Sunday, September 27, 2009

Weekly Rant: Major League Managing

Weather permitting (and as I write this, it appears the weather will permit), today I will make my last trip to the ballpark of the 2009 season. On tap today, the hometown Washington Nationals, losers of eight of their last 10, will attempt to avoid loss No. 103 while going against the Atlanta Braves. The baseball doesn’t figure to be pretty, but I’m certain to have a good time anyway, if only because I’ll be enjoying the company of a buddy who has the misfortune of being not only a partial season ticket holder for the Nats but also a diehard fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates (57-96 this year, and without a winning season since 1992, in case you were wondering). Anyone who can keep going to the yard despite supporting a pair of teams that will combine for 200 losses is a true baseball fan worth spending time with. Not to mention that the last time we went to a game together, my buddy dumped a full box of popcorn on the guy in front of him. So there’s always that.

But this isn’t a post about Major League Baseball. It’s a post about Major League and baseball. This year’s MLB season is lacking the kind of down-to-the-wire race that’s at the heart of the sports action in David S. Ward’s 1989 comedy, yet whenever a season comes to a close I find myself remembering Major League’s climactic contest pitting the villainous New York Yankees against the loveable Cleveland Indians, the latter team featuring a roster of outcasts, has-beens and never-weres. It’s a win-or-go-home game that’s packed with both drama and spirit (thank you, Bob Uecker). It’s also a game that highlights some absolutely inexplicable managing by Indians skipper Lou Brown (James Gammon).

If you’ve seen the film (and you shouldn’t read further if you haven’t), you know that it all comes down to a tie game, 2-2, in the bottom of the ninth. The fleet-footed leadoff batter, Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), legs out an infield hit to get on base. Then Hayes, the flamboyant speedster who nails a pair of black gloves to his bedroom wall each time he gets a stolen base, successfully swipes second. This is good, smart baseball. What isn’t so smart is this: The guy at the plate? That would be Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger). You know, the plodding catcher with good power and bad knees.

What the fuck is he doing batting in the 2 hole? What business does he have batting right behind the best base-stealing threat in the league? It doesn’t make sense. Nor does it seem to make sense that the Indians don’t appear to send their No. 3 hitter to the on-deck circle after Taylor strides to the plate, apparently clairvoyant enough to realize that the game will end with Taylor’s at-bat one way or the other. And, of course, it does. But not without more curiosity.

See, what you remember is that Taylor strides to the plate, has an ah-ha moment and decides that rather than swing away against “The Duke,” a hard-throwing relief pitcher against whom Taylor is 0-12, he should surprise the Yankees by laying down a bunt. Believe it or not, this isn’t an entirely indefensible move. The Indians are the home team, so if they fail to score the game will go to extra innings. Thus you don’t want to pinch hit for your catcher in that situation if you can avoid it. On top of that, if Taylor can leg out the bunt, taking advantage of the unsuspecting defense, he’ll move Hayes up to third base, creating the possibility to win the game on a wild pitch or squeeze play. One-time San Francisco Giants all-star shortstop Rich Aurilia had an incredibly good track record of reaching first on surprise drag bunts. I’ve seen it work in person. So if that’s the best way to get Taylor on base and move Hayes to third, sure, go for it.

But that’s not the plan. Taylor has something grander in mind. He signals to Brown, who signals to the third base coach, who signals to Hayes at second base, who signals back that he understands the play call and then grins at the audacity of it. What Taylor has in mind is a bunt-and-run with the intent to score Hayes from second. Hayes will leave second base early as if to straight steal, Taylor will lay down the bunt and, if it all works, Taylor will draw the throw to first and Hayes will keep chugging around third to score on the play if Taylor reaches safely. Brilliant, right? Daring, right? Sure. Except...

After Taylor calls his shot, The Duke responds by throwing at Taylor’s head. Hayes? He goes nowhere. Doesn’t flinch. According to the play call, remember, Hayes is supposed to be chugging for third. Instead, as if predicting that Taylor will get some chin music, he stays right there. Huh?

From this we must conclude that Hayes read the catcher’s signs or The Duke’s mind. Because it’s that or believe that when Taylor signaled the play he called for the bunt-and-run on the second pitch of the at-bat, and I don’t think teams have a sign for that. What I do think is that the Indians don’t have a prosperous future with Lou Brown as manager. Batting the slow-footed catcher second? Deciding games based on the mind-reading ability of your leadoff man? That’s the kind of decision making that made Brown the manager of Tire World. If the Indians are smart, they’ll retain the core of their young team, find a new catcher and fire Lou Brown. Otherwise they’re destined to look like the Washington Nationals. And trust me, that ain't pretty.


Daniel Getahun said...

Love this breakdown, as there is no way to determine what the call could have been in this case. It's almost as if the play was designed in the editing process and it was never filmed to happen like it did. Who knows?

Back to the real world, I must remind you that my Twins are indeed right in the middle of one of those down-to-the-wire races. Two games down to Detroit with a four game series in Detroit starting tonight!

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: I think they just suspect that we're not going to notice.

As for the down-to-the-wire race, yeah, I guess you are in one. But the races this year -- the few that there are -- feel more like teams stumbling toward the post-season than striving toward it.

Love it when those final week matchups happen though. Great theater.