Jazz, Baseball, Politics and the Beltway Blues: Our American Dialogue, Part II
For those fortunate enough to see and hear it, this was a unique opportunity to witness sports journalism of the highest order, done live and in the moment. Not only were these two worthy of the tradition first established long ago by great announcers like Red Barber or Mel Allen, they made it clear that there is a new breed of MLB player-turned-baseball analyst, and they are likely the best of the lot. Intelligent and well-spoken, each composed his thoughts in a way that was instructive to the viewer. Both were effortlessly well-mannered, never uttering a cheap shot, and were willing to be silent if nothing needed to be said.
Ripken would make discerning comments that applied so directly to the current game situation that they elicited immediate inside-baseball discussions with Smoltz, on a level practically unheard of in radio or television broadcasting. They often provoked each other with their remarks; whether it was purposely or inadvertently didn't seem to matter a bit.
Neither was bashful about responding or defending his own statements. During a discussion of fielding position on different pitches, the ex-shortstop/third baseman said that throughout his career, he'd make sure he "always knew what the next pitch would be." Smoltz was incredulous. "You always knew what the pitch would be?" he asked Ripken, unconvinced. "Yes, always," Ripken replied. "If I didn't know what it was going to be, I'd find out." It is unlikely that many other shortstops could make the same statement.
Despite his initial disbelief, Smoltz did not counter with anything. He was digesting the comment. More than that, Smoltz's silence didn't inspire Ripken to press the point or otherwise continue. It was apparent to attentive viewers that despite having played with Chipper Jones and Rafael Furcal behind him, the great Atlanta Braves pitcher appeared to have never known an infielder like Ripken, one whose head was so entirely "in the game." Indeed, there have been very few. He was woodshedding his baseball analytics on the air with one of the finest shortstops in history.
Almost as often, it was Smoltz's turn to take Ripkenand usto school. At some point during the running 5-game commentary on Alex Rodriguez's hitting woes, he availed himself of this unusual on-air baseball clinic that had developed, and broke down the specifics of what he thought was happening with ARod. Any idea that a pitcher at this level of the game hasn't studied every habit or tendency in the hitter he is facing, every grain of minutiae, was demolished. Despite having played in a different league most of his career, Smoltz knew Rodriguez's tendencies in detail and proceeded to analyze the Yankee slugger's mental and mechanical problems. Then he dove into a discussion of how a good pitcher would/should pitch to those weaknesses when the hitter is slumping and caving in emotionally as badly as the highest-paid ($30M annually) player in baseball was. To which Ripken added a few appropriate comments, of course, but mostly he listened.
As the seriousness of Rodriguez's disintegration became apparent, Smoltz expanded on a discussion he had introduced earlier of "pitching plane"a technical term used inside baseball, but until recent times, used more by flying instructors or golf pros than baseball announcersand how it was being used with the hitter. When manager Joe Girardi eventually did take the extreme step of benching his star in the last game of the series, Smoltz's coolly clinical observations had almost made it seem inevitable.
Except for one thing. He, and especially Ripken, disagreed with Girardi's move, immediately and vocally. True, ARod hadn't been hitting, but neither had Robinson Cano or Nick Swisher. In a must-win game with the series tied at two games apiece, and with the very real possibility of a single run deciding their fate, the Yankee skipper's decision seemed a poor choice to the two analysts. Correctly, neither made mention of the New York press/blogosphere chatter about Rodriguez's dugout tantrum or alleged flirting with girls in the stands in the middle of a game. The salient point was that Girardi needing hitting of the baseball variety, and wasn't getting any from his third baseman.
The discussion that ensued was the sort that, had Girardi been available for an interview, would have begun, "With all due respect, Joe..." As the conversation wound down it came to one final question. John Smoltz and Ernie Johnson were raptly attentive to what Ripken had to say when it was asked: What exactly can a manager do with a key player who is slumping, especially in a critical game, especially in a playoff game? Since a baseball manager in Joe Girardi's position would certainly have long since dismissed using any silly sports psychology claptrap, his options would be limited to either taking the player out of the lineup, or leaving him in and letting him sort it out ... right?