Monday

6-7-10: College Baseball Thoughts

Hello again everybody...

Welcome back from the weekend. I hope you found time to rest up and relax, or at least have a whole lot of fun. No? Well you at least accomplished something, right? There, I thought so.

Me? I guess you could say I hit two out of three, and that's not too shabby!

One of the things I got to do this weekend was catch some of the opening round of the College World series. In doing so, I noticed some stuff. And if you're guessing that somewhere in all that noticing came the thought, “hey, there's a column”, then you'd be spot on!

That's why I value you dear readers so much!

So let's get to my observations... right after the quote...

”The one serious conviction that a man should have is that nothing is to be taken too seriously.”
- Nicholas Butler (1862 - 1947), American philosopher, diplomat and educator


… except for baseball, right? Right?! Okay, I'm kidding... mostly. (One other point... you want to know how much of a history geek I am? When I saw this guys birth/death dates, my first thought was, “born in the second year of the Civil War, died two years after the end of WWII. Now that's a lifespan!” Yeah. I'm that much of a dork. Deal.)

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As I mentioned, I spent some time this weekend checking out the opening round of the College World Series. I don't generally follow college baseball, but I decided to take a peek at a few games anyway. Here's what I noticed:

Everybody's small...

Okay, that's a relative observation. At my astounding height of 5-feet 9-inches, I probably shouldn't be referring to anybody else as small. Well, except for my mom, I suppose. After all, her “five feet on a good hair day” is in large part responsible for my stature anyway.

But as baseball players go, it was amazing to me how short most of the players in these games are. I'd wager that media guys list most of them at 6-feet-plus, but I'd be shocked if, in reality, there aren't more players under 6-feet than there are over.

I suppose that makes sense after a fashion. Baseball players with “pro style” bodies, are generally drafted straight out of high school. Unlike other sports, baseball has a well-established developmental system: the minor leagues. For basketball and football, college teams serve as their developmental system, so even players who'll be leaving early for the pros, often spend a few years in college. But in baseball, if you're identified at the high school level as having pro potential, you're far better off turning pro and heading into the minor league system than going to college. That's because players often develop more quickly under the tutelage of minor league coaches and while surrounded by other players with pro potential than they would in the college ranks. Put simply, playing with better players makes you better, faster.

So if the talent pool in the college game doesn't represent the cream of the baseball crop, then I guess I shouldn't expect the guys to look like the larger-than-life athletes I'm used to in the pros.


Everybody's dirty...

I mean that in a complimentary fashion of course. One of the things I enjoyed most about watching college games was the tremendous level of hustle displayed by the players.

Again, this makes sense. When you're dealing with players who don't have quite as much talent as their professional brethren, there's got to be some other trait that attempts to balance things out. In this case, hustle.

They run hard, they sacrifice their bodies diving for balls in the outfield, and they have no qualms about getting down in the dirt to block a wild pitch, or dig out a ground ball.

Most of the kids playing in these games won't ever spend a day in the big leagues, and many of them won't ever play pro ball. All of them are aware of this. So why keep playing? Because they love the game. That love is infectious. Get a group of guys together who want to go out and bust their tails simply because they love playing baseball, winding up with dirty uniforms in the process, and you'll get my attention in a hurry.


Everybody wears double-ear-flapped helmets...

Not that there's anything wrong with that of course. It's just different than what I'm used to.

Bottom line, it's a safety issue. A lot of people joke about the batting helmet that Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli wears. But he wears it because he took a fastball off the coconut in Spring Training and wound up concussed. Surely not something he wishes to repeat.

At the college level you're dealing with kids who throw nearly as hard as the pros, but not always with the same level of control. If you can protect kids with two ear flaps and a little extra padding, why not go ahead and do it?

Who cares if they don't look like big leaguers in the process? There are other ways to look cool at the college level (copyright Bert Blyleven). Which leads me to my next point...

You see a much higher percentage of players wearing high socks in the college game...

And I couldn't be a bigger fan. History is a huge part of the attraction of baseball. Back in the day, it was required that players wear stirrups to keep their socks up. The uniform pants tucked into the stirrups, and there was your “high socks” look.

These days, sock-technology has advanced to the point that stirrups have become entirely superfluous (copyright Captain Jack Sparrow). But that doesn't mean that the “high socks” look has to disappear.

It seems in the pros these days that most players seem to prefer having their uniform pants-cuffs extend down to their ankles. I suppose it's a comfort issue for most players. But ever now and then you'll see a guy with the cuffs hiked up and the socks up high, old-school style.

College players? It seems to be the reverse. I'm just speculating, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if it's a part of their “work hard, get dirty, and play old-school” aesthetic. Whatever it is, high socks abound in college ball.

It's not a look that works for everybody. But I love it when players give it a chance.

Speaking of college fashion sense...


Lots of flat-billed caps in college ball...

This is a look I'm not as big a fan of.

From the time I a kid trying to shape the bill of my first cap, I've tried a bevy of methods to achieve the perfect curve. First I tried shaping them by hand. Starting at the middle of the bill and slowly working a bend out towards the edges. My first attempts were crude, but eventually I was able to create a pretty consistent curve.

Then I heard about using a baseball. That's right, you put the ball in the center of the bill, wrap the bill around it and fasten it with rubber bands. Let it sit like that for a couple of days, and then remove the rubber bands. Whammo, instant bill curve.

Finally, a company developed a device specifically designed to give you the perfect curve on your hat. It was a plastic clamp that used an elastic band in much the same way as the baseball method. The difference being the device is adjustable, allowing you to determine exactly how much curve you want in your cap.

After all that work, it disturbs me to see that there are guys out there who put no curve in their bill at all! And in the college game, there are plenty of them.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not here to judge. If that feels more comfortable, or provides them a way to do something a little differently in order to express their individuality, then that's fine.

It just seems like they're eschewing a lot of historical baseball fashion in order to end up looking like Tony LaRussa. Sure, he's a legendary skipper and all, but not a fashion maven by any stretch.

Finally...

That damned “ping” still annoys the crap out of me...

There are three main reasons I don't regularly follow college baseball: one, because Wisconsin doesn't have a baseball program; two, with 162 regular season major league games to keep track of for 30 different teams, trying to keep track of the college game is just too much; and three, because of the use of metal bats and that freaking “ping” sound.

I know it may sound like nit-picking, but in my opinion, the “crack of the bat” is an integral part of the baseball experience. If you watch enough baseball, you learn to recognize the sound a bat makes when it hits a ball square, when a batter catches a ball off the end of it, or even when a pitcher hears his favorite sound, the snap of a bat breaking.

All of those are part of the atmosphere of baseball. No less important than the smell of freshly mown grass, the bark of a hot dog vendor, or the organ exhorting the fans to scream “charge”.

But not in the college game. No, in the college game, they use metal bats, usually some form of an aluminum alloy. Those bats produce the tell-tale “ping” that I'm complaining about.

Initially, colleges and high schools started using metal bats because they couldn't afford to replace broken wood bats on a regular basis. But that's changed. Metal bats are so much more expensive than wood bats now, that the replacement costs are negligible.

So why do they keep using them? Sponsorship money, period. Companies like Easton, Louisville Slugger and yes, even the great swoosh itself, Nike, strike sponsorship agreements with universities that cut the cost of metal bats, thereby re-establishing the cost-effectiveness of using metal over wood.

But surely there must be something more than aesthetics at work in metal bats earning my ire, right? You're right. It's not just an annoying sound that has me opposed to metal bats, there are also swing-mechanics issues and safety issues as well.

Metal bats allow hitter to cheat a little bit with their swings. Every bat has a “sweet spot”. Hit a ball flush on the “sweet spot” and the ball will travel a long, long way. Metal bats have larger sweet spots than wood bats. That means that a ball hit in a certain spot on a wood bat will result in a lazy fly ball, but a ball that hits the same spot on a metal bat will go out of the ballpark.

Why is that important? Because it allows hitters to develop longer, loopier swings without penalty. Hitters that try to translate those poor mechanics to wood bats in pro baseball face an uphill battle. In fact, pro teams will often send college players to “wood bat” summer leagues to try and fix some of the bad habits they acquire from swinging metal bats.

More important than mechanics though, is safety.

It's simple physics really. Wood bats give slightly when they make contact with the ball, absorbing some of the energy generated by the pitcher. Metal bats don't give at all. That means that all the energy from the pitch gets added to the energy generated by by a batters swing, resulting in a batted ball which travels far faster than one which comes off a wood bat.

Faster speed means reduced reaction times for fielders, specifically pitchers. It's a horrible thing to watch a pro pitcher get smoked by a batted ball. It's far worse when it happens in college. In college, a pitcher has nearly zero time to get his glove up to protect itself making it far more likely that he'll suffer a serious injury at the hands of a batted ball.

When the only real advantage to using metal bats is cost savings? That's simply not worth the safety risk in my opinion.


There are a lot of things to like about college baseball, and I kind of enjoyed watching the few games I got to see. But I still vastly prefer the professional game to the collegiate experience. I may keep an eye on the College World Series as it progresses, but I'll keep my main focus on the pro game, thanks.


That's going to do it for today. I'm back on Wednesday with more of the musings, mumblings and meditations that you've grown to... well, at least tolerate!

Until then, thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. I kinda like the ping of the metal bats....probably because the first baseball game I ever remember seeing was me and my uncles (and probably grandfather) at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, taking in a CWS game.

    I was probably 7 or 8. What do I remember? The fireworks. The stadium lights went out, and it was really, really dark. Then, fireworks.

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  2. The first baseball game I remember going to was a CWS series game at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, with my uncles (and probably my grandfather). I remember the 'ping' of the bat. But mostly, I remember the fireworks (I think I was 7 or 8).

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