baseball history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

More on the Kinetic Loop: Sheffield and Musial

Let’s begin in repeating the definition that I use in Metal Ropes:

Before any punctilious physicist jumps all over my abuse of the term [i.e., kinesis], let me stress that I’m not trying to pass Physics 101 (which I never attempted to do): my wish is simply to distinguish between fluid and stored motion; and, as a lover of Homer, Socrates, and Epictetus, I’m going to latch onto [the Greek word] “kinetic” to designate fluidity.  What I have in mind is the immensely important matter of how energy flow is cycled throughout the load prior to being unleashed upon the pitch.  I thought of using the word “balance”, but that implies poise or “standstill”: the very opposite of what we want.  We need to have a load where energy is held milling in the corral without being allowed to halt; because if it truly halted, we would have to go from 0 to 60 (or 90) in a split-second.  What we want, rather, is for our initiated flow (or our “kinetic energy”, if you’ll allow me) to travel through a subtle loop or loops as it awaits the instant to pour out of the chute.

Now, for all practical purposes, the loops of which I write are created a) by the hands and b) by the forward leg.  You could isolate your looping to just one of these two spots, but we seldom see that happening in a successful hitter: the legs, rather, are at least somewhat involved in feeding into manual preparation, or else the hands will be somewhat synchronized to very visible leg activity.

You know that a gyroscope simulates stasis (or perfect balance) by spinning.  The kinetic loop’s objective is analogous to that remarkable whirling top’s.  It aims at holding vigorous energy in suspense until the instant of attack arrives.  You might think of it as a delayed fall.  If your front foot rises during a forward weight shift, you’re going to fall forward; yet you can somewhat delay the precise moment of the fall by letting the leg carry farther to the rear, and also by letting the hands trail out or back.  The longer the delaying loops are, the less rushed will be your full commitment of energy into the pitch: in other words, the more finely you’ll be able to initiate your attack right on time.

I’m going to devote the rest of this post to two very different hitters who relied heavily for their success upon large kinetic loops.  The first of these two is Gary Sheffield.  Here’s how I would describe Shef’s stroke.  We all remember the lofty, really vigorous succession of hand pumps, of course, that sent the barrel swooshing back and forth over the hitter’s head.  Yet this most spectacular component of the Sheffield wind-up had relatively minor importance in creating a powerful loop.  I think its main purpose was just to concentrate the hitter’s awareness of his barrel into his wrists and fingers (as opposed to his shoulders) so that the significant final loop would anchor itself tightly in the torso (as opposed to lassoing the whole batter’s box sloppily from end to end).  Gary’s hands were initiating a kind of magic circle over the inner half of home plate, where his core muscles were most in control of the dynamics surrounding release.

The entry to the major loop came when the mighty hand pumps trickled almost to a halt.  This would occur when Sheffield saw that the pitcher was indeed about the deliver: everything previous was simply keeping the hands loose and alert until the ball was about to come home.  As the pitcher took his stride, Gary would answer, not immediately with renewed hand motion, but with a substantial lift of his own forward leg.  He was preparing to “throw down” into the pitch with an emphatic weight shift.  Yet hefty leg kicks of the sort can get you to the rendezvous too soon: the leg’s coil needed to be integrated into a broader loop that the hands—always the hitter’s instruments of fine tuning—could adjust.  This was when Gary’s hands made their final forward passage.  If he were a tad early, the hands could dip the barrel just a little farther forward as the leg drifted farther to the rear, keeping both mobile forces in a gyroscopic kind of balance.  If he found himself in danger of arriving late, Sheffield could instantly lower the barrel into the pitch without describing a complete rotation.

Most hitting analysts, I suppose, would argue that Sheffield sacrificed a higher average for greater power by throwing his body so “uncontrollably” into the pitch.  I would phrase it differently.  A power hitter deluxe Gary certainly was; but I would say that he enhanced both power and average by creating a generous kinetic loop where very lively leg activity was finely tuned by very clever hand activity.

Stan Musial’s stance was “admiringly derided” (if those words can be used together) by two generations of sports commentators.  Joe Garagiola used to say that, when he set up in the box and was waiting on the pitch, the Man looked like a street urchin peeking around the corner to see if the cops were following.  Closed to the plate and relatively far from it, Musial displayed no characteristic at this moment more distinctive than his lift of the bottom hand to a height almost equal to the top hand’s.  The result was that his barrel extended far to the rear and nearly parallel to the ground.  (Negro League star Wes Covington, who reached the Bigs a little late to make the sort of dent he could have, featured extremely similar swing dynamics.)  Stan’s weight was nestled decisively over his rear foot thanks to his having hugged the handle into his armpit in this fashion.  Though that wasn’t the primary end served by the odd hand positioning, it did make his rearward coil as he loaded much more easy and fluid.  His front knee bent more deeply than ever into the body as his forward foot glided back almost to touch the rear one (à la Babe Ruth).  This severe approximating of the feet was catalyzed by the hands flicking the barrel into an upright position.  The two were inseparable: bottom hand pressed down and back to raise the flag pole, and legs drew together simultaneously in that same vertical axis—though the spine remained distinctly bent throughout the operation, keeping all the power focused in the core muscles.

Today’s hitting instructors would say, “Don’t try this at home, kids!  Keep your legs in a spread, athletic position beneath you.”  Yes… and from that “athletic position” would emerge no potent kinetic loop—for the Musial coil, as described thus far, had just primed one of the most effective loops in the game’s history.

A front foot drawn very far to the rear has created a sliding spectrum of options about where to land when it goes forward.  It can plant almost at once on a fastball, especially a tight one, and “backleg” the pitch by forcing the weight shift to retreat up and back immediately; or it can travel virtually the whole length of the box in pursuit of a low/away pitch or a slow-freight breaking ball.  Again, Babe Ruth also displayed this huge range of length in his strides.  In Stan’s own day, we might point to Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

But it’s impossible to measure your stride’s length against an incoming pitch and still have any pop in your stroke—impossible, that is, if the stride’s variable loop itself is your only channel of energy.  The key to Stan’s explosive swing was, once more, in his hands, and specifically in the bottom one.  Having begun to press down on the handle in the “flagpole-raising” load, that hand continued to apply pressure in the same looping direction.  The motion of the hands to the rear somewhat counterpoised the forward motion of the stride: not perfectly counterpoised, because the energy ignited in the forward surge had to remain active.  But the bottom hand could press a little farther back if the pitch were taking its sweet time to reach the plate, giving the front leg more leisure to go out to the point of rendezvous; or if the pitch were coming in at an unexpectedly high velocity, then the bottom hand could instantly interrupt its drift to the rear and cut down into the ball (the top hand, of course, actually doing the heavy lifting by punching quickly off the chest).

This is a quick take on a splendid kinetic loop.  In the baseball card to the side, you have a particularly good illustration of the loop’s extreme adjustability.  The weight has already been caught entirely on the forward leg here, but the ball isn’t yet in the hitting zone.  The hands, therefore, are stretching their loop as far to the rear as it will go; and, thanks, to their counterpoising influence, the complete forward weight transfer hasn’t emptied the stroke’s power into thin air.  Contact is going to be right on time, and a bull’s eye.

Despite also having a full forward weight shift, Gary Sheffield (like Lou Gehrig) always hit off a lock-kneed, rear-inclined front leg.  He rushed his energy forward so that he could lift its vector: he was a dead-pull hitter.  In contrast, Musial would drive straight through the ball no matter where it was pitched.  By allowing his shift to continue as far forward as necessary, he was able to shoot his 725 doubles and 177 triples all over the park.  The kinetic loop set both of these warriors free to fight their chosen battle; but if Gary hadn’t insisted on rearing back so much when planting his foot, we might have seen something very, very rare and special.

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 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, 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!

1890 baseball, baseball history, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Past Holds No Lessons Only If You Don’t Pause to Examine It

After four months of work, my second Edition of Metal Ropes: Deadball-Era Tactics for Stroking Line Drives With Today’s Alloy Bat, is available at Amazon, both as a Kindle download and as a paperback book.  I can honestly say that I’ve never so thoroughly overhauled a piece of writing in my life… which, if it sounds like praise for the new edition, doesn’t speak very well of the old one.  Understanding ways of hitting a baseball that are buried under more than a century’s worth of rubble isn’t easy.  Even the most basic descriptive terms in the earlier literature are sometimes radically different: “a sticker poles a bingle” more often than “a hitter cracks a single.’

I don’t intend in this very confined space to revisit all of the changes I made.  One generality that I can certainly float with confidence is that the book is now far better organized.  A gremlin that I chased ineffectively throughout the entire first edition was the late nineteenth-century set-up at the plate, commemorated on many a baseball card like John Reilly’s 1888 issue above. (Usually these were produced by tobacco manufacturers, you might be surprised to hear, and not chewing-gum companies).  You’d see Dan Brouthers or Sam Thompson or King Kelly or James O’Rourke standing completely upright, 42-inch stick gripped in a choke (and often with hands spread) just above the belt buckle, legs so close as to be almost touching, and the front foot inscrutably pointing out toward the pitcher.  It was the last of these characteristics that I could never fully account for: all the others made perfect sense if viewed from a certain angle.  Yet why would anyone ever want his lead foot flopping out toward the mound as he awaited the pitch?  Cody Bellinger stands upright with his feet very close together; so did Mickey Tettleton, not so very long ago.  Yet neither of them balanced the bat slackly over his belt buckle—and neither, most certainly, splayed his front foot out toward the mound!

As the subtitle declares, the book’s objective is to translate Deadball practices into something useful for our metal weapon.  Kelly and O’Rourke actually have no overlap with the Deadball Era as usually defined, having terminated their careers in the mid-Nineties.  (O’Rourke appeared in one game in 1904 at the instigation of his friend John McGraw as a kind of publicity stunt; he landed a hit, too.)  I perhaps dedicated too much time and effort to seeking after an explanation of the odd nineteenth-century stance, since it had been widely discarded by the time the century turned over.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend that any kid today strike up the same posture in a metal-bat league.  The lesson I delivered on that score was, “Don’t do this at home.”

Still… still, the practices of one generation are always rooted in those of the previous generation.  (Believe me, there were Beatniks long before there were Hippies.)  While the 1890 front-foot placement seemed a non-starter to me, I wanted to understand what technique it would have fed into—because surely other elements of that technique would have been passed along.  I found a satisfactory answer in the notorious hitch.  That is, you can quite smoothly swing a stiff front leg from the bucket in over the plate once you let those hands at your buckle drop until your elbows lock.  It’s a very good means, not exactly of maintaining balance, but of “kinetic looping”.  (Contrary to some popular theories, it is the object neither of effective hitting nor of effective pitching is to reach a balance point, but rather to cycle kinetic energy in fluid reserve until the instant of release.)  If you proceed to fall into the pitch with that stiff front leg while also loading your hands upward and outward (not so much backward) during the stride, you can actually get your long stick to descend straight—and at a slightly downward, productively backspinning angle—into the ball.

And make no mistake: some of these guys, handlebar mustaches and all, were no slouches at smacking baseballs.  The fluffy spheres were so worked-over and unresilient that, until the end of their reign in 1920, fielders would say that they would take crazy hops when springing from a bulge to a flattened side.  So just because nobody was stroking 30 home runs over these years doesn’t mean that everyone was bunting.  The Deadball game featured some pretty hard swings.

I ended up breaking what I call the basic Fall Step—a simple lunge into the pitch without even the leg lift that I’ve just described—into several pieces.  If the barrel was dipped and then reared to energize the lifting of the forward leg, then I labeled the result the Upright Hitch.  I don’t know how many strikers would have used such a pump of the long barrel to create an energy loop and how many would have surged immediately into the ball, not wasting time on any cycling sort of load.  You’d think that hitters in 1890 would have had lots and lots of time.  Ironically, it seems to me that the forenamed Cody Bellinger is maybe one of the first ballplayers to feature a true, pure Fall Step.  I think Ronald Acuña, Jr., has an even better version.  Notice how easily, almost lazily, Ronald rests his hands over his jersey’s buttons before launching his attack.  That particular practice is remarkably similar to something that might have been lost over a hundred years ago after being all the rage.  Some of Carl Yastrzemski’s swings (Yaz tinkered with his stroke constantly) also fit this paradigm rather well.

Then we have the Hunching Hitch, where the hitter bends his torso to bring lowered hands and recoiling front knee into close proximity.  This, I believe, would not have been common in the Deadball Era.  It was closer to what Jimmie Foxx and Josh Gibson were doing, and was carried by Hank Greenberg into the generation than gave us Frank Howard.  By now, speaking historically, sluggers were no longer choking up on their massive bats: they were holding them down on the knob, from where they could hurl the barrel down into the pitch after looping it high aloft with a pump.

My recommended version of this species of swing for young hitters who want to give something new a test run would be the Lift-and-Land.  Differentiating between LL and the Upright Hitch proved a challenge.  I really didn’t make many adjustments beyond putting more emphasis on the hands and less on a back-swinging leg.  Throughout the book, in fact, I found that a major corrective we have to introduce into a Deadball swing is to substitute vigorous hand motion for lower-body activity.  Without the long bat to balance your gyrations, you simply can’t do as much with your legs as old strikers like Edd Roush did. (Edd could be said literally to run his bat into the ball.)  In our era, the hands need to be prominently involved in creating any sort of kinetic loop.

Of course, there were other types of swing besides the “hitch” family.  My personal favorite isn’t even included therein.  But the amount of complexity surrounding this one issue may suggest to you why it took so long to rewrite the book!

I wish you all a meaningful Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for having my life restored to me by the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana this year after the American medical establishment sentenced me to death by prostate cancer; I’m thankful for the caring people I came to know on my journey, and I’m thankful that I had “trivial” work like to keep me occupied.  I’m thankful, too, that we have a game like baseball to help us learn about failure, objective self-criticism, acceptance of limitation, and eventual success through adjusting to hard realities.  It turns out that those are not trivial lessons at all.  Being able to assist young people in learning them is one of the greatest privileges bestowed upon me during my earthly passage.

baseball ethics, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, pitching, umpires

Cheating: Creativity vs. Laziness

I believe I’ve already used in my blogging space the photo spread across two pages (62-63) of Donald Honig’s Shadows of Summer.  This incredible gymnastic on the part of Ty Cobb received a pretty extensive commentary in my second edition of Metal Ropes (now complete except for a new cover).  I won’t rehash the whole discussion.  I’ll simply draw your attention to the troublesome fact—ignored by Mr. Honig, who’s more spellbound by catcher Ed Sweeney’s distance from the play—that Cobb will be far outside the batter’s box if he makes contact.  His rear foot is already even with the plate’s front edge.  Whatever in the world he’s trying to do here, he has given himself about a yard’s headstart up the first-base line.

Cheating?  Well, yes… and every ballplayer would do it if he could get away with it.  Policing such things as staying in the batter’s box and running in the baseline is the umpire’s responsibility.  Now, when baserunners were cutting across the infield grass and missing second base by twenty feet because the one umpire on duty was following a Texas-leaguer into the outfield, the infractions became mockeries of the game.  They threatened its very survival.  That’s why multiple umpires were put on the field in the 1880s.  Likewise, tripping a runner as he rounded second or third—perhaps even tackling him, as John McGraw was known to have done in his playing days with Baltimore—was about as subtle as corralling a high drive in a ten-foot butterfly net.  The game has always addressed trespasses that so derided basic protocol as to make disgusted fans decide to keep their ticket money.

How might we define the difference between what Cobb did in the photo above and what would-be linebackers like McGraw were doing?  It isn’t that “admissible rule-stretching” jeopardizes no second party.  Tyrus had also perfected a kind of slide which would kick up so much dust that a baseman trying to grab a peg and tag him would go blind for crucial instants.  This actually isn’t illegal at all, to this day (as far as I know—though it’s a good way to start a brawl).  Some fouls are allowed to strain the rules along the edges… and then, there are some that trample the rule book and exit the game’s bounds in both letter and spirit.  The distinction isn’t personal risk: it’s the words of the rules themselves—whether they have any stretch in them, whether the fog of war handled in them is left deliberately foggy in places.

The balk rule is an excellent example familiar to any casual baseball fan.  Coaches teach young pitchers that a good move is so close to a balk move that you’re bound to get called once in a while.  The dividing line is thoroughly scuffed.  In certain eras of the game, the rule might as well not have existed, so over-stretched was the flexible boundary.  I happened lately to be watching Bill “Spaceman” Lee pitch the second game of the 1974 World Series against the Reds.  Lee balked at least ninety percent of the time when runners were on base.  There was simply no detectible pause whatever in his delivery.  Not many years down the road, the umpires put their heads together and decided that enough was enough.  (Now, why Louie Tiant was called for a balk in Game 1 of the same series is a puzzler to me.  Apparently, a National League ump ruled that El Tiante did not step off the rubber before he pivoted.  Replay did not vindicate the verdict)

Were the Astros way out of line for transmitting the catcher’s signals to the hitter via electronic technology?  Judging from the reaction of fans and players alike (e.g., the typically taciturn Nick Markakis), I’d have to answer “yes”.  Yet this case, too, somewhat puzzles me.  I recall Paul Reddick writing when the scandal first exploded that, first and foremost, the Astros had simply acted dumb.  According to Paul, every pitcher at every level tips his pitches, and every coach at the big-league level should know how to crack the code.  Now, I believe that Reddick was marketing a video at the time which claimed to teach the dark art of predicting the next pitch… but the point seems well taken, all the same.  Hitters are reared on The Guess: they’re guessing even before they take their first shave.  After a few years of refinement, a good hitter, you’d have to think, would have gotten pretty adept at anticipating pitches just on the basis of the situation and the particular hurler involved.  Add to that a touch of finesse in reading body language… and you’ve dispensed with any need for complex cipher and semaphore.

I’m not belittling the distinct villainy of what the Houston malefactors did: I’m just concurring with Reddick that the crime seems weakly motivated.  Are hitters just lazy these days?  But then, the New York Giants were also being tipped to pitches throughout an elaborate binoculars-and-telegraph system when they reeled off their miraculous win streak leading to the 1951 pennant.  (Bobby Thomson always swore, however, that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch.  Who knows?)  A very similar racket seems to have been run in the Deadball Era, though I can’t retrieve the details at the moment.  An electrical line, I believe, run under the third-base coaching box buzzed in the dope from a remote observation post.

For my money, none of these incidents, dastardly though they are, equals the turpitude of “Blowergate” in the Metrodome.  I don’t see how Kirby Puckett’s soaring fly off Charlie Leibrandt would have cleared the partition in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series if the home team hadn’t enjoyed the extra thrust of the stadium’s blowers.  I’m reminded of how the host teams on my son’s “away” games in high school would always wait to turn on the lights until after we’d completed a half-inning at the plate in heavy shadow.  Whatever technological conveniences are available for a given game should be extended to both sides.  If there are industrial-fan units on hand for games on sweltering afternoons, then one such fan should be rigged up in either dugout.

If there’s any moral to this ramble, maybe we should look for a distinction between “zealous cheating”—creative, ingenious, energetic, pushing-the-envelope strain against the wording of the rules in search of a victorious advantage—and “lazy cheating”.  Perhaps the most obvious and repellent quality of high-tech cheating is its shortcutting across clever forethought and vigorous execution.  The lazy cheater has a gizmo to deploy his advantage for him; or even if he donates a degree of bodily exertion to the enterprise, he does so passively, almost stupidly.  He treats his body as a cog in an impersonal machine.  It seems to me that when José Canseco tried to mount a defense of steroid use in Juiced, he produced an argument that would justify the eventual introduction of artificial intelligence into the game.  If a fake human generates more and longer home runs, then give us more fake humans on the field.  That’s what the fans want!

I won’t moralize about cheating beyond the game—not today.  Some of you were already incensed, apparently, at my having taken a step or two off the reservation last week.  I’m too old to care, my friends… but I do agree that a baseball blog should stay focused on baseball (just as I do not agree that the MLB should be emblazoning bases with “BLM”).  Keeping entirely within the foul lines, therefore, I close with these questions.  Why do so many professional ballplayers want a rule requiring two infielders on either side of second base before each pitch is delivered… yet none of them ever gives a thought to shifting position in the box as the pitcher winds up?  Why are most of them comfortable with a baserunner’s wearing an “oven mitt” that may extend his reach to a base by almost half a foot… yet they gripe when a pitcher launches into an accelerated delivery, or else throws an delaying kink or two into his pump?

My questions are not intended to express sympathy with pitchers or defenses rather than with hitters or offenses.  I’m an offense-friendly guy.  I just wonder if our human intelligence, in this game and elsewhere, is backsliding into a mechanistic mode that resents having to go off the blueprint and be spontaneous or creative.  Cheating used to cover mostly those who, perhaps, grew a little too inventive.  Isn’t it now, as a category, coming more and more to feel out a distinction between good and bad kinds of mechanization?  When fielders have little pads on their wrists or in their caps (give it another year or two) which integrate the very latest data on Freddie Freeman’s contact with back-foot sliders, that’ll be just fine.  Everybody will be doing it.  And when another pad worn behind the elbow guard tells the hitter what the probabilities are that Gerret Cole will change speeds in this count… oh, that’ll be unbelievably cool!  But bugging your opponent’s locker room will remain reinlich verboten.

Machines, you know, have their codes, too.  But where has the purely human joy—and the distinctly athletic joy—gone of pressing one’s skills and genius to the thin edge of a rigid box?