It’s deja vu all over again

2019-06-09 JoeyGallo
Joey Gallo, Texas Ranger (and absolutely no relation to the legendary New York wiseguy): until straining his left oblique last month, this season’s likely king of the three-true-outcomes . . .

Today’s fan and observer from the old school laments two things primarily about today’s baseball: the three-true-outcomes brand of home runs, walks, and strikeouts uber alles; and, the parade of pitchers paddling in and out of games based upon analytic matchups. Enough of them think it’s ushering in the end of the world as we knew it. And I probably had the first four words of the preceding sentence wrong.

Aside from how new it isn’t—the big power-big strikeout game wasn’t invented in this decade, or in the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances—I’m going to lay down a bet that you can’t show me any generation of baseball in which someone couldn’t call himself justified in thinking the game was no longer what it “should” be.

(Quick aside: How do Joe and Jane Fan reconcile it when they’re tickled to death watching a pitcher strike out ten or more hitters in a game but they’re furious over the team striking out ten or more times in the same game?)

Allow me to share a passage written by a former third baseman and manager. I’m pretty sure you’ll think at first that it comes from someone who played or managed the game within the past ten or twenty years:

Baseball today is not what it should be. The players do not try to learn all the fine points of the game as in the days of old, but simply try to get by. They content themselves if they get a couple of hits every day or play an errorless game. The first thing they do each morning is to get the papers and look at the hit and error columns. If they don’t see them, some sportswriter gets a terrific panning, of which he never hears.

When I was playing ball, there was not a move made on the field that did not cause every one of the opposing team to mention something about it. All were trying to figure out why it had been done and to watch and see what the result would be. That same move could never be pulled again without every one on our bench knowing just what was going to happen.

I feel sure that the same conditions do not prevail today. The boys go out to the plate, take a slam at the ball, pray that they’ll get a hit, and let it go at that. They are not fighting as in the days of old. Who ever heard of a gang of ball players after losing going into the clubhouse singing at the top of their voices? That’s what happens every day after the games at the present time.

In my days, the players went into the clubhouse after losing a game with murder in their hearts. They would have thrown out any guy on his neck if they had even suspected him of intentions of singing. In my days the man who was responsible for having lost a game was told in a man’s way by a lot of men what a rotten ball player he really was. It makes me weep to think of the men of the old days who played the game and the boys of today. It’s positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it.

That was from Bill Joyce, a National Leaguer of the 1890s, quoted in the 1916 edition of The Spalding Base Ball Guide. As the gentleman described in the next passage might say, you never believe anyone did or said anything before they did.

With apologies for deploying “he” instead of the man’s real name just yet, here is the next passage. And, an advisory: think of “odds” in the following passage as “the metrics” in today’s game, and be advised that in his later years he spoke very often about on-base percentages, too:

[I]n talking about “percentage baseball,” [he] said, “Percentage isn’t just strategy. It’s execution. If a situation calls for a bunt and you have a batter who can’t bunt, what’s the percentage of bunting?”

He wanted players who could do things, who could execute . . . “If you’ve got a number of good men setting around on the bench you’ll do yourself a favour playing them, because every time one of my front players got hurt I noticed the fella I stuck in his place would bust out with hits. Then just about the time he slowed down he’d oblige me by stepping in a hole and another fella would take his place and hit. I decided I’d never count on one player taking care of one position for an entire season. If you’ve got two or three men who can’t play anyplace pretty soon you’re gonna run out of room for pitchers, and that’s why you’ve got to have players who can do more than one thing” . . . 

He got pleasure out of baseball, sheer joy when it was played properly. After a Dodger-Yankee World Series game that matched [Eddie] Lopat and Preacher Roe, two smart pitchers who used guile and control with consummate skill, [he] said, “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

He liked pitchers like that, men who could “throw ground balls,” low pitches that batters tended to hit to infielders who could convert them into double plays. He relished double plays and was always looking for deft second basemen who could “make the pivot.” He called the double play the most important play in baseball. “It’s two-thirds of an inning!” he’d say. “One ground ball and two! You’re out of the inning.” For the same reason, he used the sacrifice bunt sparingly, because when you sacrifice you give away an out, and an out is valuable.

He needed players who could do things to make his kind of baseball work . . . And he didn’t like to have to rely on the same eight fielders throughout a game. He understood odds. He disliked playing his infield in to cut off a run, fearing that the defensive gain (a shorter throw to home) was more than offset by the defensive loss (more batted balls that could flit between infielders for base hits). “Playing your infield in,” he said, “turns a .200 hitter into a .300 hitter.” He wanted the best odds he could get, every inning . . .

[He] used his bench. (“We’re paying twenty-five men,” he’d say, “we might as well let them earn their money”.) He didn’t have substitutes around just for emergencies. The process seems so logical that those familiar with the way [he] operated feel a vague sense of shock nowadays when they see a major league team come into the ninth inning behind a run and send up to bat the same weak-hitting shortstop and the same weak-hitting second baseman who have played the entire game. Where are the pinch hitters? Where are the replacement fielders? As a matter of fact, [he] probably would have hit for them long before the ninth inning. If he was up against a competent pitcher and suddenly saw an opening, he didn’t wait for a late inning to pinch hit. If, say, the leadoff hitter in the fifth inning got to second base on a throwing error by the shortstop, and the weak-hitting end of his batting order was coming up, [he] would go at once to his pinch hitters, one after another sometimes, probing, pushing, improving the odds of getting that run in from second. Even if he didn’t succeed, the pressure he put on the pitcher could turn an easy inning into a tough one and possibly make it easier to get to him the following inning.

2019-06-09 CaseyStengel
Casey Stengel, who didn’t need a crystal (base)ball to tell him, “Baseball is percentage plus execution.”

That’s from Robert W. Creamer in Stengel: His Life and Times, published in 1984, almost a decade after Stengel’s death. And people wondered why they couldn’t beat Stengel’s Yankees even if they’d snuck into their hotel rooms and broken their legs.

Maybe the nearest thing Stengel’s had to a disciple in the post-Stengel era was Tony La Russa. And maybe, if allowed to manage in today’s game, Stengel would have been either renowned (or denounced) as a human computer or taking to the computer the way La Russa did around the time Creamer’s biography appeared.

Now, allow me to share one more passage:

I have always been a fellow who liked to see efficiency rewarded. If a pitcher pitched a swell game, I wanted him to win it. So it kind of sickens me to watch a typical pastime of today in which a good pitcher, after an hour and fifty minutes of deserved mastery of his opponents, can suddenly be made to look like a bum by four or five great sluggers who couldn’t have held a job as bat boy on the Niles High School scrubs . . .

. . . I mean it kind of upsets me to see good pitchers shot to pieces by boys who, in my time, would have been ushers. It gnaws at my vitals to see a club with three regular outfielders who are smacked on top of the head by every fly ball that miraculously stays inside the park—who ought to pay their way in, but who draw large salaries and are known as stars because of the lofty heights to which they can hoist a leather-covered sphere stuffed with dynamite.

2019-06-09 RingLardner.jpg
Ring Lardner.

Ladies and gentlemen (or sirs and ladies, as he might have written in his time), that was Ring Lardner, writing in The New Yorker in 1930. When the live ball era was a decade old. Admitting the live ball and not the Black Sox scandal soured him on the game he loved and graced with his prose.

“In other words,” wrote Allen Barra in That’s Not the Way It Was, “in an irony as sharp as any in Lardner’s stories, Babe Ruth, the man credited with saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal, is the man who helped ruin it for Ring Lardner.” Also in Lardner’s words, later in “Br’er Rabbit Ball,” as a matter of fact:

Well, the other day a great ballplayer whom I won’t name (he holds the home run record and gets eighty thousand dollars a year) told a friend of mine in confidence (so you must keep this under your hat) that there are at least fifteen outfielders now playing positions in his own league who would not have been allowed bench-room the year he broke in. Myself, I just can’t stomach it . . . 

“Even before 1919,” Barra wrote, “Lardner had already been worn down with the daily grind of beat writing with its train travel and deadline pressures. In any event, he did continue to write about baseball well after 1919, though always on special assignment.” Including “Br’er Rabbit Ball,” which was republished two years ago in The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner.

All the foregoing leaves us with what, then? Well, it leaves us to remember certain baseball arguments have always been with us; and, certain baseball fans will always lament the actual or alleged loss of the game they used to know. (Why they’re not lamenting the maple bats that hit balls juiced or otherwise harder as loudly as they lament today’s reputed ball escapes me for now.)

And, it leaves us to remember that Chicken Little will never be baseball’s invisible barometer or unseen/unheard self-appointed town crier. It’s deja vu all over again.

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