Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Headwork than Footwork

Shacks, goats grazing in the outfield, pine trees, ankle-deep mud and a sulfur spring shower - all of these images make you think of Major League Baseball Spring Training, right? Well maybe not you, but for Connie Mack they would have. The longtime Philadelphia Athletics manager seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Spring Training beginning with an eventful first trip as a player and ending with questioning the necessity of traveling south. Throughout it all, Mack remained steadfast in his commitment to preparing his players both physically and mentally.

As a young catcher for the Washington Senators in 1888, Mack joined his teammates for their first "Southern Trip", as Spring Training was called at the time, to Jacksonville, FL. The Senators were following in the footsteps of the Chicago White Stockings and Philadelphia Phillies who started heading south for training two years earlier, going to Hot Springs, AK and Charleston, SC respectively. While the White Stockings were put up in a plush hotel, the Senators were hosted by a local woman in two shacks in the woods. Mack described the accommodations as "vile." In his book Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball, Norman Lee Macht describes several less than desirable Spring Training trips for Mack including one as a manager in 1903 with no baseball field, just a park with ankle-deep mud.

Despite the shabby conditions, Mack pressed on and worked with his team. Macht explains, "they concentrated more on headwork than on footwork." He wanted his team to play intelligent baseball, to know how to learn the other teams' signs, read their body language and predict their next move. One of his players, Monte Cross, later said "Connie Mack studies the moves of the other side closer than any manager I ever saw, at bat or in the field he can tell exactly what his opponents are planning and is often able to block them."

As a presenter and trainer, I may not travel south to hone my skills but I do often retreat to my basement when I have a new curriculum to practice. I've also followed Connie Mack's strategy of studying the opponent, or in my case, the audience. I try to predict what questions they will have so I am prepared to answer them. Once I prepare my presentation I practice several times until I have all the kinks worked out. This strategy has worked well for me for trainings, meetings with potential partners and even job interviews.

The strategy worked well for Mack as well. He is the longest serving manager in Major League Baseball and was with the Athletics for their first 50 years. Towards the end of Mack's career, baseball, like many industries in the country, was interrupted by World War II. Rather than travel south for Spring Training, teams stayed close to home. The Athletics held camp in Frederick, MD and Mack predicted publicly that this would mark the end of teams' annual trips to warmer climates for extra training. Most managers and baseball writers disagreed and those of us who have been counting down the days until "Pitchers and Catchers Report" know his prediction was one of the few things Mack got completely wrong. The Athletics returned to Jacksonville in 1946. I doubt today's players reporting to Spring Training have to contend with goats and sulfur showers like Mack did, but I know they are learning the intelligent and strategic brand of play that he helped to develop.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Sickening Thud

A "sickening thud," said Fred Lieb who was sitting about fifty feet behind the umpire. An "explosive sound," described Babe Ruth who was at his position in right field. That's what it sounded like as Carl Mays' pitch struck Ray Chapman in the head on August 16, 1920. Mays and Catcher Muddy Ruel both heard a crack as if the ball had hit Chapman's bat. The ball was fielded and thrown to first base. Chapman actually took a few steps towards first base before he collapsed to the ground, blood dripping from his temple. He died the next day.

Chapman was the only Major League player ever killed by a pitch which is surprising especially when you consider the baseballs of the Deadball Era were used until they nearly fell apart and the spitball was legal. By the end of a game the ball would often be so covered with tobacco juice, dirt and grass it could hardly be seen. This was especially true on an overcast afternoon such as Chapman's last game. Chapman's death was a contributing factor to outlawing the spitball, requiring a new ball to be used when the game ball became worn and the end of the Deadball Era. Batting helmets, however, were not required for another fifty years.

The amazing part of this tragedy to me is that although Chapman's teammates were stricken by grief and fear, after an initial slump, they went on to win the 1920 World Series. Mays, cleared of all guilt in the incident, also continued to pitch despite calls for his resignation. I can almost hear a player's heart pounding with fear as he came to the plate to face Mays for the first time after Chapman's death. This ability to ignore that internal voice telling you to run away in fear seems to be a required trait for a successful baseball player and probably any athlete. Think of the Olympic athletes headed down the luge track after hearing of the tragedy on the same track just days earlier.

John Montgomery Ward, in Base-Ball: How to Become a Player recognized "the most important attribute of all in the composition of a good batter is courage" and offers the following advice, "It is absolutely necessary, then, to first conquer one's self, to fight down fear and forget everything except that the ball must be hit." Once again I find baseball is parallel to life and baseball wisdom speaking to be as life advice. Too often in life I've let fear stop me and missed out on opportunities. The times that I've been able to "conquer myself" and "fight down fear" I've come out in the end feeling stronger and growing as a result. So the next time I hear the little internal voice telling me to run I'll remember Ward's advice and just focus on the ball that needs to be hit, remembering that I live in a world with batting helmets and without spitballs!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Peculiar Kind of Ball

In 1883 the New York Times declared the curveball the "greatest change ever introduced into the game" and it all may have started twenty years earlier with some boys tossing clam shells. One of those boys, William Arthur Cummings, noticed how they could make the clam shells curve when throwing them and thought, "it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way." In his article How I Pitched the First Curve, Cummings remembers, "the joke seemed so good I made a firm decision that I would try to play it."

He soon found that baseballs didn't curve quite as easily as clam shells. Despite injuries, failure and ridicule from his friends, Cummings continued in his attempt to perfect the arm, wrist and finger motions needed to make the ball curve. Finally during a game in 1867 against Harvard he saw success! The path of the ball took a slight curve as it made its way to the batter. Although it took even more time and practice for Cummings to master the pitch and gain control, batters were stunned by this new pitch.

Rules of the day allowed players to move about the field so often when Cummings was pitching the batter would be surrounded by his teammates offering advice on how to hit this mysterious curving ball. Other pitchers were also in awe. They would study Cummings' delivery and try to emulate it. He had cornered the marked on the curve for the time being. Within a few seasons, however, other pitchers learned the pitch and batters weren't caught off guard by the curving ball any more. Cummings' time in the spotlight had ended.

After his playing days, Cummings spent time defending his claim as the inventor of the curveball. Others such as Fred Goldsmith claim they were the first to invent the pitch. With the backing of Henry Chadwick, however, Cummings is most widely credited with the invention and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1939 as a result.

The introduction of the curveball gave batters more to worry about at the plate, they had to examine each pitch with a more discerning eye. In his, Base-Ball: How to Become a Player, John Montgomery Ward warned, "A nervous batter is easily 'worked,' because he is so anxious to hit that he can't wait for a good ball."

I think often in life we're faced with opportunities and we think, much like a nervous batter, we have to take them all when in fact, we should examine them a little closer and "wait for a good ball." Sometimes we say yes to opportunities too quickly and find that we were thrown a curve, that the situation isn't quite right. Maybe it's a relationship with someone who isn't who we thought they were or maybe it's a business opportunity that is not a good fit with our mission. Both situations could be avoided if we took more time up front to study the pitch.
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