Monday, May 04, 2009
On Saturday, the Boston Celtics – with whose fortunes I live and die as a sports fan - concluded what may have been the greatest playoff series in NBA history. They went seven games versus the Chicago Bulls, four of those games decided in overtime – one of those a double overtime and another a triple overtime contest – with the Celtics finally winning the series, four games to three.
I have nothing but respect for Chicago after that series. They were magnificent in defeat, fighting until the final buzzer in game seven. Athletic heroics abounded for both teams.
On Sunday, my fast-pitch softball season began. The Boston Bombers, my team for the past 15 years, got off to a 2 and 0 start. It is the first time since 2000 that we’ve started the season by winning both ends of the opening doubleheader.
As the old saying goes, I’m as happy as a pig in shit.
(Yeah, I know. Making any reference to pigs, during the current hysteria concerning swine flu, is chancy. Swine flu be damned! I mention it because it gives me a chance to include this quote I saw in a newspaper. It came from a nurse, my new personal hero of the moment. When asked by a patient of hers if eating bacon could be harmful, she said, “Only if the bacon is still alive and bites you back.”
If I wasn’t already happily married, I would have found out her name and proposed.)
So, the scores:
BOMBERS – 8 Brighton All-Stars – 7 (extra innings)
BOMBERS – 16 Brighton All-Stars – 6
These were big-time team victories. Everybody who played made a contribution. And that’s the best part of this, for me. Individual stats are fun – and I’ll give some in a minute - but the best feeling in the world, as an athlete, is being part of a happy winning TEAM. And we seem to have great team chemistry this year. I’m in heaven.
The great individual performance of the day came from Jason Atton. He went 7-for-7, with 2 home runs. One of the homers was a grand slam. He had 10 RBI in the two games. In addition, he pitched the first game, shutting down the All-Stars when it counted most.
We play 7-inning games. Jay shut them out in the seventh, in a tie game, giving us a chance to win it in the bottom of the inning. We didn’t – more in a minute, and it’s interesting, believe me – and then Jay shut them out in the 8th, giving us another chance to close it out, which we did.
The seventh inning of game one was one of the most bizarre innings of softball I’ve ever been involved with.
We were the home team for game one, so after Jay didn’t give the All-Stars a run in the top of the inning, the score remained tied at 7 – 7. We therefore needed only to plate one run in the bottom of the inning to win the game. And my good buddy, Fast Freddie Goodman, led off the inning with a triple.
Now, when you need one run to win, and somebody gets a triple to lead off, you expect to win. There are just so many different ways to get that run home, even without another hit. So we were feeling pretty good about things.
Joey Baszkiewicz - good guy, good catcher, good hitter – followed Fred. He hit a sharp grounder to the left side. The fielder looked Fred back to the bag and then threw Joey out at first. OK, we’ve still got two more chances and we still don’t need a hit.
With one out, the other team decided to intentionally walk the next batter, Jack Atton. This gave them a chance to end the inning if they could induce a double-play grounder from Drew Prewitt, who followed Jack in our order. Jack, our manager, removed himself in favor of a faster runner, his son, Andrew.
On a 1 and 0 count, Drew put the ball into play on the ground, but not in any way in which the other team could have turned a DP. The infielder came home with the throw. Fred arrived at the plate as the ball did. He clipped the catcher, the ball was loose, he touched home plate... and he was out.
See, in our games, the umpire has the ability to call a runner out for interference if he feels that the runner could have caused bodily harm to a fielder while reasonably having been able to avoid it. We all have jobs to go to on Monday, so you can't wreck a guy. Fred ran into the catcher. Fred could have slid – he would have been safe, for sure, had he done so – but Fred didn’t slide and, instead of us winning, the umpire called Fred out.
Inning still isn’t over, though. Drew is on first and Andrew, running for Jack, is on second. Actually, on the previous play, they had advanced to second and third, respectively, but the umpire sent them back because the interference call is an automatic dead ball call, so their further advance during the play was nullified. The situation is first and second, two outs, Cam Zirpolo coming to bat.
This utterly weird half-inning came to an utterly weird end when Cam stroked a ball to the hole between short and third. It was probably a clear single, and it would have scored Andrew from second, except that the ball hit Andrew as he was running between second and third. The rule, of course, is that a runner hit by a batted ball is out.
And then we won the damn game in extra innings. Jay pitched a shutout top of the 8th, and in the bottom we scored the winner on a single by Buddy and a triple by Greg.
The fact that we blew our chance in regulation but still had enough character to win it in extras is the best thing I’ve seen from this team in a long time. It gives me great hope for the remainder of the season. I’m psyched.
Also psyching to me was our performance in game two. After a win like the first game, sometimes the tendency is for a team to let down emotionally. We didn’t. We jumped on them with both feet, scoring 8 runs in the first inning, another 4 in the second inning, and then cruising behind the excellent pitching of Buddy. In actuality, we had a 15-0 lead before the other guys had a small rally. No problem, really, and we never felt threatened.
My own play was decent; nothing spectacular. I went 1 for 3, also drew a walk, and had a couple of nice little plays at first base. One was a pickoff of a runner during the second game – something I really enjoy, since it’s a play that you have to have some brains to make. Mike Minchoff was catching the second game and he made a great throw to me as I scooted in behind the runner. Very satisfying.
Something else that happened in game two gives me a chance to spout off and maybe teach some younger players something important.
I’m a decent softball player. I’m not great. There IS one thing I do better than just about anybody who has ever played the game, though, and I’m going to tell you about that. I draw more walks, per plate appearance, than Ted Williams or Babe Ruth did in their primes.
It’s an odd thing to have bases-on-balls be your claim to whatever fame is available via Sunday softball games, but that’s what I’m really good at. Ask any of my teammates for a concise portrait of me as a ballplayer and I bet many of them would say, "He draws more walks than anybody I’ve ever played with." It’s true. I’m an average hitter, a fair fielder, and not much of a speedy guy on the basepaths. I can hold my head high as a player only because I’ve developed the ability to be awarded first base, without taking the bat off of my shoulder, on a stunningly consistent basis.
I’ve found, over the course of my softball "career," that there are precious few players who will actually understand what I’m about to tell you. That’s too bad, because anybody who understands this stuff will be more knowledgeable than three-quarters of the other guys on the field.
OK, here’s what you need to know in order to draw an inordinate number of walks.
1) You have to know exactly what constitutes your strike zone, and you have to know why there IS a strike zone.
The first part is simple, but lots of players never bother to really acquire that knowledge and make it their own. The second part is the most important thing to know, but even FEWER players understand that part of the game.
Your strike zone, by the rules, falls between your armpits and the top of your knees. Most guys have a nebulous understanding of this, but they don’t really KNOW it. They have a vague idea that the strike zone is more-or-less between the shoulders and knees, but they don’t know EXACTLY where it is.
In the second game, I was at-bat and the count was 1 and 2. The pitcher throws, I don’t swing, the umpire calls ball two. The pitcher complained to the umpire because he thought it should have been strike three. The umpire told him the ball was high. The pitcher said, and I quote, "But he [meaning me] was in a crouch!"
Well, uh, yeah. That’s why it was a ball. The crouch I was in is how I always set up at the plate. What the umpire understood, and what the pitcher didn’t understand – and what a lot of guys don’t understand – is that the strike zone is from the armpits to the top of the knees as those things are positioned during a batter’s NORMAL BATTING STANCE. It doesn’t matter where your armpits and knees would be when you’re just standing up normally.
Your strike zone is defined by YOU. You, as a batter, always have the ability to present a strike zone that is drastically smaller than it would be if you stand straight and tall. And, as long as the umpire knows that you’re not exaggerating your strike zone for just one pitch, and that the way you crouch or whatever is the way you always bat, he will usually call the pitches accordingly.
It’s not just pitchers who don’t get it. Some batters have no idea, either. They do a great job of getting the pitcher to throw three balls out of their strike zone and then, instead of being smart and staying in their normal batting stance, they stand up straight and stretch themselves out and give the pitcher a gigantic target, putting the bat on their shoulder in an exaggerated way as if to show the pitcher and the umpire that they won’t be swinging at the next pitch. How dumb can you get? Some of these guys probably think they’re displaying intelligence by showing everybody that they know enough to not swing at a 3 and 0 count, but they’re totally negating the advantage they gained by changing their strike zone to one that favors the pitcher. For God’s sakes, stay in your normal batting stance, always!
You have to know your strike zone exactly, by the way, otherwise you have no basis for complaint if the umpire gets it wrong. And there’s no better way to piss off an umpire than if you complain about a pitch that is patently and obviously a strike by rulebook definition. Pissing off the umpire is NOT useful under any circumstances, but it’s especially destructive if your ability to get on base is dependent in large part upon his calls. Never give an umpire a reason to call one against you when the call could go either way. That’s just stupid.
The second part, WHY there is a strike zone, is even less understood. There are so few players who understand this, it’s a crime. They go up to bat knowing only that a total of three strikes will sit them down on the bench, but they don’t know why. So, they swing at bad pitches in order to avoid strikes.
Here’s why there IS a strike zone: It is there so that both the batter and the pitcher will be treated in an equally fair manner by the umpire. The good umpire uses it as a tool to ensure that both players get a fair shake.
With no defined strike zone, a pitcher could throw nothing but unhittable pitches. With no defined strike zone, a batter could wait for the absolutely perfect pitch to hit. The strike zone is there to move the game along and make it incumbent upon the pitcher to throw at least three pitches that a batter can hit and to make it incumbent upon the hitter to swing at at least one of those pitches.
And here’s why that is the most important information you need to know as a batter: The umpire, if he’s competent, KNOWS that’s the reason for the strike zone. That’s why each batter’s strike zone is different. It represents the area where a pitch will come that the batter could reasonably swing at.
The batter does not have to swing at the first good pitch he sees, nor the second. If the pitch is exactly what you want, sure, swing. But, you don’t have to do so. There’ll be more coming. And that’s the crux of being a smart batter. Try to swing at a good pitch, the pitch you want. Don’t swing at the pitch the pitcher wants you to swing at.
If you know the umpire is a good umpire, one who understands the concept behind the strike zone and not just the physicality of it, you can reasonably argue with him on what you consider to be a bad strike call. You can say to him, “I can’t hit that pitch” and he’ll understand the logic behind that statement. Rather than you arguing concerning his competency, and basically telling him that he’s not a good umpire, you are instead arguing concerning the internal logic of the game itself. And good umpires are way more common than a lot of players seem to know. Guys get called out on strikes and blame the umpire, but more often the blame should be on themselves because they presented a strike zone to the umpire within which the pitch they were called out on was hittable.
Is that clear? I hope so. It boils down to what the umpire considers your ability to reasonably get a good cut at any specific pitch. If he feels that you have taken a reasonable batting stance, but the pitch delivered was not hittable from that stance, then it should be a ball and not a strike. If you let a pitch go by that the umpire deems hittable by you, in your normal stance, then he will call it a strike.
Obviously, you have to know your own strike zone intimately for this knowledge to be of real value. If you don’t know what pitches you should reasonably be expected to swing at, why should you expect the umpire to give you any breaks? If you’ve shown that you’ll consistently swing at shit pitches, then the umpire should reasonably conclude that the shit pitch is one you LIKE to swing at, so you shouldn’t be pissed off if you don’t swing at that pitch but the umpire still calls it a strike. You’re the one being inconsistent, not the umpire.
OK, that’s way more than enough about my theories concerning the strike zone. I could go on for another 1,500 words, easy, showing you how different stances will present a different target to the pitcher than that which you’re showing to the umpire, but that’s way advanced and this is long already. Another time.
Bottom line: I’m thrilled that the season has begun and I’m thrilled with HOW it has begun. I can’t wait to get back on the field again. This is going to be a fun season.
Soon, with more better stuff.