baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Trying Too Hard for Too Long: Baseball’s Peculiar Penalty

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I honestly don’t pay much attention to the Hall of Fame these days.  On the one hand, political concerns (and I mean “political” as in “woke”) are starting to play far too large a role in the unstated criteria for admission; and on the other, new and somewhat controversial metrics like WAR are beginning to nudge aside common sense as a robotic generation of nerds insists that everything can be reduced to numbers.

In my relative indifference, then, I’m afraid that the selection of Ted Simmons to Cooperstown this past fall blew past me like a quick-pitched fastball.  There I was, getting sucked into discussions about Larry Walker… and the committee finally did right by one of the most all-around productive players of the rather unglamorous Seventies and Eighties.  Maybe there’s some use to Wins Above Replacement, after all (or maybe not: Ted’s WAR is almost identical to Fred McGriff’s, who is supposed to be a mere also-ran).

I mean, a switch-hitting catcher who hits for both average and power… how much versatility can you ask for?  Of course, power stats in those lackluster years would soon be eclipsed by the emergence of Steroids Superstars.  In the long, dark shadow of the Nineties, nobody remembers slugger Steve Balboni, who topped 30 home runs only once in his career; and scarcely more fans will recall Tony Armas (Senior), who reached that plateau just three times.  Ted’s comparatively modest average of 15 homers over a span of 14 seasons might fly under the radar; but the decade-and-a-half figure is highly significant.  Balboni and Armas both did their damage over about half a decade… and I could mention, say, Jeff Burroughs or Reggie Smith, who had more protracted and successful careers, but who likewise didn’t regularly log seasonal home runs in the thirties.

Ted’s 2,472 hits especially catch the eye.  His .285 career batting average matches Yogi’s—but Berra, surprisingly, had over 300 fewer safeties.  Johnny Bench is over a hundred behind Yogi, and his average trails that of the other two by almost twenty points.  Now, Johnny fought hard and bravely against injuries and ill health.  He was also the premier defensive catcher of his generation.  Yet there’s something—indeed, much—to be said for durability, particularly at the backstop position.  Ted had that in spades.

I’m sure that the sabermetricians are aware of such intangibles, and also of the relevance of “the times”… but the essence of such things is that you can’t really quantify them.  I respect anyone who tries, up to a point.  I may begin to grow a little disgusted, though, when Dexter Sliderule forgets that he’s only approximating, and shifts into a more insistent mode.  The numbers are helpful.  They’re indispensable, even.  Yet they cannot be considered as the first and last word, with nothing in between.

I’ll devote the final half of today’s ramble to a thought that first struck me when I was viewing the career of Sam Rice.  The lifetime .322 hitter accumulated 2,987 career hits—yes, a puny thirteen shy of 3.000.  Any fan of today would wonder immediately why Rice didn’t polish off such a superhuman accomplishment.  Did he lose his eyesight?  Was his hand destroyed in an off-season accident?  Nothing so dramatic: he simply hadn’t realized that he was within a sneeze of turning over the “thousands” counter!

Now consider how many later players (Sam hung it up in 1934) desperately plod along just to reach some magic number that almost assures admission to the corridors of Mount Olympus: 400 homers (now 500), 3,000 hits or strikeouts, 300 wins.  Because these somewhat arbitrary figures came to achieve canonical status as the game aged, chasing after one of them often grew to be the obsession of the individual player and—with all the publicizing made possible by television—the prime marketing strategy of many a franchise.

The obsession can be fatal.  In wasn’t to Pete Rose: he found other ways to shoot himself in the foot.  But his career average very nearly dipped under .300 (.303) as he stumbled after Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.  During his final seven seasons on the active roster, Pete topped .300 only once (and .271 only once more).  His official at-bats over that period ranged between a part-time 365 and a nearly invisible 26.  Anything to get Number 4,190!

Craig Biggio at least registered full seasons right to the end, with his seasonal batting average dipping below .250 just once (by four points).  Why the HOF electors treated him like a pathetic nag toppling over the 3,000-hit finish line on three legs, I’ll never understand.

I mentioned Fred McGriff parenthetically above.  Having come short of 500 home runs by a paltry seven, Fred perhaps damaged more than helped his case by hanging around for a final 410 AB’s only to grind out fifteen more dingers.  His average over this span dipped well under the .250 mediocrity mark.

Duke Snider, likewise, may have rubbed more luster off his career than he added by hanging around long enough to tally 407 round-trippers.  Very similar to McGriff, Duke had a bit over 500 AB’s in his final two seasons, hitting well under .250 during the span.  The trade-off was an additional 18 homers.

You could say that Snider at least found his happy ending (though he had to wait sixteen years for the Sportswriters’ approval).  His teammate Gil Hodges suffered what has been the fate—so far—of Fred McGriff.  The cornerstone of the champion Brooklyn Dodgers’ defense, said to have the surest hands of any first-sacker in his generation, Gil sadly ran out of offensive gas in his bid to reach 400 home runs.  Hodges was already at 298 after his first ten full years of service.  You had to figure that he could round up another 102 within three of four years… certainly within five.  But the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA at just that point, and the shift to a track-and-field stadium ridiculously rehabilitated as a baseball quasi-diamond favored neither his style nor Snider’s.  Gil’s offensive totals plunged across the board; he eked out a mere 25 home runs over his last four seasons—which, to be sure, represented scarcely over 500 AB’s.  Two of these seasons saw Hodges returning to New York (again, like Snider) on the expansion-formed Mets in a clever marketing scheme to capture some of the old Ebbets Field enthusiasm.  Like Jackie Robinson, Gil should probably have said “no” to the original West Coast move; he should certainly have declined to be humiliated over those final four seasons (during one of which—1960—he batted .198).

What shall we say, then, of players who were perennial All Stars for a decade, had probably stacked enough lumber over that period to achieve serious consideration for Cooperstown… and then stayed year after frustrating year trying to seal the deal?  Albert Pujols won’t damage his legacy, or even his first-round election… but he should have retired two or three years ago.  Barry Bonds would not be cooling his heels in Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Limbo if he hadn’t allowed majestic numbers to woo him beyond the parameters set by Mother Nature.

Numbers.  They’re too much in our heads, with too little context.  WAR is apparently an attempt to supply context and to substitute a more legitimate number. How, though, do you factor in an allowance for a player who would have been among your elite few if you hadn’t distracted him with other magical numbers?

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, baseball history, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, umpires, Uncategorized

“Crime Dog” Permanently Exiled to Sportswriters’ Doghouse

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I found an article by Matt Snyder that says most of what I have to say much better than I can say it.  The bottom line is that Fred McGriff again came woefully short of entry into the Hall of Fame, that this was his last year of normal eligibility… and that he’s been done wrong.

Snyder observes that the Crime Dog logged ten seasons of thirty or more home runs.  I would add that seven of these came consecutively, and that the two ensuing seasons of 27 and 28 were both reduced thanks to a players’ strike.  (Well… Snyder had to remind me here that 1994 was virtually cut in half—and he finely observes that McGriff would have blown the lid off several categories if allowed to continue his work that year).  Twelve 30+ home-run seasons adorned Fred’s résumé by the time he hung up the spikes (two of them played out under the extreme distraction of a mid-season trade).

Here’s my special gripe about the matter, which a professional sportswriter would probably be ill advised to express as openly as I will do.  McGriff’s totals were compiled right in the heart of the Steroids Era.  They did not fluctuate so as to indicate mysteriously magnified physical power: they reached a plateau and stayed there for a decade.  That McGriff was his league’s home-run leader in only two seasons (36 with the Blue Jays in 1990, 35 with the Padres in 1992) isn’t a sign that he was an “average” middle-order slugger for his time; it is instead evidence, I should say, that the average was being grossly inflated around him by PED’s.  Furthermore, Fred’s ability to replicate his power numbers in Toronto, San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago (Cubs) demonstrates that there was nothing place-specific (e.g., dry, thin air or a secret system for stealing pitches) about his performance.

I’ll diverge from my main point for just a moment.  Let’s stick with hitter-friendly ballparks briefly.  From 1987 to 2002, Fred’s On-Base Percentage dipped into the .350s (still very respectable) only twice.  From 1997 to 2004, however, one of this year’s inductees, Larry Walker, reeled off a really impressive string of nine seasons with an OBP of over .400.  Yet these were Walker’s Colorado years; elsewhere his typical value fluctuated much more than McGriff’s.  Walker’s 383 homers, besides, are not overwhelming when one considers his ten seasons in Coors Field (only one of which—1997—saw his tally exploding up to 49; he topped 30 only three other times); and his career doubles total, while regal at 471, is only 30 ahead of McGriff’s in ballparks where hits didn’t carry with the same force.  Yes, Fred enjoyed about 1,700 more AB’s than Larry… but he also walked almost 400 more times, notably higher than Walker’s rate.

Indeed, I suspect we may see here part of the “reverse mystique” of Fred McGriff.  He was the ultimate in patient hitting.  He consistently gave up the outside corner.  The “damage” he did to his reputation as a savage slugger by exhibiting such self-control makes me recall what I’ve read about Ted Williams’ relative unpopularity when Joe DiMaggio was stirred into the same discussion during their days of active play.  People like to see Mighty Casey expand the zone with two strikes and take his chances on chipping one down the off-field line with a furious hack.  Not only did Fred, like Ted, not fit this model: McGriff, unlike Williams, never had a caustic word for umpires who rung him up on something a little off the plate.  Fred McGriff was as polite a human being as ever wore a baseball uniform.

Another debatable Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, amassed numbers mostly a bit better than Larry Walker’s across the board—and he did so without benefit of Coors Field’s thin air.  Where Cepeda’s figures distinctly underperform Walker’s (BA, OBP), they seem to me to reflect his time’s preference for more aggressive sluggers who didn’t try to work walks.  Again, fans like the “madman with a machete” image of power-hitting—which fact may indeed have impeded Larry’s ascent to the Hall.  (Snyder rightly scoffs at the word-of-mouth “most feared of his day” criterion, another morph of the “wild man” stereotype.)  Cepeda had two other off-the-field factors working in his favor, as well.  One was his Latino identity: the sportswriter clan wanted somebody besides Clemente representing that demographic.  The other was that Orlando ran afoul of laws prohibiting the use of recreational drugs.  The feeling among the chattering white-collar classes (and I lived through those days, so I can tell you that such “feelings” were palpable) was in favor of sticking it to self-righteous “family values” politicians.  That feeling, by the way—in case you’ve been living in a world engineered by your own preferred hallucinogen—has so mushroomed among the Hall’s electors as to overshadow a lot of factual evidence.

Now, I’m not arguing that either Orlando Cepeda or Larry Walker doesn’t belong on baseball’s Mount Olympus.  What I believe we see in an alignment of all three cases is just how subjective the verdict of these “sportswriters” can be.  I’m not even going to tackle the question of Wins Above Replacement: Wikipedia observes that sabermetricians have not even reached agreement on how to make the calculation.  Grounding into double-plays, for instance, apparently brings a mandatory deduction—and I have to say that only a bunch of nerdy eggheads could seriously exact such a sanction.  Double-play balls are hard hit (just ask Hank Aaron, the all-time leader); and any professional batsman will tell you that his objective is to make solid contact and leave the rest to the baseball gods.  You can’t control such factors as how slow afoot the batting champ is who hits in front of you or how slick the middle infielders of your division rivals are.

So let’s return to subjectivity in the voting: to “perception”.  The major issue that seems to me unaddressed in McGriff’s case is steroids.  He didn’t use them.  If the sun rises in the east, this man was clean.  Fred was as thin as a rail, from his rookie year to his last AB with Tampa Bay.  I don’t know how he did it, because most of us bulk up simply from the normal effects of aging.  Larry Walker certainly became “thicker”.  So did Frank Thomas.  Did Walker fall under an unvoiced suspicion among the electors, like Craig Biggio with his Popeye-like forearms in later years—or like Jeff “I ain’t saying nothing” Bagwell (both of them teammates of Ken Camminiti, who lost his life to the effects of PED’s)?  Thomas was admitted to Cooperstown immediately; Craig had to wait three years.  Why?  Was it because the “writers” were afraid to slander the Big Hurt lest their reluctance be interpreted as bigotry—the same dread that made them back off when Albert Pujolz indignantly denied rumors of “using” a few years back?

But the same writers and broadcasters will counter, “No, we never looked at size—you can’t tell by size.  Steroids make you heal faster: they don’t necessarily make you bigger.”  Oh, so… so that lets you conjure up a cloud of steroid-usage pretty much anywhere you want, just to reinforce or justify an existing prejudice.  The astonishing steadiness of McGriff’s output straight through the minefield of the Steroids Era, then, is of no interest to you: you’ll just keep analyzing his performance against the Rafael Palmeiros and Andres Galarragas of his day… and that makes for a mediocre WAR.  Okay.

Fred McGriff deserves to be rewarded for not breaking the rules: besides a career which is distinguished by any measure, he deserves special consideration for that.  How are we to expect law-abiding conduct of our children when they see that (in Leo Durocher’s immortal phrase) “nice guys finish last”?  But the twits who make these calls have little respect for society’s rules.  They’re the same pack, essentially—their intellectual DNA is the same—as persistently ignored Gil Hodges, the supreme first-stacker of his generation who was briefly the National League’s all-time right-handed home-run king, and who served his nation fighting in the heart of World War Two’s bloodiest theater… and who skippered the Miracle Mets… ignored Gil Hodges because he was a quiet man and didn’t vocally, fists flying, champion Jackie Robinson.  So they say, these twits with their algorithms who never had the guts to champion anyone chin-first.

Look at what they’ve done to Curt Schilling.  At least Curt knew what he was getting into by speaking his mind in our “free society”.  As for Fred… Fred is so like Gil, in a way: a quiet gentleman who didn’t spout quotable comments and didn’t fuel exciting controversies.  Just a decent human being who went about his business.  They hate those.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Uncategorized

Cheating: Always Wrong… and Always With Us

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First of all, cheating is wrong.  It was really wrong as the Minnesota Twins practiced it in the 1991 World Series: turning on the blowers when their guys were at bat to assist outward-bound fly balls.  (Recall that Kirby Puckett’s critical homer off of Charlie Leibrandt barely cleared the screen.)  It was wrong in 1954, when the New York Giants won most of their final forty games after positioning a spy with binoculars in the Polo Grounds clubhouse beyond the center field fence and running a telegraph wire to the third-base coach’s box.  (Bobby “The Giants win the pennant!” Thompson always swore that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch… but we’ll never know for sure.)  Yet the verdict of neither of those series was overturned.  So I’d like all the people who want the Astros and the Red Sox stripped of their titles to pipe down.  Should we dethrone the ’89 Athletics because a bulked-up Canseco and his new disciple, Mark McGwire, anchored their line-up?  How about retroactively awarding all trophies in the Nineties to last-place teams, on the assumption that their players were shooting up the least?

No, I’m not in any way condoning foul play.  On the contrary, I’m encouraging those who are most enraged at the current sign-stealing scandal to grow up a little and recognize that we who play fair have always contended with such issues—and have usually done so with little support from governing bodies.  The last formal ball game my son ever played was in a “Christian” college tournament whose participants, for the most part, had discovered a lost Beatitude: “Blessed are they who win at any cost, for nice guys finish last.”  I watched the whole team in the opposing dugout hang on the chain-link fence and howl like apes at the zoo with all the Red Bull running in their veins; I watched their pitcher drill our best hitter twice in an obvious attempt to knock him out of the game (and just as obviously on orders); then I heard one of their coaches tell a player, “We won—that’s all that matters,” as we exited the park. Did I give up on the game after that night? No more than I gave up on my religious faith.

Cheating… yeah, it stinks.  My first experience of coaching was when I was told that my seven-year-old wouldn’t have a team if I didn’t consent to manage it, because more kids were signing up than the league could handle.  A much-recycled line, that, as I would learn later.  Every season needed a couple of “punching bag” teams to provide easy W’s.  My fellow punching-bag nominee that spring told me later that he skipped draft night, assuming that the vultures would leave him better scraps just to cover up their scheme than if he showed up and tried to pick from a list of two or three hundred unknown names.  He at least knew what he was getting into.

I could go on and on about how imbalanced the MLB pay scale is… but I’ve never believed the premise of that particular gripe.  The Washington Nationals finally unload their superstar, Bryce Harper, who goes to a Phillies club with a “win or die” approach to check-writing… and the Nats win the Series, while the Phils stumble across the finish line just ahead of the Marlins.  Coaching, chemistry, luck—a lot of variables besides salary must be factored into the equation.

And, in any case… yes, I’ll say it: how do we know that the Nats weren’t stealing signs, as well?  And the Dodgers?  And the Yankees?  If two or three teams are doing it, why would we suppose that every squad in both leagues isn’t doing it?  Maybe the teams that get caught are the ones that are really bad—really clumsy, stupid—cheaters.  Come on, now!  If I’m a struggling 23-year-old, why wouldn’t I buy my girlfriend an iPhone and season tickets behind the plate?  She watches the broadcast, sees the signs from the center-field camera, and gives me a, “Let’s go, Rusty!” every time a fastball is coming… a, “Let’s go, Sixteen!” for the slider… a, “You can do it, Rusty!” for the change.  Do you really think ballplayers, individually and collectively, didn’t figure out a long time ago what electronics can do for them in this area?  Remember the Polo Grounds?

Some players don’t even want to know what’s coming.  I think it was John Roseboro who wrote that he used to drive Orlando Cepeda crazy by tipping him to the pitches.  Baby Bull would turn around and whine, “Stop that!”—but Rosie would keep it up, because it worked.  For that matter, I find it hard to believe that Jose Altuve gives a tinker’s damn (as they used to say in Ireland) about knowing the pitch in advance.  The man who has been baseball’s premier hitter in many categories over the past five years swings at pretty much everything, just like most of the .400 hitters of the Deadball Era.  How on earth did those oldtimers get away with that?  Because, like Cepeda, they were front-foot hitters.  Their default approach was to inside-out everything served up to them, dragging the barrel well behind the hands—which gave them more time to track the ball; and, if the pitch happened to break in on them, causing them to get out in front… well, they were “fooled” into pulling the ball, and the result was often a fouled-up defense and extra bases.

This is how guys used to approach at-bats, I’m convinced: get the barrel on the ball.  Wherever it’s pitched, get the barrel to it, even if you end up on your face or your back.  Some ugly, awkward swings… and some very confused defenses and very high averages.  Of course, those stickers and strikers of a century ago weren’t carrying 31-inch Little League shillelaghs to the plate.  The typical bat of our era almost requires that you single out a certain pitch in a certain spot while taking everything else.  Since all of our hitters today are guess-hitters, anyway… well, why not look for a little confirmation of your best guess?

How many pitchers, even at the Big League level, can consistently get three pitches over on any given outing?  Most of them are throwing two pitches 75 percent of the time.  And how many, besides, dare cross up the hitter’s expectations and throw a 3/2 breaking ball or an 0/2 fastball over the plate?  Realistically, pitch-stealing would provide one of today’s professional hitters little more information than he’s already figured out on his own (with the massive aid of far better scouting reports and video than you could get from Homeland Security).  The Astros, so the stats suggest, have become very good two-strike hitters.  So… how many hitters don’t know what they’re likely to get with two strikes from a given pitcher in a given count and in a given situation?

I’m sorry… but considering our day’s penchant for playing the victim and demanding that bullies be crucified up and down every highway and byway, I can’t find a lot of outrage to vent over this particular scandal.  We’re always on the lookout for another occasion to scream, “Unfair!”  And the MLB, of course (like the NFL, the NBA, and all other multi-billion-dollar industries), is always quick to do damage control when it can’t keep every detail of its sausage-making from leaking out before a gullible public.  If you “cheat smart”, then we up here in the penthouse see nothing; if you get caught… oh, boy, are we going to be outraged with you!  You’re fired!  You’re banned for life!  How dare you soil our sport!

Yeah, okay.  Okay.  Meanwhile… how about young hitters learn to hit something besides a single pitch that they know is coming?

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.