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Revisit Jim Baker's humorous look at plays whose prominence outstrips their impact, which originally ran on June 18, 2004.
Baseball exists in two parallel universes. It serves two masters. It has a foot in two worlds. It straddles a fence. It balances on two horses like a rider at an old west show…and so on and so forth.
On the one hand, it must entertain its paying customers and viewers. On the other, it is the prime directive of its participants to succeed. Often, these two missions are at odds (although you would never get most of the men inside the game to admit to that).
While some plays are completely frustrating on a strategic level, they serve to entertain the paying customer and home viewer. These are, for the most part, the plays that have long been called into question by the analytical sector of the baseball community. Even those of us in that community cannot deny that when they occur, they can be visually dynamic and bring a jolt to the heart while they're happening. It is only afterward, when the dust has settled and the nitro pills we so desperately require have done their good work that we call into question the logic of such moves–no matter how much they may have thrilled the eye while they were underway.
Let's take a look at a few of these moves, and see how useful they can be.
The Bunt Base Hit
As Entertainment: I confess to enjoying the well-laid bunt (note to editor: can I say "well-laid" in this family forum?) as much as my baseball fan forefathers of 100 years ago. There is something very artistic about using a 50-feet-by-three-inch line to create a hit when playing on a field that runs eight times that length at its deepest measurement. The economy of the thing is beautiful: the subtle catching of the ball on the bat, the proper angling of said bat, the hurried departure to first, the vexed look of the fielders when they realize they've been defeated by a gnat in a world ruled by war elephants–it's something to see, all right.
As Functional Tool: If the purpose of baseball were to embarrass the opposition, this, and a lot of the other strategies discussed here, would be more worthwhile. Defenders look so humiliated after an opponent has bunted successfully on them, don't they? Doesn't the third baseman usually look like somebody squashed his puppy with a steamroller after charging in to barehand a bunt only to have it trickle off his fingers? Why is this? I think it's because having an opponent slap a single into right is taken for granted as an inevitable event that one must endure, while being bunted upon is a nasty surprise that comes without warning. It's the difference between making a car payment (a predictable inevitability of life) and paying for car repairs. You can budget for the former, but not the latter.
In many cases, though, isn't a batter doing his opponents a favor by choosing to bunt for a hit? There is a serious outcome ceiling when bunting, with only two or three possible eventualities. The best a player can hope for is to have a fielder scoop up the ball and whip it over the first baseman's head. He might wind up on second or third base in such an event, but it's anticipating a lot for modern defenders to do something errant like that on a regular basis. The bunter has surrendered the opportunity to hit a double (Mariano Duncan of the Dodgers versus St. Louis in 1985 notwithstanding), triple or home run, along with all but the slimmest chance of advancing any runners on base more than one station.
Granted, the player that most often tries to bunt for a hit is usually not the home run-hitting sort, but a man willing to limit his best possible outcome to a single on a regular basis will only ever hit singles. If that's the best-case scenario, then he is, in the long run, doing his opponents a solid.
As Entertainment: When it works, it's more beautiful than the sunset. It's more divine than a rainbow. It's more gratifying than a love note. It's like a Rube Goldberg device only with fewer working parts. The idea of a man driving a ball to a hole created by a baserunner forcing the fielder to follow him to second base is quite delicious in theory and even more delicious to see in practice. The synchronicity…the melding of concept and execution…the trickery…the very idea! I ask you: Do circus aerialists perform with greater teamwork? Of course they don't, because nobody is trying to stop them from doing so.
As Functional Tool: That is, when it works. When it doesn't it can gut a big inning like a Samurai with the blues taking a ritual knife to his own gullet. Trading a base for an out is foolishness, especially with the middle of the lineup due up to bat.
As entertainment: I must admit that I love to watch the wheel in motion. It's so very cool. Defenders rushing plateward, a runner in motion, fielders running to cover bags left undefended. It's not especially exciting on the offensive end, but it can cause visual mayhem. Isn't that why we go to the ballpark? To have our eyes jarred?
The Stolen Base
As Entertainment: Here's the conundrum for me. It's exciting to watch a player take a big lead, but dull as dishwater in which very plain dishes are soaking to watch a pitcher repeatedly throw over to first base. Aside from that, once a baserunner runs, stuff happens. The pitcher hits the deck and the catcher springs forth as if he had absent-mindedly squatted upon a fire ant nest and whips the ball down to second, oftentimes harder than the pitch he just caught. There is the inevitable slide and congruence of fielder and runner, often with collisionistic results. The throw can sail and mayhem can ensue.
As Functional Tool: As every schoolboy and girl now knows, unless the basestealer is a blue-chip cinch to make it, the play is an offensive dead end. Better to wait for a husky colleague to move one to second base and beyond the easy way: with a muscle ticket. (Stealing home is another story, however. A steal of home is so rare and so exciting that even the most hidebound strategic conservative must put aside concerns about misguided notions and live in its moment.)
The Home Plate Collision
As Entertainment: In the NFL (Note to editor: It's a football league–not sure what the letters stand for, however), collisions are routine. In fact, more collisions occur on one NFL play than they do in a month of major league baseball. Yet when some foolhardy baserunner attempts to bowl over the catcher and knock the ball loose in the process, it's far more exciting than 99% of the collisions that happen in football. The thought of a man running headlong into a fully-padded guardian of the realm–well, it's damn near something worthy of Shakespeare. What is more, it's a manly act. You might notice that all of the other activities discussed here are a little…well, how shall I say…? Wimpy. The bunt is just tapping the ball lightly with the bat like a debutante might if she could be pressed into learning the game. The hit-and-run is a diversionary attack rather than a frontal assault. The sacrifice is, although seemingly noble in concept, a concession to very low expectations. The stolen base is getting an extra base without benefit of muscling one's way to it.
The home plate collision, though–that's the act of heroes. Ever since running into an outfield wall became a walk in the park thanks to the installation of padding, hurling one's body at the catcher is the last refuge of the player for whom reckless abandonment is a way of life. It is the last, true act of courage left to the baseballer.
As Functional Tool: But does it work? How often does a baserunner successfully separate a catcher from the ball by frontally assaulting him? I'm asking because I don't know. My guess is that it's not worth the risk. Catchers aren't built like you and I. On top of that, their facades bristle with armor. If a runner can arrive at the same time as the ball and nail the catcher in the act of fielding the throw, then maybe he can affect the outcome. If, though, the ball is already securely in the catcher's womb-like glove, then it's a fool who impales himself on that particular fortress. Never mind that impeding a runner's path to the plate is actually illegal, though the rule is widely ignored.
One might think I am calling for the end of these exciting plays, but that is not the case. I want them to continue at games where I am present. Why? Because I buy my tickets like everybody else and want to be entertained. Where I don't want to see them anymore is on the stat sheets. In that forum they are not nearly so entertaining. It's a double standard, but one I'm prepared to live with.