Starting with bang

First pitch that I saw from JR, I smacked to left center. When I saw the left fielder turn his back to chase it, I knew I had my goal of getting an extra base hit.

It’s great to be playing baseball. We’ve got a very good team. We beat JRs guys 5-4 in the bottom of the 6th. I contributed on both offense and defense.

One inning in right with a good catch and a good backup on a throw to first. Then multiple innings at third with a few plays. So, reasonable defense.

Had a double, scored a run and drove another in. On that double, I had to stay on a line drive just out of the shortstop’s reach. Then on the next hitter, I went to steal after 4 pitches and Shaun Quill hit a grounder behind me. I headed right home in case they had a double play. They only got the lead runner.

We were using a default lineup – just having everyone hit in alphabetical order while our coach, Rick Knapp, figured everything out.

Rick’s a lifetime baseball man, having served as a pitching coach for the Tigers and coordinated minor league pitching for the Twins, Royals and Dodgers. His last job was as the coordinator/consultant for MLB International, which had him trotting the globe to develop pitching worldwide. There’s a great interview with Rick about that job on Krush Performance. The entire coaching staff for the week is made up guys like Rick. Major league experience in managing, coaching and playing, while still loving the game enough to spare a week for a bunch of Old Men Playing Baseball.

20180201_163136In the third, our alphabetical lineup produced again. Jonathan “JT” Taylor led off the inning with a double and was driven in by Ed Confino after a walk to Bill Arnold. Al Ferlo, who struggled in the batting cage, drove in a run by hitting the ball hard. It may have been scored an error, but that run was important. My own hard-hit ball drove in the third run on an error.

So, we got to the 4th all tied up. JT came in to pitch and kept them off the board for the final two innings. A couple of hard hit balls and some good base running allowed Shaun Quill to score with Craig Tasens picking up the game-winning RBI.

Great start for the week.

Advertisements

Old dogs, new tricks

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. If that’s what’s holding someone back from playing baseball, I think they’re a fool.

Back in the late 1970s, I was a reasonably good rec league baseball player at 12 years old. The next season, I was eligible to play in “F Major” rather than “F Minor” (the rec league). I chose not to try out for F Major because I preferred being a big fish in a small pond. So, I got to be among the very best players in F Minor, hitting over .500 and usually stealing both second and third when I got on. I hit just one double. Unfortunately, I now realize that not only did I have no idea what I was doing, none of my coaches did either. Don’t get me wrong, the dads who coached put a lot of effort into it. The wealth of knowledge instantly available today on hitting, pitching and all aspects of the game simply dwarfs what a guy could learn from a book borrowed from the library and read after a long day at work.

I’d likely have learned considerably more with the coaches in the higher league, and against better competition. So, sometimes I wish that I’d tried out and then done the same in high school. Instead, my 8th grade school on the school team didn’t know me and put me down at the end of the bench, ending my fledgling baseball career early.

Because of the lack of any real instruction, I’ve always been something of a blank canvas when it comes to hitting. In my softball career, I found Dusty Baker’s book You Can Teach Hitting and it took me from a pathetic hitter to reasonably good. It made such an impression on my teammates that I had to loan the book out and recommend it to others. When I started playing baseball again, I tried a few books, but they were too broad and only corrected a few flaws in my swing. Then, I figured out that if my wife could hire a personal trainer, I could hire a hitting coach. Baseball is, especially in contrast to softball, pretty good exercise. It’s even better if you do it a couple of days a week.

So, I hired Luke Skinner and Coach Luke revolutionized my hitting stroke.


The first day of games in spring training, I was a little nervous. Not like I was when I started Ponce, but I made sure my goals for the week were modest. I wanted to make sure I was better than a .250 hitter and contributed. I wanted to learn things. I’m like a sponge for coaches. I absorb it all. Sometimes, it sticks and I play really well as a result.

The day started out with my first venture into a ‘real’ locker room. I had my own locker, with my name on it, just like in the big leagues. Some guys could say, “Oh, I haven’t had one since college” or “Ours in high school were almost as nice”, but I had no experience with it. The smile on my face when I saw the locker, however humble, with my name on it, was huge. Sure, I paid my $1000 for it, but it felt as good as if I’d signed a minor league contract.

Changing into my uniform, I went out and stretched with the group. In my first season in Ponce, I was always surprised at the end of games when I’d shake hands with the other team and realize they were all older than me. Spring training was reassuring this way as well, allowing me to stretch out in the midst of men who averaged about 62 years old. When Steve Liddle gathered us ‘round to discuss the schedule and put us in the right frame of mind for a week of baseball, I was giddy. We ran as a group to the centerfield fence and drifted back into lines for group stretching. Jogging along in the group, you could scrape away 30 or 40 years and imagine it was the real thing.

20170201_114949
One of many Joe Facenda hits

In our first game, I was perfect, slapping out 3 hits, though it was a losing effort. I added on a couple in the afternoon game to finish the day 5 for 6. Joe Facenda hit the ball just as hard, but right at people, so he carried a golden sombrero for the day, 0 for 6. Joe’s tenacious and completely agreed when we asserted that the hits would start falling the next day. Other than that first day, Joe was dependable, banging out hits and driving in runs. All it took was patience.

Fox line drive
Line drive by Chandler Fox

As we got to the middle of the week, Chandler Fox noticed that both he and I were way ahead of the ball. He was having some challenges with a temptation for high pitches. The strike zone was pretty big all week, and he told me they were calling those as strikes on him. So, he struggled for a few days. Jeff worked with him in the cage and we talked about patience. Sure enough, by the end of the week, Chandler was waiting, waiting, waiting and the hits started dropping. If we’d had another week, he’d have been in a groove.

One of the really cool things we did in the cage during soft toss was that Jeff would hold two balls and toss them both at once. He’d call out “low” or “high” and you had to hit that ball. It’s a great drill that I felt really got me to focus on the ball. You’ve got the distraction of the second ball, so it forces you to mentally block that out and to keep your head down. In a season, there are probably a hundred such learning opportunities, but all we had was a week. I think it has made a difference for me anyway.


So, I met with Coach Luke at one of the local baseball fields, in the cage. We did some soft toss and he examined my swing and worked on it. By random chance, I set up a little wider and wasn’t stepping before I swung. Turns out this really worked well for me – he commented on how it steadied my stance and how much he liked it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was like too many other things about my swing – random and subject to change. Because he liked it, and then because it has really worked for me, it’s permanent.

One of the things he had me do to enhance my bat speed was to tuck my shoulder and hip back, making me twist more when I swung. That may not have been what he was really trying to get me to do, but turning my hip and shoulder has cranked my bat speed up 100%. I don’t remember if our playoff game for Ponce last summer was a few days after that session or a few weeks, but when we did a little soft toss in the batting cage before the game, I could see the difference. It wasn’t just that I was smashing the ball, but the way Bill Murray and some of the other guys reacted to my swing. It was disbelief. I may be an old dog, but I sure can learn new tricks.


Our 2017 season started this past Sunday and I hoped the lessons from last year and the habits from spring training stuck with me.

In my first at-bat, bases were loaded with two outs. He missed the strike zone with his first two pitches, so standing there at 2-0, I knew he had to groove one. It was a good pitch and I hit it hard down the third base line. Unfortunately, the third baseman was holding the runner on and perfectly positioned to scoop it up and end the inning.

In my next at bat, I was facing a “junk ball” left-handed pitcher. Nothing hard, but a mix of curveballs and change-ups. He’d mentioned earlier in the day that he threw 3 complete games in three days down at spring training. Nothing strenuous, except his move to first. Jerry let us know that he was always in or near the strike zone, so we shouldn’t give up on something that looked like it wouldn’t be a strike. I resolved to simply go up swinging. Last time I’d done that against a curveball pitcher, I looked ridiculous, swinging at three pitches I had no chance of hitting. But, sure enough, he was in the strike zone. The first pitch came inside and I fouled it toward my back foot. The second one was probably a curve that just didn’t curve. It ended up in the middle of the plate and I made solid contact, driving it toward the gap in left centerfield. The centerfielder got his glove up, stopping it from bouncing to the fence despite not catching it. It steamed around first and was prudently called back.

Now, I’d seen his move to first and it’s a good one. He did get called for a balk during the game, though there was much discussion about whether it should have been called. I was coaching third at the time as Casey led off first. I watched him wind up and swore that Casey absolutely picked the right time to move, since we all thought he was throwing home. He wasn’t and tossed to first. The umpire called it a balk, so Casey was awarded second.

Lefties are tough to steal on because they’re looking right at you and some of them very good moves. Since he doesn’t throw many fastballs, I took off on that first pitch, sliding safely into second. I scored on single two batters later.


Talking to one of the former Team M players on Wednesday night, I was talking about the lack of coaching I’d had as a kid. He told me that when he coached his son’s team, he was in about the same boat, but that he thought, “you can’t teach hitting, either you have it or you don’t”. I countering with the change in my swing and how Coach Luke made such a difference. When I’ve played on co-ed softball teams down on the Mall, I’ve always coached the less experienced players. I know it make a difference. It’s why my teams are always better at the end of the season than the beginning. Most people have no idea how to hit a ball and with just a couple of simple changes, you can turn them from spinning tops into actual hitters. Even skilled hitters can use help. More than one serious pull hitters has been able to change things up just by learning about closing their stance to punch the ball to the right side.

During the Wednesday afternoon game in spring training, when we were having a giant inning, I closed my stance so much that I almost had my back to the pitcher. He was tossing slow and soft, so with the closed stance and a delayed swing, I was able to punch the ball easily to right. It may just have been padding my batting average, but I did end the week with a 13 for 24 count, adding 3 walks to the card for a .542 batting average and an 1.134 OPS. (No extra base hits because my one potential extra base hit came with the final run on third base – the ball rolled to the fence in left field, but who knows whether I’d have made it past second?)


The final time I came to bat on Sunday, carrying a 1 for 3 day, I was hoping for pitches to hit. After flailing at a ball that was a good foot outside, I heard the umpire say, quietly, “That’s a strike.” I looked at him, and he said, “You swung at it.” Ah, yes, fool that I am, I did. I thought he was telling me it would have been a strike anyway, but he wasn’t. The second pitch bounced next to the inside corner of the plate, so I was able to maintain a modicum of plate discipline. Then, one right down the pipe brought out my loud grunt and a solid swing. It was a bold sound. The left fielder, unbeknownst to me, backed up. That one I’d hit into the gap made him cautious. Not seeing that, but knowing I’d hit it too high, I was dissatisfied. Nonetheless, the ball dropped in front of him (off his glove after he ran in) and I was safe. I bolted on the first pitch again, but didn’t draw a throw. When I later scored on a ground out, I almost got thrown at out the plate for not running all out. Safe by a couple of steps, but foolish on my part to make a play possible.

So, I started the season 2 for 4, with two stolen bases and a pair of runs. Spring training and the coaching of the last year seems to be paying off. Team M won handily after some early back-and-forth. The final score was 15-6.

Fred’s game report:

Nicely done last Sunday – especially once we woke up after the 6th inning…  We scored 10 in the 7th and 8th (due to time constraints, we only played 8) – and held them scoreless after the 5th.  With 2 down in the 7th and one on, they threw away an easy grounder to second – and we took advantage and batted around and put up 6.  Nicely done.
Aside from the first inning when they matched the 3 we put up, our defense was pretty sound – including a SportsCenter highlight of Jerry snaring a hot grounder then firing to second (from his knees, I believe) and then on to first for a double play.  Very nicely done.  And, of course, overall defensively, kudos go to Tom for handling the plate duties well all 9 – much obliged!
At the plate, we hit a solid .350 with Andrew going 3:3 including a double, 3 runs and 2 BB; Jerry 2:3 , 3 runs and a HBP; Dave 2:4 and 2 runs; Tom 2:5 and 2 runs; Mark 1:2, a run and 2 BB; Casey 1:3, 2 runs and 2 BB; Ed 1:4; Bill 1:4 (a double), a run and a BB; and I was 1:4 and a run.

It’s not the bat, or is it?

Anyone who ever watched me play softball would have to wonder how I managed to get two home runs in my Humble Flies career. They’d know it wasn’t due to some hidden power that burst occasionally. I can’t remember either of them, but assume they must have involved right fielders falling down or breaking a leg as my ball skipped past them. I could occasionally hit the ball to the right-center gap or along the right field line in a such a way that I could make a double or triple out of good placement, but I never had any power,

As one of the youngest guys playing Ponce de Leon baseball, I really want to take advantage of my speed while I have it. My softball experience tells me that 20 years of playing will erode my speed in comparison to my peers. So, having occasionally hit the ball hard using my off-the-shelf Louisville Slugger, I thought I might try a different bat for better power.

Since that visit to Cooperstown didn’t finish with me carrying new lumber, I had to look elsewhere for a better bat. Phoenix Bats has a broad variety of bat designs to meet every preference. There are 20 distinct designs and you can make many customizations to those. I’ve been a contact hitter most of my life, but I always wanted to be a gap hitter. Wouldn’t you know it, Phoenix makes a bat for just those kind of hitters. The F110 is billed as the Contact-to-Gap hitter’s bat.

The F110 comes in a variety of lengths and typically has a -2.5 drop weight, which means 2.5 ounces less than the length in inches. My first bat was -3 drop weight, giving me a 31-ounce bat that was 34 inches long. Since my softball playing days were marked by punches to right field and my stance always had me deep in the box, I wanted to stick with a 34 inch bat. Of course, when I played softball, 34 inch bats could weight just about anything you wanted. I typically used a 28 ounce bat, to keep some bat speed while also having some pop. As noted above, my experience was that there was no pop at all. So, I kept the length, added weight and played last year with a 31-ounce, 34-inch bat. Feeling that my timing was suited to 31 ounces, I decided that I’d keep the weight and adjust the length. So, my F110 is 31 ounces and 33.5 inches. You can vary the length and the drop weight on your bat.

Another thing that distinguished the F110 from other bat is the handle diameter. Measuring 31/32nds of an inch, it’s more suited to bigger hands and more capable against the inside pitch. Hopefully, the durability cited holds true, since I’d like to use this bat for a long time. With that thicker handle, one expects it will be less prone to breakage. I like the feel of the thicker handle, but am wondering about the knob….

Of late, in reading about hitting, I probably understood for the first time that my grip was simply wrong. I never meant to, but somewhere along the way, I started gripping my bat with something akin to a death grip. That is, of course, the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. As Crash Davis tells Nuke Laloosh about the baseball when pitching, you should handle it like an egg. Tensing your arm and hand muscles to squeeze the bat is counter-productive. Holding the bat gently is key. Adam LaRoche is so good at this – and embraces the trend of ‘no-knob’ bats – that his bat can come right out of his hands on the follow through. My first time in the batting cage this year, I developed a blister on hand about a quarter of the way up the palm. I’m having some issues with excessive dryness and chapping on my left hand and little blood blisters formed right along the line of chapped skin. I had felt my skin ‘bunching’ with each batting practice swing and the heel pressed against the knob. It healed up after a few days, though. The F110 has a medium flared knob, while LaRoche’s bats have none.

So, I wonder about the knob.

The barrel of the F110 is 2.5 inches. My softball bats probably were never close to that broad. When you get into the power hitting bats from Phoenix Bats, you can select ones that are even broader, but 2.5 is a pretty good starting size. Those power hitter’s bats have to be even heavier than mine. Any increase is size, though it come with an attendant increase in weight, is also going to give you a bigger sweet spot. The bigger the sweet spot, the more forgiving your contact can be, and the more power you can impart with perfect contact.

They also offer your choice of three types of wood: Rock Maple, Yellow Birch and Northern White Ash. Maple is the strongest, with Ash having the most flexibility. Maple will give you the most pop and the best protection inside. Ash has a bigger sweet spot and is more forgiving off the end of the bat. Birch is somewhere in the middle, giving better action on mishits all over, but not as much pop anywhere. I chose Maple, since I was tortured inside last year and want some pop.

Now, you have to wondering, how did all this play out in the game?

In my first at-bat, the pitcher had been wild, with pitches sailing over heads and going wide. So, I stood like a stone wall and watched the first pitch. Best pitch he’d thrown in a long time. He threw the next over my head, then followed with one I thought missed the inside corner. So, with two strikes, I flailed wildly at strike three, a little high near the top of the strike zone. I could have been holding a broomstick for all the difference it made.


Of note, Andrew Cline has been showing his prowess with the glove. In the fall, he played in the outfield with me a lot. He is far faster than I am, so his Willie Mays act won accolades and made everyone look forward to the spring. Fred chose Andrew to start in center for the first two games. He’s been batting atop the lineup, but not seeing pitches he can hit. With our team, you can pretty much play any position after the first inning. People flow in and out, with no one sitting the bench two consecutive innings.

So, he took third one inning and a line drive destined for left field shot in between him and the line about knee height. He dove to snag it and threw the shocked runner from second out – while Andrew was nearly on his back. That would have been our ‘web gem’, except he took shortstop later in the game.

The bases were loaded and our lead had dwindled to two runs. The ball was popped into shallow left field. It was one of those perfect Texas Leaguers – moreso because in Ponce, there are nearly no quick fielders – but Andrew didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to have a play on the ball. Racing back, he caught the ball over his shoulder – more Willie Mays than he’d ever needed in the fall – recording the third out and saving two runs.

The rookie has more than proven his worth.


Last year, as I noted, I was nervous at bat for half the season. Chris Valtin, who helped me get onto the team, said to me, “It’s all in the mental approach. Get your head in the right place and everything else flows from there.” Since that advice was mirrored in The Louisville Slugger® Complete Book of Hitting Faults and Fixes : How to Detect and Correct the 50 Most Common Mistakes at the Plate, you know it’s true. I started going to the plate thinking I was going to get a hit. They started coming. In the fall, my confidence was far higher and the pitching was spot-on – faster, but more accurate. So, I regularly collected a pair of hits each week.

Nonetheless, I wanted a ‘professional’ bat. Is it better for me because of the facets laid out above about handle size, weight, length, sweet spot and knob? Or is it better because I think it’s better? Or does it make no difference at all?

Men were on first and second when I came up. Having been burned by watching when I love being an aggressive hitter, I went up to swing. When that pitch came off the sweet spot on my F110 (visible on the cherry finish I had them put on the barrel), I didn’t feel it in the slightest. When you hit the ball just right, it’s like… nothing. The ball sailed into the GAP between the left fielder and center fielder. I rounded first crisply, having seen the left fielder’s back and downstretched glove fail to stop the ball. I cruised into second, having hit my first ball to the warning track since about 1997 (once, in softball batting practice).

Was it the bat? Was it the mental approach? Was it the grip? Was it just one of those lucky things?

Could have been anything, but I’m going to keep using the bat, stick that approach and remind myself to use the grip, the stance, and everything. I’m just glad to help the team and, hopefully, everything will work out.

My totals for the day: 1 for 2, with a HBP and one RBI.

Final score: 11-9 victory, after a wide early lead

Season stats: .600 (3/5) batting average, .800 SLG, 1.467 OPS, 1 HBP, 1 2B, 1 SB, 1 R, 1 RBI

Opening day jitters

I was nervous. After all, it was opening day. I’d had rookie jitters through half of my first season, so I expected to be a little nervous before this game. It was probably fortunate that I didn’t start, so I could get into the rhythm of the game and put those jitters aside. When I strode to the plate with two outs and two men on, I was carrying my brand-new Phoenix bat. Standing in the box, I made a conscious decision to simply watch the first pitch. There were no jitters. I’d seen 85 mile-an-hour fastballs over the winter in the batting cage near my house. The pitcher’s grey hairs and steady pace gave me confidence. On his second pitch, my timing was all 85 mph and I ended up in my follow through before it crossed the plate, even with an attempt to slow my swing. 0 and 2 isn’t always the easiest count to hit in. I steeled myself and watching the release of the ball with great anticipation….


When I strode to the plate for the first time in Ponce de Leon baseball last year, I’d had 34 years between singles. Way back in 8th grade, I’d been inserted late in a game we were losing badly, and beat out a groundball, then, foolishly, tried to advance on the overthrow. I wasn’t that fast then, so I was out and felt like an idiot. 25 years of men’s league softball and countless seasons of coed beer league ball later, I punched a ball off the glove of a first baseman who couldn’t find the handle to it for the putout. Standing on first base, playing on a high school baseball field for the first time, I was ecstatic.

Through half of the season, though, when standing at the plate, I would literally be shaking in my boots. I worried that if I didn’t play well, I’d lose my spot on the team. My wife kept reassuring me that I was better than guys who seemed to average 15 years older than me. I knew I was faster, so every time that I got on first base, I was looking to steal second. That worked, helping my confidence. I even stole third once. Heck, I stole second in a playoff game, diving head first and arm’s length into right field to avoid the tag (the throw beat me, but the stretch was simply too far for him.) By those playoff games, I was no longer shaking at bat, but still worried about earning my keep.

In the fall, our team doesn’t play in the league, but instead uses our field to play more relaxed pick-up games with invitations extending to sons, friends of sons, and men not yet old enough for our league. So, the pitching is a bit faster, though without much movement (at the request of the team manager, since it’s supposed to be live batting practice.) While last year’s regular season was a struggle for me at bat, relying on walks to get on base early in the season before starting to hit a bit, the fall was a break out. 2 or 3 hits every game and time to shine in the outfield. It also allowed me to bring Andrew Cline up from the Humble Flies as a rookie to follow me onto the team.

In the off-season, I bought myself a new bat. My original Louisville Slugger was nice, but I wanted something more. When we went to Cooperstown in August (on our way to Saratoga for horse racing), I went into a few stores selling bats. All had strict prohibitions on swinging the bat. So, I picked up bats, considered how they felt and passed. If I couldn’t swing it, I didn’t want to buy it.

In the winter months, the anticipation was too much. One day, I saw an ad for Phoenix Bats, and decided to follow it to see what they had. I always thought that the only variables in bats were the length and the weight. I was quite wrong. I’ll go into detail on this in a future post, but suffice it to say that I was quite pleased with the variety of offerings. I ordered my bat and it arrived well in advance of Opening Day.

Our team prefers to use wood bats, but not every team wants to, and the league doesn’t force anyone to. Since our opening day opponents chose not to limit themselves to wood bats, we were free to use whatever we wanted. Nonetheless, I’ve found I hit better with wood, so I took my brand new Phoenix Bat to the plate.


That pitch came in and my internal clock was not quite running at 85 miles an hour, but it was running fast, so I swung a little early hitting it on the end of the bat and driving it down the left field line. There were runners on, so rounding first base, I knew I was headed back. I jumped on the base and proudly shouted,  “Wood bat!”

After another hit, I was dancing off second, taking a big lead in expectation of scoring on any hit. As I headed to third on a shallow hit in the outfield, Bill waved me home. I didn’t think it was drawing a throw, but I was hustling anyway. I was surprised when the catcher stepped on the plate, but I crossed a few steps before the ball arrived. So, with a few hits strung together with two outs, we tallied three runs.

My totals for the day: 2 for 3, with a stolen base and a run.

Final score: 11-2 victory

Season stats: .667 batting average, 1.333 OPS, 1 SB, 1 R