Another post about baseball

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.

Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.

When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.

Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.

Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.

As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.

Singin’ them Olympic blues

My family celebrates the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics every time they happen. Not only do we have the television broadcasts playing whenever we are home and they are on; we have other ways of marking the occasion as well. I have a large paper Olympic torch that I hang on the wall of the living room from the time the Olympic torch is lit during the opening ceremonies until it is extinguished during the closing ceremonies. The Olympic rings are my wallpaper on my home computer and on my work computer. Sometimes, during the Olympics, I set my alarm to wake me with the Olympic theme.

For some reason, this year I have not been watching many Olympic competitions. The television is on and most of the family is watching, but I find that I prefer to be at the other end of the house curled up with a book. The fact that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are more interesting to me than gymnastics and races and volleyball surprises many people, including me.

I have noticed how odd the Olympic broadcasts sound from across the house. Hearing the voices of the announcers without being able to distinguish their words is peculiar—it’s nothing like hearing a movie or music or video game at the same distance.

I have tried not to analyze why I take no interest in this summer’s Olympics… but I’m not very successful at avoiding analysis of myself. I have found several possible explanations for this noninvolvement on my part.

  • I’ve seen the Olympics many times in my lifetime, and they don’t change much from one time to the next. My Olympic memories satisfy me; I don’t have to add new experiences to appreciate the Olympics.
  • It’s been a busy and stressful summer, and I have a lot on my mind. Already this month I have taken a test to become certified in my current occupation, and I am awaiting the results around the end of the month. At the same time, I’ve updated paperwork which could lead to changing careers, returning to full-time church work. There’s no telling when (or if) I might receive a response to that.
  • Every Olympiad, I find the broadcasters increasingly annoying. This reminds me of the fact that I used to love watching the parades on television Thanksgiving morning and New Year’s Day morning. The way the networks interrupt the parade broadcasts with inanity and commercialism ended my parade-viewing inclination. I think the NBC commentators may be doing the same thing to my Olympic-viewing inclination.
  • It’s rare that the Chicago Cubs are doing well this late into the summer. The last time they were playing meaningful games during the Summer Olympics was in 1984, so my sports loyalties are divided.
  • As a parent, I am increasingly sensitive about the time and energy young athletes must invest in their chosen competitions. It seems as if, in many cases, these athletes have lost their childhood to training and preparing for these performances. In many cases, they are also unprepared for a normal life after their days of competing have ended. I don’t sit and think about that topic all the time while the Olympics are happening, but I do feel sorry for these performers who have sacrificed much of their lives for our brief entertainment.
  • Other years I have become emotionally involved while watching these competitions. The last thing I need right now is for some Kassidy Cook to be added to my list of Olympic sweethearts, even if a short story or two could come out of the emotional investment.

Perhaps later this year I will regret not taking the time to watch the Olympics while they were happening. I doubt it. I’ve been through the room enough times, and have even sat down to watch an event or two, so it’s not as if I have been boycotting the Olympics from start to finish. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are keeping my interest. J.

Magical thinking and sports superstitions

[Note: this post was written a few days ago, but I waited to post it because I did not want to jinx my team.]

The phrase “magical thinking” has slightly different meanings when it is used in different contexts. In the context of mental and emotional health, magical thinking is a symptom of various disorders, including OCD. A person who expects things to change just because of thoughts in that person’s head or actions that person does, in spite of the fact that there is no connection between the thoughts or actions and the expected change, is subject to magical thinking. Let me add two thoughts to this paragraph. First, I am not an expert in psychology, and other people can explain this symptom better than I can. Second, I am in no way mocking anyone suffering from a disorder that includes magical thinking. What I am writing is sincere, and it is largely based on observing my own thoughts and actions.

In the sports world, many athletes have customs so ingrained that they are considered superstitious. Some pitchers, for example, will be careful to enter and leave the baseball field jumping over the chalk line instead of stepping on it. Some batters will continue to wear the same socks every game as long as they are in a hitting streak. It is considered bad luck to talk to a pitcher who is pitching so well that the other team has not gotten a hit. Many other customs are followed by athletes, even though their customs should have nothing to do with their performance. Some studies indicate that these superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies. People perform better in sports when they have been convinced that luck is on their side.

The athletes are not the only ones who are superstitious. Fans can also believe that their traditions or actions might affect the outcome of a game. If two fans go to the ballpark and their team is losing, they might exchange seats to see if that changes the team’s luck. Many fans, in the ballpark and watching on television, believe that the clothes they are wearing will bring their team luck. Some fans even choose not to attend the games because “they lose every time I come to the ballpark.”

The Chicago Bulls won enough games this season to enter the basketball playoffs. Their first opponent was the Milwaukee Bucks.  I was able to watch the first two games, both of which the Bulls won. The third game was not available where I live, but I checked the internet for the score a few times during the game, and the Bulls won that game too.

The Chicago Bulls won six championships back in the 1990s when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the team. My children and I watched the games on television, and we had a bowl of pretzels for a snack. To keep the children from emptying the bowl early in the game, I limited the number of pretzels each could eat. Somehow we started the custom of each eating one pretzel after one of the Bulls players had done something especially well. “Give that man a pretzel,” I would say, and we each would eat a pretzel.

So, after the third victory, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of pretzels. During the fourth game, I ate a pretzel for every basket and every good defensive move by a Bulls player. The Bulls lost that game, but it was a close game. For the next game, I watched again with my bag of pretzels, again eating a pretzel for every good play. They lost again.

For the sixth game, I decided to leave my pretzels upstairs. This time the Bulls won, meaning that they would next play the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first game of that series, I again left the pretzels upstairs. The Bulls won the game.

Can you see where this is going? There is no way that my eating pretzels or not eating pretzels can change the course of a professional basketball game. Even so, I want the Bulls to win, and if they lose while I am eating pretzels, then I will not eat a pretzel on game day.

For this reason, when the Bulls lost their second game to Cleveland, I went upstairs after the game and ate some pretzels. Magical thinking or not, I will do everything I can to help the team win another championship.


[Postscript: The day after I wrote this post, the Bulls began a three-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs. Feel free to tell me that it’s not my fault; I won’t believe you. J.]