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.
For those interested in the other stuff I’ll be appearing as a guest Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos.
Veteran baseball people were barely done scratching their heads at the sudden rush to declare Opening Day starters in February – to tentatively hint at a violation of the mix of superstition and inchoate fear they call “tradition” – when injury claimed a pitcher who was merely scheduled to start the Spring Training opener.
Adam Wainwright may not only miss pitching in this Cardinals’ camp; he may not experience Spring Training again until 2013. The ligament damage near his elbow is profound enough to shelve him until sometime during the ’12 season, and could have as big an impact on a team and a franchise as any such injury in recent history, maybe since Sandy Koufax’s retirement put the Dodgers into a funk that lasted eight seasons. Not only does it neuter a Cardinal team that fell behind Cincinnati last season, and Milwaukee last off-season, but it could even impact the team’s ability and willingness to commit huge money to Albert Pujols next off-season.
The larger question pertains to the feeling that these injuries happen more now than they did ‘in the past.’ This question itself has been around long enough to become a baseball tradition of sorts. Surely they don’t happen that much more often. Koufax quit before his fragile elbow might have snapped like a twig. Don Drysdale retired in mid-season just three years later. 1958 Cy Young winner Bob Turley blew up a year later. And countless careers ended as did Mel Stottlemyre’s: with a run in, a man on, and nobody out in the top of the 4th at Shea Stadium on June 11, 1974 (he’d come back for two more innings two months later, then pitch a little the following March, but his rotator cuff was gone).
But the reality is that more pitchers today are warned in advance of these potentially career-ending events. Wainwright isn’t necessarily a victim of some awful turn in pitching mechanics, but rather the beneficiary of greater understanding of their impact, and far greater options in terms of repair. Given how little pain he reported, if this ligament issue had sprung up in Spring Training 1911, he would’ve tried to pitch through the pain, because contrary to today, his livelihood depended on not resting an injury. He might’ve struggled to an 11-12 record this year, had constant pain, started ’12 0-3 and wild as anything, and gone to the minors, never to be heard from again.
Still there is the nagging suspicion that we are doing something to our pitchers that makes Complete Games chimerical dreams, and the four-man rotation and the nine-man staff as comically antiquated as the horse-and-buggy. Denny McLain spent August 29, 1966 – as The Sporting News merrily noted – “struggling to a 6-3 decision over the Orioles…McLain allowed eight hits, walked nine, and struck out 11.” He threw 229 pitches. Two seasons later McLain started 41 games (and won 31 of them). Three years later, he started 41 games (and won 24 of them). The other stat – 51 Complete Games in the two seasons – was not repeated not because of arm problems but due to a suspension for associating with gamblers (the arm problems came a year later).
We know pitchers no longer “save” anything for the 9th Inning (that went out with Jack Morris; it used to be true of the top 25 starters in each league), and that without a fastball in the high 80’s you will now never get signed, and unless something else about you is spectacular, even that will only get you a career serving as the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotter Prospects in the minors.
But I have long wondered if one tiny change of rituals might have contributed just enough to the wear-and-tear on pitchers to have actually made a difference. The ritual is represented by the smiling fellow at the left, Galen Cisco, the long-time pitching coach who hurled for the Red Sox, Mets, and Royals from ’61 through ’69.
On August 7th, 1964, Al Jackson of the Mets gave up three runs in the first inning. The next day it was two off Cisco; a day later, one off Tracy Stallard in the first. Then came two consecutive scoreless firsts, followed by a doubleheader in which Jackson surrendered one in the first of the opener and Stallard three in the first of the nightcap. Finally on August 15th came the deluge: six first inning runs off Jack Fisher. So as they sent Cisco out to start on August 16, manager Casey Stengel and coach Mel Harder did something radical.
Cisco promptly retired Tony Gonzalez, Dick Allen, and Johnny Callison, and an ecstatic Lindsey Nelson told his Mets radio audience: “Galen Cisco, who warmed up in the bullpen, where there is a mound, in an effort to be better prepared in the top half of the first inning, gets them out in order!”
Your inference is correct. In 1964, starting pitchers did not automatically warm up in the bullpen. When I first heard this old tape I was flashed back to the summer of my tenth year, and the newfound joy of seeing a doubleheader from behind the screen at Yankee Stadium. There, in my mind’s eye, are the starters in the nightcap, Stan Bahnsen of the Yankees and Joe Coleman of the Washington Senators, warming up, on either side of the plate, throwing to catchers whose butts are pressed up against the backstop.
Years ago, Cisco, by then pitching coach of the Phils, insisted to me that he had been no trailblazer, and he had warmed up in the bullpen before August 16, 1964, and that other pitchers had, too. But I know I saw Elrod Hendricks, wearing a mask, warming somebody up long before a game at the new Yankee Stadium, dating it no later than 1976. I was on the field and I had to walk all the way around he and his pitcher. I photographed Goose Gossage throwing, and throwing hard, to somebody in front of the visitors’ dugout in New York that same summer, and it was four years later that I got trapped in a space beyond the third base camera well at Shea Stadium because Scott Sanderson and another Expo twirler were airing it out, pre-game.
Somewhere in the twenty year span of the ’60s and ’70s, the idea that relievers warmed up in the bullpen because they had to “get ready fast,” but starters should warm up from a rubber just on the foul side of either the first or third base foul line, changed into what we see today: everybody warms up in the pen, before, during, or after a game, and again between starts.
Ever had a workout with a trainer? Or just a well-led class at a gym? From yoga to weights, if the guy or gal wants to punish you, they’ll have you do whatever you’re doing, on an uneven surface. Incline or decline, it’s tougher if you’re not on flat ground. To really burn you, they’ll even have you stride downwards or upwards as you lift that weight or try to balance on one foot.
This is not offered as an explanation for all of the woes of the modern pitcher. But a warm-up pitch thrown from a mound is a distant cousin of a pitch to Pujols with two on and nobody out in the 5th. A warm-up pitch from the flat ground is a distant cousin of…playing catch. In short, if Denny McLain had 229 pitches in him on one day in August, 1966, he didn’t use up 20 or 30 or 50 of them before they played the Anthem.
Maybe that’s why Casey Coleman of the Cubs is really one percent likelier to get catastrophically hurt (and 90% likelier to not throw a Complete Game) than his dad Joe did that night in the Bronx (WP: Coleman, 7-7. CG. 11 K, 2 BB, 2 H, Time: 2:37).
Just a thought.
As the Hall of Fame induction looms, something I heard on a Cardinals’ broadcast the other day inspired me to hit the books. The gist of the discussion, which was dead serious and included not even a hint that the view might be a little skewed by some homerism, was that while there weren’t any coaches in Cooperstown, and there was no mechanism for electing any, obviously Dave Duncan would be elected, and just as soon as possible.
7 – John Schulte, Yankees, 1936-19477 – Jim Turner, Yankees, 1949-19585 – Mel Stottlemyre, Mets, Yankees, 1986-20004 – Mike Gonzalez, Cardinals, 1934-19463 – Johnny Sain, Yankees, Tigers, 1961-19683 – Joe Becker, Dodgers, 1955-1963
The others with as many as two? Duncan (1989 A’s, 2006, Cards), Galen Cisco (1992-93 Jays), Ron Perranoski (1981, 1988 Dodgers), Larry Shepard (1975-76 Reds), Wes Stock (1973-74 A’s), Dick Such (1987, 1991 Twins).
6 – Leo Mazzone: Glavine ’91 ’98, Maddux ’93 ’94 ’95, Smoltz ’964 – George Bamberger: Cuellar ’69, Palmer ’73 ’75 ’764 – Dave Duncan: Hoyt ’83, Welch ’90, Eckersley ’92, Carpenter ’053 – Joe Becker: Newcombe ’56, Drysdale ’62, Koufax ’633 – Bill Fischer: Clemens ’86 ’87 ’913 – Ray Miller: Flanagan ’79, Stone ’80, Drabek ’903 – Claude Osteen: Carlton ’82, Denny ’83, Bedrosian ’873 – Johnny Sain: Ford ’61, McLain ’68 ’693 – Rube Walker: Seaver ’69 ’73 ’75
fire you? Becker went to St. Louis in 1965 and the Cubs in ’67 and did pretty well with Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins in those places, but evidently not well enough.