Free Advice to Big Papi: Stay as You Are, A Reader Response

Joe Sewell

Joe Sewell

Ordinarily I would be content to let a reader’s response to an Our Game post be available via hyperlink at the bottom of the selection. But this response, by David Lawrence Reed, is so interesting that I thought it merited this heightened position. Mr. Reed is a SABR member from San Francisco who has written for the Baseball Research Journal (“Lawrence S. Ritter, the Last New York Giant,” 2004). Class, read and respond.

I recall reading an anecdote many years ago that addressed the issue of what a player should do as opposed to what he can do. Some of the members of New York’s famed Murderers’ Row were watching Joe Sewell take batting practice. The little infielder was spraying line drives to every field, the ball coming off his bat like “popcorn flying off a hot griddle,” according to the writer. One of the Yankees remarked that Sewell’s constant contact was a marvel, a remark to which Babe Ruth responded by saying, “Aw [insert colorful ballplayer language here], I could do that if I wanted to.”

Several of his teammates–who probably should have known better–scoffed and, in similarly colorful language, challenged him to put his money where his mouth was. Ruth is said to have shrugged, and when Sewell was done taking his hacks, the big outfielder grabbed his bat and headed for the cage. Stepping into the batter’s box, the Babe then choked up on his truncheon and yelled out to the pitcher to throw whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted.

Ruth proceeded to smash line drives all over Yankee Stadium, to left, right, and center, with the same consistency as Sewell had, but with more power–balls that had died on the outfield grass several feet beyond the infield for Joe now skittered and rolled deep into both gaps and down both lines for the Bambino.

He continued this exhibition for about five minutes, then returned to the dugout. He said, “I could hit .400 every year if that’s what I wanted to do.” One of his teammates then asked why he didn’t and the Babe replied, “Because that’s not what Colonel Ruppert pays me to do. He pays me to hit home runs.”

Babe Ruth 1921 Pathe Freres Premium

Babe Ruth 1921 Pathe Freres Premium

Ted Williams was in the same situation: he was not being paid by Tom Yawkey either to flare the ball to left or to confound the defense by bunting. He was paid to hit the ball deep as well as consistently. And while some, like Ty Cobb, saw Williams as merely stubborn, those who have read The Science of Hitting and My Turn at Bat know that this most cerebral of hitters, far from sticking to the status quo, worked hard to find a way to drive the ball to the opposite field while maintaining his power.

It wasn’t an easy technique to master and it took some time, but eventually Williams learned how to employ the inside-out swing, one which would enable him to drive the ball to the opposite field with the same oomph he imparted to the balls he hit to right. This would pay great dividends at the plate, especially during the 1957 season when Ted fell five hits shy of batting .400, and in 1958 when he won his sixth and final batting title.

As for current Red Sox players foiling the shift, I think the occasional bunt would be a splendid idea for someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia–no one is going to complain much if a .273 hitter plumps up his average and gets on base by dropping one down. It might even spread the defense a little bit (especially given Miguel Cabrera’s current defensive constraints due to injury).

But with regard to Big Papi, one of the smartest hitters I’ve ever seen in half a century watching the Red Sox, this Boston fan is content to let him work things out for himself. With all due respect to Mr. Holway, one of baseball’s finest historians, and with due consideration for the rare game situation wherein a bunt might be as good as a blast, singles and doubles the opposite way are not what Mr. Henry pays David Ortiz to do.

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