Saturday, July 9, 2011

After Making History, Jeter Makes Yankees Winners

The question of value comes up a lot when people talk about baseball players. Some say, it's just a dumb sport. They're just athletes. Why should they make that much?

What is amazing about Derek Jeter's day today is not that once again he stepped onto the stage of intense competition and amazed us all with a home run for his 3000th hit and ended the day 5-5 at the plate, or even that he was the hero of the game. What is amazing is how humble he was afterwards and how much love and respect his teammates have for him as a man.

At its best, sports shows us how high we can fly, and the potential of our humanity in the face of drama (as artificial as the stage of sports is). What would life be like without this living proof of the greatness of the individual and teams of individuals all working together? What price glory? For surely, this one man's glory is glory for us all.

New York Times

Published: July 9, 2011

With one out in the third inning Saturday, space was at a premium on the rail of the Yankees’ dugout. Players and coaches crowded shoulder to shoulder, jostling for what they hoped would be the best view of history. Manager Joe Girardi was at one end, both arms draped over the rail in his familiar pose; second baseman Robinson Cano was at the other end, a towel across his shoulder and one leg raised up on the steps.

Jorge Posada was smack in the middle. Posada is Derek Jeter’s best friend on the Yankees, a teammate since 1992, when they were teenagers playing Class A ball in Greensboro, N.C. Posada, the longtime Yankees catcher and current designated hitter, had seen so many of Jeter’s 2,999 major league hits over the years that he was not going to miss this one.

When Jeter swung, his shiny black bat meeting a full-count, off-speed pitch from Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price, Posada shot his arms up in the air. He knew, even before the ball had landed in the left-field bleachers, what had happened: Jeter had reached the coveted 3,000-hit mark, the first to ever to do so in a Yankee uniform, in the most dramatic of fashions.

The Yankees poured out on to the field, waiting at home plate as Jeter rounded the bases. The symmetry was remarkable: With his second hit of the day, in his second at-bat, Jeter — No. 2 — became the second player in history to reach the milestone with a home run just as the clock struck 2 p.m.

Posada pushed the front of the mass of players, wrapping Jeter in a tight embrace after he crossed home plate. Mariano Rivera, the third remaining Yankee from the dynasty teams of 1990s, was right behind Posada and the receiving line of teammates was at the heart of an on-field celebration that lasted approximately five minutes. Even the relievers ran in from the bullpen.

“Unbelievable, unbelievable,” third baseman Alex Rodriguez said to Jeter.

The ovation from the crowd of 48,103 lingered, long and loud. Price walked off the mound to get a drink of water, and he waited by the Rays dugout, where several players — led by the former Yankee Johnny Damon — stood and cheered for Jeter, too.

Jeter accepted the congratulations, acknowledging Price and the Rays, as well as waving to the crowd. He then raised a fist toward the luxury suite where his family and friends, including his parents and his girlfriend, Minka Kelly, were seated. Kelly appeared to be blinking back tears.

When the cheers continued even longer, Jeter returned to the field for a curtain call, but, not surprisingly, he seemed to want to let the game continue. Finally, after Price had thrown a few warm-up pitches, it did.
But Jeter was not done. He doubled his next time up, in the fifth inning, then singled in the sixth and drove in the go-ahead run with another single in the eighth, matching a career-high with a 5 for 5 afternoon as the Yankees beat the Rays, 5-4.

Jeter, ever the team player, might try point to single in the eighth (which scored Eduardo Nunez) as the biggest hit of the day but the magnitude of his 3,000th hit was felt around New York as well as throughout baseball.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg released a statement congratulating Jeter, calling him “one of New York’s icons” and saying: “Perhaps above all else, Derek is someone who loves this city and who has a long history of giving back to the place and the people that helped make him the superstar he is. New York has a greater baseball tradition than any other city, but we’ve never had a player get all 3,000 hits in a New York uniform until today. Congratulations Derek — you’ve made all of New York City proud.”

Wade Boggs, a former teammate of Jeter’s, who in 1999 became the only other player to get his 3,000th hit on a home run as a member of the Rays, said: “It is a monumental achievement, and Derek has climbed the mountain. He’s reached that honor, where he can stake his flag in the mountain and call it his own.”

Boggs, a Hall of Famer, added, “It won’t be too long now before we are on the veranda in Cooperstown at the Otesaga Hotel celebrating his induction to the Hall of Fame.”

Click on the title of this for a nice piece on the guy who got #3000's ball. 

See you out there. Have some confidence...

Monday, July 4, 2011

Techno-Geek Ball Player

PRNewsFoto/Red Bull/Brian NevinsJimmy Rollins attempted the world record down Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.
We weren't home last weekend when Jimmy Rollins attempted to break the world record for the longest batted ball. Babe Ruth supposedly hit one 575 feet. (I thought Mantle had a shot reputed to travel 734 feet out of Yankee Stadium...but that was something I read when I was about 10 in the days before Google...or was it?). Estimated distances, of course, are different than tape measured distance, and that's what Jimmy was trying for.

Rollins was doing a promo for Red Bull. His longest competitive shot was 420 feet. Using a composite bat with a huge barrel and doing his swatting on Philly's Ben Franklin Parkway (my office is just two blocks further up the Parkway from where the photo is taken), his best shot ended up traveling 463 feet. Interesting...

When you read the literature, scientific studies show that non-wood bats give an extra 10% distance and speed over quality wood. Rollins extra 43 feet is pretty much right where it should have been. Apparently, though, they were also using juiced balls last weekend. I'm assuming Jimmy had warmed up with a few cans of Red Bull as well. Clearly, he needed a few more.

Ryan Howard has hit a 505 foot blast with wood. It's possible then that he could break the record with a magic bat, or at least come very close. Of course, were this trick tried back in the 90s by one of the juiced bombers (pick your name here, although I have to tell you I watched Barry Bonds take BP before a game once in Philly and his shots were barely clearing the wall) 700+ would have been something we could expect. Juiced balls, indeed!

All of this reeks of controversy, of course. Go here to see that Ruth and Mantle both don't even figure into the mix. More to the point, there should be a techno record and a natural one. For what it's worth, Ruth hit with hickory for much of his career. The bats weighed a ton and had little flex but amazing pop...though I've read the sweet spots were extremely small.

Mysteriously, Richie Sexson's 2006 out-of-the-park BP session with a composite bat is nowhere to be found on the Internet. I know I saw it once. Conspiracy? I think so!

Read The Inquirer's commentary on the Red Bull-Rollins-event here. Must have been fun! We were up in Vermont at my brother's wedding. That was fun too.

Anyway, see you out there tonight. First there's the ball game (Jesse Biddle on the mound!) then there's the fireworks. Happy 4th!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Baseball Is Not A Team Sport?

Yesterday afternoon I listened to about 2 minutes of the Howard Eskin and Ike Reese sports radio talkshow. They were debating Howard's statement that baseball is not a team sport. Howard and Ike both agreed that football is the "ultimate team sport." I tuned them out after they made fun of a caller who said something to the effect of: "Howard. Come on. What are you saying? There are nine men on the field."

Needless to say, I was rather perplexed. Eskin earns his living being a sports-ass-wiseguy, for sure, and he has never really made any bones about the fact that he is prejudiced toward football and hockey. It may well be that he wanted to get folks to call in, but if we take what he said at face value, he has showed us all (listeners anyway) what a cluck he really is.

Baseball is, indeed, a team sport. I just finished reading Jane Leavy's fabulous biography, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. The is not a normal bio. She intersperses biographic history chapters (full of quotes -- hundreds -- by people who knew Koufax) with chapters detailing each inning of Sandy's 1965 perfect game. These perfect game chapters are almost pitch-by-pitch at some times. Certainly, and most germaine to my argument here, these chapters show the team nature of baseball better than any long-winded argument I might make. No pitcher has ever thrown a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game, without support from his fielders. And no pitcher could ever be successful in any game without his catcher.

What Eskin is actually referring to when he talks about "team sports" is the fact that sports like football and hockey and basketball are played with every person on the field/ice/court in constant motion. Baseball is generally a sport where only two people are in motion definitively -- the pitcher and catcher. Everyone else is waiting -- most of the time. When a play happens, of course, every fielder moves, but only one person at a time is able to move with the ball. My wife Marion says that she loves the game because it's about taking turns. Batters take turns. Fielders take turns with the ball. And teams take turns on offense and defense.

Eskin says baseball is an individual sport -- that no player acts except unto himself. This is bizarre. Every young outfielder is taught to back up the infielders in front of them. Pitchers know that they can't succeed without quality defense behind them. Runners can't score (except on homers) unless people are moving them forward with hits, bunts, well-placed grounders and sac flies.

In fact, baseball is in many ways both a team sport and an individual sport, isn't it? Pitchers and catchers are the center of attention more than 90% of the time taking turns with the ball. Fielders glove and throw as individuals. Hitters get their hits or outs all on their own. But at the same time, as I've already pointed out, there is the team level of the game as well. As a Little League level coach, the most important lesson you impart to kids about playing is that no one stands around whenever the ball is put in play. Everyone has a job to do. I've won more than my fair share of neighborhood league championships (correction: my teams have won their fair shares) because of this lesson. Backing up grounders and throws; covering bags in front of runners and behind them; throwing to the cutoff man; etc. is what learning the game is all about.

The sacrifice, of course, is the greatest act of team play. Giving yourself up to move a runner or to allow the guy on third to score by hitting to the right side of the infield or flying out to deep center is a true act of selflessness. And the game doesn't get any more interesting than on bunt plays.

In many ways, the struggle that Koufax has always had as a player seems to me to be the conflict between being considered the greatest pitcher of all-time (his last 5.5 years were truly, truly remarkable -- go here if you don't understand why some of us believe Koufax should get such consideration -- look at those last two years, esp the CG column...that's Complete Games) and knowing that the game is a team sport and that none of his accolades mean anything without acknowledgement of the players that made up his Dodger team all those years. He was an enigma to journalists and fans alike. He seemed to despise the limelight and the focus on him as an individual. Perhaps that is too simple a conclusion. Sandy Koufax is an intelligent, sensitive, deep thinking man. He had to understand this weird juxtaposition of the individual in the game and the team. The more people would mob him and try to take advantage of his star power, the more it must have just weirded him out that they didn't understand how connected his success was to his teammates -- and to the artistry of the game itself, and the dedicated craftsmanship it requires.

So, to me Howard Eskin is just wrong. Yes, baseball can be viewed as a strange game of individual accomplishment (and failure), but it is also an intricate and subtle example of a team sport in the truest, most artistic sense of the term. In fact, I personally would go one step further and suggest because of this, because it is possible to think of the game as nothing but an opportunity to be an individual, the team nature of the game makes it the ultimate team sport.

So what has this got to do with wood bats? Quite simply, because non-wood super bats allow players to get hits they shouldn't, they cheapen the team play aspect of the game. I've written here endlessly about how fun it is to watch young players "make the play" in wood games. And how pitiful it is to watch pop up home runs and jam shot singles that bloop over a corner infielder's head when someone is swinging a $400 magic bat. The very argument made by Little League in support of composite bats is that wood makes the game harder for hitters. But hitting with wood also makes it a better team sport since fielding is respected as much as hitting. Enough said.

Read Jane Leavy's Sandy Koufax. It's quite an intriguing and informative book. You'll never think of September 9th the same way again.

See you out there. Lefty's rule!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Harper Doing Well with Wood, But...

Going to minor league games this year, I've had the chance to see Bryce Harper at the plate several times. He is definitely a hungry hitter and can seriously put the full barrel on the ball. However, he doesn't yet have a good sense of baseball etiquette, and inevitably, if you ask me, that points to a kid who may still not understand the concept of being cool and confident.

Earlier this week is a case in point. Harper hit a whopper. It was a home game so the announcer really got into the shot and did the old "Going? Going! Gone!" routine while the kid stood admiring his dinger. This didn't make the pitcher happy, who had a few words for Harper as he began his trot. Finally, rounding third, Harper mimed a kiss at the pitcher as he trotted towards home plate. 

Some might think this funny or a bit of a shake for what is otherwise the doldrums of minor league ball. To me, there really isn't anything I should need to say except that if this is what we're going to see out of this kid it is a sad day for baseball and an even sadder day for the Nationals. And the baseball gods will sort it all out...

You can read about the whole scene in much more detail right here at Helium News. They've got some great links on the page to other stuff on the kid. I thought about posting the video, but I'm not going to give Harper any more attention than the TV does drunk, naked fans on the field.

One last thing: Harper's growing (grown?) a mustache. I really hope this isn't a trend in baseball...or anywhere else (although I think I'm wrong). I guess that will have you checking out the video. You can't win in this new media world can you? Shoot me if I ever grow another mustache. Please...

See you out there...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of Things Gone By

The Friday night workout crew.
Read these thoughts I had last year as the draft approached and I was preparing for my second son to go out there into the world to see what he could find.

I drive on these nights, these long Friday nights of tending to my son, and let my heart drift out seeking the future, wondering what is actually going to happen to this kid. It is often past 10:00 as we leave the highway and coast down the exit ramp toward Spring Mill Road which is a main thoroughfare through the suburbs back into northwest Philadelphia. All is calm and quiet, somehow, as we re-enter our little world of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. 

I’ve made it a habit of not turning on the radio while we do these trips. The three (or four) of us chat and deliberate. Usually by the time we are on Spring Mill Road gently navigating through stoplights and intersections, channeling along next to split level ranches and schools and parks, we are speaking quietly of the future, pondering Danny’s possibilities, Julya’s year next year with Jesse off somewhere, and Jesse’s chances in the draft. It is like we are observing the cover of a book with a beautiful illustration of a landscape filled with gentle, warm light and open roads and vistas of possibility. 

April 10, 2011
My core feels that everything will be all right for all three of these young people -- for all of Jesse's friends, in fact. I am filled with love for all of them. But I am filled with a sense of dread, too, and a weird kind of frustration. Regardless of the final outcome, the book we have been reading together is coming to an end. When I let myself think about it, I realize that I don’t want this to end in so many ways; I don’t want an outcome. I just want to keep on trying, continuing these drives, and our 90-minute training sessions with The Chucks, the staccato conversations with Danny between pitches, the sweet talks with Julya about how frustrating it is not to know what’s going to happen between her and her young baseball star boy friend. I want to just drive in the darkness and know that that book with its stunning cover is out there, and that my son is next to me, and that my love is still some use to him, and that he will stay innocent and hopeful by my side, and that his frustrations will never be truly painful because there is always tomorrow, and tomorrow will be full of infinite possibility and promise and all the roads to success are still open and still calling. 

If you have a young person playing ball, make sure to go watch them all you can. Be aware, while you sit in the stands, of how much you love them, and understand that these days will come to an end. The more you love them as they play, the more you will remember, and life may still feel sweet and promising whenever you see kids out on a ball field ... or pros even under the lights.

See you out there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Pickup Game Dilemma

The Sandlot gang, from the movie...
I just stumbled upon a website advocating the return of sandlot (or pickup) baseball. They even offer a numbered set of instructions on how to organize a sandlot game.

You hear the complaint a lot these days: "Kids don't play pickup games anymore. It's a different world. No wonder baseball is losing fans and there aren't as many talented players anymore."

There's no doubt all of this is true. But it really is a different world. Pickup baseball was a game for the 8 - 12 set back in the first six decades of the the 20th century.

All summer long we'd play every morning and afternoon before our organized teams had games in the evening. We were lucky. We had a field in a special private park that all the families in the neighborhood belonged to. Sometimes we'd get on our bikes or even walk to fields in our part of town to face off against other rag tag neighborhood teams. It was all spur of the moment, completely unorganized, and improvisational.

I'm not sure what the connection is between my love of the game and all those hours playing baseball until I was 13. I wonder in fact how much of my desire to play every day was a function of my love of the game and how much is the other way around. I know my three sons love the game more than I ever did and they hardly ever played pickup games as kids -- and all three are better at the game than anyone I ever knew growing up.

Conor Biddle at about 2
Something is lost, no doubt, because kids don't play the game that way anymore. A great deal is lost actually. But I'm not writing this to give a sermon on the benefits of free play. Major League Baseball has just announced a new initiative called "MLB is Always Epic." This program comes as a result of several studies indicating a reduction in participation by youth in the game. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, kids from 7 to 17 playing the game fell in numbers by 24% from 2000 - 2009. Football and ice hockey have increased their numbers dramatically. See the full MLB multi-media site here.

The reasons for this are obvious. More sports are played year round -- especially soccer and basketball. There are fewer baseball fields that kids have easy access to (think suburban sprawl where everything is drivable and not walkable). And the proliferation of media opportunities (from games to movies to FaceBook) certainly absorbs kids in ways impossible to imagine back there in 1968. (As an aside here, I wonder what the relationship between baseball video games and actually wanting to play baseball is).

Sam Biddle as a high school player
At the same time, baseball is a game of skill. It takes years to get good even as a pro. And in many ways it was a game that fathers taught their sons (and daughters, especially beginning the 1970s). My sons played the game in the backyard with me.

One of the greatest moments of my early days as a father was a Saturday afternoon at our neighborhood field with my 11-year-old son, Sam. We'd been playing catch for three or four years, but I'd had to baby the ball and ignore the fact that he struggled to consistently snag the ball with his mitt. That day was the first day I could just uncork and let the ball fly. On the other side of things, it was also the first time Sam understood he could the same thing back to me. We stood in a little section of the field with games going on in both corners just burning the ball at each other; practicing trick pitches; playing with our arm angles; throwing the ball on the run. (The next day my arm was killing me). That Saturday afternoon hour I was drawn back to the days I used to do the same thing with my brother and my father after dinner in our backyard. And, as the father of three, I have been so fortunate to do the same thing for the past 10 years with each boy as he got his baseball wings...and then on into his high school career.

But I don't have many friends who do the same with their kids. They love to go to games, even coach. They might occasionally play a little catch with Joey or Suzy, but for the most part, they just don't seem to find it in themselves to make the experience happen regularly. They depend on coaches, it seems, to teach their kids to play. Many of them are even all too happy to pay teachers at special baseball academies.

Now, I must admit that I didn't play catch with my dad every night every summer for five years. I imagine there were several days in a row for a week or two and then nothing for a year until we played again. But there was something important that happened when we played. I think it was the beginning of that approval thing, the mature version of it. There was a very interesting connection that seems like it was being transferred through the baseball going back and forth between us. I wanted to get better at the game to play with my friends, but I also knew in watching my dad how good you could get if you just kept maturing. And my dad had learned to play the game from his dad -- in sandlots and backyards, too, I'm sure.

My dad's job there was to start something up. He didn't need to finish it. There is, of course, no finishing up of baseball. I am sure I'm still playing with him in my dreams every night. I know my sons will play with me in their hearts when they are older and I am too. But I wonder about other kids. Some of my sons' friends have received the same inculcation (if I can use that term) from their dads for basketball or tennis or squash. But I wonder if it's the same thing. It all begins just with playing catch. Play catch with your dad at the right time in your life and the world opens up forever.

Check out a Wall Street Journal article on the supposed decline of interest in baseball here.

See you on the field! Bring the lumber and your mitt and a ball if you got one.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Minor League Spring Training Underway

Today, minor league players everywhere in grapefruit and cactus country are reporting to their respective training complexes for physicals, blood tests, and then their first true workouts for 2011. Some of these players, champing at the bit since October when they flew home from fall instructional league, have been hovering around their teams' training grounds for the past few weeks (or longer), working out some, but just waiting for today to come.

A few of these guys are tomorrow's stars. Some -- most -- are never going to make it. All of them get paid little more than $1,000 a month (before taxes, room and board are taken out) from April through August. Every one of them wants to be a big leaguer. Some have the talent but don't understand how hard it is to make it all the way. Others don't quite have what it takes, but hang on and struggle at all cost to make it. There are also guys in the mix who will work hard, stay focused, and continue to develop the talent that got them drafted and signed. Watching this play out is highly recommended. Every one of these guys is damned good...some are just going to figure out how to keep getting better and better.

Getting used to wood...and the sun.
It is confounding that so many people don't pay attention to minor league baseball. Every fan who goes to Florida and Arizona to watch spring training games for their favorite major league team also has the opportunity to check the back fields this March where they can see young players facing off and still learning how to play the game the right way. The youngest of these guys are still trying to get used to hitting with wood. Pitchers are finally getting a chance to try out the change-up they were never allowed to throw in college or high school. For the first time in their lives players get to spend everyday, all day working on fielding, base running, and throwing.

Sometimes the view is limited.
As the father of a pitcher, one of my favorite things to do is watch pitchers take fielding practice -- PFP. 50 - 100 reps a day fielding comebackers and bunts, throwing to first, spinning to fire a shot to second, flipping a gloved dribbler home, this is what being a pro is all about. You get to watch the big boys do this in February, but watching the young guys in March is more entertaining because they are still students and beginners. They learn, slowly, that it takes more than natural ability to perform consistently. Baseball is about skill. Fielding is a special kind of dance. Some guys figure this out. Others don't.

Brooklyn, N.Y. native Dellin Betances (Charlie Niebergall/AP)

So, if you're heading out for a long spring vacation to watch the Dodgers or the Mets or the Blue Jays under the warm sun of early spring, make sure you spend time on the back fields watching the youngsters learning the ropes. Even the most cocky of them is humble and honest when he's on the field trying to figure out how to move to the next level. You may get to chat a little with him or at least listen to him chatting with teammates. The joy they feel can be infectious. If you ask them for an autograph, they'll be honored. Some of them are going to have long, illustrious careers. Most won't, but they're all pros and they've all figured out that baseball is worth their sweat and their love.

See you out there.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spring Training Day One

Spring training began today with pitchers and catchers reporting throughout Florida and Arizona (the Grapefruit and Cactus circuits, respectively). This is my first time to attend. I can safely say nothing happened. I was out there for two hours in the morning and then an hour and a half this afternoon.

I saw Cliff Lee and Ryan Madsen doing a short long-toss session around 10:30 this morning and a couple players running steps inside Bright House Field, but otherwise no one showed up for any of us to view (although Jesse Biddle and Brody Colvin showed up in Brody's white pickup truck to do a bit of throwing on one of the Carpenter Complex fields and were turned away).

What I did see, however, were interesting fans being...somewhat hilarious. I got to Richie Ashburn Field just before 10:00. There were a handful of fans peering through fences to see if any players might show up on the field. And then there was the group of mid-twenties yahoos dressed in Phillies garb to the nines, a bleacher level lined with brown dead soldier beer bottles. All five were chugging away on what had to be their third or fourth brews, yelping loudly, bragging about running over turtles and stomping on lizards at their hotel.

A security guard came over and told them in no uncertain terms that they were not allowed to have beer on the property. Actual surprise and dis-belief by the kids, then they packed up and galumphed out to the parking lot where they attempted to perform a quick, makeshift tailgate party...and were again, gently nudged off the property.

What I liked most was that here you had edgy, lost Philadelphians doing what they thought was just fine (drinking massive quantities of beer out in the open at 10:00 AM on a Sunday morning in front of several families with young kids) and we also had security guards gently and matter of factly shooing them away. Not a hint of disgust, anger, or hostility coming from these wise and gentle men. Not even incredulity or surprise (I'm sure they've seen it time and time again over the years). It was goofy and a reminder that I might have driven 1,018 miles south of Philadelphia but that Philly still lives where ever I go, but it was also a very intelligent and wise moment of grace by these men facing down these fools.

I wish I'd had enough Philly in me to take a picture. It was truly funny and sweet at the same time.

Autograph Seekers, waiting...
As soon as Lee and Madsen finished throwing, one of the dads in the group started yelling across the field, "Cliff! Ryan! Are you signing today?" The guy didn't get that he needed to be standing up at the top of the field near the player's parking lot waiting for autographs. "Come on! Cliff? Ryan? Are you guys signing?" He picked up his kid and pointed to him then held up a ball. I was actually more offended by this behavior (a Philly transplant by the way) than the beer drinking fluffheads.

All of this struck me. I was there because I love the game and because I love this team and because this team loves Jesse Biddle. I love baseball more than anything else in life. Everyone was gone by 10:45 but I sat there on those bleachers just staring at the empty fields, feeling the sun on my face and the wind coming out of the east rustle my hair and I felt so content and quiet.

Monday morning's crowd got an eye full. 
But what was it that so enveloped autograph hounds and party animals alike to show up and be so frivolously demonstrative? What do people need out of this behavior and this frenzied buzz of exuberance that they could let themselves be so doggedly willing to come so close to the line over which is self-debasement? I'm not asking out of a sense of superiority or as if I'm the adult in the game of baseball. I'm not an adult, for sure. But the dedication to collecting or to being drunk off your ass at 10:00 on a Sunday morning and there for the start of yet another season for your team... ? Wow. Amazing.

See you out there bright and early tomorrow morning. Wear sunscreen.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

End of Composite Bat Offenses?

New performance standards for non-wood bats are now in effect in the NCAA. These same rules will have an impact on high school players beginning in 2012.  Baseball America's fabulous little 32-page online publication called Bat Guide came out in November and there's no better resource. It's all there. You couldn't ask for anything more comprehensive and intelligent.

The new operating term is Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR). The old Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) just wasn't a good enough test for high-tech, hollow composite super bats. The NCAA knew they had a problem and outlawed these bats in 2009 when it became clear that over time they got hotter and that, in fact, players had learned how to "roll" their bats mechanically to break down the interior support systems that limited the trampoline effect. 

With the rolling problem in mind, bats must now also pass a test called the Accelerated Break-in (ABI) test. Go here to the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts - Lowell website for more on both the BBCOR and the ABI tests.

The old BESR was supposed to limit the speed of the ball coming off a bat to no more than 97 mph. But with break-in and rolling, coaches were seeing balls travel 105 - 110 mph regularly. Not a huge difference -- maybe 5% or so, but still, when milliseconds and inches count, far too much power for the safety of fielders and pitchers. 

Here's the most salient points to all these changes in a nutshell:

1. All NCAA players must switch to the BBCOR standards for composite bats this year. Composite bats, in theory, will now be no different than wood ones (caution: we've heard this before).

2. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has decided to allow a one year grace period for these changes. The old BESR standard bats will still be legal in 2011. Come 2012, though, high school players too will need to use BBCOR standardized bats. See the NFHS website for a list of bats acceptable this year only.

3. If you're a young hitter and you're interested in playing with the big boys, it's time to upgrade your bat. Don't wait for 2012. When it's cold out, use wood (of course), but if you feel like you need to use metal, swing a new BBCOR and understand that hitting is not about the bat but the hitter.

Here's a good place to start looking for the new bats online:

Why does this matter? For starters, the new performance standards for composite material bats in college have dramatically reduced the oomph that the old super bats had. In a September Baseball America article, "Knock on Wood," Augie Garrido (Texas Longhorns) is quoted as saying: "..we might have hit 15 or 20 balls out in batting practice before, we're now hitting five or six balls out..." See this video from the North Texas Baseball Academy for a good synopsis of the rules.

It's very likely then that not only will home runs diminish in NCAA baseball, but fielding will again become a premium in the game...and speed...and pitching. Nice, huh? It is, if you like baseball...

Implications for Amateur Baseball?
To me there are two interesting outcomes to all of this so far. The first is that the NCAA has still not made any real effort to re-examine going back to wood bats. Changes were supposedly made to bat standards in the early 2000s that fixed the super bat problem. Very possibly the industry (and its marketing directors) figured out, slowly, how to get around the problem by engineering bats that would pass initial tests and then get hotter over time. Perhaps this wasn't wholly intentional. Or perhaps, like steroids, when one company began the process everyone else realized they needed to join in or lose out. It would be nice to see -- when the industry slowly works its way around these new rules (because it probably will) -- the NCAA at least consider moving to some version of wood bats (I'm going to post something here shortly on a number of new wood-based bats that are less prone to breakage).

The other point that sticks out is that there is more than a tacit admission by coaches who have a problem with these changes that the "nuclear sticks" of old (2009 and before) were indeed blessed with powers that made the offensive game truly offensive (to many of us). While it seems like the majority of college and high school coaches understand and agree that hot bats pollute the game, there are a number of holdouts (I've chosen not to identify them, but if you do some research online you'll be able to track many of them down) who -- legitimately concerned about the popularity of college baseball -- point out that there's a chance fans will lose interest in the game because there aren't enough long balls.

I suppose it all really remains to be seen -- and Little League Baseball should take note of this -- are home runs exciting because there are so many of them, or because they are rare and exemplify profound skill?

And should we just tell pitchers when they go out there: "Tough luck, kid. You know as well as anyone that we want to see as many hits as possible. If it's going to increase the chances that you get a serious injury -- or die -- at least you're helping out with ticket sales." The NCAA and NFHS have done something very intelligent and revolutionary here. Let's hope the bat industry has learned it's lesson. Next time around, I'm predicting the only real solution is returning to wood.

See you out on the field real soon. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Big Leaguer in the Making...note wood bats


This post is a draft of a video that Conor Biddle, Jesse's brother, is working on. Intelligent comments and critiques are welcome. Quality of this image is reduced while Conor continues to perfect his work. Sorry...