One Pitch

One Pitch

The Astros won the AL pennant on Saturday night.  A clean 4-0 victory over the one-season-too-soon Baby Bombers.  However, one pitch could have changed it all.

If you checked Sportscenter Friday night, you would have seen that the Astros beat the Yankees 7-1 in Game 6 of the ALCS.  “Wow”, you would have thought, “the Astros got their mojo back and blew out the upstart Yankees”.

But if you were watching the game, and specifically the 7th inning*, you might have an entirely different view on the matter.

As a quick reminder, the Astros won the first two games of the series, and led 4-0 in the 7th inning of Game 4.  The Astros were six outs away from a commanding 3-1 series lead, with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander set to pitch the next two games.  In the space of less than two innings, that all came crashing down; the Yankees scored six unanswered runs, won the game 6-4, and then won Game 5.  And, just like that, the ‘Stros had their backs against the wall.

So when the Astros found themselves leading 3-0 in the 7th inning of Game 6, the ghosts of the Bronx had to be floating about the home dugout.  Verlander had been cruising – 75 pitches through six innings.  But he started the top of the 7th by walking Greg Bird on six pitches.  Two pitches later he had hit Starlin Castro.  Now the Yanks had the tying run at the plate with nobody out.

In case you haven’t been following, the Houston bullpen is a minor dumpster fire at this point.  It is not a Cubs-level conflagration, but it is smoldering.  So A.J. Hinch desperately wanted to get seven innings out of Verlander and just find a one-inning bridge to Ken Giles.  However, when Verlander started Aaron Hicks with three straight balls, things were not going according to plan.

I have previously written that the two-strike pitch is what makes me love baseball.  There is nothing like it in all of sports. However, it need not be a two-strike pitch that changes the entire complexion of a game – or a series. Sometimes, it is just one pitch. And in Game 6 of the 2017 ALCS, we saw that one pitch, over and over again.

Two on, no outs, a 3-0 count to the batter representing the tying run. If Verlander throws one more ball, the bases are loaded for the Todd Father, who has had a career resurgence – just in these playoffs. Verlander throws a strike down Main Street. But we are still dealing with one pitch. On 3-1, home plate umpire Jim Reynolds calls on a strike on what is clearly a ball (see pitch #5 above). Rather than loading the bases, he loaded the count. What happens if that call is made correctly?

Now we have one pitch writ large – it is now a two-strike pitch. So what does Aaron Hicks do, he fouls off four straight. On the tenth pitch, and by my count, the seventh one pitch, Hicks strikes out swinging. But we are hardly out of the woods.

Verlander is clearly tiring. He is now up to 93 pitches (and 217 over his last two appearances). Verlander’s second pitch to Frazier is rifled to dead-center. George Springer makes a leaping catch against the wall to, in my estimation, save the season. If that ball lands, the score is 3-2, and the Yankees have the tying run in scoring position with one out. And, if that shot turned into a double, Hinch has no choice but to go to his leaky bullpen. Shades of Game 4 all over again.

But that one pitch is turned into the second out of the inning. Verlander then starts out the #9 hitter, Chase Headley (who already had two hits on the night), with two balls. And here we go again. The next pitch to Headley is one pitch that can change everything. As of 2016, batters hit .282 on 2-0 counts; and that jumps to .301 on 3-0 counts. As a general rule, hitters “love to hit 2-0”. Headley took a 2-0 slider at the upper end of the zone for strike one. With the count 2-1, batters hit .247, and Headley was no different, grounding to Jose Altuve to end the end inning and end the rally.

Verlander was done after throwing seven scoreless innings, giving up five hits, and striking out eight. He threw 99 pitches. However, he threw one pitch at least 9 times. Had that one pitch gone differently in any of those nine chances, it is quite possible that Verlander’s effort would have been wasted, and in all likelihood the Yankees are the AL Champions, prepping for a rematch of the 1977, 1978, 1981 World Series.

One pitch.

PLAY BALL!!

*The 3-0 slider to Gary Sanchez with two on and two in the 6th inning may be the subject of any entirely different article.

WHEN SAFE IS OUT

WHEN SAFE IS OUT

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I am an attorney.  As such, my bookcases are stocked with legal tomes, filled with confusing text, obscure events, and various and sundry arcana.  After practicing for nearly twenty years, I rarely reach for any of these dusty books, as it is often difficult to discern the meaning of anything written in them.

Among the those littering my office is the Official Baseball Rules.  This softback, covering 240 pages, is also filled with ambiguous regulations, bizarre concepts, and wacky examples.  The amazing thing is, armed with this book, not one of us could stump an MLB umpire.  Wake an umpire in the middle of the night, and he could opine on the specifics of Rule 6.01(g) (Interference With Squeeze Play or Steal of Home) before he rubs the crust out of his eyes.

But umpires are limited by what they find in those 240 pages.  So, from time to time, it is incumbent upon the MLB Rules Committee to enact some new rules to deal with the evolution of the game.  This became painfully obvious late last week.

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Years ago (before any of us were watching or playing baseball), bases were soft and billowy, filled with sand or sawdust, affixed to the ground via a leather strap attached to a wooden spike.

 

Today, bases are made of hard rubber and have a metal attachment that connects to a steel tube anchored by concrete in the ground.  Suffice it to say, today’s bases are considerably less hospitable to the players trying to reach them.

In the hundred plus years or so between the advent of baseball and the current incarnation, players – on average – have gotten about 5 inches taller (average height in 2010 was nearly 6’2” vs. 5’9” in the 1870s) and about 23 pounds heavier (190 now vs. 167 then).  Now, I don’t want to get all Sports Science here, and I certainly don’t want to start doing math or coefficients, but I think we can all agree that players today are faster than they were in the 19th century, and because they are taller and heavier, they run with more force than players from the Rutherford B. Hayes-James Garfield-Chester Arthur-Grover Cleveland era.  And yet, today’s ballplayers are required to interact with a base that has considerably less (read: no) give.  This is where many problems arise.

I have written (extensively) about the dangers of sliding head first into bases (as well as home plate), but neither José Lobatón nor the Washington Nationals care about injuries right now.  They are more concerned with basic physics.  And here’s why:

With two outs and the Cubs leading 9-8 in the bottom of the 8th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, the Nats had one run in and two runners on when Willson Contreras threw a back-pick to Anthony Rizzo at first base, hoping to catch Lobatón napping.  He wasn’t, and got back safely.  Or so we thought.

Upon further review, when all 73 inches and 205 pounds of Lobatón slid feet first and impacted the 15×15 inch rubber square that is essentially bolted to the earth, the result was not flawless.  Lobatón’s right leg hit the bag and then, ever-so-slightly, lost contact with the base.  When bodies of considerable mass make contact with immovable objects, these types of things tend to happen.  Rizzo adroitly held his tag, and the replay guys in New York were able to find a fraction of an inch of daylight between the foot and the base.  Rally over…inning  over…season essentially over.

This is not an issue of fair vs. not fair.  Those are the rules, have been since time immemorial, and Lobatón was correctly called out.  But when something like this happens, in a game of this magnitude, it just means we need to change the rules.  As players get bigger and bigger and faster and faster (either naturally or otherwise), we need to make sure that the game is in a position to make accommodations, and we need to allow for umpires to make reasonable calls in relation thereto.

Because disconnecting with the bag for a fraction of a second and being called out certainly is not in the spirit of the game, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs came up with a solution last year that he reposted again after Thursday night’s debacle in Washington.  In short, he wants a vertical “safe space” above the bag to account for these types of plays.  It is an interesting concept, and I encourage you to give it a read.

 

I would augment, supplement, or replace Dave’s idea with the following (taking out the concept of verticality or any other plane):

If a base runner, sliding either head first or feet first, reaches the base prior to the application of the fielder’s tag, and the base runner loses contact with the base, in the umpire’s judgment, for reasons other than his own volition (i.e., only due to the impact of his body to the base), and in the umpire’s judgment the base runner had no intent to advance to the next base, provided the loss of contact is for a de minimis period of time, the base runner shall be ruled safe.  The foregoing shall not be applicable to instances wherein the base runner slides past the base in question, regardless of the period of time he loses contact with the base.  In such event, provided the tag is applied when the base runner is off the base, he shall be called out.

My version of the rule incorporates Dave’s vertical concept but allows for a player to go off to the side as well.  I can imagine, without the benefit of a direct overhead camera, replay officials debating whether or not the impact caused the runner to bounce to the side of the base, in which event Dave would have him called out, or remained atop the base, resulting in ultimate safety.  I guess I am just more liberal with my body movement allowance.

Take Dave’s idea, take my idea, or come up with another.  But, sometime before the first pitch is thrown for the 2018 season, the MLB Rules Committee needs to fix this glaring omission, and get us back to what the rules intended, not what 4K Ultra HD digital technology discovered.

PLAY BALL!!

ABSOLUTION or IGNOMINY

ABSOLUTION or IGNOMINY

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Some moments are indelible.  When they happen, we know we have witnessed history.  And no matter what happens after, those moments will be lodged in our memory, forevermore.

“The Giants win the Pennant…the Giants win the Pennant…the Giants win the Pennant” is arguably the most famous moment in baseball history.  And yet, the memory of that moment is no way diminished – in any manner – by the fact that the Giants lost the Series, the Giants lost the Series, the Giants lost the Series.

Regardless of the outcome of the 1956 World Series, no baseball fan can forget Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen’s arms after the only perfect game in World Series history.

New York Yankees' catcher Yogi Berra leaps into the arms of pitcher Don Larsen after Larsen struck out the last Brooklyn Dodgers' batter to complete his perfect game during the fifth game of the World Series, Oct. 8, 1956. Racing up in the background is Joe Collins. (AP Photo)

Has there ever been a better match-up than Bob Welch v. Reggie Jackson in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series?  I have written about that match-up many times, and we all know the outcome, which is not diminished in any way by the fact that Reggie took Welch deep in Game 6 as the Yankees finished off the Dodgers winning their 22nd world title.

I would argue that the outcome of the 1988 World Series is wholly irrelevant to our reverie for Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 heroics.

And, as of Sunday night, regardless of who wins the 2017 NLCS, I don’t anyone in Los Angeles will ever forget Justin Turner taking John Lackey deep to walk-off Game 2.

But there are other moments that stick in our craw because of the ultimate outcome of the game/series.  In short, some people are granted absolution and some people are granted ignominy due to matters wholly outside their control.  I was thinking about a handful of these (I am certain there are many more) after watching the playoffs this week.  It makes me think that some people have horseshoes, and some people have bad pennies.

To wit:

If Rick Sutcliffe was able to retire Alan Wiggins, Tony Gwynn, and/or Steve Garvey, do North Siders forgive a meager grounder through Bull Durham’s legs in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS?  Does the Curse of the Billy Goat end thirty-two years earlier?

If Todd Worrell could have extricated himself from a runner on first, no out situation in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, and then didn’t give up a single (a single?!) to Steve Balboni; and if Darrell Porter didn’t allow a passed ball, and if Dane Iorg hadn’t singled; and if the Cardinals hadn’t been blown out in Game 7, would Don Denkinger still be persona non grata in St. Louis?

If Alex Gonzalez turns a routine double play on Miguel Cabrera’s ground ball, and the Cubs get out of the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS leading 3-1, would anyone ever learn or know the name “Bartman”?  Would we all now laugh at a grown man’s temper tantrum?  Would the Lovable Losers have found yet another way to rip the hearts out of their fans, resigning them to “wait til next year”.

If the Red Sox could have pushed across a single run in the 9th, or the 10th, or the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, does Grady Little lose his job for keeping Pedro Martinez in the game an inning and many batters too long?  Would Aaron “Bleeping” Boone roll off the tongue of New Englanders?

If the Rangers could have eked out a Game 7 victory in the 2011 World Series, how would we remember David Freese or Nelson Cruz?  Would Game 6 just be a blip on the radar, only important to Cardinals’ fans and David Freese’s friends and relatives?  That said, I believe Joe Buck’s “We will see you…tomorrow night” call would still be Hall worthy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GQlkLSyCTA

 

Most flagrantly, if the Red Sox had not blown a 3-0 sixth inning lead in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, and gone on to win their first championship in 68 years, would Bill Buckner have been vilified on the Back Bay for nearly two decades; the subject of an E:60 documentary; parodied on Curb Your Enthusiasm; and forced to move to Idaho?  Or would that play just been a clip on the highlight reel “Reversing the Curse” – the moment (in hindsight) when it all could have slipped away?

And, of course, we never would have even had “a little roller up along first” if Doug DeCinces’ flyball had reached the seats or Bobby Grich’s liner had fallen in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS; or if the Angels could have won either Game 6 or Game 7 in Boston.  If any of that happens, maybe Donnie Moore doesn’t take his life less than three years later.

If Jason Kipnis’ line drive down the right field line in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7 of last year’s World Series not drifted foul, do we spend the entire off-season dissecting every decision Joe Maddon made, second-guessing him through Christmas and into Spring Training?  Does he lose his job like Grady Little?  Jason Kipnis would have become the modern-day Bill Mazeroski / Joe Carter, as beloved in Cleveland as LeBron.  One wonders if the Cuyahoga catches fire again?

Similarly, if Jayson Werth’s flyball down the left field line in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 5 of this year’s NLDS doesn’t curve foul; or if Bryce Harper could have channeled his inner Michael A. Taylor and tied the game with one mammoth swing, do we spend this off-season castigating Maddon for trying to get seven outs from Wade Davis?  Those things didn’t happen, so Broad Street Joe gets off Scot free and lives to fight another day/series.

With the Yankees winning three games in four days against the best team in the American League, against the prohibitive favorite to win the pennant, I wonder if anyone will member Joe Girardi failing to challenge Lonnie Chisenhall’s foul tip that wasn’t?  Will the hit-by-pitch that wasn’t, which led to a Francisco Lindor grand slam, which led to a Jay Bruce homerun, which led to an Indians 9-8 victory in Game 2, be lost to the scrap heap of history now that the Baby Bombers find themselves in the ALCS?  Only time will tell.  But for now, Girardi keeps his job, Yankee fans are allowed to forget, and time marches on.

Who will be granted absolution?  Who will live with ignominy?  We potentially have fourteen games among four teams over two series to find out.

PLAY BALL!!

NARRATIVE LOST

NARRATIVE LOST

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Sometimes the horse gets out of the barn, the toothpaste gets out of the tube, the water goes under the (Golden Gate) bridge.  Sometimes the words you say are not the words listeners hear.  Sometimes people have the best of intentions, and then other people co-opt those intentions.  And sometimes, because of that co-opting, the original message gets lost in the noise that said message creates.  We live in cacophonous times.

Normally I write about baseball and how it relates to life.  And because a little-known Oakland A’s catcher, the bi-racial son of a career military officer (who Jeff Passan wrote about wonderfully), elected to “take a knee” during the national anthem last week, I have been given an opening to write about this topic.  But because it is my want, I will focus on its genesis.

Back on August 14, 2016, when Barack Obama was still President (an important note), before the San Francisco 49ers’ first pre-season game, Colin Kaepernick decided to sit during the national anthem.  He sat again the following week.  No one seemed to notice.  It wasn’t until after the third pre-season game, on August 26th, when a reporter’s curiosity was piqued, that Kaepernick addressed the issue.  He released a statement that he was sitting because of the oppression of people of color and ongoing issues of police brutality.  Two days later he met with the media and told them:

“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.

This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country.  And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”

There it is, folks.  That is why Colin Kaepernick sat and then kneeled.  Anyone can now lay claim to any interpretation they want to invent; they can ascribe any meaning to this act they want to inject into the public conscience and political sphere; they can paint Colin Kaepernick as the poster boy for whichever side they want to take.

But these are his own words.  More than thirteen months ago, long before Trump, long before Charlottesville, long before Alabama, and before the NFL, corporate sponsors, and fans in the stands had their say, Colin had his.  But, as we know, we don’t always get to control the narrative.  The claim was that Kaepernick had a bad season (even though his 2016 stats pretty closely resemble his 2012 stats, when he led the Niners to the Super Bowl, but I digress), and no team wanted a washed-up quarterback who comes, standard, with a political headache.  For purposes hereof, we can put aside Kaepernick’s qualifications to play in the NFL today.  The fact is, he is unemployed, and others have taken up his cause.

Or have they?

In Week 1 of the current NFL season, four players either knelt or sat during the national anthem; the same four did so in Week 2.

And then, on September 22nd, President Donald Trump went to a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, and described football players who kneel during the national anthem as “sons-of-bitches”, and called for them to be fired.  For purposes hereof, we can put aside the First Amendment and whether or not such a firing would be a violation thereof.

Trump’s speech was between Weeks 2 and 3.  After Trump spoke, more than 200 players kneeled.  What were they kneeling for?  Did they even know?  Do we?

Do the fans who booed their favorite players and their cherished teams, do the announcers who broadcast and highlight the protests, do the pundits who landed – firmly – on one side of the issue or the other, even know the why of what is happening on the gridiron?  The obvious answer, of course, is “no”.

The players have taken a knee, locked arms, and raised their fists; but they have not spoken out.   So, because nature abhors a vacuum, social commentators, thought-leaders, craven politicians, and bombastic demagogues all felt compelled to offer their own explanations.   The upshot: the rallying cry of “stand up nation” is that the players are disrespecting the military, the flag, and the country.  Reasonable minds can differ – and have, vociferously – as to whether or not kneeling is disrespectful to any of the above.  But that discussion wholly misses the point.  No one is kneeling to intentionally disrespect the military, the flag, or the country.

However, some, nay many (from 4 to over 200), may be kneeling to disrespect the President of the United States who has chosen through words and (lack of) action, to divide this country.  People have taken to calling him the “Divider in Chief”, and I don’t think the President would dispute or condemn that appellation.  Sadly, this is just where we are.

Unfortunately, in all the noise, the message – Kap’s original message – is now lost.  To the extent this was ever about the military, the flag, or our country, it was about love of country, what the flag should represent, and the ideals that our military sheds its blood for.  The act of kneeling was not intended to be disrespectful, it was a yearning for our better selves. Ironically, Kap knelt to Make America Great.

But, again, that message has been muddled and muddied.  So players, and owners, and league officials began meeting to try to find a way forward – not necessarily a way through or a way out – but just forward, without alienating a large portion of the fanbase or a large number of sponsors.  They all felt the need to put this genie back in the bottle, but could not come up with a magic elixir.

If the players intend to continue kneeling, incurring the wrath of the boo-birds, and risking their careers and potentially their lives, without offering more than a well-written Op-Ed in the New York Times, this will end badly, if it can ever end.

In moments like this, I like to reach for the sharpest instrument in the tool box: Occam’s Razor.  The easiest solution is just to tell people why; answers their questions; appeal to their humanity; ask them to respect you, even if they don’t respect your actions.

Will this solve the problem, absolutely not.  But it will cut out much of the noise; it will mitigate people’s attempts to co-opt the message; it will provide much-needed context.  The logical next question is how?  I’m glad you asked – here’s how:

Before each Week 5 game, the captains of both teams come to mid-field prior to the singing of the national anthem.  They will deliver a statement written/approved by/with the NFL Players Association and the Commissioner’s Office.  The same message will be read at 14 stadiums before 14 games (four teams have byes), in front of an average live audience of 70,000, plus millions more at home.  It won’t take but a minute or two.  If it were up to me, I would either read Kaepernick’s original words (as set forth above) or the statement put out by the Indianapolis Colts earlier this week:

“Recently, there have been several misperceptions regarding a personal choice made by members of our team to bring awareness to prevailing issues facing our nation. To be clear – those of us who kneeled did not intend to disrespect our flag, our national anthem or those who serve our country. We all have family and friends who are servicemen and women. We appreciate and respect the incredible sacrifices they make.

But as NFL players, we have a platform. And as Americans, we have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Our intention was to raise awareness and to continue critical conversations about real equality, the injustices against black and brown people, police brutality, respect, unity, and equal opportunity.  Our players are hurting, our people are hurting, our neighborhoods are hurting, and kneeling was a direct response to that hurt.

But what makes football so special is the way it brings people together – fans, players, coaches, all of us. We represent different races, backgrounds, and beliefs, but we come together for a common goal.  That togetherness seen on the field and in the stands when we play should resonate even when we leave the stadium.

In that same spirit, as unified Americans, we will respect all forms of peaceful protests, as they are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Some of our players may kneel, while others may stand.  But this is just the beginning.  There is much work to do, and it will take all of us.

Kneeling for JUSTICE.  Standing for UNITY.  Fighting for EQUALITY.  Showing RESPECT.”

Fans may still boo.  Sponsors may still flee.  But if the players state their case, in these fora, no one can honestly refute the ultimate goal.  No one can honestly ascribe a different meaning to the player’s actions.  No one can honestly deny the sincerity of their cause.

We are in a era of social turmoil not seen in a generation.  But we will not get through it if we cannot speak, and cannot be heard.  Every Sunday there is a captive audience – let the players use it to heal, whether or not they kneel.

PLAY BALL!!