Wednesday, February 20, 2013

These Guys Are GOOD

As we approach spring training games being played, I thought it might be fun to talk a little bit about how good the players we're watching are. Sure, as we view photos of them stretching and throwing the ball in the outfield leisurely, we might be tempted to think we wouldn't look so out of place among them.

Baseball players, after all, don't have the wow factor of an NBA or NFL player. Stand next to a power forward or a defensive lineman and you're not going to daydream about mixing it up with them in the trenches or even in the paint. It's not like that with baseball players. Have you ever seen a pro ballplayer out in public?

"I think that's so and so."

"Who's that?"

"Pitcher for the Mud Hens. I think that's him."

"Eh, I doubt it."

"No, look at this picture on my phone. That's him. That dude can throw 90."

"I wonder if I could hit him."

I think the unremarkable physique can trick us into thinking their feats on the field are similarly unimpressive. For example, my nephew was at a South Bend Silver Hawks game last year. Watching these kids play, he looked at his mom and asked whether these guys were as good at baseball as uncle Matthew.

When she relayed that to me, and I was finished laughing, I told her I played organized baseball from when I was eight until my junior year of high school. If you took the worst player on the field in that South Bend game, he's probably better than any player I ever played with or against.

There were two players from my high school days who stand out in my memory.  One was a catcher who played for Trenton. This kid was chiseled. He looked like the best player on either team before anybody's uniform was even dirty. When his team took the field in the top of the first, most everything looked pretty normal. Outfielders playing catch. Infielders taking grounders from the first baseman and firing the ball back to him. The team's best pitcher was trying to scare us with a pretty good fastball.

After the pitcher's last warmup pitch, though, something caught our attention. He finished his motion and dropped down to one knee. He wasn't hurt. He wasn't praying. He knew his catcher. This catcher received that last warmup pitch, popped up and fired the ball to second base. Had the pitcher been standing, the throw looked like it might have killed him.

Three kids on our bench said, "Hoooo-ly shit!" in unison. Our leadoff man, just about to step into the batter's box, turned to us and mouthed "Did you see that?" Our manager casually made his way toward the bench and smiling, told us if any of us tried to steal a base today, he'd bench us after we were thrown out.

An inning later that same catcher took a fastball from our best pitcher and placed it on the other side of the center field scoreboard. At the base of that scoreboard was a sign on the fence that read "375". "Goddamn," a player on our bench said, "do you think that went 400?"

"420, easy," another player answered.

Do you know what that catcher's name was? Me neither. I knew it at the time because I asked. I wanted to know so I could look for his name in that June's draft. I eventually forgot because he was never drafted.

The other player that stands out was a pitcher on the team we lost to in the District semifinals. He played for Riverview and at the site where Districts were taking place, his name was buzzing in the air. When people from other schools found out he was pitching, they came to watch. This was later in the season and there was no speculation about whether this kid was going to get drafted. It was only a question of when.

He was rumored to throw in the high 80s, maybe even the 90s. I didn't know what that looked like up close, but I was willing to believe either. Nobody in our lineup touched him for much of anything. In the final inning, we had two outs and were clearly done but our final batter hit the ball harder than anybody had the entire game. The contrast with all the weak grounders made it seem like a sure home run. That is, until the left fielder drifted in three steps and caught the final out.

About two weeks later, that pitcher was drafted in the 13th round by the Mariners. He played two seasons and never made it out of rookie ball.

So these two guys who made pitchers and hitters wet themselves for four years in high school weren't even good enough - not even all that close - to be the last player on that South Bend bench. Of the players on that South Bend team my nephew watched, maybe three or four will ever see time in the majors.  If and when they do, they will probably be the last player on that major league team. The "scrub" of that roster.

That's the way I remember the guys we watch on TV may not be imposing. They may not look like they've been sent from Mt. Olympus. But they are remarkably good at what they do.

1 comment:

  1. That really puts things in perspective when we think about fringe major leaguers. It also makes guys like Verlander and Cabrera seem even more superhuman.