Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Importance of a Walk

On Friday I took a sold-out Acela Express train from New York to D.C., and sat next to an older man with cream-white hair who did not say a word for two hours, until we approached Union Station. He noticed that I was reading "The Mind of Bill James" and asked about the book. I told him a bit about it, and asked if had read any of James' work. He said no, but that he knows a little bit about baseball, given that he was just out in Arizona pitching in the over-65 baseball championships. He also said he went to high school with Dick McAuliffe, and had a chance to play pro ball, but went to college instead. Among the players he has coached is Dayton Moore, current assistant GM with the Braves.

We talked some more about James, and I described the basics of his thinking, such as the importance of On-Base Percentage and looking at walks in evaluating the talent of hitters. The man smiled and proceeded to tell me a story about the importance of evaluating your players, and of a walk.

"I was coaching little league in 1971," he began, "and we were in the championship game. We were down by 1 run in the last inning with 2 outs, but we had the bases loaded. As luck would have it, though, our batter was a kid who had struck out every time at bat that season. He simply swung at every single pitch he saw.

"So I decided to send him up to the plate without a bat. Well, first the umpire came over and asked me what I was doing. I told him there was no rule against sending the batter up there without a bat, and he couldn't disagree. Then the opposing manager, who's kid was pitching, comes out and wants to know what's going on.

"Then the batter's father comes running down the bleachers and starts yelling at me through the chain link backstop, saying I was embarrassing his kid. I said, 'Just give me two minutes, and I'll explain everything.' Then the kid says, 'Coach, what am I supposed to do?' I told him, 'Just go stand in the batter's box and smile at the pitcher.'

"Sure enough, the kid walks to to tie the game, and we win on the next at bat with a base hit. But the father is still mad at me, and comes up to me after the game to yell at me some more. But his kid pulls him by the belt loop and says 'Dad, get out of here. I have to go to school tomorrow, and if I struck out to lose the game, I wouldn't hear the end of the razzing from the other kids.' Then he beamed, 'But now, I can say I drove in the tying run!' The dad stopped short, and walked away without saying another word."

As we got off the train, we exchanged business cards, and he told me he had seven children, and had taken care of over seventy foster kids. It was the least suprising thing he could have said.


At 9:29 PM, Blogger SuperNoVa said...

Wow, I couldn't disagree more.

He DID embarrass the kid. He told him he wasn't good enough to compete, that he wasn't good enough to even have a bat.

There's a difference between that and saying to the same kid "Don't swing at all. This guy will walk you," and literally taking the bat away from the kid.

And as much as I am a competitor (and I was absurdly competitive back then at 12), it wasn't about winning games. Playing baseball is about having fun and building character. There is nothing about literally taking away the means to play the game that builds character or is fun.

His team may have won, and the kid may not have failed, but the thought that he would publicly take away the bat is horrifying to me. Horrifying.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger DM said...

Well, the kid didn't feel that way. And what happens when he goes up there with instructions not to swing, and the pitcher fires three strikes right down the heart of the plate, especially when it becomes obvious after the first one that the kid won't swing? What is the conclusion of everyone in the park? That the kid froze and choked under pressure.

If he strikes out without a bat, then everyone blames the coach.

As someone who had about as much talent as that kid, I would have been delighted with the idea.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger SuperNoVa said...

I think the counterfactual argument is actually worse for the kid.

What if he did strike out with three fastballs down the middle?

Sure it was the coach's fault for taking the bat away from him, but then he becomes the kid that was so bad the coach didn't even let him have a bat.

The coach was wrong letting any kid believe what they did would make or break the team. What if some other kid hadn't made an out that inning?

And I guess you might consider the alternative of actually COACHING the kid so he wouldn't strike out every time. Seems to me that's a coaching failure, not the kid's problem. (If a kid can't swing the bat because it's too heavy, find a lighter bat. If a kid doesn't have the motor skills, that's a problem you need to resolve with the parents, not on the baseball field). In other words, don't put the kid in a position where he cannot succeed.

Sorry, DM, I just can't be with you on this one. This guy is a little bit too much like the coach of the Yankees in Bad News Bears for me.

At 11:32 PM, Blogger DM said...

If a kid doesn't have the motor skills, that's a problem you need to resolve with the parents, not on the baseball field

I think this was essentially the situation -- there was really no way the kid realistically would have a chance to do anything but make an out. This was the only way to put him in a position to succeed at that moment. And the kid enjoyed it.

Sure, in an objective sense, he probably shouldn't have been playing. But your approach means he gets cut early, and doesn't even get close to enjoying being on a team, spending time in the dugout, celebrating with his teammates.


Post a Comment

<< Home