Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Deuce and Baseball

Some funny things happen as you get older ( and a bunch of things not so funny, but I'll set those aside for now ). One of the funny things that happens is that some of your tastes change.

Growing up I played about every organized sport that was available to me. From age eight until I graduated high school I was constantly playing whatever sport was in season. Football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer. Later on it was track and field in the spring. Baseball was my least favorite. I like baseball now...a lot. What changed?

Well, I changed. Looking back I now know that I really didn't understand the game. It seemed simple. Hit, run, catch and throw. What's so mysterious about that? When you're playing in Little League, not much. Just trying to master the basic skills of baseball is about all a ten year old is capable of. But even in high school I didn't get it. It wasn't all my fault. I played for a small school with only one coach, and one coach can't spend the time necessary to teach all the mysteries of the game. My dad never played organized sports so he was of little help, and baseball was the least popular sport in my school ( and most schools still today ) and few paid any attention to it. Chicks may dig the long ball, but there were damn few chicks watching my baseball teams.

There was one other reason baseball was my least favorite sport, but I'm hesitant to talk about it. It hurts my pride to say it, but few other games will expose your lack of skill or composure like baseball, and I absolutely hated looking like a fool in front of even the smallest crowd. Boot an easy grounder, muff a pop-up, have your throw to first base sail into the bleachers six feet over the first baseman's head...all of these would make me feel humiliated to the point I wanted to find a hole and jump in it to escape the scowling scrutiny of the fans, the coach and my teammates. The catcalls from the opposing team made my blood boil and I offered a challenge to fight the more insulting opponents more than once. In short, baseball was a psychological mine field for me, and I lacked the emotional maturity to deal with my failures in a constructive way. Baseball, like golf, is a game that you absolutely can not play well if you're nervous. The game requires precision and fluid relaxed movement. Nerves make you tighten up, your movements become jerky and unpredictable...and the next thing you know you've just thrown a pitch that's outside by five feet. Like Bob Uecher said in Major League..."Juuuust a bit outside." How embarrassing!

Well, I don't play the game now, but I enjoy watching it more now than ever, more then even football. Why? Because I'm starting to grasp the mysteries.

Most people who don't like baseball say it's boring. On the contrary, to anyone who's deciphered the mysteries, baseball is very rarely boring. Each pitch marks a change in the game. Hundreds of decisions have to be made between every pitch.

Pitchers are asking themselves what pitch to throw next and where to locate it; high heat or waste a splitter down and away? Can I walk this guy to get to the next batter who has a lower average? Does this batter like to swing at balls low and inside, or does he like to extend his arms on pitches that are up? Can he hit my breaking ball? Is the guy on first a threat to steal? Is this a bunt situation?

Batters are asking themselves similar questions. What's this pitchers "out" pitch, his favorite? Does he have command of his breaking ball? Should I try to work the count to increase the likelihood of getting a fastball or should I look for the fastball on the first pitch? Can I get around on his fastball? Should I slow my bat speed and go for the opposite field hit? Should I sacrifice myself to advance the runner?

Fielders have their own mysteries to solve. Am I in the best position for this batter? Should I be guarding the line against a pull hitter? Is a bunt on? Do I play deep for a double play or play in to get the runner at the plate and prevent a run? Who's covering second base, the shortstop or the second baseman? Is the wind a factor on flys and pop ups? Who's the cutoff man and where's he going to be? How fast is the base runner and can I force him out if the ball is hit deep in the hole or do I go to first?

Managers have all of these mysteries to deal with on every play. That's a challenge suitable for a chess master.

If you've been introduced to the mysteries of baseball, you get to play along. You're considering the same questions. You're debating every decision. You know what's being discussed when the manager goes out to the mound to talk to his pitcher. You look for the signals flying between pitcher and catcher, between the infielders, between the base coaches and the hitter and base runners. You know if the pitcher's stride is getting shorter and his arm is dropping he's getting tired. You know if a batter opens his stance that he's trying to hit to the opposite field. You know if a runner at first takes a huge lead he's baiting the pitcher to throw over so he can gauge the pitcher's pick off move.

When you begin to understand the mysteries, that's when you really begin to enjoy the game.

If you think baseball is boring, it's only because you're not seeing everything that's going on. Look harder. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

The Deuce said...

600 major league games? Dude...I'm so incredibly jealous! In my whole life I've never lived closer than 100 miles to a city with a MLB team, and that was Kansas City (only the worst team for the last 25 years). Consequently I've only been to two games in my life...once in K.C. and once in Detroit when I was a kid ( got to see Al Kaline ). I feel so deprived.