The Baseball Code Is Tired

6:12 PM, MAY 16, 2016 | By LEE SMITH

Rougned Odor (Credit: Keith Allison)

Yesterday, Texas Rangers’ pitcher Matt Bush hit Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista with a pitch. Running from first on a groundball to third, Bautista slid hard, late, and illegally into Rangers’ second baseman Rougned Odor. The infielder threw wildly on the double play, but didn’t miss when he lined up Bautista and clocked him squarely in the jaw.

As if to demonstrate exactly how ridiculous and out of place fighting is in baseball, journalists and commentators clearly thrilled by the violence had trouble describing what kind of punch Odor threw at the Toronto slugger. It was a right jab, said some; no, opined other scribes, ’twas a mighty right hook. Actually, it was a regular right cross, a well-timed, well-placed punch thrown by someone who clearly knows what he’s doing. However, it barely dazed Bautista. The chin, as Canelo Alvarez’s knockout of Amir Khan two weeks ago reminded us, is humanity’s on-off switch. Hit someone there right, and it shuts down the nervous system. But Bautista, obviously surprised by the punch, didn’t even buckle. Sports sites featured the punch like it was the biggest thing that happened in baseball all weekend, which is a shame because it overshadowed a really good baseball story—Matt Bush’s big-league debut after 12 years in the wilderness.

Odor will almost surely be suspended for several games, and likely Bautista, too, for a nasty slide. But they’re getting off lucky because they could have been hurt badly, perhaps even with career-ending injuries. But, say some, that’s the way baseball should be played—hard and in observance of baseball’s unwritten rules. After all, Bautista flipped his bat in a playoff game against the Texas club last year—and in this perverse, pseudo-macho understanding of baseball, he got what was coming to him seven months later with a 98 mph fastball in the back.

It was Bautista’s three-run homer in the seventh inning of game five of the ALDS last year that put the Blue Jays ahead for good and sent them to the ALCS—but it was the bat flip that fans seem to remember, most of them favorably. It wasn’t as momentous as all that—as the actual home run, for instance—but it punctuated the moment, like a mic drop. “I didn’t plan anything that I did,” Bautistasaid at the time of his bat flip. “And so I still don’t even know how I did it.”

The person who was most upset with Bautista’s show of emotion? Yep, the pitcher who gave up the blast, Sam Dyson. “I told [on-deck batter Edward Encarnacion] Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more,” Dyson said. “He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”

What nonsense. Dyson got beat. He got beat by another man in front of tens of thousands of people in the ballpark and millions more watching on TV. And that is precisely what makes baseball a great human drama—two people challenging each other, with success and failure on the line, on either side of which is shame, shame in front of others for losing. Loss and the prospect of loss is part of the event. Bautista wasn’t rubbing Dyson’s face in it, he deserved to exult. In that moment, Bautista was out of his body, enjoying the homer, the spectacle, the event as much as anyone watching.

Cut to yesterday. Matt Bush wasn’t even on the Rangers roster last year. He was still in prison, serving a 51-month term for DUI with great bodily harm. Bush was the first overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft, drafted by the San Diego Padres out of a San Diego high school as an infielder, with a good bat, good hands, good speed and range, and a rocket for an arm. The 18-year-old Bush didn’t hit much in the minor leagues—some reports say he was too hung over to hit. Drinking was a big problem, so was his lousy, entitled attitude, and his careless violence, like beating up a high school freshman, and throwing a baseball at a woman who messed with him at a party.

The Padres moved Bush to the mound in 2007, then dealt him to the Blue Jays organization in 2009. Bush played in the Tampa Bay Rays system from 2010 until spring training 2012 when he ran over a 72-year-old man and was sent to jail. Here’s ESPN’s account of Bush’s prison term, his comeback, how he was scouted in the parking lot of a Golden Corral, how the Texas organization has taken chances on other hard-luck cases with talent, like Josh Hamilton. It’s a really moving story, especially the concern Bush’s dad feels for his troubled but gifted boy. Maybe finally he is really learning how to become a man and accept responsibility, and he will become a man before the father dies and leaves his son alone in the world.

Maybe that’s why Bush threw at Bautista yesterday—perhaps he was trying to prove he’s a big leaguer, a solid teammate. A man who knows he has responsibilities and fulfills them. Or maybe someone told him that Bautista had to eat a fastball, because that’s what the big league code of honor dictated. After all, he flipped his bat last October.

The last guy you want to confuse with a stupid code that requires athletes to throw baseballs at their colleagues’ bodies and heads is a kid who because he was unable to manage his reckless self-pity nearly killed a man. Baseball, like Bryce Harper says, is supposed to be fun, and he’s right that the code is tired. But there is something serious about the game, too, which is the drama staged between the pitcher and hitter, because it’s about failure and success, embarrassment and shame, humility and pride, and how adults are to manage these things in public and private, too. I hope Matt Bush succeeds.

“The Only Real Game,” Baseball in Manipur

I just ran into a mention of a movie on baseball in Manipur, a city in Northeastern India. The good folks of Manipur have embraced baseball as their passionate past time as the game was introduced there during World War II and has become central to their way of life

This is a wonderful story and I encourage you to watch the trailer and attend the Hampton’s Film Festival if you can.

The information on the film is  here

Bart Giamatti’s “The Green Fields of the Mind,” After a Fenway Victory (Link Fixed)

Former Yale President and Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti was a baseball fan. His writings reflect that and in this excerpted piece, you can get a feel for the man’s baseball passion.

                                                                 “The Green Fields of the Mind “

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game’s deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight. I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio–not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television–and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind. There, in that warm, bright place, what the old poet called Mutability does not so quickly come. . . .(The entire article can be found “Here.  I had dinner with Giamatti before he became Commissioner and he told me about his writing. When he was Commissioner,  he said “No one would publish this stuff, (including Yale University)  until I became Commissioner and now everyone wants to.”

During dinner, I recall we discussed baseball and our shared favorite song, “Amazing Grace” and replayed our shared favorite movie, “The Third Man.”  Dessert was shared chocolate fondue. It was a wonderful evening. 

When the National Anthem Was First Played at a Baseball Game.

Dick Heller, the famous and resourceful reporter, provides us with this wonderful story:

 ‘Oh, say, can you see . . . ‘
   Trick question: When was the national anthem first played at a major league baseball game?
   Straight answer: Thirteen years before it became the national anthem.
   Technically, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just another tune when the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs opened the 1918 World Series at Wrigley Field. The Sox were leading 1-0 in the middle of the seventh inning as a military band unexpectedly broke into Francis Scott Key’s rousing number.
   The United States was embroiled in the Great War, as it was then called, and this was a patriotic time. On the mound, a slender 23-year-old Boston left-hander named George Herman Ruth doffed his cap and held it over his heart. So did all the other players and most of the derby-hatted men and umbrella-toting women in the crowd of 30,511. Many sang or spoke the words as the band played on.
   The date was Sept. 5, and the Series had started nearly a month early following a shortened regular season resulting from Secretary of War Newton D. Baker’s “work or fight” decree. Before Game 1, players had marched in military formations with bats over their shoulder — a frequent scene in  ballparks during 1917 and 1918.
   The tune, adopted by Francis Scott Key in 1814 from an old English drinking song, did not become the national anthem until President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order to that effect in 1931. Nonetheless, a precedent had been set. When the 1918 Series moved to Fenway Park on Sept. 9, another band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the start of Game 4.
   Until the United States entered World War II in December 1941, “The Star-Spangled Banner” usually preceded only special sporting events, such as Opening Day in baseball. During the second war, renditions became standard before most professional and college games, and thus it has remained.
     Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford once observed that many fans think the last two words of the anthem are “play ball!” If we attended a sports event and didn’t hear it, we might think we were in another country. At all games of the Toronto Blue Jays (and the Montreal Expos before they moved to Washington in 2005), both the U.S. and Canadian anthems are played.
   The question remains whether fans take the anthem seriously or whether repetition has dulled its impact. In Baltimore, of course, fans screech “O!” as it nears an end with the line, “O, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” At Nationals Park in Washington, within sight of the Capitol dome, most observers stand at attention — even journalists working on deadline in the press box. Yet some younger fans can be seen resting on their rumps and/or failing to take off their caps — whether because of disrespect or ignorance, who knows?
   In my case, I stand for standing and for removing any headgear I might be wearing. That’s the way I was brought up — to honor the country and the flag. It’s sort of like respecting the president of the United States even if you didn’t vote for him. (Oh wait a minute, some folks don’t do that anymore either.)
   Back in the 1950s, a more-or-less musical aggregation called Goldman’s Band performed the anthem every Opening Day at Griffith Stadium before the Senators embarked on another losing season. Usually the president — Truman or Eisenhower — would toss the first ball into a gaggle of players gathered near his box. Miraculously perhaps, the ensuing scrambles never resulted in injuries.
   And when the Redskins played at Griffith, the anthem culminated a dramatic musical prelude to games. The team band, founded in 1938, would march down the field playing “Hail to the Redskins” and segue into “Dixie”  as the multitudes cheered. Then the bandleader would hop onto a little stand at the 50-yard-line and wave his baton to start “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In that simpler era, this was stirring stuff indeed.
   At most stadiums nowadays,, a recording of the anthem is used. The Nationals and Orioles often invite local singers or groups to do it, a nice touch. “But they warned us not to be thrown off when the fans yell ‘O!’ ” said Marilyn Levitt of Chevy Chase, Md., who has warbled with the Capital Accord Chorus at Camden Yards. At some venues, “God Bless America” has been played during the seventh-inning stretch (along with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game“ since September 11).
   As nearly everybody knows, the national anthem is difficult to sing  properly -= and often isn’t. Baritone George London once told Time magazine the song is “impossible to sing if you’re sober” because its high notes are too high and its low notes too low.
   Then there’s the problem of remembering the words. Country singer Johnny Paycheck, attempting it at an Atlanta Falcons game, offered this addled version: “Oh, say, can you see, it’s cloudy at night/what so loudly we sang as the daylight’s last cleaning.”
   An immigrant opera singer from Hungary included the Father of Our Country thusly: “Bombs bursting in air, George Washington was there.” A former Miss Bloomington (Minn.) doing the number at a Twins game got so confused that she muttered “aw nuts” into the microphone and gave up on the spot.
   Other singers have offered intentionally unorthodox versions. Folkie Jose Feliciano caused a furor when he did a slow, bluesy number before a game of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Motown icon Marvin Gaye tried a “soul and funky” interpretation at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. And Roseanne Barr, the often smutty comedian, was painfully off key at a San Diego Padres game in 1990.
   But when the anthem is sung well and traditionally, it can be beautiful and inspiring. Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill’s version used to be a fixture at Yankee Stadium before big games. (Ronan Tynan, formerly of the Irish Tenors, often does the gentler “God Bless America,”  which some think should be the anthem, during the seventh inning at the new Bronx ballyard.)
   So take note when the P.A. announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise . . . ” Possibly forevermore, the national anthem is a familiar and welcome part of our national pastime and other games people play
   Dick Heller is copy chief of The National Pastime Baseball Museum

Fall Baseball is War

A baseball season starts in the Spring with teams playing with a relaxed tone that indicates players understanding that there is the long season ahead and any early deficit can be overcome. This leads to the mid-season, from June through August, where the play intensifies as they are in great shape and have an understanding of how good or bad the team is.  With this understanding comes a developing urge to win, if the team is good, or just survive and avoid the ignominy of the cellar.Ignominy-and-the-MLB-Cellar-Dweller”

Then it is September. This is the month where every pitch has meaning. The glory of the pennant is there, as is the drive to preserve some pride by beating a contender and finishing as well as possible. This is September 3. There are about 25 games left, not the mass of 100+  that faced teams in June. Here a game won or lost can make all the difference. Just one game here or there. Players play September game as if it were war.

In the AL West, Oakland and Texas have identical records, 79-58, at the top. On those teams, as is true of all teams in the pennant race, memories of games lost in April and May due to an error, missed cut off man, misjudged flyball, and all of the ways a game can be lost are remembered, vaguely, and the fact that can’t happen now dominates players’ thinking. As said earlier, some teams play with their hands on their throats. Texas lost to Minnesota to a late homerun recently.  Oakland has won four in a row and beat Texas yesterday, and they play each other five more times this month.

In the AL East, Boston is 5.5 games ahead and shows no sign of losing. The Orioles and Yankees are battling for the wild card position, 1/2 game apart. They play each other four times next week.

In the NL Central, three teams, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati have post season possibilities. The Pirates are ahead by one game over St. Louis and play each other this weekend. In that division, the Cubs and Brewers are tied for last, and that is a real race, as well, as the drive to avoid being last is as strong in September as is the race to win. They will play each other seven more times in what will be vigorously contested games.

In the NL West, the race is between San Diego and San Francisco to avoid the cellar. They are tied at 61-76. They are playing a three game series now, San DIego won yesterday and will finish the season with a three game series in San Francisco. Just thinking of the importance to those two teams of avoiding the ignominy of the cellar means that series will be ferocious.

The long season is 162 games long. It is like life itself where daily events have long term impacts. For the baseball fan, it’s never over ’til it’s over and for all the teams mentioned above, it won’t be over until the season is over. The only time in baseball where time is a factor and for baseball people, in September, time seems to stand still.

Fifth Game Theory

Major League Baseball focuses its rule making on creating a universe where there is competitive balance among the teams. This concept is the ‘agreed to’ holy grail in baseball administration and has been the goal of league executives for decades.  I was once asked to develop a metric for determining whether competitive balance existed.
I only had to look to the standings to develop such a metric. As this is baseball, nothing is perfect, but teams are ranked according to winning percentage. These percentages normally run from just under. 600 to just over. 400. This means that  of every five games played, teams will win two and lose two. This leaves the Fifth Game to determine where a team is ranked.

This game can be recognized by fans as the one where the outcome is in doubt until late in the game, which is determined by a clutch hit, an error, or some sort of event that determines the outcome. A properly designed roster has late inning specialists such as defensive players, pinch hitters, set up men and closers. Of course, a basestealer is today a luxury because of expanded pitching staffs.
The Twins/White Sox game June 18, 2013 was a Fifth Game. The White Sox tied the game at 5 in the top of the 8th but failed to get the hit that would put them ahead. The Twins, aided by a lead off walk, scored two in the bottom of the 8th on a clutch hit. The game could have gone either way.
Teams keep track of series won and lost and this is in recognition of Fifth Game Theory. Keep this is mind while you are watching your next game and figure out if you are lucky to be watching a Fifth Game or not. They’re the ones that keep my attention.

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