Thursday, July 23, 2009

Now *that* was a play!

Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game today! That's quite a story in itself, but the part I liked best was the play within the play.

Going into the ninth inning, the Sox brought in Dewayne Wise as a defensive replacement in center field. Of course, everyone was on edge, wondering if Buehrle could pull it off, and when you're a defensive replacement in such a situation...well, that's a lot of pressure. You just cannot, can not, can not do anything but field perfectly if the ball is hit your way.

The ball was hit Wise's way.

What he did was not only a great play, it might have been the play of the year. Contrast this one with Jeter's play that I discussed in the previous post. The main problems with the Jeter play were that it involved questionable decision-making and ordinary physical feats. Here's what Wise's play involved:

(1) He had to get a great jump. No sooner was the ball off the bat and the camera got onto Wise than he was flying -- he clearly must have gotten a great jump.

(2) He had to take the right line. Nothing special for a defensive specialist, but he did take the perfect line, which is important when you have no time to spare.

(3) He had to run really, really fast. Wise ran really, really fast, faster than all but a very few human beings can. If he doesn't, he doesn't get to the ball.

(4) He had to take his eye off the ball to take a peek at where the wall was. Check.

(5) He had to pick up the ball again and find it, without hesitation. Check.

(6) He had to slow just a touch and gather himself for the jump so that he could arrive when the ball did. Check.

(7) He had to time his leap perfectly. Check.

(8) He had to do all that while maintaining concentration, knowing full well that he was going to hit the wall. Hard. He hit the wall. Hard. He maintained concentration.

(9) He had to catch the ball. Check.

(10) The ball arrived in his glove just as his body arrived at the wall, and the impact jostled the ball loose. Wise kept his eye on the ball, stayed with it, and gathered it in.

One out. Two batters later, and President Obama was making a congratulatory phone call to Buehrle.

Now that, my friends, was a play.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The most over-rated play of all time

For years I've been hearing people gushing about the play in the 2001 ALDS in which Derek Jeter caught a throw coming in from the outfield and flipped it to the catcher for the out. I'll bet if you asked 10 people to list the top ten plays of all time, at least five (and probably more) of them would include this play.

Here's the thing: it's not even a good play!

How did I arrive at this heresy? Let's break it down in terms of pros and cons.

Pros for the play:

(1) It was unexpected.

(2) It looked cool.

(3) It came at a big moment.

(4) It achieved the desired result.

Note that not a single one of these pros says anything about the quality of the play. They're really about the quality of the viewing experience. That's a very different thing.

Cons for the play:

(1) The reason it was unexpected was that Jeter seemingly came out of nowhere to make the play. Since the fielders all have assignments on plays like this, this means that he either wasn't where he was supposed to be, or he was where he was supposed to be but was late getting there. Either way, he should get no credit for the unexpectedness, and actually should get a slight demerit.

(2) The hop was pretty easy to handle, and the running flip to the catcher, while difficult for the average citizen, is within the capability of most any high school middle infielder, and is not difficult for a major league shortstop. It does look cool, and at least he didn't screw it up, but every day there are ballplayers making much more physically demanding plays. No demerits here, at least, but if we're looking for one of the greatest plays ever, we need something a lot better than this.

(3) I just watched it for the umpteenth time, and this time on YouTube so I could run it back and stop it as often as I liked. (The link I found was shut down in short order by MLB as a copyright infringement.) The footage I saw showed once again that the throw was right on target. The rightfielder, Shane Spencer, threw from well into foul territory down the right field line, and the ball bounced just on the right edge of the basepath. By the time Jeter intercepted it, it was in the middle of the basepath, and it was headed for the inside edge of the basepath, on a perfect path for the catcher to make the tag. The ball had lost some speed, but Jeter's flip was not fast, either, and even the brief transfer of the ball from the glove to his hand cost a valuable fraction of a second. What does it all mean? Jeter actually slowed the ball down, did not improve the angle, and in fact put the play at risk by injecting himself into the situation. The baserunner was dead meat even if Jeter never came close to the ball. By catching and flipping it, he made a hero of himself and made Spencer a forgotten man, but he did absolutely nothing to help the Yankees win.

So to sum it up, Derek Jeter was somewhere between slightly and grossly out of position, made a not-too-difficult physical play, and put the game in jeopardy by making himself a hero at the expense of a teammate. If you don't buy my argument about the difficulty of the play, fine -- but note that the more difficult his part of the play was, the more he put the overall play at risk!

Greatest play ever? Not hardly. If you care about winning, it was actually a bad play. Sure looked cool, though, huh?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wrigley's not bad...

...but Fenway is still the best. I finally got to Chicago this past weekend. The White Sox weren't in town, but the Cubs were -- against the arch-rival Cardinals, no less -- so I was very much looking forward to my first visit to Wrigley. Carpenter vs. Harden made it even better.

It was...OK.

Of course you gotta love the ivy. The old-school scoreboard is nice aesthetically, but I did find myself wanting more information than I was getting. The charm of the apartments overlooking the stadium from Waveland and Sheffield is almost entirely gone, since commercial interests figured out that they could renovate, put up stands, and charge money. Almost every building has a shiny new set of stands atop it, and several have stands indoors as well. Ugly. Bleccch.

I was also mildly disappointed in the atmosphere. Maybe it was because the Cubs were losing, but there wasn't quite as much electricity in the stadium as I'd hoped. Cubs fans just don't seem as worked up about the Cardinals as Sox fans are about the Yankees.

In fairness, it's just one data point. And I do like Wrigley -- I'd slot it in around 5th or 6th on that previous list. But Fenway's still the best.