Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Not So Perfect Pitch(ing)

Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing. ~Warren Spahn

This has been a good week for pitching. First, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers pitches a no-hitter, which is pretty darn good. But, the Twins' Johan Santana might have done him one better. In a day when complete games are a rarity and most pitchers are out at 100 pitches, Santana managed to get a complete game shutout by throwing only 92 pitches. Obviously, his opponent, the Mets, who have been struggling of late, were swinging at anything, but it also means he was giving them tempting pitches to try to hit. And, except for four instances, his stuff was good enough that they didn't succeed.

Now, all of you who have ever looked at this blog (all 2 or 3 of you) know that I'm a sucker for reminiscing, particularly about sports. So both of you might figure that I'm about to relate some extraordinary pitching performance from back in the day.


I'm going to tell you about the most miserable pitching performance to ever lead to a positive conclusion that may ever have occurred in the history of the game. Well, that may be a bit strong, but you can make up your own mind.

'Twas a-way back in the mid 1970's when a co-worker whom I shall call Jim (because that was his name) asked me if I was interested in a free ticket to an upcoming doubleheader between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers. It was a great seat, behind the home dugout, right on the action. Not only that, but we'd get to meet some players during a signing session. The only disadvantage was that I would be sitting on the opposite end of a group of Little Leaguers that he was taking to the game. Oh well, a free seat is a free seat. As it turned out, the kids were actually interested in baseball, so aside from having to track down a couple of them in the upper deck between games, we had a good time.

That's right. I said, "between games." In those bygone days, teams had scheduled doubleheaders where one admission got you 18 innings, a full day of baseball. Today, of course, the players don't want to play doubleheaders, and the owners can't bring themselves to part with one games ticket receipts (never mind that they more than made up for it with the concession sales).

At any rate, off we went. As soon as we got to the game, we began to realize this was going to be a strange day. To begin with, the player signing session was off because the players were in a team meeting. It turned out that the Indians had fired manager Frank Robinson that morning, and the players were having Jeff Torborg introduced as their new manager. Now firing managers was something the Indians did regularly, but somehow this one had caught most of us off-guard.

As it turned out, a couple of players took the time to come out and give the kids some time, so it wasn't all bad.

Then, during the first game, I saw the weirdest ejection I had ever seen. The Detroit first base coach was jogging out to his position and quietly said something to the first base umpire. Without breaking stride, the coach turned around and jogged back to the dugout. After a few moments, the stadium announcer told us he had been ejected for arguing balls and strikes!

It was a very quiet argument, to say the least. The guy didn't even complain about being tossed.

I don't remember much else about the first game, but I remember a good bit about the second one. Jim Bibby was pitching for Cleveland. Bibby, brother of UCLA and NBA basketball star Henry Bibby, was six-plus feet of fireballing inconsistency. When he was on, he was tough to hit. When he wasn't, he usually left early.

Bibby was not exactly picture-perfect that afternoon. In fact, I'm not sure if he retired the side in order more than once in the game. At least twice, the Tigers loaded the bases, only to come away empty. The Tigers couldn't buy a hit with men in scoring position. If they did miraculously hit one out of the infield, more than likely the runner would be thrown out trying to take an extra base. The Indians infield, meanwhile, was doing it's best Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance imitation, turning one double play after another.

Mr. Bibby, meanwhile, was flinging the ball all over the place. Probably the main reason the Tigers were having trouble hitting Bibby is that they were scared to dig in and swing. How wild was Jim Bibby that day? We hadn't kept score, so we listened to the game announcer (while we looked for a couple of the Little Leaguers) running down the game stats. How about nine-count 'em-nine walks?

And, how many runs did the Tigers score? None-no need to count 'em-none.

Bibby had pitched a complete game shutout while allowing nine walks and a good handful of hits.

Now, a no-hitter is a work of art, and a 92-pitch shutdown is a nifty accomplishment, but a nine-walk shutout?

That's a bloody miracle.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Baseball Blues

Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact. ~ George Eliot
If there was any doubt in anyone's mind, I think we can now put to rest the idea that any one race is different from the others. Thanks to Barry Bonds' brother and Gary Sheffield, we can see that African Americans can be every bit as stupid and bigoted as Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians, or any other group.

Mr. Bonds' brother not long ago allowed as how all these people who didn't like Barry Bonds were obviously racists who didn't like this black man breaking the all-time home run record. Evidently, history is not this person's strong suit, since the last time I checked, the current home run record holder is one Henry Aaron, who was then, and to the best of my knowledge still is, an African American. Mr. Bonds' brother needs to be aware that, if someone is a jerk, other people of any race are not under any obligation to like him or root for him to beat the record of a classy individual like Mr. Aaron.

Mr. Aaron's own take is that he doesn't really care about Barry Bonds, to the point of not being able to spell his name. I'd say Hammerin' Hank is having a little funny there.

Then along comes Mr. Sheffield who insists that the reason that there are so few blacks in baseball (8% of the total players) is because Latino players are "easier to control", whatever the heck that means. Mr. Sheffield has managed to wear out his welcome with quite a few teams, who are willing to forgo his good hitting and adequate fielding to rid themselves of an arrogant and divisive presence.

The reason that there are fewer black players and so many Latino players in baseball is pretty simple. You have to look at the games they play when they are young. Basketball and football are more available to young blacks than baseball. Basketball in particular requires a hoop and one ball; it can be set up in an alley or on any piece of concrete. A kid can practice by himself for hours on end, which many young African Americans do.

Football is a little different matter, but it could be that it is viewed as a way out of the poverty loop. There are a lot more scholarships out there for football (and, as a percentage of roster size, for basketball for that matter) than for baseball. If you want to get into college to increase your odds of making it in the real world, football offers an opportunity. Also, pro football and pro basketball are direct jumps from college to good money, while baseball might put in you in the minors making a relative pittance for years.

In Latin America, baseball has become part of the culture. Kids play baseball for the hours on end that an African American might spend on basketball. And, it serves as that same way out that football or basketball provide for American youngsters. The Hispanic kids put their time into baseball; African American kids put their time into football and basketball. Where's the surprise, then, when we see a greater Hispanic population in baseball, while football and basketball are dominated by African Americans?

It's that fundamental ideal of the American Dream: If you work hard at something, you have a better chance of succeeding. We're just seeing who's working harder at what.

When I was thinking about all this the other day, it brought up some of the comments I've heard over the years that would have it that, had black players been allowed into baseball in the heyday of the Negro Leagues, they would have dominated the game. This is a vast oversimplification.

Certainly, there would have been black players would have made their mark on the game, and some of the records held by whites would have been held by blacks. But, keep in mind that baseball in those days had sixteen teams. Only the best of the best made it to the Major Leagues. So, not every player from the Negro Leagues would have ended up in the Majors. Not every player who did make it would have racked up the numbers that he did in the old Negro Leagues.

It would have enriched the game to have players like Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige (in his prime) playing against Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove, but it wouldn't have altered the overall scheme of things that much. It's just that society as a whole would have been better off had we started breaking down the barriers that kept opportunities from being available to people of all races.

It's just an irony that an African American player should espouse the same sort of attitude that kept his brethren out of the game for decades.