Who else would carry the following baggage around for almost half a century?
If you have no interest in baseball, stop reading here. If you're an obsessive fan, or a former ballplayer, you might find this interesting.
Have you ever heard baseball announcers refer to someone as a "five-tool player?" That means he can run, catch, throw, hit for average and hit for power. There are very few five-tool players, even in the major leagues: Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and a few others. When I played high-school baseball, I was a two-tool player: I could make the scoop at first base, I could inside-out the ball to right field (.319 senior year), but I couldn't run worth a damn, I had no power, and (at last I arrive at my subject) I couldn't throw.
First basemen don't have to throw often, which is why I was positioned there. But whenever I did have to make a throw (usually to second or home, which is a short, easy toss), the ball would leave my hand looking good but then sort of . . . die. It seemed to lose its way, its will to live. It would slow down, sink, and swerve to the right -- every time. I worked on my throwing obsessively, but nothing ever changed, and I took this as simply more evidence that I had little athletic ability.
But that turns out not to have been the case. For some reason, when I gripped the ball to throw it, I placed my fingers along the seams, like so:
That, I learned decades later, is what pitchers call a "two-seamer." It's designed to do just what my throws did -- lose velocity and break down and to the right. If I had gripped the ball ACROSS the seams (what pitchers call a "four-seamer"), like so --
-- it would have flown straighter, harder and truer.
What rankles me is that my coach, Bob Kondracki, had been a professional ballplayer -- a pitcher! -- in the high minors. Coach Kondracki was a genial, laid-back sort of guy, not too bright, but willing to tell us endless funny stories about life in the Class AA, sort of like the movie Bull Durham. This man watched me bounce throws in the dirt for three years, shaking his head each time, and never once thought to examine the way I held the baseball. It was only when I was in my 40s, playing catch with a friend (still using my old first-baseman's glove and a ball hit by Stan Musial in batting practice at Shea back in the 60s), that I experimentally discovered the amazing results of gripping the ball across the seams.
Today, this could not happen. Kids are drilled obsessively in fundamentals from Little League on, and they're adepts by age 10; they have all the techniques and nuances of style down pat. Every peewee in America, stepping up to the plate, calls time by extending his back hand, palm out, to the umpire while he digs in, just like Derek Jeter.
I'm fundamentally opposed to Little League, with its uniforms, its competitiveness, its jealous, ranting parents and beleaguered coaches. What happened to playing the game for fun? But Coach Kondracki, what happened to coaching?