Each year I get a little deeper into the world of big-league baseball. Each season I learn a little more. This year I’m trying to do a better job of understanding pitch patterns (why was that pitch thrown at that time to that batter) and last season I was beginning to decode outfield positioning. Theoretically, if you know what you’re doing—and I’m not there yet—you can look at the outfield and tell how the pitcher will attack the hitter.
In last year’s All-Star Game there were an unusual number of triples. I could see that the right fielder was playing off the line, but pitchers were still coming inside on lefties and away on righties. The gap between the right fielder and the foul line meant a ball shot into that space would roll for a while. When the All-Star break was over I asked around: was there any coordination between pitchers and their defense at an All-Star game? The answer I got was; no, not much.
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Players arrive on the Sunday night preceding the All-Star game and the circus is on. They’ve got the media, family and friends to contend with. They’ve got a lot of required events and tons of extra requests. There’s not that much time for baseball. The players have a workout, but that’s a mess as well; media everywhere, trying to get interviews, while the players are busy introducing themselves to their teammates. They played against each other, may know each other enough to say hi, but the All-Star game might be the first time they’ve ever had a real conversation. Baseball is pretty far down on the list of priorities, which is fine.
Except they use this game to decide home-field advantage in the World Series. The game has devolved into an exhibition in which each player is expected to make an on-field appearance. That resulted in the All-Star game that ended in a tie when they ran out of pitching. There’s no crying in baseball, but there aren’t supposed to be ties, either. In my opinion the solution to this problem—give the winning league home field advantage in the World Series—was awful. They might as well decide home field advantage on a coin flip.
This thing is still an exhibition game, played with one eye on letting everyone participate and another on winning. The All-Star game might be interesting, fun and, at times, riveting, but for the most part; it’s not good baseball.
(Here’s hoping that tonight’s game is the exception to the rule.)
A wave of want
I was talking to a former player the other day and he told me something I’d heard dozens of time before: he had a small group of friends, but kept everybody else at arm’s length. Why?
"They all want something."
I started thinking about this after receiving an email from Pittsburgh Pirates manager, Clint Hurdle. Clint and I became friends after I met him at a Royals fantasy camp over 20 years ago. At the time, Clint was managing the Double A Williamsport Bills, a N.Y. Mets minor league team, and he invited me and a buddy, writer John Hughes, to come visit him. John and I met in Pittsburgh and then climbed aboard a puddle-jumper to fly the final leg to Williamsport. I can’t recall clearly, but I think we may have been required to wear a leather helmet and goggles to make the flight. John may have been holding a crate of chickens on his lap—anyway, let’s just say it’s not easy to get to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
But once we got there we had a great time: we stayed in Tommy Herr’s hunting cabin up in the mountains, drove into town every day, hung out with the team and watched a ballgame every night. It was my introduction to how the game is played at the professional level and it’s where the idea for this website got started.
I remained friends with Clint and would visit him and his teams every summer; once in Canton, Ohio, another time in Colorado Springs, several times in Norfolk, Virginia and another memorable weekend in Toledo. I was having a blast, learning baseball and hanging out with professional ballplayers. I thought I was the lucky one, but Clint told me he wouldn’t forget who came to see him in Williamsport. Here’s what he meant: ballplayers sign contracts and then disappear into the minors. It’s rare for friends to seek them out in some backwater town and show up to watch them play on bad fields under lousy lights. But once the ballplayer makes it to the big leagues, those friends show up in droves: every guy that attended the same high school now wonders if the player can get him tickets.
That was brought home to me when I stayed with Clint after he’d worked his way up to managing the Colorado Rockies. Every time we walked into his house or office he’d hit the button on his answering machine and we’d hear that he had 57, 72 or 43 messages. I asked what that was about and Clint said it was all people wanting something: tickets, interviews, endorsements, whatever the manager of the Colorado Rockies could do for them. After a while it just seemed relentless: we’d go to dinner with his wife and kids and people would come by the table to chat or get something signed or just get some time with Clint Hurdle. We’d stop for coffee on the way to the park and the guy handing us the cups would want to talk about the team’s offense. Clint was recognized everywhere we went and was always gracious and generous with his time.
But I could see how much people wanted from him—so I decided to back off. I told him I didn’t want to bug him and add to his burden, so I was going to fade out: "Once they fire you, we’ll be friends again." At that point the requests would stop—or at least slow—and he’d have time for his buddies. Well, the Rockies did fire him, but not much changed. Clint Hurdle is now managing the Pittsburgh Pirates and doing very well. My backing off didn’t do anything to help his situation and, in fact, he got a little testy about it: there were people he
in his life and he gave me a hard time about "going dark" on him.
The point of all this is to remind fans that ballplayers are still people. They’ve got families and obligations and schedules to keep. Some are gracious in dealing with the public, some are not. Professional athletes know they have an obligation to the fans—without the fans, there is no game—but they all know they can’t meet every request or sign every autograph.
The wave of want is too big.
The home run derby and traditionalists
I’m old enough to have some sympathy for the old-school players who complain about the kids today who are ruining the game, but immature enough to sympathize with some of the kids. Just so you know; the old-school guys probably cringed at Bryce Harper’s home run derby hairdo—an Elvis-just-had-the-crap-scared-out-of-him pompadour—but the worst part is that the hairdo was visible.
The old-school guys believe you don’t take batting practice without a hat on and if you have it on, you don’t wear it backwards. It’s part of their "look like a professional" code. The throwback players think guys today spend way too much time worrying about how they look and way too little time worrying about playing the game right.
I’m caught somewhere in-between.
I assume we all worry about how we look; we just have different ideas of what looks good. But I do see lots of young players who don’t seem to be that worried about the fine points of the game. Talent might get you to the big leagues, but you better have a lot of it if you’re going to ignore learning the fine points. Learning to play the game the right way might be what separates the guys who make it to the big leagues and the guys who stay.
If a kid thinks, "To hell with tradition, I’m taking BP in a faux hawk"; he might also think he doesn’t have to listen to some old coach who is trying to explain the right way to conduct a hit and run. Over the years I’ve spent hours talking with baseball coaches and they usually tell me how much they enjoy talking baseball with someone who wants to learn. You’d think those coaches wouldn’t need me to talk to; you’d think they’d be swamped by young players who want to know what those baseball lifers know.
Unless they’re too busy fixing their hair.
(I’d always assumed the home run derby was bad for a guy’s swing, but I recently heard another point of view: home runs need to be practiced. I’ll post that piece in the next couple days.)