Thursday, October 30, 2014

My thoughts on baseball

I have never played the game - though twice I sprained an ankle playing softball.

Only in America could a sport that is played only a (small) fraction of the world's 160 or countries, and which hosts a league and tournament wherein 95%+ of the competing teams are from only one country, could that sport's pinnacle be called a 'World Series'.

In spite of those indisputable facts, every October I do tend to pay attention to the goings-on in the world of baseball. Part of that is the dominance of it on TV; part is due to the fact that the St Louis Cardinals (my 'home' team) are frequently involved in the 'play offs' for that jewel. This year, they succumbed (in what is effectively a semi-final) to the eventual winners of the trophy - as did their cross-State (and 1985 World Series Final foes and nemesis) Kansas City Royals team. I won't dwell on the fateful October nights of that season 29 years ago. You'll have to read about Game 6 - in which what has to be THE most egregious of  officiating blunders took place, denying the Cardinals the title - and the ensuing implosion by the Cardinals in Game 7 - for yourselves. Instead, I'll address the 2014 World Series - as seen through the eyes of one who has learned more about the game from his athletic 13-year-old  grandson (future Cardinals player, I hope) than I could imagine. Here, is my synopsis - play ball:

'Panda-monium' in KC!  OK - so the Royals get to rue decisions at first base for a change!  Were it not for an 'out' decision given after a LENGTHY TV-replay review of an initially 'safe' call at first base, things might have been different. Where was that technology in 1985?   [Groan]  Anyway, Hosmer had a better chance of being 'safe' had he 'ran through' instead of diving head first.  A dubious decision to have Escobar bunt instead of 'swinging' may also have led to the Royals undoing. An exciting (and oscillating) Series, no doubt. On the face of it, I think the Giants deserved their Series victory - but I disagree with the Series MVP pick. Whilst Bumgarner (I'd surely change my name if it were that!) may have pitched exceedingly well, his (as with any non-hitting pitcher's) role was one that could NOT bring about victory - it was a defensive role only.   A far more worthy MVP, though an unlikely looking athlete, would have been Pablo Sandoval. He not only made several fantastic defensive plays (stops, catches, throws) from his third base position, he got himself on base from lead-off position so many times in the 7 games that it almost became predictable at each successive 'at-bat'. Sandoval's hitting of balls out of the strike zone, running and affording that weird-looking dude, Hunter Pence (my candidate for MVP runner-up) a chance to perform is uncountable hits from a 2-strike count, gave the Giants the offense that is needed to score runs. No matter how brilliant a pitcher may be, you cannot win a baseball game without scoring runs. Sandoval (and Pence) each did that - numerous times; got the RBIs and and the runs. The 'Panda', is oddly (and enviably) a free-agent now - do the Cardinals need such a 'beast' in their zoo? Give him enough bamboo-shoots and he'll be wearing a Cardinals shirt next year - an XXXL, I'd say!  

For 'real media' accounts - start here: PANDA-MONIUM

Quotes about baseball abound - perhaps the most common, and true, one is that baseball is a 'game of inches'. It is amazing how so many 'plays' involve that razor-thin edge between a runner being 'safe' or 'out' - because of a matter of inches (or a fraction of a second if you prefer to view it temporally). That call in the 7th Game (mentioned above) was such an example that TV replays were viewed for more than two minutes to be sure.  The game would almost certainly be so much less exciting if the bases were to be placed 85 feet or 95 feet apart, instead of that magical 90 feet.

It is a game in which, for some reason, players from the Caribbean seem to excel. The list is too long to provide. but one such player, also famous for a quote was Cuban-born White Sox legend Minnie Minoso, who in 1951 became that city's first black major league baseball player - and later recognized as the first black Latin American baseball star. He was often heard say, "Baseball's been very, very good to me" - and so it has for many, especially from the Dominican Republic. However, not all the news is good. Shortly after the start of the 2014 World Series' Game 5 in San Francisco, came the word that Cardinals new outfielder, 22 year old Oscar Taveras, and his girlfriend died in a car accident near his home in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Taveras had been considered "one of the game's top prospects".    

Baseball cannot be mentioned without reference to a St Louis-born baseball legend - with a name as unlikely as his innumerable quotes. The most famous of his quotes perversely describes his beloved game this way: "Baseball is 90% mental - the other half is physical".  The legend, with a ball-field full of 'Yogi-isms', is of course, Yogi Berra.  

Notwithstanding Yogi's 'fuzzy math', it is true that baseball  IS a very cerebral (mental) game. I used to be among those who did not understand the terminology, much less the amount of strategy involved in the 'cat and mouse' tactics associated with such things as:

a) using this pitcher to pitch ONLY to that player (but not to the previous one - or to the next one), or
b) by pitch selection, forcing a batter to more likely hit a 'fly ball', or a 'ground ball, or 'into a double play'. 
c) the value of a sacrifice 'bunt' versus 'swinging away'
d) the effects of 'a lead off' whether 'stealing' or in a 'hit and run' situation.
e) the selection made in a 'fielder's choice' - versus the one not made.

I have learned a lot - and have come to appreciate many facets that went by unnoticed in years past. Sure, not every baseball game is exciting, Frankly some can be as exciting as watching pine-tar dry on a rack of bats in the locker-room. But once a batter morphs into being a base-runner, then it's a case of 'Game on!' 

Perhaps equally as 'zany' as Yogi - perhaps not, is my notion for an alternate scoring scheme in the game. It arises from what seem to be the absence of that 'horse-shoe reward' - where 'closeness also counts! I would like to see a team be awarded 1 point each time a runner gets on (a) base. So often a team leaves two or three runners 'stranded' - and the offensive efforts (whether by bat or base-stealing) go without reward on the scoreboard. Leave a runner 'stranded' on third base and recoup 3 points; if there is another on second base, he also gets 2 points. Even a runner 'thrown out; at third still gets rewarded with 2 points for his success in getting safely to second base. Any nerds out there care to study the 'stats' from the games of the World Series and see how it may have panned out? OK - throw in an extra point for a run scored from a home run. I think it would make for more aggressive base running and hitting - but what do I know? I was raised playing cricket!