My baseball career ended ignominiously in Pony League.
After sitting on the bench for three years in Little League (this was back in the day when it wasn’t mandatory to play everyone), I led my parish Little League in homers my last season, with a total of three. For the season. Plus one in the All-Star Game. My future looked promising. My dad opined I had a swing like Ted Williams. I had found a home at first base (couldn’t play any other position), where sluggers park their leaky gloves.
The next season, 14-year olds started pitching to me. They threw much, much faster than 12-year olds. And they were just as wild — or more so.
It was scary. I started bailing out on every pitch. I stepped into the bucket. I couldn’t hit a thing.
After that first season, my baseball “career,” if you could call it that, was over. Truth is, I quit on myself. I trembled at the thought of one of those teenage fastballs plunking me in the head.
It takes a large measure of moxie to stand in a batter’s box. It also takes know-how.
A few years back, when I was coaching my daughter’s Little League team, I read about a drill I thought was useful. I’d take whiffle balls, tennis balls, nerf balls, anything soft, and I’d stand on the mound and throw them gently at my players’ heads. The purpose of the drill was to teach them the proper way to turn away from a pitch: twist your head and body down and away from the pitcher, and the worst thing that could happen is that you’d get plunked in the back.
In the major leagues, back in the era when I quit Pony League ball, pitchers would routinely “brush back” batters. It was part of the game. Pitch them inside, move them back off the plate, because pitchers believed they owned that plate and all the space above it, and they never wanted batters to start feeling comfortable standing in the box.
I’m not talking bean balls here, but I am humming “chin music.” How exactly did Sal Maglie he get his nickname, the Barber? Hmm. Bob Gibson – intimidation personified.
These days, a pitcher can’t throw the ball inside — even by accident — without risking retaliation. The balance of power has shifted.
Just ask Dodgers’ pitcher Zack Greinke, who’s got a rod in his shoulder and a weeks-long stint on the DL. And take a look at Carlos Quentin, who has the gall to appeal his paltry eight-game suspension for charging the mound after Greinke nicked him on a 3-2 count in a one-run game. Because the pitcher yelled at him. Oh my!
It was the 116th time in his eight-year career that Quentin had gotten hit by a pitch. Why? He leans over the plate so far he can’t possibly get out of the way. Not that he seems to try. If he’s hit more than a dozen times a season, how many dozens of times do you think he’s almost hit?
Prince Fielder gets hit a lot, too — 95 times in his career. Prince is a big man. He knows he’s going to get moved off the plate. And he takes his punishment like a man. He’s not going to charge the mound.
The balance of power between offense and defense shifts over different eras in baseball. Right now it’s an almost perfect balance, with scary hitters like Prince and Miguel Cabrera who possess incredible bat speed and strength and plate discipline, and equally skillful and dominating pitchers like Greinke and Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. But compared to pitchers of the past, today’s star hurlers deftly nibble more often than they put a batter on the seat of his pants. They perform in a different environment.
Intimidation — the fear factor for the batter, a sitting duck 60 feet, six inches away — is part of the game, a key element of the balance of power. But it’s eroding. Maybe that’s what’s so sorely missing from the Tigers’ shoddy bullpen. Joaquin Benoit, in particular, looks like he’s hoping to be excused just for stepping on the mound. Yes, the closer schtick is superstition, as I made clear in an earlier column, but every pitcher needs to stoke the fear once in awhile. Keeping the batter uncomfortable, off balance, with a nagging question mark in the back of his mind — no matter how you accomplish that, it’s an essential aspect of the art pitching. And just a scary beard won’t do it. But a little judicious chin music, just once in awhile, will do the trick. Somebody whisper that in the ear of a Detroit reliever — and soon, before the Tigers earn the title of most under-performing team in the league.