Cooperstown Confidential: Running hard and running into old ballplayersby Bruce Markusen
September 11, 2009
To borrow a term from Dirty Harry Callahan, it has become “stylish” for some Internet analysts and posters to defend the baserunning antics of players like Arizona’s Justin Upton.
Last Sunday, Upton raised a few eyebrows with his “11-second single” against the Rockies. He hit a long drive that actually caromed off the center field wall, but had to settle for a mere single. Remarkably, from the time Upton finished his swing to the time that Carlos Gonzalez fielded the carom off the wall and returned the ball to the infield, a full 11 seconds had elapsed. If a fast runner like Upton had been running hard from the outset, he easily would have reached second base with a stand-up double, and might have even had a shot at reaching third with a triple. Instead, Upton jogged all the way to first base, simply because he had decided to admire what he assumed was a home run. As he rounded first, he started to run hard, but by then it was too late—opportunity was lost.
In spite of the seeming embarrassment of such a baserunning outcome, a few Internet apologists for Upton immediately came to his defense. They argued in favor of Upton—just as they did when his brother B.J. pulled three similar stunts last year for the Rays—saying that it’s all right for players not to run hard on long fly balls, or routine pop-ups and ground balls. After all, it’s a good way for a player to pace himself and conserve energy, a way to prevent injuries, like pulled hamstrings, twisted ankles or calf pulls.
Such arguments may be the most tortured forms of logic I’ve heard in nearly 40 years of following baseball. First off, Upton (along with other players who jog on would-be home runs) isn’t trying to pace himself as a way of avoiding injury. Upton decided not to run hard because he had assumed that he had hit a ball that had home-run distance. As a result, he wanted to admire the home run as part of a premature act of celebration. Frankly, that’s a silly motivation when a lost base or two can cost a team—especially a team hoping to contend for a wild card spot—an important run and, quite possibly, a game in the standings. When your team loses a key game by a run, there really isn’t much to celebrate anymore.
Second, even if we mistakenly concede that players like Upton are trying to avoid injury, then we must ask ourselves if this is really a good strategy. Does a half-hearted running style along the basepaths really help players avoid injury? I suppose that a player who jogged all the time on the bases probably would run almost no risk of incurring a leg injury, but it would be ludicrous to play the game that way, especially at the major league level. After all, this is professional baseball, not beer league softball, and the object is to play hard to defeat the opposition.
So let’s consider a player who picks his spots, deciding not to run hard on pop-ups or routine fly balls, but running hard on other batted balls. To my way of thinking, and I’m certainly no doctor or trainer, this seems like a way of increasing one’s chance of injury. By changing the intensity of your running style—from hard to easy to back to hard again—it seems to me that you would actually be putting more strain on your muscles and tendons because of the constant shifting in effort. In contrast, by running hard all the time, a player would better train his muscles to handle the workload that comes with running the bases.
Frankly, for those players who are hell-bent on keeping themselves healthy enough to play, there are better ways of avoiding injury. For example, players who participate in a proper stretching regimen will reduce the risk of injury, as will players who avoid full-bore collisions at home plate or avoid running into ballpark walls.
For the most part, those methods don’t involve the sacrifice of lost bases, a sacrifice that clearly comes with the practice of jogging around the basepaths. When a wild card or division title is on the line, not to mention the money that fans are paying in good faith to watch professional baseball, those kinds of repeated sacrifices simply don’t make good sense, especially for a major league ballplayer.
For me, this is what it comes down to: When major league players don’t put forth a full effort, whether it's because of showboating, making wrong assumptions, or just flat-out laziness, they diminish their team’s chances of winning games, plain and simple. All other rationales, especially the tortured ones, are for losers…
Now that my ranting is done, it’s time for some peaceful reflection on one of the understated benefits of living in a community like Cooperstown. Because of the location of the Hall of Fame on Main Street and the ever-present connection it has to the game, one never knows when the next baseball celebrity will show up. While induction weekend offers a predictable wave of about 80 retired players coming to town, other times of the year often bring surprises.
Let’s consider this past spring and summer at the Hall of Fame. For a few days in the spring, former Cincinnati Reds right hander Jack Billingham, one of the greatest World Series pitchers in history, took time to enjoy the museum and the library as part of a cross-country van tour with his wife and friends. Those fans who were attentive (and are good at recognizing aging players) could have talked to a guy who actually played in the 1975 World Series! And at no extra charge.
On another day, former Astros infielder Jim Pankovits, taking a break from his current stint as a minor league manager, stopped by to visit the plaque gallery and museum exhibits. Although Pankovits was just a journeyman infielder in the '90s, I always find it interesting to talk to retired players like him who have gone on to careers as coaches and managers. Since they were never stars, they seem to have a special appreciation for their experiences in the major leagues. As hardworking everymen, they take nothing for granted.
And then just a few weeks ago, longtime batting coach and outfielder Merv Rettenmund stopped by the Hall of Fame as part of his summer vacation. Even though Rettenmund was fired as the Padres batting coach just last year, he showed no bitterness toward the game during his visit. He might not be a part of Organized Baseball anymore, but he’s still involved as the owner and operator of a batting school and still loves the game enough to take in Cooperstown. As a contributor to several World Series teams with the Orioles (from 1969-71) and the Reds (in 1975), Rettenmund still appreciates the history of the game and his own small place in it.
When I see former ballplayers like these—not stars, but commoners, so to speak—I always feel revitalized about the game. They rarely create a fuss or ask for special attention; they just exhibit their love for baseball by showing up. Just when I’m irritated by the bad baserunning habits of one of today’s young stars, guys like Billingham, Pankovits and Rettenmund pull me back in—and remind me why this is still a great game.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.