Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Baseball's Second Commandment by J. D. Thorne

I came across the “10 Commandments of Baseball” on an advertising card from Bill Zuber’s Restaurant and Dugout Lounge in the Amana Colonies of Iowa that had been a keepsake of my Dad’s. The “Commandments” composed by Joe McCarthy, were printed by the thousands many years ago. Over a span of twenty-four years, McCarthy managed the three most storied franchises in the golden age of baseball: the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox. He still holds the highest winning percentage for any Major League baseball manager.

McCarthy's principles are at the center of my classic book called The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life) published by Sporting Chance Press. This post touches on McCarthy's Second Commandment.

Commandment Number Two: “You will never become a .300 hitter unless you take the bat off your shoulder.”

Good hitters want to put their bat on any pitch in or close to the strike zone. They do not wait for that perfect pitch, which may never come. Indecision causes too many good pitches to pass by. While avoiding bad pitches and chalking up a walk is a good at-bat, looking for a walk and not trying to hit is bad baseball. This timid approach will not advance the player or the team. While a base-on-balls is good, a base hit is better. Good hitting is contagious. If a player does not take the bat off his shoulder, he will not get anywhere.

Pick a Good One and Sock It

Babe Ruth explained his science of hitting, “All I can tell you is I pick a good one and sock it. I get back to the dugout and they ask me what it was I hit and I tell ‘em I don’t know except it looked good.”

The 2004 American League Most Valuable Player, Vladimir Guerrero of the Los Angeles Angels, said it this way in the August 30, 2005 issue of USA Today, “If something looks good, I’m swinging. They pay me to hit. I look at the ball and swing.” Who can argue with his results? In 2004, he hit .337 with 39 home runs for the Western American League Division Champions. In 2006, he hit .329 with 33 home runs and last year, he hit .324 with 27 home runs. In 2007, he was a first team starter for the winning American League All-Star team.

Another slugger who had no problems taking the bat off his shoulder was Reggie Jackson. Jackson was known as “Mr. October,” for his clutch hitting in big games in the post season. He was also known as one the biggest egos in baseball, but he “walked the talk,” especially when it counted. In his 21 year career, Jackson hit 563 home runs, led the American League in homers four times, led the league in runs batted in once and was selected an incredible fourteen times to the All-Star Team. Jackson also struck out a record 2,597 times and led the American League in striking out five times.

Even more remarkable than his records was Jackson’s phenomenal postseason play. Despite the many clubhouse disputes that seemed to follow Jackson around from team to team, his teams included 11 division champions, six pennant winners and five world champions. His World Series batting average was .357 compared to his .263 season average.

Jackson established his place in baseball history with an exclamation mark in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. He was playing for the New York Yankees, who were up 3 games to 2 against the hard-hitting Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had four hitters with 30 or more home runs that season.

The game was being played in Yankee Stadium. After taking a walk in his first at bat, Jackson came up in the fourth inning with a man on and lined Bert Hooton’s first pitch into the lower right field seats. In the fifth, he drove a pitch by Elian Sosa into the same area, again on the first pitch. Jackson’s next time at bat was against knuckleballer, Charlie Hough. Incredibly, he hit a long drive into the center field seats on the first pitch. Jackson had hit three home runs in one World Series game. The only other player to hit 3 home runs in a World Series game was Babe Ruth, who did it twice.

Fear at 97 Miles per Hour

One of the most difficult lessons in hitting is overcoming fear. I can remember my fear in high school as I stood “on-deck” getting ready to hit against a left-hander whose fastball was clocking at 97 miles per hour. You learn to get over it as I did, step into the box and take your best cut.

Being hit in the head with a baseball thrown at 97 miles per hour from sixty feet, six inches away is a real threat. All too often, a hitter will be tempted to shy away from the plate. However, overcoming that fear and maintaining the proper position in the batter’s box is a necessity. Although the head is most vulnerable to injury, it is the easiest part of the body to move quickly out of the way. We do it instinctively. It is more difficult to move the torso. Hitters should keep in mind that even the most fearsome flame-thrower rarely hits a batter, but if you keep your head on the ball, you will be able to get out of the way.

If a batter is knocked down by a pitch, the best response is to dig in a little deeper in the batter’s box, and hit the next pitch for a home run. Alternatively, fear in the batter’s box will put a hitter out every time. According to Ty Cobb, “Every great batter works on the theory that the pitcher is more afraid of him than he is of the pitcher.”

Call for Courage

The Second Commandment is a call for courage. Taking the “bat off your shoulder” offers endless possibilities. After you have faced a 97 mile per hour fastball how risky can other challenges be? We cannot expect to “bat a thousand” all the time, but if we never “swing the bat,” we will never win at anything. The good player learns to put aside fear of failure and face the tough challenges head-on.
Image is J.D. Thorne, courtesy of David Bernacchi
Copyright 2012 Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of J.D. Thorne's The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life) and other fine sports books. The 10 Commandments of Baseball is an enjoyable mix of professional baseball stories and the author's affectionate retelling of his own amateur baseball experiences. Whether male or female, young or old, the reader is pulled into great baseball moments that make the baseball commandments come to life with compassion and humor. The focal point of the book is the classic, but little-known, 10 Commandments of Baseball, the baseball principles created by Major League baseball's most successful manager, Joe McCarthy.

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