Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Pitch: A Year and Change Later

It's been about year and a month since I wrote this article. Just recently, I found another baseball team to play for (as an alumni, I can't quite play for RU anymore), so I got to thinking about this article again. I think it's rather lasted the test of (albeit brief) time.

A few days ago, I gave my friends and family quite a scare: I tweeted a photo of myself, appearing to have received some minor stitching on my forehead. Well, I certainly received some sort of stitching. Well, this all started in early January when the accumulated snow was thickening to ice and the skies were daily gray...

The fall semester had ended some weeks prior and my university sent out its first, community-wide announcement email for the coming semester. Near the bottom, somewhere between yoga classes and study abroad, sat a small, almost defeated notification: “Roosevelt Lakers Baseball Looking For Players.”

Something inside my chest made a distinct fire alarm sound.

In high school, I played on the varsity football team, ran track, and even participated in the weightlifting team. One day, I went to my weightlifting coach (who was an assistant coach on the baseball team) and asked him: “Do you think I could make it on the baseball team? I've recently discovered I really like baseball, and I want to try out.”

“Son,” Coach Thomas said, half smiling in that southern, dip-lip fashion, “I don't think that's such a good idea. You're a junior now, and baseball's a real tough sport to pick up like that.”

And so that was that. Fast forward a half decade and change: “Roosevelt Lakers Baseball Looking For Players,” I read again. I jumped up from chair and starting hopping around, making weird, excited sounds that could only be described as Yoko Ono-ish. My wife gave me That Look, asking, “Are you okay?”

I spilled the details for her, and she, as always, encouraged me. If we again flash forward, this time just a month or so, to last week, we see me, bundled for the outdoors with a duffel bag of gear in hand and a frightened, helpless expression on my face. “You'll do fine,” Wife said. Within an hour, I was sitting awkwardly in an incandescent waiting room with several other guys my age. We started shuffling off our blue jeans to reveal athletic shorts underneath, after a period of paperwork, and began brandishing brown and black gloves.

Within five minutes, we took to the indoor, astro-turf field and started warmup tosses and grounder drills. It was thrilling, every moment of it, from the crass humor to the exhausting batting practice. In an effort to both soak up every moment of the practice and to prove myself useful (“Don't be a turd,” was my mantra), I volunteered for everything.

“What position do you play?” Everything.

“Can you throw this batting practice?” Gladly.

“Do you know how to catch?” I even brought brought my own mitt.

It was that last one that really proved the most eye-opening. I had only caught in sandlot games, games where the hardest throw is probably a 70 mph wild pitch.

So, a headband-wearing hippie pitcher takes the mound and starts throwing. At first, I think: “Hey, this is not so bad. I've caught these before.”

Then he stretches real quick and says, offhandedly, “I'm going to start throwing now.”

“Okaaaaay...?” I think, but don't say.

Hhhhissssssssssss—fthb.

For those who don't know, “fthb” is the muffled thud of flesh, when hit by an mid-80s fastball. Yes, on the absolute first, real pitch, I held my glove almost a full hand too low and the speeding ball harmlessly nicked off the glove, proceeding directly to my face.

Below, readers can observe I am healing marvelously, but that original photo clearly shows the early, Frankenstein-ing affect.

After gathering myself for a moment, I went on to successfully catch a decent bullpen session. In fact, I got to see, for the first time, the true bite of a curve ball. Sure, I see it on TV, in video games, or from the stands all the time, but never had I seen it barreling towards me, then diving abruptly to the area where my cup should have been. Needless to say, I took a double-take the first time I saw it.

Okay, how does this relate to the Cubs or sabermetrics? I just want two make to points:

Lay off the mathematicians. I fully, hardily, and honestly consider myself both a sabermetrician and a mathematician. There are some in the blogosphere who brazenly -– or even obliquely -– declare sabermetrics or the users thereof to be ruining the game. These individuals see UZR and FIP and wOBA as detractors of the sport they love. They see the sabermetricians as cold, empty stat-heads who watch games from their spreadsheets. If my experience is not obviously contrary to that opinion, allow me detail it:

  1. I really love baseball statistics and advanced baseball analysis.
  2. I really enjoy looking at a game's data even during the game (practically watching it on a spreadsheet).
  3. I nearly peed myself when I found out I could actually play baseball.

In other words: I love baseball so damn much I was willing to go against what my coach said, willing to risk my fears of inadequacy, and willing to travel –- in the dark -– to a Chicago neighborhood I had never been to before. Eat it, sportswriters.

Let's lay off the players. The other day, our friend mb21 had a great article (spanning many topics) in which he openly apologized for making fun of Aaron Miles and any other MLB player. The truth is: baseball is a damn hard sport to play. And like mb21 notes, anyone in the majors is already one of the best in the world, so I'd be foolish to call Carlos Silva or Aaron Miles names –- these guys are absurdly talented. Sometimes it's hard to remember that little white ball moving on the TV is much faster than it seems. I know; I'm displaying the proof on my forehead:

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