December 27, 2013
The Lineup Card
Nine of Our Favorite Baseball Player Idiosyncrasies
1. Luis Valbuena's Bat Flips
I like to imagine that Luis Valbuena’s signature “Bat Flip Single” started as a piece of expressionistic performance art; the act is so absurd and my initial exposure to it was so unexpected and surreal that any other reason than the one I’ve imagined and assigned to him would be a disappointment. Perhaps it was borne of simple boredom with the malaise associated with the tanking Chicago Cubs over these past two seasons. Perhaps one game Valbuena looked at what was in front of him, another lost season whose purpose and meaning exist in the abstract, and he simply decided that he would not go quietly into another lost season.
Perhaps the reasoning and logic are secondary to the act itself, which stands as a testament to Valbuena’s machista. Maybe in the larger sense all that matters is that this simply exists and any meaning we attach to it is empty and wrong.
To contextualize the gif (linked above), this display of raw emotion isn’t from some game-winning hit. It’s not even from a career milestone, nor do I think it’s a release from a recent slump. No, this happened in the third inning of some forgotten June game against the Houston Astros, and there aren’t many things as pointless in baseball as 2013 June matchups between the Astros and the Cubs. Valbuena does this every opportunity he gets. I’ve seen bat-flip walks produced from the Venezuelan. I’ve grown to love it and I feel that I would be lost without it in my life. There’s something to be said for enjoying the game so much that you bat flip for every little positive action you do when you’re at the plate. There’s a lesson there, I think.
Or maybe he just really likes flipping his bat. —Mauricio Rubio
2. Cliff Lee's Left Foot
Were I banished to a desert island and allowed to take with me only one pitcher to watch, it would be Cliff Lee. I wouldn’t choose him merely for all the strikes he throws (the highest percentage among qualifiers, and the highest rate of 0-2 counts), but for how he throws them. It comes down to Lee’s left foot, specifically what it does when he pitches. Lee’s pitching motion is an “elegant flail,” as Roger Angell described it (subscription required) for the New Yorker after the 2009 World Series. Angell observes what happens at the end of the flail: “[Lee]’s finish brings his left leg up astern like a semaphore.” This final curlicue is what makes Lee’s pitching signature unmistakable, and it adds an unexpected grace note to a delivery I always found perfect in every way until I read Doug Thorburn’s recent dissection of Lee’s mechanics: they’re actually flawed, and that’s what made me admire them so much. It’s hard to notice the flaws, because Lee repeats the elegant flail so consistently, and also (of course) because it produces an amazing 71 percent strike rate. Watching Lee again through Thorburn’s eyes, I can admire not merely that Lee’s motion is idiosyncratic, but that he has fully mastered the idiosyncrasies. There is perfect beauty of the classical type: symmetrical, balanced, exemplary, replicable. And then there is perfect beauty—greater beauty, to me—of the Cliff Lee type: the kind of perfection attained when all of one’s oddments and singularities are worked into a fully realized art. —Adam Sobsey
3. Pablo Sandoval's Pre-PA Ritual
Although the Giants third baseman provides plenty of entertainment after entering the batter's box, his antics begin on the way there. Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated described them in a feature published in 2009:
"He pounds the on-deck circle four times with the knob of his bat, taps the bat four times against his toes, four times against his shins, once against his helmet, then draws a cross in the dirt to the side of home plate. He digs into the batter's box, but only for a moment before suddenly rushing out in front of it as if he might charge the mound. Face-to-face with the opposing pitcher, he smacks the barrel twice against each cleat, gives the bat a full-length rubdown, points it skyward and bangs it once more against his helmet. Only then, after a few more thwacks upside his head, is he ready to go to work."
A big-leaguer since mid-August of the 2008 season, Sandoval has made 2,895 trips to the plate in the majors. Nearly one-sixth (471) of those trips have ended on the first pitch. In other words, about 16.2 percent of Pablo Sandoval's plate appearances take less time than the ritual that leads up to them. —Daniel Rathman
4. Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are not just part of your gerbil's healthy breakfast. There is a diverse array of flavors for ballplayers to enjoy. And there are so many ways to enjoy them.
As a healthy snack, for instance—shown by two shortstops here and here.
Or, for their performance-enhancing benefits, as demonstrated here and here.
Or, last but not least, for only trace amounts of THC, as enjoyed here. —Harry Pavlidis
5. Grant Balfour's Aussie Rage
Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be closers. It’s the highest-stress role on a baseball team. A select few, like the Great Rivera, manage to swallow the adrenaline and project a sense of complete peace—as though they are unaware that they are supposed to be worried about their performance. On the other end of the spectrum is the John Rocker approach, which involves seeming like the pitcher is about to go completely insane and possibly pose a physical risk to others on the field.
Aussie specimen (and free agent!) Grant Balfour falls into this second camp. To “pump himself up” while he’s on the mound, Balfour is constantly muttering vulgarities to himself. Like, constantly. Like, stream-of-consciousness strings of the worst words in English. He directs them at himself, mostly, but they are audible to others.
This poses a challenge for a number of people: for any reporter who tries to interview him about it, for audio technicians who have to deal with the substantial risk of catching one of his rants on live TV, and for opposing hitters who have to try not take his rants too seriously. Don’t worry guys, he means no harm—he’s just Australian. —Dan Rozenson
6. Koji Uehara's High-Fives
It is easy to forget in the wake of one of the most dominant seasons for a reliever in history, but Koji Uehara didn’t become Boston’s closer until late June. Yet even before he was given such a prestigious role, Koji was already becoming a fan favorite, throwing adorable, ridiculous, majestic high-fives to his teammates following his return to the dugout after nearly every outing.
Koji’s high-fives were indiscriminate. They were dealt with force and precision to any and everyone in Koji’s path, whether said person/object in Koji’s path was ready for said high-five or not. (See the GIF linked above.)
There were happy high-fives. There were aggressive high-fives. Some high-fives were more reserved than others. All high-fives were infinitely cooler than this. When the high-fives flew, it always meant good things were happening for the Red Sox, and that’s because Koji Uehara had just been on the mound. And eventually, all those high-fives would lead to pure joy. —Ben Carsley
7. Edwin Encarnacion's Home Run Trot
As a slap hitter, I often wondered what the best part of the home run trot is for power hitters. Is it observing how far one just hit the baseball? The 15-second jog around the bases? Doing whatever needed to be done to get into a confrontation with the catcher at home plate? Someone like Edwin Encarnacion, who has hit the third most home runs of anyone over the past two seasons, must get bored with their routine and look to spice things up a bit. I mean, what else could he be looking to accomplish in his home run trot? Take a look for yourself. After tearing the cover off of the baseball, Encarnacion displays what appears to be a case of T-Rex arms to the untrained eye during his home run trot. Perhaps this is a tribute to Jeffrey Leonard and the one flap down. Thankfully, the people of The Internet got to the bottom of this and discovered Encarnacion is taking (presumably) his parrot on a walk. —Ronit Shah
8. Alex Rodriguez's Obsession with Walk-Off Home Run Helmets
Alex Rodriguez, as chronicled by Andrew Mearns of Pinstripe Alley, has a thing for the helmets of hitters who have just hit walk-off homers. He wants—no, needs—to catch them, and he will go to greater lengths to retrieve them than a playful puppy in pursuit of a bouncing ball. Seasons and surgeries pass, and suspensions and arbitration cases come and go, but A-Rod's helmet-mania remains. Photos and GIFs of this phenomenon works better than words: while his happy teammates backslap and celebrate, Rodriguez leaves the huddle to dash after the conquering hero's helmet. We don't what happens to the helmets when he gets his hands on them—maybe he licks them so that no one else will want them, or wears them like a hunter who eats the heart of his prey, or stores them in secret fish tanks. Nor do we know why he has to have them, though an armchair psychoanalyst could come up with any number of reasons: it's his attempt to fit in and be one of the boys, it's his competitive nature, it's his willingness to put his own needs before those of the team. It's what Whitey Bulger would do.
A Yankees beat writer once told me a typical Alex Rodriguez anecdote: A-Rod, years into his Yankees career, had taken to calling Mariano Rivera "Muerto." No one—Rivera included—knew why, or where the nickname had come from, or what it was supposed to mean. But by Rodriguez's standards, it wasn't that weird. It was just one of the many inscrutable activities of A-Rod, one of the best, most perplexing players baseball has ever produced. —Ben Lindbergh
9. Jonny Gomes' Misfit Helmet
The Red Sox have had some notable equipment problems over the last decade, though mostly the problems have seemed to affect batting gloves. Nomar, Pedroia, and Ortiz are the worst offenders, who always seem to get a new pair that doesn't fit quite right or confer adequate grip without adjustment, readjustment, and spit - before every plate appearance (and often, it seems, in the middle of ongoing at bats).
But, look. What's going on above seems qualitatively different. In a video that you'd mistake for being looped if not for the guy that wanders in the background (linked in the heading), Gomes shakes his helmet and head violently, trying to accomplish some thing, although that thing is not apparent to me.
As I am not a professional athlete, I'm not quite sure what drives this behavior. Some possible explanations:
Is it discomfort/medical? If you saw the above behavior on a playground, you'd suspect either a) the helmet didn't fit or b) lice or c) both.
Is it a sort of superstitious behavior? Gomes has had a bunch of big hits this year. He's fiddled with his helmet before each at bat. But the interesting thing about this situation is that it isn't always the same, and most superstitious behavior follows a very rigid pattern (see Nomar above).
I have no idea. But it's weird as can be. —Dan Brooks