Jazz, Baseball, Politics and the Beltway Blues: Our American Dialogue, Part II
Baseball's prototypical power-hitting shortstop, the pioneer big man who had borne the pressure of getting a key hit in order to rescue his Orioles on so many occasions, answered with something short and direct. "Pitchers pitch differently to a hitter like that in those situations," he said. That is, with a much greater deliberation and finesse than usual, which is considerable. "As a hitter, you have to put it in perspective, and hope the other hitters can do it. That's why it's usually someone you don't expect who gets the key hit in one of these series." To wit, David Eckstein in the 2006 World Series, Edgar Renteria in the 2010 (and 1997) World Series. In this particular Baltimore-New York series, Raul Ibanez. Or Ichiro Suzuki.
Smoltz, a pitcher who had sweated and analyzed, strategized and re-strategized before throwing many a clever pitch past many a dangerous hitter in a clutch situation, was silent, as was Johnson, while they and anyone watching the game mentally scanned their memory banks and recognized those countless critical moments when a pennant or World Series had seemed to rest on the shoulders of a big star playerwho was then pitched to so effectively that he hadn't been able to get the key hit. It was demonstrably true. So many of those dramatic games had been won in the exact manner Ripken had just described. There was nothing more that needed to be said.
You Say Po-TAY-toh, I Say Po-TAH-toh
It was obvious throughout their conversations that Smoltz's frame of reference on the game had been fundamentally formed by way of a pitcher's orientation. As you would expect. His opinions would occasionally collide forcefully with Ripken's, which were, of course, based largely on a hitter's viewpoint.
Their discussions often escalated into debate, but never seemed prolonged by either one of them having the urge to win an argument. So in addition to being confident enough in their ideas that they felt no need to nag, or dig in their heels, they showed genuine respect for each other.
No matter how strongly one disagreed with the other, they would each state a viewpoint and be done with it. Often, silence followed when no more discussion was merited. Nearly as often, however, silence ensued when the other held a different view of the matter. The most curious thing about this on-air team was that despite both having very healthy levels of self-respect, there was a noticeable absence of that curious brand of television egotism that demands getting in a word edgewisethe kind of disguised insecurity that needs to constantly drop reminders of one's value to the audience, and especially to the network employers. Instead, each departed the standard model and repeatedly sought out his counterpart's insights in an effort to learn something, personally and on behalf of the viewer.
Their civility with each other often gave the impression that they agreed on a particular point when they did not. In fact, upon close observation it was clear they disagreed as often as they agreedwhich in my mind was what made the dynamic between the two so valuable to watch and listen in on. This archetypal Hitter and Pitcher likely view each other as friends, but they disagreedand likely will continue to disagreeprecisely because their orientations are so fundamentally opposed. The relationship between a hitter and pitcher is in every way an adversarial one. But a comment from one that seemed likely to elicit a retort would often go unremarked. No visible ill feelings at all. It was astonishing!
When they disagreed they did so without hesitation, but somehow kept things going without rancor. A little momentary discord, maybe, but no hostility.
Well, not much.
Ichiro and Improvisation
Ichiro Suzuki's career-long adherence to the strategy advised by Hall of Famer Willie Keeler (.341 lifetime BA, 2,932 career hits)to "keep your eye clear and hit 'em where they ain't"has resulted in his breaking several of baseball's oldest hitting records.
With the Yankees it also resulted in his leading the team with eleven post-season hits. His maddening ability to capitalize on errors and fielder's choices, plus his lightning quickness out of the batter's box and daredevil base running skills, have driven many a pitcher around the bend. In one such instance early in the series, he slapped a squibber into the infield and took off for first base like he meant to leg it out. And did. And, in the process, advanced the base runner. Smoltz's instinctive pitcher's prejudices overtook him suddenly, and his disgust spilled out. As the Bronx crowd cheered wildly, Smoltz growled disdainfully, "That's just lucky hitting. I wouldn't call that great hitting."
"I would," Ripken responded. And then he clammed up, not uttering another word. Didn't so much as clear his throat. The chilly autumn air got chillier.