Stop Coming Up Short

I have been playing mostly shortstop for some years now, writes Rob Jones. A little bit of third when we needed it, second base, and even first – as well as a chunk of catching, which I enjoy but my legs don’t so much.

But what you find as a Single-A shortstop is that, although it is generally seen as the central role in the infield, you can go entire games with barely a chance coming your way.

I don’t really know why. Why is it that, at the lower level of the game, the truisms go out of the window?  Shouldn’t it all be the same, but maybe a bit slower, a bit less efficient?  Maybe the combination of amateurishness on the part of the pitcher and the batter — and the fielder — somehow combine to rewrite the rule book.

Herts fielders pay attention to a runner

On Sunday, however, I started at shortstop in our opening league game of the season and had three chances come my way in the top of the first inning.

Sadly for me (and for the pitcher) only one of them led to an out. And I want to look briefly at those plays to think about what happened.

The Raptors as a whole perhaps showed some of the rust which came from 2018’s washout (and occasionally white-out) pre-season. We had played only one game, nearly a month ago. We were not as slick and as confident as we can be.

Lucky old me, I got to exemplify all of this when one of the first London batters hit a towering pop-up.

It should have been all mine, I will make that clear before I start. But instead, the ball ended up on the floor, the runner was safe and I had a bruised wrist and chest to show for it.

They say one of the truisms about how to field a fly ball well (or in this case a pop-up – same difference, shorter distance) is about taking a great route to the ball. In other words, seeing and feeling immediately where it is going, how hard, how fast, and getting to the best spot to catch it.

Well, on this pop-up my brain tried to calculate that great route – and all the gears slipped into neutral. At first I thought it was going deeper than it really was, perhaps fooled by its height.

So I didn’t move as sharply as I should’ve done to get back and beyond the ball. Looking up at it, I also started to lose my bearings a bit. Laser focus was lacking.

James Emblow at bat on Sunday

The slow feet meant that when the ball ultimately came down, around the edge of the dirt and the grass, it was dropping over my shoulder and through my breadbasket. My attempts to make the Willie Mays catch ended in a tumble, and the bruises mentioned earlier. And, metaphorically, egg on my face.

It wasn’t long before another chance came my way. This was an infield dribbler, sneaking past the pitcher. I fielded it on the run, heading towards first base.

But when I threw it a combination of rushing, whilst also easing off the throw as I came close to first, meant that the ball died apologetically at Beppe’s feet. He did his best to scoop it but couldn’t. He should never have needed to.

For regular readers and viewers, I can tell you this was very like the incident at home plate in that one pre-season game. You’re not really supposed to make the same mistake twice, I think that’s accepted as “a bad thing”. But maybe making the same mistake once a month isn’t soooo bad??

The final chance followed swiftly. This was an actual, normal, proper shortstop play. A rarity! A hard-hit ground ball right at me. Got that one, made the toss to second for the force-out and finally ended the inning.

On the plus side, I have to say that I fielded both of the ground balls cleanly. I can’t tell you how, so I am taking that as a good sign that it was simply instinctive.

Maybe those training sessions throwing the ball against the wall in the park were good for something! But what it all showed was that there is no replacement for live, game action. It’s about putting together your brain, your feet, and your hands.

The young people explain “music” to team-mates

For the Raptors, Opening Day was a disappointing and slightly flat experience, as we quickly fell behind and didn’t show enough skills to get back into it.

The first-inning injury to Liam, our centre fielder, obviously took the wind out of everybody’s sails. It’s never good to see people get hurt. Fortunately he seems to be on the mend, and we wish him a speedy and smooth recovery. But his arm injury looked nasty and I don’t underestimate that.

The team did put in a bit of a rally late in the game, stringing together some hits and loading the bases as we tried to stave off a mercy rule defeat. There was some good fielding, too – a great outfield catch by Oliver, a great relay by Jamie for Ken to nail a runner at the plate. So there are positives.

Days after the game, I ache even more than usual. Judging from he exact nature of my bruise, I wonder now if the ball actually hit me as I missed that pop-up. Without video replay, we’l never know. And I feel loath to complain about my pains, given how Liam must be feeling.

But no matter what happened, we are all happy to get back to playing baseball.

For any new readers worried about my apparent tendency towards self-flagellation online, I offer my annual reassurance. These little articles are all about sharing the frustrations of the small-time British ball-player – I’m happy enough to be the one to do it out loud.

And the upside always outweighs the down. It just needs fewer words to express it: “we played baseball.”