There were Major League Baseball games playing on five devices — an iPhone, iPad, television, laptop and PC — and an audience waiting on Twitter as Rob Friedman, a pitching coach outside Atlanta, confronted MLB’s era-defining crisis.
“I think there’s this whole community out there where people just want to help the game get better and share information, and then there’s other entities that want to shut that down,” said the man known as “Pitching Ninja.” “Is it going to be run by suits or run by the people?”
Twitter suspended Friedman’s account, which has about 57,000 followers, on April 16 because he tweeted videos of especially nasty pitches and offered tips on technique, pitch sequencing and mechanics. He also offered hot takes on the filthiest pitches of the day, replete with green-faced emoji about to spit up their lunches over Noah Syndergaard’s “Black Magic Sinker,” or Gerrit Cole’s knuckle-curve.
Did Friedman legally have permission to post those clips? The answer is murky.
Did his followers want him back? Absolutely.
“He is helping young players expand game/introducing the game to thousands of new ppl,” tweeted Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.
Other Twitter users banded together to demand MLB allow Twitter to restore Friedman’s account, one he has run for four years without issue. He stores the clips in a public Dropbox folder so others can add contributions or use the clips on their own.
Friedman coached his son’s youth baseball team and later became his high school’s pitching coach. He offers private pitching lessons for free, he said. He has a past career in law and works in corporate technology now. His online identity and community baseball involvement is just something to get him out of the house, he said.
He recognized early in his son’s playing days that youth baseball leagues often focus on the teaching of a single revered adult male who has either had success as a player or as a youth coach. But that kind of setup is better at teaching dogma than baseball. Friedman wanted to be the kind of coach who taught young players the best techniques and new techniques even as the game changed.
“One of the things that I realized early on with all the information that’s out there is there’s not an excuse not to be good, not to be a good coach and a good player,” he said. “I didn’t want to be one of those coaches who teaches what I was taught. I wanted to teach what great players and coaches are doing.”
So he turned his passion for watching baseball into a compulsion. He tweeted out a few videos of well-executed pitches so the players he coached could see them, but soon the rest of baseball Twitter gobbled them up, too.
It started with baseball wonks, Friedman said, the kind of fans constantly on the lookout for the most specific of baseball content. Then it drew coaches, and then fans, and now major league pitchers who use Friedman as a resource for throwing better strikes.
McCullers and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, along with other top pitchers, will send Friedman messages on Twitter asking about certain pitches or pointing out clips he might have missed from games the night before.
Pitching Ninja democratizes the game, in a way, Friedman said. It’s a way for fans to consume baseball, a game of a million facets, at their own pace and introduce less-fervent fans to the game inside the game: the complex strategy of pitch-calling and the art of making the ball dance across the plate.
His account, and other popular accounts that distribute baseball content — Friedman says some of his contemporaries are Craig Hyatt, who breaks down swing mechanics, Matt Daniels, another pitching analyst, and Cespedes Family BBQ, once an independent fan blog and now part of baseball’s “Cut4″ baseball culture hub — are part of what make baseball special among professional sports.
All that decentralized baseball Internet material is a way for fans to “own” parts of the game and introduce it to folks who might enjoy baseball but not sitting through an entire game broadcast.
“It’s grass roots,” said Jake Mintz, one of the co-founders of Cespedes Family BBQ. “… A lot of what we do and what Rob does is we are a vehicle for baseball fun-ness. My job is not to create out of thin air. It’s that there are things that happen in baseball every day that I find amazing. My job and Rob’s passion is to find those things and translate them and show them to people.”
Twitter restored Friedman’s account on April 19, when he greeted the Internet with fried chicken and gin. He spoke with MLB representatives during the suspension to resolve their dispute, and his bio now boasts the title, “Certified @MLB Pitching Ninja.”
He is now one of the “suits,” he lamented in the days during his suspension, or at least aligned with them. But he has seen across the divide that separates fans from the game’s inner administration. It’s not too wide.
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