Clean Your Cleats by Dan Blewett — Read Chapter 2 For Free
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Clean Your Cleats by Dan Blewett | Chapter 2 — Baseball is a Trap
They give you a round bat and they throw you a round ball, and then they tell you to hit it square. — Willie Stargell
The year after I retired, I decided I needed some sort of outlet, something that would allow me to make competitive decisions like those I made on the mound. I didn’t, however, care to take up a new sport, because I was still worn out from 22 years of baseball.
I thought about the World Series of Poker, which I had watched on TV back in the day. I thought it might be a good fit, so I read eight poker books and shipped off to Las Vegas, feeling ready enough to try my luck.
I absorbed the intellectual aspects of the game. I learned a lot by playing disciplined, tight, by the book poker. I observed and analyzed the players around me, much as I did reading hitters from the mound. Even as a newbie, I held my own because I was good at keeping a level head, regardless of the outcome. I later realized that baseball had prepared me for this.
When you lose $150 in one hand to someone who made a very dumb play but got lucky to win, it’s easy to get upset. Many players lose their head when they suffer a “bad beat” and make a string of poor, emotional decisions thereafter. This compounds the one bad beat and ruins the rest of their session.
In this way, poker is a lot like baseball, especially pitching. Even when you make the right pitch call and nail your spot, you still sometimes give up hits. Maybe it’s a blooper that falls in, a 13-hopper that finds a hole, or a routine fly ball that lands in the Bermuda Triangle. For a hitter, you can destroy a ball, just to watch your 110 mph line drive go right into the shortstop’s glove. You did the right thing by hitting the ball on the screws, but bad luck means sometimes it finds a glove.
In poker, even when making the statistically correct play, you can still lose because of the random chance that is involved. In every situation, there is always a “smart” play that, in the long run, will win more often than it loses. If you took 10 identical situations and made the smart play in each one, you might win that hand seven times and lose only three. Over the long run, you’d take home more money than you lost.
Yet, because random chance is, well, random, it’s possible to lose while making that smart, 70% odds play four, six or even eight times in a row. Every situation resets the odds. Just because you should win seven out of ten times, doesn’t mean you will in the short-term. The 30% of the time you lose could come up many times in a row.
I’ve come to realize that many poker and baseball players don’t grasp this concept. Too many players becoming infuriated that they lost while making the right play, gave up a “cheap hit” on a good pitch, or got out despite hitting the ball hard. When they execute, they feel like they should always win.
Mentally weak players also believe that other players should behave as they expect them to, and get upset when they don’t. How could he have not folded when I made that bet? How could he have swung at that 3–1 curveball?
Pitchers succumb to this the most, feeling blindsided when a hitter doesn’t react how he assumes he will when he throws a certain pitch in a certain spot. We play it out in our heads and expect the rest of the world to respond in kind, forgetting that we don’t live in a world of robots.
Smart players, on the other hand, know that bad players will occasionally get rewarded by Lady Luck, but will lose big in the long run. Good players stick to their guns knowing that if they make the right play as often as they can, they’ll win more than they lose, taking home more money than they brought.
Mentally tough pitchers and hitters realize that the only thing they really control is their preparation, decision-making and execution. Once they take their swing and make contact with the ball, what happens next is not up to them. They don’t control where the ball goes once they begin their swing, only that the swing they took gives them the best chance of hitting the ball hard.
Experienced pitchers know this as well, just on the other side of the lines-one they release their pitch, they’ve done everything they can do. Great pitches more often than not become outs, but sometimes they lose games. Likewise, poorly-thrown pitches induce pop-ups, strikeouts and double plays. Luck is a two-way street.
In basketball, the wind doesn’t blow your shot off course; it either goes in or it doesn’t because of how you took the shot. In football, who you tackle is completely up to you and how good you are at tackling. Unless Usain Bolt trips or has just a disastrous start, he’s going to outrun everyone else and the track conditions won’t make a bit of difference.
Baseball, though, is not like other sports; it’s uniquely cruel in the vast amount of luck-both good and bad-that can, in the final innings, make the difference between who wins and loses a big game, even the World Series. It’s insanity to think that in the most pivotal moments of a ballplayer’s career-those final, precious few outs-that something completely beyond anyone’s control could make all the difference.
A routine ground ball could take 14 hops and sneak through the infield.
A hitter could badly mis-hit a pitch and bounce a swinging bunt down the third base line, beating the throw to first with ease.
One of those human umpires we hear so much about could ring a player up on a terrible strike-three call.
A scorched, potentially World Series winning line drive could go directly into the third baseman’s mitt, letting the pitcher completely off the hook and totally screwing a hitter out of glory.
Baseball is absolutely maddening sometimes, with the outcome hanging by the threads and whims of those puppeteers we call the Baseball Gods.
It never feels good to lose, especially when you did the right thing. It’s also incredibly difficult to stay positive when you’re in a string of tough luck. It’s easy to talk yourself into the idea that things won’t get better, or that it’s all your fault.
Why can’t your good days and bad days be evenly distributed and spread out? It just never seems to work that way, or if it does we don’t pick up the pattern very well.
The first pitch of my pro career cracked the mitt for a called strike. The second pitch was lined right back at me, smashing square into my left thigh.
Ooof. I said to myself.
Is that how this is going to go? Two pitches in and I’m ducking for cover like it’s World War III?
I got hit by a second line drive 90 innings later, and then never again in the next five seasons. How’s that for a normal distribution?
Baseball is hard because of the luck, because of the unknowns, and because of the erratic ups and downs. You can find yourself in a statistical slump despite actually hitting the ball quite hard, quite often. If your batted balls find too many mitts, you’re 3-for-20, hitting .150. If just a few instead fall in, you’re hitting 6-for-20, a hall of fame worthy .300 batting average. Without those extra three cheap hits, though, our confidence can plummet into a chasm too dark to climb out of. That is, until we do climb out of it, just as we always have and always will.
Crash Davis, the poetic, journeyman catcher in the movie Bull Durham, always had enough talent to hang around, but never enough to break through. He was known as one of those strange, smart ballplayers-a truly mystical breed not unlike the common Unicorn. One of the old-timers in the movie joked, “I actually saw him read a book without pictures once!”
One night at the pool hall, he learned the prodigious young pitcher he’d be mentoring had been called up. The young, dumb but infinitely talented Nuke Laloosh-the kid with the rocket for an arm-was going to the show. Crash, who admitted that he was known to sometimes “howl at the moon,” went off in a rant about the luck that separates players. Nuke’s call-up was just the latest example of it always being someone else’s turn, and never his.
“You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, okay? There’s six months in a season; that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week-just one-a gork; you get a ground ball; you get, you get a ground ball with eyes; you get a dying quail; just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
I can relate a bit too well, unfortunately, to how Crash felt in that moment, yet again having to be happy for someone else. Yet, I’ve come to understand that those extra 25 hits aren’t free. One or two might come down to the lottery, just like a lucky hand in poker. But 25? Even though it’s just one a week, as he says, that number is very much not a lottery.
You know who gets those extra 25 hits?
Who the Baseball Gods give them to, slipped under the table so no one else can see?
It’s not random. The hitter who consistently puts barrel to the ball more often than everyone else, hitting his weak grounders just a little harder, his bloopers just a little bit firmer…he’s the one who gets those extra dying quails to fall in. The consistently harder you hit the ball, the more often they bounce through, drop in or “find eyes.”
Likewise, the more you make smart pitch calls and hit your spot, the fewer times hitters bloop one in against you. The more you keep that changeup down, the more those medium-hit batted balls bounce to your shortstop for a double play, rather than cruising over his head into the outfield.
High changeups and breaking balls become liners and bloopers; low, well-executed changeups and breakers become ground ball outs. The luck never goes away, but skill always helps to normalize and control for it. Playing this game well provides you with a bigger share of that pot of good luck.
Crash was a heck of a hitter, but he wasn’t stuck down in the minors because those lucky, free 25 hits didn’t fall his way. If he had 100 better at-bats-where he took a better swing at a better pitch-he’d have made his own luck and turned a few more ground outs into line drives, a few more deep fly balls into doubles. He’d still get his quota of bloopers and bleeders, but his fate didn’t come down to sheer luck. Neither did mine and neither will yours. Those “extra” 25 hits are the hardest 25 to get.
The element of luck is perhaps what makes the game so alluring, tantalizing, welcoming and yet destructive. It’s like the song of the sirens in The Odyssey that lured sailors to their death. Today could be the big day, when we get that key hit in front of the scout who has the power to change our lives forever.
Every day is a new today.
Baseball is amazing precisely because of the injection of luck and the mesmerizing reality that anything and everything-dreams made or destroyed-can happen even on the most ordinary Tuesday night game. Beyond just the luck of hits and outs, there is always something new, never before seen or done.
When I was 15 or so, our catcher made the coming down! throw to second base at the end of our pitcher’s warm ups. It was a pedestrian, ordinary throw on an ordinary little field somewhere in the very ordinary Baltimore Metro area. But it just so happened that our third baseman uncorked his final throw to first at the exact right moment for something incredible to happen: the two throws collided in midair overtop our pitcher’s head.
All of us looked on with slack jaws at this silly, meaningless, yet astronomically unlikely event that we were lucky to witness. Despite the fact that it had no impact on the game or anything else, we were in awe. In 22 years of baseball-both playing and coaching-I am yet to see that happen again.
About five years later, I saw the most bizarre and yet beautiful triple play, one that I also never saw before or after. It was first and third, no one out. The hitter smashed our pitcher’s offering, sending one of those low line drive fly balls right at our centerfielder, who stood his ground, frozen in place.
The runner on third read it correctly and retreated to tag up, assuming that the ball was either going to be caught or sail over his head. As our centerfielder caught the ball, he unleashed a rocket of a throw to the plate, sailing it clear to our catcher on the fly. The runner on first must have had an oh crap kind of moment, because he realized too late that the throw would not be cut, and was going home. He quickly tagged up and bolted for second. So what happened?
Our centerfielder nailed the runner at the plate with such perfect timing that all our catcher had to do was slap down a swipe tag as soon as he caught it. Then, because he heard Two! Two! Two! He immediately switched his feet and fired a bullet of his own down to second base. Our shortstop caught it, dropped down the tag, and the runner who had taken off late from first was out.
It was a three-laser triple play right up the center of the field: a laser off the bat to center, a laser throw right back to the plate, followed by one final laser to second base. It was a masterpiece of perfect throws and perfect timing.
I don’t think any player gets out of bed looking forward to the possibility of the next weird never-before-seen play, but it’s something that makes the game pretty special and keeps you wondering what might come next. Anything. Anything might come next.
For those who make it to the top, it’s not all talent and mental toughness, though each are key ingredients in the recipe. It’s not all coaching and work ethic, either. Luck rears its ugly head in injuries, too. Hard-working players sometimes get hurt while lazy ones stay healthy, because hard work doesn’t guarantee anything. At the MLB level, the difference in work ethic and preparation is minimal-everyone wants to stay there and everyone puts in the work.
Yet, some don’t suffer a single major injury in 10+ seasons, and others can’t stay off the injured list. Remember Kerry Wood, the 20-strikeout man? Or Mark Prior, who seemed to have been sculpted out of marble, born to pitch a baseball? They were both Cubs phenoms who just couldn’t catch a break, devoured whole by the injury bug.
At the very top, there’s seemingly no correlation between work ethic, training and preparation. In my years as a coach, harder-working players weren’t necessarily healthier or more resistant to injury than lazier ones. They maximized their talents and wouldn’t have any regrets to look back on. But they still got hurt at seemingly the same rate as anyone else.
You don’t control when your ankle rolls, when your shoulder hurts, when your back decides it wants to tweak and shoot pain down your left hip. The best insurance policy against physical breakdown is certainly diligence in training and preparation. But insurance is just insurance-it doesn’t change the future, and you just don’t know. Will your body come through for you? Injuries derail many promising careers, purely on rotten luck and a body that wore out too soon.
It’s also about opportunity. Will the right scout see you on the right day, in the right light? Maybe he just so happens to need a second baseman on the night you-a middle infielder-hit two doubles, steal two bases and play out-of-your-mind defense against the best team in the league.
Or maybe, you play the best game of your life in front of no one, and a week later go 0-for-4 with an error when that scout shows up. You can’t just choose when to have your best game and defer the worst one for when it doesn’t count. Opportunities are lost like this all the time and it was no one’s fault. This is why baseball is so hard. Sometimes, the game just seems to just toy with you, like a cruel child pulling the wings off a fly.
So what does it take? What allows some ballplayers to just skyrocket to the top, while others seem to be bicycling up a muddy hill with two flat tires? Genetics are one factor, but you can’t control that one bit. Rather, it’s the ability to keep going, both mentally and physically.
A baseball season is like taking a rowboat out into the open ocean. Some days it’ll be mostly smooth with just little bumps in the water as you cruise along, owning the sea. Other days, you’ll be at the mercy of the waves, tossing you up and down, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, sometimes on an incredible hot streak, sometimes in the deepest slump.
A .300 season is not six consistent hits every 20 at-bats. Rather, it’s an 0-for-12 start followed by two unreal games going 3-for-4 in each with three doubles, two home runs, a bloop single and a scorched liner that the third baseman caught in self-defense. Those are the waves-the depressing lows followed consistently by hot streaks that smooth it all out. Pitcher or position player, it doesn’t matter-your career will bob up and down until the day you retire.
The mentally tough players are the ones who go the furthest, because they don’t let themselves get too high, too low, change too much when they’re running rough or slack off when they feel invincible. They row hard through it all. It’s those who grind through injuries just by showing up and giving 100%, even when that day’s 100% is more like 82%.
At times, it’ll seem as if you’re fielding ground balls with an oven mitt, the only reasonable explanation for the amount of errors you’ve made lately. I once pitched with a 10+ ERA for an entire month upon joining a new team. You can’t pitch a ball very well wearing oven mitts, either. That month was brutal, but I kept rowing.
A deep, burning belief in myself glowed red hot no matter how bad things looked or felt. We all need that, and not just in baseball.
I can do this. I will get through this. I belong here.
Some days, you’ll have to stare yourself in the mirror and slap your cheeks and scream it out loud until you believe it. Other days, you’ll roll out of bed with your chest puffed out and just dominate with no real effort required. Life is quite a thing on these types of days. Yet, the easy times are not what build champions. In the long run, the hard times make all the difference. After a tough at-bat, game, week, month or season, everything is easier when you understand the nature of this up-and-down, hybrid game of skill and chance you’re playing.
But that’s not enough.
Through all of it, you have to have that glowing, red-hot belief in yourself. The #1 most psychotic, foam-finger waving, face-painted fan, in the cheap seats beating the you can do it drum? It absolutely must be you.
Your belief in yourself is your best armor that will withstand this battle, and you are the blacksmith. Baseball is perhaps both the hardest, and yet the most rewarding game there ever was because of that all that darned luck. So show up, play hard, never stop rowing and collect those 25 hits.
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Copyright 2022, Dan Blewett. All rights reserved.
Originally published at https://danblewett.com.