Play Ball!

by Larry Bensky, October 2, 2013

Every time Alex Rodriquez, the scandal and injury prone New York Yankees third baseman, dragged his wooden club to home plate last year, he was paid about $50,000 to do so. Every time a pitcher threw to him, that pitch resulted in about $8,000 spent on Rodriguez by the Yankees. For every time (about three in ten) that his at-bats produced a hit, that achievement was worth….$172,000.

His Yankee teammate, Robinson Cano, a five-time all-star, now wants to get out of Rodriguez’s low-rent district. He’s reportedly (at the age of 30) asking for a ten year contract for $310 million, about double what Rodriguez gets.

But such statistics – indeed almost any statistics – will not be on very many minds when the Major League baseball playoffs open in a few days.

Instead, millions of people will try to focus on the game. Or what those millions, most of them, consider to be the game: a sanitized, partially visible even that will come to them on a screen, a few miles or half a globe away from the action itself. Which is a great shame. Because if you know baseball, you know you have to be there.

On TV you usually can see only a tiny piece of the field, two or three players and an umpire. You have little idea of things like how a defense is set up. How big a lead baserunners might have. What status in their warmups bullpen pitchers may have reached. Who’s doing what in the dugout.

What you get instead is the cute and cuddly pictures. Hey, how old is that baby in team colors? How drunk are those babes holding up crude signs? How anguished does the manager look? Who has made it into the broadcast booth to have his ass kissed by the announcers, who are kissing whose ass in return?

Increasingly, the visual and verbal pollution have become unbearable. Even the lofty NY Times, not exactly a Marxist deconstructor of capitalist paradigms, recently thought fit to print a column of outrageous piece-by-piece analyses of how almost everything shown and said during a Yankees game was “brought to you by” some irrelevant corporate parasite (“The last walk was brought to you by Scufflefleisher Shoes, your KEY to comfortable locomotion!”)

All of the announcer/analysts show-biz chuckle-chuckle and advertising-based babble (including endless “promotions” for the team that has hired them) tend to overshadow, indeed often preclude description of, what players are doing. Much less how and why they’re doing it.

Which bring us to the upcoming playoffs. In which the A’s are unlikely presence, much less likely to win than the Red Sox or Dodgers, among others. But first a word about the players themselves.

If one wants to, one can find out quite a bit about them, statistically. As real human beings, as opposed to entertainment industry pawns, not so much.

For decades now, young men who get into professional baseball have been raised as young men who might get into professional baseball. Meaning they get expert, often obsessional, coaching starting at a very young age. Their education is usually far behind their athletic development. Most who manage to attend college drop out before graduating, so as to not risk injury (especially pitchers) or “waste” years of earning potential. Hundreds of thousands play at some level. About 800 make it into the “big leagues.”

African-American players, now fewer than one in ten, these days tend to have the same class privileges as white players. The devastation of black community education institutions has affected sports facilities which require space and upkeep, so the smaller percentage of major league black players tend not to be inner city residents. Latinos, on the other hand – about three out of ten major league players are Spanish speaking – tend to be from very poor backgrounds outside the U.S., and are susceptible to even more than the usual exploitations by agents and substance purveyors.

Whatever their backgrounds, they all watch TV sports programs, and learn to emulate the aw-shucks, low key personalities of the game’s best players. Among themselves they may be spirited, combative, funny. In public, dress your personality (even if long haired and bearded) in a suit and tie is the rule. And make sure your wife/girlfriend follows. As for boyfriends, not nearly yet.

What players have in common is what they’re required to do in order to succeed. This requires physical talents well beyond normal – you try even seeing, much less solidly hitting something thrown at you at 95mph from about 55 feet away. Or throwing something at a small target at that speed from the same distance and hitting that target effectively. Or making a split second, a very split second, decision whether something is coming at you at 95 or 75mph, and whether it’s being thrown at you in a straight trajectory, or with a “break.” Or which way to run to try to catch something that’s been launched 300 or so feet away in varying arcs, under lighting conditions ranging from straight-on sunlight to rainy drizzle night.. You need a preternatural ability to focus on, develop, and use those abilities. Following fan noise, twitter gab, on-line, on-TV or on-paper punditry is a useless distraction. Players are aware that millions of people “follow” what they’re doing,; most have media advisers/trainers/counselors who try to get them to realize that. none of that peripheral stuff really matters very often. A baseball player who requires a stadium full of screaming people, or a Facebook page filled with “friends” to inspire him is not usually going to last very long as a player at the major league level.

He certainly wouldn’t last very long with the A’s. That they have a shot at getting into, even winning, the World Series, as a typical A’s collection of solid, mid-level players with brilliant administrative and managerial work backing them up, is miraculous Only three or four players, out of a 25-40 player roster qualify as outstanding: Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Bartolo Colon., and maybe Brandon Moss. On a second tier, there are those with good offensive capabilities, but weak on defense: Alberto Callaspo, Jed Lowrie, and Yoenis Cespedes. Then there are some who are good defensively, like Josh Reddick, Chris Young, and Eric Sogard, but haven’t hit well. And a whole bunch of other, interchangeable players who usually will neither help or disgrace the team.

Almost all the players, whatever their skill sets, are present because of management’s belief in two simple strategies. Working long at-bats, which tire the opposition’s pitching staff. And having left-handed batters face right-handed pitchers, and vice-versa (three of the A’s regular starters are switch-hitters, meaning that only 4-5 more lefties or righties are needed to stack such a lineup.)

But pitching is really where games are won and lost most frequently. And here again the A’s have a few simple strategies. Don’t walk people. Use all your strength to get through 6-7 innings, with around 100 pitches. Have three guys be ready for innings 7-8-9. Here, again, management has been brilliant. Having players like Sonny Gray, Dan Otero, and Jesse Chavez ready for major league work midway in a competitive season shows how good the organization’s coaching and management consistently are. For them to go far in post-season, however, two young and inexperienced pitchers, A.J. Griffin and Jerrod Parker, are going to have to show they haven’t been worn out by 200 + inning seasons. Tommy Milone and Dan Straily are going to have to get much more consistent. Brett Anderson may have to prove he’s 100% back after having missed a big percentage of the season. And Grant Balfour is going to have to find a way to not make the ends of games a worrisome adventure. That’s a lot to ask. Could happen. So could first round elimination.

“Following” such a team can be fun. But it requires patience and a certain amount of stoicism. Half the year they left so many runners on base it was ludicrous. Then they began to hit prodigious amounts of home runs. (Leading, of course, to suspicions of another substance abuse syndrome.) All three “closing” pitchers were sometimes lights out, sometimes watch out. They almost never bunt and hardly ever steal, though many of their players have the skills to do both.

And, of course, they play in a gloomy, usually half empty stadium, ridiculously expensive to drive to ($18 for parking), crowded and late-night cold by train. Food and beer are seriously boring and expensive; decent seats cost a lot, too. A group of 4 people can easily drop $200 or more per visit, which may be why the stands are usually sparsely populated, though a million eight hundred thousand admissions isn’t nothing. The owners are in the embarrassing position of claiming that Oakland can’t support major league baseball, and the team needs to move to Fremont or San Jose as part of a real estate bonanza. But what little reliable information exists (the finances of baseball are secretive, with huge profits deriving from tax breaks, subsidized stadiums etc.) shows that quite a bit of money is being made annually. Perhaps $10-$20 million a year. Plus the owners are sitting on an estimated resale value triple or more the $150 million they paid to buy the team in 2005.

None of this matters, of course, to almost anyone while watching a game. Being there is mostly about being a part of a culture. People in the stands tend to be, or think themselves to be, knowledgeable if not expert. They’re often rewarding to talk to, or to overhear. While at the game, they tune out the drivel/drone of meaningless statistics and lachrymose memories peddled by radio and TV announcers. They show a lot of spirit, and joy, and rarely are angry.

They’re into baseball. Whose nature, and beauty, can be subtle, undeniable, unpredictable, and complex. A lot of pop philosophy and psychology has been written about it, including the words of one admirer who, like a lot of us, played in his youth, and never lost his attachment to the sport, even while spending a lifetime as an elected official.

“Baseball is different from other games. Its strength is inherent, metaphysical. First, because the game has a singular and distinctive relationship to time. Only baseball, among all games, can be called a “pastime.” For baseball is above or outside time.... An inning theoretically can go on forever. The same is true of the game. Interruptions are generally limited to acts of God, such as darkness or rain, or to cultural, religious and quasi-natural occurrences such as curfew or midnight...Baseball is also played in a unique spatial frame. Other games are restricted to limited, defined areas, rectangular or near rectangular, floors or rinks. Not so baseball. Baseball is played within the lines of a projection from home plate, starting from the point of a 90 degrees and extending to infinity. Were it not for the intervention of fences, buildings, mountains, and other obstacles in space, a baseball traveling within the ultimate projection of the first and third baselines could be fair and fully and infinitely in play.”- Eugene McCarthy (US Senator, D-Minn., 1958-1970, presidential candidate, 1968, 1972.)

Go A’s!

Larry Bensky, who grew up in Brooklyn an avid Dodger fan, attended his first major league baseball game in 1946. He played hardball and softball recreationally for 40 years. LBensky@igc.org.

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