Monday, March 12, 2007

Go Fourth a Three Man

During yet another unwanted viewing of a new Round Table Pizza commercial in which a “rival” pizza manufacturer is portrayed as foolish, outdated, and uncool for using “gimmicks” such as a guy in a talking cupcake costume, my son said, “Um… aren’t these the people who used to use puppets?” Indeed they are. And indeed the puppets were among the world’s most annoying. And yet, here’s Round Table now pretending that their product stands on its own merit, such that it would never need to resort to such cheesy—I would say “No pun intended,” but I hate when people do that, especially when it’s not funny—gimmickry as Matt and freaking Marcus.

How, I say, how can Round Table—which, as chain pizzas go, puts out a dandy product—in good conscience, even consider messing with our minds like this? Simple. Because, as Steve Martin put it back when he was funny, “the public has a short memory.” For instance, Martin pointed out in his standup routine, “How many people remember a couple of years ago when the earth blew up?” He expressed incredulity that no one in the audience remembered how we all escaped to this planet in the giant space ark.

Short memory. That’s the expression folks tend to direct toward other folks who, say, criticize Peter Magowan—people don’t remember how he saved the Giants from oblivion in Tampa Bay—or Brian Sabean—wait: isn’t he the guy who put together all those winners?

Here’s the most recent “short memory” thing I can think back to: Last week saw a rise of frantic murmurs from the Giants’ camp. Yes, it seems that new manager Bruce Bochy has tempted fate, has broken with tradition, has slapped baseball in its very face by deciding to move cleanup hitter Barry Bonds to the third spot in the batting order. You couldn’t hear yourself think for all the pants wetting.

What an iconoclast that Bochy is, removing the iconic Barry Bonds from his iconic cleanup role and bumping him up a slot! That’s never happened! Never! Bonds has always been the cleanup hitter! Yes! From his very earliest days as a Giant, Bonds has always dwelt in the Glory Hole. Okay, I’m almost certain I can come up with a better metaphor for “number-four spot,” but let us sally forth. Where was I? Oh: Yes! Bonds! Always a cleanup hitter! Without exception!

Except for 1993, when he batted fifth behind Will Clark and Matt Williams, and in front of Willie McGee. And except for 1994 through most of 2002, when he batted third ahead of Williams and then Jeff Kent. When it came to Bonds hitting third, you could number the exceptions on the thumbs of one hand, probably. Oh, maybe once in a while Dusty Baker would flip-flop him and Kent because, say, Bonds wasn’t hitting. But until about two-thirds of the way through the 2002 season, Bonds was the number-three hitter. Yes, they got to the World Series, and yes, they almost won it—but I’ll still never understand that move.

Even less will I ever understand why Felipe Alou insisted on keeping Bonds in the four-hole. To paraphrase Bat Fastard quoting me, the other lineup spots seemed to matter far more to Alou than the three, four, and five spots—though that’s not strictly true. I mean, Bonds’ name was carved, in stone, into the four-hole, thus enabling guys like Mark Sweeney, Pedro Feliz, and even Todd Freakin’ Greene to bat third.

Just so you know, I’ve always advocated Bonds batting third. It’s been ingrained in my personality, I guess, that the best hitter in the lineup bats third, period. That’s why Ruth wore number 3 and Gehrig number 4. That’s why Mays hit third and McCovey hit fourth (except when they didn’t). In 1993 Clark hit third—precisely because he’d pretty much earned his way into that spot. Bonds clearly was the best hitter on the team, and once Clark left, Bonds was the number-three guy.

Why is this so important to me, possibly more important than getting my taxes done on time? Because I just think it’s exceedingly wise to make sure your best hitter bats in the first inning, every time out. Granted, I haven’t seen the numbers over the last several years, but I remember reading more than once that more runs are scored in the first inning than any other. Why? Lots of factors, probably. One, certainly, would be that the starting pitcher hasn’t quite settled down yet. Another, though, would have to be that on top of this, the poor slob has to face the team’s best hitter. And he knows it. It’s right there in the front of his mind: “I’ve got to face Barry Bonds right from the get-go.” Batting Bonds fourth, at least as often as not, means this: “I’ve got to face Bonds, but at least it’s leading off the inning.”

Another reason you want your best hitter up there is that the higher up in the order you bat, the more often you bat. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? And even if the difference is as small as, say, one extra plate appearance every 10 games, upon whom would you rather bestow that extra plate appearance? Ray Durham? Rich Aurilia? Pedro Feliz? Mark Sweeney? Or Barry Bonds?

Bat the guy third. Keep him there. Just do it.