Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Baseball: Marlins figure out Strasburg, the way kids do in a playground

Last night, what happened as Stephen Strasburg returned to the mound for the Nationals was the same thing that kids all learn at recess and in sandlot and playground stickball (or softball or whiffleball), in large suburban backyards of New York City streets.

The second or third time around, you figure your opponent out.

The Florida Marlins, shut out the first time Strasburg faced them, had studied videotapes of his motion and knew how to “wait” on his fastballs, and roped a few of them.

On a playground, kids learn which other kids can field, or which ones can hit faster thrown pitches (or curves in whiffleball), or pitches with high arcs.

In chess, people learn to predict what openings their opponents will play, or how they will react to finding themselves in a position with a certain character.

In ping-pong "table tennis"), I had a smaller table (8 x 4) at home, giving advantage, but I found that I could beat some people by "keeping the ball on the table", tempting those with poor self-control into reckless slams.

But last night's MLB game was like an exercise in a kids' playground, or even kid-invented board game or computer game. Strasburg is young enough that had he been brought up in northern VA, he could have been in one of my classes when I subsitute taught. (An Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher may have been; I do remember a pitching star in an AP chemistry class, but so far he hasn't shown up to face the Nats.)

I wasn’t at Nats Park last night; I was at a speakeasy. So found this out on my Obama-like Blackberry as I was leaving. On the Metro, everybody was talking about how the Marlins had Strasburg figured out.

Second picture (above this one): Old Griffith Stadium, Washington (about 1959, when the Senators had lost 18 in a row, mostly on a "western" trip  -- that "A's Hop on Pascual, Too, 6-1" headline); and a stadium board game, played with an aluminum foil wad ball, and areas carved out on the field for base hits; kids figured this one out pretty quickly.  In backyard baseball, I definitely enjoyed "home field advantage" (and some walk-ff wins). In some backyards, including mine, over the fence was "out"; so we set up a "beer garden" home run area, requiring precision placement hitting; I got good at it.)
Third Picture: RFK Stadium (opened in 1962), 2005, in the new Nats first year, still used for soccer and rock concerts. Both RFK and Nationals Park are "pitcher's parks". So was old Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Above: there used to be a wire mesh fence in front of the "beer garden" above, for home run area, back in 1958; there was also a little fence in front of the back corner, a center field "bullpen" home run area. For grownups, the dimensions work for whiffleball.

I guess the point of all this emergency post is to help the Nats win tonight; the Marlins haven't figured out Olsen yet.  Let George Will write a column about Strasburg's rookie season.

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