baseball history, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitching, pitching velocity, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Using Baseball to Stay Sane in Lockdown

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I hadn’t really been thinking about “backyard baseball” as a distraction from the anxieties of a thoroughly miserable year, even though I’ve been using it that way for months. As I build myself back up from battling prostate cancer earlier this summer, swatting a few balls off the pitching machine has become a favorite diversion. Occasionally, I blunder upon what I think is a significant insight and create a video. Over the past two weeks, though, my camera has remained veiled. I haven’t been able to speak clearly, thanks to a round with something called Bell’s Palsy—a fairly benign debility that seems to ride in piggy-back on sinus infections and clears up without treatment after two or three months. Or sometimes as much as six months. Yikes! That’s a long haul between videos!

But I think I’ll be filming again in just a few days. The Plasma Emission Radiant Light machine that I purchased to help me chase cancer cells away (I discovered Rife technology first at the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana) turned out to have a program set for—of all things—Bell’s Palsy. I’ve run it each night for almost a week now, and I’m making very rapid progress.

Really, though… what a year! And it’s far from over. This past weekend, a person who sits right atop of my Most Important People in the World list phoned me to say that he had checked himself into the hospital with acute depression and thoughts of suicide. Thank God he had sense enough to seek assistance! Would you believe that in the 18-to-24-year-old demographic, death is twenty-six times more likely to occur from suicide than from COVID-19? Young people, with their active social lives, their heavy dependency on peers for the formation of an evolving ego, their struggles to get firm footing in the world of gainful employment, and so on have a heightened sensitivity to the effects of lockdown. Deny them the freedom to mingle with others, week after week after week, and some just give up on life.

It’s in the light of this sobering realization, especially, that I’ve been thinking explicitly about baseball as an escape valve. And I don’t mean watching the MLB on ESPN. What’s going on there is a brave try at entertainment… but it’s not the same without crowds, and—alas—it’s more of the same with regard to the quality of play we’ve witnessed in recent years. Hitters try to work counts, taking close pitches even when they have two strikes. Pitchers, all too often, don’t seem to have been prepared by “summer camp” to pound the zone. We see a lot of walks mixed in with a lot of strikeouts. So the spectacle is usually pretty boring… and then, of course, you’re not getting that all-important sunlight that helps you biochemically to sustain a good mood when you watch someone else play the game. Particularly if you had hopes of using Summer 2020 to shine before scouts or to hone your skills before the 2021 season, you have to be completely bummed out about how this year has gone.

But to turn the situation on its ear, you might say that no time has ever been more apt for trying out outlandishly unique methods. I recall Walt Hriniak writing at the beginning of A Hitting Clinic that the hardest players to coach were those who were just good enough to stay in the line-up. They knew they weren’t all that good; in fact, they were painfully aware of their precarious position at the very edge of the tolerable. At .240 or .250 (what would it be today—.205?), they couldn’t afford to get any worse, and tinkering around might just sabotage what little proficiency they currently possessed with a bat. A similar mindset probably keeps any player in any league from breaking down his technique and rebuilding it just as the season is about to start. You’re not sure if trying such-and-such might improve your game or not… and as your game stands, you’ll probably make the team. Better play it safe and not mess with “good enough”.

I wonder how many ballplayers this timidity keeps from reaching their potential? My point in the present circumstances is that no one need be thus timid. Many of you may not even have another teammate to practice with. You’re on your own. So if your pitching or hitting is marginal, why not attempt a radical overhaul while nobody’s looking? Go play ball by yourself. Put a plate in front of the L-screen and pitch. Use a batting cage if you have access to one; or if you don’t, find a machine that challenges you but won’t produce breakage in nearby windows.

I wish I had a dime for every time I discovered an improvement while messing about with my Personal Pitcher, a gizmo that spews golf-sized Wiffle balls. I had such an experience just last week. I wouldn’t have believed that loading the bottom hand ever so slightly higher than the top hand would generate a swifter, more powerful linear attack into the pitch… but so it does. I’ll analyze more closely what I think goes on here at a later time; but in a nutshell, it seems that giving the bottom hand more of a “run” into the pitch yields a straighter, faster drive in the barrel. Think of a bullet traveling down a longer bore: its path to the target is more accurate thanks to the additional guidance it receives… or something like that.

(By the way… I found that my beloved, archaic shuffle into the pitch—the load from the mobile back foot whose shift is catalyzed by the lifting barrel—appeared briefly in a 2004 game between the Mets and Astros. Pedro Martinez was facing Pedro Astacio. Good game! Jose Reyes was the bad boy who attempted a move that I thought had been abandoned fifty years earlier; and, no, it didn’t produce a safety for him. But what a surprise, just to see that someone in the game so recently was bringing to it such a degree of resourcefulness! Times of confinement like these are also excellent occasions to dust off the old video library and look therein for new ideas.)

I’ve resumed messing about with pitching, as well. In fact, having most of my prostate removed has left me incredibly more agile in my throwing motion, so my problem was obviously affecting me physically for a long time in ways that I never suspected. I continue to operate on the assumption that having all the body’s members rotate in the same “wheel” generates speed while also greatly reducing risk to the throwing arm. In the process of trying to build on that assumption, I seem to be finding that thrusting the forward elbow within the “wheel of delivery” at just the right moment and with conscious vigor greatly improves accuracy as well as velocity. I’d like to test this theory much further, and especially to see if it produces good results for me from the left side, where my throwing motion isn’t at all natural. I’m excited by initial results.

I repeat that these are discoveries made almost haphazardly. They occur largely because I just happened to be outside with a bat or a ball messing around. Sometimes I conceive of a theory lying in bed at night and then give it a test flight the next day; but either way, I probably wouldn’t enjoy nearly the degree of serendipity that I do if I were working out with teammates and feared looking like a complete idiot! One test that I lately tried proved painful and may very possibly not be resumed: swinging cross-wristed. I know that a few Deadball players like Dave Bancroft (HOF) somehow employed this style successfully; even a young Henry Aaron favored it before a scout told him confidentially that the professional game would never take him seriously if he didn’t adopt the orthodox grip. So you know that cross-wristed hitting was paying off for a smattering of well-coordinated batsmen in some curious way or other. I wasn’t able to convince myself that I’d uncovered its secret. Maybe some other time.

Have fun with the game. Be daring. Maybe you won’t be able to integrate any little nuggets that wash up as you fool around into your advanced game. Foolery, though, is part of the game’s joy: being a kid, going a little crazy as the sun shines. Couldn’t we all do with a dose of that joy these days?

arm health, baseball history, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Throwing Lefty: Not As Hard As You May Think

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One thing’s for sure: we all have a lot of time on our hands right now.  I need to keep a tight rein on myself beyond this point.  I have another blog where I vent my frustration with the Nanny State and with our day’s saturation in unresearched factoids and malicious propaganda.  Part of the reason I flee to baseball is so that the acid of those reflections doesn’t dissolve what’s left of my sanity.

So… here’s a thought.  If you want to pitch but are of short stature or otherwise limited by unpromising parameters, why not throw left?  I know, I know: it’s not like you can just go out and become a southpaw the way you can learn to pick a guitar in a few months of practice… or is it?  Are we so very sure it’s not?

I’ve often found that the learning curve involved in preparation for a seemingly impossible undertaking is very steep only on the initial slope.  Unlike climbing Everest, which gets steeper as one moves higher, the roughest spots confront the first few steps.  Mountain-climbing is itself a good example.  Overcoming a fear of heights, learning to keep one’s balance, resisting the natural sense of panic or rush… these are all tasks that might crush the novice.  If only he can get past them, then subsequent stages of achievement fit together much more speedily, like a jigsaw puzzle already half-assembled.

I think the heftiest obstacle to throwing left-handed is just the “I can’t do this” feeling which greets your first tries.  Be analytical.  Why can’t you do this?  Why can you do it right-handed: what are you doing one way that you’re not doing the other?  Break it all down.  What’s your first move from your good side?  Are you replicating that move from the other side?  Follow Phase One with Phase Two.  Where does the train jump the track?  Be hyper-aware of how all parts are connected.  If your left hand seems to come up and rotate back much earlier than your right, that’s probably because your back is arching—which, in turn, is probably because your head is falling off to the side rather than driving forward, a movement itself caused by the front shoulder’s flopping open immediately rather than mapping out a powerful, fluid path toward the objective.  Very, very often in pitiable weak-side endeavors, the hidden culprit is the strong side.  When it doesn’t get to take the lead, it wants to pack up its marbles and go home rather than assume a supporting role.

At the very least, acquiring a little dexterity (literally, “right-handedness”) on your weak side will make you better informed about your strong side.  I really like the low overhand angle—almost sidearm—that I call “9:30” or “10 o’clock” (with 9 being full sidearm).  I throw that way from the right side with very little effort or discomfort, whereas a more overhand delivery puts a strain on my physique (since my frame is quite broad for my height).  As a matter of fact, I just posted a video summarizing my current “best advice” about delivering from this arm angle: see “Update of the Low Overhand Motion”.

I would likely never have known the importance of keeping my throwing hand from rising too soon if I hadn’t encountered a little pain when making that error left-handed.  Now I know, consciously and objectively, that I want to keep my hand from reaching full cock until my chin breaks away from my front shoulder… and by that point, I’m already far from the up-and-down on the rubber, and am indeed about to leave that perch behind entirely.  In the future, if my right-hand mechanics were to get fouled up, I’d have those items on my checklist.  In other words, through having made my strong-side successes explicit by trying to repeat them on the weak side, I know pretty much exactly what’s happening when things are going well.

Naturally, this all applies equally to hitting.  But switch-hitters, rare as they are, seem a thousand times more abundant than switch-pitchers.  Or since switching is in itself a very labor-intensive skill, even if you have good coordination from either side, let’s look at it from a less fanciful angle.  Guys who bat with their stronger hand on the bottom aren’t all that rare (George Brett, Wade Boggs, Freddie Freeman… and even the much rarer lefty-batting-right isn’t unheard-of, as in the case of Rickey Henderson or of my hometown hero, Carl Warwick); yet guys who reach for doorknobs with their right while throwing left are one in a million.  I can think only of Tris Speaker and Billy Wagner, both of whom became southpaws because of injury to their right wing.

So the insight seems to be this: pitching from your weaker side is a heck of a lot harder than hitting from that side.  There are actually several advantages to having the stronger hand down on the bat’s knob; there are none to having the stronger arm driving toward the plate with a glove on.

Why bother learning to pitch left-handed, then, since it’s sure to be extremely challenging?  Like the Everest-climber, you could say, “Because it’s there”… but ballplayers have better things to do than accept idle challenges just to prove their character.  The game demands exhausting practice even of the most natural skills.  No, the basic reason is precisely because so few pitchers throw left-handed.  As a result, right-side hitters (about ninety percent of the typical line-up) don’t quite know what to do with offerings that come veering into them.  They’re used to crowding the plate in order to rake an evasive slider and be quick on a sneaky inside fastball.  When a pitch, especially from the 10 o’clock angle, comes looping under their barrel, they roll over the outside offering and completely whiff on the inside one—or else pull it far foul or smack it off their toe.  Our lefty has to keep that inside one low, to be sure: he has to exploit the physical fact that the bat lifts into the hands at a severe angle when it’s trained through the low/inside quadrant.  The high pitch is better off staying outside (or else chin-high… or both).

I speak here in the assumption that Lefty is a natural right-hander who (unlike Billy Wagner) has never learned to throw very hard from his weaker side.  As long as he has mastered control, he doesn’t really need velocity—or not nearly so much as the right-hander.  He’s better off trying to be Whitey Ford than Randy Johnson.  Attempting to rush it up there when Mother Nature isn’t sending him a lot of immediate bio-feedback is a good way to become a permanent righty, whether he wants to be or not.

But there’s the dilemma: consistent accuracy from your weaker side poses a tremendous challenge.  Well, that’s where practice comes in—that’s why you shouldn’t try this unless you’re willing to grind it out, any more than you should aspire to play flamenco guitar in two weeks.  Nevertheless, I think accuracy is a much more desirable target than velocity.  Not only will it get more hitters out: it will expose your arm to less risk, since your mind will be better focused on specific movements and less inclined to override your body’s incidental warnings.

Start small—start tiny.  Throw indoors, without actually throwing: just rehearse the motion, over and over.  When you do throw baseballs at a screen, stand close.  Don’t tempt your mind to chase after velocity in the early stages.  As long as you’re a mere fifteen or twenty feet from the target, the devil in you won’t be whispering, “Let’s see if we can get this one to pop!”

Well, that’s my crazy idea for today’s crazy times.  If you want to see a video that I made just a few days ago on this very subject, click here.

baseball history, general health, off-season preparation, Uncategorized

Health: Diet and Common Sense

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The Grim Reaper’s shadow seems to fall heavily upon us just now.  There’s plenty of reason to believe that the single story bombarding us from every direction is at least somewhat manufactured.  (I’d be willing to bet that you’ve never yet heard the truth about Italy’s especially harsh experience of the coronavirus: how the Chinese bought several plants in the Lombardy region, where the vast majority of cases have occurred, and proceeded to import a hundred thousand of their own workers from—guess where?—Wuhan!)  Yet if we’re being played to some extent, exactly what is that extent?  Who can tell?

So you want to retreat, naturally, to some honest endeavor like sports, where sign-stealing is the worst fraud imaginable… and then you hear that sporting events across the board are being canceled.  The MLB has scrapped the last two weeks of spring training and pushed the season opener back a further two weeks: more time to brood and grow paranoid!

I have personal reasons (and, to me, much better ones) than an imported quasi-flu bug for thinking seriously about mortality these days.  My body betrayed me last month, and now I’m waiting around for Corona dust to settle so that I can convince the doctors to schedule a minor surgery.  I’ve been pretty good to my machine over the years, so I hope for full recovery by some time in June.  If I ever did anything that gives me pause now, it’s over-exposing bare face and arms to long hours of summer sun when I was “indestructible”.  I’m afraid we knew little about sun screen when I was twenty—or at least I don’t recall ever being warned about its advisability.  Ballplayers of my son’s age appear more aware of the risks and usually take appropriate precautions.  That’s good.

But why, oh why, do some of these same kids chew tobacco?  One boy I recollect from a travel team about ten years ago wanted his mom to rush out and buy some Skoal so that the scouts said to be attending a tournament would see the telltale circle projecting from his rear pocket.  Why have young people, especially in this game, still not gotten the message that tobacco kills?  My father and father-in-law both died of its long-term consequences.  They were “benignly” introduced to it during World War II by Uncle Sam, who wanted GI’s to have a way of chilling out when not under fire.  Why, though, do I continue to see a big-league stud here and there with a wad pushing out his lower lip?

Harvey Kuenn—1953 Rookie of the Year, owner of over 2,000 hits, 1959 AL batting champ, and manager of a Brewers team that almost won the 1982 Series (Harvey’s Wallbangers)—always had a big, juicy gob in his cheek.  He lost a leg to a blood clot and then, within a decade, lost his life to further cardiac problems: complaints not unrelated to tobacco use.  Bob Allison, co-starring slugger of some dynamic Twins teams in the Sixties along with Harmon Killebrew, would speak late in life to Twins recruits at spring training through a twangy, monotone replacement for his voice box, begging the boys not to stray down the tobacco path.  Yet still, after so many decades and so many painful deaths of good men, I see this suicidal behavior.

Playing hours a day under the sun already introduces a risk factor.  Why double up on the risk—why give the Reaper an extra shot at you with his scythe?  You’re not indestructible, believe me.  You seem that way now… but no one’s indestructible.  Not anywhere close.

Everyone on earth, but especially ballplayers, should strike up a close friendship with antioxidants.  They’ll assist you in resisting practically any physical deterioration under the sun—including the effects of too much sun.  Where do you find them in the food world?  Vitamin C, of course: oranges, tomatoes, cranberries, and also exotic picks like kiwis.  My information is that the humble kiwi packs about ten times the VC punch as an orange.  You often read of rare tropical fruits in the ingredients of energy drinks, but I prefer having the real thing on hand to wondering if I’m getting a significant dose of it.

Do your research.  Prickly pear cactus, surprisingly, are another antioxidant superstar. How in the world do you eat the thick, stiff leaves of these?  Peeled: I don’t recommend them with the spines on board!  You can buy them in most parts of the nation on the “Mexican food” aisle (labeled nopalitos).  Their slimy texture makes them pretty off-putting by themselves; but if you stir them into an omelet or tacos, they fade into the background while bringing out the taste of everything else.  True team players!

Gojis and blueberries belong on the list.  The former are quite bitter off the bush (and I have two very hearty bushes—they survive anything); the latter leave tiny seeds in your teeth.  Okay, so be a big boy.  Mix the former with something sweeter, and rinse your mouth out after eating the latter.

Maybe this is an old man’s shift… but I really don’t know why it would be.  I added seaweed pills (Seanol) to my diet years ago, and lately I have been including a new homeophathic on the market called Pycnogenol.  These are extremely powerful antioxidants.  Yes, we older types are more likely to be investing in such supplements… but maybe more young people would reach a healthy old age if they would consider doing the same thing.

Most of you know about broccoli and spinach… and, to be sure, they also have their diehard enemies in the “delectability” department, like goji berries and nopalitos.  A healthy guy might want to learn some Gordon Ramsay skills: some of these items, admittedly, need a little dressing up.  The age when men invited doubts about their masculinity if they knew their way around the kitchen are long, long gone.  I believe I may have married the last woman who knew a skillet from a saucepan.

I read an email literally minutes ago that promoted seasonings like ginger, turmeric, and garlic.  I don’t think any of these delivers antioxidants, specifically—but they underscore the previous point.  Nobody goes around chewing a garlic, or not in civilized company.  You consume such things by learning to cook: you stir them in.  My wife adds ginger to carrots, and I put the other two (along with onions, chili peppers, and curcumin) in taco meat.  Cinnamon has some great properties, too, that the young idiots who suffocated themselves a few years ago while “taking the cinnamon challenge” over the Internet presumably didn’t know.  For breakfast, I’ve lately been stirring cinnamon and honey in with peanut butter to make toast from twelve-grain bread.  It’s a little healthier than a Pop Tart!

Walking around chewing things… are you still hooked on that?  I hear that sunflower seeds are beneficial in some way, though they’re not my preference; and they’ve apparently nudged tobacco out of the MLB’s “spitting in the dugout” market, for which single achievement we all owe them a debt of gratitude.  Peanuts can give you a bit of a bellyache if you’re constantly working on a mouthful—but practically all nuts, of course, have some antioxidants to go along with their potent proteins.  Almonds are particularly recommended.

This is just me… but I like to chew a little baking soda after downing my morning tea.  (I picked the tea habit up in Ireland decades ago, and I’m now trying to stop over-caffeinating—it’s probably part of my prostate problem; but green tea is, by the way, another fine antioxidant.  I hate the stuff… but you can blend it with other teas that don’t taste like mowed grass.)  No more than with tobacco would you ever want to swallow a mouthful of baking soda: spit the stuff out after a minute.  But sodium bicarbonate was actually the best antibiotic going before penicillin.  It may have kept our great-grandfathers alive through contagions like… well, the coronavirus.  You don’t really think that they didn’t have such assaults on their health a century or two ago, do you?  Yet here we are: they survived well enough to produce us.  We could do worse than to study just how they did it.

Come to think of it… that’s my constant refrain on SmallBallSuccess.com.  It applies to a lot more than hitting a baseball.

 

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.