baseball history, Hall of Fame, Uncategorized

Dodgers Win! Okay… and I Don’t Care

I became a baseball fan through being a Yankee fan.  You wouldn’t think a little boy in Fort Worth, Texas, would have a religious devotion to the Bronx Bombers; but after CBS became majority owner of the club in 1964, The Game of the Week naturally wasn’t going to cover the Cardinals or Cubs or Tigers on Saturday afternoon (unless Detroit was playing New York).  Dizzy Dean grew so livid over the monopoly that he couldn’t abstain from deprecating the whole arrangement over the air… which eventually cost him his job.  I can still hear Diz disclaiming, “It ain’t my fault, it ain’t Peewee’s fault, and it sure ain’t good ol’ Falstaff’s fault.”  (Is Falstaff Beer even brewed any more?)

So it came to pass, at any rate, that I knew the entire Yankee line-up by heart, and had photos of most of them yellowing away on my bedroom wall.  Mickey and Roger, Yogi and Whitey, Moose and Cletis and Bobby… Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, John Blanchard… tall Ralph Terry, diminutive Luis Arroyo, Bill Stafford and Hal Reniff and… well, I could have gone on and on.  My pride and joy was my Yankee cap.  I never forgave my parents for emptying my closet of a 1962 World Series program, given to me by my grandfather, when they moved from our old house as I was away at college.

Then the Sixties wore into the Seventies.  I lost track of baseball.  I lost track of childhood.  I got to worrying about being drafted into the Vietnam War; and, when that storm was weathered, I worried further about what I was going to do in life.  I didn’t seem to be very good at anything that would actually make a living wage.

About all I remember of baseball from the Seventies was a young Cesar Cedeño.  If my grandfather (the same one who had bought me the Yankee program) had the Astros going on TV as I wandered through his den, and if Cesar were at the plate, I stopped whatever I was doing.  It’s not every day that you see a future Hall of Famer just hitting his stride.  In retrospect, it wasn’t on any of those days, either.

In 1984, twenty years after the slimy Topping and Webb sold the Yankees, I was released from the University of Texas with a doctoral degree that would qualify me to teach any one of three or four dead languages to any one of the two or three colleges where they were taught.  Practically speaking, I could go back to teaching high school, or I could take a series of year’s-contract gigs teaching Collegiate Freshman Composition and mopping toilets.  I recall the 1981 Dodgers as a beam of light in my dismal grad-school years.  They had finally beaten the Yankees!  My grandparents now dead and gone, sitting in the lonely kitchen of an antebellum house that lingered quite a while on the market, I pumped my grandmother’s ancient rocker back and forth as the scrappy Lopes and Russell and the explosive Garvey and Cey redeemed themselves against—who else?—the Yankees!  Reggie and Willie Randolph and Bobby Murcer were, for once, not enough.  But… what had happened?  What had transformed me, a monastic misfit squirreled away under his papers in Austin, into a Yankee-hater?  Mickey, Yogi, Whitey… when had I abandoned you guys?

Of course, the answer was George Steinbrenner.  The team that the boy had once adored was now essentially the American League All-Star team bought by the fattest wallet in the game.  That was obscene, to my idealistic young mind.  Any player who was a difference-maker and on the market ended up on George’s squad; and if they didn’t win everything, then George wasn’t happy at all.  A turnstile of managers and scandals was always feeding the newspapers.  Nothing that might make that beloved old game resurface seemed to have survived.

I wanted so much for Steinbrenner‘s teams to lose!  I wanted them to lose every day—which, of course, they didn’t come close to doing.  They practically didn’t lose once a week.  I really wanted them to lose in the postseason.  It was a ethical issue now.

Looking back, I realize that free agency was long overdue and that baseball players didn’t deserve to be slaves, any more than any other human being.  But the game that I returned to as a young man had lost something of its charm, its magic.  When I was a boy, really stand-out players remained with one team throughout most or all of their career.  Norm Cash and Al Kaline were Tigers.  Ernie Banks and Ron Santo were Cubs.  Willie and Juan were the Giants.  Stan Musial inked a hundred-thousand-dollar contract with the Cardinals before the 1958 season, even though Augie Busch and everyone else knew that The Man’s best years were behind him.  Where was the new Ernie Banks now?   The occasional George Brett won my devotion to small-market teams like the Royals… the Bretts were fewer and fewer; and, frankly, because of the owner’s skinny wallet, such teams seldom cracked the first division.

I remained a Dodger fan for a few years after the 1981 glory days.  Once I got settled into my new professional life, however (or settled, I should say, into a degree of perpetual unsettlement), I discovered the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs through TBS and WGN.  Just as CBS’s Game of the Week had done for the Yanks, familiarity bred fondness.  The team you see regularly is the team you get to know and like.  So now I was a follower of Murphy, Zane Smith, Chris Chambliss, Bob Horner, and Jeff Treadway.  Yet especially because the Cubs were starting to become pretty good about now, I became a more enthusiastic fan of Dawson and Sandburg, Leon Durham and Keith Moreland, Shawon Dunstan and Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe and Les Lancaster.  I could have named practically that whole team, just as I could my beloved Yankees of twenty-five years earlier.  They darn near went to the World Series, those Cubs.  They should have gone; but the Giants discovered that Sandberg couldn’t hit anything but a fastball when he tried to carry the offense on his shoulders, and Dawson came within a breath of driving a pitch out of Candlestick that would have changed everything.

All of this is the long way around to making the admission that I just couldn’t get into the World Series this year.  I, one-time Dodger fan, was now rooting for the Rays.  From the start of this truncated season, I decided that I hated the Dodgers.  I liked a lot of individual players: Kershaw, Turner, Bellinger… I liked them as ballplayers, and as human beings.  But then, I’d liked a lot of Steinbrenner’s Yankees, too: yet taking them as a team, I found them detestable.  So for LA in the Year of the Plague.  I really wanted the Dodgers to lose last week.  Their money paved the way to ultimate success: three cheers, hip-hip-hooray!  Now we’re back to the fattest pocket book winning it all.

Unless you just happen to be linked geographically to the location where the richest owners are writing the fattest checks, it’s hard to cheer any one of the three or four bullies in the MLB.  I know I’m not alone in registering that sentiment.  Someone remarked to me the other day that baseball desperately needs a salary cap.  Maybe.  I won’t pretend to have the answer.  My personal preference, though, would be to see the trade deadline moved much farther forward.  It used to precede the All Star Game.  What about fixing it on June 30… or even June 1?  Seeing a radically transformed team take the field in September because a 55-year-old spoiled brat sold China a few islands to buy Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Max Scherzer… well, it isn’t sporting.  It just isn’t.

There are a lot of things in our society that will never be the same again.  I wonder if baseball is among the very few that might be revived?

baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

Oppo-Hitting Is Hard Because We’ve Made It So

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In the Year of the Lockdown, I’ve enjoyed watching whatever games I can find featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. More than any other team I’ve seen lately, their line-up features a variety of hitting techniques, not nine guys who could have fallen out of a cookie cutter or who, at any rate, are all trying to do the same thing (i.e., hit home runs). Lowe keeps his hands below the shoulder and close to the torso, like most hitters a couple of generations ago. Brosseau and Díaz drive their barrel down almost in one motion with their lead foot—something that you’d see in abundance only if you set your time machine to travel back before World War II. It’s really fun to watch an offense that features so much diversity of attack.

I find it ironic, then, that the Rays broadcasters were the pair I heard remarking on the difficulty of hitting against the shift. The exact words were something like, “A lot of fans wonder why players don’t beat the shift by taking the ball the other way. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to go opposite-field.” Well… yes. That’s certainly so in my case, anyway: I don’t realize why it should be so hard to hit the other way. For one thing, you’re deliberately trying to be late, and being late should be much easier than being early. You have more time to react, to look at the pitch and decide if you wish to offer. Why is it hard to be given more time?

Naturally, if you’re all dug in and your swing is so grooved that you can’t adjust your footwork to the situation in any manner, no matter how minute, then being late with your hands is pretty much all you have going for you. But why would a professional ballplayer be incapable of a little flexibility in his lower body? Here’s what Willie Mays had to say about Yankee singles-hitter deluxe Bobby Richardson:

It’s a pleasure to watch a professional like Bobby Richardson, the former Yankee second baseman, when he’s about to move the runner on first base around to third. Bobby hit behind the runner better than anybody else, for my money…. The batter, as the pitch is delivered, shifts his weight slightly and steps back with the rear foot a couple of inches [if he bats right, like Richardson]. Then, swinging a fraction of a second late, he just meets the ball with a short, sharp “punch” and bangs it to the right side of the playing field.   (My Secrets of Playing Baseball, 1970, p. 70)

Now, I consider Bobby a very interesting subject in his own right.  Richardson was no Pete Runnels or Dick Groat: he wasn’t going to compete for a batting crown.  But he did manage to become the only Yankee to top .300 in 1959, and he did muster a league-leading 209 hits in 1962 (when the number of games on the schedule had but lately increased by eight).  He had progressed from a smooth-field, no-hit prospect to a respectable component of a potent Yankee line-up.  Many have faulted him for not drawing walks from the lead-off position, to which he was admittedly not well suited.  I have to assume that an aggressive approach was part of what allowed him to hang around the .270 mark for years.  Okay, he might have pushed that to .290 if he’d been more selective.

Maybe part of the reason Bobby wasn’t more persnickety at the plate was his huge bat.  I vaguely recall marveling at that stick as a boy of seven or eight, when I’d get to watch my beloved Mickey on our black-and-white screen every Saturday and would wonder, “Who’s this little guy with the biggest bat on the team?”  Oh, Bobby would choke up a bit… but he still had to hurl the barrel down into the pitch in a manner that required early commitment—and probably allowed for being late.  Not that a child’s memory is a reliable witness… but it seems to me that most Richardson base-knocks went right up the middle.  His knees were distinctly bent as he assumed his stance, and on them he would glide into the pitch.  Think of a Scotsman hurling a caber: it all starts from the feet, and especially the knees.

It was Bill Dickey, then a Yankee coach, who advised Bobby to use the larger bat (as Richardson reveals in The Bobby Richardson Story, 1965). This Hall-of-Fame mentor was obviously a product of the Old School; there weren’t a whole lot of active players (with Rizzuto having just retired) who would have possessed such arcane knowledge.  At any rate, Richardson’s success at the plate took off when the big bludgeon was placed in his hands.  No, he didn’t have much bat speed.  His entire twelve-year career—for three consecutive years of which he led the league in at-bats (that’s what can happen when you never draw walks)—produced only 34 home runs.  But with the likes of Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra, and Howard batting behind him, homering wasn’t really a priority.  (Honesty compels me to observe that, despite such firepower at his back, Bobby never quite managed to score 100 runs.)

So what has all of this to do with oppo-hitting?  I think it’s the bat.  The reason Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson (two of my favorite announcers, by the way) may have deemed off-field hitting “harder than you think” is because today’s bats are mere conveyances for a tiny, explosive sweet spot.  They make no allowance for misjudgment: they work extremely well only when everything in the swing is right on time.  If you try to reach for an outside pitch and push it (perhaps one-handed) to the infield’s far side), you encounter two problems: 1) your bat may be too short by a couple of inches; and 2) the balance in that bat is so top-heavy that you’ll probably foul off or pop up the pitch by dipping under it, if you contact it at all.

And that’s if you can get an outside pitch, or if you adjust your position to the far corner by recoiling with a Richardson-like move (for who doesn’t crowd the plate these days?).  What if the pitcher insists on pounding you inside, as more and more of the good ones dare to do?  Then is when you really need some bulk in the handle.  With the old-school lumber in your hands, you might have fought off the tight pitch to the off-field grass by inside-outing (in the fashion described in Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting, of all places: I wonder if Ted ever used the technique once in his life?).  Armed with today’s club, however, you’ll be picking splinters out of your face; or if you have the advantage of a metal bat, your chances of a weak infield pop-up are still very high just because of the handle’s tiny diameter.

So, yes: upon consideration, I suppose opposite-field hitting these days is indeed harder than I think—with emphasis on “these days”.  Even the resourceful Tampa Bay Rays can’t seem to do much about the hardware they take to the plate.  How about at least giving an audition to shifting your feet in the box, though, guys?  Devote a little practice to it and see if you don’t get good results.  Please?  A touch of small ball from yesteryear’s handbook would make today’s game so much more interesting!