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!