Archive for Baseball

Baseball Rules — 2019

To those who think baseball is dull
and want to speed up the game:
“Tell them two things:
First, explain the planning, strategizing,
calculating, and deception
that takes place before every pitch.
Then, quote Hall-of-Fame announcer Red Barber
— ‘Baseball is dull only to dull minds.’ ”

Click here to download a PDF of this post:ConVivio_baseball_rules_Mar2019

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It’s the middle of March, and right now I am deeply embroiled in Golden State Warriors’ basketball.  The NBA playoffs are fast approaching and there is much at stake. Heck, there’s an important game tonight (aren’t they all?). BUT the sun is shining this week and baseball is in the air.  So, there are some things we must discuss.

Disclaimer: As I’ve written before, I was a basketball player, not much of a baseball player.  Basketball was the only sport I was any good at, but I grew up loving baseball — I watched it ever since 1961 when my brother-in-law Joe Faletti took me and my nephews to my first Giants’ game at Candlestick Park.  I listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons on the radio and I lived and died by the fortunes of My Giants.  Baseball mattered to a kid growing up in the 1950s/60s in Antioch, CA.  [Click here for my personal, brief playground baseball history.].

While I was not a baseball player in the 1960s, I read everything I could get my hands on about baseball heroes ancient and current and came to understand that much about baseball had not changed in a very long time and that was the way it was s‘posed to be.  THAT meant that the achievements of ancient players I read about — Babe Ruth, Bobby Thompson — were just as important as, and comparable to, those of the heroes of my youth— Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and the rest of My Giants — and those of today’s 21st-century Giants — Buster Posey, Madison Bumgardner.  It also meant that the strategies of baseball managers — from Leo Durocher to Alvin Dark to Bruce Bochy — didn’t change either.  

Of course, I learned early that in baseball, as with any sport, the rules mattered.  I needed to know the rules inside and out if I hoped to have intelligent conversations about baseball with other kids and adults — or if I was going to follow what I was hearing on the radio. 

Last year at this time, I wrote about My Giants and it was mostly paying homage to baseball memories (click here to take a look at that one: Baseball 2018).

So, what is this Giants fan thinking about, here in March of 2019?

Baseball Rules

Baseball has two kinds of rules: unwritten rules and written rules.

The Unwritten Rules of Baseball

The unwritten rules of baseball must NEVER be violated. There are 29 of them.  I will offer these six to serve as examples:

Unwritten baseball rule #2:  Thou shall not say the words “No hitter” in the midst of a no hitter.  The penalty for violating this rule is that a no hitter will not happen.

Unwritten baseball rule #5. Do not make the first or third out in an inning at third base.  You’re already in scoring position at second; don’t be greedy.

Unwritten baseball rule #11. Do not “show up” the other team or a player.  This means don’t admire a home run you have hit or gesture happily after striking someone out.  Act like you’ve done it before and you expected it.  Otherwise, bad things will happen.

Unwritten baseball rule #18. Stealing signs is allowed, if you don’t get caught. BUT, do not peek at the catcher’s signs while you are hitting.  If you do, the next pitch will be aimed at your head.

Unwritten baseball rule #23. A pitcher that is getting pulled from the game must always HAND the ball to the manager while he waits for him ON the mound.  This rule has been violated occasionally by players who had short careers in the major leagues.

Unwritten baseball rule #27.  Do not step on the chalk lines as you walk on or off the field.  Bad things will happen if you do.

These “rules” have been in force for the better part of 150 years and do not change.  Period. 

The Written Rules of Baseball

OK, now we get to the REAL issues that loom over major league baseball today.  As reported recently in the NYT and the SF Chron, a number of dramatic rule changes have been swirling around Major League Baseball (I tried to avoid adding the phrase ‘like a plague of locusts’).  To most of us who grew up with baseball as an everlasting, never-changing presence in our lives, these suggestions have been dismissed as meaningless meanderings of deranged minds.  BUT, these are starting to get serious — SO SERIOUS in fact, that the independent minor league Atlantic League will be testing some of the proposed rules this coming season.  This ‘very minor’ league has eight teams spread across the country from New York to Texas.  Below is a quick summary of some of the new rules they will be trying out and a humble assessment of them. 

Three-batter minimum: Once a relief pitcher enters a game, he must face at least three batters, unless the half-inning comes to an end.  If you’re the manager under this rule, you won’t be allowed to bring in a particular pitcher to pitch to one particular hitter and then pull him out.
— According to Bruce Jenkins, MLB is considering implementing this rule in 2020, even if the players union protests. 
— In My Humble Opinion (IMHO): this is crazy. 

Extra-inning “tiebreaker”: To prevent really long extra-inning games, each extra half-inning would begin with a runner on second base.  According to Bruce Jenkins: “… no chance.”
— IMHO: This is pure evil.  I still remember listening to my transistor radio lying in bed late into the night of July 2, 1963.  Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves and Juan Marichal of the SF Giants BOTH pitched 16 shutout innings tied 0-0 until Willie Mays came up in the bottom of the 16th and hit one into the left field stands to win 1-0.  Historic games like this should not be made unlikely with silly rules like this one.

Banning the shift: This rule would require that two infielders be stationed on each side of the second-base bag when the pitch is released — otherwise, a ball is called.
—  Once again, it takes a strategic option away from a manager and it deprives us all of the possibility of seeing a powerful pull hitter try to lay down a surprise bunt (in my memory McCovey tried this at least once). MLB plans to consider this one for the 2020 season.
— IMHO: NO!  Managers should be able to position their defense anywhere they think would be to their advantage.  If they try something unusual and get burned — that will be entertaining.

Mound visits eliminated: That’s right, no visits by a catcher, infielder or manager unless a pitching change happens.
— MLB reduced the number of visits and may drop it to four for 2020.  Some want visits ended.
— IMHO: There are good tactical reasons for having strategic discussions in key situations, even to stall for time while a pitcher warms up in the bullpen.  I say don’t limit visits any further.  Adding some thought and discussion to the game is a good thing — and what’s your hurry?

“No Pitch” intentional walks: What about the idea of intentionally walking a batter by simply waving him to first base?  Over the years there have been times when a runner advanced because an intentional ball got away from the catcher — in some cases a runner has scored from third.
— IMHO: I don’t think it is an improvement to remove an opportunity for players to make a mistake with consequences.  That’s a key part of the game. I say make them throw the pitches. 

Pitch clocks: For years, the Official Baseball Rules requires that the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives it, if the batter is in the box.  MLB could simply enforce the existing rule, but the players hate it. 
— IMHO: as my Italian ancestors used to say “Fuhgeddabowdit.”

Reduced time between innings:  The Atlantic League will be cutting commercial time from 2:05 to 1:45.  MLB is reducing the time from 2:20 to 2:00 in national telecasts. 
— IMHO: I don’t care about this one, since there are easy technical work-rounds for television. 

The mound moved back: The mound has been 60 feet, six inches from home plate since 1893
— the Atlantic League is going to move it back two feet to 62 feet, six inches.  The idea is to cut down on the increasing number of strikeouts — a good thing — which it is likely to do. 
— IMHO: this is outrageous and the second-worst rule-change idea I have heard.  This would change everything and make all of our historic standards and records meaningless.  Fortunately, MLB doesn’t seem to be interested in it — but it’s early.  You should worry.

Robot umpires:   This one is the single worst rule-change idea I have heard.  While proposals for implementation of this plan are not as horrific as the name suggests, in this plan, balls and strikes will be called digitally and relayed to a human umpire; but fortunately, MLB does not appear to be seriously interested.  
— IMHO:   Absolutely NOT!  If there’s one idea that has always — rightfully — dominated the game of baseball it is that it is a human endeavor built entirely on the reality that outcomes on the field will be determined by the imperfection of the participants at a particular moment.  Routine plays will happen as they should; great plays will be noted as grand surprises; and mistakes will be something we must live with.  I believe this ”rule” must always also apply to the performance of umpires.  If the decision made on the field is an error, we should be stuck with it, just as we are stuck with it when an outfielder throws to the wrong base or a base runner misses a bag.

So, What’s The Hurry?
So, in summary, I will continue to be skeptical of any proposed rule change that is intended to “speed up the game.”  All my life, baseball has been called “Our National Pastime.”  That name implies that it should be a pleasant way to PASS the time, not to rush through it or shorten it.  Sitting in the stands at the ballpark on an afternoon or evening was always intended to be a leisurely time, a time to allow the mind to wander a bit. 
And so, IMHO, that is the way it must remain.

Baseball 2018

There are only two seasons:
Winter and Baseball.”
         — Bil Veeck

“Baseball is ninety percent mental
and the other half is physical”
— Yogi Berra


Click here to download a PDF of this post:  ConVivio_baseball_Feb2018_Final


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Here in February, the day Lou Seal shows up at my granddaughter’s school in San Francisco, in full uniform, you KNOW baseball is just around the corner.  Why did he appear at Quinn’s school?  Was it to introduce young people to the magic of baseball and the optimism that spring training embodies? The timing is clear: Spring Training is about to begin and, once again, it’s magic.  All you have to do is say the words “Spring Training” and serious baseball fans can feel the magic.

Disclaimer: I was a basketball player.  It was the only sport I was any good at, but I grew up loving baseball — I watched it ever since 1961 when my brother-in-law Joe Faletti took me and my nephews to my first Giants’ game at Candlestick Park;  I listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons describe it on the radio; I lived and died by the fortunes of My Giants.  Baseball mattered to a kid growing up in the 1950s/60s in Antioch, CA.  It became personal. [Click here for my personal, brief baseball history.]

In baseball, the approach of Spring Training is a hopeful time — no scores yet, no losses, no strikeouts or disappointments.  Even after My Giants’ dreadful 2017 season (we’re not gonna talk about that) the slate is clean and all things are possible.  In 2016, my son Matt and his wife Nou took Gretta and me to our first Spring Training in Arizona.  It was a sweet gift.  [Click here for that story]  Now I grant you, today I am deeply involved in the Warriors’ effort to win another NBA championship.  That’s a very big deal.  But baseball is something more.
So, what is this Giants fan thinking about here in February, 2018?

To get us ready, let’s listen to some (mostly) REAL baseball people who have gone before us:

  • George Will:  “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.”
  • Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones from “Field of Dreams”): “And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.  They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. “
  • Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham:  “Well, you know I … I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big-league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish.”
  • Ted Williams:  “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”
  • Gerald R. Ford:  “I watch a lot of baseball on the radio.”
  • Jim Bouton:  “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and, in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

It’s About Memories

It turns out that a lifetime of baseball is a lifetime of memories.  If you’I bet you have plenty of your own.  As a kid standing in the right field bleachers at Candlestick Park during batting practice, I remember when Willie Stargel of the visiting Pittsburg Pirates hit a ball over the right field fence into a gaggle of kids hoping to snatch the ball.  After the ball bounced off the concrete, I remember seeing a hand reach up out of the bunch and grab the ball.  What a surprise to learn that hand belonged to my nephew Steve Faletti, who walked away with the baseball.  For me that same day, what kind of thrill was it to stand behind the centerfield fence about twenty feet from the greatest player of all time: Willie Mays?

So many memories followed that one.



On the evening of July 2nd, 1963, I finished my homework listening to a pitching duel between Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves and Juan Marichal of My Giants on the “leather radio” my dad had given me.  By the time I needed to go to bed the score was 0-0 starting the ninth inning.




I couldn’t turn it off with that score, so I snuck my transistor radio under the pillow and decided to hear the end of the game in bed.  Twenty-five-year-old Juan Marichal came out and continued his shutout in the tenth and, to some surprise, forty-two-year-old Warren Spahn did the same. Turned out that the dual shutout continued until, with my transistor radio still in my ear, Willie Mays hit a walk-off home run into the late-night darkness in the bottom of the 16th inning. The next morning the SF Chronicle quoted a dejected Spahn as saying, “I threw him a screwball and it just hung there, it didn’t do a damn thing.” When asked if he was surprised that is manager kept him in the game so long, Spahn growled “If that kid can pitch 16 innings, I sure as hell can.”


OK, fast forward 54 years to May 12th, 2017 — 25-year-old Giant catcher Buster Posey comes up to bat, this time at AT&T Park, in the bottom of the 17th inning against the Reds. Same story —  Buster hit a similar walk-off home run over a different left-field fence. Willie (age 86) and Buster (25) got to talk about it (below). [Read the story.]  On this night, however, nobody pitched a complete game — alas, such is the nature of the game here in the 21stcentury.










The Nuschler
Another Giant favorite, Will Clark, was known as “Will the Thrill” from his days playing high-school ball in Louisiana.   He lived up to that name in his first major-league at-bat hitting a home run off Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan in 1986.  He went on to hit 35 homers in 1987, leading his (and My) Giants to the playoffs for the first time since 1971.  But my enduring memory came at the end of the 1989 NL playoffs when he hit the ball up the middle to drive in the game-winning runs sending them (us) to the World Series. But, that series turned out, well … we’re not gonna talk about that.
But I digress.  Where was I?  Oh, yes …




The Nuschler” (from his actual middle name) is the name given to Clark’s “Game Face” during his rookie year with the Giants, a face described by a teammate as a combination of confidence, satisfaction, arrogance, and just plain oblivion.”




Giant Plans to Make New Memories in 2018
A whole bunch for things need to go right for my team to be a playoff contender this season.  Let’s face it, last year (64-98) is a tough experience to build on (we’re not gonna talk about that).  But, in the spirit of the ‘new beginning’ that Spring Training always promises, there is hope.

Thing One — Pitching: Madison Bumgarner.  He needs to pitch well enough to be in the running for the Cy Young Award.  He needs to start 30 games and My Giants need to win more than 20 of those to be contenders.   Period.  Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija can certainly be expected to improve as are Chris Stratton and Ty Blach to round out the starting staff with Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez lurking in the wings.  (There has been recent talk about a return of Tim Lincecum, but that’s still just talk.)  So, no question the pitching staff must step up and there’s no reason to doubt that possibility.  It’s Spring Training, right?)

Thing Two — Offense:  IF Bumgarner and the rest of the pitching staff come through as we hope, we’re going to need to score more runs than last year, right?  I’m looking for Jarrett Parker to step forward and improve on his .247 average and 23 RBIs.  He can do better than that.  We know that Hunter Pence is capable of improving on his 2017 numbers (.260, 67 RBI) as is “The Panda” (.220, 32 RBI).  The Brandons can be expected to top last year’s stats (Crawford: .250, 77 RBI, 14 HR; Belt: .241, 15 RBI, 18 HR).  Joe Panik can at least repeat his numbers (.288, 53 RBI, 10 HR). No need to worry about Buster Posey — we can count on at least his .320, 67 RBI, 12 HR numbers from 2017; and his handling of the pitching staff will, of course, be crucial.

Trade rumors are still circling, but as of Monday morning, rumors about Panik, Chris Shaw, and Tyler Beede seem to be quashed.  So, it looks like Panik (and his bat) will be starting at second base for the Giants.  According to the Chron, he is (and we are) happy about that.

The Giants signed two former Pirates — Outfielder Andrew McCutcheon and LH pitcher Tony Watson — among several players added this month.  They also announced 28 non-roster invitees to Training Camp and, as in the past, some pleasant surprises may emerge from that list.

Thing Three — Groan-Ups Meddling with the Rules:  Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced on Monday that new rules are in place to speed up the pace of MLB games this season.  The plan is to limit trips to the mound (six per game by coaches and players), reduce the time allotted for pitching changes, and shorten the breaks between innings (by five seconds).  You won’t believe the specific times and circumstances listed in the new rules (and, believe me, you don’t want to know).  But, resisting this rising tide of time-slicing, the players union rejected the idea of a 20-second pitch clock.  Whew.

And what problem are they trying to solve?   Last year’s games averaged 4½ minutes longer than 2016.  Here is my editorial comment à à  à I think this effort to speed up the game is … well … bull-babble (did I make up a new word?).  The game was intended to be slow-paced and thoughtful.  These rule changes and the attempt to gain back that 4 ½ minutes are ridiculous.

So, there!

Thing Four — What Does Vegas Say?:   Odds makers have established an early favorite to win the 2018 World Series.  Before I tell you their prognostication, let me tell you an important part of my upbringing.  You may be surprised to hear that I grew up having two favorite baseball teams:
1. The San Francisco Giants
2. Any team that happens to be playing against the LA Dodgers on any particular day.

With that in mind, who does Las Vegas predict will win the World Series in 2018?
We’re not gonna talk about that!

P.S.  And, of course, this one — technically in my lifetime — is still my favorite memory:


Watch Bobby Thompson’s
“Shot heard round the world,” in 1951
The New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers
to advance to the World Series.
(Yes, the voice is Russ Hodges)





And one final quote, from Yogi Berra: “It’s fun; baseball’s fun.”

We could all use more of that fun, d’ya think?

Talkin’ Baseball … Math

“Using wrong measurements has
resulted in bad decisions on contracts,
playing time, trades, and draft picks.”

“It’s led to picking the wrong players
for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year
and even obvious stuff like the Hall of Fame.”
“It drives conversations about teams
and players right off the cliff.”
— Keith Law,
from his new book “Smart Baseball”


Click here to download a PDF of this article:  ConVivio_Baseball_math
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Getting Baseball Wrong: By the Numbers

Baseball writer Keith Law has written an unusual book about the way we evaluate baseball players and teams — something we’ve all been doing since we were kids.  He makes a case that we’ve been getting it wrong throughout the history of baseball.  Let’s consider his observations.

When I saw his book, “Smart Baseball,” on the library’s ‘New Books’ shelf, I thought it was about something else — you know, how to PLAY baseball smarter.  I thought it might be useful for talking about baseball with my grandchildren.  But it’s about something else that all fans do: comparing players and teams during the season and, a tougher task, comparing today’s players and teams with those of the past.  We use statistics; and it affects a lot of baseball judgments.

First, how DO we evaluate and compare hitters?  

Most of us have known these rules since we were kids.
1.  We evaluate hitters by their batting averages, runs batted in, and slugging percentage.
•  Batting average (BA): the number of base hits divided by the number of official times at bat — example: a batter who gets 30 base hits in 100 at-bats has a batting average of .300.  In this calculation, all hits are treated as equal.
•  Runs batted in (RBIs): the number of times a batter causes a runner to score because he gets a base hit or walks in a run — examples: a batter who gets a base hit driving in runners on second and third is credited with two RBIs; a batter who walks with the bases loaded is credited with one RBI. (BTW, a batter who hits a ball “booted” by a fielder causing a run to a score on the error does NOT receive an RBI.)
•  Slugging percentage (SLG): the total bases a batter reaches divided by the number of official at-bats.  Regardless of the number runs that are produced, a double is counted as two total bases; a homer is four. So, this statistic claims to measure the extent to which a hitter is a “power hitter.”  A batter who has 100 official at-bats and hits 20 singles, eight doubles, and two homers has a slugging percentage of .440.

These numbers have been used for making decisions on trading or acquiring players (or baseball cards), selecting a Most Valuable Player (or other batting awards), and setting salaries, literally for centuries.  So, how well does that work?

Let’s See

Every year the major leagues give their “Batting Champion” award to the player with the highest batting average.  The assumption is that this is the single statistic that identifies the best hitter.  In 2015, the Miami Dolphins’ Dee Gordon led the National League with a batting average of .333.  So, he was the 2015 NL Batting Champion.  That was easy.
–>  –> BUT,  Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals led the league in almost everything else that year: doubles, homers (42 to Gordon’s 4), walks (124 to Gordon’s 25), and runs scored. Harper beat Gordon in RBIs (99 to 46) and Slugging Percentage (.649 to .418).  So, who was the best hitter?  If the offensive goal of a baseball team is scoring runs to win games, which of them would you want on your team?  Oh, by the way, Harper was also the National League’s MVP, but, Gordon was the NL Batting Champion.  So, tell me — what did that mean exactly?

What about RBIs? 

Maybe the number of runs that score when a batter gets base hits is a better gauge of a hitter’s ability.  This statistic has long been valued in voting for MVP candidates, as it was (above) in 2015 in the National League.  Despite the important role of the RBI stat in baseball reporting, many writers point out that it is one of the individual stats that depends almost entirely on the achievements of other players — specifically, how many players are on base when a batter gets a hit.  Examples abound, but comparing two famous careers serves at least to consider the importance of the RBI statistic:
•  As we all remember (with varying degrees of admiration for off-the-field reasons), Barry Bonds was the major leagues’ all-time career leader in home runs with 762 compared with Henry Aaron’s 755.  To fill out the picture, judging them ONLY by their actual offensive statistics, Bonds hit those home runs in 300 few games than Aaron, got on base more often (.444 to .374), and hit for more power (i.e., a higher slugging percentage .607 to .555), was walked almost twice as many times (2558 to 1402), and was the National League MVP seven times to Aaron’s one.  SO, what about RBIs? With all those numbers what would you guess?

Aaron had 301 more career RBIs than Bonds.  Why?  During his most productive seasons, Bonds batted third in a Giants’ lineup in which two of the three players who batted ahead of him were not so good at getting on base.  This fact is what Keith Law refers to as one of the “stupid manager tricks” that make RBIs such a weak indicator of a hitter’s ability.   Turns out that Bonds has the distinction of hitting 450 solo home runs in his career.  So, Bonds’ lower RBI total has more to do with the lineup that batted ahead of him than anything about his own hitting prowess.  So, what does a player’s RBI total tell us about a player’s hitting ability?
Not so much.

What about pitchers?

We evaluate pitchers by the number of “Wins,” Saves,” and Earned-Run Average (ERA).  How does that work out?  All our lives, starting pitchers have been labeled by the number of “Wins” they are credited with.  There are other pitching stats, but they all take a back seat to the “Won-Loss” record. We all want our pitching rotation to include “20-game-winners.”  This statistic is simply dumb.  While team victories matter more than any other team statistic across a 162-game season, author Keith Law asserts “the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field.”

I grew up in an era when a manager hoped, and a pitcher intended, that he would pitch a “complete game.”  Today — nope.  Today, managers typically keep a starter on the mound for 100 pitches, certainly not more than 120.  Example: in April of 2016, Dodgers’ rookie Ross Stripling was pitching a no-hit, perfect game in the 8th inning against the Giants when, after his 100th pitch, he was yanked for a reliever. The Giants wound up winning 3-2 on Brandon Crawford’s 10th-inning homer.  Contrast that with a game I listened to on my transistor radio back in July of 1963 when 25-year-old Juan Marichal battled 42-year-old Warren Spahn on the mound into the 16th inning, both pitching a shutout, when Willie Mays broke up the party with a 16th-inning homer to win for the Giants 1-0.  Even though Spahn had to pitch himself out of a bases-loaded situation in the 14th inning, both managers did the obvious thing — left their best pitcher in the game when they were pitching a shutout in a game they wanted to win.  SO, what does it mean?  In the first example, Ross Stripling pitched 7+ innings of perfect baseball and it didn’t even show up in his Won-Loss record.  In the second example, Warren Spahn finished the season with a 23-7 Won-Loss record; and this game, arguably one of the best pitching performances in history, was just one of his seven losses.  What did that statistic mean?

Not much.

Conversely, a “Win” doesn’t always mean that pitcher even pitched well.  Example: in the 2000 season, Russ Ortiz pitched 6 2/3 innings and gave up ten runs; but he got the win because his team scored 16 runs that day.  Truth is, a “Win” or a “Loss,” as a pitching statistic, depends on the work of many other players — sometimes not because of, but IN SPITE OF the pitching performance.  Then, when you factor in the role of relief pitchers who preserve a “Win” for a starter and the very real contributions of the defense and offense of a pitcher’s team, the “Win-Loss” record is pretty useless in evaluating a pitcher’s ability.  AND that doesn’t even consider the number of good pitchers who played long careers for bad teams.

So, let’s agree that the “Won-Loss” record is, at best, misleading.

So, what about “Saves?”  Rule 10.20 determines that a relief pitcher earns a save when he:
•  finishes a game his team wins and he is not the winning pitcher; and any one of these apply:
— enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches at least one inning
— enters the game with the potential tying run on base or at bat or on deck
— pitches effectively for three innings.

If he meets these criteria, he earns a “Save” — whether he pitches well or poorly; OR he can pitch very well and NOT earn a Save under the wrong conditions.  Keith Law tells us: in 2015, there were 114 appearances when a relief pitcher pitched at least three innings and gave up zero runs; but only NINE of those appearances earned the pitcher a “Save.”  Compare that to the thirteen saves that year earned by pitchers who allowed two runs in one inning of work, but protected a lead and finished the game.  Pitch four scoreless innings in a loss — no save.  Give up two runs in the last inning — save.  SO, what does the “Save” statistic mean?  It’s all about factors that have little to do with the performance of the pitcher.  BUT, for relief pitchers, it’s a key contributor to salaries, trades, and recognition.

What about “Earned Run Average (ERA)?” 

This stat is a staple on baseball cards and on-screen graphics along with the Win-Loss record. It is the number of earned runs allowed per nine innings pitched. Earned runs are, of course, those that result from base hits and not caused by errors or passed balls. But, it does not account for the ability of outfielders to hold a hitter to a single, throw out runners on the bases, or the subjective work of official scorers to distinguish hits from errors.  So, aside from strikeouts and walks, the act of getting a batter out or preventing runs from scoring is shared by others.

While ERA has limited value for evaluating starting pitchers, it is even more misleading for relievers.  When a starting pitcher gives up a single, a double, and an intentional walk, he is responsible for those runners.  When the relief pitcher replaces him in the 7th inning with the bases loaded and gives up two more singles before retiring the side, all three of the resulting runs are charged to the starting pitcher, none to the reliever.  While getting outs is the primary task of any pitcher, it is too easy for a relief pitcher to come in during a tough situation, pitch badly, and leave with his ERA intact. The resulting stat is not an accurate reflection of who did what or the effect their performances had on the outcome of the game.  We could cite many examples of the assignment of earned runs in a variety of situations and none would be entirely satisfying.  In general, ERA is another case of baseball math that depends more on the sequence of events and the contribution of others than the quality of individual performances.

So, what’s better? 

In recent years, something called “Sabermetrics” has begun to creep into the mainstream of baseball writing and even management decision-making (remember the movie “Moneyball?”).  Serious statisticians are now employed by more MLB teams every year and they are looking at some different numbers.  The book “Smart Baseball” asserts that “On-Base Percentage (OBP) is the most complete of all basic hitting stats, because it includes everything a hitter does” and it excludes many factors that are not specific to the hitter’s individual performance.

OBP = (Hits + walks + times hit by pitch
divided by
(At bats + walks + times hit by pitch + sacrifice flies)

The logic is simple: take the number of times a hitter gets on base and divide it by the total number of times he came up to the plate. Using the 2015 season of Bryce Harper (mentioned above) as an example, this method would have given him an OBP of .460 (46%).  If that statistic had been used in 2015, Harper would have easily been the Batting Champion instead of Dee Gordon who simply had a higher batting average by .003.

Again, statistical examples are numerous — let’s return to our previous example:
In 1987, the National League MVP was Andre Dawson.  Dawson hit 49 home runs for the Cubs along with a batting average of .287 and 137 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .568.    OK.

However, Keith Law asserts that the real MVP that year should easily have been Tony Gwynn.  While Dawson had more home runs and RBIs, Gwynn dramatically overshadowed Dawson in singles, doubles, triples, walks and — here’s the key: he had an On-Base-Percentage (OBP) of .447 compared to Dawson’s .328.   Another way to look at it, given that they had a nearly identical number of plate appearances, Dawson made 70 more outs than Gwynn that season.  SO, by their own individual contributions, which of them increased their team’s ability to score more runs?  If that is the most important objective, it seems that our traditional baseball math may have chosen the wrong MVP in 1987.  Using OBP could have suggested another choice.

One small refinement has emerged — the “triple slash” stat: batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.  In that case, here is the snapshot of those 1987 performances.

                 BA   OBP  SLG
Dawson:   .287/.328/.568
Gwynn:    .370/.447 /.511

What’s the effect on the recognition of pitchers?

The most prestigious single-season recognition for pitchers is the Cy Young award. As a quiz, let’s take a look at the details of the Cy Young decision in a year you might not remember, 1990, and see if we can decipher how that decision was made.  Here were the top candidates:

                                    W     L      ERA     IP       Runs
Bob Welch (Oak):         27      6     2.95     238     90 (78 earned)
Dave Stewart (Oak):     22     11    2.56     267     84 (76 earned)
Roger Clemens (Bos)    21      6     1.93     228     59 (49 earned)

Do you remember who won the award?  Without looking, who would get your vote?  (Hint question: does one statistic dominate Cy Young award voting?)

Bob Welch won the award.  Why?  Of the three contenders, Welch gave up more runs, had the worst ERA, and . . . well, he had the best Won-Loss record — the one stat that depends the most on the work of others.  Was he the best pitcher that year?  Heck, Keith Law observes that he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team!  That shiny “Win” total is clearly the only reason.

The logic is inescapable, but not very useful — you have to look at a number of metrics to make such a judgment about pitchers, not just one.  The goal be would to select players that can add as many wins to the team as possible, within a budget.

For those who want to dig deeper into the problem of judging pitchers — and for those who enjoy long descriptions of statistical tradeoffs — and you know who you are — I suggest you read Keith Law’s book (try chapter 14).  He actually has an approach to this problem — he calls it “Wins Above Replacement (WAR),” which focusses on an elusive metric: “Runs Prevented.”  For me, I skipped to the last chapter where he identifies the two main issues:
1. Baseball provides a lot of data points that are fundamentally interdependent — that is, so few baseball outcomes can be traced to the performance of a single player.  It’s a team game (Duh).
2. So much of what drives the way baseball is played and viewed is more cultural than statistical.  Players, managers, team owners, and fans do what they do, and like what they like about the game, for reasons they grew up with since the first time each of us was captivated by “baseball fever” when we were kids.

So, when we try to dissect the statistics of the game to understand it better, we find out that baseball is more than it seems . . .  and less.

Go Giants!

It’s Spring, It’s Baseball, It Must Be Arizona

Postcard_Spring_trainingA Field, In Your Dreams 

And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”

       — Terrence Mann
(James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams”

                                  Matt:  Dad, you’ve been a Giants fan since you were eight;
                                  how come you never went to Spring Training?
                                  PapaDan:  I dunno. Just never got around to it.
                                  Nou:  We can fix that.

So, it’s March, 2016.  I’m almost 66, a month or so from retiring from a long career, and my son Matt and his wife Nou have brought Gretta and me here to Scottsdale, Arizona, for my first visit to Spring Training.  It’s a gift:  a combination of Christmas, birthdays — Matt’s, Gretta’s, and mine —  and my retirement.  And, oh, what a gift!


I raised my sons to be Giants’ fans and we went to a lot of games, in Candlestick and then AT&T Park.  (OK, so we also went to a bunch of Oakland A’s games at the Coliseum, — I even have one of those “half-A’s, half-Giants” hats from the first Bay Bridge Series, but let’s not be spreading that round, eh?)  Baseball has always been part of our lives, from my own childhood in Antioch to the day we took my first grandchild, Matt’s daughter Ruby, to her first Giants’ game in 2005 against the Dodgers in San Francisco.  But the true heart of baseball wakes up from Winter in Arizona — The Cactus League — where the pitchers and catchers report early, the young players bring their wild hopes, and every dream of every player and fan seems possible, maybe even likely, with the first crack of the bat.  There’s magic.

“Well, you know I … I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance.  Just once.  To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink.  Make him think you know something he doesn’t.  That’s what I wish for.  Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it.  To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball.  To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?”    —  Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham

Scottsdale Stadium

Scottsdale Stadium is perfect.  It has room for just 12,000 people. Its natural-grass field has been the Springtime home of the San Francisco Giants since it was built in 1992, on the site where the old Scottsdale Stadium stood since 1956.  Its ten-foot fence is 360’ down the left-field line, 330’ down right, and 430’ in straightaway center.   Perfect.










Once again, this Super-Classy Giants organization shows MLB how things should be done.  Behind the fence, from the left-field corner to right-center, there is a berm – a large, deep-green lawn-covered hill and picnic area where fans of all shapes and ages are arrayed on blankets on the field side of the berm – with a clear view of the entire field.


Behind right field – Wow! — the split-level “Charro Lodge” has a covered pavilion with a large  patio. You can sit there by adding a hundred dollars to your ticket price – all food and drink included!  The money goes to a local charity, managed by volunteers, called The Scottsdale Charros,” which has run spring training for the city since 1964.  (Next year  –  I’m there.)









My friend and Spring Training aficionado, Richard Ward, told me what to expect from Scottsdale:  the sweet scent of orange blossoms by night; the aroma of creosote bushes by day, green-barked trees everywhere, bougainvillea along the freeways, and restaurants suitable for a range of tastes — on example:

Honey Bears BBQ
“Don’t need no teeth
To eat our meat”

Turns out that there are restaurants for other tastes as well.  My daughter-in-law Nou introduced us to some culinary delights with two remarkable reservations:

EVO  (lobster Risotto, fennel sausage in magic pasta, amatriciana)
On N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale

The Salty Sow (roasted porchetta, trout almandine, duck fat fritters)
On East Cactus Road, Phoenix

But, let’s now forget — the most important meal at the ballpark is the traditional ‘beer and a dog.’ My choice was the ‘Giant Dog’ and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

What’s It All About, Really

Spring Training is, first and foremost, pure baseball. But the unique feature that sets it part from the 162 games of the MLB regular season is a seeming contradiction: the games in March in Arizona do not count for anything!   BUT for the players, the games matter a great deal.  For the veterans, the task is to get ready for Opening Day back home when every game counts.  Sandy Koufax famously said, “Anyone who thinks Spring Training doesn’t matter has never tried to throw a baseball.”  This weekend, one player caught my attention and demonstrated that the games matter.  I didn’t remember the name Jarrett Parker before Saturday — I had to look up his #6 in the program.  This 27-year-old lefty got my attention when his third-inning home run put the Giants on the scoreboard for the first time.  Then over the rest of the weekend, he made some remarkable plays in right field, including back-handing a base hit down the line and throwing a ‘rope’ on one hop to Buster Posey from the right-field corner.  Turns out we saw him play last year with the Sacramento River Cats where he hit .283 and hit 23 home runs.  The word is that his performance in Spring Training last weekend is causing a ‘problem’ for the Giants.  Looks like they are going to want his glove and his bat in the lineup on Opening Day — so, to do that, which one of their existing outfielders will he replace?  I guess the games in Arizona the rest of this month will answer that question.  So, don’t tell any of them that Spring raining doesn’t matter.

For those of us on the lawn behind left field, Spring Training isn’t only about the future.  Spring Training seems to be designed to bring back baseball the way it lives in our memories of the past — our own past.  This past weekend, my son Matt and I did our best to live in that moment as we leaned up against the beer stand on the left-field lawn. We told each other stories — reminded each other, really —about long-remembered days at major-league parks from his childhood, and that of his brothers, and my own. In that setting, the baseball memories poured out like the beer from the tap when the handle is pulled at the beer stand behind us. Memories like these:

  • When Matt and his brothers were kids and we sat in the ground-level seats behind left field in Candlestick Park (he remembered that those seats cost $2.50 each) watching Will Clark come to bat wearing his famous “Nouschler” — that was the name he gave to his most intense “game face,” reserved for only the most intense situations with men on base — and then waiting for him to unload one of his screaming line drives in our direction down the right field line. (Matt remembered the name of the “Nouschler.”)
  • Or when I was eleven years old and my brother-in-law Joe Faletti took my nephews and me to our FIRST Giants game in 1961. It was the day when I learned THE hard truth about baseball – that even on a momentous day like my first Giants game, “we” didn’t always win. Even after 55 years, I remember that the Pittsburgh Pirates beat my San Francisco Giants 4-3 that day.  I loved it anyway. And how could I not, with a lineup that included Willie Mays in center, Willie McCovey in left, Felipe Alou in right, Jim Davenport at third, José Pagan at short, Chuck Hiller at second, Orlando Cepeda at first, Tom Haller (or Ed Bailey) behind he plate, and Juan Marichal or Jack Sanford on the mound? How many times had I told Matt the story?  (Matt had heard it before, but I carefully listed that lineup again.)
  • Or, that same 1961 day, when we stood on the blacktop behind right-field fence and my nephew Steve ’caught’ (after one bounce) a batting practice home run off the bat of Willie Stargel. Yes, I told that one again, too.
  • Or, on another Candlestick day from my childhood, when my nephews and I stood behind that same chain-link fence, in awe at the fact that the hero of all heroes, Willie Mays, was standing in centerfield, tapping his glove not more than twenty feet or so from us — what a thrill THAT was!
  • Or, again, when my sons were young, watching the Oakland A’s at the Coliseum (OK, I admit it, we watched the A’s sometimes) the day Roger Clemens was ejected from the game and, before leaving the dugout, heaving the large orange Gatorade jug onto the field in one of his fits of rage.
  • Or, on October 7, 2001 at AT&T Park when Matt’s brother Ben and I watched from nine rows behind the Giants dugout as Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run that season sailed over the fence in straightaway center field.
  • Or, even in my back yard as a kid listening to Russ Hodges on the radio shout “Bye, Bye, Baby!” when one of my heroes hit one out of the yard, or Lon Simmons with his own call “You can tell it Goodbye!”
  • Or, the day in 2005 when a bunch of us brought my first grandchild, Ruby, to HER first Giants game.  Click this link for a PowerPoint story of that day (it loads in about 30 seconds).   –> –-> Ruby_Giants_09_17_05_edit

The third important purpose of Spring Training is to create new memories.  Scottsdale Stadium contains some special characters worthy of our memories, special spirits who live only there — the lemonade vendor in the bleachers was selling “Lemonade Like Grandma Made.”  Take a listen/look (the 8-second movie may take 30 seconds to load)
–>  –>  –> Lemonaide_like_Grandma_made

Where Was I? 

Where was I?  Oh, yeah, it’s 2016, it’s Spring Training, I’m a week away from my 66th birthday — where has the time gone?  It has been such a joy to have spent some of that time at the ballpark.   Base Ball (as James Earl Jones pronounced it) walked along beside us all the way from there/then to here/now.

Yes, here at Spring Training, thanks to this gift from my son and his wife, the memories are thick and sweet, memories from decades ago or from yesterday afternoon, from my own childhood, that of my sons, or my grandchildren.

Yes, we’re all children together at the ballpark.

Finally, some of you will remember, from another field, a conversation between a father and a son from the edge of an Iowa cornfield:
John Kinsella (to his son): Is this heaven?
Ray Kinsella (to his father): It’s Iowa.
John Kinsella (to his son): Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven. [starts to walk away]
Ray Kinsella (to his father): Is there a heaven?
John Kinsella (to his son): Oh yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true.
[Ray looks around, at his field, his wife and daughter on the porch]
Ray Kinsella (to himself): Maybe this is heaven.

Thank you, Matt.  Thank you, Nou.

Click here to download a PDF of this article:  FINAL_SpringTraining_ConVivio  DS_logo


A Moment in the Sun — Same Sun, Different Moments

A guest column by Joe Faletti III

Antioch, CA— I was a scrawny kid in the 50s and 60s, the oldest but thinnest and shortest of six boys. “Wow!” people would say, “six boys — enough for a basketball team (or to play three-on-three)! Or a batter and a full infield.” There were two dozen boys in the neighborhood within six houses either way from home, so we frequently had enough to play baseball for real. However, the diehard baseball fanatics among us sometimes ended up with just two of them  — my younger (by 21 months) brother Steve and my uncle Dan (whom many of you know as ‘PapaDan’), only 21 months older, who lived three blocks away. As the only sibling of my mother, he was raised as an only child, but since he lived close enough to walk over to our house, he played with his nephews a lot. He was like an older brother to me and my brothers, except he went home at night and I reverted to being the oldest brother until he returned!

But no, scrawny doesn’t quite capture me — let’s make that wiry. I was skinny but what muscles I had were stronger than most and, in things I cared about, relatively nimble. I played the piano, and was good at untying knots and taking things apart (although not so good at putting them back together). Although Steve was bigger, and we never got into real fist fights, I could cause enough pain with a single knuckle in the shoulder to “keep the peace” if he decided to use his strength and weight against me. I was good enough to hold my own at marbles. And not bad at tether ball, and jacks — more about that in a moment!

But in most things, I was clumsy. In any other kind of sports I was useless, and also not particularly interested. I seldom managed to hit a baseball, although IF I connected well, it went pretty far, but always ended up in right field. Yeah, THAT right field — the one in the song! When I played in the field, of course, I always ended up in right field too. And that song, every word of it, is the story of my defensive baseball career. Well, except for the triumphant catch at the end — that’s fiction! Never happened! Even after I got my own baseball mitt and had half a chance of catching the ball if it came my way.

You’re probably wondering “But if you weren’t good at baseball, and didn’t enjoy it, why did you bother to play? And why are you writing about it now?” Well, I have written in the past about the Tyranny of Baseball (or of Basketball), describing all the ways in which those games dominated major portions of my childhood, dragged along with the family to watch my dad or a brother play lob ball or grasshopper or Babe Ruth until I was old enough to stay home alone or go out alone.

Left to my druthers, I did prefer to spend most of my spare time reading. But when Uncle Dan came over, I wanted to do whatever he had come to do, and that was usually some form of baseball. And even without Dan, my parents would frequently tell me to put the book away and go out and play with the other kids. So I had to do whatever they were doing. And that was usually some kind of baseball.

When a 'real' baseball field was not an option, there was no end to the imagination we used to create one in a much smaller space.

Since there wasn’t enough yard to play real baseball, and going to a nearby diamond was usually not an option, they’d invent something that looked like baseball but that fit the room, or the driveway, or the back yard. They’d pitch some kind of ball, maybe solid plastic, maybe a Whiffle ball (holey plastic), maybe a (red) rubber ball, maybe a ping-pong ball, maybe a Styrofoam 76 Union antenna-topper ball — or maybe even a badminton birdie, or a mini-frisbee. And they’d hit it with a wooden baseball bat, or a plastic bat, or a badminton racket or something else you could swing at whatever missile they had chosen. When it was too cold to play outside, they rolled a small rubber ball (loose from its elastic string and wooden paddle) on an old mattress on the floor of the garage and hit it with a foot-long 1-inch dowel.

That’s right! They were committed to baseball and if I wanted to play with them, I was stuck with baseball.

And I could either play along or play alone.

But that wasn’t the only way I was forced to play baseball. In the early grades, as soon as I learned to read chapter books, I would read a book at recess, or just hang around talking with the other sports-incompetents in my class, many of whom also preferred to read at recess. But at some point, around 3rd grade, the teachers decided that I must actually get exercise and interact with other students during recess, so reading was banned. Banned! My fellow book-loving klutzes then decided that since girls were allowed to play jacks at recess, we would join in and play jacks. But that was soon also prohibited and we were forced to play whatever the other boys were playing.

That brings us to dodge ball! Does dodge ball make sense to anyone as a thing kids should be doing? The kids who are biggest and strongest and most nimble get to stand around on the side lines and aim at the klutziest skinniest kids in the middle. Once a klutz is hit, he “gets” to stand on the sidelines and try to aim at the nimblest? No, since the goal is to get back into the middle (I’m not sure why!) even the klutzes will be aiming for the klutzes in the middle. So it’s only the extra-competitive nature of the best athletes that makes them target the athletes in the center. Was there another way to get out of the center? Or was the goal actually to throw the ball over the heads of those in the middle and thus stay out of the middle? I’m not sure. Whatever it was, I wasn’t good at it.

What I was good at was schoolwork, which came as easily to me as baseball and other sports seemed to come to the athletes: Artie, Jim, Larry, and Doug. On the playground, they were the leaders and I routinely failed. In the classroom, I was a leader and they routinely struggled. In those early years, they would sometimes ridicule or even bully me on the playground; but, as we grew, I was frequently asked to tutor them. Gradually, over the years, we reached a truce of sorts, partially through baseball.

Our school’s limited playground space was divided into assigned spaces for each class (and gender), gradually larger for kick ball or dodge ball for the younger grades to ever larger baseball fields. In 5th grade, my class was huge with 20 or more boys, so we actually had at least one extra outfielder. Of course, with 20 boys, 10 per team, at least two of them were the least skillful and so I got to hang out in right field and talk with the other klutz who got chosen last or just before me (no dandelion watching for us!), although we did have to pay attention.

By the 7th grade I observed that the less skilled players were likely to be swinging late, so IF they connected, they would hit toward right field, hence toward the least skillful fielders. This fact lead to my only, only in my life, almost home run! I managed one memorable day to connect solidly with the ball and send it zooming over the head of the fellow-inept in right field. He had to run after it, catch up, stop it, and throw it back a long way into the infield. I headed off around the bases, not for a moment expecting to make it home. As I approached third base the klutz in right field had stopped the ball and had thrown it toward home; but Artie, the third base coach and one of our best ball players, waved me toward home. I could see in his face that he was pleased with my achievement and believed that I could score. When I stopped at third, satisfied with the joy of my life’s first and only triple, my teammates, especially Artie, were gravely disappointed. It was my big chance and Artie was pulling for me. When I came up short, everyone thought I had blown it.

I thought I had triumphed.

Of course, I had slightly more experience than Artie in being caught between the third baseman and catcher, after having gone too far past third when being driven round the bases after a single by subsequent hitters — note that the worst players bat last in the lineup, so if we make it on base, we are the ones unfortunate enough to be driven around the bases by the much more capable, and faster, baseball stars. If we were slow, or timid, it is likely that the faster runners behind us would catch up and end up caught between bases. So somehow, regardless of how I ever reached third base, I was very likely to disappoint my teammates. Sigh!

So that was my almost-moment in the sun! My onlyest triple that could have been my onlyest home run if I’d trusted Artie to know what he was doing, which of course he did!

But the moment of light in my relationships with Artie and the other athletes came to us all gradually. I learned patience as I watched them work hard and struggle with math or diagramming sentences. And they learned patience as they watched me struggle while they tried to coach me to become a better ballplayer. I think bringing a mitt with me may have showed them some measure of commitment. We gradually recognized that each person had some things that came easier and some things that didn’t come very well at all, regardless of how much effort we put in. So  eventually, Artie and I accepted each other for who we were.

In the 40+ years since high school, we’ve met at reunions and parish functions and became good friends. Artie went on to become a policeman, then briefly a mortician(!), then back to the police force to mentor and train new recruits, which he does today. But I think that our shared moments in the sun — one basking in the sun and the other struggling under its glare —  have contributed a bit of wisdom, patience, and acceptance to both of us.





A Moment in the Sun

Just to hit the ball and touch ’em all
A moment in the sun;
. . . it’s gone and you can tell that one goodbye.
— John Fogerty, Centerfield, 1985
* * * * * * * * *

I grew up as one of those elementary-school kids who were labeled ‘uncoordinated.’  Since baseball was the most important measure of a boy’s worth in the fifth grade, boys were assigned a place in one of two important classes of people.  Either we were:
1) ‘cool’ — that is, among those who could successfully play baseball
or we were
2) ‘uncoordinated’ (aka ‘not cool’) — couldn’t catch, couldn’t throw, couldn’t hit a baseball.
By the Spring of 1962 at the end of the 6th grade, I was well established as a member of that second class.

Danny, 6th grade: not cool

For me, that membership was manifest in a well-defined ritual that took place on the infield of an all-dirt baseball field with a grove of almond trees behind left field and the back fences of the houses on 13th Street behind right. When it was time to pick teams, two kids who were identified by acclamation to be the best players were the captains.  Nobody had to say so, there was no need for an election, it was known intuitively by everyone in the 6th grade who were the best two. The most important reason to make them the captains, by the way, was to ensure that they didn’t end up on the same team — which would have rendered that team unbeatable. The two captains would take turns naming the players who would be on their team. The best hitters went first, a pitcher who could get the ball over the plate had to be selected early, and a shortstop and first baseman were essential. I knew when I would be picked and the only suspense was to wait to find out which captain would be stuck with me.

At that stage of my life it wasn’t a terrible thing to be a lower-class kid on the ball field. After school, while the ‘first group’ of regular kids went off to little-league practice, I carried home the leather briefcase my Dad had given me containing a book of stories by Mark Twain and other books my Dad bought me about other times and other places. I was intimidated by the prospect of playing sports and didn’t see why I would want all of that pressure and embarrassment.  Reading was safer.  But I wasn’t a total loss, I was content, even thrilled to enjoy baseball as a spectator. Early in the 6th grade my brother-in-law, Joe, took me and my nephews to our first Giants game at Candlestick Park and I was immediately smitten. From that time on, I became a regular listener to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons as they brought the Giants to life on my transistor radio.  I was a first-class baseball fan, even though I was definitely not a player.

Everything Changes

During the summer and fall of 1962, two very big things happened in my life:
1) The Giants won the National League Pennant
2) I grew six inches.

My heroes, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Jim Davenport, and the rest of the Giants were everybody’s heroes and I was content to be part of that. It was fun and there were no expectations to being a baseball fan. It was easy. As long as I had my books and my transistor radio, life was good. But then, something happened that changed everything and — like most big changes — at the moment it was happening, it was scary!

One afternoon during the first week of basketball season — you may ask, what does basketball have to do with baseball?  and I’ll get to that — I walked out of my school building happily carrying my leather briefcase with my books when Gene Banti, who unbeknownst to me was the 7th and 8th grade basketball coach, passed me on his way into the building. Without any introductions, he stopped dead in his tracks said, “What grade are YOU in?”  I didn’t like his tone of voice.

“I’m in the 7th grade.”

“You’re tall!”  I felt like he had accused me of something. “You need to be on the basketball team. Practice is Wednesday after school and I want you out there.”  This was turning out to be a very uncomfortable moment in the bright afternoon sun. I didn’t like where this conversation was going.

“No . . .  I can’t.” I made up some excuse about Wednesday, which apparently was unsatisfactory.

“Oh, no.  I’ll speak to Sister Bernadette about it.  You’ll be out there on Wednesday.”  That’s how Junior High basketball coaches talked in the early sixties.

Sure enough, through the awesome power and influence of Sister Bernadette (she called my mother), I found myself on the basketball court on Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t like it at all and the other players — those whose membership in the aforementioned ‘first group’ had been earned by their baseball abilities — seemed to find it amusing. The coach was designing a new offense around this new tall player and teaching me how to play zone defense. “All you have to do is stand up straight, put your hands up, and stay in this part of the court. When the other team shoots, all you have to do is jump, grab the ball, and throw it to Gary.  He’ll take it from there.”

To my surprise, I found that I could do those things fairly well.  Dribbling and shooting were a bit of a mystery at first, but I found that I could at least carry out my limited assignment without embarrassing myself too much. A kid, I’ll call him Eddie Summers, who had lost his place on the starting five when I showed up, didn’t like me at all and did his best to ridicule everything I did; but after the first couple of times I blocked his shot, he seemed to quiet down.

So, one thing led to another and I finished the basketball season on the starting five, got a bunch of rebounds, and helped Gary score a lot of points because of all the defensive rebounds I hurled down the court to him.  One day, the school principal, Sister Bernadette. came up to me at recess and handed me a basketball.  She said, “the coach tells me you can shoot and get rebounds, but he says that when you try to dribble, you embarrass both of us.  So, your assignment is to take this basketball every day at the morning recess and dribble up and down the convent driveway until the coach tells me you can dribble.”  One thing led to another and all of that practice made a difference.  More than the dribbling, Sister Bernadette taught me two things: that basketball mattered and so did I.  Her influence caused me to embark on a long career as a basketball player and a coach.  Heck, my sons turned out to be better basketball players than I ever was.  Sister Bernadette started all of that.  But, I digress.  Back to another important day, back to the playground …

Most of all, I began to feel like I might have become a regular person. I wasn’t sure, but I figured it was possible; so I looked for an opportunity to find out.  Unfortunately, basketball season came to an end and I found myself standing on the baseball diamond in front of the two captains, waiting to be picked.  I felt I had distinguished myself as a passable basketball player (if only because I was now a tall person); and I wondered if my status as a ‘potential regular kid’ would transfer from the basketball court to the baseball field, where it mattered. I figured the ritual of ‘the picking of teams’ might provide the evidence of that transformation — one way or the other.

The Test

Sure enough, it didn’t take long. Michael Savage, one of the acclaimed captains, picked me NOT LAST — not early, mind you, that would have been too much of a fantasy, but getting picked NOT LAST made me feel like  . . .  a regular kid. So, with a grin on my face that I couldn’t hide, I came up to bat with lots of confidence. The bad news was that I looked at the pitcher and found that it was Eddie, the kid who got pushed off the starting five and onto the bench when I arrived on the basketball team. Eddie immediately dashed my optimism when he said, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Look, this isn’t basketball.  Being tall isn’t gonna get you anything on this field. You still can’t hit.”

Well, maybe I expected too much to think I would be accepted as a regular kid just because I was tall and could play a little basketball. With those few words, Eddie had pulled a plug and drained the confidence right out of me. But this time I felt something new — I WANTED to be accepted; I thought I deserved it, so I was mad. Really mad. I hadn’t fully realized until just that moment, but basketball taught me that there was more to life than books and that it was possible to be treated like a regular kid, with all of the rights and privileges that went with that status. As I stood in the batter’s box, that kid on the pitcher’s mound stood between me and the respect that a regular kid deserved, respect that I had tasted and I suddenly wanted more. I knew that he was right about one thing: baseball was the real test of a boy’s status and I had to prove myself all over again or all of that ‘regular kid” stuff would be washed away with a few futile swings of a bat — right here and now in front of all these people.  As his first pitch came across the plate about shoulder high, that baseball BECAME the smirk on Eddie’s face and I hated it.  I transferred all of those new feelings into the bat, and swung as hard as I could.

I hit the damn thing into the trees.  It was an accident, honest. It just happened. But it was supposed to happen.  I rounded the bases and never looked back. From that day forward, nothing would ever be the same.