Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Greatest Game III: Imperfection

We gather here to discuss a part of baseball that is essential to the game, but troubling: the Umpire. The founders and developers of baseball brilliantly designed the rules of play and the dimensions of the field. Then came the human element: players, managers, coaches, owners and The Umpire. The Umpire was and is given a special place in the game; some of that is by design and some is by practice, or, perhaps more accurately, ritual. The Home Plate Umpire is at the center of each game in the same way that the Medicine Man/High Priest is at the center of a sacrificial ceremony.

The most important job of the Umpire is to call balls and strikes. In order to do this properly, he (someday she) must have a familiarity with something called the Strike Zone. Viewers of the contemporary game may be surprised to know that baseball's rules bother to define this Strike Zone. For the record, here it is:

"....area over home base the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap....determinned by the batter's stance."

If you watch a lot of games, as I do, you will be immediately struck by this "over the home base" rule. Replay after replay, disbelieving batter after disbelieving batter, demonstrate that home base or plate is wider for Umpires than for other mortals. Some nights, the Strike Zone easily reaches into the opposite batter's box, as it did in the recent Yankees-Red Sox series, or a few inches inside the active batter's box.

In the same series, batters and pitchers also seemed completely confused as to what would constitute a low strike. More than one Umpire seemed to think that this "hollow beneath the kneecap" had been kidnapped by the Ankle Gang. Tiger Woods would have been hard-pressed to reach down and hit some of those strikes. But, then a couple of batters later, these had become balls.

Let's face facts: Umpires are allowed, indeed encouraged, to "establish" a Strike Zone of their own making for each game. Home plate, to most Umps, pitchers and batters, has become a mere trail-marker, a guide. Surely batters' shoulders vary in height, and uniform pants change, but shouldn't the plate be the plate? Some nights it seems as though the Umpire is making it up each inning or making up for obvious bad calls by making another one for the other team.

You might think that this is a serious problem. You might think that players, managers, coaches, agents, journalists and announcers might mention this as a serious problem.

You would be wrong. Even the slightest hint of criticism of Umpires results in a serious fine by the League. Umpires "strike" fear in the hearts of all, just like the Medicine Man. Anger the Umpires and they might conspire to move the Strike Zone even more than they currently do. A complaining batter might be tossed or might not have another ball called for days. A complaining pitcher can fume all he wants, but he will be throwing only balls until he repents. Instead of righting a wrong, everyone extols the wonders of Money Ball and its central feature: the walk. The walk, not so incidentally, places the Umpire in an even more central role.

We exaggerate, of course, but this is a serious problem. The Strike Zone is taking supplements and is able to shrink and expand in the same game, yet it gets no asterisk. I'd like to make a bold and creative suggestion: don't allow every Umpire to get behind the plate; let them earn it. Make Umpires stick to the Strike Zone as written in the rules.

Who knows, if the umpires can actually agree on a single Strike Zone, maybe we can give them the right to force batters to stay in the batter's box and not leave it after every single pitch to tighten the stupid gloves, scratch an itch or gaze in wonder about where the hell the Strike Zone might be tonight!

Just saying.

The Greatest Game II: Perfection

The creators of baseball loved numbers and instinctively seemed to know how the game could be mathematically designed for the ultimate balance of planning and chance. Thus, we have nine innings and not the digital ten; hitters are granted three strikes not two and pitchers four balls, not three. Perhaps best of all: there is no clock. Even golf has an enforced clock, if players play too slowly. Some of baseball math took time to work out, but much of it was there from the beginning.

The "modern" game of baseball began in the late nineteenth century, which says a lot about the game in itself. The contemporary game of the last twenty years or so has become both corporate and steroidal. The revenue demands of one created the performance enhancements of the other. Juiced baseballs, air-conditioned corporate boxes and "energy" supplements in the contemporary game produced more home runs and ten-dollar weenies. Even if they wanted to try, the suits running baseball could not interfere with the Perfect Game.

Mark Buehrle, of the Chicago White Sox, recently pitched a Perfect Game with the assistance of a miraculous catch by his excellently named center fielder, DeWayne Wise, with none out in the ninth inning. We were reminded by statisticians that there have been only eighteen Perfect Games in the history of baseball, sixteen in the modern game, if we discount games played by Worcester and Providence in 1880. This bears repeating as a number: 16. Hundreds of thousands of games, but only 16 games pitched by 16 players; nobody has ever done it twice.

The framers of the game and its protectors over the years designed a game in which its nine innings, three outs per inning, the ninety-foot bases, the sixty-foot-six-inch distance between the back of home and the pitcher's mound conspire, nearly perfectly, to prevent pitchers from retiring twenty-seven batters in a row. This means no base hits, walks, bases reached by errors, or base runners of any kind. Add to this planned design the peculiar characteristics and dimensions of certain ballparks, and the human element of umpires, and it truly defies the imagination, when confronted with that number: 16. Einstein's E= mc2 has nothing on this 16.

The shortest PG was 1hr,23 mins., the first modern one, by Cy Young. The longest, 2hrs, 40mins., also had the best attendance, 49,820 at Yankee Stadium cheering David Wells. Only 6,298 saw poor Catfish Hunter do it for the Oakland A's.

One official Perfect Game stands out among all others: Don Larsen's 1956 feat for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the World Series. Nobody else had ever pitched one in the World Series; nobody has done it since. This may be the Halley's Comet of Perfect Games. One "unofficial" performance also stands out: Pittsburgh Pirate Harvey Haddix's 12 perfect innings before an error in the 13th spoiled it all. It is also famous, because the Pirates lost the game to the Milwaukee Braves, 1-0.

Golf has its hole-in-one and bowling has its perfect 300 game, just to name two lesser games, but in the amount of time it takes to read this posting, someone somewhere has hit a hole-in-one and scored 300.

Some perfection is more perfect than another.

The Greatest Game I: Homer

The ball traveled along its own arc high above the grass outfield, climbing until gravity helped to complete the arc and it landed in the left field stands. In any other game this would be out of bounds, and the judges, in this case umpires would command the moment and a replay would ensue. Instead, it marked the end of close to fifteen innings of scoreless baseball. No matter that the still suspect A-Rod hit it instead of the favored Jeter, or even the newcomer Teixera. The real star was the home run itself.

Imagine the moment of genius that created the home run, a whimsical moment in which someone saw how much fun it would be to build the game around a play that would be considered "out of bounds" in lesser games. Some bureaucracy or group of accountants might have come up with the perfectly set dimensions of the game: ninety feet between bases, sixty feet-six inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate, the size of home plate itself, the angles of the foul lines. An engineer might have devised the fielding positions, especially shortstop, and figured the way each infielder has just enough time to complete a double play.

But, all of that takes place inside the "diamond." Who would pay thirty bucks for two hot dogs and a beer for that? Who would have stayed for over five hours throughout a summer's night waiting in high anticipation of a walk, a bunt, a sac fly and a single to end the game? These are all wonderful small things for the purists, but one doesn't sit for five hours on the edge of the seat waiting for a walk.

The corporate "managers" of baseball and their media shills call that Money Ball, but that is a huge untruth and homer knows it. If truth be told, fans are bored to tears, frankly, by walks, even when they keep a rally going. And what of the contemporary players' ability to keep fouling off pitch after pitch, confounding and tiring the pitchers? Except for an occasional 10 pitch marathon at-bat in a crucial moment of a crucial game, the average player's fouling off four or five pitches is simply a bore, a wasted talent.

The best "foul" ball of all is the only one that counts as fair: the homer. It is why there are still Little League parades in small towns, why high school infielders in Maine accept the numbing sting of a catch during a cold early-April practice, and why there is always hope when the home team is behind. The home field is frequently designed for home team players to hit homers, round the bases to touch home and send us on our way to our own homes, where we think about the arc of that homer for hours, perhaps days the way Julia Child thought about suffles.

We do not dream of walks or foul balls. We do not look forward to the day that the fifth-starter pitches, except that we know fifth-starter's real expertise is giving up homers. Homer was the first money ball, as Ruth was the first money player. Myths arise out of homers. Quickly: who holds the all time record for walks? Who was the best bunter in history? Tell the truth: did you ever fight traffic, pay for parking, spend your mortgage payment for tickets and food, in order to see the best base stealer that ever lived?

I thought not. We leave our homes to see Homer, and especially that rarest of Homers, the Grand Slam, an invention of such brilliance that the people at Apple or Google can only sit in wonder at its perfection.