Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The Cubs’ best hitter last season wasn’t Derrek Lee or Alfonso Soriano, who were paid to hit. It was Carlos Zambrano, who was paid to pitch. Z’s .337 batting average (in 83 official times up) led the team, as did his .554 slugging percentage. Still, every game he started his manager, Lou Piniella, put him ninth and last in the order, the worst batter’s place. Why? Because Zambrano is a pitcher and pitchers always bat last.

The conclusion is inescapable: much of what passes for wisdom in baseball really is just calcified habit. If John McGraw always batted his pitchers ninth, so did Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson, Bobby Cox, Piniella and just about every other great managerial mind. Even though Tony La Russa sometimes breaks the mold, the point still holds.

The same can be said for beliefs about the game’s mechanics. Do curve balls “break”? Can an overhand fast ball rise on its way to the plate? Does a ball hit with topspin pick up speed when it skips off an artificial playing surface? Are home runs necessarily hit harder than singles or doubles? Will a “corked” bat propel a ball farther than an uncorked one? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’ve chosen to believe folklore over science.

I have that on the very good authority of the science in a couple of books, “The Physics of Baseball,” by Robert K. Adair, a professor of physics at Yale University, and “Newton at the Bat,” edited by the science writers Eric W. Schrier and William F. Allman. They went into the laboratory to test some baseball saws. Their findings include the following:

--Curve balls don’t “break,” if that means changing direction abruptly during flight. They do curve, but in a smooth arc, in the direction of their diagonal spin. If there were no gravity the typical curve would transcribe a circle with about a 2,000-foot diameter and wind up back in the pitcher’s hand, but because of gravity the pitch loses velocity and drops as well as curves as it approaches the plate, creating the illusion of “break.”

--Fastballs don’t really rise, or “hop.” Like the curve, the overhand fastball follows a smooth and downward trajectory to the plate, but the backspin imparted by a hard thrower will somewhat offset its predictable loss of speed as it travels, and that can be perceived by a batter as a rise. A ball thrown by a knuckle-dragging “submariner” will rise as it begins its journey, but, typically, will be on a downward path by the time it reaches the hitter.

--Topspin will propel a ground ball faster than one hit without it, but the ball still will lose velocity once it strikes the ground, no matter how slick the surface.

--The force applied to a batted ball is a result of the weight (mass) of the bat, the speed with which it is swung and the speed of the pitch coming in. Those are independent of the trajectory of the swing, which determines the ball’s flight path. Singles hitters like Rod Carew, Wade Boggs or Ichiro Suzuki employ or employed “flat” swings that deviate upward from the horizontal by about 10 degrees through the strike zone. Home-run hitters usually have swings that follow an upward path of about 35 degrees. So while the likes of, say, Adam Dunn, may drive a ball 400-plus feet, that doesn’t mean he hits it any harder than his singles-hitting colleagues. Also, since an uppercut swing intersects a pitched ball’s path for a shorter time than a flatter swing, the uppercutter is likely to strike out more.

--Some players, like our old friend Sammy Sosa, illegally drilled about a six-inch-deep cylinder into their bat’s barrel and filled it with cork or hard-rubber balls, substances with more elasticity than the bat’s wood, and then recapped it to avoid detection. The theory was that the change would impart more “spring” to the bat and drive the ball farther. Trouble is, taint so. Drilling the bat and filling it with a lighter material reduces its weight, enabling the batter to swing it faster, but this is at least offset by the bat’s reduced mass. Further, the ball is in contact with the bat for only about 1/1,000 of a second, making any “spring” effect negligible. Prof. Adair suggests that batters could achieve the same feel by loping about ¾-inch off the ends of their bats or by choking up their grips about an inch from the handles.

Choking up on the bat? Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader, did that, but few other players follow his example. Why is that, do you suppose?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


In my columnizing days I had a round of important sports events I covered annually. It included the World Series, Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four, Kentucky Derby, U.S. Open golf and tennis championships and the Masters Golf Tournament. Now that I’m retired I’m sometimes asked if I miss going to any of them. I give the most-emphatic “yes” to the Masters.

The main reason I loved the event was where it was played—- the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The place is so beautiful they could charge admission even if they weren’t playing golf there. The grass is the greenest, pine needles soften the foot paths and the dogwood, azalea and other flowering plants are in glorious bloom during the tourney’s early-April staging.

In the odd year when the weather doesn’t cooperate, no problem-- the club picks up the phone and orders potted plants by the thousands to be arranged around its course. Those guys are so rich they think nothing of transplanting fully grown trees if they think it might improve the looks of their pampered acres.

Additionally, Augusta National treats the press well. The press center is first rate, the food is okay and everyone connected with the club is cooperative and Southern-gracious. Favored reporters (I was one) were allowed to buy (for $90 at the time) a coveted tournament pass for an accompanying friend. My wife Susie, who always made the trip with me, doesn’t care much for golf but would use it to ogle the fairway flora on opening-day Thursdays, and I’d have golf-loving pals down for the other three days. That created much good will and some nice IOUs.

But—and there’s always a “but” in pieces like these—the fly in the ointment was buzzard-sized. It was the knowledge that, once the tournament was over, I and my fellow scribes would be shooed from the club like so many aluminum-siding salesmen. I could think of several reasons that would bar me from membership, and there probably were others I wasn’t aware of. You have to be on the inside to get the full flavor of things like that.

Other golf tournaments are held at “exclusive” country clubs, but ANGC stands out even in that company. That’s because of the standing of the Masters, the prominence of many of the club’s members and the code of silence that surrounds its policies and practices. Clifford Roberts, the dour banker who founded the club in 1933 with the “Grand Slam” champion Bobby Jones, long exercised dictatorial control over every aspect of its operation, and any member who publicly questioned him could expect to see his locker emptied forthwith. Roberts died more than 30 years ago but his successors as chairman continue to exercise such authority. George Schultz, Melvin Laird and Sam Nunn spoke out forcefully on matters of national import while helping lead our great republic, but they and their fellow members keep their mouths shut when the subject is Augusta National. They shame the Mafia when it comes to observing omerta.

For most of its history ANGC closely followed a 3W (white, WASPy and wealthy) membership policy, and is men-only to boot. A dozen or so years ago, under pressure, it admitted a small handful of blacks, but it pretty much has resisted further change. The National Council of Women’s Organizations (which, its name suggests, doesn’t object to women-only groups), launched a full-frontal assault on it in 2001 and 2002, but was repulsed. ANGC may admit a woman or two some day, but in its own sweet time.

Lots of others are on the outside looking in. A few years ago USA Today published the names of the club’s 292 members along with the ages and corporate affiliations of most. Surnames can be misleading but only two could readily be identified as Jewish and just three others ended in vowels, indicating a paucity of men of Italian or Hispanic origins. Names pointing to Southern Europe, Asia or the Middle East were similarly lacking

The most-discriminated-against group besides women were men under age 40: there was just one of those, and just five under age 50, for heaven’s sake. Golf pro-ams teem with show-biz types, but no one prominent in Hollywood or the theater was on the ANGC roster. A few members listed academic affiliations but it’s safe to assume they were administrators, not profs. No artists, musicians or men of letters (much less journalists) were included. High-tech entrepeneurs also were absent, except for Bill Gates. The dominant profile was that of a 70ish WASP who made his pile lawyering, in an old-economy corporation or in one of those banks that lately have been screwing things up for all of us. It doesn’t sound like scintillating company.

There are two ways to react to this. One is to grab a picket sign and head for the ANGC gates when Masters play begins next Thursday. The other is to join Groucho Marx in declaring that we wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have us as a member. I favor the latter course, if only because you don’t have to leave home to take it.