Sports Beat

Let’s keep baseball pure

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I love baseball. The exactness of the game, the sensory images of the diamond, the sounds and scents. There is so much uniqueness to the game that most sports cannot even dream to be as appealing to all the senses.

After a long separation from the sport, I had the good fortune to cover high school baseball for the Monitor this spring. The reconnection with imagery from my youth was immediate. My father was a ballplayer, and although I never had his skill, I played the game until I left home to enter the world of work.

Memory is a peculiar thing. In the middle of a high school game and at age 58, I can watch a play in the field and be transported back to a long-forgotten memory of playing Little League baseball. It has been a remarkable experience covering the Alba-Golden, Mineola and Quitman teams (both baseball and softball) this year, and I have been lucky to have had this reactivated connection to the sport and my youth.

Most of what I have seen reinforced my belief in the lasting qualities of the game – the crispness of play, the strategy and tactics, and the moments of explosive physical performance within long stretches of inactivity.

The constructs of baseball have remained basically unchanged. The rules have preserved the magical moments, and memorable circumstances have not been entirely written out of the game.

There have been changes. There no longer exists, by rule, a collision at home plate; nor can one attempt to break up a double play, but largely the game has been left alone. Happy in the belief that baseball has persevered, I am nonetheless distraught at two changes that accompanied almost every game I covered this year.

The first is the system in place of coaches calling each pitch from the dugout. I understand the theory. With the statistics now available, it is possible to collect a mountain of data, which is then digested in preparation for determining the weaknesses of each individual hitter. A coach would then use these tendencies to signal what pitch should be thrown by the pitcher. OK, got it.

My father would have a term (unprintable) for this system, for it removes the primal heart out of the competition. No longer must the catcher and pitcher work together to determine the best way to pitch a hitter. No, the pitcher is now just a cog – throwing the signaled pitch. You can almost hear the coach saying, “Just throw the pitch.”

And the catcher. Once the captain of the diamond, who controlled defensive alignment and called for each pitch, has become a relay station for a three-digit signal. What may appear to be smart use of data has in reality removed a singularly important learning point in the great game. The focus on the field has gone from “how do we defeat this hitter?” to throwing the correct pitch as signaled from the dugout.

How do we win? How do we defeat this hitter? How does the catcher gauge the hitter’s readiness, gauge his pitcher’s fatigue, look at the hitter’s stance in the box, factor in the umpire’s prejudices of the strike zone on that particular night, judge the pitcher’s ability to hit his spot and the movement on the ball? Are none of those considerations as important in today’s game? Just use the data. My heart breaks.

After learning to ignore the massive wristbands worn to run this system of called pitches, a system that reminds me of people checking their cell phone for text messages, I can gather myself and enjoy the game. That is until the bottom half of every inning, when an insipid creep of individualism has invaded.

It is called “walk-up music.” It had its origins in the big leagues, but must we apply all aspects of the professional game to high school athletics? Walk-up music has no point. It is neither a signal nor an announcement. It is simply an ego-stroking, adolescent feature that someone seemed to think was a neat thing to do.

For those of us who have been around awhile, we understand how peripheral things don’t matter one bit in the greater challenges of life. And baseball once was the greatest teaching system about life in our country. Let’s keep it, restore it, and forego the walk-up music.

We owe it to the Little Leaguers of today to pass on the game of baseball in its purest form. Let the catcher call the pitches. I recall one finger for a fastball, two for a curve and three for a change-up worked well. Let’s train our young men and women to figure out how to win each battle. While we are at it, restore the sounds of the game and stifle the idolatry of walk-up music.

As the season draws to a close, a “well-done” is due to the softball and baseball players of Alba-Golden, Mineola and Quitman.

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