Friday, June 18, 2010

Old School Baseball with Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson

About two years ago I watched a documentary about baseball in the 1960s hosted by Bob Costas. In one segment, as Bob Gibson began his windup in a game in 1968, Costas began a long-winded analysis of what Gibson must have been thinking on the mound during that memorable season. The United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War; the Civil Rights movement helped define the decade; Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. Costas turned his attention to Gibson and commented that he must have been thinking of these things as he pitched. I realized recently, after reading Sixty Feet, Six Inches: A Hall of Fame Pitcher and a Hall of Fame Hitter Talk about How the Game is Played, that Bob Costas doesn’t understand Bob Gibson. On the mound, one of the game’s greatest pitchers was preoccupied with one thing: pitching his team to victory and winning the duel between pitcher and hitter.

The book, an extended interview with Gibson and Reggie Jackson, features the two stars discussing subjects as varied as the mechanics of pitching and hitting, the importance of the count for pitchers and hitters, the good old days of bean ball, surviving racism in baseball, how greatness is defined and other aspects of national pastime. The book is not for the casual fan. However, it will entertain and enlighten those who are steeped in baseball history and understand the complexity of the game.

As I read the book, I was drawn in by the “old school” feel of the interview. At some points I was convinced that somehow my late father, a dedicated fan if there ever was one, had extended conversations with these men before I stepped onto a baseball diamond as a kid. Gibson’s and Jackson’s attitude that baseball is a sport to be respected and that your body and talent can take you far if you nourish both reminded me of lessons my father imparted to me when I played youth league ball. At one point, Jackson, who is now a special advisor to the Yankees, tells the reader that he admonishes his players to “Swing the bat!” It’s common sense--you can’t hit the ball if you don’t swing the bat. But how many times have we watched big leaguers watch the ball sail past them on a full count? If I had a nickel for every time my father said the same to me and my teammates (he was a coach for twenty years), I’d be very rich.

Gibson, true to his personality, seldom minces words and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. However, he comes across here as likeable (I doubt the batters he faced would agree with me). His insistence on mastering the fundamentals and then employing them in the duel with the hitter is what many pitchers lack today, in his view. For example, pitchers today develop a windup that doesn’t adequately disguise the pitch that is about to be thrown. For Gibson, a complicated windup is the key to keeping the batter off balance: “I like the idea of having a lot going on in your windup, and the hitters trying to figure out where the ball’s coming from and when it’s coming. Man, with a big windup the hitter sees all this stuff going on in front of him, knees and elbows…all this crazy whirling motion…and then boom! Here it comes at ninety-five miles an hour.” Today, pitchers are encouraged to be “economical” in their windup, in effect stripping away an important advantage that pitchers once enjoyed.

I was also surprised to learn that Gibson had only two pitches, the fastball (two-seam and four-seam varieties) and a slider. For Gibson, intimidating the batter was important, but he was also keenly aware that ball placement was critical. He liked to pitch hard to the outside, but would claim the inside when the batter leaned too far over the plate. Of course, his view of what constitutes “inside” is definitely not how it is defined today. As he acknowledges, pitching inside Gibson-style will get you into a fistfight or thrown out of the game.

Gibson and Jackson discuss at length their strengths and weaknesses as players. For Jackson, many of his recollections reveal the confidence (his detractors might say arrogance) that defined him as a player: “As a hitter, what I had to learn, mostly, was what I could do and what I couldn’t do. A good pitcher may have an advantage with a big fastball or breaking ball, but I had an advantage, too…I could hit a fly ball and get it out of the ballpark,” and “It took a while, but eventually I came to realize that there was something else in my favor: My weakness—my inability to handle the ball inside—was one that most pitchers were reluctant or afraid to expose.” As I read this passage, I chuckled about the time I was watching a game with my father and Jackson was batting for the Yankees in Fenway Park. My father put Jackson’s weaknesses in his own unique perspective: “Yeah, the guy can hit, but he runs like an ol’ lady!”

The old school approach is also expressed in their views of the state of the game today. The emphasis on pitch counts, the computerization of the game, the reliance on scouting reports: they acknowledge that the information provided by these methods shouldn’t be ignored, but they long for the days when players would spend more time watching opposing pitchers and hitters in action. That’s the fun of playing—sizing up your opponent. The obsession with pitch counts exasperates Gibson, who was known to pitch up to 130 pitches a game (back when pitchers were expected to pitch nine innings) and once pitched fourteen innings in one game. The need to coddle pitchers (and, by extension, all players) concerns both Gibson and Jackson, who point to the money factor in baseball—avoid breaking the merchandise, since large contracts are at stake. Both call on owners and managers to expect more from their players and to let them play to the best of their ability, injuries be damned.

Gibson and Jackson encourage players and fans to appreciate the complexity of baseball. A good player works on mastering not only the physical requirements of hitting, pitching, fielding and base running, but develops an understanding of the mental and psychological aspects of baseball. When is a hit-and-run play necessary? What pitch can a batter expect when the count is three and two and bases are loaded in the seventh inning with two outs? Gibson knew that intimidation wouldn’t be enough when facing some of the greatest hitters in baseball (Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, for starters). Jackson knew that he had only seconds to figure out what pitch was coming his way, and that pitchers like Steve Carlton were not going to let up on him no matter what the score.

I have only two criticisms of the book. First, I would have liked Gibson and Jackson to talk in greater detail about the players they mention in their interview. For example, they both believe Juan Marichal was one of the great pitchers of all time, but we are given little understanding as to why they would hold him in such high esteem. Second, the times in the book where they discuss racism in baseball comes in fragments and would be great fodder for another extended interview. Gibson talks about his upbringing in Omaha, hardly the center of good race relations sixty years ago. However, he does relate stories from his time on the Cardinals when white players did their best to welcome black players into their ranks as equals. In one aside, Gibson relates stories of being in Florida for spring training and swimming and cooking out with his white teammates, which would have caused controversy in the 1960s. For Jackson, who also felt the sting of racism in his upbringing and as a player, seems to have found solace in family and a few close friends. I think it would be a great opportunity for them to expand on this often forgotten aspect of the game. It would enlighten younger fans and players who may know little of the struggle African American and Latino players faced during the glory days of baseball.

Overall, the book is a good read and will bring you back to the days when baseball was a different world and was populated by many of the greats who fill the Hall of Fame.

For a video promotion of the book featuring Gibson and Jackson, click here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Misguided Priorities

Last month, I volunteered a few Sunday morning hours at Cradles to Crayons, an organization dedicated to helping Massachusetts families in need. My wife, son and in-laws were also there, filling large bags full of donated clothing, toys, and books for these families. We were invited to volunteer in response to the recent death of a family friend, who died much too young. It was a fulfilling experience, but in retrospect our efforts did not even begin to deal seriously with scourge of poverty experienced by many citizens of this state. According to the Cradles to Crayons website, “…each year, there are more than 100,000 Massachusetts children under 18 who experience poverty. And on any given night, over 1,200 families will be staying in publicly funded family shelters in Massachusetts.”

I tend to see problems in a national and global perspective. Why does poverty continue to grow in this state and within this country as we continue to tout our economy as the strongest in the world? Drive through some of the suburbs of Boston and you will see wealth on an impressive scale that will make you quickly forget the difficult lives lived by people only a few miles away in Boston and in many suburban communities. In affluent America, there are roughly two types of people: those who take the opportunities presented to them for granted and those who will never see any substantial opportunities offered them in their lifetimes.

A nation is judged by its priorities. Will we help those in need or will we ignore them? Will we continue to build communities that are essentially air-tight pockets of prosperity, made up of people who look and think like ourselves, that give us the excuse not to deal with the poverty that is allowed to persist on such a scale? Children living in shelters? Children without adequate access to nutritious food? Children who go to schools that are increasingly being denied the funding necessary to produce productive citizens? This is considered acceptable?

Perhaps our priorities can be traced back to the development of the American psyche, when the myth was forged that anyone can make it in this country as long as they have the ambition and willingness to work hard. This sentiment was distorted by President Ronald Reagan, who openly declared that the poor deserved their condition because their lack of morals prevented them from accepting the unique American work ethic. The Tea Party movement has made this sentiment the cornerstone of their movement, combining a hysterical fear of the government with a racism that pits “hard-working” Americans (read: whites) against those who “milk” the system through government programs (read: people of color). I believe that the rugged individualism ideal in American culture has been misunderstood. In centuries past, farmers helped their neighbors bring in their crops; workers joined together to make sure that their pay and working conditions were fair. There was little of the hypocrisy of the morality police of today who deny that others deserve help while celebrating selfish materialism.

American priorities nationally and internationally? We bailed out the banks and allowed them to make record profits while refusing to give Americans access to much-needed credit, the supposed purpose of the bailout. We spend billions of dollars each month to fight “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the results of which will be years of high deficits and even less for those in need in this country. The supposed health care “reform” passed this year will force Americans to purchase private health insurance, which will most likely mean immense profits for that industry and high premiums for average citizens. President Obama, however, believes that this bill will solve the problem of Americans selling their houses to pay medical bills and will allow for better access to health care. We’ll see, but I’m certainly skeptical about this notion.

How to change the nation’s priorities? I believe that government has the resources to help relieve poverty, as it has in the past (the New Deal and establishment of Medicare are just two examples), but it appears that Democrats and Republicans are more invested in making sure that corporate interests on Wall Street and elsewhere have their day in the sun. Perhaps the battle against poverty will continue under the auspices of organizations like Cradles to Crayons that provide a desperate lifeline to thousands of people. They deserve our unconditional support.