Thursday, February 19, 2009

What They Missed Out On In Old Saybrook

Of the many things that make my job as a researcher at the Hall of Fame so varied and rewarding, being interviewed is one of my favorites. Yesterday I was interviewed by two people: a reporter from Kansas City engaged me in a day-long e-mail exchange about relief pitching, and a student from Ontario interviewed me over the phone for 20 minutes about the "cultural importance" of home runs. Relief pitching is my chief research obsession, so I had plenty of ready opinions to share, but it is seldom that I pause to ponder the societal ramifications of the mystique of home runs.

The student and I agreed that one reason why seeing a home run fly over the outfield fence fills us with some degree of awe is that it is something most of us have never done and could never do. With a fair amount of practice--or even by accident--most people could throw a basketball in the basket from three-point range, or hit a golf ball a fair distance. But the difficulty of hitting a thrown baseball, plus the combination of strength and technique required to hit a home run, makes it a feat most of us can only experience vicariously through watching the pros do it.

It's tough enough to do in a batting cage, let alone in competition, and a batting cage is the only place where I've managed it. About 25 years ago in Las Vegas, I actually powered three straight pitches over the wall. That is, for maybe 20 seconds of my life, my body contorted itself into the perfect power-swing hip-pivot, leg-leverage, and arm sweep described by Ted Williams in "The Science of Hitting." Three majestic shots in a row, almost identical as they sailed over the wall--and then it was gone, the sweet feeling vanished, and I went back to my usual grounders and pop-ups. But even 25 years later, I can see those home-run shots sailing, and I can feel how my body moved to produce them. Hey, you have to take your muscle-memories where you can find them.

The Ontario student told me that he played baseball for 14 years and never hit more than a triple. My hardball career ended with Little League, where my one display of power was raking a non-breaking curveball on two hops to the warning track for a double. That was it. I was a mediocre hitter in Little League, for a couple of reasons. One was my eyesight, though I didn't realize it at the time. I was nearsighted but didn't get my first pair of glasses until I was 12, so I'm sure that seeing the ball imperfectly didn't help. The second big reason was my fear of being hit. I did get hit by a couple of pitches, I didn't like it at all, and my sense of self-preservation became more powerful than my desire to get on base. I've had a lifelong dread of broken bones and have gotten along so far with only three broken fingers on my resume (two of them playing softball).

The spring I turned 12 and played my final season of Little League ball, I discovered a rookie on my favorite team (the Reds) who was a hot-shot prospect and a switch-hitter. Since he and I shared the same birthday, I not only instantly anointed him as my new favorite player, I also started switch-hitting. I got a lot of mileage out of rooting for Pete Rose, and I discovered that I was a better hitter left-handed than I was as a natural right-hander. Hitting from a Rose crouch, I saw the ball better left-handed (with those glasses, too) and had a more controlled swing. Playing around the neighborhood--wiffleball along with games using tennis balls and spaldeens--I became much better left-handed. Probably I couldn't undo the bad habits I had developed as a righty, and by modeling my lefty swing after Rose I developed good habits. Those three homers in the batting cage were belted as a lefty, while I'm still on pace to go a lifetime without clearing a fence from the right side.

Despite my so-so hitting, I was a good ballplayer, and I had the distinction of making my Little League All-Star team because of my defense. That was a byproduct of being an only child. There was some kind of game every day, but in between those I practiced ceaselessly on my own, throwing and catching, throwing and catching--against the house, in my room, in the garage when the car was out, wherever I could. I'd practice fielding grounders in the lumpy yard, learning how to handle bad hops and turning double plays. I'd practice pitching, throw pop-ups to myself, whatever I could think of. I developed a very strong throwing arm. That earned me one start as a Little Leaguer, but I couldn't help projecting my fear of being hit onto the batters I faced. Instead of throwing as hard as I could, I babied the ball up to the plate, and only a lot of help from my teammates allowed me to win a 19-11 squeaker.

I became a solid fielder by practicing on my own, but I couldn't practice hitting. I played mostly first base and third base; later, playing competitive softball through my twenties, I was an outfielder who surprised more than a few runners trying to take an extra base. I won't bore you with stories of my fielding exploits--except for one, my greatest moment on a playing field.

When I was a teenager, my parents and I vacationed several summers at a central Connecticut resort called Banner Lodge. It was just a few hours from our home in New Jersey, a pastoral retreat featuring a variety of sports. I played plenty of golf on the course that is still there even though the resort is defunct, lots of tennis, and was a stalwart in the daily softball games. I usually played third base and always wanted the ball hit to me so I could show off my bullet throws to first. I was a decent softball hitter--without the fear of being beaned (and batting right-handed) I became adept at shifting my feet quickly to smack the ball to right field--but my chief skill was still fielding.

The highlight of the week at Banner Lodge was the Wednesday night barbecue and softball game between the guests and the staff. Hundreds of guests would fill the little grandstand to watch this fierce contest. It was 1966 when my golden moment occurred, a few weeks before I began my sophomore year in high school. It was one of two vivid memories from that week. One night I listened to a Reds game in which Art Shamsky pinch-hit in the 8th inning and smashed the first of three home runs (out of 10 hit in the game--what do you suppose those guys were on!), two of them tying the game in extra innings (the only time that's ever been done).

In the big staff-guests game, I was bumped from my usual post at third base by some grown-up who wasn't mobile enough to play anywhere else. I found myself instead in center field, a fairly deep center field with a "short" fielder roaming the shallow outfield area. The staff loaded the bases with two outs midway through the game, and the next batter drilled a shot into the left-center gap. I got a quick jump and speared the ball backhand on the first bounce, picking it off my sneaker-tops. I came up throwing and winged the ball homeward as the second runner rounded third. It would have been caught by the catcher right on the plate except the runner saw the throw and stopped halfway home, so the pitcher cut it off ten feet in front of the plate to start a rundown which nailed the runner. The crowd erupted in cheers and I fielded a lot of praise from my teammates for stopping the rally.

But the best moment occurred after the game, as my parents congratulated me. The coach of the guest team came over, introduced himself, and asked where we lived. "New Jersey," my father said. "Hmm," the man said. "Well, I'm the varsity baseball coach down in Old Saybrook [a town on the Connecticut coast], and I wish you'd consider moving up there so I can coach your kid. I've been watching him all week, and he can play for me any day." Wow!

He wanted to discuss it, but of course my father wasn't going to uproot us. As hugely flattering as the proposition was, I think the Old Saybrook coach would have regretted it if we had taken him up on it. I hadn't played hardball in three years, and in addition to my trepidation at the plate I also had a major phobia about sliding. That began in 1962, when Reds third baseman Gene Freese, coming off a 26-homerun season for the pennant-winning 1961 team and ready to blossom into a star at age 28, broke his ankle sliding in spring training, essentially wrecking his career. I remember thinking "jeez, if a major leaguer can break his ankle sliding, I don't want any part of it." I hadn't been on base often enough in Little League to slide, and I resolved to avoid it in the future (a vow I kept during my softball "career").

The Old Saybrook coach would have had his hands full trying to convince me that it would be in everybody's best interest to learn how to break up a double play, even if he could get his pitchers to throw me enough batting practice to develop the skill needed to get on base in the first place. Of course, I might have improved sufficiently to become the next Jack Reed or Ross Moschitto--the weak-hitting outfielders who had brief stints in the majors as Mickey Mantle's late-inning replacement in center field.

Ah, dreams! We'll never know what might have happened in Old Saybrook, though I have a pretty good idea. Still, nothing can tarnish the memory of that golden game in old Connecticut, or those 20 magical seconds in the batting cage in Las Vegas.


cheeseblab said...

How about the cultural importance of one of my favorite arcane stats (though is it technically a stat if I'm the only one ever to observe it?), the HR/K ratio--which is the say, the ratio between the hitter's most transcendent success and his most abysmal failure. I'm reasonably confident that no one with more than a cup of coffee can beat Mr. Coffee's career .978 on 361/369 (this is from memory; correct me if I'm wrong), and more remarkable than that is that if Joe D had quit a year earlier, he'd have hung it up w/ a HR/K of > 1. The catcher on that team had a pretty good ratio, too. Needless to say, Ryan Howard need not apply.

BB. said...

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