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February 20, 2013

Punk Hits

Baseball Players Are Too Damned Good For Their Own Good

by Ian Miller

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I was never what you’d call good at baseball. My career peaked not at 27, when many pros come into their own, but when I was 12. I was one of the bigger kids in my league, and even though I hadn’t entered puberty, I already had the full complement of old player skills: good eye at the plate, low batting average, above-average power. On those occasions I did make contact with a ball, it stayed hit.

I was also a capable first baseman; the coach told me being left-handed gave me a reach advantage, but we both knew I was there because I lacked any semblance of speed or range. But when my fellow fielders threw a ball my way, more often than not, I caught it.

After that it was all downhill. In my freshman year of high school I made the junior varsity team and rode pine for the entire year. I was maybe the worst player on a team full of replacement-level high school players. Then in 10th grade I actually got cut from the JV squad! How does that even happen? (Doing lots of drugs and kinda nodding out during tryouts is how it happens.)

I wasn’t really sad that I got cut. I was really angry at first, of course, and took it as a personal affront, but I didn’t miss playing baseball. I enjoyed watching baseball and I loved it in the abstract, but playing it made me miserable. The pace of the game left me far too much time to think, and mostly I thought about failing. What if the ball is hit to me and I boot it? What if I can’t get the guy in from third? More often than not, self-doubt carried the day. In a game where even the best players fail two-thirds of the time, self-doubt is the quickest way to ensure failure. Also not being good at baseball contributes, and I had that on lock too.

So I haven’t played baseball in any concerted fashion since I was 14 or so. There have been occasional pick-up softball exploits, which is about as similar to playing baseball as doing community theater is to being in a Broadway show. The general idea is the same, but all the particulars are different. But in the intervening 30 years, I haven’t played baseball, and as a result, I no longer really appreciate how difficult it is.

Postulate 1: Baseball is really, really difficult and most of us really don’t appreciate that.

Forget the whole hitting part, which seems to defy the laws of physics. For the moment, let’s consider just the throwing. When I’m at a game, I like to watch the infielders warm up between innings, paying special attention to the third baseman’s throws to first. Sometimes they’ll be a little high, occasionally one will be low, but they rarely skip in, and I’ve never seen one end up in the stands (although I’m sure that happens occasionally).

Now I know what would happen if I were playing third, but what would happen if you were? How many of your half-dozen throws would reach their intended target?

And we haven’t even mentioned pitching yet. What would happen if you attempted to throw a ball into a 24-inch-by-21-inch space from 60.5 feet away? No hitter, just a screen, maybe. I’d probably walk the ballpark. Now consider that major-league pitchers are doing the same thing, only at like 90 miles an hour with the world’s best hitters ready to demolish their mistakes.

Postulate 2: It’s the players’ fault for making it look so damn easy. These guys do themselves a disservice by being among the 750 best baseball players in the world.

My wife, Tracy, is an aerialist. Aerial tissu is her apparatus of choice. Her goal is to make her movements, which are physically demanding and would be impossible for all but the strongest and most fit among us, look graceful and effortless. This is a problem, insofar as the people in audience can’t appreciate how incredibly difficult the performance actually is. We’ve discussed how to address this: maybe make all spectators attempt a single pull-up or something, just to impress upon them how hard this is.

Trapeze artists have also been known to intentionally tank a trick in order to build anticipation and drama before they perform it successfully. Maybe baseball players need to adopt this practice. What if Josh Reddick uncorked one into the bleachers every now and then, just to keep us honest?

The college baseball season started up again this past Friday, and I made sure I was in the stands for Cal’s opener against Michigan. Neither team looks like a world-beater this season, but they’re both Division I programs with talented players. These kids have been playing organized baseball for most of their lives, and are among the best amateur players in the world (probably; I mean I don’t really know). Every time either team would get a leadoff hitter on, the next batter would invariably attempt to bunt him over. In the pro game, we’d all consider this to be terrible strategy; not so in college, though, because the defense seemed to be able to throw out the batter-runner only about half the time. Because it’s really hard to do.

Postulate 3: Occasionally reminding ourselves how difficult this all is will only increase our enjoyment of the world’s greatest game.

I can’t think of anything more aesthetically satisfying than watching a slick-fielding shortstop showing off during infield drills. (Don’t tell any of the sluggers taking BP that I said that, though; I’d die if they found out!) It’s a rare opportunity to see the raw ability unfettered by the requirement of recording an out. These guys are gifted athletes who have performed these actions tens or possibly even hundreds of thousands of times, refining and internalizing their reactions and actions until they're automatic.

Of course that doesn’t make it any easier when your team’s shortstop boots a routine grounder, and that’s not where I’m going here. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad, or demanding that you “take it easy on these guys because they’re trying their best”; no, my ultimate goal is selfish. I want to enjoy baseball more.

So if you’re so inclined, try getting to the yard extra-early to see some infield drills. Or take a minute and recall how difficult it is to hit a round ball squarely with a round bat. Or just marvel at the aesthetic perfection that is the game of baseball and the men who play it at its highest level.

I hope you wring every drop of joy out of the 2013 season, and every season that comes after it. I hope you never lose sight of what an amazing game this is and how lucky we all are to be able to witness it.

 

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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