BY CHRIS REWERS
“So what? Next pitch.”
That affirmation, popularized by sports psychologists like Ken Ravizza and Brian Cain, was scribbled on the Chicago Cubs’ locker white board at Jacobs Field as they prepared to play the Cleveland Indians in the historic seventh game of the World Series last fall.
It’s wise advice for anyone who plays a game that soaks in a marinade of failure. Did you screw up on the last pitch? So what? The next pitch offers a chance for redemption.
Nothing happened last year to change my opinion that baseball is the most challenging sport to play and the most fun to follow. No two games are quite the same and each has planted in it the seeds of greatness. Sure, most likely a player will fail. And sure, your team will almost assuredly break your heart. But all of that built-in heartache is worth enduring for those moments of success. Whether it’s as simple as a batter delivering in the clutch or as mind-boggling as a team winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years, the heartache baseball can bring is worth enduring because of its joys.
“If it was easy, anybody would do it,” Jimmy Dugan told Dottie Hinson in “A League of Their Own.” “It’s the hard that makes it good.”
Just as each pitch offers a chance for redemption, on a larger scale, do does each new year.
So as 2017 begins, it’s time for baseball fans, its players, its executives, and its media to take stock in itself. Here are some resolutions that can and should be made:
Do the Hustle
There is very little within a baseball game that a player can control. Much is left to fate. A perfect pitch can be hit over the fence. A batter can hit the cover off the ball but hit it right at someone, or worse, get victimized by a premier play. Sometimes the weather, as anyone who has watched many games at Wrigley Field can attest, is the determining factor. The wind can giveth or it can taketh away. Sometimes an umpire – who is only human – will blow a call. Sometimes a manager plays the percentages when he should go with his gut. And sometimes, the opposing player is simply better.
Life isn’t fair, and neither is baseball.
One thing, though, that a player has complete control over is his effort. And it’s high time we see better from those who play the game.
Lack of hustle and Cadillacing are scourges on the game, and are just plain stupid. Last year, on any given night, whether you were watching a big league game on your living room TV or had taken a stroll over to watch a game on a nearby Little League diamond, chances are you would witness some form of laziness or showboating. And it isn’t limited to the regular season. Dumb play was exhibited throughout the postseason.
In the majors, we are told by far too many TV broadcasters not to believe what our eyes so clearly see.
And it doesn’t help that ESPN showcases stupid play in their highlight packages, Fox and ESPN promos use them in promos, and telecasts show stupidity in slow motion at the end of a half inning as they head to a commercial. To wit:
- Batters who hit routine infield grounders and run to first at half speed or worse. Sometimes, a batter can’t even be bothered to complete the 90-foot route first base. Instead, he’ll make a detour towards his dugout halfway down the line.
- Batters who stand in the batter’s box to admire a long fly ball that they assume will be a home run (but sometimes isn’t) or who assume a pop fly will land foul or be caught. Far too often a batter will be at first when he should be standing on second or standing on second when he should be standing on third.
- Outfielders who catch with one hand.
Shame on the players who dog it and on the managers who tolerate it. Shame on the pundits for excusing it. The game, we are told, has changed. Or worse, those who champion playing the right way are labeled as bigots. Playing the “right” way, some say, is code for playing the “white” way. My response to that is that stupid play is color blind. There were instances where Bryce Harper and Anthony Rizzo were as guilty of it as any black or Latino player. Dogging it starts at the top and filters is way all the way down to the Little League diamonds. All summer long, I watched teams walk on and off the field, stationary fielders not backing up plays, batters standing in the batter’s box assuming pop ups were going to land foul. Far too often, such displays proceeded without comment from a team’s coaching staff. Those coaches are guilty of malpractice.
Pick up the pace
It doesn’t take long for anyone who has watched the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Pedro Baez pitch that he works much too slowly.
But Baez is the most obvious symptom of a malady that took hold of baseball a generation ago and continues to get worse.
The game is played at a ridiculously deliberate pace.
Watch a game from the 1950s, 60s, and even the 70s on YouTube and you watch a game that was played at a much crisper pace. Pitchers stayed on the rubber and didn’t mess around. Hitters would approach the batter’s box, reach down and rub some dirt between their hands, and dig in. And they would remain in the box prepared to hit.
The first game of the 1976 World Series was played in a tad over two hours. Forty years later, it took three and half hours for the Indians to defeat the Cubs 1-0 in Game 3 of the Fall Classic.
There were no exaggerated deep breaths, no adjusting batting gloves or batting helmets, no extended gazes at the barrel of the bat.
Catchers making frequent trips to the mound and constant pitching changes don’t help.
Nor does the ridiculous seven minutes or the whopping nine minutes that are allotted for commercials.
But the primary culprits of this malady can be laid at the feet of the sports psychology industry. Harvey Dorfman was a pioneer in the psychology of baseball in the 1960s and many of his theories were expanded upon most notably by Ravizza in the 1990s. Today, Cain is a leading advocate of mental conditioning and he works as a paid consultant for many of the nation’s premier college baseball programs.
“Every pitch counts,” the psychologists preach.
That much is true. Focus and concentration are essential to doing any task well and I stress the mental game to my Little Leaguers.
And it is understandable that every team and every player is looking for a competitive edge.
Might it be possible, however, that players might be trained to react more and think less?
Save the mental imagery for before the game when no one is watching.
Commissioner Rob Manfred made speeding up the game one of his priorities when he took office in 2015. His directive, which resulted in among other things a time limit for coaching visits to the mound, made initial progress. But the average time of game spiked steadily after last year’s All-Star break.
Another cause of longer games has been MLB’s use of instant replays to review on-field umpiring decisions which has been in place for the past two seasons.
The quest to “get it right,” it turns out, has had unintended consequences.
The replay procedures were put in place to correct egregious errors like when Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game by a blown call at first with two outs in the ninth of a 2009 game or when Don Dekinger’s obvious incorrect call at first in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series cost the St. Louis Cardinals a world championship.
But replay is being used in ways that were never intended. Every bang-bang play at first gets reviewed as does every tag play. The use of replay has actually made the way the game is played change in some ways. Notice how a fielder always leaves a tag on a baserunner in exaggerated fashion.
And on plays where the correct call is obvious, the review process takes far too long, leading fans to wonder, “What are they looking at?”
MLB doesn’t need to abolish replay review but the current system in which managers are granted challenges should be scrapped. Instead there should be one full-time umpire assigned to replay review for each game. He alone would have the power to overrule a call on the field just like when a third-base or first-base ump can overrule the home-plate arbiter on appeals of check swings.
Remember the kids
Through its “Play Ball” initiative, MLB frequently reminds fans how important kids are to the game. Conventional wisdom says that children who get hooked on playing and watching baseball will carry their passion for the game into adulthood.
But it seems MLB and its TV partners do everything possible to make sure that young fans miss plenty of action – especially the sports’s biggest moments.
The New York Mets did not play any Saturday afternoon home games in 2016. That doesn’t seem very kid friendly to me.
The advent of ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” in 1990 encroached on what was once considered sacred family time.
I recall a wonderful cover story Sports Illustrated produced in the summer of 1987 about a Sunday afternoon around the majors. All of the games, as was illustrated by the cover photo of Wrigley Field’s iconic center-field scoreboard, were played in the afternoon.
Now the only time this happens is on the final day of the regular season when all games begin at 3:05 p.m. Eastern. This is a practice that should be expanded to other Sundays throughout the regular season.
The “flex” schedule that ESPN now implements during the second half of the season allows the cable network to select its Sunday night game three weeks in advance. All tickets include the fine print that game times are “subject to change,” but the switching a game from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night on short notice is anything but family friendly.
Many teams market Sunday games as “family days” and often times kids are allowed to run the bases shortly after the final out is recorded. With Sunday night games staring in the Eastern time zone at 8:05 and average contests taking over three hours to play, what parents in their right minds are going to allow their kids to hang around the ballpark so late.
The problem of late start time extends into the postseason. Many of the game’s most dramatic moments occur long after kids have been tucked into their beds.
Tweak the schedule
From 1969-92, the National League included 12 teams split into two divisions. Each club played the other five teams in its division 18 times each and went up against the six teams in the opposite division 12 times each.
It was a wonderfully symmetrical 162-game schedule in which all the teams competing against each other for a division championship played against the same teams the same number of times. That symmetry was destroyed when the NL, with the admittance of Florida and Colorado, expanded to 14 teams in 1993. The advent of interleague play in 1997 and another round of expansion in 1998 further complicated matters.
There were many reasons to oppose the shift of the Astros from the NL to the AL after the 2012 season, especially the disregard it showed for the 50 years of NL tradition that had been developed in Houston.
But a reason to support Houston’s change of league affiliation was that it gave the two leagues six equal five-team divisions. It presented MLB with an opportunity to return to a balanced, symmetrical schedule. However, Commissioner Bud Selig and his successor Manfred have so far failed to deliver such a schedule.
Instead MLB has maintained a schedule that pits “natural” rivals against each other four times every year. Since 2002, MLB has rotated divisions in setting up its interleague matchups with the exception of “natural” rivalries.
So, for example, the teams for the NL Central will be matched up against the teams from the AL East. But the Cubs will still play the AL Central’s White Sox – their “natural” rival – four times. Other “natural” matchups will pit the Cardinals against the Royals, the Brewers against the Twins, the Reds against the Indians, and the Pirates against the Tigers. It’s not fair that the Brewers will get to play a doormat like the Twins four times while the Reds are paired with the AL champion Indians.
It’s likely an owner like Jerry Reinsdorf favors the idea of “natural” rivalries because it guarantees that his team will have two annual home games against the wildly popular Cubs. With the exception of Opening Day, they are the only guaranteed home sellouts for the Sox.
MLB should take a cue from the NFL where intercity rivals like the Jets and Giants meet every four years instead on an annual basis.
The ideal, symmetrical, and easy to put together schedule would consist of 18 games against the other four divisional teams (72 games), six games against the other 10 intraleague teams (60 games), and 30 interleague games against all the teams from the same division on a three-year rotational basis. All interleague matchups would include a pair of home-and-home three-game series.
It would create competitive balance, put an end to the oversaturation of some “natural” rivalries like Cubs vs. Sox, end “natural” rivalries that make no sense like Padres vs. Mariners, and put an end to any need to play the two- and four-game series that the Players Association has voiced displeasure about.
Take it easy with the stats
Just because something can be measured, doesn’t make it relevant.
Baseball telecast are packed with useless info and statistical nonsense with no context.
For example, a fact like, “The Cubs are 59-1 when entering the ninth with a lead.” Most teams with a lead entering the ninth go on to win. Even the 102-loss Minnesota Twins had an impressive record under such circumstances.
Countless times last October, a crawl on ESPN or Fox Sports 1 would alert viewers that a player on the Indians was accomplishing something in the postseason for the franchise for the first time since 2007. Omitted from such factoids was that the Indians had played just one postseason game since 2007.
BEST OF 2016
It was a disappointing year for the Astros, but Houston fans were treated to a banner year by Jose Altuve. The 5-foot-6 second baseman won his second American League batting title in three years, hitting .338 with career highs in homers (24) and RBI (96). He also swiped 30 bases, and smashed 42 doubles. Altuve, who earns a relatively modest salary of $550,000 annually, led the AL in hits for the third straight year and was named an All-Star for the fourth time.
WORST of 2016
Signed last offseason to an ill-advised 1-year, $3 million by the San Diego Padres, shortstop Alexei Ramirez disgraced himself as the worst everyday player in the majors. The Padres, at last, after Ramirez had started 109 games, pulled the plug on the washed-up 35-year-old former All-Star when they granted him his unconditional release and installed minor-league journeyman Luis Sardinas as their starting shortstop. Ramirez caught on with Tampa Bay for the season’s final three weeks and finished 2016 with a soft .241 average, just six homers and 48 RBI. He was caught stealing nine times in 17 attempts and unlike another soft-hitting infielder, Philadelphia’s Freddy Galvis, was also a liability in the field. Ramirez committed 14 errors in 2016 and his 148 career errors rank 12th among active players.
“He didn’t have the range at shortstop anymore that we need,” San Diego manager Andy Green said.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Good is not good when better is expected.”
– Vin Scully
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dreams came true in 2016!
STAT OF THE DAY
Over the last four seasons, Houston’s Jose Altuve has 818 hits – 67 more than anyone else in the majors.
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