It’s been a rich and varied baseball season for me so far — but only when I have had the chance to play baseball, writes Rob Jones. And because those opportunities have been rather sparse, I have had far too much time to simply mull over the beautiful game, instead. Games that I have played in have had highs and lows, swings and roundabouts, and plenty of talking points. To that end, I have been considering the validity of various truisms — some might call them cliches — about baseball, and about life.
Pitching and defense win ball games
I can’t claim any great insight in this one – any coach will tell you it’s true. Perhaps it’s the greatest cliche of all for anyone who plays the game. But it is worth highlighting, and here’s why. You often think about the differences between baseball at the Major League level and where we play it, at the nether reaches of the British game. Stealing a base is a very different proposition, for example. And the positioning of fielders is far more sophisticated – think about how often you have seen an MLB outfielder stand patiently to receive a room service catch, having already assessed the matchup and the situation.
But this one is a truism which is equally true at all levels of the game. The fewer mistakes you make, and the more strikes you throw, the better your chance of getting a win. Even in a high-scoring league like ours, it is the defense which will make all the difference. In this year’s game against the London Marauders this was particularly true. Our first three hitters got bat on ball, but their fielders made every play. None was spectacular, perhaps, but they could all have gone wrong, and they didn’t. On the other side of the coin, we failed to make a succession of close plays.
We were undone by walks too — in a previous year I remember us opening a game with six consecutive walks. You just can’t do that and get away with it. When the average viewer watches Major League pitching, you don’t appreciate how hard it is. Watching guys like us makes it abundantly clear! I should point out that I am not just criticising from the sidelines here — in my only pitching start last year I walked two of my first three guys, and I have always made it my special purpose on the mound NOT to give free passes. Once you are up there, it’s a different scenario.
Young pitcher Zack Longboy has been a boon for us this season with his tremendous consistency. More of him later, but let me give this final thought about pitching and defense. No matter how good the man on the mound is, he will need help. When the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Cain threw his first perfect game last month, it was made possible by Gregor Blanco making a phenomenal diving catch in right field, and by Joaquin Arias making a series of excellent plays from third. Pitching and defense go hand in hand if they are to succeed.
It’s a game of inches
It’s been said that the set-up and measurements of the baseball diamond are perfect, and that this can be seen in the way a close play fifty years ago is still a close play today — even as fitness and strength and equipment improve, the margins of success and failure remain consistently small. Once again, this truism can be neatly transposed onto the rough and ready amateur game. We may be consistently less fit and powerful than Major Leaguers, but that means we end up just as close!
Stealing bases against the Essex Archers, I was often an inch from being out. My second time on base, the pitcher knew I was going to steal. He threw over four times, and the third time I was only just able to dive back, safe by an inch. An inch away from embarrassment. (I would have been more comfortable, except that I caught the peak of my helmet in the dirt — there are lots of reasons that the inches count!) Later, as a runner at third base, I was pushing my luck as far off the bag as I could, and when a grounder went back to the pitcher, he looked at me, and I looked at him. He waited, just a few heartbeats, then went for the out at first. As soon as he did, I was off, going for home. I slid in, clattering into the catcher and scraping skin off my arm. But, by an inch, I was safe. As it was, a vital run scored. Had I failed, it would have been a foolish wasted out.
The cliche isn’t just true of base-running, either. A pitch which paints the corner can be given either way, depending on how the umpire sees it. How many times have you seen a pitch which just needed to be an inch higher, an inch lower? And it’s true when batting. Against Essex, Glen Downer just missed out on a couple of big hits, because a potential homer becomes a pop-fly because the contact is just an inch further up the bat. In the same game, Gilberto Medina hit a beautiful drive out to left field. I was running from second, and stopped half way down the line to watch what happened to the ball. It carried past the fielder, onwards towards the fence, onwards, and then — by just inches — it fell short of being a homer. I think it was only a single. I am delighted to say that, since then, Gilberto has deservedly hit one all the way out.
Age ain’t nothing but a number
Herts has some tremendous veteran players, and the Falcons have picked up some with golden track records this year. But the club is perhaps best known for its youth set-up, and the youngest stars have been some of the biggest for the Raptors this year. Zack Longboy has been a revelation on the mound. The league-leading Essex Archers marveled at his poise and accuracy, after he had pushed them close to defeat for the first time this year. He has secured key strikeouts, thrown a variety of pitches for strikers, and fielded his position calmly. His perfromance belies his years, and he has put a lifetime of preparation to good use.
And Zack is not the only young star in the ranks. Brodie and Jake Caress have made the step up to adult baseball, with Jake closing out the win against the Old Timers with the game on the line (the Raptors had never beaten the Old Timers, and the come from behind victory was vital to playoff hopes). Both have performed well with the bat, while Jose Morillo has matured enormously as an offensive weapon, and the team also had a little pitching help from GB’s Tom Everex-Armstrong in the win over Tonbridge. These players have shown a fearlessness and a technique which we can all look to emulate.
Winning isn’t everything
This was an issue I began to chew over as I considered the contrasting experience of winning at a stroll against the Tonbridge Bobcats, and then losing by a narrow squeak against Essex. Winning is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong — I am not here to extol the virtue of the gallant defeat! When we thumped Tonbridge last season I thoroughly enjoyed it, as my first victory for two years. But whether you win easily or lose disastrously, you can come away with a similarly empty feeling.
It’s the competition which gives life and meaning to a win. It’s one of the reasons we always want to see a World Series go to seven games, or a Wimbledon final go to five sets. Winning a tough game is the best feeling of all. In that sense, I suspect the Raptors’ defeat of the Old Timers was an absolute corker. Sooooo sorry to have missed that one. The Eagles victory over the Essex Redbacks was the best game I have had this year, coming from behind to take a late lead, then clinging on for an 18-16 win. Those are the most exhilarating games. Just winning isn’t enough — we want to win with style, and after a battle.