Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Baseball calls for unit cohesion, too: The "other" Nationals seem to be envious of Strasburg's attention, and play absentmindedly

Back in June 1969, on the Saturday afternoon after Stonewall, I played in a softball game on a church retreat in the Shenandoah Valley at a place called Shrine Mont. I was over half way through my Army hitch, about to turn 26, and in the best shape of my life. I was first up in the top of the first inning, and I (righthanded) swatted at the first underhand left-hand toss and hit a real home run, over everything including a hedge that bounded left field (it wasn’t just a ground ball that rolled forever because of the lack of a fence). I pitched, and allowed a couple runs, and then in the bottom of the last inning (I guess the 7th), ahead 9-8, they moved me in from the outfield to second base because the other team’s power hitter came up. I am not a good fielder. Unfortunately, he hit a ground ball right to me, and it went through my legs, two runs scored, and “we” lost, 10-9.

More than other sports, baseball (and its popular backyard derivative, softball) expresses a certain social paradox, that conservative writers like George Will (and liberal filmmakers like Ken Burns) love to talk about. Baseball is simultaneously concerned with both individual performance (all those wonderful statistics that schoolboys knew in the 1950s but look up on mlb.com today) and team well-being, the analogue to the military idea of “unit cohesion” that Bill Clinton accidentally forced us to learn about in 1993 (you know what issue – “don’t ask, don’t tell”).

Stephen Strasburg pitches tonight (July 27) as the slumping, even slobbering Washington Nationals return home to face the first place Atlanta Braves. The Washington Post this morning discussed the physics of Starsburg’s pitching and his genetic advantages that hopefully will protect him from injury. (I remember, from boyhood trips to Ohio, Cleveland Indians’s pitcher Herb Score, also a flame thrower, seriously derailed when he was struck by a batted line drive in early 1957, shortly before our family’s annual trip to the Cleveland area.)

Strasburg has won five games since joining the team June 8 (see my June 9 blog posting here), but that Nats have gone something like 15-26 in that period. The only other starter with some consistency is Livan Hernandez, and manager Jim Riggleman cleverly follows Strasburg with Hernandez the next day in the rotation, forcing opponents to adjust to an diametrically different pitching style. Now Herandez’s fast ball is slower that Strasburg’s change up, but when the veteran is in form, opposing teams seem more baffled by his slow stuff than by Strasburg’s fastballs, hitting endless grounders.

But the rest of the team is falling for the old all-too-human trap: when one guy gets all the attention, other guys envy it. They are playing distracted, making fielding and base running errors that have cost them 4 or 5 games during this period. I could say it’s immaturity, or it’s human nature. It’s Riggleman’s job to make sure the other players get over it. They were 20-15 at one point, and it’s true the had slipped a little before Strasburg came. But Starsburg cannot be their Savior. A good baseball team needs a top quality performer in every position. That means eight guys who hit the ball hard, field sharply, follow directions when base running, and a major-league caliber pitcher in every spot in the starting rotation and major league relievers. Strasburg cannot be better that other stars like Jiminez, Hudson, Cliff Lee, or C.C. Sabithia. (I’m afraid that if he is, he’ll he wearing Yankee pinstripes in six years.) True, the Nats have hit some hard luck with injuries to other pitchers who might be stars now: Patterson, Olson, and Jordan Zimmermann (due to return). They need a solid lefthanded starter.

And the Nats can’t fall for the stupidity of earlier Senators’ franchises of trading away their heavy hitters. (No, don’t give away Dunn or Willingham.)

Still, remember that baseball is a team sport. It has a trace of the military in it. Remember the old story from the 50s of the player who was told to sacrifice bunt, hit a home run, and was fined for disobeying orders. It is really like that.

First picture: from a game (lost) with Florida in April 2008.

Second: Old Griffith stadium, and a boyhood cardboard stadium for "board games" invented in Ohio in the mid 1950s.

Third: From a visit to the Navy Memorial Museum near the Archives in Washington today.


Strasburg may have injured his arm tonight during warmups, and was scratched. I talk about the Nats' hard luck with pitching, and look, it happens! They put in reliever Batista at the last minute, and got a 3-0 5-hit shutout win.

No comments: