Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Rare Diversion from Tech...

If you know me, you know how big of a baseball fan I am. Baseball's pace allows for some of the most reflection this side of cricket and curling. While lots of folks believe that a ballgame is three hours of boredom, I believe it's seven minutes of frantic execution wedged into a mere three-hour timeslot. The ratio of strategic thought to actual execution is extremely high, maybe the highest in North American sport.

Not coincidentally, U.S. sports literature is dominated by baseball; while you might believe that's because all the time between pitches allows ample opportunity to muse, I'd like to believe it's the intellectual nature of baseball that lends itself to such a trove of writing.

Baseball's pace also allows for a significant amount of in-game teaching--on-the-job training, if you will. I was fortunate to spend four years playing for and learning from disciples of Gordie Gillespie, one of college baseball's most important (and least widely-known) coaches. EVER. Gordie is best-known as the architect of Joliet Catholic's football program, consistenly one of the strongest in Illinois, often nationally ranked. However, few people realize that Gordie is also the all-time winningest coach in college baseball history, having recently won his 1,800 game.

Note that's not *coached* his 1,800th game. *Won* his 1,800th game. Granted, you coach baseball for 57 years, you're gonna win your fair share of games. But Gordie's won more than his fair share--nearly 2/3s of the more than 2,700 games he's coached, he's won. Gordie's an awesome motivator, but as important of a motivator and innovator as he's been in six decades of coaching, I believe his greatest legacy may be as an educator. Similar to how Bill Walsh's disciples have made and continue to make their mark at all levels of football, so too have Gordie's scholar-athletes at all levels of baseball and football. Whether or not you played directly for Gordie, or played for one of the hundreds, maybe thousands of guys he coached who went on to become coaches themselves, you learned how to approach the game--how to conduct yourself as a young man, how to prepare, how to execute.

And, most importantly, how to think.

Which brings me to my point, which is not to pay homage to Gordie Gillespie, although he certainly deserves any and all adulation which comes his way.

Every time I go to a college baseball game, I expect to see the head coach calling every pitch from the dugout--which pains me to no end. Guys like Gordie, Mark Marquess (Stanford's skipper), and John Savage (UCLA's skipper) have forgotten more baseball than I'll likely ever know, but that certainly doesn't diminish my quest and thirst for baseball wisdom.

So, seeing what I'm seeing here today not only pains me, it pisses me off.

Before every pitch, UCLA catcher Gino Aielli looks over to the dugout for a series of signs, as does his Stanford counterpart. However, upon receiving the sequence, Aielli looks at a plastic-covered chart on his arm--much as a quarterback does, translating the complex series of signs into something that's likely a 1 for heat, 2 for a deuce, wiggle for a change-up,

C'mon, Coach Savage, you're killing me here. In addition to destroying the pace of the game (which the home plate umpire continues to try to accelerate by clapping while Aielli looks to the bench), I seriously, *seriously* question how this educates your catcher. NOBODY better understands what's working for a pitcher on a given day than the guy behind the dish, the one wearing the tools of intelligence. The catcher is (or should be) the guy who looks at the batter's stance before every pitch, saw exactly what happened on the previous pitch(es) from the best seat in the house, and is generally the best-equipped guy wearing a cup to determine what the sequence of the next 1-3 pitches should be.

No, I'm not going to argue with the fact that the coaching staff has decades of experience under their belts, nor will I argue with the fact that The Book is now a laptop showing the tendencies of every hitter's every at bat, how he reacted to a given pitch, in a given location, on a given count. But I'll vehemently oppose the notion that the catcher is learning how to call a game in best possible fashion. Aielli isn't learning much if anything today on the field. Sure, during film review, assuming he has a chance to look at the tape before his next game, he might have a chance to pick up a few things. But, by not getting the chance to call his own game, Aielli's losing the chance to make ~120-140 decisions per game, to receive instantaneous feedback on a decision *he* made (or at least suggested, assuming a pitcher was ever allowed to shake off a sign), to take responsibility for the number of fingers he put down.

In short, he's being less than fully educated.

Maybe I'm just old school. But, the fact that we may now have the highest percentage of catchers as managers (Torre, Scioscia, Girardi, Wakamatsu, Geren, Bochy, Wedge, Gonzalez) in MLB history leads me to believe that there's something to the concept of the guys behind the plate being pretty good learners, and pretty good teachers, too.

Assuming they're allowed to learn, of course. At the pace we're going, I fear that in 20 years, we might not have *any* former catchers calling the shots at the major league level, which would be shameful. Yeah, major college baseball is important stuff. No, it's not the revenue-generating sport that football or basketball is, but it's important just the same. But, depriving the guys behind the dish of an education on how to properly handle batters (and their pitching staff) is horribly detrimental to their development as signal callers. Right now, with most college programs calling every pitch from the bench, catchers aren't signal callers. They're signal relayers, in the loop only because of the need to know what's coming to be able to catch the ball.

That's a shame. I fully expect the next step to be a catcher's helmet with a green sticker on the back, just like a quarterback's, designating that he's the guy with the radio. Then we'll put a sticker and an earpiece on the pitcher's cap, so both hurler and receiver know what the skipper wants to throw. Sure, it'll look odd to see a reliever come in from the 'pen and have to plug in his earpiece and radio when he toes the slab, but maybe that'll be the new normal a decade or two down the road.

But I sure hope not.

(Apologies for any mistakes...this was a pretty lengthy diatribe to type on a BlackBerry while sitting in the stands. Thankfully, Stanford's now up 6-2 in the 7th. Might be karmic retribution for Aielli having to wear a friggin' play chart just to interpret the number of fingers to flash.)


  1. I am sure that you won't be shocked to hear that I agree with you. I also think the same thing has happened to football quarterbacks who couldn't call their own drive to save their butts. Everything except for the rare audible is called from the sidelines! I hate it.

    And I just love a game that goes 0-0 into extra innings. Good pitching is just so brilliant. I love baseball, spring makes me so happy.

  2. Can we try to draw some conclusions and analogies into the technology industry? Maybe micromanaging bosses stifling the potential of their employees? I think there are a lot of healthy parallels.

    JC of Switzerland

  3. Looks like the game allowed you the time to craft this nice analysis. This is why I have become a huge soccer fan, first for kids (that is how I came to the game) and now just a fan of the game. There is the yelling at kids that is too common (I was there!), but that is not how soccer works. You absolutely must learn on the field from the player's perspective. All the strategy and tactics are played out in real time (there's a tech conection). Baseball has some native purity, but soccer is called a beautiful game because of its ultimate simplicity -- but so hard to do. The coach/managers are sitting with hands in pockets when the most brilliant plays happen in soccer. And you don't have time to write during a good match. That said, Sunken Diamond is a great place to sit, think and write.