Category Archives: Major League Baseball

80 YEARS OF LOVING BASEBALL

As my eightieth birthday quickly approaches, I can’t help but reflect on the many ways in which the sport of baseball has made my life better. One of my earliest baseball memories was sitting in the Sea Village Restaurant on Hancock Street in my hometown of Stonington, Connecticut, and watching the Great Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, walk into the dining area. What greater thrill for an eight year old Yankee fan than to shake the hand of Joe D. No one will ever convince me that he wasn’t the greatest all around ball player of all time and I don’t think meeting him at the Sea Village colors my thinking.

We didn’t have Little League baseball at that time, instead, we went to the ball field on Saturday mornings and the Community Center Director, Frank Turek, ran the closest thing to organized baseball that we had by ‘picking up’ teams. During the week, we would have pick up games almost every day, on our own, with anywhere from four or five to 18 of us playing. You never went anywhere without a ball and/or glove because you might find a game.

At ten years old, I was the scorekeeper for the men’s twilight league in Stonington and I have many memories of wanting to grow up and graduate from Twilight League to the Majors. What ten year old boy had not had that dream in those days?

At 12 years old, I was small for my age. In my eighth grade graduation picture, I look like someone’s little brother that snuck into the picture. My size hampered my ability to compete but never my love of playing. After growing to my present height, (but not my present weight), I played baseball and softball into my fifties and dreaded the day I would have to stop playing.

Along with tens of thousands of other 12 year old boys, I watched in 1950 in awe as 21 year old, 5 foot ten inch tall, rookie, Ed ‘Whitey’ Ford won 9 of 10 starts to lead the Yankees to their second of what would be five consecutive World Series Championships, proving to us that our dreams of playing in the Major Leagues were possible.

The following year, 1951, I was in the original Yankee Stadium, with 39,037 other fans on September 28 when Allie Reynolds no hit the Red Sox in Game 1 of a double header to clinch the pennant for the Yankees. It was Reynolds’ second no hitter of the year, the second pitcher ever to throw two in a year, the other was Johnny Vander Meer. Allie’s no hitter was made more special when he got the great Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, for the third out in the ninth. He got Ted to pop a foul ball near the first base dugout and, unbelievably, Yogi Berra dropped it. With the crowd in shock, Reynolds went back to the mound and got Ted to hit another foul pop which Yogi caught to end the no hitter.

Five days later, watching the first nationally televised sporting event ever, from a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, I saw the New York Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit ‘The Shot Heard Round The World’ off the Brooklyn Dodgers Ralph Branca to give the Giants the win in Game 3 of a Playoff for the National League Pennant.

In the early fifties, when I was 14 and 15, we had a Junior League for 13-15 year olds. Each surrounding town had a team and ours was sponsored by the American Velvet Company. We were the Velvet Giants due to a connection the owners of the plant had with the New York Giants. After winning the League, we were taken to New York to see a doubleheader between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals and I got to see probably the second greatest hitter of all time, Stan Musial, up close and personal

I watched Don Larsen pitch the only perfect game in World Series history in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series from Glidden Hall at Nasson College, as a Sophomore, in Sanford on October 8, on a black and white television.

Forgotten after the perfect game was the fact that Larsen had started Game 2 and taken a 6-0 lead into the second inning, courtesy mostly because of a grand slam homer by Yogi and loaded the bases on a single, error and walk before Roy Campanella hit a sac fly to make it 6-1. After getting an out on a foul fly, he walked Jim Gilliam to reload the bases and was replaced by Johnny Kucks who gave up a two run single to make it 6-3 and Tommy Byrne came in and gave up a three run homer to Duke Snyder to tie the score at six in a game that Brooklyn eventually won 13-8. If there was any doubt in my mind that baseball was an unpredictable game, Larsen’s performance in those two games, three days apart, would have ended it.

I could go on and on with my memories including 13 years of coaching my own kids’ teams in Little League, playing in the Westerly, RI Twilight League, the Morgan Park League in New London, CT and the Norwich, CT City League as well as tournaments all over. I was fortunate to be in Fenway when the Sox completed the Impossible Dream on the last day of the season in 1967 and when Brunanski made the sliding catch in 1990 to preserve the pennant.

I saw J. R. Richard, one of the greatest talents ever to set foot on a mound strike out ten in the Astrodome, before a stroke ended his career, and Nolan Ryan pitch in the Ballpark at Arlington. I watched games in the Kingdome, Shea Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Braves Field, (In Boston), Schibe Park, Crosley Field, and so many others that are now gone.

As many of you know, I have spent a lot of my time in recent years writing and publishing books about baseball. What better way to end a lifelong love affair with the game. Through my books and book signing events, I have met and talked with many interesting people, fans and players alike.

I have always recognized the fact that Major League Baseball players are a special breed. In order to make it to the top of the greatest game of them all they need, first and foremost, the God Given physical ability to develop the skills necessary to play the game at that level. But that God Given ability is not enough to make it. They need the desire and the ambition to put in the kind of time it takes to hone those skills to the point that they are the best of the best.

Those that have those qualities almost invariably are intelligent, articulate, outgoing people who put baseball’s best foot forward through their personal appearances, work within their communities and their class and presence. Obviously, there are exceptions, but these are generally the more gifted who don’t have to work as hard as others.

Over the past few years I have met many major league ball players, from Super Stars to short term players. I have met players like Jimmy Driscoll, who had a brief, two year career with the Athletics and Rangers, and spent 30 years scouting, and comes to my book signings regularly, to Dave Stenhouse, who was gracious enough to help me with a program at the Westerly, RI, Library, and who was the first rookie pitcher to start the All Star Game but had a career cut short due to arm problems, to Luis Tiant, one of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, who signed autographs with me while I had a book signing at Goodall Park in Sanford, they stand out in a crowd, not just for their baseball ability and career but as special people.

All three mentioned above are nearly as old or older than I and you would still recognize that they and other typical Major Leaguers are special no matter what kind of a setting you encountered them in. They are what makes baseball the greatest game of them all and they are the role models we have always wanted our professional athletes to be.

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BASEBALL AND TECHNOLOGY

In one of his recent thrillers, ‘Origin’, published this year, Dan Brown, author of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, has a character that says ‘ ..the meek were supposed to inherit the earth, but instead it has gone to the young – the technically inclined, those who stare into video screens rather than into their own souls.’

I’ll bet a lot of my readers are wondering what that quote is doing in a column entitled Baseball World. It was the phrase ‘the technically inclined’ that caught my baseball eye.

In baseball, probably more so than in any other sport, ‘those who stare into video screens’ have changed the game more in the first few years of this century than it had changed in the previous hundred plus years.

Granted there were a few changes in the game before computers began to take over our world.

Until the Williams Shift was invented by Cleveland Indians’ Player Manager Lou Boudreau on July 14, 1946, infielders and outfielders generally stayed within their assigned traditional areas. There had been some minor shifts in players’ positions based upon the tendency of hitters to pull the ball, notably Babe Ruth and Cy Williams, a notorious pull hitter, but none so radical as the one Boudreau employed after Ted drove in eight runs in the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians that day.

In Boudreau’s version, the first baseman played directly behind the first base bag on the line, the shortstop, in this case Boudreau himself, moved to the normal second base position, the second baseman played on the outfield grass 30-50 feet beyond the infield, the third baseman stayed in almost his normal position and the center fielder moved into right center and the right fielder played almost at the wall in right field.

In the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Red Sox that year, Cardinal Manager Eddie Dyer used modifications of the shift against Ted. Ted went only 5 for 25 in the World Series against the shift after batting .342 during the season, but obviously that’s a very small sample. ( It is interesting to note that, against the shift, in Game 3, Ted bunted to third for a base hit with the infield shifted. )

Over the years, the shift has been utilized more and more as Managers began to rely on statistical analysis in making their moves. This trend is not just in fielding positions but also in the selection of relief pitchers based upon their record against specific batters. Where the Manager traditionally took into account the fact that a left handed hitter generally didn’t do as well against a left handed pitcher as a right hander and vice versa when deciding what reliever or pinch hitter to use, now there are statistics available showing what each batter has done against each individual pitcher and how that performance differs from situation to situation.

Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, when he was at Tampa Bay, probably did more to popularize the shift as a regular tool than any other manager until today when some type of shift is used against almost every batter.

Baseball has changed dramatically in response to the advances in technology. Statisticians, particularly those with the Society of American Baseball Research, have done studies that indicate that the bunt is a waste of an out and, as a consequence it has almost disappeared from the game, even as a sacrifice to get a runner in scoring position. For example, in 2000, the average American League team sacrifice bunted 40 times and, by 2017, the average was down to 18 times.

Between the elimination of the bunt and the emphasis on hitting the ball over the shifted fielders for home runs, the average team in baseball hit a home run in 2017, the year of the homer, every 26 at bats compared to just every 31 at bats in 2000. In 2000, the average American League team hit 192 home runs and that number increased to 211 by 2017, a 10% increase.

Last year, despite the largest number of homers ever recorded in a single year, American League teams averaged just 763 runs scored and in all of baseball the average was 753. In 2000, the average American League team scored 857 runs and in all of baseball the teams average 832 runs. From 2000 until 2017, the average number of runs scored per team in the American League increased by 11%.

As far as batting averages are concerned, the average American League team’s average fell from .276 in 2000 to .256 in 2017, a decrease of 7%.

With home runs increasing and batting averages decreasing over the eighteen year period, teams were still scoring 11% more runs in 2000 than they are today.

It would appear that the shift and the emphasis on statistics is working because batting averages are going down, however, there is no way to calculate the effect the emphasis on home runs has had on decreasing the average. Sluggers like Baltimore’s Chris Davis, for example, hit 85 home runs from 2015-2016 but struck out 427 times and batted a poor .241.

Of course, on the other side, all the statistical experts have their formulas to determine which pitcher should pitch to which batter, what he should throw in what situation and that effects the ups and downs of hitting and scoring as well.

Unfortunately, while baseball is trying to figure out how to shorten the length of the game to increase fan interest, no one is concerned that the thing that brings the most fans into the ball game, not the home run, but the action that occurs when the runner makes his way around the bases and crosses the plate is happening less and less frequently.

No one has or will ever prove that, in the totality of a baseball game, shifting the fielders all over the field and relying on statistics, which merely reflect past performance, makes a better team or a better game. As the people who try to sell us on buying their recommended stocks say in their disclaimers ‘ past performance is no guarantee of future success ‘ and that is nowhere truer than on the baseball field, as every Red Sox fan is painfully aware.

SOX NEED NEW HITTING COACH

Prior to the All Star Break, the Boston Red Sox were showing some signs of life. They had won nine of their last fourteen games and were just 6 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East. In the last series, against the red hot Yankees, the Sox had lost two of three games but had won four consecutive series before that.

Despite the fact that they were 42-47, in last place, they were only three games out of second place and had been gaining ground on the leaders.

One week after the break ended, the Sox are still in last place but now they are 42-54, 12 games behind the first place Yankees and nine games out of second. In six days, they have lost seven in a row and been outscored 39-13. If you do the math, you will realize that that’s an average of almost six runs per game they have given up while scoring less than two.

All year long Red Sox management and staff have bemoaned the fact that their pitching had been terrible. They unloaded their pitching coach Juan Nieves in May because the staff was not performing. The best pitching staff in the world cannot win consistently with under two runs per game support.

The Sox have a new hitting coach this year in Chili Davis. The veterans on this team, ( with the exception of Dustin Pedroia, and I don’t consider Brock Holt or Xander Bogaerts veterans, ) Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and David Ortiz are all hitting for significantly lower averages than last year. In order, they have dropped 20, 19, 42, 21 and 29 batting average points over last year.

Two other experienced players who have spent most of the year at Pawtucket because of their lack of hitting, Daniel Nava and Alan Craig, dropped from
.270 to .159 and .215 to .135 respectively. The Sox, who hit .277 as a team in 2013, are hitting .253 right now.

Pitching is the name of the game but without effective hitting to back it up pitching can’t do it alone. The Red Sox, in case you haven’t figured it out, need help with their hitting. They obviously are not getting it from their hitting coach. It’s time for a change.