Saturday, October 9, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

I guess until the Giants season is over, which alas may be sooner than I hoped after last night's disaster, I may have trouble keeping to schedule for Friday Baseball Posts.  At any rate...

I didn't have anything to say about the game last night, and I think I'll stick with that for now.  Instead, I'll make what I'm afraid may be a trite observation about baseball in the wake of Roy Halliday's no-hitter. To begin with, everyone knows that baseball is far more aware of its history than pretty much every other sport.  Indeed, it often gets silly...I mean, practically everything about "postseason records" is pretty foolish, and as far as I can tell it's getting more and more out of control.  Did it really add much for me to find out that Matt Cain had the first Giants pitcher postseason RBI since Johnny Antonelli in 1954?  Hmmm...well, actually, I always like thinking about Antonelli, but I've got to be in the minority, even for Giants fans. 

I'm getting off the point here, which has to do with no-hitters, triple plays, hitting for the cycle, and other such single-game wonders.  Even leaving history out of it -- isn't baseball unusual in that?  I can't really think of anything like it in basketball, soccer, or football.  Can you?  A hat trick in hockey is sort of along the same lines, but not quite, I don't think.  Golf has one: the  hole-in-one.  Tennis?  I don't think so.  And yet baseball seems to have lots of them.  I might put three or four HR games on the list.  I'd definitely include a straight steal of home, although that wasn't true when they were more common, long ago.  It's not a one game thing, but hitting streaks (or for pitchers, scoreless streaks, or no-hit or perfect inning streaks) are at least in the neighborhood.  How about switch-hitters homering from both sides in a game?  Oh, thought of another one: four strikeouts in an inning.

I'm not sure why baseball seems to generate so many of these while they're rare or non-existent in other sports, but it sure does.  Perhaps it's part of baseball's setting within history (as I hinted, these things are more "wow" when they're rare), but I really don't think that's all of it.  Am I missing some in other sports? 


  1. "There are superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball and no good books at all about beach balls"

    --George Plimpton's "Small Ball Theory" about sports literature quality

  2. Maybe this is a (small) corollary to Plimpton's theory (above), but baseball is a slow game, filled with may discrete actions. The typical double play---one of the most action-filled sequences in a baseball game---has less movement and involves fewer players than the typical basketball fast break.

    Slower games allow for more detailed recordkeeping and for more detailed analysis of each discrete action in the game. It's easier to analyze pitch by pitch a key at-bat in Halladay's no-hitter than it is to analyze, say, one of Spain's key possessions in the recent World Cup. Soccer, basketball and hockey are inherently fluid games, with players on each team making dozens, if not hundreds of decisions collectively on a single possession. Baseball, golf, and to a significant degree football, are slow, deliberate games in which it's relatively easy to observe and analyze a decision by an individual player or coach.

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  4. During last night's disaster, all I could think was that I have seen this episode too many times before.

  5. The triple-double in basketball might qualify.

    Agree with the fluidity comment, but a few other thoughts:

    Aside from golf, the other sports have less solo or one-on-one opportunities. A passing touchdown in football requires a receiver on the other end. Rushing yards or touchdowns still require blockers so a mediocre runner behind a great line can get the same stats as a great runner behind a bad line.

    The number of opportunities also vary in other sports. If a running back automatically got 4-6 chances per game from the one yard line, maybe people would remember which ones scored consistently. When you hear someone hit 4 homers in a game, you don't say 'yeah, but how many at bats did he have' because you already know.

    Another factor may be the rareness of the event itself or to put it another way, people don't want to count very high. I know that Wilt scored 100 because tht's a nice round number, but even if I know who probably scored in the 70s or 80s, the numbers start to get harder to remember. Saying "man, do you remember that time Kobe scored 80-something?" just doesn't have a good ring to it.

    So I guess find another sport where a) the accomplishments are clearly individual; b) the number of chances are the same for every player per game; c) the number of chances are in the single digits; and d) there are multiple types of events to keep track of. I'm drawing a blank.

    Side note (as if this isn't long enough already). I think video game developers have tapped into this phenomenon. Modern Warefare 2 has many per-game and multi-game accomplishments that give you points or badges and keep you hooked even when the individual games start to run together. Or so my son tells me, because I'm clearly way too old to spend hours and hours wasting my time on a mindless video game.

  6. Here's a candidate for a singular hockey feat: scoring one of each type of goal in a game (even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot, and empty net). Accomplished by Mario Lemieux (who also had 3 assists that game) on New Year's Eve 1988.

  7. Jeremy,

    Yeah, that fits, although I don't know how many hockey fans are aware of it as a thing. Is that the only time it was done?

    Meanwhile, more of them from baseball: 2 HRs in an inning (subsets w/a grand slam, and of course the Tatis one of two slams in an inning). Two grand slams in a game.

    There is a football one: scoring a TD on both offense and defense. You would think that running, throwing, and catching a TD would be a thing, and it must happen in college at about the right frequency (yes?) football fans think of it as a thing? I'm having trouble defining the category here, beyond a know-it-if-you-see-it idea.

    I really don't think Brian's suggestion of a triple-double in basketball quite fits. I'm not sure feels sort of artificial to me, while the others here don't depend, or depend less, on arbitrary statistical norms. At least, that's what it feels like to me, but I could be wrong.

  8. Good discussion and comments, espec from Plimpton and massapp. Being the oldest of the 3 major sports, baseball has had a longer period in which to chisel in granite the heroic feats of its many stars over the years, and given the leisurely pace and inordinate length of the typical game, much time to reflect and comment upon individual performance by writers and golden-throated broadcasters.

    It's the oldest of our sports and the most individual-oriented of our team sports. One guy at bat and, unless there are baserunners, all his teammates sit and watch. It's a mano-a-mano sport largely, within an overall team framework.

    Of the 3 sports, it's also the one where fans don't divide their attention between college and pros. Many might watch MLB (though it's no longer The National Pastime), but only a few bother to follow college baseball or the minor leagues. Not many fans care about what happens with individual players or teams at the levels below MLB. Not true of basketball and football of course. With all the undivided attention on the Big Show, all the more reason its players will find their achievements highlighted and chronicled for the ages.

    Finally, it's my view that the famous stats and heroics of MLB -- with many of the longtime records now broken or shattered -- no longer hold such a considerable place in the minds of fans. Growing up, kids would know exactly the HR record #s (Ruth, Maris, then Aaron), and the magic #s for DiMaggio and Gehrig for their feats, maybe a few other golden numbers. Today, after 15 yrs or so of the Steroid Era, and other hallowed records now gone by the boards, my sense is that not many fans could tell you the current records, precisely as we used to be able to recite. The statisticians (increasingly microanalyzing the game with their innumberable categories) and hardcore close-watchers of the game now are the ones who keep the history, far more than the average fan.

  9. Man, I don't know about that. Anecdotal evidence, of course, but every baseball fan I know can still recite 60, 61, 70, and 73. They still know about 56. A lot of them even know 45 (but then, I'm in Chicago). And if they don't know how many hits Pete Rose had or how many bases Ricky stole, they at least know the "plateau" numbers, 2,000, 3,000, 500, 600, etc.

    I'd also say that the division between "Fans" and "statisticians" is a bit false; crunching the numbers is becoming more and more a part of watching and enjoying the game. It's no accident that fantasy baseball has exploded, or that almost everyone can tell you about OBS, SLUG, and OPS. Hell, for that matter, my father was tallying RBIs and hits even when he was a kid; it's always been part of the game.

    Anyway, my belief is that baseball just takes care of it's history more. It helps that it has such a long history, and that that history really IS entwined with broader social movements, but make no mistake, MLB has made a concerted effort to present a sweeping narrative of itself. I also think the rarity element is a big factor (if you fail 60% of the time, you're amazing). Basketball certainly doesn't have that, and even football seems to have progress at least half the time.

  10. Fully agree with Colby here. If the Bonds HR records hold for a generation, and are challenged and survive, they'll be more or less as well known as the records set by Ruth, Maris, and Aaron.

  11. For sure I'm only giving my sense of the game sitting on the sidelines as only (at best) an occasional observer (WS time only), no longer a kid, no longer with kids at home to check this out, with very little knowledge of things like fantasy baseball and the numbers of people actually involved in that.

    My guess is that with all the controversies surrounding the breaking of the HR records (by two players), which are the most important #s in the game still, there is less of a tendency to chisel those new #s indelibly in the mind with the average bb fan, but instead more to recall the players involved and how they tarnished once-pure and magical records. As a result, the fan is left with some confusion as their ranks are divided between those traditionalists who keep the Aaron and Ruth/Maris records sacred and refuse to acknowledge the new ones, and those who've accepted the Bonds/McGwire numbers and the rest of the bloated recent hitting achievements.

    As for the statisticians, definitely the solid bb fan of yesteryear kept the HR, BA and RBI stats in mind (along with wins and maybe some ERA) -- a fairly short list to remember. But after that, I'd guess, today there's a considerable drop-off in those who easily have also the OBS, SLUG and OPS #s at hand. Hypercategorization of the game by the experts, as I say, to go with the hyperspecialization of the game on the field (DH, additional specialist relief pitchers primarily). It all makes for a rather dizzying array of things to keep in mind for the average fan, though for the truly hardcore fan, far fewer in number it seems to me, it makes for more fun and basis for further argument.

    Back when, things were simpler, games were shorter, and they played the WS easily in early-to-mid October, and during the day, when kids were still awake. We were usually in school, but managed to smuggle in a transistor radio to monitor the situation. There was a buzz around our grade school as to the progress of the game -- and we weren't in one of the big major league cities of the east. The teachers might even comment and give an occasional update. I'm not sure kids today are quite as emotionally invested in the game as we were back in the 60s. I rather doubt it in fact.

  12. If the Bonds HR records hold for a generation, and are challenged and survive, they'll be more or less as well known as the records set by Ruth, Maris, and Aaron.

    Mebbe. But what happens if in that time period no player even comes close to challenging them, not even threatening the Ruth/Maris single-season marks? Wouldn't that make Bonds' (and McGwire's and Sosa's) numbers even more suspicious and thus less likely to be remembered?

    Probably what happens with the BB HoF w/r/t Bonds et al will be a major factor in re whether those new numbers get chiseled in stone in fans' minds. But, last I checked, there was still considerable controversy among the baseball punditariat, not to mention among most fans, about whether some of the PED Era players deserve a place in the Hall. Thus my contention that their gaudy batting achievements are not quite fully settled and assimilated into the everyday easy rattling off of records the average baseball fan traditionally has at his fingertips.

  13. Brodie,

    First of all...they're all going into the Hall. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.

    Second, it's very likely that over time Bonds will be more, not less, popular. I suppose if he really does get convicted (which I think is unlikely) it'll hurt, but the nature of these things, as Bill James said, is that over time the numbers, and not the personality, are what matters.

    Very, very few fans today hold drugs against Raines, Molitor, Keith Hernandez, and the rest of that group. It's highly unlikely that they're going to care about the trivia of baseball writers obsessions twenty or thirty years from now.

  14. I think part of it is that, in other team sports, the team can more-or-less control who gets ofpportunities to do things. Not absolutely, of course, but in basketball (for instance) Wilt could score 100 points in a game because the team decided that he was the designated scorer (63/115 FG attempts). In football, the single game rushing record (Adrian Peterson's 296) occurred in a game in which he got 30/43 of Minnesota's rushing attempt.

    In baseball, nothing like that can happen.

  15. "but instead more to recall the players involved and how they tarnished once-pure and magical records."

    I doubt it. It's not like anyone had trouble remembering that Pete Rose had the most hits even when his "sins" were fresh in everyone's mind. It's not that anyone's ignoring those sins, but they can recognize what the number is. Again, anecdotal evidence, but everyone I talk to gets it.

    "As a result, the fan is left with some confusion as their ranks"

    I don't see any confusion. MLB has bent over backwards to say the records stand no matter what, and it's not that hard to grasp that even if I don't like how a guy did something, his numbers stand.

    "But after that, I'd guess, today there's a considerable drop-off in those who easily have also the OBS, SLUG and OPS #s at hand."

    Maybe, but the records we're talking about have nothing to do with the more advanced numbers. My point is that the numbers have always been part of the game, even for casual fans. And in recent years, with the rise of fantasy baseball and the more advanced stats, following the numbers has only become more widespread.

    "Wouldn't that make Bonds' (and McGwire's and Sosa's) numbers even more suspicious and thus less likely to be remembered?"

    No. First of all, Maris' number wasn't really challenged for a generation, and that didn't endanger it. Second, just because the number is suspicious doesn't mean it's less likely to be remembered. It's probably MORE likely, honestly. Again, look at Pete Rose- every time a new element of his controversy flares up (like when he "apologized" a couple years ago), sports media reminds everyone that he holds the all-time hits record. Or how about Dock Ellis? Admitting he threw his no-hitter on LSD has only made the event more memorable. I don't think controversy leads people to forget as much as you say.

    I mean, I guess I'd want to see evidence that these things are actually being treated as less of a big deal. Clearly no-hitters and perfect games are still huge deals (my best friend doesn't even like baseball, and he called me about Halladay). Every time a player gets more than 30 games in a row with a hit, we start talking about DiMaggio. And Bonds' records were still big deals. They'd be much bigger if he was even just a little more likeable (witness A-Rod getting to 600- and he's admitted to juice, too).

    What's more likely is, any time someone gets close to these records (and it really only seems to be two tarnished by steroids), we're gonna go NUTS about them- because there will be all that bullshit about "redeeming" the record from the scourge of Barry Bonds. So even if people try to ignore Bonds' numbers- and it doesn't seem like they are- it'll only be a temporary thing until someone else holds the record.

  16. A little late to this game, but baseball is distinctive in that, at the beginning of each play (pitch), each player starts in a 'position,' including the hitter, but there is no way to know, prior to the play, what will happen. Also, baseball inverts offense-defense; what is interesting in baseball is what the DEFENSE does with the ball. Any player, or players in combination, on defense may field the ball in play; no player on defense may field the ball (not counting the catcher on a strike/tipped ball).

    Although scoring runs/making outs is a goal that is formally similar to goals in other sports, the combinations are substantively much more complex in baseball. Basketball offenses are fairly routine--a player will in-bounds to the point guard, who will advance the ball past midcourt, and then (usually) make a pass. Football--the center will hike the ball to the quarterback, who will either drop back to pass or hand the ball off (or run).

    Once the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, it's wide open in baseball. Every player on the field matters in a way that, say, RT really doesn't in football--and I know, blocking, yadda yadda. I'm not a sports essentialist or anything--I don't think baseball is 'better' than other games, whatever that would mean--but it does differ from the other high-profile team sports.


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