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.

Watching your language, baseball division

Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson watches his

Sparky Anderson, who murdered the King’s English now and then but whose baseball lyricism was second to few.

There are times—in cyberspace or otherwise—when stumbling upon something you missed when it first arrived can sting rather than charm. Especially if it’s a fine essay on baseball jargon, and you discover you’re just as guilty as everyone else of making mincemeat out of it. Or, you rediscover that you’re a repeat offender who’d better be grateful he doesn’t live in a state with a three-strikes law.

The essay in question is Allen Barra’s, from The Atlantic, in June 2012. He took a good, long look at what became of baseball’s language and was not amused. More saddened than infuriated, Barra decided, with apologies to Yogi Berra (whose biographer Barra admires him for his syntax as much as his baseball virtuosity), that he wished baseball people really hadn’t said half the things they’ve said since, oh, around 1980.

I’d love to be able to say much as changed. But then I’d love to be able to say I’m not guilty of failing to pay my syntax, too. Say, regarding runners in scoring position, which bothered Barra as “an ugly and imprecise term, originating mostly with broadcast announcers.” Once we had a runner on second, a runner on third, or runners on second and third, customarily. We’ve had runners in scoring position since the Reagan Administration.

“The new phrase means, of course, a runner in position to score on a single,” Barra wrote, “which is true only if the base runner is not Jason Giambi, who generally needs a double to have a break-even chance of scoring from second. Used indiscriminately. . . it is not merely vague and confusing, it’s incorrect. You can just as easily call the batter’s box a ‘scoring position’.”

Especially if the batter is someone like, say, Tommy La Stella, the Angels’ new toy, acquired in an offseason deal with the Cubs where he’d made himself into a useful substitute (wait, just wait) but didn’t exactly threaten to become the next Mike Trout. Oops. At this writing La Stella has hit exactly as many home runs this season (ten) as he’d hit in his entire previous major league career. He also has a season’s OPS just 72 points below Trout’s. At the rate he’s going now, La Stella is in scoring position when he merely checks in at the plate.

On the other hand, someone did come up with something other than “the bases loaded” to describe, well, the bases loaded. I could be wrong but I think it was Rex Hudler, then an Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels broadcaster, who went swimming and came up with a beauty: “ducks on the pond.” He didn’t say “ducks in scoring position, either.” One up for Raspasaurus Rex.

Barra had no great love for pitchers versus position players, either. Hard to blame him. “When I played Babe Ruth League ball we had pitchers and regulars, the latter term referring to players who play every day,” he wrote. “Now we’ve got something called ‘position players,’ which takes up two more syllables than ‘regulars’ and is misleading, since pitcher is as much of a position as the other eight spots. We also have ‘role players,’ which says nothing and takes up two more syllables than ‘subs,’ short for substitutes. ‘Role players,’ too, is inaccurate; doesn’t every player on the team have a role?”

Yankee substitutes of the late 1950s-early 1960s had a term for themselves. Tell me scrubeenies doesn’t sound friendlier, and funnier, to the game and to the ear, than “role players.” It won’t cost you an extra syllable, either.

Coaches and managers have roles, too. But let’s not get too technical. I’m pretty sure the announcer who dreamed the term up decided “position players” was a sensible way to distinguish everyday men from not-quite-everyday pitchers. I’m also pretty sure men walked on the moon, women won’t become pregnant from a mere kiss, and children think of only one thing when it comes to their parents. (Divide and conquer, and thank you, Danny Thomas.)

Barra also didn’t like “velocity” for extremely fast fastballs, “location” for what we used to call “pinpoint control” or “excellent control,” or “walkoff hit/home run” for “game-ending hit/home run.” (I’d also like to know just when and just why “home run” became a compound word.) But he didn’t complain about “gas,” “bullets,” “BBs,” or “cheese” for extremely fast fastballs.

Showed him the high cheese, then I punched him out with the yakker—Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. In case you wondered, “yakker” in what was once known as Dial-Eck referred to a curve ball. Curve balls are also known as benders, 12-to-6, and Uncle Charlie. Then Dwight Gooden had to spoil it: his curve ball was so curvy and so deadly when he was on it became known as Lord Charles. Lord, have mercy.

I may be wrong but I think we have legendary Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone to thank for turning pinpoint control into a real estate pitch. It did and does get a little sickening after awhile, listening to pitchers talk about “location, location, location.” Even if they were such Mazzone charges as Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.

Just once, I’d pay money to hear any pitcher talk about painting, working, climbing, hitting, or using the corners the way Hall of Famer Whitey Ford or anyone speaking and writing about him once did. Let a pitcher speak of his failure to “locate” his pitches, I’d like to ask him when, where, and how he misplaced them. Maybe that was the problem. “Sorry, Skip, I lost that hanger.” We found it for you, kiddo, we retrieved it from behind the ballpark.

(Which reminds me: If there’s one sportswriter question that should earn immediate excommunication, it’s “What were you thinking?” after a hitter’s been humiliated with a called third strike breaking into the zone when he least expected. Or, after a pitcher’s been hit for a ten mile drive. What do you think a hitter was thinking about getting frozen alive? What did you think a pitcher was thinking about getting taken across the state line? In front of 35,000-55,000 in the ballpark and about ten million on television or next to radios? I guarantee it wasn’t, “I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.”)

The game-winning home run gave the winner great praise, Barra wrote, referencing Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski specifically. The walkoff home run, he frowned, is “a term that thumbs its nose at the loser since the team in the field begins to walk off as soon as the ball clears the fence, while the batter is still circling the bases.”

And, while the winning team pours out of dugout and bullpen at once, and en masse, the better to commemorate the blast by turning the blaster into game-winning hamburger. “I’m just about out of breath,” heaved David Freese after he hit that staggering game-winning, 2011 World Series-tying home run in the bottom of the eleventh of Game Six. “I just got beat up by thirty guys.”

Barra admired Virginia Woolf’s admiration for Ring Lardner, whose best stories and articles were “about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problem of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a center, a meeting place for the diverse activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gave his English brother.”

In other words, Barra continued, “millions of immigrants, no matter what language they spoke when they came here, came together around baseball. And that happened because even if you knew just a little English you could, by listening to the broadcasts, learn baseball Baseball language once drew newcomers into the game. Now, it’s becoming a language that shuts many people out, one that makes them feel as if what’s happening on the field is something a little more complicated than they thought. The ultimate result is that we all end up knowing less—particularly about baseball.”

And yet. “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who could have been tried by jury for murdering the King’s English (not to mention the Queens, the Bronx, the Manhattan’s, and the Staten Island’s) now and then, but whose baseball lyricism was second to few. And who never saw men in scoring position sent home on walkoff hits off misplaced pitches. (I think.)

But I’m getting a little ahead in the count. (In baseball, that’s a good thing. In writing, it isn’t.) To Barra, turning fielding into defense and hitting into offense is, well, offensive. “When, exactly, did ‘fielding’ become ‘defense’? The word fielding perfectly described what a baseball team in the field was doing. Defense was the term common to basketball.”

I have one answer: I can remember Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy, of blessed memory, opening a 1960s home game broadcast by “setting up the dee-fense for the New York Mets.” Little by little I heard more people doing it. Defense was also a term common to football and hockey, too. The last I looked, sporting goods stores still don’t sell defenders’ gloves.

“For that matter, when did hitting and base-running get lumped together under the leaden term ‘offense’?” Barra added. “Were ‘batting’ and ‘hitting’ and ‘base running’ too quaint for an audience that also watched football and basketball? When did we decide that because football and basketball had offense and defense that baseball had to have them, too?”

Unfortunately, people who ought to know better decided long enough ago that baseball itself had to have things football and basketball had, too. Things like diluted championships, salary caps, and other cancers.

When baseball first went to divisional play, it didn’t have “playoffs”—it had League Championship Series. Then, baseball introduced the wild cards. In 2012 it introduced the second wild cards. And speaking of wild cards, leave it to baseball—which makes gambling Original Sin—to describe a batter hitting with two balls, two strikes, two out and two men on, as “deuces wild.” That one’s aces in my book.

Once upon a time, baseball’s only known wild Cards were the Gas House Gang, that bunch of particularly randy, rowdy 1934-35 St. Louis Cardinals. (The 1957 Braves, the 1986 Mets, and the 1993 Phillies were just a bunch of wild and crazy guys.) How long, now, before baseball’s governors, arbiters, and shepherds introduce not just every team in a division, practically, going to play for a championship with the World Series becoming something with an unrecognisable name?

Hey, it could be worse. At least three major team sports have identifiable championships. We have the World Series, still; not even Rob Manfred is willing to throw that one out of the game. The National Football League has the Super Bowl, and they’re welcome to it, never mind that it sounds more like something—in hand with the scrambled brains of football play—you’d see involving a wrestling title.

The National Hockey League has had the Stanley Cup Finals to itself since the folding of the original World Hockey League in 1926, after the Montreal Maroons defeated the Victoria Cougars. The National Basketball Association has . . . the NBA Finals. They can’t even call it the Naismith Finals, never mind that that’s the trophy the winner wins. How boring, for a sport of perpetual motion, whose championship trophy is named after its founding father.

Once upon a time, if the occasional fight broke out on the baseball field, we had Red Barber to thank for telling us we had quite a rhubarb going there. Wouldn’t you rather have a rhubarb than a bench-clearing brawl? (We once had Barber to thank, too, for describing the bases loaded as “FOB”—full of Brooklyns.) It beats the hell out of “donnybrook,” which sounds more like naming a soap opera super couple than a rhubarb, anyway. (I wonder: did the couple have themselves a donnybrook over the rhubarb?)

We have Barber’s disciple and successor, Vin Scully, to thank for the can of corn—the easy outfield fly. The can of corn probably originated in the old-time grocer picking off a high-mounted can of food with a hook stick, prompting it to drop almost lazily into his apron, unless the rest of the shelf’s contents came down upon his head first. Name me one football, basketball, or hockey term that was born in the A&P. (Oops! Today we’d say Wal-Mart.)

I once promised to send every last gasp of gibberish in my baseball writing out (at the plate and otherwise) to the best of my ability. And I know I broke that promise so liberally so often you could mistake me for an elected official. Or, decide to run me for office in the first place. William F. Buckley, Jr., wherever you are, may I borrow your immediate response to the question of the first thing you’d have done if you’d been elected? (It wasn’t, “I’m going to Disneyland,” either.)

I’ve sent more than my share of men in scoring position home on misplaced pitches turned into walkoff hits, and I didn’t even show them the high cheese, never mind that I couldn’t punch them out with the yakker. (Guilty, Judge Robinson: I’ve used “punchout” for strikeout. Yes, I know it wasn’t Muhammad Ali throwing one at Joe Frazier. I throw myself upon the mercy of the court, Your Honour.)

I plead no contest. But as Michael Corleone once said to his wife—when she reminded him it was seven years since he promised the Family would be completely legitimate in five years—“I’m trying, darling, I’m trying.” As James Thurber once said, you could look it up. But I’d rather you take my words for it.