There has been this notion circulating that National League Baseball is tantamount to torture. By torture I mean agonizing, gut-wrenching torment for extended periods of time, while we watch pitching, defense, clutch hitting and speed on the base-paths, take center stage. The alternative is setting the table for the big guns, and letting the three-run jack call the shots. I greatly prefer the former to the latter; however, it’s not torture if you enjoy it.
I grew up watching the best rivalry in the game, with no apologies to the Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees fans out here. Neither the Sox, nor the Yankees ripped their baseball diamonds out of New York, not to mention out of the hearts of their fans, and moved them 3,000 miles across the country. Besides, being American League teams, they play a different brand of baseball, including one which lets pitchers off the hook, they themselves dangle by hitting opposing battles, by providing a “designated hitter.” When I think of how intimidating Don Drysdale of the Dodgers was, throwing inside as a matter of course, and how he hit 29 home runs during his career, I smirk. He was out of baseball by the time the DH came along, and that’s a good thing.
The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers set up shop on the West Coast and introduced baseball, in the manner in which it was designed to be played. The Dodgers used superior pitching, speed, defense and clutch hitting, rather than the big fly, to win games. The Giants could club another team over the head with their bats, both metaphorically and literally, and yet simultaneously stymie opponents’ hitters at the plate. The two teams fought for runs the way two alley cats fight for scraps.
When teams routinely total five or fewer runs in a game, with one run often being the difference, all situations become magnified. The more seasoned fans will want to examine all factors present on the field of play. Seemingly insignificant details take on prominence. For instance, Tim Lincecum struggles hugely with base runners; Madison Bumgarner used to but dramatically improved from 2012-2013. During the 2012 season Madison allowed 27 successful stolen base attempts. In 2013? Eight.
Lincecum is right-handed and Bumgarner is a southpaw. Apples and oranges? I might think yes on the surface, but there are still strategies that apply to all pitchers, that Madison employs more effectively than Timmy. When I am watching a game, I want to keep very close watch to see if I can determine what things Timmy is doing wrong, compared to the things MadBum is doing right. But frequently there are fans who object to the slower pace of the game. They don’t want throws over to first base; they want action! I think sometimes in their exuberance over the surroundings and all that’s offered, they forget that it’s not football they’re watching.
I simply find it far more enjoyable to see the array of skills and strategies on display during “small ball,” than to see one swing of the bat produce three runs. I embrace the concepts of bunting (for any reason), advancing the runner(s), sacrifice flies, stealing bases, run and hit situations, taking pitches, fouling off pitches deliberately, and all efforts to keep the runner(s) close to their respective bags. What appears to annoy the more casual fans, such as a pitcher keeping a runner close to first, or the ten-pitch battles between batter and pitcher, are the elements that interest me the most.
The other night in the Season opener, during Wade Miley’s first at-bat in the third inning, Clayton Kershaw threw him eight pitches. About the time the pitch-count had hit six, announcer John Smoltz echoed what I was thinking when he commented that Miley was not likely to get a hit, but he could sure help his team if he could run the count up on Kershaw. He got two more pitches before he grounded out to second.
The point is, part of any batter’s strategy is to work the count; true fans appreciate this whereas the average fan wants the pitcher to either sit down or to hit one out. Many pitchers take the whole thing quite seriously. Later in the game, when Kershaw faced Miley with a runner on first, he drew six pitches before he fouled out bunting, and let out such a bellow of frustration that it was clearly caught by the microphones and transmitted to the listening audience. That’s intensity.
No, when I watch the Giants play today, and I check out their record in one run games, and note that there could be more offense, I do not think of torture. I think of pleasure, and a sense of kinship with my youth. I can’t return to the playing field physically any longer, but I’m still there in my mind. It’s nice to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.