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?