Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Four-Course Feast of Baseball Ignorance

The past couple of weeks have brought an even greater parade of baseball ignorance than usual from the professionals who play and report on the game. I started to write about one of them, but before I could fully digest that affront to my baseball taste, another one jumped out at me, followed by two more. My plate is full to overflowing now, and I'd better share it with you while I still have an appetite for it. I am happy to share with you the four-course meal of ignorance that I've been stewing over for too long. Two you're already familiar with, as they have gotten considerable national coverage, so I'll say less about those. Another is an old favorite of mine. The fourth is a more local specialty, and we'll begin with that one.

The appetizer course is a tepid bowl of albondigas, a thick Mexican soup, which is a fair description of the state of Keith Hernandez's brain during a recent Mets telecast. With a runner on first, the batter tried to sacrifice but popped the ball up in front of the plate. The Mets catcher ran out but instead of catching the pop, let the ball drop, hoping for some kind of funky double play, which can happen if the batter neglects to run (get the force at second and double him at first) or if the fielders outsmart the runner.

In this case, the batter ran and the runner headed back to first base, but that wasn't what prevented the Mets from turning a double play. Ignorance was the culprit. When the first baseman caught the throw from the catcher, he was a step away from first base, where the runner stood watching like Ernie Harwell's house by the side of the road. Quick--what should the first baseman do? Tag the runner? Touch the base? Throw to second? Don't feel too bad if the answer didn't jump right into your head. Keith Hernandez, a borderline Hall of Fame first baseman who played ball for more than two decades, didn't get it right on the Mets telecast. In fact, he and lead announcer Gary Cohen were totally stumped when Ike Davis touched the base before tagging the runner, recording one out.

"Could that have been a double play?" they wondered, and spent the next inning and a half detailing their complete befuddlement about what the first baseman might have done differently to turn two. Hernandez was frank about it, saying, "I played ball for more than twenty years, and I admit I have no idea." That blew me away, because I knew how to make that play even before Hernandez reached the major leagues in 1974. It's simple! Technically it's a ground ball, so the runner is forced at second. All you do is tag the runner first and then touch the base. Voila! Double play. Touching the base first removes the force, and with the runner standing on the bag, he's safe.

It blew me away that both Cohen and Hernandez acted as if they had never seen the play before. Once or twice a season per team, a fielder will let a catchable bunt drop, and once in awhile it results in a double play. It is inconceivable that Hernandez has never seen this play before and inexcusable that he had no idea how the play should be made. In fact, a rule change covering this very play occurred during the course of his career. The fielder used to be able to glove the ball first to fake the runner back toward first, then drop it intentionally before throwing to first. The rule change dictated that the ball had to touch the ground first. What was he doing out there for 2,012 games as a major league first baseman if not thinking about what to do if he found himself standing there with a baseball in his glove and a runner standing in front of him? Sorry, Keith: you just lost my support as a Hall of Fame candidate. What a meatball!

For the main course we have some overcooked rump roast, representing the total ass Cole Hamels made of himself by declaring that he hit Bryce Harper on purpose with a pitch because he is "old-school" and honoring a tradition of introducing a precocious rookie to the man's world of major league baseball. Hamels has been roundly ripped for this stupidity, though the five-game suspension was meaningless as it didn't even cost him a start. Perhaps he was thinking about Bob Gibson beaning Jim Ray Hart during spring training of Hart's rookie season, a peculiar form of hazing that only showed what an asshole Gibson was on the mound. I met Gibson a few years ago at the Hall of Fame, and he was soft-spoken and gracious. He was also 70 years old and several decades removed from the days when he refused to speak to teammates at All-Star games because if they were friendly it might make him think twice about knocking them down a week later.

If Hamels' intention was to intimidate a rookie, he used an ignorant, self-defeating approach. As Pedro Martinez could have told him when they were teammates three years ago, you don't need to hit a batter to intimidate him. You knock him down, you brush him back, you move him off the plate, whichever cliche has meaning to you--but hitting him puts a runner on base, and that's just stupid. Ask Sal "The Barber" Maglie, a renowned "head-hunter" of the 1950s, who stated those principles in a magazine article that is the manifesto of malicious pitching. The idea is to throw the ball as close as you can to the batter without hitting him. Maglie declared that he threw at Roy Campanella almost every at-bat, because Campy was skilled at ducking out of the way. He still threw at him, because his goal was to get Campy to lean back just enough on the following pitch to be more vulnerable to the low-outside breaking ball. But he wouldn't throw at Don Zimmer because Zimmer wasn't good at ducking. That's why Zimmer has had a metal plate in his skull for half a century. Maglie was being partly a humanitarian--he didn't want to injure Zimmer--but mainly a pragmatist. He didn't want to put a runner on base.

That kind of sophisticated thinking is lost on Hamels, who compounded his stupidity by bragging about it after the game. I have just one word of advice for Hamels when he returns to action against Washington and steps into the batter's box: DUCK! If you're lucky, you'll get plunked in the rump and not the noggin.

After the rump roast comes the cheese course, and for that I present a stinky hunk of camembert in honor of Jamie Moyer's cheesy confrontation with Chipper Jones. Moyer got into a snit because he felt that Jones, a runner at second base, was watching the catcher signal pitches and relaying information to the batter. Moyer considered that a form of stealing, i.e. cheating, and made a big stink about it. I'll try to be brief about this one (you're welcome). When team management stations someone in the center field bleachers or clubhouse with a pair binoculars to tell the batter what pitch is coming, that is cheating. It has been done for more than a century, most notably on the 1951 New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, but it has always been cheating and always will be.

However, unless a runner at second base is more interested in checking out the blonde in the sixth row than in earning his salary, he has nowhere else to look except in front of him, where the action is. If he sees the catcher's signals--which are right there in front of him--and is savvy enough to understand them, that is deciphering, not stealing. It isn't that easy to do, and the defense has ways of changing signals for every game, every inning, every batter, or even every pitch. Any time a runner gets to second, the pitcher and catcher huddle to decide which variation of signal to use. They also have the option of letting the runner see the signal for a curve but knocking the batter down with a fastball instead. There are innumerable ways of countering the relative ease with which a runner can decipher signals. But in no way is it a transgression of baseball etiquette or rules for the runner to let the batter know what he thinks the next pitch will be. It is no different from someone in the dugout deciphering all those dorky gyrations of the third-base coach giving signals. Like a hunk of camembert left out in the sun too long, Jamie Moyer has ruined my appetite for geriatric hurlers.

Finally, there is dessert, so here's a stale piece of three-layer cake decorated with announcers who should know better than to prolong the myth that there is such a thing as a "broadcasters wing" at the Hall of Fame. I've written about this before so I'm not going to go into the whole history. Suffice it to say that THERE IS NO WRITERS OR BROADCASTERS WING! There is a display in the museum showing the winners of the Spink Award for writing and the Frick Award for broadcasting. That's it. Yet announcers in particular perpetuate the self-serving penchant for congratulating Frick Award winners for being "inducted" into the Hall of Fame.

It's my own fault for violating my policy of watching baseball on Fox with the sound turned off. But I was channel-hopping and lingered on the Fox telecast two Saturdays ago, just long enough to hear Buck congratulate his booth partner, McCarver, on his upcoming induction into the Hall of Fame. McCarver thanked him and elevated the misconception to new heights by chirping about how honored he was at his upcoming "induction into the Ford Frick broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." Congratulations, Tim:  you have achieved the ignorance trifecta! You're not being inducted, there's no such wing, and even if that display is a wing, it isn't named after Frick. Wake up, Tim, and look over here in reality, where you are going to receive an award at a ceremony that is separate from the Hall of Fame induction. That's all.

Warning: those of you who do not learn from this repast are condemned to repeat it.

1 comment:

cheeseblab said...

Nice meal, Chef. The Hernandez ignorance is almost as stunning as that displayed by Tony Kubek on another force/tag situation in the playoffs in the late '80s--long story, but sometime I'll show you the gracious response I got from Bob Costas, to whom I wrote about it.

And Moyer has no more excuse for his ignorance. As for Hamels & McCarver . . . well, my expectations for them haven't been high for a while.