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!

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