If you think you know baseball, it’s a sure sign you don’t

You can't learn anything if you already know everything...

Back around 1990 my wife decided to give me a trip the Kansas City Royals fantasy camp for Christmas – I was horrified.

I liked watching baseball; my memories of playing baseball were not good ones.

As a kid I didn’t know I needed glasses and not being able to see white baseballs headed in my direction turned out to be a serious drawback. So I quit baseball and started playing football because the ball was big and brown visible and while I wasn’t great at throwing, catching or running with a football, it turned out I had a knack for hitting people. 

But enough about my emotional problems.

I didn’t want to go to Royals fantasy camp, but then found out my wife would lose a hefty deposit if I didn’t man up, so I decided maybe I should brush up on my non-existent baseball skills.

I went to some batting cages and there I met Chris Egelston. Chris made it to Double A with the Baltimore Orioles and after analyzing my swing, suggested lessons…a lot of them.

While hanging out at the batting cages I eventually met guys like Russ Morman, Jerry Dipoto and Rick Parker; all big league players staying in shape during the winter. After watching me catch, throw and swing a bat, they adopted me like some kind of special-needs child and tried to teach me the game.

Which I found amazing.

Back in the late 50s and early 60s if you sucked they didn’t fix you, they just sent you home. Turned out there was a right way to hold a ball, grip a bat, field a grounder, catch a fly ball, scoop a short hop, tag a base and tie your shoes and I wasn’t doing any of them correctly.

If you lacked talent, learning those skills would not actually make you good, but they could make you better and I was more than willing to settle for that.

Fantasy camp

When you attend a fantasy camp you get put on a team and I got lucky; Clint Hurdle was my manager.

For some reason Clint thought me and my buddy John Hughes were funny and after camp ended he invited us to come visit him in Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he was managing the Mets Double A team…so we did.

One night after an extra-innings loss I made the mistake of saying it was too bad Clint’s outfielder couldn’t make a catch that would have saved the game in the eleventh inning. Here’s what Clint had to say to that:

“The eleventh? We lost that game in the seventh.

Didn’t you see we had a runner on second and nobody out? Didn’t you see me motion to the hitter that he needed to move that runner over? Didn’t you see the hitter take two fastballs away that would have been perfect to do the job, then swing at an off-speed pitch and hit a ground ball to third? Didn’t you see the next hitter hit a fly ball that would have scored the run?

The eleventh? We never should have been playing in the eleventh.”

To explain my ignorance concerning everything that had gone on in the seventh inning I came up with this gem of an excuse:

“I think I was getting a hotdog.”

It dawned on me that if I was going to hang out with professional ballplayers and be able to hold up my end of a conversation, maybe I needed to start paying attention.

Most of us think we know the game and we don’t.

Sure, we know you get three outs in an inning and four balls gets you a walk, but we don’t pay attention to the details like whether the pitcher has been able to throw his curve for a strike or how many pitches he threw two innings ago.

A starting pitcher could be throwing a shutout in the fifth and things look great to the average fan, but his team knows it’s in trouble because he threw 30 pitches to get through the third inning, isn’t going deep in the game, middle relief pretty much sucks and the shit is going to hit the fan somewhere in the next half inning.

Pay attention and you can see that stuff coming.

Thinking you know the game means you don’t, because the people who play the game all their lives say you never know the game; it’s just too complicated. It changes every night with every different situation which is a big part of what makes baseball awesome and worth watching.

For the next few years I’d visit Clint in the minors and every trip was a baseball seminar; I’d ask players and coaches why they did what they did and learned a lot, but was well aware there was still a lot to learn and I’d never know it all.

The Men’s Senior League

Meanwhile, back in Kansas City I was playing baseball in a Men’s Senior League and learned enough about the game to realize that if I wanted to win I needed to get me off the field.

Russ Morman summed up my skill set nicely when he said: “You’re the kind of guy we cut and make a coach.” Turned out I was much more effective making decisions in the third-base coach’s box than I was swinging a bat in the batter’s box.

Because I knew some ex-pros and they called players they knew, pretty soon I had a very good Men’s Senior League team made up mainly of former college players and a few ex-big leaguers.

And every time I had a problem I’d call Clint.

It was a huge advantage to get to go to lunch with Clint and his pitching coach Bob Apodaca and discuss how you know it’s time to make a pitching change or when to steal or when a suicide squeeze is a bad idea.

After we won our first league championship I called Clint and thanked him. I said I knew it didn’t mean all that much to him, but it meant a lot to us and what he taught me helped immensely.

Clint said someone taught him, he taught me and now it was my turn to teach someone else.

Judging the Royals

Three decades after going to that fantasy camp the Kansas City Star gave me the chance to cover the Royals and I knew just what I wanted to do with the “Judging the Royals” website: talk to players and coaches and explain baseball to others the way it had been explained to me.

The game is a lot more entertaining when you know what to look for.

To be honest, I was surprised at the number of people who didn’t want to hear what the players and coaches said because it contradicted what they already believed. I was also gratified by the number of people who accepted they didn’t already know everything, loved learning about baseball and wanted to learn more.

I love baseball for a lot of reasons (how do you not love a game that gave the world baseball caps) but one of the reasons I love baseball is that after almost 40 years of studying the game I can still sit down with a player, coach or scout and learn something new.

Now here’s the really cool part:

If I happen to repeat something smart someone else said to me, guys who have been in the game all their lives will eat it up. Even after a lifetime in the game, they know they always have to be in learning mode because they just might hear something new that might help them win a game.  

If you think you know baseball, it’s a sure sign you don’t; and if you admit you don’t know everything, you’re in good company.