Thursday 26 July 2012

On The Flip Side

In baseball, sometimes the uniform becomes part of the player. It isn't something that announces itself. Often, it is the sort of thing that comes to light at the end of a long career. The first one that springs to mind is Babe Ruth.

In your mind, there he is, in pinstripes, with the overlapping NY on his chest. I can't imagine any more lasting image of the Babe. It's like he was a Yankee through and through. Born at home plate in New York. After all, Yankee Stadium was The House That Ruth Built. Of course, that picture is not really reflective of Ruth's career at all.

Six years in Boston at the beginning of his career, a dominant lefthander on the mound. Funny, but we rarely picture him that way. Maybe it makes sense, because Ruth rewrote the rules of hitting in those pinstripes. Odd, though, that the Red Sox spent almost a century breaking a 'curse' of a man rarely pictured in their uniform.

This is from, which you, being a baseball fan, should have visited many times already.
The players of the past, through the late 1960's, became one with their uniforms by virtue of the way baseball conducted its business. The reserve clause dictated that players could be retained indefinitely by one team, and cheaply too! Great players were destined for long careers in one colour.
Musial in Cardinal Red, Koufax in Dodger Blue.  It is natural to us now, but maybe it would have been different in an era where changing teams came naturally when the highest bidder came calling. When baseball moved through the 1970, 80s and 90s, into collective bargaining and free agency, the thought of a player in one uniform and only one uniform became much, much rarer. Many players now seem to change teams like it's a contest to collect the most different shirts. Matt Stairs, Eric Hinske, Jim Thome, Octavio Dotel, I have no lasting impression of any logo or number on their backs.

Sunday 15 July 2012

1-3-6-2 Double Play, and Go Ahead Run- SB, E1

The New York Yankees are...

If I start a sentence with those words, and you are a baseball fan, there is some automatic filler you will end it with. It depends what kind of fan you are. If you are a Yankee fan, it likely ends with "'s greatest team.", or something else overly self congratulatory. Even if you are not a Yankee fan, there is still, I am sure, a way you end that sentence, almost automatically. Why? Because the Yankees are an indelible part of baseball history. You can't be a baseball fan and not have thought about the Yankees, a lot. You have surely imagined your team beating them, because, except for a couple of seemingly brief periods in their history, they have always been the team to beat. If you have ever imagined your team winning it all, at some point, the New York Yankees were the team they had to go through to get there.

I am not a Yankee fan, not by a long shot, but I, too, have an automatic ending to that sentence. When I hear "The New York Yankees are...." my brain finishes "too good at baseball." That's all, if they were just like other teams, we could all laugh off the 200 million dollar payroll and the pinstripes. Sadly, we can't laugh at them, not in the long run, because they win.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Bottom of the 1st, June 28th 2012.

Stupid tricks, as a rule, do not work. That's what makes them stupid. In grade three, when the schoolyard clown pointed to your shirt, got you to look down, and flicked your nose on the way up, that was a stupid trick at work. You, (and I to be honest), tried to spot that trick as quickly as possible. It lacks sophistication, and when frequently attempted, it is easily thwarted.

There are lots of places in baseball to try a stupid trick. The middle infielders, as they make plays around the bag, make motions and noises to indicate they are going to be part of the play, when, in fact, the ball is traveling elsewhere. The catcher will pump-fake to second with runners on first and third, trying to trick the runner on third into a mistake. The pitcher has an entire section of the rulebook defining the limits of his trickery. If he gets too tricky, he is the only player with penalties outlined for his tricking transgressions. The balk rules are more nebulous than the trick plays they prevent.

But, like a dime-store magic trick, when applied properly, stupid tricks can pay off.

Monday 2 July 2012

June 18th and June 29th, 2012

Baseball loves its records. We, the fans, are always exposed to a new record from Elias Sports Bureau (all those records in one desk!), or Stats Inc., or the local TV stats guy with google and a bunch of spare time on his hands. Records, were, at one time, pure things. For example, most home runs hit in one season. Ever. Period. When Babe Ruth hit 60 homers, that was a simple, pure record.

Not a lot of games had been played, so it was relatively easy to do something for the first time ever. Most hits in a season, most errors. First pitcher to throw 2 no-hitters, first hitter to get 6 hits in a game. As time has gone on, a whole lot of games have been played. It has become harder to set the definitive record. For example, Jose Bautista was having a very good month in June. He set a record for home runs in a month. He hit fourteen. Fourteen is a lot of home runs in one month. It is more home runs than any Blue Jay has ever hit in a month, and that makes it a record. It is not, however, the most home runs hit in the American League in one month. That record would be fifteen, held jointly by Babe Ruth, Bob Johnson and Roger Maris. It is also nowhere near the Major League record for homers in a month. Sammy Sosa had the discourtesy to hit twenty home runs in June of 1998, which means you will hear a lot about Ruth, Johnson, and Maris, and then a whole lot about Sosa, before you ever hear about anybody setting the record for homers in the month of June. In a way, I feel bad for Bautista, but it should be hard to have the best home run hitting month in history, and it is.

Which is why it's totally worth talking about this guy and what he did in the past week an a half.
Lying down on the job? Not exactly.
For those of you not familiar with the face, that's Aaron Hill, current Arizona Diamondbacks (and former Blue Jays) second baseman. He made himself a piece of baseball lore on June 29th 2012. He had a four hit game, and did something that is very unusual for a hitter. By collecting a single, double, triple, and home run, he did what is called 'hitting for the cycle'.

It isn't easy to hit for the cycle. It certainly doesn't represent the best night a batter can have, as I'm sure all of the players who have hit four home runs in one night will tell you. The funny thing about the cycle is that nobody is trying to do it. A hitter who has a homer and a triple in his first 2 at-bats can't stop at second base if he hits another homer. Hitters aren't really able to stretch a hard single into a double, even if they have the other three elements of the cycle already covered. So, the cycle is a curiosity, but stll requires the tools to hit the ball hard, and have good speed on the bases. Even the best hitters are at the mercy of Lady Luck when it comes to the cycle. Still, it is significant for its rarity.

As an example of the rarity of the cycle, I present the following: my favourite franchise is the Toronto Blue Jays. They have a 35 year history. They have played 5,267 games. Blue Jay players have hit for the cycle twice. That's once very 2633.5 games. Quite the wait if you wanted to see both. In all of MLB, the fraternity of cycle hitters has 246 members. Which, considering the number of plate appearances in baseball history, is a select group indeed.

Aaron Hill has hit for the cycle twice in his career, which represents some very intense negotiations with Lady Luck. Several players have hit for the cycle multiple times. This smaller brotherhood contains only 19 names, including Mr. Hill. He stands alone in one regard, however. He took only an 11 day pause between his two hit-for-the-cycle games. Since modern baseball began in 1901, with the American and National Leagues playing parrellel seasons, nobody has ever put their first and second cycle so close together.

When he retires, Hill can tell his kids that, yes, he does hold an all-time baseball record. He is the player who hit for the cycle twice, and took the shortest ever break between the two times he did it.

I think, in a watered down game, where we get told a team hasn't hit back to back homers "since 2010" ,(wow, 2 years, that's soooo rare), it's good to have a little of the wonder put back into things by a player doing something that has never been done before.

Baseball, you never know what you might see next.