"The Americans have a genius for taking a thing, examining its every part, and developing each part to the utmost. This they have done with the (English) game of rounders, and, from a clumsy, primitive pastime, have so tightened its joints and put such a fine finish on its points that it stands forth a complicated machine of infinite exactitude." Angus Evan Abbott, English commentator, on baseball in the early 1900s
When hawking his novel notions, such as the orange baseball or double-knit uniforms, Charlie O. Finley used to say, "The day Custer lost at the Little Big Horn, the Chicago White Sox beat the Cincinnati Red Legs, 3-2. Both teams wore knickers. And they're still wearin' 'em today."
Of all our sports, none is so tied to perceptions that have gone essentially unchanged and unchallenged for generations.
That's why baseball has more myths than any of our other games.
Once Americans completed that 19th Century job of tightening the joints and finishing the points of England's rounders, it became widely assumed that baseball was a polished, and thoroughly understood, product. If John McGraw ordained, "Take two and hit to right," then so it was. If Babe Ruth described batting as "pickin' a good one and sockin' it," what more science was needed?
The answer in the 1980s is, "A lot."
"Baseball has a ton of old wives' tales," says Baltimore's Earl Weaver. "Call them 'myths' or pet peeves or whatever, but this game is full of 'em."
Baseball, a national institution for 50 years before the lively ball arrived, has always had a hard time catching up with itself. While the NFL is already 20 years into its computer age, baseball is fighting to get out of its era of pad-and-pencil arithmetic. In every corner of the game, entrenched beliefs that are really no more than venerated superstitions are stacked up like totems to long-dead ancestors.
"Sometimes it seems like every other thing you hear is backwards," says the Orioles' John Lowenstein. "They tell a hitter that he should 'swing down.' That would be great, if the object of the game were to hit the ball between people's legs. But they've got fences out there and they let you run around the bases for free if you hit it over the wall. So, obviously, you should be swinging slightly up.
"They tell you all your life never to lift weights, then you find out it's just what you should have been doing all along. They tell you always to catch a fly ball with two hands, but, if you think about it, you should almost always catch it one-handed off to the side so your arms don't block your own vision.
"It goes on and on. You see guys stumbling running the bases because they're so determined to 'hit every base with the left foot.' You should question everything."
Ask almost any big leaguer what "myth" he would like to shatter and, like Lowenstein, he almost gets tongue-tied trying to pick his favorite.
One of baseball's appeals in recent years is the way that the whole game has been on a demythologizing kick. How to hit, pitch, run the bases, devise a lineup, concoct game strategy, position defenders, evaluate statistics, handle a pitching staff, even how to think at the plate or on the mound -- it's all up for grabs.
"Baseball defies an orderly process," says Oakland owner Roy Eisenhardt. "There are no wind tunnels where you can put a baseball idea and test it out."
In the absence of those wind tunnels -- or, for that matter, any significant history of empiricism in the sport -- baseball's wisdom is patchwork.
It would take a book to explore every bogus hallowed myth in baseball. Instead, let's look at an overview of the range of pedagogies that find themselves on the hot seat.
"I'd like to find the guy who invented the sacrifice bunt and shove it in his ear . . . In the early and middle innings, it's the most overused strategy in baseball," says Weaver, a lover of big-inning, home-run baseball who believes the sacrfice was a creation of low-scoring dead ball days and that it should have expired back then. "Play for one run early and lose by one run late."
Computer studies have been done -- outside baseball -- that claim to show that not only the sacrifice bunt but the intentional walk as well are so consistently counter-productive that the first team to scrap both would have a clear advantage over a full season.
"All those old adages have to be qualified," says Weaver. "For instance, 'Play to tie at home, but to win on the road.' You hear that a million times. Hell, I'll play to tie on the road, depending on who's up that inning in my order. If your weaker hitters are up, then you better try to get one run then and take your chances later.
"Another one of my pet peeves is 'Always hit behind the runner with a man on second base and none out,' " says Weaver. "Good Lord, I never asked Lee May to hit behind no runner. 'Advancing the runner' is overrated. It's a lot like the sacrifice bunt. Why give up the out? Let your hitters hit."
Weaver even doubts baseball's blather about the supposed advantages of "aggressiveness." The Orioles' manager never orders a knockdown pitch, never cares if a player runs into a wall to make a catch (unless the game is on the line), and almost never wants to see a player run the bases aggressively. To his mind, the gamble or the potential injury involved just isn't worth it.
"Most of the time, you don't have to be aggressive in baseball," Weaver says flatly. "Do the sure things, play within yourself and you'll win . . .
"What about 'Guarding the lines in the late innings,' " continues Weaver. "That shouldn't be a hard and fast rule. That's why we have charts on where every ball is hit against us. Now, you have percentages to go by, not rules of thumb."
In fact, one great third baseman, Graig Nettles, has maintained for years that every other person at that position in the league is at least 15 feet too close to the line in the late innings. "I take away 10 hits in the hole for every one that gets by me over the bag," he says.
"I agree with Nettles 100 percent," says Mets Manager George Bamberger. "More teams are doing it his way every year. We gotta quit having guys standing less than a yard from the foul lines late in the game.
"The one (myth) that drove me crazy," adds Bamberger, "was, 'You can't throw a changeup to a left-handed hitter with a runner on first base.' I'd ask why and they'd say 'Because he'll hit a ground ball through the (first base) hole.'
"Well, there are guys, like Dusty Rhodes in the old days, that the only way to pitch is with 16 offspeed pitches in a row. If the 17th pitch is a fast ball, they'll hit it out of the park. Are you going to pitch the guy wrong just because a hole's there?
"Also, who says you can't throw two or three changeups in a row to a hitter?" asks Bamberger, demolishing another sacred pitching precept. "Ask a hitter, 'If they throw you a changeup, what's the next pitch,' and everyone will say, 'Fast ball.' When you're the pitcher and they're thinkin' exactly what you're thinkin', that ain't good."
By the same reasoning, Bamberger is infuriated by the notion that an 0-2 pitch should be a waste pitch. "It should be anything but a waste pitch," says Bamberger. "(Former manager) Mel Ott used to fine a pitcher $500 if anybody got a hit off an 0-2 pitch. That's dumb. Why not get 'em out on three pitches?
The converse of this notion is equally fascinating: that, just as an 0-2 pitch should always be a ball, a 2-0 pitch should always be a strike.
Tommy John of the Angels, for one, disagrees. "The same pitch that the hitters take for ball one and ball two, they'll swing at and ground to short on 2-0 because they think you're supposed to throw a strike," says John. "I've pitched plenty of games where I was best when I was behind in the count."
This, of course, is akin to Whitey Ford's sage saying: "You would be amazed how many important outs you can get by working the count down to where the hitter is sure you're going to throw to his weakness and then throw to his power instead."
Debunking another myth, John adds, "You should never give in to the batter, not even if the bases are loaded and there are three balls on the hitter. They say, 'There's no place to put the hitter.' Well, there's always an open base, even if it's home plate. It's better to walk home one run than give up two or three on a hit, or four on a grand slam."
As for the complex issue of pitch selection, Oriole Coach Ray Miller has researched one riveting statistic from 15 years worth of pitching charts: None of the Orioles' 20-game winners has ever thrown less than 60 percent fast balls over a season, and plenty have thrown close to 70 percent.
"We want our starting pitchers to have at least three, or preferably four pitches," says Miller, "but sometimes we get carried away with all the breaking pitches and forget that the fast ball is the best pitch in baseball. It's what got most of these guys here. Fear of the fast ball sets up the other pitches and makes them more effective, not the other way around. If you can get a guy out with fast balls and maybe one other pitch, don't keep going through your repertoire until you find the one that he can hit."
So much for Stay Ahead of the Hitter, Pitch to a Batter's Weakness, Always Mix Up Your Pitches and Never Walk Home a Run.
Next, someone will say that pitching high is a virtue, not a sin.
Actually, Miller does. "Most of the best power hitters in baseball are low-ball hitters. The Yankees, Brewers and Red Sox all fall into that pattern," says Miller. "It must be like survival of the fittest. Everybody in the majors wants their pitchers to keep the ball down. So, naturally, a lot of the great hitters turn out to be the low-ball hitters because the others get weeded out (by a kind of natural selection).
"Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Graig Nettles and on down the line -- all low-ball home run hitters. Get 'em out with high fast balls and even high curves," says Miller. "We have to constantly preach to our younger pitchers to work high in the strike zone because they've never heard it before. To some hitters, like Greg Luzinski, a belt-high fast ball is a weakness but a knee-high fast ball will get killed."
Obviously, nothing in baseball inspires debate like pitching theory. And nothing has inpired more half-baked ideas.
"When I was growing up," says Baltimore's Mike Flanagan, whose father pitched in the Boston organization, "a pitcher was told never to lift a weight. It would make you muscle bound. Don't tamper with success. Now, half the pitchers on this team are on one kind of weight program or another. It's rehabilitated my shoulder and put three or four miles an hour back on my fast ball.
"You may only be lifting five-pound weights, but, if you're exercising the proper muscles, it's enough to show big improvement," says Flanagan. "Steve Carlton has a big can of sand and, every day, he works his hand all the way down to the bottom. Do that a few times and, apparently, it takes all your strength to get down to the bottom."
Some, of course, take this with a grain of sand. Even Miller says, "I guess it can't hurt them, if the weight is that small, but, sometimes, I'm tempted to think that the only muscles they're exercising are in their heads."
A decade ago, weights and nautilus machines were unknown in big league clubhouses. Now, almost every team has them. "Guys like Brian Downing (of California) and I have probably made ourselves into major leaguers by lifting," says Baltimore's Lenn Sakata, a 170-pounder who can bench press 350. "Contrary to what was always taught, weight lifting not only increases your strength, but also your range of motion . . .College coaches have known that for years and, now, its worked its way into pro ball, too."
For instance, Lowenstein, who has 21 homers in '82 after never having more than 12 before, says that two winters of a weight program have, suddenly, made him a power hitter at the age of 35.
One of the most successful myth-breakers of this era has been Charlie Lau, now batting coach of the Chicago White Sox. He has stood the conventional notion of the baseball swing on its head. In fact, the baseball swing that he teaches is really the golf swing, only shifted into a slightly different plane.
For decades, hitting coaches have preached, "Keep your weight back; don't hit off your front foot," and "snap your wrists; your top hand is your power hand." These dicta were true for Ruth and Williams and DiMaggio, but in the era of the slider, it has become more important to wait until the last instant to commit the swing. In a time of spacious, symmetrical AstroTurf parks, all-fields hit-drive hitting has been more rewarded.
So, the time was right for an alternate theory of the swing. The heretical Chairman Lau said, among other things, "Hit off your front foot," and "Don't roll your wrists; your lead arm, not your top hand, is your source of power."
Folks like George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Dwight Evans, Keith Hernandez and dozen of others have adopted some or all of Lau's theories.
Lau's ideas have a simple origin. As a player, Lau saw Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Brooks Robinson and Willie Mays hitting home runs with their back foot and top hand almost off the bat; since the back foot and top hand were supposed to be a hitter's primary sources of power, Lau figured out that something new was in the wind. He believed his eyes rather than the dogmas of the day. The result is that Lau has given a conceptual framework to a new style of hitting.
Not only batting, but the batting order is under examination. That basic baseball bromide -- the traditional lineup -- now looks a bit outmoded, at least in the American League's day of the designated hitter.
For years, the No. 2 hitter in the lineup was supposed to be a contact hitter who could hit and run and hit behind the runner. In other words, he was probably only the club's fifth- or sixth-best offensive player.
Now, several successful AL teams have put one of their best hitters at No. 2 -- such as Milwaukee (slugging leader Robin Yount), Boston (all-around star Dwight Evans) and Oakland (Dwayne Murphy). In tandem with such a move, several clubs have strengthened the No. 9 spot in the order, using players with little power but good on-base percentages and reasonable speed; Milwaukee uses .300-hitter Jim Gantner, Boston has Rick Miller (.290).
The reasons are probably long overdue. Statistics show that for every spot in the order that a man moves up in the lineup, he'll get about 18 more plate appearances per season; so, why not throw that modest No. 2 batter down to seventh or ninth in the order, and move everybody up a notch. Or, move one power hitter up four or five spots to No. 2 and get him 80 to 100 more plate appearances.
The watershed accomplishment for which the '82 season will always be remembered -- Rickey Henderson's stolen base record (123 with a month still to go) -- has come as the direct result of ignoring myths.
Since Ty Cobb's time, base stealing has had four fundamental precepts:
* Study the pitchers to get the best possible jump.
* Take the longest possible lead that will allow you to get back safely on a pickoff.
* Seldom take a gambling "one-way lead" in which your weight (and mind) are leaning more about the next base than the base you're already on.
* Slide into the bases feet first because its the fastest and most injury-proof way.
So, what does Henderson do ?
* The A's speedster admits that, at age 23, he has barely begun to study pitchers' moves and, as a result, gets picked off first more often than he's thrown out at second. He has replaced studiousness with raw daring.
* Henderson takes a distinctly shorter-than-maximum lead. The reason? Fewer pickoff throws that wear you out diving back to the bag.
* Henderson always takes a one-way lead in which his whole being is focused on the next base, rather than returning whence he came. If he spots the pitcher's pickoff in time, then, well and good, his lead is short enough to let him get back. If the pitcher throws to the plate, Henderson will get a tremendous jump because he has no doubts or inhibitions; he's been in an ultra-aggressive one-way lead all along. He's commited to sprinting, not deciding.
* And, finally, if he gets picked off, he doesn't care. Henderson believes that he can steal on the pitch and first baseman just as easily as he can steal on the pitcher and catcher. Besides, first basemen are more easily unnerved than catchers. Henderson's record-tieing 118th steal came in just this way -- on what traditionally would have been called a pick-off play.
* Lastly, Henderson always slides headfirst. The reason is simple, although no important base stealer thought of it for a century: you get there faster.
Obviously, this is the better method. Why? Because every athlete, from the sprinter breaking the tape to the golfer driving a ball to the karate master smashing boards, is told to run or swing or strike through the target, rather than at it. So, how come nobody ever slid through a base instead of merely sliding into it?
Probably because somebody in the 19th Century said you shouldn't.