This past week saw the second round of Interleague baseball and, as usual here in the New York metro area, the sparks as well as the horsehide were flying as the Yankees and Mets faced off. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Interleague play as, in my opinion, it further dilutes the game’s uniqueness, in that prior to 1997 it was the only one among the four major sports that respected league integrity. Not to mention that the artificial rivalries it attempts to create are sometimes dull.
But I must admit, that is almost never the case when these clashes take place in the Bronx or Queens. The latest meeting at the new Yankee Stadium, though, was not so much a showcase for chills and thrills as a primer of how the game should and should not be played.
As all the baseball world knows, Met infielder Luis Castillo dropped an easy pop fly on Friday night in the bottom of the ninth, handing the Yanks an unexpected victory. Now, pop-ups and fly balls and grounders have been muffed since the first pair of baseball knickers was donned back in the middle of the 19th century; and as many Mets fans remember, the agony of one Bill Buckner can become the joy of millions. This is baseball, and part of the reason we love it so.
But that one play was a terrific example of the difference between the way the game is played today, and the way it was always played until a few short decades ago. As anyone who’s ever played the game — organized or on a sandlot — knows, every fly ball is to be caught with “two hands!” And although I’m sure this mantra is still shouted every day on Little League ballfields everywhere, it is clearly ignored by most Major Leaguers.
So too, are other baseball adages like: never let the ball play you; always get in front of a grounder; never make the first or third out at third base; and run hard on every play. This last is still done by some in baseball, most notably by Mark Teixeira on the aforementioned Castillo error. But the fact that this is notable speaks to what is wrong with baseball: the declining quality of play is hurting the game.
Again, physical miscues have always been a part of baseball; indeed, they’re built into the scoring process. But every day in nearly every Major League game, mental errors abound. The sorry fact is, half of today’s players seem to lack knowledge of the fundamentals of the grand old game while the other half simply have no respect for them. And the game has suffered.
One often hears claims that such and such old-time ballplayers could never compete in today’s game because its players are bigger, stronger and faster; that modern training methods are far superior to those of the past. Similarly they point to the specialization of relief pitchers, or claim that expansion has necessitated coast-to-coast travel that is much tougher than in the past.
All of this is poppycock. If the hitters are bigger and stronger, so are the pitchers; and as for modern training methods, I’d love to know the average days spent on the DL for today’s players as opposed to those only 30 years ago. Relief pitching? Does anyone who’s ever read the history of the game seriously think that owners like Charles Comiskey or Frank Navin would pay five pitchers to just sit around in the bullpen? And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather play a ballgame after a five-hour plane ride in first-class than after a 30-hour train trip with no air-conditioning.
No, the sad truth is that most players simply cannot execute what even a light-hitting, backup infielder had to do to stay in the Bigs years ago. Rare is today’s hitter who can consistently hit behind a runner or get a butcher-boy knock out of a bunting stance. How about the noxious state of outfield arms? Not every player can be a Bob Meusel or a Dave Parker, but watching some of these guys hurl themselves to the ground while delivering a five hopper to the cutoff man is one of the most painful yet common sights in the modern game.
Does anyone who ever saw film clips of Ty Cobb or Joe DiMaggio execute a plethora of slides really think that more than a handful of today’s players can actually run the bases properly? You have to hold your breath when a runner launches into the obligatory and often ineffective head-first lunge toward home, for fear of season-ending injuries.
As for me, I’d take a team filled with a bunch of under-sized old-timers whose baseball fundamentals were impeccable over a team of muscle-bound lugs who, were it not for a postage-sized strike zone, the prohibition of pitching inside and a new tightly-wound baseball served up on every pitch, would barely break the Mendoza line.
Two hands, fellows!
Note: This column will not appear next week due to the upcoming nuptials of its author.