Runner on third, one man out. The infield is playing back. It is conceding the run. In effect, the team on the field is saying to the team at bat: “You can have the run if you hit a ground ball to the infield or a fly ball to the outfield. We’ll give you the run in exchange for the out so we can avoid a big inning in which you might score three or four runs and break open the game.”
Does the hitter at bat take the bargain and plate a run for his team, a run that, in a close game, might end up being the difference between victory and defeat?
He does not.
Most times these days the answer is no. The average homerun crazy hitter today is obsessed with running up his homerun figures so he can someday possibly get a big free agent contract. Therefore, hitters are striking out in record numbers. The typical hitter is ignoring the incremental philosophy in how one wins baseball games—-and achieves things in life— patiently, little by little.
So the typical batter never chokes up on the bat. He is always swinging for the fences, no matter the situation. He has never heard of situational hitting. He doesn’t just try to meet the ball. He doesn’t put a premium on not striking out in a situation in which his team can get a cheap run (And cheap or not, all runs count).
Apparently his manager and hitting coach, both of whom on average make a lot less money and have a lot less job security than star players, probably aren’t going to say anything. That’s because the home run crazy approach to hitting has become the norm in much of baseball over the last forty years or so.
Instead, as so often happens in an era when hitters are striking out more than ever before, the batter swings from the heels. He strikes out or pops up, making an unproductive out that doesn’t advance the runner. His team misses an opportunity to score. And in baseball—-as well as in life—-missing a chance to score a run here and there—or missing the chance to accomplish something—is often what separates winners from the losers.
By the way, the greatest home run hitter in baseball history—–Henry Aaron, not that steroid monster Barry Bonds—-only averaged some 60 strikeouts a year in his wonderful career. Compare that to power hitters today who typically strikeout 150 to 175 times a year. Many of these birds are going to strike out the minute they get two strikes. Young players please take note: Hammering Hank recently spoke words of baseball wisdom. Were you listening to the great Aaron, a baseball immortal? He said that whenever he struck out, whenever he didn’t put the ball in play, he was “embarrassed.” Are any of today’s stars embarrassed by striking out constantly with lots of ducks left on the pond?
So many teams, people and institutions succeed because they do the little things right. But in baseball today so many players don’t care about the little things. For example, ask most of them to bunt and you’ll get the same puzzled, are you meshuggah, look as if you asked a career politician about cutting back government spending. Most players are going for homeruns no matter the situation. So many players want to hit four baggers even though many would help a team much more if they just tried to consistently hit singles and move runners over in potential run scoring situations.
Now, I am not advocating that baseball return to the dead-ball era. That’s when homeruns were about as common as honest pols who didn’t care about the next election and who shied away from constantly bloviating on the idiot box (A description of one of our U.S. senators goes this way: “The most dangerous place in Washington is to be between him (this senator) and an open microphone.”)
The homerun is a dynamic event. It is one of the most exciting ways to score as I can testify. I watched Mantle and Maris, in 1961, chase Ruth 60 homeruns record. However, it is not the only way to plate runs. There are times in baseball when little ball—bunting, hit and run, stealing, etc—-is the best strategy. I rarely see the daring squeeze play tried these days, which I saw much more of when I was kid back in the 1960s.
But certainly there are also times to play for the three run homerun. Both strategies make sense at different times. The best teams, I believe, can do both. Last year’s world champions, the Boston Red Sox, had players who could hit homeruns but also players who could steal. That is the chief reason, I believe, why their offense rarely stalled over long periods.
I remember the great New York Yankee teams at the end of the last century that won four championships in five years. Yes, those teams could hit some dingers (Not the most in the league, but many). However, they also had guys who could steal bases. They had lots of guys who didn’t strike out every five minutes and didn’t think that golden sombrereos—-striking out four times in a game—was the height of baseball fashion. So the Yankee manager then would start runners—he knew there was a good chance his hitters would make contact and put the ball in play—and stay out of double plays.
Fewer strikeouts and double plays meant more runs over the course of a year. Additional runs meant more victories. And in 1998, the Yankees not only won it all; they won big—they had 125 victories and only 50 losses over the course of the regular season, playoffs and World Series. Bien hecho, senores! The Yankees of that era—so different from today’s Pinstrippers—-won 2.5 games for every game they lost. That is a remarkable record. We are unlikely to ever see that again from any team.
How did they do it?
It was an unselfish team. Everyone was not trying to hit homeruns all the time and therefore striking out a lot of the time. (By the way, today’s Yankees, like many other teams, strike out a lot. Consequently, they are struggling to score runs. Often strikeout machine Yankee Alfonso Soriano, a right handed hitter, is so pathetically focused on hitting homeruns that he is waving at balls in the dirt in the left handed batter’s box. He might as well be swinging hard at balls in the next county!)
Most ballplayers, like most Americans, are not students of history. That’s an understatement. Many Americans are historical illiterates who make no attempt to understand the blessings of liberty and their origin as well as the wonders of a marketplace that produces jobs. Players often know little of how they can enjoy such a good life.
Major league baseball, is a sports business that can afford to pay “average” players some $2 million a year. But if ballplayers just looked back, they could learn a lot from the Henry Aarons who played this wonderful game with such skill, verve, determination and, most importantly, selflessly.
That’s a winning formula that helped many teams win. Too bad many players—-and team owners and Americans in general who shun history of any kind—-don’t care about it. So they’ll leave lots of stranded runners. And some of them, by the end of their careers, will wonder, “Why is it I never played on a championship team? After all, I hit a lot of homeruns.”