07 October 2009

Who Needs Homeruns? I Love Baseball

Sure, when my team, the Dodgers, hits them I won't turn them down. But where's the real excitement, the tension, the suspense? A strong guy with a fast bat and a reasonably good eye manages to hit a ball just right and out it goes. It's an impressive feat of strength and timing, you bet, but where's the finesse? Where's the skill, the thought, the calculation?

Now Casey Blake's walk in the ninth inning of the second playoff game between the Dodgers and Cardinals, that's different. That's what I love about baseball. That's what makes it different, and to my mind better, than all other sports. Bear with me. If you read the following paragraphs and can follow them, you might begin to get an inkling - if you aren't already a fan - of what I and so many other people love about baseball.

To set the scene: It's the last half of the ninth inning, the Dodgers are losing two to one in an extremely important game. There are two outs. One more out and the Dodgers lose the game. James Loney comes up and hits a fly ball that should have been caught by the left fielder to end the game. But the left fielder muffs it and Loney ends up on second. He's taken out for a pinch runner, Juan Pierre, who's a lot faster.

Casey Blake comes up to bat. The first pitch is a strike. The second pitch is a ball. The third pitch is close enough that Blake begins to swing at it, but then thinks better of it and tries to stop his swing. If he swings too far it's a strike. If he manages to stop in time, it's a ball. The umpire calls it a strike and Blake is furious because he thought he held up in time. So now the Dodgers are down to their last strike before they lose the game.

If Blake can get a hit, great. But that's not easy to do. Hitting a pitched ball for a hit, is generally considered one of the most difficult things to do in any sport. Consider that a player who consistently gets a hit three times out of every ten is a great, not merely good but great, player.

The pitcher wanted to strike out Blake, or make him hit a pitch into fair territory that was either a fly ball that could be caught - by pitching him high enough that he'd swing under the ball and hit it into the air; or make him hit a pitch on the ground to one of the infielders who could throw him out at first base for the final out - pitch him low so that he hits the ball on the top.

If a ball is close to the strike zone, with two strikes on him already, Blake has to swing at it or risk striking out and the Dodgers lose the game. But if it's a bad pitch to hit - too low, too high, too inside or too outside - and he swings at it and hits it wrong, he'll probably make an out anyhow.

Meanwhile, Juan Pierre, the speedster on second base, is always a threat to steal a base. So the Cardinals' pitcher, catcher, second baseman, shortstop and third baseman had to worry about, and keep their eyes on him, too. (If he stole third base, it would be much easier for him to score and tie the game if Blake got a hit.) There was tension and suspense and potential action that involved six players and several possible scenarios.

The outfielders had to be ready as well. If Blake hit a ball into the outfield that they couldn't catch, they had to try and position themselves to throw the ball to homeplate in the hope they could get Juan Pierre out as he was trying to score.

What happened was that Blake, using all his skill, speed, eyesight, knowledge of the pitcher and plain old smarts, made his at bat last six more pitches. Three of those pitches were close enough to the strike zone that he had to swing at them. But they weren't good enough to really try and hit. So to the best of his ability, he deliberately hit them foul - out of play. Every single pitch could have resulted in the Dodgers losing the game, an important game. Every single pitch was a moment of enormous suspense, tension, excitement and potential.

This all assumes, of course, that you gave a shit. I do. Not in the way I care about world hunger or global warming or my book sales, but in exactly the same way that any great movie, music, art gallery or book can affect someone.

The last of the nine pitches of his at bat was the fourth ball and Casey Blake trotted to first base, having very artfully earned himself a walk.

A simple, meager, not anywhere near as impressive as a towering homerun, walk. But it was damn good baseball, exciting, nerve-wracking, suspenseful, dramatic baseball. And the great thing about baseball is that if you really appreciate it and know what to look for, almost every game has moments of that sort of drama.

The Dodgers went on to, almost miraculously, win the game. They wouldn't have without Casey's walk. But even if they hadn't, that one at bat of Casey Blake's, coming on the heels of nine previous innings of moments of small and large drama and tension, was more than enough to make me very happy.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I'm with you 100%. The threat of a home run is nice, looming over the game with almost every pitch, but the home run itself is a release of that tension. The tension builds through episodes like you described; the real excitement in baseball is watching fielders chase seemingly uncatchable balls and players running the bases. Can he score from first on a ball in the gap? Get from first to third on the single? Hit the ball through the vacated infield spot on a hit and run? Does the fielder hit the cut-off man, or throw to the wrong base? Does he make a spectacular throw that kills the run at the plate but allows runners to move up to second and third? All of those are exciting, and continue to ratchet up the tension for the next batter. The homer run is kind of cool to watch, but the bases are empty after that, and the tension has to start to build again.

Even ballplayers believe this, though they won't say so in as many words. How many times have you heard it said that a pitcher with a big lead (say 6-0) would rather give up a solo home run than walk a guy? The home run is a run, now the bases are empty, he starts with a clean slate. he walks a better and pitch selection and defensive positioning change so that a big inning could be brewing.