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.