Sunday, December 21, 2014

Why I Love Baseball More Than Football (Part 1)

Let's not get this twisted.  I do consider myself a football fan.  I actually chose the title of this article very very carefully.  It is not what is wrong with football or why I hate football.  In fact, this article is one of the more personal articles I have written for this blog.  This is why I personally love baseball more than football.  so anything I say here is not a way to criticize football.  It is just a way for me to explain to you why I personally connect more with baseball.

There are probably a million reasons why baseball is my favorite sport.  Here are just a few.

The Utilization of the Personnel:
Football is a great game.  The strategy is intricate and intriguing.  There is constant movement.  Players need to constantly focus on their opponent.  Whether it is a receiver watching the defense to tell whether a defensive back is coming in or trying to pick up a hint that the linebacker is falling back into coverage in a spot where his route will take him.  Or a Quarterback surveying the defense trying to anticipate where the defense will be, who will be coming at him and where his escape route will be if it all falls down around him.  The strategy is often visual and you can see it happening.
Based on what personnel are in you can guess what type of play is coming.  That doesn't make it easy to stop.

Take the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV.  (Don't immediately know which one I mean? We'll discuss that in the next section) This was the Super Bowl that was played in January 2000 between the Rams and the Titans.  As a Titans fan I am still still haunted by the images of this play but I will put my personal pain on hold and indulge the readers to show you the beauty of the sport of football.

With six seconds left the Titans needed to score a Touchdown to tie the game.  They lined up with Chris Sanders and Derrick Mason to the left and Kevin Dyson and Frank Wycheck to the right.  Wycheck was the "go to" for Steve McNair, his favorite target who was always reliable in clutch situations.  Dyson was lined up wide of Wycheck. Before the snap Dyson went in motion to his left, passing Wycheck but turning and heading back towards his original position stopping almost directly behind Wycheck.  As the ball was snapped Dyson followed Wycheck off the line and as Wycheck broke towards the end zone Dyson broke towards the center of the field.  Following all this movement was Linebacker Mike Jones.  The play was designed to deceive the Rams into following Wycheck and leaving Dyson free to catch and run towards the goal line.

At the snap Jones backpeddled, keeping pace with Wycheck, leaving Dyson uncovered.  Jones saw Dyson and had to make a split second decision: follow Wycheck or follow Dyson.  Any hesitation on Jones's part would have changed history (and saved me from waking up in a cold sweat the night before every Super Bowl yelling "Half a yard!")  A half a step, even a little lean in the other direction may have changed everything.  Jones decided to follow Dyson and because he made that immediate decision the Rams held off the Titans and ruined my night.

What the Rams had to think about on that play was not personnel.  The teams in football have situational lineups.  If it's 3rd and 10 or more, this group knows they are in the game.  If it is a short yardage situation the "jumbo" group comes in the game.

This is where I think baseball excels above all other sports in this category.  In baseball, unlike any other sport I know of, you can substitute once.  My wife and I were watching Game 3 of the World Series this year.  With a one run game and a speedy runner on first base the Royals Relief Pitcher Kelvin Herrera was due up.  Herrera had already pitched a full inning and preserved the one run lead.  Herrera is not a long relief man and rarely goes more than an inning.  So now with baseball rules comes the strategy.  Does Ned Yost allow Herrera to hit so he can go back out for the 7th inning, or does he send up a Pinch Hitter, removing Herrera from the game but giving the speedy runner a chance to score on a ball in the gap?  I turned to my wife and asked "Would you pinch hit for him here or send him back out to pitch?"  My wife's response was a blank stare back but I'm sure that was just because she was thinking over her options from the bench before Yost made the decision for her.

This is the great strategy of the game (and something that is lost with the Designated Hitter).  The inability to switch an individual in and out of the game has given us some of the greatest and most infamous decisions in baseball.  Here are just a few ways history might be different if players could come in and out of games:

Moose McCormick in the 1912 World Series.  In the late innings when John McGraw needed his best Pinch Hitter he was out of luck since Moose had been used earlier in the game and had failed to come through.  What if Moose could pinch hit again?

Curly Ogden in the 1924 World Series,  In Game 7, knowing John McGraw would load his lineup with left handed hitters against the Right Hander Curly Ogden, Bucky Harris started Ogden.  After 1/3 of an inning Ogden was replaced by George Mogridge, a Left Handed Pitcher.  McGraw then had to decide: start using right handed pinch hitters early in the game or see what my left handed batters can do against the lefty?  If the managers had been able to shuffle their lineup at will, the Ogden start wouldn't have made a difference.

Babe Ruth in 1926.  In Game 7 with the Yankees trailing by a run with two outs in the 9th Ruth reached first.  Miler Huggins had to make a decision:  Pinch run for the great Bambino or leave him in to run the bases knowing that he could change the game with his bat in extra innings.  Huggins left Babe in and he got thrown out stealing to end the Series.

 Hack Wilson in the 1929 World Series.  What if he had been removed for defensive purposes but allowed to go back in the game later to hit when the Cubs needed him?

Dale Mitchell in 1956.  Mitchell was a great hitter and had faced Don Larsen many times before in the American League.  What if the Dodgers could have used Mitchell as a pinch hitter, say around the third or sixth inning and still allowed Maglie to come back in the game to pitch? Would Larsen have gotten Mitchell out three times?  Don't forget Mitchell always felt that strike three was actually a ball.  Would the umpire's strike zone have been so generous if Larsen was in the 6th inning of a perfect game as opposed to one strike away?

Mike Witt in 1986.  With Mike Witt rolling and Rich Gedman stepping to the plate, Gene Mauch of the Angels went to Gary Lucas because, in Mauch's words Gedman could hit Witt "in the middle of the night with the lights out".  What if Mauch could have brought Lucas in to get Gedman and then brought Witt back out?

Curt Schilling in 2001.  With Curt Schilling rolling Bob Brenly brought in Byung Hyung Kim in the 8th innning.  Kim would give up game and series changing hits.  What if he could have changed his mind after a few batters?

Of course these are just a handful of incidents in the most pressure packed situation but it is a decision that every manager makes every game.  The standings at the end of every year could be dramatically different without these decisions.

uReturning to the Titans-Rams story, der baseball rules Mike Jones would not have been in the game (and under baseball rules football and hockey would need a roster of 600 people to meet the physical demands of the game).  Don't get me wrong.  I am not arguing the physical part of the game here.  The constant motion of Football and Hockey as opposed to baseball's physical demands are different.  Of course if you skate the ice at full speed for a minute and a half you need a breather.  Chasing a wide receiver for 80 yards just to go back to the line because the ball was over thrown or dropped would send anyone to the sidelines gasping for air.

The point is that the inability to shuffle an individual player in and out of the lineup makes the sport of baseball more intriguing to me personally as I sit there and try to outguess the managers.

The Roman Numerals:
"Class please, if you don't learn Roman Numerals you'll never know the date certain motion pictures were copyrighted."

That was Mrs. Krabappel's reasoning to the children of Springfield for the importance of knowing Roman Numerals.  In truth, the Roman Numerals used to identify the Super Bowls were charming and unique at first.  They gave a connection to the Roman Gladiators, those manly warriors, that football loves to compare themselves to whenever possible.  After all, Super Bowl I was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  When Super Bowl I took place no one knew whether the merger between the AFL and NFL would be successful.  Professional football was still in flux.

The Simpsons would nail that one too. "I'm trying to watch the Super Bowl.  If people don't support this thing it might not make it."

 In a flashback scene the Simpsons used Super Bowl III as the perfect example of the two sides of the divided country at the time.  Super Bowl III.  You remember that one.  Jets vs Colts.  Broadway Joe.  "Look at them sideburns."  Abe Simpson yelled at the TV.  "He looks like a girl.  Now, Johnny Unitas.  There's a haircut you can set your watch to."  (We can ignore the fact that the Simpsons were a bit inaccurate in that joke.  Unitas was hurt so Earl Morrell started the game for the Colts and Unitas did not come in until late in the game, since the contrast was perfect).

So Super Bowl III, what year was that?  It took place on January 21, 1969.  It was less than a year after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination.  Just over six months after Bobby Kennedy's assassination.  In the six months leading up to Super Bowl III the country was tearing itself apart.  Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC, Baltimore, Louisville, Kentucky, York, Pennsylvania, Orangeburg, South Carolina were all torn apart by riots.  It was the clash of the old vs the young.  The establishment vs the anti establishment.  It was the veteran Unitas (the clean cut, respected veteran) vs Namath (the young, brash, irreverant youth).  Yet when you say Super Bowl III there is no connection to the world around it.

If someone mentions the 1927 Yankees I immediately think of the events of the time (I didn't live them but of course as a history buff I know them): Lindbergh, Mickey Mouse, Trotsky, Sacco and Vanzetti and Al Jolson.  If I hear about the 2001 Diamondbacks I can immediately think of the emotions that went along with baseball in New York just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Let's try that with football.  Remember the 1972 Dolphins?  Of course.  The 1972 Dolphins went undefeated and won the 1972 Super Bowl.  Except that's not exactly true.  The 1972 Dolphins won Super Bowl VII.  It was played on January 14, 1973.

And those '85 Bears.  That was one of the greatest teams ever.  Remember when they destroyed the Patriots in the 1985 Super Bowl.  Wrong.  They won Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986.

Few fans have an actual connection to the Super Bowl numbers.  Let's try this.  Of these four Super Bowls can you tell me which were classics and which were boring blow outs or what they have in common?: XVI, XIX, XXIII and XXIV.

Well you may not know it immediately but Super Bowl XVI was a great one. The 49'ers defense put up a goal line stand and stopped the Bengals four times at the one yard line.  San Francisco won 26-21.

Don't remember Super Bowl XIX?  That was the year Marino reached his only Super Bowl.  The Dolphins lost 38-16 to Joe Montana and the 49'ers.

Super Bowl XXIII was one of the greatest I ever saw.  Jerry Rice seemed to be everywhere but the Bengals had a lead with 2:00 left.  Montana took the ball 92 yards and connected with John Taylor for a game winning touchdown.

Super Bowl XXIV.  Well that was another classic Quarterback matchup.  Elway and the Broncos turned the ball over 4 times, including two Elway interceptions and a fumble.  On the other side Montana completed 22 passes for 297 yards and threw for 5 touchdowns in one of the worst blow outs ever, 55-10

By now you've realized that the common thread is Joe Montana winning a Super Bowl but of course the Roman Numerals don't tell you that.  The fact that fans can't connect to one of the greatest achievements of one of the game's greatest players of all time is an issue for me.  Yet for baseball if I ask you about 1960 you would probably automatically say "Mazeroski".  If I ask you about 1975 you might bring up Luis Tiant, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench or Joe Morgan.  Point is you would immediately know what I am referring to as opposed to trying to decipher the numerals.

Pitch selection vs play selection:
One of the great communal aspects of watching any game with other fans is the"what would you do here?"  It can be a part of any sporting event.  When would you pull your goalie in hockey?  When do you start fouling to save time on the clock in basketball?  The great thing about football and baseball are the intricate details that allow you to explore that even further.

In football the questions are usually: would you run or pass here?  punt or try for the first? Am I close enough to try for a field goal?  If I am out with friends and someone asks that question most of the time (let's say close to 90% of the time) I can tell you the answer that question accurately with just a few pieces of information:  What is the down and distance?  What two teams are playing?  What is the score?  How much time is left in the half or game?  Who's the home team?

Let's take the 1991 Oilers as an example because it gives me an opportunity to mention Warren Moon.  (If I had a Football Blog I have a feeling that Warren Moon would make as many appearances as Hank Greenberg has on the baseball blog.  And yes, I just brought up Hank Greenberg again because it had been way too long since I reminded you about Hank Greenberg).  So the Oilers were known as a "Run and Shoot" offense which basically meant they moved quickly and relied mostly on the pass.  On November 3, 1991 the 7-1 Houston Oilers took on the 8-0 Washington Redskins.  Warren Moon completed 25 of 44 passes for 250 yards and threw two interceptions.  In total the Oilers ran the ball 16 times.  Based on the fact that the Oilers relied so heavily on the pass I could have looked in on that game at any given point and been able to guess what the Oilers would do:  If it was any down other than third down they will pass automatically.  If it is third down and anything above 2 yards it will be a pass.  Knowing that their kicker, Ian Howfield was not a particularly strong kicker I would guess that anything over 35 yards would likely be a punt, or, if it was short yardage and it would be over 35 yards they would go for it.

Can you do that with baseball?  If you are out with friends and you are watching the game but also having a conversation and a friend turns to you and says "what would you throw this guy here?"  Can you do it?  I couldn't.  Why not?  Well if I am looking at it in the middle of an at bat there are a lot that needs to go into it.

To start, what pitches does the pitcher have available and of those what is his best pitch?  Fastball, curveball, slider, knuckler, sinker, cut fastball?

Are there runners on base?  Does the runner on base have good speed?  Is the runner on first likely to take off on this count?  If there is a runner on base, how does this pitcher do out of the stretch as opposed to the wind up?  Is this a pitcher who gets a lot of ground balls and can induce a double play?

Who is the batter?  What type of pitch does he like to hit?  How many times has he been up to hit this game?  Did he get a hit, walk or make an out last time (or the two times) before this at bat?  What did he get a hit off of  (or what got him out) last time he was up?  Is this particular hitter slumping or on a hot streak?  Is he likely to chase a ball out of the zone?  If he is and I want him to chase a ball in the dirt, do I have a defensive catcher who can keep the ball in front of him?

The most important question is what have I thrown him so far this at bat?  Have I been working him on the outside corner to stretch the zone a little bit?  Or have I been working the inside to back him off the plate a little bit?

There is no way to even make an educated guess unless you have been paying attention to the details of the game and that is what makes it a great game.

The misperception of time (the last minute drive vs. the rally):
There is this idea that gets floated around that a baseball game could, theoretically, go on forever without end.  This comes from the fact that there is no clock.

Football fans will tell you that there is nothing in baseball that can equal the excitement and intensity of the last minute drive.  John Elway was the master of it.  Tom Brady has pulled off quite a few in his time as well.  Hell, I can't argue it is a great thing to watch.  Who doesn't love the pressure situation of watching a team manage the clock while they try to move the length of the field with less than two minutes left.  It is truly one of the best things to watch in sports.

Yet the idea that there is no equivalent in baseball is not true.  There may be no clock but there are constraints.  Of course there is the 9 innings, that is one constraint but there is more.  In Hockey you get three sets of 20 minutes to win a game.  In Basketball it is 48 minutes.  In Football you get 60 minutes (or two sets of 30) to score.

In baseball you get 27 outs.  You damn well better use them to your advantage because when you get down to the last 6 of them you may have wasted too many of the ones that came before to make a difference with the last few that you have.

But my belief is that a rally (in the early, middle or late innings) is just as exciting as a last minute drive.  Let's look at an example.  Game 1 of the ALCS this past season.  Kansas City had won an emotional Wild Card game over Oakland and swept through a very strong Angels team.  They are on a streak believing that nothing can go wrong.  The Orioles need to take advantage of every opportunity by making every out count.

In the bottom of the second Nelson Cruz had a 7 pitch at bat that ended with a single.  With a runner on base Steve Pearce had a five pitch at bat that ended in a fly ball out.  The Orioles have two outs left to work with.  Not excited yet?

J.J. Hardy was up next and moved Cruz to second with a single.  Two on one out.  The Orioles have a great chance to get some runs, put Kansas City on the ropes and disrupt the magic that seems to be working on the Royals' side.  Ryan Flaherty strikesout swinging.  That is a wasted out.  Instead of putting the ball in play and at least getting a fly ball to advance a runner, he did nothing more than give away an out.

The Orioles now have one out left to score.  Nick Hundley gets an infield single to load the bases.  The pressure is now on both sides.  Baltimore may not have many more chances to score.  Who knows how the game will play out?  Kansas City needs to get out of this mess.  If the Orioles get a base hit will they keep scoring and blow this thing wide open?

On the first pitch to Jonathan Schoop he swings through it for strike one.  Baltimore doesn't even count how many outs they have left now.  They count how many strikes they have left.  They have 2 strikes left to do something.  Schoop takes the next pitch for strike 2.  They have one strike left.  The next two are pitches in the dirt.  The Royals are hoping he will chase something out of the zone.  Everytime the ball is in the dirt the Orioles are hoping for a passed ball that will allow the runners to advance.  The Royals are worried that their pitcher might be nervous.  The Orioles are hoping he is.  Schoop connects on the fifth pitch of the at bat.  As the ball leaves his bat it is high in the air.  The runners are all moving on contact.  The fielders are in motion.  The ball looks like it will be an easy out but it has to actually be executed.  The entire inning, from the time Cruz got on base, has been intense.  When the ball settles in the glove of Omar Infante the Royals breathe a sigh of relief.  The Orioles just wasted three outs.

The history:
I'll do my best to be brief and concise on this one.  Football does not have the connection to the history of the sport that baseball does.

You can argue all you want that the dead ball era of baseball cannot be compared to the post deadball era.  That is a great argument and one that we can explore another time.  Yet if I mention Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner and Cy Young (just to name a few) almost everyone knows who I am talking about.

Why?  Because baseball history is ingrained in the American culture.  Good or bad everyone knows who Ty Cobb was.  Everyone knows who Babe Ruth was.  They are the pioneers of the game that made today's game what it has become.  They are the link from Wagner to Cobb to Ruth to DiMaggio to Robinson to Aaron to Clemente to Reggie to Ripken to Jeter.

Harold Reynolds has a saying on MLB Network when career numbers are compared.  He always says you know it's a big deal when you start seeing the black and white photos as your competition.

Now let's look at football.  The sport has been around for over a century.  Other than the reference to the Colts-Giants overtime game in the late 1950s, when was the last time anyone referenced the pre-Super Bowl era?  It seems as though the sport didn't count until we started counting rings.

Despite the rich history of the league there is little reference or connection to it for the NFL.  When was the last time you heard Bronco Nagurski, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Red Grange, Steve Van Buren, Frank Gifford, Otto Graham or Y.A. Title mentioned in the course of a game?  Even more recent legends are all but ignored.  Watch an NFL game this weekend.  I don't mean at the bar with the sound off.  I mean actually watch the game and listen to what is being discussed. Count how many times today's game is put in context of the history of the sport.  How many references will you hear to Hall of Fame players like Jim Taylor, Gale Sayers, John Riggins, Ozzie Newsome, Lynn Swann or Warren Moon.

I doubt you will hear any.  The few times a year you do hear references to the pre-Super Bowl era it usually is in a negative connotation.  The greats of the early days (with few exceptions) are referred to almost like someone's crazy old grand parent who they are forced to acknowledge but embarassed about.  There is very little respect for the legends of old.

How many times have teams from the same city won the World Series and the Super Bowl in the same calendar year?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Of the nearly 20,000 players to appear in a Major League game 47 have listed their birth as the United Kingdom.  A separate 47 listed their place of birth as Ireland.  

1 comment:

  1. Good article. Part of my love of baseball is my enjoyment of the summer weather. Watching baseball in a warm summer breeze is so much more enjoyable than than wrapped in 2 sweatshirts, a winter coat, gloves, hat and a blanket.
    Great point on the lack or recognition of events using roman numerals compared to actual years. It is my understanding that after Super Bowl L they will stop using the roman numerals.
    My guess on the trivia is 4 although that seams low. I'm going with New York in 1969, Oakland in the early 70's Pittsburgh in 1979 and New England in the 2000's.



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