (following the demise of the nefarious Reserve Clause, which legally classed players as virtual slaves of their owners).  Fathers are so eager to see their sons get the free scholarship ride through college—with a shot at being professionally drafted—that, in a couple of cases I have seen personally, they start the boys on the syringe at the age of ten or eleven.  Even in less depraved cases, dads push their sons too hard to succeed in Little League, thinking that they are helping the boys get a huge headstart on money-making and all the happiness supposed to come with it.  But, Dad, if you will stop and think about that oath that the kids are uttering before each contest, it’s not drawn from the Gospel of Mammon.  On the contrary… search your Bible for the verse, “Love of money is the root of all evil.”

That our boys need a moral lifeline of some sort thrown to them has been underscored for me during the past two weeks by the grotesque volleys exchanged over a Supreme Court nomination.  I have my own very strong opinions about where the truth lies; but in the context of this discussion, I will say no more than that the addiction of both men and women to alcohol and sex as a routine path to social integration on elite college campuses is a national disgrace—and even more: an epidemic of moral degeneracy such as no nation can survive. To the extent that my own son was able to steer clear of debauchery during his college years, I believe his devotion to baseball was the cause.  I would like to write, “his devotion to the Christian faith”… but the organized Church, as represented by most mainstream denominations, is itself in vital need of an infusion of backbone.  St. Paul was fond of comparing the spiritual life to the athlete’s rigorous program of training—but I’m afraid that today’s Church more resembles the party-animal superstar whose contract guarantees him a fortune whether he stays in shape or not.

I posted a very sophomoric video a few days ago (which became 1st part and 2nd part when I overshot YouTube’s time restrictions) entitled “Faith, Reality, and Baseball”.  I truly hate addressing cameras… but I attempted to speak on these issues with what eloquence I could muster off the cuff.  Young men, I find, will actually watch such a presentation with infinitely higher probability than they will read an essay like the one before you; and some of them, even, will be quite generous to the stammering old fool trying to reach them through their generation’s preferred avenue.  It’s clearly not the singer: it has to be the song.  Let’s sing it louder.