What Needs to Come Out of Baseball’s Closet: Hitting Skills, Not Sex Lives

brouthers

Big Dan Brouthers, Batsman Extraordinaire

Even our attempts to seek relief from cultural collapse in our traditional sports are invaded by thought-police—who do not, by the way, understand any sport’s rudiments.

So… yeah, another professional athlete has “come out of the closet” to admit “heroically” to the world that he is gay.

Perhaps the main reason I take such a keen interest in baseball is its almost infinite capacity to absorb attention. People who go to a game to gorge on junk food and play on their cell phones will of course not understand that sentiment. I greatly prefer minor league games, in fact, because I’m less likely to become immersed in the attention-deficit mob looking for multiple kinds of sensory stimulation all at once. True baseball is Zen. It requires, from every angle (hitter, pitcher, defender), absolute calmness and riveted focus preceding a tremendous burst of minutely directed energy. Honing these skills imparts no end of useful life lessons. You learn that the Dionysiac opens the door to the tragic: “one hundred and ten percent” effectively equals ninety percent, since trying to play above your abilities diminishes your performance. You learn to profile your fellow man (in the sense of Theophrastus’s Characters): egotistical sluggers batting in the middle of the order are more likely to chase a high third strike than smaller, more canny lead-off hitters. You learn that the successful thief usually comes back for more plunder: the pitcher who got ahead and then burned the hitter with his change-up will try to do so again. And you learn that people tend to over-correct for their exposed weaknesses: the wise pitcher knows that his one-and-two change-up is expected once it has already worked, and he pitches against the expectation.

I might as well have said that I appreciate the escapist outlet offered by baseball—and that would be true; but the A.D.D. text-aholics are seeking escape, too. I don’t want something that deadens my mind: I want something that engages it. Too often (as most of us who read and publish on this site understand), the “real world” of today rewards careful analysis only with pessimism. We need something to keep our spirits up and keep our intellect sharp. Baseball, for me, is one of those “somethings”. So is the study of foreign languages—and so would be the statistics textbook I bought three years ago, if I could ever get beyond chapter 5. But those are purely intellectual endeavors. I like the way baseball’s maneuvers integrate mind and body seamlessly. I don’t do karate kicks on concrete blocks, as was all the rage when I was a kid. Baseball is my version of the same exercise: I’ll touch on samurai swordsmen and swinging a bat in a moment.

Why, then (to return to my opening sentence), should I care that so-and-so is gay? I honestly do not remember the name of the player in question, or even his team—and I’m determined not to look up either one. I don’t care. I resent being asked to care. I immediately changed the channel whenever the subject seemed about to come up on a broadcast earlier this August. (Footnote: in the interest of accurate reporting, I did finally double-check the story. The player in question is a Minor Leaguer! All this brouhaha about a Minor Leaguer!) I don’t watch baseball to learn about the right-fielder’s sex life, or the pitcher’s escape from Cuba, or the third-baseman’s battle with cancer, or the catcher’s off-season charity work in the Philippines. We are all treated to a steady diet of such warmed-over porridge, especially by certain broadcasters on certain stations. At least one may say of my final three examples, however, that they suggest a degree of will power or moral character. Maybe it’s not so bad for young people to hear that their idols do things for others or have battled through hard times (though don’t look for life in Castro’s Cuba ever to be represented as tough: the defector’s heroic challenge was sailing ninety miles on a raft). When Vin Sculley digresses into such personal details, I will bear it, and even listen with delight—because Vin Sculley knows how to integrate the person with the player, the physical performance with the life struggle. There’s fine artistry in the weave.

What, though, has a man’s sexual practice to do with his determination, perseverance, hard work, or courage? I suppose it could be courageous after a fashion to seduce other men’s wives. I suppose it might show stamina to go out on the town whoring every night when the team takes to the road. What would really reveal strong character in this category of things would be a healthy young male athlete’s refusing to engage in sexual activity before marriage. How many times do we hear the Bob Costases of ESPN and its affiliates extolling that kind of person? In fact, how many cheap shots have we heard that motley crew taking at Tim Tebow over the years?

Where is the courage in snuggling up to other men? Does it lie in triumphing over the act’s basically disgusting and unnatural quality, as when Bear Grylls chews up a grasshopper? Nope, I don’t think that’s the message we’re supposed to infer. Does it lie in braving the brutal abuse, up to and including mass smack-downs in the locker room, that the poor victim must endure?   But wait a minute… no, that doesn’t work, either, does it? There is no such abuse. The abuse is all being aimed these days at bakers and other small businessmen who decline to service gay weddings for religious reasons. And if our hypothetical victim were being crucified by his team, then he would already have been “outed”, wouldn’t he—but the deed of daring, we are assured, was precisely his coming out and announcing to a shocked world something that nobody suspected about him.

So… so this person is brave because he rubs his “exceptional” lifestyle in the face of the American public with the aggressive, even militant support of the broadcast media behind him and certain censure—perhaps even release—facing any teammate who so much as tweets a word of dismay? This, then, passes for courage? It’s not even news! Why is it courage?

It’s also not very team-friendly. Whenever I participated in team sports as a stalwart youth, I found it immensely annoying to have to listen to some loud bag of guts talking about what girl he’d just laid. Even at the heterosexual level, coarse talk in the locker room draws attention away from the game. The whole bunch of you is there to do a job; and when you suit up, you’re putting on your work clothes. The difference between teams that look great on paper but never rise above mediocrity and teams that shock everyone by pushing for the championship may often be traced exactly to this locker-room climate. Focus. Joe DiMaggio knew what it was. You never would have heard him utter a peep about Marilyn while he was in penstripes. While you’re on the job, you shut up about anything not job-related.

I guarantee you that this young man’s closet-exodus has not helped his team focus on its collective task. His gross self-indulgence in bidding for a few cheap headlines has instead diverted attention from where it needs to go. The ESPN scandal-mongers and crisis-hounds will now be all over every man-Jack of the squad solliciting a comment and combing every byte of cyberspace looking for a provocative, incautious nugget of opinion.

In this incident as in so many others, the sportscasting establishment has tipped its hand: it is part of the news media, with all the propagandistic crusading that the connection implies. If they can’t get us through school because we’ve graduated or through sensitivity workshops because we’re not employed by the state or through “nightly news” indoctrination because we’ve tuned out or through the Hollywood myth-and-fantasy mill because we’ve forsworn movie-going, the disinformation machine’s lackeys will come at us through the nation’s remaining forms of escape. We’ll be lectured on the evils of private gun ownership during the football game’s half-time show; we’ll be reminded that women are physically identical to men when we settle on the sofa to find only college softball and the WNBA on the air; and, yes, we’ll realize that declaring oneself gay is supreme heroism in this yet repressive culture just when we thought we were going to see if Tulowitzki could continue his hitting streak.

If baseball and her legion of commentators really wanted to dig something worthwhile out of the closet, they might consider the hitting techniques of Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, and other players a century ago who struck out two dozen times a season and were always a threat to hit .400. (In 1925, Speaker actually struck out just a dozen times while batting .389 and leading the league in On Base Percentage at .479.) For years I have listened to elite players and commentators marvel at yesteryear’s yard-long bats, at Ty Cobb’s spread-handed grip, at the weight of Babe Ruth’s club, etc. I have heard them opine that long or heavy bats had to be jettisoned when pitchers started to throw harder, that no one but Cobb hit with spread hands, and that Cobb himself really didn’t—or if he did, that his “girly grip” produced only singles. All of these assertions are demonstrably and egregiously wrong. As I registered the enormity of misinformation (a refreshing change from disinformation), I also observed my son’s hitting to get worse and worse as he grew older and was further molded by truly professional coaches equipped with ever more state-of-the-art wisdom. The end of so much Mandarin instruction was that he became a pitcher.

This last spring, years and years of frustration, research, and experimentation found an outlet in my new e-book, Hitting Secrets from Baseball’s Graveyard. You can Google the title and be taken instantly to the Smashwords portal, thanks to which I was able to offer the work for $4.99. (The photos from the Hall of Fame Library set me back a couple of hundred bucks.) After analyzing century-old testimony and photographic evidence, I offer tested and, I believe, convincing proposals for how any kid could vastly improve his hitting game by—among other things—using a longer bat, spreading his hands, working them in a “parallel-reverse” manner to drive the barrel straight through the ball, and shifting his weight decisively onto the front foot: all techniques of the Dead Ball Era’s .400 hitters. The same dynamic is operative when a samurai swordsman delivers a blow (and, yes, I include a photo of a samurai). Roy Kerr, perhaps the premier living historian of baseball’s nineteenth-century batsmen or “strikers”, informed me that he thought I had everything substantially correct. One of Roy’s favorite subjects, Big Dan Brouthers, is pictured at the top of this page—and any hitting diagnostician of today would swear that Dan could only have punched pitches through the infield weakly with his bat resting just over his buttons in the fashion typical of the day. That diagnosis would, once again, be wrong. Dan set several distance records with his drives that would stack up well in 2015 beside Bryce Harper’s moon shots.

Yet when “sabermetricians” (from Society for American Baseball Research) like MLB Network’s Brian Kenny are not busy extolling the latest culture hero to pledge allegiance to the Anal Venus, they’re furthering the misunderstanding of the game with “objective measurement”. The “exit velocity” of ball from bat is now more important than batting average, we’re told; for the contacted ball’s touching grass is largely a matter of chance—but the latest technology’s ability to gauge the batted ball’s speed shows us the true sultans of swat. So much for Eddie Collins getting just enough of a low-away two-strike pitch to drop it into the opposite field and bring home the winning run: he should have swung from the heels and gone for “exit velocity”, just in case he made contact.

The progressive mind, with its admiring envy of the robotic, misinforms even when it doesn’t disinform. In its ineradicable arrogance, it can’t grasp the essentials of a complex human problem. It reduces everything to quantities and then awards success or failure with reference only to its improvised yardstick. Switch on, switch off. Solid contact, weak contact. If A equals B and B over C equals D, then A over C equals D: so if love equals sex and sex with a steady partner equals marriage, then gay marriage merely gives love its natural due.

These people can’t parse moral issues any better than they can the grip of a bat. They’re everywhere now, they always know everything, and they therefore have utterly no need of the past. With enlightenment like theirs, who needs a closet?

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