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For Baseball Fans

For years, there have been a handful players playing baseball where the opposing team employes a defensive shift when those players come to the plate.  They are always lefthanded hitters and the shift involves moving the second baseman into shallow right field, the shortstop to the first base side of second base and the third baseman to around where the shortstop usually plays.  This shift used to happen rarely.

Suddenly this year, the use of this shift exploded, with every team using it regularly throughout the game for a lot of lefthanded hitters.  And invariably when teams used the shift, the batter hit weakly to the third baseman, now in the shortstop’s spot or to the second baseman playing in shallow right field.  It was amazing how frequently the shift worked and how little these hitters tried to adjust to the move.

So, now baseball has a new commissioner who has expressed support for outlawing the shift.  Apparently, the reason for doing so would be to help increase offense.

All I have to say is that if baseball outlaws the shift it will be the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.  The linked article goes into a lot of the reasons why this is a horrible idea, but I’ll briefly summarize my reasons.  As the article describes it, the point of hitting is to try to “hit ’em where they aint,” and the point of defense is to try to play where they hit them.  There are all sorts of shifts that take place throughout baseball games.  Outfielders playing shallow, playing deep, shading towards right field or left field, corner infielders playing close to the lines to prevent hits down the line turning into extra base hits, playing in to avoid a runner at third from scoring on a ball that stays in the infield, infielders playing at double play depth.  There are all sorts of these things.

One of the biggest problems I have with football is how the rules change every year and they are almost always changed to increase offense at the expense of the defense.  What this means is that defenses have to constantly adjust to what offenses cook up, but offenses never have to learn to adjust to what defenses cook up.

And that’s the beauty of baseball.  The rules don’t change very often and with the rare exception of lowering the pitching mound at the end of the 1960s, those changes almost never have to do with taking away one side’s need to learn to adjust to improvements made by the other side.

What amazes me about the shifts is that there is a remarkably simple solution to the “problem” they create for offenses.  There was a time when baseball players knew how to hit the ball to the opposite field.  That seems to be more and more of a lost art these days.  All it would take for teams to stop employing the defensive shift is for those incredibly talented professional athletes who are making millions of dollars a year to re-learn the ability to the ball the opposite way and then do it every once in awhile to keep the defenses honest.  What would be even better is if those batters just dropped a bunt down the 3rd base line every once in awhile — they’d probably get a double every time.

That the new commissioner believes that outlawing something that has been a part of baseball throughout its history rather than forcing batters to adapt, which has also been a part of baseball for years, is not a good sign for the future of the game.  Or civilization as we know it.


The Arrival of a Curse

I’m sitting here watching the Giants game.  It’s a tense 2-2 tie entering the bottom of the 6th inning, when the wheels fall off the bus and the Royals score 5 runs.  What?  Huh? Something happened here.  The planets are out of alignment.  The trains have stopped running on time.  Children are crying.  Storm clouds are gathering.  In a small town in the middle of nowhere, a tear falls slowly down the dusty cheek of a migrant worker.  The President stops in mid-speech.  He doesn’t know why, but he does.  Cell phones disconnect.  Computer screens blink off and on, so quickly most don’t even see it.  Vladimir Putin gives back Crimea.  Life as we know it has stopped.  SOMETHING HAPPENED!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Multi-tasker that I am, I’m on my laptop at the same time.  I check in with WordPress as the inning of horror winds to a close and I find this comment:

2-2 bottom of the 6th in game 2… I have a feeling the Royals are going to get outclassed by the Giants. Just a feeling. I’m the last one to say that recent World Series experience is a key determinant (I think talent and to some extent, in a 7-game series, luck wins), but the Giants seem to be calmer at the plate and on the mound.

This is just not the type of thing one says at this point in a game.  In a World Series.  You just don’t say these kind of things.  Why?  Because when you do, bad things happen.  It really doesn’t matter, the opposite of what you say is what will happen.  So, yeah, Trent Lewin, I’m calling you out on this.  I’m blaming you.  For the sake of all that you hold dear, you better hope the end result of this series is good for the Giants.  Or I may just sick a bunch of furry-footed hobbits on you.


They Call Them Giants

There’s this thing called baseball.  It’s a sport.  Although snobby people suggest those who play it aren’t really athletes.  As though the ability to hit a baseball thrown at 95 mph is not an athletic skill.

It is a sport that has spanned much of America’s history.  Plenty of people consider it to be part of America’s backbone.  It is the one and only thing I have ever agree with George Will about.  And it is the sport that inspires more great short stories (see W.P. Kinsella) and poetry and art than any other major sport in this country.  There is something about baseball that is different, for those who love the game.  It is not bound by a clock.  It is timeless, both in each game that is played, and in its history.  It is leisurely.  There is no rushing in baseball.  One can sit back and relax, talk with friends, and enjoy the pleasures of the game.  There is a rhythm and flow to the game that can be appreciated and admired.

Unless, of course, your team makes the playoffs.  Born into a family that developed into fans of the San Francisco Giants, I have spent much of the last 45 years or so comfortably numb in the pleasure of a baseball team that had little success.  We could enjoy the game without fear of the stress of the playoffs, or heaven forbid, a World Series appearance.  Through the miserable 70’s and most of the 80s, the Giants were horrible.  Success was something other teams had.  We could just be baseball fans.

In 1989, the Giants got this close <> to the World Series.  Actually, they got real close.  They were in the thing and they promptly got swept by the cross-bay A’s.  It was a twinge.  A moment when we fans realized that maybe there was something more than just rooting for the home team and when October came we would say, “Maybe next year.”  Knowing full well that next year wasn’t going to be any better.  Hope.  We finally had it.

The 90’s came and there was a little more success.  A little more hope.  They made the World Series again in 2002.  Facing the cross-state Angels.  Sadly, they were again denied victory and the ultimate success.  A World Series.  A chance to claim the title of best team in baseball.  Something not accomplished since 1954, when the franchise was back in New York.

So imagine our surprise when, in 2010, the unimaginable happened.  A dream season.  It started with middling success, but then something happened in the dog days of summer.  Things began to click.  Games were won at a staggering pace and the team qualified for the post season.  The won their first playoff series, then the next, and the World Series arrived.  We didn’t know how to act.  It was new.  It was also old.  We knew how this would end.  Another defeat.  Wait until next year.

Yeah, wait until next year to see if they could repeat.  The Giants won the World Series.  The Giants won the World Series?!?!?!?!  After decades in the wilderness, we had a team.  We had success.  Our team had reached the pinnacle and we could now claim that we had seen it and lived it and it was a beautiful thing.

Then they did it again in 2012.  Are you kidding me?  The first time, in 2010, I was too numb with the idea to consider attending a game.  In 2012, things were different.  I was going to be a part of it and I went to several playoff games.  And then they did something unthinkable in their march to their second championship.  They lost the first two games of the first series and then won three games in a row to eliminate the Reds.  Then, they fell behind the Cardinals 3-1 and then rolled off three games in a row to eliminate the Cardinals.  In the World Series, they dominated the Tigers, sweeping them in four games.  The Giants had done something never done before on their way to their second championship in two years.  It was … unbelievable.

My brother told me this past weekend that all he wanted was one World Series championship from the Giants and he got in 2010.  Having two was more than he could have hoped for.  And we’re OK with more moderate success.

And now we have this.  They’ve made the postseason again and my brother and I agree.  We don’t need it.  And on some level, don’t want it either.  There is this thing that happens when your team — the one that you have lived and died by for all those years — makes the playoffs.  Your world changes, other things disappear.  The only thing that matters is … did they win today?  Every pitch hurts.  It squeezes you and forces the air out of you.  You can’t watch another inning.  But you must.  You can’t move.  It’s far too important.  The problem with having your team in the postseason is that you have to continue caring.  You have to devote time to watching the games.  You experience stress and tension unrelated to your actual involvement in the game itself.  It is hard work being a fan of a baseball team in the playoffs.

The Giants had to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one game “play-in” game to make it to the first round of the playoffs.  They did so.  Then, they faced the Nationals — the team with the best record in the National League — in that first round.  Nobody gave them a chance.  Just as the pundits and prognosticators didn’t give them a chance in 2010 or 2012.  Four games later, they’re moving on to the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, with the winner headed to the World Series.

What a series it was.  Game two went 18 innings, with the Giants scoring their first run in the 9th inning to tie the score 1-1 and then the two teams demonstrating offensive futility for far too many hours to count until Brandon Belt hit a monster home run to win the game in the 18th inning.  It was the longest game in postseason history.  I sat and watched the whole thing.  When the game was over and I went to bed that night, I was convinced that it was all a figment of my imagination.  That there was absolutely no way I had just watched what I had.  I was convinced that when I woke up in the morning I would open the paper to find that the Giants had lost 8-2.  It was that surreal.

On Tuesday, the Giants won 3-2, and won the series three games to one.  I’m convinced that I have never been as tense watching a sports event on TV as I was watching the final couple of innings on Tuesday.  It makes no sense.  They’ve got two World Series Championships in the last few years.  I can relax.  Anything they do now is gravy.  They made the playoffs.  That should be good enough.  It’s just not as important as it was in 2010 and 2012.  Only it is.  They’re there.  I want another one.  Nothing less will be a disappointment.

Go Giants!!!  I think.

A Random Thought

As June leans towards July and the San Francisco Giants struggle to remain relevant, that they can’t beat the lowly Marlins at home suggests it’s time to think about 2014.

A Modest Proposal (It’s About Baseball)

I’ve grown tired of pitch counts and starting pitchers who can’t get past the sixth inning.  Starting pitchers who pitch excellently for five or six or seven innings and don’t get the win because something happens at the end of the game.  Games that teeter for innings and then suddenly, in an explosion of runs in the final inning or two are decided.  Not, as a result of the best pitchers in the game throwing their hearts out, but because relievers whose only job is to shut the opposition down for an inning before they hand the ball off to the next reliever with the same one inning obligation.  Relievers who, generally speaking make a fraction of what starters make and who are, well, let’s be serious.  They’re relievers because they couldn’t cut it as starters.

Yet, more and more, games are left in the balance of those relievers.

I decided to a bit of an unscientific study.  I compared the first 50 games the S.F. Giants played this season against the first 50 games the S.F. Giants played in 1973.  Forty years ago.  These were the Giants of Bobby Bonds, Willie McCovey, Tito Fuentes, Gary Matthews, Gary Maddox, Chris Speier, Jim Barr, Juan Marichal, Ron Bryant.  A team that finished with 88 wins.  So, in terms of talent, I think it’s a fair comparison.

Here’s what I tried to do.  Look at those 50 games each season and determine how many games in which the winning run was scored in the 7th inning or later without the starting pitcher giving up said winning run.  Here’s what I discovered.  In 1973, there were 10 such games out of the first 50 played.  In 2013, there were 21.  Twice as many games decided by bullpens staffed up by low paid relievers versus starting pitchers, the heart and soul of baseball.

Yes, it’s a small sample, based on only one team.  But, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is actually a valid statistical backup to this.

My proposal:  Baseball needs to return to the days when starting pitchers were allowed to win or lose games on their own.  Baseball needs to no longer leave the fate of games in the hands of washed up has-beens or relievers who couldn’t hack it as starters.  This is getting ridiculous.

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