Saturday, March 14, 2009

An Outfielder Who Throws Back of a Runner is Locking the Barn after the Horse is Stolen By J. D. Thorne

Legendary baseball manager Joe McCarthy holds the highest winning percentage in Major League history and he used his 10 Commandments of Baseball as the principles to guide his players. Most of his commandments have been adapted by coaches for many years, but few people know their origin. McCarthy wrote them in 1921 while he was managing in the minor leagues -- years before he coached legendary stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

“An outfielder who throws back of a runner is locking the barn after the horse is stolen” is McCarthy’s Third Commandment and although it uses an antiquated metaphor, it is one that is rich in meaning.

On a base hit to the right fielder, imagine that the batter rounds first base in full stride heading to second base, but realizes that he cannot make it. He stops in stride about midway between first and second. The right fielder is tempted to throw “in back” of the runner to the first baseman to pick off the runner. But, if he throws to first, how does the runner adjust? Does the runner go back to first base to try to beat the throw? No. Once he sees the throw going behind him back to first base, it is easy to go to second base safely.

Looking Forward

This principle is about judgment. In a broad sense, the commandment suggests that players need to adjust to their circumstances, play “their game,” and look forward not backward.

In baseball, base running is one of the primary parts of the game where decision-making is critical and risk taking is followed by an immediate reward or penalty. Joe McCarthy said that Joe DiMaggio was the “best base runner I ever saw. He could have stolen 50, 60 bases a year if I had let him. He wasn’t the fastest man alive. He just knew how to run the bases better than anybody. I don’t think in all the years [he] played for me he was ever thrown out stretching.” DiMaggio certainly played his game using superb judgment.

Another player who achieved greatness playing “his game” was Lou Boudreau. Sportswriter Rud Rennie described Lou Boudreau this way: “He can’t run and his arm’s no good, but he is the best shortstop in the game.” Boudreau was a “heads up” kind of player. He proved it year after year by leading the American League shortstops in fielding average eight times. He was a player manager of the Cleveland Indians at age 24 and led the Indians to win the World Series in 1948. His judgment at bat was so good he struck out only nine times in 1948.

Curt Shilling’s Adjustments

Pitching is another aspect of baseball where good judgment and making adjustments make or break a career. You often see older pitchers learn to play within themselves as their skills wane. By looking ahead and adjusting their game, they sustain their winning ways late into their thirties and beyond.
Curt Shilling was a key contributor to the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 and 2007 World Series wins. In 2004, 37-year old Shilling, in his first season with the Red Sox, led the majors with 21 wins and just 6 losses. Suffering through an ankle injury in the American League Championship Series, he lost the first game against the Yankees only to bounce back with a 7-inning performance in game six in which he gave up just four hits and one run for the win. When the Red Sox advanced to the World Series, Shilling pitched an impressive game two win over the Saint Louis Cardinals in which he allowed one unearned run on 4 hits in 6.0 innings.

Three years later at age 40 in the second game of the 2007 world series, Shilling allowed one run in the first inning, but went on to pitch 5 1/3 solid innings allowing no more runs and only four hits while striking out four. Boston’s Third Baseman and Most Valuable Player for the Series, Mike Lowell, commented: "He came up big in another big game and that's kind of been his MO. He has a ton of experience, and the most impressive thing about Schill is he's had to change his style of pitching. He's not that power pitcher anymore. You see him really hitting his spots."

Ernie Banks Played His Game

By adjusting his style and playing within himself, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, was another player who had a much longer and more rewarding career than he might otherwise have had. The young 22 year old from Dallas, just out of the military, came in as a shortstop with the Chicago Cubs via the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League at the end of the 1953 season. He became the starting shortstop for the Cubs in 1954 and hit 44 home runs in 1955, the most ever for a shortstop. Banks hit three home runs in one day at Wrigley against Pittsburgh and an NL-record five grand slams. He was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959. Banks led the National League in home runs (47) in 1958 and (45) in 1959. From 1955 to 1960, Banks hit more homers than such luminaries as Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, who were also playing at the time.

However, Banks originally struggled in the field. Early in his career and through the 1958 season he was error prone. In fact, he led the league with 32 errors in 1958. Determined to turn things around, Banks worked hard on his fielding and made only 12 errors in 1959 and won a Gold Glove in 1960. Ironically, injuries to his legs cut down Bank’s fielding range and he switched to first base. It was a move that helped extend his career until 1971. Banks was always adjusting to his physical abilities and skills. Mr. Cub was the first Cubs player to have his number retired.

Winning in the Long Run

The Third Commandment tells you to look forward not backward. Few people get ahead when trying to be too sharp. In baseball, this lesson is played out repeatedly. After one batter gets on base, the intelligent play is often to work at getting the next hitter out. Throw ahead of the runner, not behind. Look ahead, make adjustments and play your own game.

Copyright 2009 by Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

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