June 2012

Phantom Ball, With Video – And Monty (Updated)

In Spring Training of 2011 I wrote of the lost joy of pre-game “infield practice,” in which a team’s manager or coaches hit grounders and flies to their position players while barking out game situations. Then-manager Jim Riggleman  of the Nationals had reintroduced the ritual (and gotten chastised by confused groundskeepers at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, who told him he was screwing up their field).

I’m not talking about shortstops standing behind screens at first base nor pitchers shagging fly balls during batting practice. This was one or two catchers, all the starting infielders and outfielders, and many of the reserves, on the field, twenty minutes before first pitch, chasing everything from pop-ups behind third to long drives into the right field corner. It was a mini-spring training.

Teams used to do this before almost every game. Earl Weaver thought it was the most important thing his club did, next to hitting three-run homers. And when done well, it achieved nearly the qualities of ballet. It gradually faded from the scene because some managers were concerned it gave away too much real-time information on the health of fielders and particularly the game-day strength of outfielders’ arms, and the players happily used this as an excuse to go and hide in the dugout the moment BP ends.

So imagine my joy when my old friend Robin Ventura came into Yankee Stadium for the first time as a manager last night, and at about 6:20 his Chicago White Sox were doing this under the guidance of another old friend, third base coach Joe McEwing (number 47), with back-up catcher Tyler Flowers to his left, and bullpen catcher Mark Salas.Before the joy of watching his team “take infield,” I had already had a long conversation with Ventura, who was probably the champion of dry-witted baseball figures during his time as a player. He was the one who spread the story that when Rickey Henderson joined the Mets in 1999, he asked first baseman John Olerud why he wore a helmet in the field (Olerud had suffered a brain aneurysm in college and benefited from the limited plastic protection). Ventura quoted Rickey as saying “A guy I played with in Toronto did that too.” The guy, of course, was the self-same John Olerud, with whom Henderson had been teammates six years before.

Henderson was many things, but he did not have a bad memory about players. The story was entirely apocryphal, but Ventura sold it so well that for years it was treated as gospel. And everybody kept Robin’s name out of it. When somebody finally confronted him about it he simply smiled. This was exactly the insurrectionist attitude that I thought would serve Ventura so well as a manager. When I reminded him of that he deadpanned “Yeah, but every day the writers still ask me if I’m afraid I’m going to lose control of the club.”

I took this long side trip into the persona of Robin Ventura for a reason. Take another look at that picture of the White Sox. I’ll ask you what Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn asked me as I marveled that his club was actually taking infield: “Do you notice if anything’s missing?”

There’s no baseball.

They were taking infield practice, for ten minutes or more, without any baseballs. It took me at least two minutes to even notice it, and another two to convince myself either my vision or my circulation hadn’t gone bad. No baseball. They were pantomiming it.

I shot a brief video:

At one point catcher Flowers came running right at me in pursuit of an imaginary foul ball. I thanked him for making sure it didn’t hit me.

Eddie Einhorn said his club calls it “Phantom Ball.” In the Negro Leagues in the ’30s, the teams used to entertain fans pre-game with a high speed version that including leaping catches and plays at the plate, which they called “Shadow Ball.” Under whatever name, it was a joy to behold, and the Sox insist it’s terrific for honing instincts and reducing the risk of injury because there’s no ball in use.

As I left the field Ventura asked me how I liked it and insisted it was Joe McEwing’s idea. “See?,” he added, still deadpan. “There’s a reason they keep asking me if I’m going to lose control of the club. I can’t even get them to use a baseball.”

Ventura might just win that division.

Update, 9:45 PM EDT: Ben Walker of the Associated Press, who loves “Infield” as much as I do, sent me an email mentioning that he asked Ventura and McEwing about this tonight and the skipper said they did this at least once under the guidance of coach Cookie Rojas when they were with the Mets – that would date to the 2000 season. This reminded me that Ventura told me last night “Every once in awhile we go all Cookie Rojas out there.”

DAYAN VICIEDO AND MONTY MONTGOMERY

He sure as shootin’ will if the Sox keep doing stuff like this. Three hours after Phantom Ball ended, Dayan Viciedo tore into a David Robertson pitch and all of a sudden a nice safe 3-1 Yankees’ ninth inning lead was a White Sox 4-3 victory.

Not long after, an ESPN researcher tweeted that it had been a long time since that had happened to the Yankees: that the last time a visiting team trailing by two or more went ahead on a home run in the 9th had been in 1972, when Bob Montgomery did it to them.

And a distant bell went off in my head.

I was at that game too, and boy was I cheesed off.

The Yankees trailed the third-place Red Sox by just a game-and-a-half when they met for a twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on July 28, 1972, on day two of a five-game series that would probably decide which one of them might still challenge for the AL East Division crown. As an aside, for those of you who think the rivalry was always like it is now, the attendance for two Yankee-Sox games that night was 20,129.

I was one of them, and I happily watched my favorite, Mel Stottlemyre, hold the Sox to three hits and two runs until the ninth. The Yanks were up 5-2 when Stott got wild and walked Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli. Manager Ralph Houk brought in relief ace Sparky Lyle, and I got worried because Lyle had recorded his 20th save the night before, but had pitched 2-1/3 innings to do so.

Sure enough, Danny Cater (whom the Yankees had astutely traded to Boston for Lyle in one of the worst one-for-one trades in baseball history) singled to drive in a run and cut it to 5-3. Shortstop John Kennedy worked the count full but then struck out. This brought up Bob Montgomery, Boston’s third string catcher who had, to that point in the 1972 season, hit exactly no home runs and driven in exactly two. In fact, in the middle of his third big league season Montgomery had hit exactly three career homers (he would go on to a long career as a Boston back-up, be the last man to regularly bat without a batting helmet, and then become a beloved color commentator on the Red Sox tv broadcasts).

Montgomery promptly put Lyle’s pitch into the right field seats and, just like last night, a two-run Yankee lead had become a one-run visitor’s victory.

I was not happy. And this is not memory speaking. It took me five minutes to find my scorecard. The blasphemies directed at Manager Houk (“Lyle? 2 Days in a row…You are a fool!”) will not be illustrated here. The scorecard will:40 years is a long time between any two similar events.

Just how long is underscored by what’s on the page behind that scorecard. It lists the names and numbers of the pitchers of the American League teams. For the future 1972 World Champion Oakland A’s, there are only nine pitchers listed.

UNRELATED:

For those interested in the other stuff I’ll be appearing as a guest Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos.

The Perfect Game Swarm: The Contrarian’s View

Last night, Matt Cain threw the first major league perfect game in nearly two months!

He threw the first individual no-hit game in nearly two weeks!

He threw the first no-hitter of any kind in five days!

He did throw the only no-hit game of the night, though R.A. Dickey didn’t get one in St. Petersburg only because of a dubious scorer’s decision that might yet be reversed, and Felix Doubront carried one through two out in the sixth.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

Look, I yearn to witness a perfect game, still kick myself for skipping one one year because it was too cold (David Wells, 1998) and another the next because it was too hot (David Cone, 1999) like some baseball fan version of Goldilocks. And there is no offense meant to Matt Cain, or Phil Humber, or Roy Halladay, or Dallas Braden, or Mark Buehrle, or for the man whoshouldalso be on this list, Armando Galarraga.

But as of the morning of July 23, 2009 – less than three full years ago – there had been exactly 17 perfect games in the 139 seasons of organized big league baseball. In the 34 months since there have been five of them (really, six). In the game’s first 139 seasons we had had one year in which there were two thrown. In the last three seasons, we have had one year in which there weren’t two thrown.

Five of the last fifteen individual no-hitters have been perfect games.

There have been so many of them now that Ted Barrett has now been the home plate umpire in two of them, and his colleague Brian Runge has worked two of them this year (he was at 3B last night, and behind the plate for Humber’s, and, oh by the way, he was also behind the plate for the Mariners’ combined no-no last Friday).

Cain’s was the 22nd of all-time (the total should be 24: Galarraga should’ve gotten his, and Harvey Haddix’s flawed 13-inning gem should be counted somehow even though it isn’t). If the frequency at which they’ve occurred over the last three years had applied to all of baseball history, we wouldn’t have had 22 perfectos, we would have 91 of them.

I understand there are historical anomalies in the game. One of my favorite factoids is the mind-numbing truth that an enterprising fan in the northeast could’ve seen Lee Richmond throw the first one in big league history on Saturday June 12, 1880 for Worcester of the National League, and then could’ve turned up just five days later in Buffalo to watch Johnny Ward throw the second one for Providence of the N.L. But if our hypothetical spectator had wanted to make a hat trick out of it and see thethirdperfect game ever pitched in the National League, he’d have had to chill for 84 years because the next one wouldn’t be pitched until June 21, 1964, by Jim Bunning at Shea Stadium.

Bizarre statistical thunderstorms occur. We had two batting Triple Crowns in 1933 and five out of a potential ten in the five-year span ending in 1937. The American League had one (by Frank Robinson) in 1966 and another (by Carl Yastrzemski – with a tie in the homer category) the next year. Not only has nobody performed the trick since but the seven I’ve just mentioned account for sixteen of all of them dating back to the first by Paul Hines in 1878.

But just as ‘these things sometimes happen,’ they also sometimes indicate a severe skewing of the sport. If a lot of guys accomplishing a very rare feat is a good and totally explicable thing, then pitching reached its modern pinnacle in 1968. Seven different pitchers recorded ERAs of less than 2.00. Twelve were at 2.15 or under. Twenty came in below 2.50. And there’s something relevant to the perfect game swarm. The top eleven ERA finishers were as follows:

1.12 Bob Gibson

1.60 Luis Tiant

1.81 Sam McDowell

1.95 Dave McNally

1.96 Denny McLain

1.98 Tommy John

1.99 Bob Bolin

2.05 Stan Bahnsen

2.05 Bob Veale

2.08 Jerry Koosman

2.12 Steve Blass

See my point? I have argued here for two more of the men on this list to be in Cooperstown but in point of fact only one of them (Gibson) is. A derangement of the pitching-hitting balance will make some fair pitchers good, some good pitchers great, and some great pitchers immortal (remember, 1968 was also the only time since 1934 that anybody – in this case McLain – has won as many as 30 games in a season). And it applies to hitting, too. We like to forget the fact that an incredible percentage of fans and an almost equal number of credulous reporters saw nothing at all wrong with the idea that all six of the seasons in which somebody hit more than 61 homers occurred between 1998 and 2001. I can remember clear as a bell the late, great Leonard Koppett trying to convince me and Jim Bouton on my tv show that the discovery of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker had absolutely nothing to do with anything and wouldn’t be remembered by anybody.

I’m not saying the pitchers are juiced and I’m not saying there will be a mental asterisk placed some day on Cain’s perfect game, or Humber’s, or anybody else’s. I’m not even saying that I’m fully invested in the most obvious theory of what’s going on: that the subtraction of Performance Enhancing Drugs has left a generation of hitters who have known nothing but to swing from their heels with no gas in their tank (although Cain’s victims, the Astros, have now struck out 505 times in 62 games – that’s 8.2 per game – and have averaged nearly 12 per game this month, meaning from their perspective, their 14 K’s against Cain last night was only a little worse than usual).

What I am saying is that to respond to Matt Cain’s perfect game by simply jumping up and down and buying souvenir merchandise is to miss a bigger picture, one that isn’t exactly clear yet. But when you get five (six?) perfect games in three calendar years, and you get 37-year old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey suddenly launching into territory in which he has struck out 50 and walked 5 in his last 47 innings, and he’s 10-1 and former middle reliever Lance Lynn is 10-2 and Chris Capuano – with one previous winning season since 2003 – is 8-and-2, some kind of tipping point has been reached and maybe all the pitching is just as incongruous as was all the hitting in 1998-2001.

Scorebook page from the first perfect game ever, Lee Richmond’s, June 12, 1880

 

 

Don’t Mess With The Johan

The only theory that ever held any water was that the Mets had played all of their home games in parks with three of the largest fair-territory square footage totals. Far-away fences might mean fewer home runs, but they increase the chances of hits in distant outfield corners, or even catchable balls that were just out of range of fielders who had just that much more ground to cover, and that’s why the Mets had never thrown a no-hit game!

The problems with this explanation still obtained as the New York team took the field for what we all presumed was the 8,020th game in their no-hit-free history tonight. Even such a simply understood theory of simple math did not account for the facts a) that they have played roughly half of their games in other stadiums with less hit-friendly terrains, b) that visiting teams threw no-hitters in the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium (hell, Bob Moose no-hit them at Shea Stadium when they were three weeks from becoming the Miracle Mets of 1969), and c) that the New York Giants, the previous occupants of the Polo Grounds, threw plenty of no-hitters there, even when the dimensions in straightaway center reached as much as 505 feet as recently as 1949.

However, with Johan Santana ending the Mets’ 50+ years of no-no-hitters tonight, the Square Footage Theory gained some new credence and respectability. Obviously, the Mets moved in the fences at virtually all points of the outfield at CitiField over the winter to increase home run production, and have gotten about a dozen dingers for their trouble. But it is unmistakable that just 28 games into the new, smaller fair footage field dimensions, the team got its first no-hitter. Fair territory is only 98 percent as large as it was last year in Flushing, and in those areas more than 300 feet from home plate, it’s only 95 percent as large.

Suddenly the theory has a lot more life to it, but I still feel like we’re in the dark ages of research here. As evidence of…something…eight ex-Mets went on to throw no-hitters for other teams (Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Mike Scott, Hideo Nomo, Phil Humber and Jim Bibby, who was on the regular season Mets’ roster and in uniform in 1969 but never got into a League game). Finally, Santana has put a period at the end of all the data.

Of course, he really didn’t. Just as Armando Galarraga actually threw a perfect game for Detroit in 2010 but first base umpire Jim Joyce took it away from him by as mind-bogglingly lunkheaded a False-Safe call as any of us has ever seen, ex-Met Carlos Beltran actually broke up Santana’s bid leading the top of the 6th. Beltran sent a screamer over the bag at third that clearly caused the puff of tell-tale chalk as it landed fair behind the bag for what should have been a single or a double. Umpire Adrian Johnson flat out blew it – an undeniable fact that will always taint Santana’s effort tonight no matter how heroic, nor how extraordinary the saving catch by Flushing native and life-long Met fan Mike Baxter as he went shoulder-first into the left field wall to rob Yadier Molina in the 7th.

Incidentally, that fence would’ve been about thirteen feet further away last year. Baxter might’ve missed the ball, or not hurt himself, or been playing Molina differently, or who knows what.

If you want a more whimsical theory of why Santana finally did what Seaver et al did not do as Mets, there is this. I had personally witnessed only part of one no-hitter – Dave Righetti’s at Yankee Stadium in 1983. I had to leave that one to get to a sportscast I was doing for CNN. I thereafter instituted a rule that I would never leave a game before each pitcher’s no-hitter had been broken. Tonight was my first game back at a park in the two weeks since I underwent minor surgery. I underestimated the wear and tear of being up on my feet again, and also how quickly the post-op pain would kick in. So – yep – after two innings, with the discomfort literally making me feel faint – I went home.

Congrats to Johan Santana. I’m happy to take all the credit. Or you can rack it up to the Fair Territory Factor. Whatever: the Mets’ inexplicable streak is finally at rest.

Unless you want to make a dealio about that blown call.

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