Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ups and Downs

In late June a little more than halfway through your season, you and your team hit the bus for a six-game road trip.

It starts with a bad day -- 0-for-4, two strikeouts
Followed by another poor evening – 0-for-3, three weak groundouts
Followed by a subpar afternoon in the series finale – 0-for-3, one walk
0-for-10 in the three-game series

And the slump has begun.

Remember that comfy .305 batting average? Time to say good-bye to that.
Remember that overflowing confidence? It has run out.
Remember the loose and fun loving demeanor you had before each at-bat? It has tightened up.

The road trip continues with a new three-game series in a different city…
Game one -- 0-for-4, a line out to the shortstop, three groundouts
Game two -- 0-for-3, sacrifice fly, two groundouts, strikeout
Game three -- 0-for-4, three strikeouts, deep fly ball to the centerfield warning track
0-for-11in the three-game series; 0-for-21 on the six-game road trip

Time to return home. You know your batting average has dipped to .282 because you saw it on the 25x50 foot scoreboard in your final at-bat the night before. You think to yourself “Do they have to show that to everyone in the stands?” It is still a respectable number but you know it is trending downward.

Over the last few days you have watched extra tape of your swing with the hitting coach. You see yourself late on the fastball and early on the breaking ball. Your stride and your hands and your hips are all firing at different times. You watch a curve ball drop into the strike zone… strike three. You see yourself go flailing after a fastball out of the zone and tap it weakly back to the pitcher.

Although you are not a self-described superstitious man you have found yourself trying to appease the baseball Gods by changing up a few things… it can’t hurt right? You bought a new pair of batting gloves; no hits in those. You tried a new bat; no hits in there either. You slept with your head at the foot of your hotel bed; didn’t find any hits there either.

On the phone your mother and girlfriend tell you to keep your head up; it’s only a game after all. Your father asks you if you are keeping your hands back.

The homestand begins…

Game one – 0-for-2, walk, hit-by-pitch, two fly outs, run scored
You hit the ball hard today. The left fielder made a diving catch and a line drive to center was knocked down by the wind. “Probably would have gotten out on a different day,” you mumble under your breath while jogging back to the dugout.
0-for-23 this week; .280 batting average

Game two – 0-for-3, walk, strikeout, lineout, groundout
In the eighth inning you hit a fastball right on the screws but directly at the first baseman. Two feet to the left or two feet to the right and you would have driven in the two runners on base at the time.
0-for-26 in the last eight games; .277 batting average

Game three – It’s the rubber match of a three-game series tonight. Your round of batting practice felt strong this afternoon. The ball is really carrying today. You encourage yourself before the game, “Good things are going to happen tonight.”

Your first at-bat comes in the first inning with two-outs and two-runners on. With a 2-and-2 count you get a cutter in on the hands. You make contact and your bat breaks. Running to first your hands are stinging while you watch the flight of the ball the whole way. Is it hit hard enough? Is that pesky little second baseman going to get there? Will you be robbed again?

He dives in shallow right field but he comes up short. The ball finds the grass. Both runs score and your team leads 2-0. You breathe a sigh of relief. A HIT. TWO RBI. Your first base coach comes over and slaps you on the back side accompanied by an “atta baby.”

1-for-1 today.

Final stat line in the series finale: 2-for-4, single, double, three RBI, two runs scored.
2-for-4 tonight;. 283 batting average

You are excited to answer your father’s call after the game. Your jokes are a little funnier that night while eating a surprisingly delicious supreme pizza with a couple of teammates at the local Italian joint in town. That old mattress of yours seems extra cozy that evening.

The slump is over. You have a new series starting tomorrow. You made it through a down. Let’s see how long you can make this up last.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Joe Maddon defines cheating

Tampa Bay Rays reliever Joel Peralta was caught with pine tar on his glove.  It's illegal for a pitcher to have pine tar on his glove and so Peralta was ejected from the game.

Simple.  Straightforward.  Cheated, got caught, ejected.  Draw the curtains.

To Rays manager Joe Maddon, however, this is a far more complex issue, and it led to a fascinating give-and-take with reporters who were not going to sit back and ask softball questions.

The key excerpt from the Associated Press's outstanding article:

It was pointed out to Maddon that his player broke a rule and got caught, yet he chose to deflect responsibility toward [Washington Nationals manager Davey] Johnson.
"To utilize information based on the fact that the guy played here?" Maddon said. "If you want to talk about -- I don't know if that's a form of cheating or what -- but that's really kind of underhanded, I believe, to use that kind of information."

Maddon said pine tar use is "common knowledge in the industry" by "every major league baseball team." He said glove manufacturers "were probably inundated with new orders last night and this morning by various agents throughout baseball."

If it's that widespread, he was asked, shouldn't something be done about it?
"It is done about it," Maddon said. "In baseball, players throughout history have always had this amazing ability and way to police themselves. There's a policing themselves component of this game that we should stay away from -- let the players take care of things. It's happened for a long time."
And what have the players concluded about pine tar?
"Everybody's OK with it," Maddon said.
It was suggested to Maddon that his line of reasoning was hard to swallow, given that it comes on the heels of the Roger Clemens trial -- which reflected an era in which the players did not police themselves well at all.
"That's fine," he answered. "And we're talking about two different things."
Maddon went on to say that pine tar doesn't help a pitcher that much anyway.
"It shouldn't be illegal from a throwing perspective," he said. "It's just about grip. It doesn't really influence movement of the ball as much as it influences the fact that you have a better grip or understanding where the ball is going -- which actually probably works to the hitter's advantage, also."
Maddon said that the incident should deter free agents from signing with the Nationals.
"If I'm a major league player that may happen to want to play for the Nationals in the future, I might think twice about it," Maddon said. "Because this is one of their former children here that had really performed well and all of a sudden he's going to come back to this town and they're going to rat on him based on some insider information, insider trading, whatever."
After Peralta was ejected, Maddon had umpires check on Nationals reliever Ryan Mattheus' cap and glove in the ninth inning. Following the game, Peralta did not directly answer when asked if he intentionally added pine tar to the glove, saying only it was a glove he uses "for batting practice every day." Peralta declined further comment through a Rays spokesman on Wednesday.

Since Maddon wants us to examine the situation more carefully, let's do just that:

Joel Peralta had pine tar on his glove, got caught, and was ejected.
Own up to it, Joel Peralta.  Be a man.  You knew it was against the rules and you did it anyway -- and apparently you've been doing it for years.

You know what would really help Peralta?  If every single pitcher in the Majors who uses pine tar on his glove also owned up to it.  Then we would really find out if batters are truly "OK" with widespread pine tar use (according to Maddon, it works to their advantage anyway), and we could, you know, change the rule.

No use having a rule in place that no one thinks is necessary and everyone is already breaking.

Heck, examine the entire rulebook and expunge any rules that are unnecessary.  Legalize corked bats, for instance, since Mythbusters prove they don't help hitters.

The Nationals had prior knowledge of Joel Peralta's use of pine tar.
In Joe Maddon's world, the Nats are dishonorable.  As long as a player is helping the Nats, it doesn't matter whether he uses illegal means.  (It's Washington, D.C. -- they're used to dirty tricks.)  But as soon as he goes to the competition, he's fair game.

The Rays, meanwhile, are honorable.  In fact, in Maddon's mind, it's far more dishonorable (and far closer to cheating) to rat out a player's illegal secrets than it is to condone them.

More to the point, Maddon wants all the honorable men in baseball to know that their secrets are safe with the Rays.

Conclusion:  Joe Maddon believes that...
1) Joel Peralta did nothing illegal by having illegal pine tar on his glove,
2) how dare the Nats call him into question,
3) how dare anyone call Joel Peralta into question,
4) heck, everyone uses pine tar,
5) it's actually the Nats who are the cheaters, and
6) no baseball player should ever support them ever again.

Joe Maddon would fit in great in the world of Washington, D.C., wouldn't he?

Monday, June 18, 2012

First Half Awards

Most Valuable Manager:  John Tamargo, Jr., steering the Lugnuts to a team record for wins at the start of the year (7), a record-tying amount of wins in one month (20, May), and a record-setting wins in one half (47), as the Lugnuts ran away with the Eastern Division.

Most Valuable Pitcher(s):  Sancholino; the unbeatable combination of Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino, living up to their billing as two of the top pitching prospects in baseball.  Runners-Up: Ajay Meyer, Jesse Hernandez.

Most Valuable Hitter:  Kevin Pillar, who played all three outfield positions, batted throughout the Lugnuts' lineup, knocked both of the Lugs' grand slams, and ranks among the Midwest League leaders in both batting average and stolen bases.  Runners-Up:  Jon Berti, Andy Burns.

Best Pitching Performance:  Jesse Hernandez, striking out eight and taking a no-hitter into the 8th at Fort Wayne, June 12th.  Sheer brilliance, turned bittersweet by a 1-0 loss.

Best Hitting Performance:  Kevin Pillar, topping off his record-tying 6-for-6 masterpiece at Dayton with a grand slam, May 12th.

Best Defensive Performance, Part I:  The Dragons build a threat, putting two runners on with nobody out in the bottom of the 6th, May 14th... only to see the Lugs turn a triple play.

Best Defensive Performance, Part II:  Kevin Pillar makes a jawdropping diving catch at Fort Wayne, June 14th.  Better yet, it came in the 9th inning in a Lugs victory.

Best Defensive Performance, Part III:  In the final day of the first half, Andy Burns and Shane Opitz combine on a fantastic double play to close out Great Lakes, June 17th.

Worst News:  There are no championship banners or rings awarded for first half greatness.

Did I forget anything?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Baseball Trash Talk

Baseball is an odd game.

For a long list of reasons it is different than the other major sports.  One reason is the lack of trash talk within the game compared to football, hockey, soccer and basketball.  In those sports quality trash talking is as much a strategy as setting a pick or calling an audible.  There are no pleasantries exchanged between a wide receiver and a cornerback or any player on the ice during a hockey game.

The goal is to get into your opponent’s head, try to take them out of the game psychologically.  If you can get the other guy frustrated with you, then he is not thinking about executing his team’s game plan.  In all of these other sports players are closer to each other than in baseball. There is plenty of opportunity to put your opponent down verbally when at the line of scrimmage or going after a puck in the corner.

There is not quality opportunity to trash talk in baseball. How would it look if a hitter started mother f-ing the pitcher while he walked into the batter’s box? What if the catcher started making derogatory remarks about the hitter’s mother? Is a base runner going to be less focused if the first baseman starts undercutting his self-esteem?  It doesn't do any good. You just seem like a jerk.

No, trash talking doesn’t have much place in baseball. The games are too long and you play too often. It is easy to get worked up for one game a week in football or a couple games a week in basketball when you play each team one at a time.

Baseball is every day. It consists of three- and four-game series against the same team. Who wants to go out four days in a row during a series and try to come up with new insults every day for these guys? That sounds exhausting.

Besides, there is no room inside an opposing player’s head because he is already in it.  Hitters and pitchers alike are trying to avoid outthinking themselves in every at-bat.  If you want to get inside your opponent’s head on the baseball field, you do it physically.

And I do not mean you threaten to beat him up.

You threaten to beat him with your physical tools. The potential of your physical ability on the field is what really psyches out the opposing team.  If you are a base stealing threat, then your tool of speed will get in the cranium of a pitcher, catcher and manager.  That has way more effect than lobbing derogatory remarks at the pitcher about his girlfriend.

If a pitcher has a hitter thinking about his mid-90’s heater, that’s when he can drop a knee-buckling curve over the zone and freeze him for strike three.  If the right fielder has a great arm, that cannon can keep the third base coach from sending a runner home.

This is baseball. Don’t curse out the pitcher. Make him curse out himself after you take his fastball and deposit it into the centerfield seats. He won’t remember that “your mamma joke” when you face him again in a couple weeks, but he will remember the casual pace of your home run trot. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tools of Ignorance

So you want to be a catcher?

Are you prepared to…

* Wear heavy, often dark-colored, heat-attracting gear on your face, chest and legs?

* Take foul balls and errant pitches off your unprotected forearms, hands, feet, and neck?

* Catch hundreds of mid-90’s fastballs, knee-buckling curveballs, devastating sliders, sinking change-ups and tailing cutters every day in the bullpen and during the game?

* Game plan and scout the opposing pitchers and each opposing hitter?

* Sacrifice speed on the basepaths and strength at the plate because of tired legs?

* Prepare everyday by standing on your knees and having a teammate throw balls in the dirt to practice blocking pitches?

* Have your efforts go widely unnoticed by the fans?

* Call a 0-for-4 day offensively a successful game because your starter threw seven shutout innings and your team won?

* Serve as an on-field coach and general of the infield?

* Catch the throw from an outfielder, block the plate and hold on to the ball after the  6-3, 220 pound baserunner charges full-speed into you while you stand still?

* Act as a psychologist and motivator to your pitcher to keep his head in the game and perform at his best when the game is on the line?

* Learn what all 11, 12, sometimes 13 pitchers on your staff throw and how they want to use each one of those pitches in every situation to all nine opposing hitters?

* Understand every one of your pitcher’s personalities so that you can support and guide them through the inevitable ups and downs of each game?

* Block a 55-foot fastball with your body to prevent it from going to the backstop and hold a potential go-ahead run from reaching scoring position or scoring from third base?

* Serve as a backup and play every three, four or five days, but start every afternoon game that follows a night game during the summer to give the regular backstop a rest?

* Act as a mentor to a young catcher that is preparing to take your job if your body holds up and you play long enough to be considered a veteran in a big league clubhouse?

* To play the most demanding position in sports and be the backbone of a championship ball club?

You are?

Great, seeing as you are in extended spring training, I will see you at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. I need you to catch an 18-year-old that throws 97 mph but has no idea where his fastball is going. Catcher’s drills, batting practice, pitcher’s meeting, hitter’s meeting and your lifting session with the strength and conditioning coach will follow that before our game tomorrow afternoon.

The forecast for tomorrow down here in Florida is supposed to be in the mid-90’s tomorrow and humid so make sure you hydrate.

Oh, and get a good night’s sleep.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Off the Mic On the Road

The venerable Jesse Goldberg-Strassler ( the “a” in Strassler is a nasally tone, sort of like the “a” of apple—remember that if you meet him) was working on the game notes in the South Bend hotel until I turned on the The Simpsons movie. 

He was then immediately distracted by that film and started watching it through the mirror above the desk and above the bed. We broadcasters are very resourceful and know how to incorporate cartoons into our working routine – yes that is the face he always has when watching cartoons. 

The South Bend Silver Hawks have solved a long standing issue within the baseball world. 

When a group of four friends sit together they are forced to sit in a row. Here in-lies a problem – how is the person sitting in seat one reasonably supposed to communicate with their friend sitting in seat four? 

They are forced to shout across their two friends sitting in between thus rudely, albeit unintentionally, interrupting the middle patrons’ conversation. After all, is the conversing between friends not one of the great endearing qualities of attending a baseball game?

What the Silver Hawks at The Cove have done to solve this problem is install swiveling seats around a table in the outfield.

Other benefits of these seats…

1. Improved consumption of footlong chilli dogs and other over-sized and messy foods.

2. Less potential beverage spillage because now it can all be set on the table, not passed from person to person nor set on the ground near happy feet.

Portrait of a Pitcher

You do not understand what it is like to be a pitcher.

*  Perhaps you can relate to the feeling of responsibility and pressure, all eyes on you, waiting, until you're ready to let fire.

*  Perhaps you can relate to the uncertainty, knowing you're about to give your all, but not knowing if it will be enough.

*  Perhaps you can relate to the direct competition, being measured against another, someone who might just be better than you -- or might simply get lucky when it counts, ruining your best efforts, leaving you shocked and bitter.

*  Perhaps you can relate to the job instability, knowing that your boss is more than willing to bring someone else in should he suspect that you're not up to performing your job.

*  Perhaps you can relate to the micromanaged performance assessment, having your every product examined and evaluated by an arbitrator whose standards shift unpredictably.  Worse, you will be quickly removed from your position and disciplined should you show any sign of frustration toward his verdict.  Regardless of evidence, you will not win an argument with him.  Not now.  Not ever.

Yes, perhaps you can relate to all of this, but you cannot relate to the overriding pitcher's fear that at any moment, at any place, at any time, there is a high risk of suffering an injury that will end your year -- and, possibly, your career.

Imagine a teacher in the midst of a lesson suddenly dropping down to her or his knees with a yell of agony - a teaching muscle has been torn.  Imagine a doctor telling a lawyer in a sad, grim tone, "I'm sorry.  You will not practice law again."

It doesn't happen, except to pitchers.  Unless you're a pitcher, you don't understand.