Friday, June 13, 2014

The Strike-out

Success in Pitching depends on a variety of factors.  Most would agree that control is the basic key to success.  [Sandy Koufax wasn't any good until he found the strike zone and then went on to be among the greatest left-handers ever.]  Some would say an umpire that enjoys the black borders of the plate helps the success of a pitcher.  Knowing that the ump will always call that low outside pitch over the black borders of the plate builds a pitcher's confidence.  Success is also build around a repertoire of different pitches.  One who can only throw heat will not last long.  Eventually, hitters catch on. [Ted Williams was convinced that pitchers were stupid because they were predictable: if a certain pitch was effective for a strike out then under similar conditions, the pitcher would throw it again!  Williams was the last .400 hitter because he remembered pitching situations and successfully capitalized on the expected pitch.  When Boston made it to World Series in '46 against the Cardinals, legend has it that manager Eddie Dyer told pitchers to throw the opposite pitch and hence Williams was ineffective and had a terrible series.  Although Williams was indeed injured, struck on the arm at the beginning of that series, he refused to hang his failure on his injury.]  Psychological confrontation can contribute to a pitcher's success.  For example, when a hitter is unsure of his safety at the plate because he has a gnawing feeling that the pitcher will deliberately strike at him, then the pitcher has great advantage. [Hank Aaron testified that standing in on Don Drysdale, the big intimidating Dodger right-hander who was known to deliberately throw at batters, was the toughest pitcher he faced because one never knew when one would have to bail!]

I once experienced a day that contained all the elements of a pitcher's success in High School.  I had control, Hack Robbins behind the plate, with a great repertoire of pitches: three different fastballs, three different curveballs and a psychological advantage: I had a history of effectiveness against one particular hitter. He didn't think he could hit me!

Some days when warming up, one senses that the ball will go where one points the foot!  Fluid motion and complete control of one's body, a certain consistent athleticism results in a regularity of throwing strikes, without concern of pitch selection: the ball will go where one wants it to end up!  

This in combination of Hack Robbins behind the plate made a great strike zone.  Mr. Robbins had the classic image of an umpire: short squat, deep raspy voice, and build like a tank.  Even his name exuded umpire: Hack! He loved the black corners of the plate to the chagrin of hitters and to the delight of pitchers. He called out balls and strikes decisively like a medieval executioner brings down his ax on the condemned man.  There was something definitive about him.  I loved pitching when Hack Robbins was the umpire!  

On one bright sunny day in July, I took to the mound and felt warm.  My control was there that day: I could throw the ball exactly where I wanted to throw. At bat, was the leading home-run hitter in the league with 18! with Hack Robbins calling Balls and Strikes.  I was not so concerned because I felt good about pitch selection and placement that day and additionally I had great success over the years with this fellow.  [As a matter of fact we shared the same Little League team at one time and although we ended up at different High Schools we truly never lacked respect for each other.]  I knew, however, that his slump with me bothered him; he never hit a home run off me.

Ironically, that day I did not need Hack Robbin's wide strike zone.  It turned out that my old former Little League teammate jumped at my pitches determined to end his slump.  The scouting report that we had on him was that he liked to pull the ball.  So I took a chance and placed an overhand fast ball up and in at armpit height and he turned on that pitch like a major league'r crushing the ball so far that had it stayed fair it would have been a Home Run in any ballpark!  The pitch was clearly out of the strike-zone.  I decided to come in with an overhand curve ball that would start out of the strike-zone and break in on his fists.  As the ball broke down I could tell that my old teammate was not fooled and followed the trajectory of the pitch and met the ball shoulder high.  He crushed this one too.  This one too arched horizontally foul.  Now I was ahead in the count, 0-2 with the best power hitter in the league apprehensive.  I had the psychological advantage. I knew he eventually would have to adjust to defensive hitting; he needed to protect the plate to stay alive.  I was to waste a pitch.  I threw a side-armed fast ball that tailed away from a right handed hitter. I threw it low and away, a great spot and possibly in the strike zone according to Hack Robbins.  The umpire did not have to make the call. The batter must have decided that the ball was close enough to be called a strike so he lunged for the ball across the plate swinging weakly and lamely. "STRIKE THREE YER OUUUUT!!!" cried Mr. Robbins casting down his ax!

That feeling of accomplishment with the strike out is the closest analogy I can think of to the definition of the Simcha Shel Mitzva: the sense of doing everything right; having all the elements of success in the performance of a Divine commandment [L'Havdil!]

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