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?

baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…

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I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?

It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.

This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.

The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?

Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?

How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?

At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?

As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….

More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.

And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.

And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.

I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.

Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.

So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.

As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

My Favorite Deadball Swing

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At the bottom right of every page on SmallBallSuccess.com now sits a link to My Favorite Deadball Swing.  I put this discussion’s elements together while being physically incapacitated by a problem that may need a simple surgery (if surgery is ever simple).  The greatest distress I’ve had since emerging from the ER has been thanks to the medication I was prescribed.  The complaint is very manageable, if only I survive the cure!

Anyway, being sidelined is a good thing when it forces you to complete several neglected tasks.  Now that the site is drawing quite a bit of attention, I really do need to spruce it up… and this page condensing my decade of research into a very usable stroke was the obvious place to begin.  I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite proud of the composite picture I’ve put together.

Yet I should issue a warning that I didn’t squeeze into the page’s discussion.  I’m not sure that such a small warning label fully “on topic”, or that my readers will even need it: what follows is more of a comment about human nature than about the mechanics of the swing.

Whatever they say politically, most people are very conservative when it comes to their foundational notions about life, or about their special corner of life.  In that regard, Marxist revolutionaries are conservative.  They don’t like to talk things over: their way is the right way—admit it or hit the road!  Any ballplayer will recognize the attitude at work here.  In fact, when I began collecting material about twenty years ago for a book titled Key to a Cold City, I noticed early and often that young black players breaking into the big leagues soon after Jackie Robinson encountered an almost belligerent degree of “correctional coaching”.  Were the Establishment’s white coaches trying to set up their young pupils for failure—was it all a covert racist plot?  But, you know, that made no sense, for at least a couple of reasons.  One was that no-name, dimly promising Caucasian recruits were being forced into the same cookie-cutter.  The other was that coaches don’t keep their jobs by producing disciples who fail.  You’d have to be one heck-of-a rabid racist to sacrifice a big-league gig just for the satisfaction of fouling up a few dark-skinned kids!

I’m not just rambling here from the hallucinatory effects of Flavoxate.  It so happens that the style of hitting commonly practiced in the Negro Leagues after World War II was as close as you could come to time-machine transport back to the Deadball Era.  (No surprise there: strapped for cash, the Negro Leagues would use baseballs until the seams split open, just as was done in the MLB half a century earlier.)  This put young black players on a collision course with the new orthodoxy; for if Fifties hitting instruction was about anything, it was about jacking long balls out of the park.  An analogy with our present “launch angle” romance would be very apt.  I call the standard technique of that decade “lean back and hack”.  Hitters were to stay back on a bent thigh, swivel their forward hip, and send the barrel immediately through an upward loop.  Ted Williams writes as though he invented the system in The Science of Hitting, but… no, he was just preaching to the choir by that point.  If anything, ironically, the Splendid Splinter’s stroke was far more level and forward-shifting than Duke Snider’s or Eddie Mathews’.

Young black players who ascended through the Giants organization seemed to get a heavy dose of this pedagogy.  Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson show its more positive results.  A kid named Willie Kirkland didn’t pan out so well; his impressive home run totals didn’t compensate for his dismal batting averages (or not until he was able to straighten himself out in Japan).  Other Negro League graduates like Bob Boyd and Sam Jethroe, who could have contended for big-league batting titles, were never really given much of an audition.  They refused to pull and elevate, logging mere singles at a .300+ clip.  And if there were real bigotry in Major League front offices, it was here: a black kid had better club homers like Mays and Banks if he wanted to stick around—any puny white kid could be turned into a hunt-and-peck hitter.

Well, I’m afraid that the kid who walks on to a try-out field and unveils my recommended techniques will get a similar reception today.  At least one of these techniques has been explicitly derided by the coaching brain trust for generations: hand-spreading.  At least one other—the shuffle step in the load—will be something that none of the batting-cage Merlins has ever seen before, and that most will say they never want to see again.  The only way to combat such derision and contempt is through instant success.  The wizened veteran of many a Little League or high school campaign will keep that cry of indignation in his throat if your shuffle into the pitch and heavy forward weight-transfer are followed by a cracking line drive into the power alley.  And then you send another up the middle, and another.  By the end of your session, he’ll be muttering to his confederates, “I don’t know how the hell he hits that way… but it seems to work for him.”  He’ll keep his hands off of you, because coaches love—above all else—success.  Wins.  V’s.

They left Stan Musial alone, too, although radio and TV announcers hatched many a jibe at his expense.  Wes Covington, who was the Negro League version of the Musial contortion, might have become a household name if his knees hadn’t given out.  They left Wes’s teammate Henry Aaron alone for the most part, after convincing him to uncross his wrists in semi-professional ball.  The Hammer remained a front-foot hitter until relatively late in his career, when he decided to go all out for the Ruth record rather than for 4,000 hits.

The photo of Cool Papa Bell at the top of this post doesn’t show anything radically different from what I recommend in my composite of Deadball techniques.  I might almost have called the whole bundle “Negro League secrets”… but it’s too easy to step on a PC land mine when you venture into such territory these days.  Just remember that, if you dare to use these methods because the big-boy, Home Run Derby style isn’t working for you, you’re actually honoring some of the game’s most reverend traditions—forgotten traditions, true, but traditions that produced unforgettable players.

And remember, too, that you’ll need to get really good at this style before you put it on public display.  You need to prepare a nice, fat cork that will keep the coach’s contempt bottled up in his throat.