Boston Strongman

In this week’s Sports Illustrated—on newsstands Wednesday—  senior writer Tom Verducci writes about how 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz, one of the greatest postseason sluggers ever, used leadership and resilience to carry the Red Sox and the city of Boston to their third Series title in eight years. Ortiz, who had a .688 BA with 11 hits and two home runs in the six- game Series against the Cardinals, shares this week’s cover with Boston police officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire and detective Kevin McGill –all three appeared on SI’s April 22, 2013 cover as the issue reported on the Marathon bombings.

Writes Verducci, “If any one person were to lead the Red Sox and—given the team’s cultural importance in New England—by extension Bostonians through a terrible time, it was a man with an outsized capacity for resilience. The grind of a 162-game season played in a 182-day window, followed by the wilds of postseason play, would test even Lewis and Clark. But among baseball’s 109 world champions there has never been a story of resilience quite like this one. No team—not the 1969 Mets, not the ’91 Twins—has won the World Series in the year after being as bad as the Red Sox were in 2012 (.426 winning percentage). And only six months before the Series—just a half mile east on the same street where Ortiz was applauded—two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, wounding 264 others and terrorizing hundreds of thousands. Four days later the citizenry was ordered to “shelter in place” during a daylong citywide lockdown, while a manhunt for the bombers proceeded. The pleasant routines of life, including baseball, were put on hold.” (Page 32)

Things were not always easy for Ortiz in Boston. Since arriving in Boston in ‘03 Big Papi has battled through injuries, steroid allegations, batting slumps and criticism from an ex-manager who claimed Ortiz quit on the team. Still, Big Papi remained ebullient and ready to lead by example.

Writes Verducci, Ortiz is the team’s leader in every imaginable way, a man of imposing size (6′4″, 250 pounds) yet easy accessibility. He delivers the right words and mood for a club as reliably as he does big hits. He is a baseball -philosopher—thoughtful, colorful, -profane—and his well-scarred career and outsized personality serve him well in big situations that can rattle others. “You can be the real deal today and s— tomorrow,” he says. “That’s how the game goes. On the day you feel your best, you can go 0 for 5. You go home and say, ‘I feel like Superman, and I went 0 for 5.’ That tells you how tough this game is: On your best day you had a bad day.” (Page 32)


Gone Crazy

This fall, the 2013 World Series has been the greatest show on Earth. In this week’s sports illustrated–on newsstands now–senior writer Tom Verducci explains how the Cardinals and the Red Sox both brought the weird in the 109th fall classic—from whacky beards to foul-ups, bleeps and blunders—in a series full of tense games and never-seen-before endings. But look past the drama and the two evenly matched teams, and you see a sport in need of change. Think the DH was funky? Make way for the bonus at bat.

Writes Verducci, “The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—-intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they’re preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013.” (Page 34)

Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in the majors this season. Only twice during the Wild Card Era — in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves — has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. However, the paths each team took to this year’s Fall Classic were drastically different. While the Boston’s pitching staff was middle-of-the pack all year, the Cardinals’ rode to glory on the arms of their flamethrowers, especially during the postseason.

Writes Verducci, “The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today’s game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis’s innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.” (Page 34)

In contrast, the Red Sox relied on patience at the platelong pitch counts and late rallies (plus a late season surge from DH David Ortiz)to get wins. “The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent counter-tacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for “grinding out at bats” to “run up pitch counts,” the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers’ Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey’s Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to “grinders” when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.” (Page 34)

Stylistically, the Red Sox–Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. As an alternative, Verducci suggests that baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting time. Call it, The Bonus At Bat.


Words With…Pedro Martinez

Pedro MartinezIn his new TV role as a commentator for TBS during baseball’s playoffs, Pedro Martinez has shown that he still can colorfully change speeds and bring piercing heat. The future baseball hall of famer sat down with senior writer Tom Verducci for a Q&A in this week’s SI to discuss why he tried TV, his transition away from the game, the return of the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series, beanballs and assorted other topics, including Derek Jeter’s impromptu, face-to-face pitch to become a Yankee.

On television: “I had too much time not doing anything at home,” Martinez says. “It was uncomfortable sitting at home and my wife questioning me, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s also a good opportunity to explore something different, because I really want to expand on what I learned in baseball. Some of the guys, like Kevin Millar, Barry Larkin, Manny Acta, they all know the knowledge in my head about the game and they all thought that as loose as I am, I would be a person that could do this.” (PAGE 47)

On missing the game: “I would get really cranky because I wasn’t going to seven hours to a gym and then to play a game,” Martinez says. “I was just a lazy cat at home.” (PAGE 47)

On moving guys off the plate: “You commit to that pitch,” Martinez says.  “You go into that pitch saying, I am making a statement here. If you don’t move back, you’re getting hit.” (PAGE 48)

Martinez tested the free agent market after the 2004 season. The Yankees had him in for a meeting before he signed with the Mets. While talking with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Martinez says, “Jeter walks by. He peeks in and sees me and says, ‘What are you doing here? Oh, Boss, please sign him.’” (PAGE 52)

On who the last person he wants to see in the batter’s box late in a close game: “Jeter,” Martinez says.

Why Jeter? “He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t get excited. He’s cold, like an icebox. You make a good pitch, and it seems like he bloops it all the time. You make a great pitch, and somehow he finds some area on the bat. I don’t know if he’s not strong enough to break the bat or the ball does not hit an area to break it. . . . And if you make a mistake, he will take you deep. It’s impossible to make him change his approach or his demeanor. The program that he has to approach you doesn’t change. He knew I would come after him. And I don’t think Jeter ever thought I would hit him in the head or put him in jeopardy. The most I could do was hit him in the ribs or something like that—and only in retaliation because I have a huge amount of respect for Jeter.” (PAGE 52)


Clutch Much?

Clutch HittingWhile postseason baseball won’t settle the debate of whether the clutch gene exists, SI’s Albert Chen says in this week’s issue that there’s no denying that October has brought out some familiar heroes. Chen writes that “few things in sports are more alluring than the idea of a clutch gene—the notion that some athletes are wired differently, with an innate ability to perform their best when the pressure is the greatest.” (PAGE 32)

This October has already produced a highlight reel of clutch moments, from the Marlon Byrd home run in the NL wild-card game, to David Ortiz’s two homers in the Red Sox’ ALDS Game 2 win, to Stephen Vogt’s walk-off single for the A’s in Game 2 of their ALDS against the Tigers, to the stellar outings by rookie pitchers (the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole and the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha).

In the playoffs David Ortiz has a .538 OBP and 1.282 OPS in 52 career late-and-close plate appearances. And Carlos Beltran’s two home runs in the NLDS have brought his career postseason total to 16. Miguel Cabrera hit .348 with a 1.078 OPS this season, but those numbers jumped to .397 and 1.311 with runners in scoring position. “Miguel is a great hitter all the time, no matter the situation,” says Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski. “But with men in scoring position you just see the intensity. Can you measure this? Maybe not.  But if you watch him on a daily basis, you see it.” (PAGE 33)

Sabermetricians largely view clutch hitters as a myth. “Clutch hits exist, clutch hitters do not,” James Click, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and now the head of the Rays’ analytics department, wrote in 2005. “There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that some hitters consistently perform better in situations defined as ‘clutch’ as compared to normal situations. Good hitters are good clutch hitters; bad hitters are bad clutch hitters.” However, in a 2006 study Nate Silver said “clutch hitting ability exists more than previous research would indicate.” (PAGE 33)

Bill James, the godfather of baseball statistics, has even questioned the arguments against clutch hitting. James recently wrote that the discussion in the sabermetric community “has been fouled up for a long time,” and that he no longer had faith in the data that had backed up the arguments against clutch hitting. (PAGE 34) Chen clarifies that this was James saying that clutch hitting could exist.

Chen finds that “much of what think of as clutch hitting could be considered smart situational hitting.” The 2013 Cardinals hit .330 in 1,621 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, good for the highest in baseball history.  The team worked on improving their approach at the plate in spring training. “Their approach is impressive,” says Dombrowski. “You’d see them all the time getting the big hit, and where do they get most of their hits? The opposite field.” (PAGE 34)

The debate won’t end this October, but Chen says “little about baseball at this time of year is fair. A hit, you’re a hero. An out, and you’re the goat. That’s the beauty and the cruelty of October.” (PAGE 34)


Steve Rushin Book Excerpt: The 34-Ton Bat

Rushin BookIn this week’s SI, Steve Rushin tells the story of Foulproof Taylor, the unsung genius behind on-field armor. The story is excerpted from Rushin’s new book, The 34-Ton Bat (Copyright © 2013 by Steve Rushin. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, N.Y.).

On the night of Nov. 16, 1926, James Phillip Leo Taylor was a second tenor in the Metropolitan Opera chorus, when, at the end of the first act of the American debut of Puccini’s Turandot, he was kneed in the groin by accident. The next day Taylor fashioned a protective aluminum cup, which he wore to that night’s performance. “Taylor’s groin, ensconced in this new contraption, proved unassailable,” writes Rushin. “He had no way of knowing, in that moment, that he’d “invented” something that already existed. His cup, he was certain, was about to runneth over.” (PAGE 53)

In 1874, a cyclist and inventor names Charles F. Bennett invented the “bike web” to give comfort and support to male “bicycle jockeys,” for whom the undergarment became known as a “jockey strap.” By 1915, Pittsburgh Rebels catcher Claude Berry was wearing a piece of molded steel in his pants for protection.

Two years after he wore the protective cup, Taylor started to wear it to boxing matches. He asked boxers, promoters and writers to kick him as hard as they could in the testicles. He called the device his Foulproof cup, and he became known as Foulproof Taylor in boxing circles. After a heavyweight championship fight at Yankee Stadium in 1930 saw Max Schmeling take a below the belt hit from Jack Sharkey, New York State Athletic Commission chairman James Farley made cups mandatory but steered boxers to the cast-iron cup of Jacob Golomb, Foulproof’s archnemesis. Golumb’s boxing trunks made with an elasticized waistband appeared on nearly every boxer. His brand name: EVERLAST.

Still, Foulproof was able to sell some boxers on his cup. He would sue EVERLAST unsuccessfully for patent infringement. “I’m the guy who did the whole thing but I don’t seem to get any credit for it,” Taylor wrote in his self-published autobiography. “They kick me around, and it’s a good thing I wear my own invention.” (PAGE 55)

Foulproof set out to create other protective devices. Rushin writes, “Foulproof Taylor set out to save baseball with his greatest invention yet: the Beanproof Cap.” (PAGE 55) Taylor had strangers bang him over the head with a bat to test his helmet. But like in boxing, baseball needed a big moment to prove the need for this gear and it happened when Tigers catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane was struck in the head by a pitch. It fractured his skull and he would never play again. Teams began soliciting submissions for a protective cap, and many other inventors came calling with their products. Players were turned off by wearing a big helmet so some turned to a plastic insert that fit inside regular caps.

Foulproof’s helmet and other inventions, including a protective bra for female wrestlers, never made him a fortune. Rushin writes, “In the end, Foulproof Taylor’s greatest invention was Foulproof Taylor.” (PAGE 56)


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