Thursday, May 25, 2006
I would estimate, very roughly, that Omar Vizquel loses about a hit a week due to a headfirst slide into first base, thus slowing him down. See, sliding causes friction; friction reduces speed. A fine example, besides Omar Vizquel, would be the brakes on your car or bike. If your brakes make you go faster, get help now; if they slow you down, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. In other words, friction produces a braking action.
And that’s why ballplayers slide. It’s not to make them faster, it’s to keep their momentum from sending them past the base they want to stop at. Believe me, I know this one well.
When I was in high school, the planets apparently aligned perfectly one day, thus decreeing that I would actually get into a baseball game on my Frosh-Soph team. See, I rarely got to participate, even in practice. Sure, I carried the bats and shagged fly balls in BP—and often I didn’t even get BP—but mostly my job was to do things like be a baserunner for other people’s infield drills. (And don’t even get me started about my function as scorekeeper.) Despite my presence at all the practices and games (except for the one on Opening Day 1975, when I chose to stay home and score the Giants game instead), I was out of practice. Indeed, I played so little and was so discouraged by the situation—and by my coach, who apparently was trying to teach me a lesson of some sort—that when I did play, I sometimes panicked. God knows I did that in other sports, especially basketball—“chicken with its head cut off” was how my father once aptly described my approach to the game—but once I got out of Little League and started to perform poorly, and thus played less and less, I began to feel as though all eyes were on me, waiting for the next screwup. So when my high school coach actually put me into a game, I found myself wondering why—even after I reached the point where I was playing well again, thus enabling the return of a modicum of confidence.
And when Frosh-Soph practice started, I was playing about as well as I ever had, both on offense and defense. In fact, I was hitting like crazy. Also, I’d only started playing center field the previous spring, I loved it, and I felt like a center fielder—a pretty good one.
Naturally, that was the cue for the coach to keep me off the field almost entirely. But one day late in the season, I was instructed to go out to center field in about the fourth or fifth inning of a game. (I can’t remember, but I’ll assume we were losing big at the time.) By then the confidence I’d regained was gone, as was any hope that the coach hadn’t been lying when, just before the season started, he told me I’d be playing plenty.
My day began with a high fly ball. I took a step in, went “Uh-oh” as the ball flew merrily over my head, and wound up chasing it for what seemed like hours. I’m not even sure I held the batter to four bases.
Later—and here’s the part that relates to the stuff about Vizquel and friction—I stood on first base after walking. For no reason I can think of, I was given a steal sign. So I took off. I beat the throw by plenty, but the doubts kicked in, and I wasn’t even sure I could still slide right. I’m assuming, anyway, that this is why I didn’t slide. Or perhaps it had been too long since my last on-field screwup. In any case, I stole second standing up—until my momentum carried me off the bag, whereupon I was tagged a split second before I got back. The umpire called me out. I disputed his assertion that I’d come off the bag, of course, but to no avail. Of course. Perhaps because embarrassment was foremost on my mind, it didn’t even occur to me grief from the coach about not sliding. And when he did, and asked me why I failed to slide, I just said “I dunno.”
Ask me if I stayed in the game after that. Go ahead. Ask.
My point, though, is not to tell the sad story of my baseball career. My point is that I’m living proof that you slide to slow yourself down—and, certainly, to avoid being tagged, which rarely is an issue at first base, Omar. The only way sliding is gonna speed you up is perhaps if you’re playing baseball on ice. And the only reason to slide head first is to avoid a tag.
Jeff Kent used to dive into first when he was with the Giants. (Now that he’s a Dodger, who cares if he still does it?) That used to drive me bats, but I’d think, “Aw, Kent doesn’t seem like the sharpest bulb in the elevator, so maybe I should expect something like that from him.” But Omar Vizquel? Omar “4-6-5” Vizquel?
Maybe my estimate of a hit per week is too high, but in case it’s not, we’re talking about the difference between a season batting average of, say, .290 and .333 (or, if you prefer OBP, it’d be, say, .360 instead of .400).
What makes him do it? A league-mandated condition of his joining the Giants? No other reason makes sense.
Monday, May 08, 2006
So it took Barry Bonds weeks to hit his first home run of the season, during which time he wasn’t getting a whole lot of other hits, either. Since then he’s hit four more, and it’s already May 8. Certain (that is to say “cretin”) fans and members of the sports media would have you believe that this is prime evidence that he’s through. I’d say it’s prime evidence that his bat had cooled off considerably since the exhibition season (like other Giants I won’t name), but hey, I’m just one fan, and not even a sports media guy, so what do I know?
There’s no doubt that he hasn’t looked all that good at the plate. His swing has looked better lately, but mostly he’s been all upper-body, which isn’t his style at all. And now he’s up to 713, and you know what that means? It means that the boos have to be louder and the signs more vicious, by law, because he’s a no-good lyin’ cheatin’ nose-pickin’ earwig-rapin’ peckerhead. In Philadelphia, some thought-bereft radio “personality” exhorted his listeners—the amazing thing is that people like this have listeners—more or less to buy tickets for the Giants-Phillies series this past weekend, then to ankle the games en masse when Bonds strode to the plate. Boy, that’s teachin’ The Big Fella, innit?
Brian Murphy of KNBR, a sportswriter-turned-radio-personality, said today that while he doesn’t support Bonds’ apparent cheating—that is, cheating by extension of the evidence that Bonds received steroids, as well as the hearsay (not “weak” evidence—just hearsay, as in “as credible as it may be, it’s still not direct,” which, incidentally, doesn’t make the evidence “bad” or anything) that he actually used performance-enhancing drugs, according to The Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams—he does find it awfully weak to hold up Bonds as an icon of dishonesty in an era where so many others have “cheated” by using performance-enhancing drugs. In other words, if you’re gonna rip Bonds, rip ’em all.
To the extent that multiple wrongs make a right, I agree, and I want to see anybody who’s ever experienced a sudden increase in power numbers be booed and have syringes thrown at them. In fact, I don’t actually want to see that. I want to see it all stop. You’ve made your feelings known about Barry Bonds, people. Move on.
Here’s the main issue, one that I have gone on about, at length, not only in EEEEEE! and its subsidiaries but also the Giants Usenet newsgroup, alt.sports.baseball.sf-giants: The hatred, the object-throwing, the booing, the screaming, the foul-crying, the banners, the proposed boycotts, the hand-wringing, the howls for exclusion, these things aren’t about cheating, honesty, integrity, fairness, level playing fields, hallowed records, Our Young People, or anything else except “I DON’T LIKE BARRY BONDS.” Simple dimple. Why the persistent bashers won’t cop to this is beyond me.
No it isn’t. They won’t come right out and admit that they dislike Bonds for no particular reason because they know it would make them sound stupid. But you know what? At least it’d be honest: “He just rubs me the wrong way”—I could respect that. Instead, it’s the lone kernel of truth and honesty for so many of these folks—and if you want evidence, just Google “Barry Bonds” in “Groups,” and set aside several hours to read it—in a morass of pontification about those things I said above that this whole thing isn’t about. Who knows if this is true—maybe it’s in Game of Shadows, which I haven’t read but wouldn’t mind doing so if someone wanted to send it to me for free, my disposable income being roughly on par with the percentage of the Martian atmosphere that’s breathable by humans—but prime evidence, as far as I’m concerned, is the anecdote wherein some IRS guy says, “I hear Bonds is an asshole. Let’s get him!” Again, I don’t know if it’s true, but frankly, I have no doubt it is.
What’s really annoying me these days about the Bad Bonds thing is the outcry over his assault on certain records, records that are considered hallowed. Really: hallowed records of baseball achievements. Hallowed. It moggles the bind, it does. And, hell, on some emotional level I hallow them as much as anyone else, I guess, but I also recognize that they are naught but records, and records, like rules and broncos, are made to be broken.
The records of which I speak are the home run records, both for a single season and for a career. Bonds already holds the single-season record, having eclipsed the record set three years before: Bonds hit 73 in 2001, Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998. When McGwire—and Sammy Sosa—were chasing Roger Maris’ all-time record of 61 that year, that record wasn’t being very “hallowed,” now, was it? And when McGwire passed Maris, he got a huge ovation—well deserved in that 62 is a hell of a lot of dingers—and all kinds of publicity and fawning and everything else. When Bonds passed McGwire, it was acknowledged as something of an achievement, but it didn’t blow anybody away because the record had been set so recently. Also because the guy setting it was Bonds, who was already suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.
But it probably wouldn’t have been all that much of an issue if Bonds hadn’t hit his last couple hundred home runs so quickly, because now he’s chasing the all-time career record. And that record, I would like to emphasize, is held by Hank Aaron.
“Duh!” you cry, possibly even in this context. “Everybody knows that Aaron holds the career record.” The hell they do. People still think Babe Ruth holds it. Oh, I realize that we all know rationally that Aaron broke the career record 32 years ago, and that he ended up hitting 41 more home runs than The Babe. But in our hearts, it’s Ruth who still holds both records; it’s Ruth who changed the game, made it pretty much what it is today by realizing that if you have a couple guys on base, you’ll score them a hell of a lot more quickly if you smash one out of the yard than if you bleedin’ bunt. What he did as a player is still amazing; Ruth is indeed one of the most important figures in baseball history, if not the most important, and all that other stuff is true—except the bit about him still holding those records.
But he’s the reason they’re still “hallowed.” No other reason. Sheez, Aaron got death threats when he was chasing Ruth. Granted, most if not all of them were about an African-American ballplayer breaking records held by a white one, but what if it hadn’t been Aaron? What if it had been a white player? I mean, if Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and, especially, Ted Williams hadn’t lost so much career time to injuries or military service, almost certainly one of them would have broken Ruth’s records—at least the career record. And would any of them have received death threats? Eh, probably not—even Williams—because “at least the new record holder would be white.” But with guys like Ford Frick around at the time, the new white record holders still wouldn’t have received the acknowledgment they’d deserve, and the ghost of Ruth still would have hung high over the rest of them. But you can still bet your bottom dollar that a great many folks wouldn’t have wanted to see those records broken, period, because they were held by the most lovable, charismatic, talented, simply the greatest figure in baseball history, the one for whom people laugh off the many overindulgences for which he was famous, and even the ones for which he wasn’t so famous.
Major League Baseball has stated that if and when Bonds passes Ruth—and he’s two home runs away from doing so—there will be no particular celebration. I have no problem with that—Ruth is not the record holder (except for “most home runs by a lefthanded batter,” which is still pretty awesome)—why fete someone for moving into second place? (Ask the Giants of the ’60s about that.) Many, in and out of the sports media, believe that this has to do with Bonds being African American; others are certain that it’s because of the steroid use that apparently is so painstakingly documented in Game of Shadows. Frankly, I think it’s about him being Bonds. Nothing else. I believe Major League Baseball would have made a point of honoring McGwire, or even Sosa (who would’ve gotten horrible threats for being not only dark-skinned but not even American; who needs records if you have to put up with nonsense like that? Oh, incidentally, Bonds did receive death threats in 2001).
I have tremendous respect for Ruth’s accomplishments. When we think of him, I imagine most people think “Fatty Boombalatti” (thanks in part to John Goodman), a Right Jolly Old Elf keeping promises to hospitalized kids. But however huge and out of shape the man may have gotten, he may well have had the most actual baseball talent in the history of everything ever. To put it simply, he dominated baseball for a good long time.
So his records weren’t just numbers, they were “hallowed” entities, almost. But what I wonder is, why wasn’t Maris’ 61 hallowed? Because he wasn’t Mantle, or because he wasn’t The Bambino? Is Aaron’s 755 really hallowed? It’s acknowledged as the product of talent and longevity, especially noteworthy because he’s never really been thought of as a slugger per se—that is, there was quite a bit more to his game than home runs. (Ditto Ruth, but hey.) To me it feels like Aaron’s record is way less about Aaron than about Having Passed The Babe—meaning that The Babe is still revered, but (possibly because he seemingly went about his business and “quietly” put up a brilliant career) Aaron is, by comparison, incidental.
Bonds is leading the latest assault, and at this moment he’s 42 behind Aaron. It seems almost a given that he won’t reach Aaron now that he’s lost virtually an entire season to his knee injuries and that he’s nearly 42 years old. Oh, plus he’s through—remember that part? And with him about to pass Ruth, well, there’s plenty of resentment about that. I think Bonds won’t quit until he physically cannot play baseball anymore, and he’s not at that point yet. He’s in pain all the time, because of which he can barely overtake stationary objects when he runs, but things heal. I don’t expect him to reach 100 percent—hasn’t it already been years since he was at 100 percent?—but I do figure on him to end this season with Aaron in sight, so much so that to retire at that point would seem crazy. Not that Bonds never seems crazy.
I want Bonds to break Aaron’s record, mostly because he’s a Giant, and it’s already pretty cool to have a Giant be the all-time single-season leader, which you’d think wouldn’t last long. I appreciate the work he obviously puts in to just being a baseball player, and I remember the great all-around player he was, as opposed to the astounding all-around hitter he is now. And as I’ve said in EEEEEE!, I don’t care about the performance-enhancing drugs. Assuming he used, we’ll never know what direction his career would’ve taken if he hadn’t. For all we know, he could have 800 by now. The point is, sure, maybe these performance enhancers enhance performance significantly—but you still have to go out there and do it. I could start pounding these drugs into my body, and there’s no way I would hit 756, 73, or even one home run in the major leagues. First, I’d have to actually be in the major leagues, which is a separate but nonetheless significant issue. Second, well, to be perfectly honest, there’s nothing in my life that I do nearly as well as Barry Bonds hits, and I don’t know anybody who can reasonably say that they are as good at what they do as Bonds is at what he does. Just taking the drugs cannot and will not turn someone into Barry Bonds. And I appreciate what he’s done on the field, and I feel very fortunate for having been able to follow him closely for so many years.
I neither like nor dislike Barry Bonds. I don’t know him and have never met him, and that will remain true unless we both become involved in, say, a traffic accident, which I easily could do without. I just find it appalling and so deeply, profoundly stupid that this man has been made the subject of scorn and vilification of the type you’d normally reserve for, say, Osama bin Laden. The difference is that with bin Laden, at least people have a good reason to hate him.