Monday, May 31, 2010

The Rudder Which Guides is Judgment

John Montgomery Ward wrote that of batting, baserunning, fielding and battery work, baserunning "is the most skillful, it calls into play the keenest perception and the soundest judgment, it demands agility and speed, and it requires more daring, courage and enthusiasm than all the others combined." The Dead Ball Era was a time when games were low scoring and home runs were rare therefore skillful base running was crucial to winning games.

The 1910 book, Touching Second: The Science of Baseball co-written by reporter Hugh Fullerton
and the Chicago Cub's Johnny Evers states base-running was "fast becoming one of the lost arts of baseball." The authors believed that since the 1890's players had "subordinated their intelligence to the brains of the manager, and allow one man, or rather, insist upon one man doing the thinking for the entire team, which is an impossibility." Ty Cobb was among a few players of the time that Evers and Fullerton admired for relying on his own judgment and instincts rather than that of managers or coaches.

They recall an example of Cobb using his judgment in a World Series game between the Detroit Tigers and Evers's Cubs. With Cobb on first the batter hit a single to short right center. Rather than stopping at second base, Cobb, in an instant, assessed the throwing ability and positions of his opponents and kept going to third base without pause. When Evers got the ball he turned to second base only to realize Cobb was approaching third. In his haste to make the play, Evers made a wild throw into the stands. Evers and Fullerton claim "no manager could have told Cobb to do that, and because 99 out of every 100 base-runners would have stopped at second to await orders, they would not have made the play."
That is the keen judgment and sound perception of which Ward was speaking. Ward agreed with Evers and Fullerton, "the player must be able to see the play himself and act upon it instantly without waiting to be told."

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Ward's Base-Ball: How to Be A Player
could be retitled Life:How to Be a A Player and wonder if Ward realized that his baseball wisdom translated so well into advice on life in general. He states,
"A runner who is thoroughly alive to all the possibilities of the game will see a chance and gain a point where another of less ready perception would find no opening. The former has learned to marshal at a glance all the attendant probabilities and possibilities and to estimate, in the same instant, the chances of success or failure."
He goes on to caution,
"Therefore, the most important faculty of all, the pendulum which regulates, and the rudder which guides, is judgment."
Although I would say I have a keen sense of perception and I don't generally question my judgment I would have failed as a baserunner in the Dead Ball Era (and not just because of my tremendous lack of athletic ability). I am not a risk taker and so the probability of success has to be pretty high for me to act. Also, I've recently become frustrated with myself because I seem to be becoming less decisive. I have started wanting several other people's opinions before making a decision. Maybe all of Fullerton, Evers and Ward's advice isn't applicable to today's baserunning situations but I think I could benefit by playing a little more like Cobb, taking more risks and trusting my own perception and judgment. What about you? Do you have the makings of a good Dead Ball Era baserunner?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Sign of Weakness or of Strength?

Opposing batters probably laughed when they saw twenty-year-old 120 pound Larry Corcoran for the first time. After they tried to hit the young player's pitches his opponents' laughter most likely turned to cursing. Cap Anson saw past the pitcher's small size and brought him to Chicago to join his Chicago White Stockings in 1880 which turned out to be one of many good decisions for Anson that year. The team, behind Anson's strategic leadership and Corcoran's powerful arm, dominated the next several years in the National League.

Anson and Corcoran have been credited with creating several key components of the modern game and while origins are difficult to verify, the White Stocking's success certainly added credibility to the new strategies they employed. One such strategy was a pitching rotation. Anson recognized that the practice of having the same pitcher start every game for a team was quickly wearing out his pitchers so he rotated starters Fred Goldsmith and Corcoran. Like many new ideas in baseball it wasn't originally accepted. Goldsmith and Corcoran were seen as weak because they needed rest. Anson didn't buckle to the criticism and the proof was in the numbers when Goldsmith had a winning percentage of .875 and Corcoran of .754 in 1880.

The rotation not only allowed the pitchers time to rest their arms but also kept opposing batters from getting too familiar with Goldsmith's curve or Corcoran's fastball. Goldsmith claimed ownership of the curveball and challenged Candy Cummings's story of its creation. Corcoran could also throw a curveball and worked it in with his fastball. He and catcher Silver Flint were credited with creating the first set of signs between a pitcher and catcher. Corcoran would shift the wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth to signal to Flint that a curve was on the way.

The White Stocking's teamwork and communication went well beyond this battery and included other strong teammates such as Mike "King" Kelly. Anson assured Corcoran and Goldsmith had the run supported needed to win games by focusing on developing the talent of his players beginning with Spring training and continuing throughout the season. The 1880 White Stockings finished the division with a .798 winning percentage, 15 games ahead of the second place team. In his autobiography, Anson states,
"The secret in the club's success in those days lay in its team work, and in the fact that a goodly portion of the time was spent in studying and developing the fine points of the game which long practice made them fairly perfect in."
Although these words describe a baseball team from 130 years ago I think they are still relevant today and apply to much more than baseball. Baseball, like many things in life, isn't about one or two superstars on a team who develop a new skill, it's about working together to put the strengths of all players on the team to the best use. Each player is dependent on his teammates to succeed.

In my job we often discuss the idea of moving people out of poverty to self-sufficiency. Are any of us really self-sufficient, or are we more like a member of a baseball team, relying on our friends, family, neighbors and government services such as roads and schools? Perhaps a better goal is a healthy interdependence. I know that at times I've been on a hitting streak and other times I've been in a slump and have relied on the help of others. I definitely need to rest my pitching arm every now and then. I'm glad to know that my team is strong enough to support me, much like Anson's White Stockings!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Prolonged Heartbreaking Struggle

"A prolonged heartbreaking struggle" is how the New York Times described the twenty six inning battle between the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Robins on May 1, 1920. This pitchers' duel ended with a 1-1 tie when the game was called due to darkness. The pitchers, Joe Oeschger for Boston and Leon Cadore for Brooklyn, each pitched the entire game and only gave up 24 hits between them. What does a team do for an encore after a twenty-six inning game? Well if you're the 1920 Brooklyn Robins you follow it up with two more extra-inning games for a total of 58 innings in three days. Unfortunately for the team, all 58 innings were a "prolonged heartbreaking struggle" but that didn't keep the Robins (who were also called the Dodgers at this point) from going to the World Series that year.

The twenty-six inning marathon still holds the record for the most innings in a Major League game and it would have gone longer had the umpires not decided it was too dark to continue playing, much to the dismay of the players and fans. The New York Times questioned one umpire's motives for ending his long work day:
"McCormick remembered he had an appointment pretty soon with a succulent beafsteak. He wondered if it wasn't getting dark. He held out one hand as a test and in the gleaming deciding it resembled a Virginia ham. He knew it wasn't a Virginia ham and became convinced it was too dark to play ball."
The following day the Braves had a day off to recover while the Robins piled into train cars and headed to Brooklyn to face the Philadelphia Phillies. They fell to Philly in what must have felt like a short 13 inning game with just 88 total at bats versus the 171 between the two teams the day before. Following the loss to Philly, the team piled back on a train and headed to Boston to face the Braves again. Despite their inevitable exhaustion, the New York Times reported "neither team showed the effects of overwork once they got into action." This time it took 19 innings for the Robins to fall. In three games Brooklyn had played 58 innings, come up to bat 193 times, scored 4 runs and won 0 games.

The New York Times quipped that the team was going to start demanding time and a half because they had played the equivalent to six full games with "four more innings thrown in for good measure" all in the span of three days. Of course the players did not demand overtime, they kept showing up and playing their best until the work was done. They persisted through the "prolonged heartbreaking struggle" and went on to win the National League pennant that year.

This team's persistence reminds me that although I've been working long hours lately and haven't felt like I've been having success every step of the way, I must continue on. I can't let the fact that I'm feeling tired, stressed out, overworked or frustrated affect the work that I'm doing. I must show up everyday to play and in the long run it will pay off.

Thanks Bryan Rutt for suggesting I write about this topic during the 20 inning Cardinals/Mets game in April, this turned out to be a lesson I need to learn right now!
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