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?

baseball history, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, umpires

They All Built Cooperstown, Though Only a Few Are Enshrined There

George McQuinn

I completely whiffed on Lou Brock’s passing, even when I began last week’s post by citing all the notable baseball departures from our world that I’d left uneulogized.  It’s not as though 2020 has lacked distraction, either at the public or the personal level; so I’m not going to tender an abject apology.  Yet I have to say that… well, Lou’s mortality shocked me in much the same way that my own did this past summer.  The evidence is pretty conclusive now that my prostate cancer is hereditary.  That explains why my always-fastidious diet and my quasi-religious commitment to regular exercise were no defense.  Still, Lou Brock… I haven’t researched his cause of death, but if ever anyone might have been predicted to live a century… sigh.  As old Seneca wrote, Nemo contigit impune nasci—which means, in liberal translation, that everybody has to die of something.

One thing I recall reading about Lou that I’ve never forgotten was that he numbered among the three ballplayers ever to power a homerun over the center-field fence at the Polo Grounds.  Picture Willie Mays running off into that infinite real estate to grab Vic Wertz’s drive over his shoulder… and then picture Brock hitting one that cleared all that grass and then cleared the wall.  Lou had tremendous power.  He could have been a homerun king had he not identified his gifts properly and determined that he would be of more use to his team as a get-on-base, take-an-extra-base kind of player.  The deep hitch with which he loaded his barrel created momentum at the stick’s end which didn’t require Killebrew-esque muscles to impart pop; and a less-than-all-out lowering of barrel into ball would also allow split-second adjustments to pitches that would spray them hither and yon around the park.  In an era when homerun fever was already epidemic in the Majors (ruining the careers of a lot of young black players, by the way, who’d figured out that they needed to hit like Frank Robinson rather than Bob Boyd to stick around), Lou was a throwback.  His patented stroke, his running game, and his mental approach have all long struck me as belonging to the Twenties or the Thirties rather than the Sixties.  Coming from my keyboard, that is supreme adulation.

The one other footnote I feel compelled to add about Brock is that the ultimate base thief was himself robbed in the critical final game 1968 World Series.  Lou, I’m sure, had been planning it earlier during the seven-game face-off: he would take a ridiculously long lead that forced a throw-over, then beat first-baseman Norm Cash’s peg to second.  He did so in the late innings of Game Seven off Mickey Lolich… only the umpire missed the call.  The preserved TV broadcast of the game offers a slow-motion replay of the action around second base.  Brock clearly beats the throw.  Harry Caray and his partner in the booth let an awkward, suspicious silence surround the replay.  In those days, broadcasters would never have questioned an umpire’s call—not on national television, and seldom on a local broadcast.  Yet the replay’s evidence is unequivocal.  Lou had done something that the second-base arbiter had never seen before.  If the pitcher surprises you by throwing over just as you leave in a sprint, and if the first-sacker delivers his relay on target, you’re supposed to be out.  It’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t be out.  The umpire called the play he saw in his mind rather than the one he saw with his eyes.

Lou could do that to you: he could make you think you hadn’t seen what you just saw.

I’m going to devote the second half of this post to what may seem a complete shift of subject… but I think it could be taken as part of my farewell to Lou.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote about poets a few months before he went missing during the final month of the West’s great war against fascism, good poets need bad poets; for the unsuccessful struggle, undertaken by many, to create beautiful poetry generates an atmosphere in which the poetic genius of a few is appreciated.

George McQuinn was one of those many not-so-great poets.  He was an above-average poet-in-cleats, and sometimes a pretty darn good one.  I came to know of him while watching highlights of the 1944 World Series—the only fall classic in which the hapless St. Louis Browns ever competed (and which they lost, of course, to the Cardinals).  I grew curious about the lanky six-footer with the sweet inside-out swing who led all Series participants in hits.  That drew me into the pages of a story which turns out to be a wide-open mystery, and whose resolution nobody with my meager resources will ever figure out.

McQuinn’s curtailed rookie adventure in 1936 didn’t set the world on fire, but had interest.  Though batting only .201 in 146 plate appearances, George logged four doubles and three triples among his 27 safeties.  Then, for four years, he took off.  In 1938, he batted .324 and smacked 42 doubles.  (Henry Aaron topped 40 only once in his 23-year career.)  McQuinn followed up with .316, .279, and .297 seasons, with the total of two-baggers registering 37, 39, and 28.  His triples reached double digits in two of these three golden years; and his homeruns, by the way, rang up respectable numbers at 20, 16, and 18.  For three out of George’s first four full seasons—1938 through 1941—his On Base Percentage flirted with .400: .384, .383, .343, and .388.  He was an All Star for the two middle seasons, and again in 1942. After the 1939 campaign, he ranked thirteenth in the MVP balloting.

And the numbers for All Star season of 1942, just before which I’ve drawn my dividing line, remained… well, okay.  Maybe the fans didn’t have much to choose from, since so many regulars were in uniform—in Uncle Sam’s uniform—by that time.  Yet the great mystery about George McQuinn strikes me as precisely that he fell off so steeply during those war years when the competition was light.  In 1943, he batted a mere .243 and struck only 33 extra-base hits of any kind; while in 1944, with a handful more of AB’s, those figures were .250 and 40.  The OBP lingered in the mid-300’s, because he had learned to draw more walks (or was being walked more by weaker pitching), with a career-high in free passes (85) occurring in 1944.  Still, there were no Brian Kenneys alerting the public that a walk’s as good as a hit during the Forties.

With the Yankees rather than the St. Louis Browns in 1947, McQuinn staged an impressive comeback: .304, a mere 40 extra-base hits again, but a career-best .395 OBP.  The following season, his at-bats almost cut in half, George nevertheless came within two of his previous year’s homerun total (11 and 13) but fell off over fifty points in both average and OBP.  Thus ends the career of one George McQuinn.

When I scribbled a book titled Key to a Cold City several years ago—a somewhat whimsical study of black ballplayers of the Fifties, undertaken on the suspicion that Jackie R. hadn’t really exploded the color barrier—I got used to looking at careers like George’s.  Of course, McQuinn was Caucasian… and therein lies the rub.  You think you see evidence of great promise being cheated by reduced playing time or undue pressure off the field—but maybe you don’t.  Maybe, like the umpire who wrongly called Lou out at second, you’re only seeing figments of the imagination.  What makes a career like McQuinn’s go south?  Injury?  Divorce?  Dissension with management or ownership?  Mere overreach—trying to be what you’re not?  Vada Pinson and Curt Flood, for instance, were two speed-merchants who declined to take Brock’s path and chased after power numbers instead of stolen bases… to the detriment of their overall offensive productivity.  But then, as I noted above, there was a lot of pressure on young black stars of that day to secure their place by whacking round-trippers.

What was George’s excuse?  Can anyone like me—anyone without a press pass or other golden bough that would win him admittance to locker rooms—ever know?  What ever happened to Jim Gentile after a couple of phenomenal seasons?  I only lately learned that Tom Tresh, like Tommy Davis, fell off the track to superstardom thanks to injury.

Lou Brock made it big in a profession where lots and lots of guys almost make it big, or make it big for a couple of years… maybe five or six.  And the reason that Pinson or Flood or Davis—or, for that matter, George McQuinn—is not Lou Brock may not really have much to do with Lou’s inherent superiority.  Baseball isn’t necessarily the ultimate meritocracy, as it has been called.  It’s also a poetic riddle whose imponderable answers are gathered together, in a kind of surrender, under the word “luck”.  A few very gifted and hard-working boys grow up to be Sweet Lou.  Many others grow up to be Pete Reeser, and wear themselves out running into walls.

Part of the glory of guys like Lou is that the sun shone fondly upon them throughout their day.  They knew that, too.  It inspired that speechless humility that you saw in them when they stood up to deliver a few words in Cooperstown.  The rest of us may try to make them irresistible demigods, always in full control of their own fate… but I think they all must know that something very special happened in their lives—something unresponsive to their personal direction.  Such is the grand mystery of success and failure, all bound up into human reality. And because many have failed—because most fail somewhere along the journey—a very few are left standing for all of us to admire.

Cooperstown is for everyone who ever tried.  I think Lou would like us to understand that.

baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Four Random Comments About Lower-Echelon and Old-School Baseball

“push-hitting” a pitch (Red Schoendienst)

Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan… so many unforgettable ballplayers have lately been called up to the highest league of all that commenting upon their loss–upon our loss of them–is simply beyond me. I’ve decided, instead, to go with a few stray ideas that have been swirling in my head for weeks. I think, just maybe, they would have preferred it this way.

I’ll get this one off my chest first.  Are you a dad of a relief pitcher who throws junk—“unbarrelable” junk that hitters put into play as bloopers and twelve-hoppers?  Then you know the anguish of watching your boy trying to shine in high school, on a summer travel team, or even in college.

I thought about this a lot during the years of torture when I’d watch my son’s successes at inducing weak contact be undermined, over and over, by shoddy fielding.  Relief pitchers tend to enter the game with runners on base.  One of these runners may well be on second.  Young shortstops have been coached since their first pair of cleats to bird-dog the runner on second as he takes his lead.  Owen was a righty, most hitters are righties, and most of my son’s wipe-out sliders were therefore going to be pulled to the left side… just where the shortstop is supposed to be playing.  But Studs Superstar is too busy yoyoing around the second sack to play his position… so bowling balls keep rolling to the outfield grass.

This is the coach’s fault.  It’s the fault of coaches even at college-level.  My son had a great inside pick-off move and, over the years, had compiled a formidable list of scalps when runners wandered too far from second.  He was so good at catching them off guard that the coach should actually have wanted them to get a big lead, as a spider wants a fly to check out its bright, shiny silk.  Instead… instead, Owen’s ERA would painfully inflate on a series of bleeders that reflected the very type of contact he was called in to induce.

Then, too, you have the inevitable but regrettable obsession of adolescents with offense.  Hitting becomes such a fixation that Jason over there at second is still brooding about his strikeout when an easy grounder comes his way, and Daz over at third is still replaying his homer in slo-mo as a ground ball almost chews off his shoelaces.  Of course, such butchery isn’t deficited to the pitcher’s ERA… but a loss or a blown save still shows up on his account if the miscues of others prove fatal; and, more importantly, the coach comes to feel that letting him pitch is a risk, though not due to the boy’s own ineptitude.

Over time, I believe this largely subconscious prejudice of coaches infects even the professional game.  Why do we have so many flamethrowers in the MLB who can’t put away a pivotal hitter in the inning?  Because, from Little League on up, gas was always the ticket.  Even in Double A, the change-up was something Mr. Potential could work on—but the heater was what got him that far up the ladder.  Junk-ballers whose fast one can’t break out of the mid-80’s won’t get a serious look.  All they do is get people out… but then, as I argued above, they are not perceived as getting outs “reliably” in the lower echelons.  In my humble opinion, this is one reason for the immensely boring quality of today’s Major League game.  Walks and strikeouts abound: the excitement of balls put in play thanks to hurlers who pitch to contact is a rarity.

Now, if you shun the junkster to favor the fireballer, you’re going to get a bunch of Mighty Caseys on the other side of the ball.  My next two comments have to do with how much the slugger mentality has contributed to making The Show a bore-fest.  The other night, I heard Buck Showalter and Jim Kaat (of all people… don’t they know better?) subscribing to the proposition that radical shifts be outlawed.  I have another idea.  How about we teach hitters how to hit?  During my recent stints of reviewing old ballgames as I sit in the sauna, I’ve made the following mental list of middle-of-the-order guys who dropped bunts during World Series play: in chronological order, Walker Cooper, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Steve Garvey.  All four were successful in some measure with their bunts.  Cooper got his sacrifice down, as did Hank (I think one of these was thrown away by panicky defenders); Teddy—those who have ears, let them hear!—was bunting against the shift for a hit, which he easily accomplished; and Steve actually misunderstood manager Dick Williams’ instructions, laying down a perfect sacrifice rather than bunting for a safety up the vacated third-base line.  What’s radiantly clear is that all of these bruisers were practiced, competent bunters.  So… geez, if Hank Greenberg can do it, guys, why can’t you?  You think your offensive contribution with the all-out swing is of a higher quality than Hank Greenberg’s?  Really?

Now, there’s more than one way to beat a shift or advance base-runners.  Stroking a line drive to the opposite field works, too… but when is the last time you saw somebody do that today?  I’m talking about a drive that the runners can read quickly, so that they proceed to take an extra base with confidence: these are not bloopers squirreled off the end of the bat in lunging contact.  Time after time, relatively pedestrian players of over half a century ago would go the other way when a Bob Feller, a Spuds Chandler, or a Robin Roberts had shut them down earlier in the afternoon.  They processed failure and found a formula for success.  They learned: they adjusted.  Marty Marion, Alvin Dark, Jimmy Outlaw, Earl Torgeson, George McQuinn, Billy Cox… these fellows knew how to play the game.  Yes, they had longer bats.  I guess you have to be able to reach the outside corner before you can drive a pitch the other way from down there.  But don’t leave out the footwork.  Tommy Holmes would actually set up on top of the plate, stride open, and trail his barrel so as to make late contact: the opposite field seems to have been his preferred target for pitches in all quadrants.  And I’d swear that I saw Dark shuffle his feet as the delivery was in progress so as to angle his barrel the off-field.

Footwork: where do you see that now?  Guys spread out in the box and hardly take a stride… or else they heave up the front foot and then slam it down, not so much orienting the body to the pitch as starting a loop of energy for a fiercely descending barrel to follow.  I love to watch Nolan Arenado’s busy, jittery feet; but most of those widespread pairs of legs are doing nothing to extend the bat path farther into the pitch (also known as front-foot hitting).  Their feet are, as my cousin the Royal Navy commander once told me in defining a ship, a “platform for guns”.

A last stray observation that I must squeeze in: umpires.  Would you believe that the arbiters of 70 or 80 years ago just about never got riled?  I saw one runner get called out at second, jump up, and bump the umpire with his chest (no, I don’t have any names: note-taking isn’t easy in a sauna).  The man-in-blue’s response was… to pat the guy on the shoulder and calm him down.  Another irate competitor turned toward the umpire after a called third strike and beat his bat upon the ground within three feet of the man’s shoes.  Response: nothing.  Just look at him and watch him skulk back to the dugout.  And there were numerous scenes where a first- or third-baseman became very animated after a close play.  Even from cameras lodged several rows up in the stands, you could see neck muscles and veins working through the skin.  Cover the children’s ears!  But never was any of these human firecrackers tossed from the game.

Umpires, too, were different in the old days.  They knew that nobody had bought a ticket to see them, they knew they weren’t perfect, they knew the young men before them were at the highest pitch of competitive ardor, and they knew… well, a war had just ended.  Maybe they knew that it was good to be home playing ball again.  Call it perspective.  As one great referee of the period said when challenged, “Yeah, I probably missed the call.  So what do you want me to do?”

The show can go on after a bad call—but it can’t go on when no calls are firm and final.  Wow… when did we forget that in the broader context of life?  Is there any chance that we may soon rediscover its truth?

baseball history, mental approach, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Tinkering at the Edges Won’t Correct the Game’s “Speed” Problem

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I’m almost afraid to raise my voice in a peep, having heard both Trevor Bauer and Paul LoDuca taking Rob Manfred to the woodshed… and their venting was powerful.  In the matter of the Commissioner’s brutal chiropraxis on the ailing playoffs, the critics seem spot-on to me.  I’ve long ago aired my own plan for post-seasonal baseball: create a third league, so that you have the East Coast, the West Coast, and flyover America all covered; make all regular play intra-league and shorten the season (eleven teams playing sixteen—or even fifteen—games against each league rival); ditch the All Star Game for the Home Run Derby and other “fan favorites” (place-hitting contest?) to celebrate mid-season, which now has major significance (see following); have a season-ending championship round between first-half and second-half winners of all three leagues; then stage a tournament of five games between the surviving three teams, reverting to a double-elimination format if no clear victor emerges after the scuffle.

The World Series Tournament, by the way, could feature every game in a ballpark familiar to neither of the two participants. One of them, naturally, would be designated “home”; but the Yankees and the Dodgers would fight it out in Kansas City, while the Cubs and the Yanks would go to Seattle. This “Super Bowl” approach to venue would draw spectators to the event whose hometown clubs suffered disappointing seasons. It would also minimize the possibility of some extraordinary home-field advantage (such as doomed-stadium blowers that rev to full blast in the bottom of each inning) producing a warped outcome. Wouldn’t that all be cool?

Instead, we now have… I don’t know.  I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.  I don’t think Rob Manfred has, either.

But as far as other changes are concerned… the “face three hitters” rule for relief pitchers doesn’t bother me at all.  There’s nothing more tedious than watching Aaron Boone or Joe Madden come strolling back out to the mound with an arm in the air just after a new pitcher has induced a fly ball.  By the way, that particular alteration in the rules isn’t undermining the historical game, either.  On the contrary, the manager’s yoyoing between dugout and mound during the late innings is something you’d never have seen before about 2000, or even later.  It most emphatically does slow the game down; but more to the point, it creates a contest of technicians and specialists.  It drains versatility and individual heroics from the performance.

Was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell whom the Mets would alternately nudge off the mound into the outfield during big games, swapping one for the other as righty and lefty hitters stepped into the box?  I’m not talking about a formally “two-position player”, something also covered (rather needlessly, it seems) by this season’s rule changes; I mean literally putting your neck on the block, as manager, by allowing a pitcher to serve in left field or at first base during an at-bat, then switching him (no warm-up tosses allowed) with the hurler who just fanned Rusty.  That was fun to watch—and it was also always perfectly legal, though few skippers had the guts to try it.  The better bet is the pitcher who can frustrate hitters on both sides of the plate.

What really slows the game down, however, continues not to be addressed, or even (in most quarters) recognized.  Maybe it’s so obvious that we fail to see by looking too hard… or maybe the passage of time has produced a smokescreen.  My wife and I were both virtually put to sleep last week by watching a 2019 inter-league match-up between the Phillies and the Indians that should have been critical for both teams.  The Phils were fighting mathematical elimination, and the Indians began the day a half-game out of the second wildcard spot.  I wondered why the whole thing was so dull.  As an experiment, I dug out the first game of the 1975 Reds/Red Sox Series: Gullett vs. Tiant, hard-throwing lefty against Satchel Paige Redux.  Yeah, it was fun watching El Tiante’s gyrations and contortions… but a lot more was involved.  The tempo was entirely different.  Hitters stayed in the box, or stepped out just long enough to study the third-base coach.  Pitchers got their sign and went to work.  (Gullett actually balked at just about every delivery with runners on base, though it was Luis who was famously called for balking—by the other league’s umpire—during one whirlybird wind-up.)

Compared to those innings, the crucial Phillies/Indians contest was a sleeper.  Hitters seemed reluctant to step up and hit, pitchers to toe the rubber and throw.  Everyone was so touchy, so prissy.  “Wait, I have to redo the Velcro on my gloves.”  “Wait, I don’t think I want to repeat that pitch so soon.”  Damn, guys!  Just play the game!

As far as I know (though I haven’t seen confirmation), the rule requiring pitchers to discharge an offering within twenty seconds is now in full effect… but why do we need such regulations?  Why don’t players want to play—because it almost seems that they don’t.  Or, to say it better (because I know that’s not the explanation), they seem focused on an excessively narrow objective rather than on the composite endeavor.  You don’t need a perfect pitch: you just need a pitch that produces an out.  You don’t need a jack: you just need to put the ball in play somewhere.  Instead, due to what appears a kind of over-analysis or misplaced emphasis, pitchers end up surrendering huge tallies of walks on borderline calls, while hitters help them out with huge tallies of strikeouts on those same calls.  Of course, the umpire catches grief from one party or the other, every time.

I particularly noticed that batsmen, in the 2019 game, were swinging from the heels whenever they did decide to offer.  All or nothing, every cut.  Instead of Pete Rose setting up far back from the plate and trying to go the other way, Francisco Lindor was putting a sweet but vicious uppercut stroke on everything within his red zone.  I wonder… could the sheer vigor that goes into these all-out swings require more recovery time?  I’m sure the approach must induce more hitters to let more pitches go by—not because they’re balls, but because they’re not home-run suitable.  It appears to me, as well, that more pitches are fouled in such not-so-precise attacks… which, naturally, runs more time off the clock as a new ball is tossed to the mound and must undergo an introductory scrub.  And I can’t really blame pitchers for trying to hit an exact spot each time, since it’s clear that their adversary intends to punish any mistake to the maximum.

Are umpires, too, not placed more in the spotlight when so many pitches are taken and so much rides on the close call?  I know they don’t always get it right: I’m sitting before the tube fuming at them along with every other Braves fan when slow-mo replay proves that Nick Markakis got burned on something three inches off the plate.  (For some reason, that happens a lot to Nick.)  But Markakis is a superior two-strike hitter; like Pete Rose, he likes the opposite field.  For every one of him, there are twenty others whose afternoon will be ruined if they can’t browbeat the Man in the Iron Mask into relaxing his standards.

Bats are shorter by a good four or five inches than they typically were when I was growing up, and they also carry nothing above the trademark that stands a chance of fisting a pitch over the infield.  So the stubborn wait for a mistake-pitch right in the wheelhouse is understandable, I guess.  Sure, you could warn the managers as they bring out their line-ups that you’re not calling Velcro time-outs today; and if other umpires emulate you, and if the trend continues throughout the season, game times would unquestionably diminish.  But would “action” increase, when premier players are already trading forty home runs for a .228 average?

In my opinion, the dynamics of hitting have to change if the game is both to speed up and also recover its old excitement.  I don’t expect Nomar Mazara or Hunter Renfroe to start taking more concise swings and bid for a batting title… but why are Ozzie Albies and Rugned Odor trying to pump everything over the pull-side fence?  The game is slow because offense is two-dimensional.  Pitchers get hitters out because hitters have made themselves easy to get out.  Nobody has yet explained to my satisfaction how you get away with leaving a single infielder on one side of the diamond against hitter after Major League hitter and win games… yet such is our contemporary sport.

If batsmen occupying a few key slots in the line-up would adopt the approach that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess.com, you’d have a very different—and much more enjoyable—experience from your couch or seat in Row 15.

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.