Brothers K part 3

July 26, 2010

Alright, I know I’ve been wearing you out with the baseball wisdom of author David Duncan from his book The Brothers K. But I’m just so impressed with the fact that he wasn’t a ballplayer (at least I don’t think he was), yet his insights are that of a career baseball man. They’re so right on the mark.

Ok, this is the last one I’ll throw at you…I promise. But keep reading, this one’s juicy.

To set this passage up, the author is talking about his father and career minor league pitcher, Papa Toe. I’d just like to add that I never thought about professional baseball in this light – until I read this. But I sure as heck felt it and lived it.

Watching Papa Toe pitch through the years — the body language, the easy grace, the pure focus, time after time — any fan who didn’t know him would have sworn that there was nothing more important to this man than the game he was playing. Of course, his family knew better. Most ballplayers’ family members know better. But the good players are all like Papa: their faces tell you nothing. And professional baseball is beautiful to watch largely because of this.

A pro contract is a kind of vow: a man agrees, in signing it, that he will perform as though his personal life, his family, his non-baseball hopes and needs do not exist. He is paid to aspire to purity. For the duration of every game he has not only to behave but really feel that the ballpark is the entire world: his body is his instrument, so any lack of this feeling will soon be reflected in his play. The purity of commitment really isn’t much different than that of the Hinayana monks, they with their one robe, one bowl, one icon; ballplayers with their uniforms, their bats, their gloves.

But purity has a brutal side. Sometimes a strikeout means that the slugger’s girlfriend just ran off with the UPS driver. Sometimes a muffed ground ball means that the shortstop’s baby daughter has a pain in her head that won’t go away. And handicapping is for amateur golfers, not ballplayers. Pitchers don’t ease off on the cleanup hitter because of the lumps just discovered in his wife’s breast. Baseball is not life. It is a fiction, a metaphor. And a ballplayer is a man who agrees to uphold that metaphor as though lives were at stake.

How frickin’ good is that? Man o man. I sure wish I would have read that as a player. That type of perspective may have helped me hold up my end of the bargain a little bit better. Play my part a bit better. This also reminds me of one of my favorite baseball quotes of all time…

“Sometimes a hitter gets a hit, sometimes I strike them out, but in neither case does anyone die.”                                        ~  Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez

I never really thought of it this way, but Orlando was a pretty brave character to make a statement like that, especially if he did it as a Yankee.

"El Duque"

By the way, a big congrats to Andre “the Hawk” Dawson, Doug Harvey, and Whitey Herzog. The 2010 Hall of Fame class.

"The Hawk" comin in hot.

The Brothers K Part 2

July 19, 2010

A couple posts back, I mentioned that I had been reading a great book called The Brothers K by David Duncan. There’s a few passages in the book where I was blown away by the author’s grasp of baseball’s inner workings. The first one dealt with catcher’s framing the ball, and this next one deals with a ball player’s thought process.

To set this passage up, the author is trying to describe the impact that his father had when he got a chance to pitch on his minor league team. His dad was older, had no aspirations of moving up to the big leagues, and was more or less playing just for the joy of playing.

Watching Pap have his fun, many of the young players began to have trouble recalling just where their anxieties and personal crises had been located. Their body language would change. They’d begin to make wisecracks and dumb cracks and old-fashioned novocaine-brained baseball chatter. Then as far as Hultz (their manager) or anyone else could tell, they’s stop thinking entirely and just play ball for the pleasure of it — and it is a well known fact that when entire teams stop thinking and start playing for fun, wonderful things happen.

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of this kind of thought-stopping influence, so let’s consider it from another angle. A pitcher throws a baseball eighty or ninety miles per hour at a hitter standing just twenty yards away. This means the hitter has about the same amount of time to decide what to do with a pitch as a chestnut-backed chickadee needs to take a crap. As any good birder will tell you, this is very little time. Nevertheless, ballplayers spend it in a wide variety of ways. One of the common options, and possibly the worst, is to spend it thinking. In the time it takes a pitch to reach the plate, a really quick-minded hitter can get in as many as five syllables’ worth of baseball thoughts. Here are three typical examples:

1. “Inside…ooops!…strike.”

2. “Change-up…shit!…fastball.”

3. “Fastball…oh damn!…change-up.”

The obvious moral here is that once a pitch is released, there are very few baseball thoughts worth thinking. This is why the preferred option of most good hitters is to spend pitch-to-plate time not thinking at all. “No-Think” is the name Peter gave to his mental state while awaiting a pitch — because a harrowing complication in this option is that even the thought “Don’t think!” is a thought. No-Think means: the ball comes: react. No decision-making, no reasoning. A pure, carefully trained, hopefully inspired reflex is all that’s wanted. And the difficulty of achieving No-Think — the paradoxically effortless effort required to gain access to this realm of pure reflex — is the explanation of virtually all the quirkiest quirks of ballplayers the world over. It’s what leads them to chew the unseemly substances, scratch the unseemly body parts, chant the gibberish, browbeat the Lord, sleep with their bats, pop mystery pills, worship everything from Shiva’s lingam to dead chicken parts, and so on…

So the Tugs’ inexplicable transformation, with Papa on the mound from a bevy of uptight young ballthinkers into a loose team of No-Think ballplayers was no small thing. On the contrary, it was the kind of inexplicable blessing that smart managers will hire, fire, lie, cheat, pray, beg and steal for — because more often than not it leads to a third predictable result: wins.

Alright, hope you got that and it wasn’t too much. It sure rang true to me. Here’s a few more images from the All Star game that rolled in from Michael Zagaris.

Kevin Long, A-Rod, and myself around the cage at the All-Star game.

Michael "Z-Man" Zagaris and I ham it up.

Danny Field and I before the game.

Aftermath of the All Star Game

July 15, 2010

Catching the bullpen for the American League during the All Star game was an awesome experience. Great on a whole bunch of levels. I got to catch up with old friends like Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long, photographer extraordinaire and all around character Michael “Z-Man” Zagaris, trainer Rick Griffin, and MLB production guy Danny Field.

Then, I got to be around the best players in the world. I got to be on the field again and feel the rush. Got to hang in the clubhouse and even sign a few autographs.

The most surreal thing was being in the clubhouse. For the most part, surprisingly, it was very calm. Whomever was in charge had strict time limits on the media so generally it was just a few clubhouse guys, the trainers, the coaches, and about a billion dollars worth of baseball talent….and me.

It was strange sitting down at a table to eat lunch with A-Rod, Jeter, Mauer, and Ichiro. I mean really strange.

Then there was the catching part. Here’s what I took away from the experience more than anything. As you may remember, I caught the bullpen for the Futures game a few days prior. Well, during those bullpen sessions, I took a few skipped balls off my body. I went home that night with a few battle wounds due to pitcher’s wildness.

During the All Star game, I didn’t have one pitch bounces in front of me. Not one. Let’s see, I caught Pettite, Verlander, Valverde, Soriano, Soria, Bailey, and probably a couple more l can’t think of off the top of my head, and I probably moved my glove across my body to receive a pitch four times. Four times! If these guys said they were throwing a backdoor slider, than that’s where it was going. I swear, I could’ve caught them with my eyes closed. And were talking about guys who are throwing 95-98, breaking balls, changes, splits, everything well above average.

And the All Star guys were every bit as nervous as the Futures guys. That just goes to show you that the nerves never go away. Both the Futures pitchers and the big leaguers had great “stuff”…the simple fact was, the Grande League guys could pinpoint their pitches. The Futures guys just didn’t have the same command…yet.

Big League hitters have no problem with velocity. They’ll turn around 95 in a heart beat. Greg Maddux was right, it’s all about location and late movement.

Another really fun thing I got to do was lean on the cage and watch the best in the world hit while talking offense with Kev Long. I saw a lot of different styles and a lot of different approaches, and a lot of similarities too. Every guy hit from an athletic position, had a positive “downhill” stride, stayed connected with their hands and body, and had really relaxed hands among other things.

Things I didn’t do…Didn’t get any autographs. Didn’t corner Mike Scioscia to ask him about his play at the plate catching technique. Didn’t snap even one photo (sorry). Didn’t tackle super model Marisa Miller during the celebrity softball game. Didn’t break my thumb.

All in all a great experience. Thank you to Tim Mead and Dennis Rogers for giving me the opportunity.

Supermodel Marisa Miller.

MLB productions stud Danny Field.

The best hitting guy on the planet...Kevin Long.

Legendary photographer Michael Zagaris.

Me catching Andy Petite.

The Futures Game is Over and….I’m Alive!

July 12, 2010

So here’s the report for the morning after catching the bullpen for the Futures game. And remember, this is literally the first time I’ve squatted down to catch in 6 years. I’M ALIVE! Turns out, it is kind of like riding a bike.

I caught like 8 guys (every pitcher went one inning) and aside from some fatigue, I still got it. These guys could BLOW too…consistent 95-98, movement, etc. No problemo. Apparently the Art of Catching techniques work for old men as well.

My thumb hung in there too. I did end up locating my old thumb cast;  however, by the third pitch from the first pitcher, the thing had turned into dust. It was so old and brittle that it just disintegrated. I guess it would’ve been kinda like trying to cook with some ancient Indian pottery.

Once I got over having my thumb cast/security blanket crisis, things were cool. Except for one thing. I was a little embarrassed by my 1990 catching gear. I definitely looked a little goofy…but I guess I’m used to that.

Hopefully I didn’t jinx myself by talking like this. You know how superstitious ballplayers (and bullpen catchers) can be. I’ve still got the big show to do on Tuesday. Keep checking for more reports and hopefully some photographs to go along with.

Bullpen Catcher for the All Star Game

July 10, 2010

Guess what? I’m going to be the American League bullpen catcher for the All Star game. Weird. I knew I’d get to the All Star game someday…I just didn’t know it’d be this way. Baseball’s strange like that. You just never know.

So I’d love to say I’m completely confident in my abilities – but I’m not. I’ve gotta admit, I’m a bit scared. It’s been six years since I’ve caught a pitcher for cryin out loud. And from my vantage point, the game keeps getting faster and I just keep getting slower (and grayer.) Or the other possibility (which I’m clinging to dearly) is that squatting down and catching will be just like riding a bike.

To be honest, I think I’ll be alright. It’s mainly my left thumb that I’m really concerned about. When I learned that I had this gig, I immediately rummaged through the garage to find my old thumb cast…with no success. There’s still a little time left and a few places I haven’t looked, so hopefully I can locate my safety blanket. I really like my thumb, and with all the lefties on the American League staff, I think I’ll need it.

One good thing is that I’ll also be catching in the bullpen for the Future’s game on Sunday. That’ll give me a moment to get my bearings and hopefully get up to speed. Or, maybe it’ll destroy me. Maybe one day of squatting in the bully will require three weeks to recover from. That’s alright, I think I can rely on adrenaline to get me through the events on Tuesday.

Check back…I’ll keep posting my experiences over the next few days. Say a prayer for me and my thumb, por favor.