Jason Gay, a very funny guy who writes sports for the Wall Street Journal, recently published a very thought-provoking interview with Hall of Fame great Rod Carew. Yes, the Journal has a sports page, and it’s a good one too. While Carew, during his time with Minnesota and California, was often a Royals nemesis, he’s still one of the all-time great hitters and has not been shy about sharing his views about the game today.
Before we get to Carew’s comments, and their aftermath, Gay also wrote a hilarious piece on what he looks for in a golf course, which really spoke to me. I know this is a baseball site, but with the Royals season as far off course as one of my errant drives, why not talk a little golf?
Says Gay, “Have you ever driven past a golf course and asked yourself: Hey, is that a golf course or is that a place you can toss a broken dishwasher? If you have, let me know where it is. I want to play there.”
Over the years I played golf regularly with four other guys. I know, a quintet is not ideal on the course. We’d usually take two carts, with one player riding fireman style. Standing on the first tee I have a lot of Dayton Moore in me. Looking at the scorecard, par is 32? No problem. I confidently proclaim to my golfing buddies that with my talent and what I have in the bag, I can spank this course with a 38.
55 shots later, I repair to the clubhouse and offer all types of excuses on why I didn’t hit a 38, when the reality is: I’m just a terrible golfer. Confidence and competence are two very different things, and one isn’t any good without the other.
One thing we had in common with Gay is that we also eschewed the fancy courses to play a local track we nicknamed “The Rock”. The Rock had ten holes. Yes, ten. Some of them even had some grass on the fairway. 1A was a warmup hole, followed by the official first hole. The course had two 500+ yard par 5’s, both with extreme doglegs. It was quirky in its layout and as rough as a cigarette-smoking truck stop waitress and we loved it. I hit most of the best shots of my life at the Rock.
One evening, after blasting a once-in-a-lifetime drive, I found myself in prime position to eagle the par-five #6. I’m a horrible chipper, but my second shot, a 90-foot pitch looked true. It arced high and beautiful and might have found the hole had it not bounced off the very top of the flag stick. The ball caromed wildly and after a ten-minute search, I found it snuggled up against the equipment shed, leaving me with a third shot that only Tiger or Phil could execute. Oh well, that’s golf. The fairway of hole #9 bordered the back parking lot of a factory. I played many a wayward drive off the gravel of the lot, threading my second shot between the forklifts, abandoned cars, and wooden pallets. We never wore collared shirts, or slacks and often hit extra balls when the mood struck, which was often. It was our type of course. Unfortunately, the owner died, the new owners ran out of cash and now the course sits fallow. I shed a tear every time I drive by.
Older fans on this site will remember Rod Carew. For those of you who never saw him play, here are the cliff notes: One of the greatest hitters of all time. 3,053 hits over a 19-year career. 18 All-Star game appearances. Won seven batting titles and led the league in OBP four times. Hit over .300 for 15 seasons with a high of .388 in 1977. Career slash of .328/.393/.429. The guy was a wizard with the bat.
Gay’s interview of Carew was an interesting read, with Carew taking aim at the way hitters approach the game and disagreeing with how Rob Manfred is directing the game. The normally mild-mannered Carew and other Hall of Famers confronted the commissioner this summer at the annual Hall of Fame dinner, an event that is typically more light-hearted. Besides Gay, there were several other baseball writers who dished about the festivities, including Mark Powell, Ken Rosenthal, and Ian Miller. Carew said that he initiated the conversation and was one of the louder voices in the room. Several players said that Manfred “looked as if he wished there was a trap door that he could’ve escaped through.”
“He tried to sweet talk us. We laid into him,” said Carew. The bulk of the discussion centered around several things: how analytics are affecting the game, the emphasis on launch angle, the use of defensive shifts, and rule changes such as the three-batter minimum and the ghost runner to start extra innings. Since the Hall of Fame dinner, some of these gripes have been addressed. Beginning with the 2023 season, Major League Baseball will institute a pitch clock and restrict defensive shifts, along with the minor change of enlarging the bases.
Carew, now a special assistant with the Twins, said to Gay, “They’re trying to get everyone to hit the ball out of the ballpark, whether they can do it or not. Luis Arraez of the Twins started off good, hitting the ball all over the place. then he hit a couple of home runs and started swinging up. I asked him, “what are you doing? Hitting six or seven home runs is not going to be of any value to you. Getting hits, getting on base and scoring runs, that’s where your game is”. He’s a great kid and he listens. The next game, he started hitting line drives again. (As of this writing, Arraez currently has the fifth=highest batting average in all of baseball and is second in the American League).
This reminds me of when the Royals first promoted their core of young players up in 2012. They brought in George Brett to talk hitting with them. Several of them turned down the request. Can you imagine? I’m 62 years old and haven’t hit a live ball in a decade, but if George Brett or Rod Carew showed up at my door wanting to give me some hitting tips, I’d have a bat in be in the backyard before they could finish the sentence.
In the Rosenthal piece, Carew said he used to watch six to eight games a day. Now he only watches the Twins. In the Gay interview, Carew said, “I was watching the College World Series and I noticed everybody was trying to pull the ball and get under it. I just sat there saying to myself, don’t these guys understand? They don’t know how to hit. I would rather see kids learn how to track the ball. The baseball tells you what to do with it. I’m not going to swing at a pitch that’s high. The inside pitch told me to get my hands out and through the ball and try and pull it. The outside pitch dictated to me that I could keep that ball up the middle or go to left field. Nolan Ryan used to strike me out repeatedly. I taught myself to lower my stance when facing him. I did this by taking batting practice on a swiveling stool. The next time I faced him, he’s yelling at me to stand up. I wasn’t going to let him force me to do what he wants.”
One participant in the dinner, former Carew teammate Jim Kaat, went on to say that the dinner took on a “get off my lawn” vibe and that some of the players do not understand analytics and Manfred’s limited ability to effect change. It’s also important to remember that Manfred works for the owners, and like his peer Roger Goodell, his job is to make the owners money.
I love the new pitch clock but am not that crazy about the new rule eliminating the shift. Carew has long been a proponent of using the entire field and for those hitters who can manage, this negates the shift. Gay pointed out some very valid arguments, specifically the depth of today’s bullpens and the plethora of hard-throwing relievers. Plus, the fact that, well, not everyone is Rod Carew.
Says Carew, “ You have to work at it! You can’t keep striking out all the time. That’s no fun. There are too many guys in the big leagues today that shouldn’t be in the big leagues. Most guys don’t have any idea how to get the runner over to third, because you can score from third in so many different ways. I can remember the first game I played against the Orioles. My teammate Bob Allison told me that I couldn’t bunt against Brooks Robinson. Well, I did. Thee he says, “You can’t do it again.” I said, “I can do it whenever I want to” because it was something that I really worked on.”
Carew concluded with this, “They’re not allowing these kids to use the sixth tool, which is their brain. Think instead of trying to do everything somebody else says they should. Baseball has never been that way before.”
I would agree with Carew that players should try to use the entire field. I also understand Gay’s point that when you face three or four pitchers throwing 90 mph plus with wicked sliders, well, sometimes just making contact is a win. A couple of weeks ago, Dodgers left handed slugger Max Muncy faced an extreme shift in a game against the Giants, and laid down a perfect bunt, which rolled into short left field. Muncy got an easy single and had he been more fleet of foot, probably could have had a double. Muncy is one of a very few hitters today who will use the bunt to beat a shift. Mike Moustakas would occasionally use the bunt during his time with the Royals. Of course, I’m beating a dead horse, with the shift now heading to the trash bin.
After the Carew interview aired, things started getting interesting. Jim Kaat said, “what happens in Cooperstown, stays in Cooperstown.” But it didn’t end up that way. A few days later, recent inductee David Ortiz went on the Gresh & Keefe radio show during part of the Jimmy Fund telethon. The Jimmy Fund, which is a Boston-based community fundraiser that benefits the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is still a big thing in Boston. Big Papi picked up where Carew left off: “I have major issues with the way they’re teaching these kids to play the game nowadays. Nobody taught me how to hit homers. Homers were the last thing you were thinking about when it comes down to hitting. You want to make sure you stay with the ball, you want to track the ball, you want to make sure you have an idea of what the pitcher is going to try and do against you. But it seems like more hitters, all they think about is hitting home runs. That’s why you see so many guys hitting for bad averages. I think baseball needs to go back to the basics.”
For Ortiz, many of his 541 career home runs came after he matured and got his man muscle. Love him or hate him, he has a good point. His career slash backs up the talk: .286/.380/.552.
Ortiz went on to say he often struggles to make it through watching an entire game. ”I sit to watch baseball, and it gets boring, because what you see over and over is guy striking out, guy striking out, guy striking out. It gets to the point where it makes no sense.”
There’s been no shortage of discussion recently, on these pages and others, about what ails the game. Some of the new ideas might have some traction. Have I mentioned before that I love the pitch clock? Having seen it work at the minor league level, I’m sold. It helps with the tempo of the game, which is a much different thing than the length of the game.
I’d also like to see robo umps to make the ball-strike calls or a limited number of ball-strike challenges. Watching the Cardinals and Reds play recently, I was once again astounded at how many ball/strikes calls the home plate ump appeared to have gotten wrong. I use the word appeared because I’m not sure how accurate the imposed box we see on the screen is. Does the TV box account for a ball that enters the strike zone, then drops below or out of the side of the zone? It’s not quite as clean as the Hawk-eye system used in tennis. In tennis, a ball is either in or out. Not much grey area. In baseball, picture the strike zone as a rectangular box and for each batter, depending on their height, the box is a different size. Aaron Judge’s strike zone is much larger than say Fred Patek’s strike zone. Technically, any pitched ball that cuts through any part of that imaginary box, should be called a strike. If such a system were implemented, we’d have to be careful about the unintended consequences. Would this give pitchers yet another advantage over hitters? Most baseball talking heads unanimously agree that there are already too many strikeouts in today’s game. That Reds-Cardinals game I watched? The Cardinals struck out an astounding 17 times yet somehow managed to win the game, 1-0, in 11 innings.
What will it take to get batters back to making more contact? Striking out used to be a mark of shame, but no longer. In the NBA, teams realized that a three-point shot was more valuable than a two-point shot, so they now take a lot of them. As a fan, do you really enjoy seeing someone like James Harden throw up 25 three-pointers and make maybe eight of them? No thanks. I’ll find something else to do.
Baseball is facing a similar conundrum. They think the home run is more important than a single. And that’s what we’re seeing, a lot of big swings, and misses, punctuated by the occasional big fly. The Royals successfully bucked this trend in 2014 and 2015 by “keeping the line moving.” And you know what? It was great to watch. That was some fun baseball. Even when they were down by two or three runs late in the game, I always knew that they had the ability to string together four or five hits and a couple of walks and pull the game out of the fire. Unfortunately, that type of contact-oriented baseball never took hold.
I’m not a big fan of the ghost runner and would love to see that eliminated. I enjoy the tension of extra innings, where every pitch, every struck ball, and every runner can change, and end, the game. I have no problem with the larger bases. I would eliminate the cheap outs given when a base stealer inadvertently pops off the bag for a split second. And I’m okay with the shift. You want to beat the shift? Learn to hit the other way. It’s interesting that two great hitters of different generations, have a similar take on today’s game: too many strikeouts, too few balls in place, too much emphasis on the home run.
I think the talk of baseball’s death is premature. There’s still nothing like going to the ballpark, soaking in the sounds and the feeling you get when you walk through the tunnel and see grass so green that it almost hurts your eyes. You find your seat, relax a little, have a dog and a beer and forget about everything except the game in front of you. That’s what baseball needs to be selling.