Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thoughts on Runs, Hits and Errors

As you are aware many of the entries on this blog are related to baseball rather than politics. Every year, a few of my columns are devoted to baseball. These columns include my annual preseason predictions (which are invariably wrong), a profile of an individual player or team or just my love for the game.

So I like it when someone else does a baseball column. Lisa Fabrizio has written a few over the years. Her latest is called "Runs, Hits and Errors."

The impetus of the column was New York Mets second baseman Luis Castillo dropping a routine pop up last weekend against the New York Yankees which led to a Mets defeat. Lisa laments that players don't use two hands to catch the ball. While she acknowledges errors are a part of the game she argues:

The sorry fact is, half of today's players seem to lack knowledge of the fundamentals of the grand old game while the other half simply have no respect for them. And the game has suffered.

One often hears claims that such and such old-time ballplayer could never compete in today's game because its players are bigger, stronger and faster; that modern training methods are far superior to those of the past. Similarly they point to the specialization of relief pitchers, or claim that expansion has necessitated coast-to-coast travel that is much tougher than in the past.

Of course, all of this is poppycock. If the hitters are bigger and stronger, so are the pitchers; and as for modern training methods, I'd love to know the average days spent on the DL for today's players as opposed to those only 30 years ago. Relief pitching? Does anyone who's ever read the history of the game seriously think that owners like Charles Comiskey or Frank Navin would pay five pitchers to just sit around in the bullpen? And I don't know about you, but I'd rather play a ballgame after a five-hour plane ride in first-class than a 30-hour train trip with no air-conditioning.

No, the sad truth is that most players simply cannot execute what even a light-hitting, backup infielder had to do to stay in the Bigs years ago. Rare is today's hitter who can consistently hit behind a runner or get a butcher-boy knock out of a bunting stance. How about the noxious state of outfield arms? Not every player can be a Bob Meusel or a Dave Parker, but watching some of these guys hurl themselves to the ground while delivering a five-hopper to the cutoff man is one of the most painful yet common sights in the modern game.

While I would agree that some players adhere to baseball fundamentals better than others I am not prepared to state with absolute certainty that half don't know them and half don't respect them. That is a fairly sweeping statement and an unfair one at that. It suggests that Major League Baseball players as a whole don't respect their craft and I just don't believe that to be true.

I think Lisa has fallen into the trap of romanticizing the past. That isn't to say we shouldn't honor and learn from how the game was played but not if the intention is to dismiss today's game out of hand.

It is probably true that today's player spends more time on the DL than in the past. But that is because baseball teams have long term investments in their players. They would rather err on the side of caution rather create a condition where a player sustains a long term injury because sufficient time wasn't granted to let the original injury properly healed and then have to pay them to sit at home for the duration of the contract.

Back in the good old days players were afraid to say they were hurt. In the days before free agency, if you got hurt chances were you got cut. So you played hurt. There was also a macho element to it as well. As Jim Bouton documented in Ball Four if you got hurt you spit tobacco juice on it and went out to play because you didn't want to let down your teammates. Even superstars who had some protection in their contracts didn't want to be perceived as malingerers.

Yes, Charles Comiskey and Frank Navin wouldn't have dreamed of paying five pitchers to sit out in the bullpen to play spoons (Red Sox fans will know of what I speak.) Well, neither Comiskey or Navin would have paid an African-American to be on their teams either.

I'm sure the train rides were pretty uncomfortable half a century ago and beyond. Of course, prior to 1957 when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles there weren't any teams west of St. Louis. Besides the clubs were cheap back then and train travel cost less than air travel especially flying charter.

I never thought I would see Bob Meusel and Dave Parker collide in the same sentence. Yes, they both had guns but they played a half century apart. Meusel played with the New York Yankees in the 1920s and was part of Murderers' Row that won three World Series that decade including the much feared 1927 Yankees. Parker's hey day was in the 1970s and early to mid 1980s mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was an integral part of the "We Are Family" World Series Champions of 1979. He did experience something of a resurgence with the Cincinnati Reds and in 1985 finished second behind Willie McGee of the St. Louis Cardinals in NL MVP balloting.

Both were good players who were just not great enough to be enshrined in Cooperstown. But there were a lot of players in the 1920s and 1930s who didn't think much of the game in the 1970s and 1980s. You can be certain that there are players from the 70s and 80s who don't think much of players from this decade. And invariably the players of 2009 and 2010 will lament the decline of players in the 2020s and 2030s.

As for outfield arms, there's little argument that Johnny Damon of the New York Yankees throws like a girly man. But I can think of a quite few throwing arms on which I would think twice about running from first to third. These would include J.D. Drew of the Boston Red Sox , Nick Markakis of the Baltimore Orioles, Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, Jose Guillen of the Kansas City Royals, Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies, Michael Cuddyer of the Minnesota Twins, Jeff Francoeur of the Atlanta Braves as well as Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick of the St. Louis Cardinals. An arms buildup is taking place in major league outfields.

There will always be a tension between the past and present and which is better than the other. The game is always changing. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I lament that there likely will never be another 300 game winner. But there was a time when we had to accept there was never be going to be another Cy Young. Yet I am happy that the major leagues is comprised of people from all over the globe of all nationalities and that baseball has cemented roots outside of the United States and North America. Suppose Ty Cobb had to face the best the Negro Leagues had to offer. The tension between past and present is as much a part of the game as dropping easy infield pop ups.

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