The blur streaking across the outfield grass was the New York Giants' new center fielder, Willie Mays. The 19-year-old rookie was chasing a screaming liner off the bat of Rocky Nelson, the Pittsburgh Pirates' rock-strong first baseman. Though Mays was moving at laser speed, the ball was slicing away from him deep in left-center field. There was no way he could stretch his left hand—his glove hand—across his body and reach the sinking ball. His only shot? Mays stuck out his right arm and caught the rocket, barehanded.
Fifty-one years later, venerable broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who was calling the game at the Pirates' Forbes Field that day, says Mays' catch was the best defensive play he has ever seen.
"Mays ran into the dugout expecting to get back-slapping congratulations from his new teammates," Harwell says. "He didn't know about rookie hazing. No one said a word. Willie was bewildered. Finally, he went over to his manager, Leo Durocher, and in his squeaky voice he blurted out: 'Skip, I just made a great catch!'
"'Geez,' Durocher deadpanned, 'I wasn't looking. Do it again next inning.'"
There's no guarantee that you will see anything like Mays' 1951 catch this summer at the ballpark. Not that you even need such a spectacular play to truly enjoy the game. Hall of Famer George Brett of the Kansas City Royals used to say that the best way to watch baseball is with "a hot dog and a beer." While that's certainly one way, I suggest you can have even more fun if you go to the park with a few inside tips about how to anticipate and appreciate a game's many exciting moments.
I've been a baseball fan since my father came home from World War II and informed me that "we"—like most New Jersey Italians—rooted for the great Joe DiMaggio's team, the New York Yankees. In those innocent times, that was good enough for me. I was five years old. I played Little League and a little Catholic Youth Organization ball until I was forced into extremely early retirement at age 14 by the scouting book on me: Can field, can't throw, never hits. I've been an avid spectator ever since, including my last several years as a season-ticket holder.
Having played and watched thousands of games, I thought I had a good understanding of the nuances of the pitcher's decisions, the hitter's desire, the base runner's abandon, and the defensive player's precision—until I interviewed more than a score of Hall of Famers, legendary managers, coaches, scouts, broadcasters, umpires, superfans, and one former U.S. senator (baseball buff George Mitchell) for this article. Now I have a much sharper sense of what is likely to happen next—what the pitcher may throw, where the batter might hit it, whether the defense is in the best position, and whether the runner figures to advance or get cut down. Best of all, I'm more attuned than ever to the drama of the game.
You can achieve all this, too. Start by thinking of baseball as more than a game played by interchangeable athletes. Approach it the way the great old-time sportswriters did—as a human drama, starring hometown heroes and visiting villains involved in a series of climactic moments. "A baseball game is a soap opera loaded with dramatic confrontations," says sports-book author David Fisher. "Will the touted rookie get a hit in a pressure situation? Can the tiring veteran pitcher squeeze another half-inning out of his aching arm? Can the injured slugger do anything on legs he can barely stand on?"
If you know what to look for, America's pastime can be more suspenseful than Stephen King and more memorable than King Kong.
Every Pitch Counts
The pitcher, more than any other player, controls the game. One after another, he throws specific pitches at specific targets with one goal in mind—to frustrate the batter. As a spectator, whether you are rooting for or against him, you want to know as soon as possible whether the guy is throwing well or just begging for a beating. Fortunately, there are several telltale signs.
Start by following the ball-and-strike count. On a pitcher's good days, he stays ahead of the hitters in the count and turns their bats to cardboard. When he is off, he gets so far behind—2-0, 3-1—that he has to throw the next ball over the plate; then the batters swing bazookas. Last year, according to Stats Inc., the average major-leaguer posted a woeful .172 batting average when swinging with one ball and two strikes, but hit a robust .331 with two balls and only one strike.
If you pay attention to nothing but the count, you'll know, for example, that the Texas Rangers' second baseman, Michael Young, a career .247 hitter, is still far more likely to smash the next pitch when he's ahead 2-0 than his $25 million-a-year teammate Alex Rodriguez is when A-Rod is behind 0-2.
Also, even if the pitcher is throwing strikes, watch whether he is hitting the catcher's target. The best hurlers consistently come within an inch or two; the catcher barely moves his mitt. But if you see the catcher bouncing around a lot behind the plate, you can bet that some pitches will soon come straight down the middle, and the outfielders will be leaping for shots hit over their heads. Last August, against the Rangers, the New York Yankees' superb control pitcher Mike Mussina was getting through the early innings, but he was missing the catcher's targets by six to eight inches and constantly falling behind in the count. My companion asked, "What are you muttering about? Nobody's hitting him." "Not yet," I replied. Sure enough, the next inning the Rangers knocked him out of the game and won 12-2.
By watching the catcher, you may also be able to tell what the pitcher is likely to throw next. If the catcher sets himself on the inside half of the plate, closest to the hitter, with a right-handed pitcher against a right-handed batter or a lefty against a lefty, he's calling for the toughest pitch to hit: a fastball or a slider inside, preferably in on the hands and belt-high. The catcher also wants a fastball, this time chest-high, if he flicks his glove up as he signals for the pitch. If he sets up outside, away from the hitter, he may also be calling for a fastball, but more likely he wants something slower that will break away from the hitter, like a curve, a slider, or a change-up. And if he smacks his glove in the dirt, he wants a pitch that will dive toward the batter's ankles, probably a split-fingered fastball or a sinker.
You can also get an idea of what's coming next by watching the shortstop (as well as the second baseman and the center fielder, who usually follow his lead). The shortstop, who can read the catcher's signals, will step—or at least lean—toward where he expects the batter to hit the ball. With a right-handed hitter up, for instance, the shortstop will cheat toward third base when the catcher wants a fastball or slider inside, where the batter can pull it, and he'll shift toward second base if the target is outside. He'll lean the opposite ways for a left-handed hitter.
You may also be able to spot pitchers telegraphing what they are about to throw. In their windups, young pitchers sometimes raise their hands above their heads to power their fastballs, and keep them lower for breaking balls. Or they may slow down their deliveries when they throw softer stuff. Broadcaster Tim McCarver, in his 1998 book Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans, noted that Steve Karsay, now a reliever for the Yankees, tipped off his curve every time by slowing down his delivery. Another Yankee pitcher, Andy Pettitte, lost Game Six of last year's World Series by tipping every pitch. When he came to his stretch with runners on base, Pettitte brought his hands up only to his belt, so low that the batter could see him changing his grip, and therefore knew what to look for. The Arizona Diamondbacks scored six runs off Pettitte, knocking him out in only two innings.
Just keep in mind that even when the batter knows what's coming, he may not be able to whack it. Like Pettitte, the Dodger great Sandy Koufax also tipped his overpowering fastball and curve when he came to the stretch. "There were only two problems," says author Dan Okrent, the guy in the red sweater in Ken Burns' documentary Baseball. "Virtually nobody could get on base against him. And when somebody did by some fluke, it made no difference. The next batter still couldn't hit him even though he knew what was coming."
Simply put, if you follow the count and watch the pitcher and catcher, you're ready to enjoy the game's premier confrontation: pitcher against batter. Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers remembers every nuance of his game-ending battle against the Yankees' Rick Cerone in Game Four of the '81 American League Playoffs. Fingers, who was protecting a one-run Milwaukee Brewers lead, quickly got two strikes on Cerone. But he couldn't finish him off with tough fastballs on the outside corner—Cerone fouled off four in a row. "He was starting to piss me off," Fingers recalls, indignation still rising in his voice. Then his catcher called for a slider, breaking even farther outside. A fan paying attention to the catcher would have seen him set up far outside and guessed what was coming. "Cerone missed it by a foot and a half," says Fingers with a satisfied chuckle.
Watch the Foul Balls
One of Tommy Lasorda's Dodgers once said he had finally figured out how to hit. "Fifty percent of the time I pull the ball to left, and fifty percent of the time I punch it to right," said the player. "And the rest of the time I hit it straight up the middle."
That Berra-esque brainstorm aside, a fan can size up a hitter before he even swings by simply noting how the defense is playing him. If the batter is a lefty and the outfielders are deep, shading toward the right-field foul line, he's a home-run threat who pulls the ball to right. If the outfielders are swung toward the left-field line, he's more of a line-drive hitter who sprays the ball to all fields. The same principle holds for righties.
You can also get a sense of whether or not the batter is zeroing in on a pitcher by watching his foul balls. Sometimes it's painfully obvious. Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone says Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver once took him out of a game after a foul ball. "It was a monster shot that just hooked foul," says Stone. "He did not want to see another one fair."
Usually, however, there is more subtlety involved. For instance, when the batter starts fouling balls straight back, pitcher beware. The batter has the pitch timed and is just a fraction underneath the ball. With the tiniest adjustment on the next pitch, it could be bombs away.
On the other hand, if the batter keeps fouling to the opposite field—righties to right, lefties to left—he may be struggling to catch up to the pitcher's best stuff. If so, watch for a pattern. The more pitches the batter fouls off, the more he sees, and generally, the better his timing gets. So he may start pounding those opposite-field foul balls harder and longer—just before he knocks one into the night.
That's precisely what happened in Game Four of last year's World Series. With the score tied in the bottom of the tenth inning and the clock at midnight, the Yankees' Derek Jeter—a right-handed hitter—fouled a pitch from the Diamondbacks' Byung-Hyun Kim harmlessly off to the right. But his second foul ball went straight back into the net behind home plate, and his third went whistling into the stands beyond first base. His fourth was a long drive toward the right-field foul pole. With the count at 2-2, Jeter took a ball outside; then on 3-2 he hit the next pitch over the right fielder's head and into the stands for a witching-hour, walk-off home run. If you were keeping an eye on the foul balls, you would have seen that blast coming.
Sometimes fouls can even foretell where the ball is likely to be hit. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Five of the 1996 World Series, Yankee coach José Cardenal saw that the Atlanta Braves' left-handed batter Luis Polonia was swinging late and fouling John Wetteland's fastballs off to the left. Cardenal figured that Polonia couldn't swing quickly enough to pull the ball down the right-field line. So he signaled right fielder Paul O'Neill to shift eight feet toward the right-center-field gap—precisely where Polonia smashed the ball a few pitches later for what looked like a game-winning liner. But because he had moved those three strides, O'Neill, running on a bad leg, was able to make a lunging, game-saving catch.
One more point about batted balls: How can you tell at the crack of the bat whether, say, San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds has hit his historic 73rd homer of the year or merely produced a mile-high pop-up? Don't stare at the ball; check the outfielders. Are they desperately sprinting toward the fence with their backs to the plate, or are they loping in for a catch? This is an almost foolproof rule—though I once saw the fearsome Mickey Mantle hit a line drive that the shortstop leaped for just as the ball sliced upward, soaring into the sky like a wicked golf shot. The ball crashed into the left-field bleachers more than 500 feet from home plate.
Steal This Base
Steve Stone says one of the greatest duels he ever saw was a pitcher against a runner: the Giants' Hall of Famer Juan Marichal vs. the Dodgers' legendary Maury Wills, the first man to steal more than 100 bases in a season. In a 1971game, Marichal threw to first base nine straight times, and each time Wills got back so easily he was almost standing on the bag smiling when the ball arrived. But on the tenth throw, Marichal picked him off.
"When Marichal came to his stretch the tenth time, he bent his back leg, committing himself to pitch to the batter," says Stone. "But instead, he spun around and fired to first base." It was an illegal move—a balk—and the umpire should have allowed Wills to advance to second. "That was the beauty of the play," Stone adds. "Marichal spun so fast that only Wills, one of the greatest runners of all time, saw him commit to the plate, so he broke for second. All the umpire saw was Wills getting picked off."
Even if you don't have a fanatic's compulsion to stay for every pitch of the nine-inning game, always try to get to the park in time for the first batter. It may be the only opportunity you get to watch that team's always-swift leadoff hitter actually lead off an inning, perhaps get on base, and try to steal second. Leadoff men are like teenage boys: They desperately want to get to second base. From there, a runner easily scores on a hit to the outfield. Getting to second is critical in baseball, because the first team to score wins 66 percent of the time. So, for example, if you see the Seattle Mariners' superb leadoff man, Ichiro Suzuki, walk or single, you can bet he will be going for one of his 50 or 60 steals of the year.
Problem is, it's difficult to tell precisely when a talented player like Ichiro might take off. Inexperienced runners sometimes clench their fists or grab a handful of dirt (to protect their fingers when they slide into second). But real threats like Ichiro would only do something that obvious as a decoy to confuse the defense. Still, there are signs. For example, a guy like Ichiro may be going on the next pitch if he has a four-and-a-half-step lead and the count is, say, 2-0—when the pitcher can't afford to fall any further behind by throwing a pitchout. He might also take off when there are two outs, and a free-swinging slugger like Bret Boone is in the hole with two strikes. The worst that could happen is that Ichiro gets gunned down to end the inning—which is not so bad, since the slugging Boone then gets to lead off the next inning with a clean slate.
By the way, most major-leaguers believe that aggressive base stealers help batters by distracting the pitcher and even forcing him to throw nothing but fastballs. Broadcasters repeat that maxim all the time. However, a study by Stats Inc. suggests that the running game actually disrupts batters more. The statistics show that players hit about 50 percentage points lower—say, a mediocre .230 rather than a respectable .280—when there's a base stealer on first. So much for thatbit of baseball wisdom.
Some broadcasters also say that pitchers with exceptional pick-off moves should throw to first repeatedly to deter base runners. But that's not necessarily the best strategy, either. Author Steve Fiffer tells this story in his How to Watch Baseball:
Back in the 1963 World Series, everyone in the ballpark knew the Dodgers' Maury Wills wanted to steal against the Yankees' left-hander Whitey Ford, whom he was facing for the first time. But no matter how big a lead Wills took, Ford did not throw to first. Wills never saw Ford's pick-off move, so he was never sure whether it was safe to run. He didn't steal a base against the crafty southpaw in the entire Series.
Running and Gunning
While many fans sit behind home plate to focus on the pitcher and batter, others like to be closer to third base, partly in hopes of getting a front-row look at one of the game's most exciting plays: a runner speeding from first to third on a single to right field. With any luck, a close play will unfold before you. At the crack of the bat, follow the ball. Theright fielder will catch up to it, plant his back foot, and throw as the runner steams toward third. Ball and runner come flying into thebase at the same instant. The third baseman spears the ball and lunges at the runner sliding in spikes-high under a cloud of dust.
You can anticipate this play, especially if there is an aggressive runner on first base and a fielder with a rifle arm. Umpire Bruce Froemming still talks about how the Pittsburgh Pirates' Roberto Clemente once chased down a single near the right-field line, spun full circle, and gunned down the Cincinnati Reds' Pete Rose at third. "I'd love to see that one again on videotape," says Froemming, "just to see how Clemente did it."
Or you may be fortunate enough to see a wily runner actually slow down approaching third or home, just enough to draw a futile throw, so the guy who hit the single can round first and go to second safely. Willie Mays was a master at that ploy. And if you are truly blessed, you might even witness something like the best base-running play superfan Barry Holt—one of the original Chicago Cub "Bleacher Bums"—ever saw:
The Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson, in his prime one of the game's greatest runners, was up to 230 pounds and at the end of his career in the 1956 World Series. He was on first, and there was a lined single to left field. The Yankees' part-time outfielder Elston Howard charged in and picked up the ball cleanly. But Robinson rounded second and went way too far. He slammed on the brakes and took a step back toward the bag. It was too late: He'd never get back to the base in time. As Howard fired the ball to second, Robinson turned and cruised into third base, laughing out loud.
You Can Only Imagine
No matter how diligent you are, there will be times when you won't have a clue as to what is really going on. Take the soap opera confrontation between Don "Donnie Baseball" Mattingly and Ken "No Neck" Kaiser.
Kaiser was one of the most respected umpires for more than 25 years, and not just because he's built like a defensive tackle. He called them like he saw them, with perhaps this one exception.
In a late-season game at Yankee Stadium in 1986, Kaiser was working as the first-base ump and asked Mattingly for a favor. Kaiser explained that he organized a dinner each November for homeless kids in his hometown, and he wondered whether Don would be the speaker this year. Mattingly begged off, saying that he had accepted so many similar requests recently that he had promised his family he'd spend more time with them this off-season.
"I said, 'You don't have to give me a song and dance,'" recalls Kaiser. "'If you can't do it, you can't do it.' The next night I was behind the plate, and Mattingly came up to bat. The first pitch was high, maybea foot high.
"I said, 'Strike one!'
"The next pitch literally bounced in front of the plate.
"Mattingly stepped out of the batter's box, looked at me, and said: 'What's the date of that dinner?'"
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
You can buy a major-league baseball for about $5. But how would you like to leave the ballpark with the ultimate souvenir: a slightly bruised game ball autographed by, say, Roger Clemens? Here's all you need to know.
Go to batting practice. Most days, you will find yourself among only 1,000 or so fanatics, all scrambling for the dozens of balls being belted into the seats. Don't join the scrum for those recycled game balls unless you're confident you can catch a major-league home run with your bare hands (or that softball mitt in your closet), rather than, say, your dentures. One guy, in fact, got an upper-deck homer in the teeth before a playoff game at Yankee Stadium last season. And sure enough, another fan ran off with the bloody ball, leaving the poor schlub empty-handed and potentially gap-toothed. But before he had the presence of mind to call a lawyer, a sympathetic security guard hustled to the dugout and returned with a ball autographed by the hitter. It read: "Heads Up!"
There are better ways to get a ball. Start by arriving two hours before the first pitch. And bring a kid. (If you don't have one, borrow one.) As soon as the gates open (some 90 minutes before game time), run to the left-field corner and find a spot on the rail, preferably in foul territory close to the foul pole. It rains baseballs there, so you might catch a batting-practice fly, hopefully after it ricochets off three or four clumsy combatants and plops into your lap.
But what you should really aim for is one of the many balls that land on the field and roll to a stop in the corner. Sooner or later, one of the players shagging flies—usually only the left fielders and pitchers—will trot over to retrieve those balls. Most times, he'll toss a few randomly into the stands. Your goal is to get one of those players to hand you a ball, autograph it, and pose for a photo.
This is where the kid comes in. You need the lovable tyke (and your lungs) to command the player's attention. Begging is permitted. Even groveling. It doesn't hurt if the little guy is wearing his cute little glove, and both of you are decked out in replicas of the home-team uniform. (Beware: Showing up in the visiting team's cap and colors, no matter what your motivation, invites crowd mayhem.) So, yes, you may have to invest anywhere from $50 to $150 in garb and equipment, not to mention the tickets, to get a $5 ball. But do you want the ball or not?
No matter what you do, you'll soon realize that there are many obnoxious fathers and shy sons (the predominant pairing) vying for a handout too. You need one more thing—this foolproof edge: Have your towheaded supplicant wave a big sign that reads: TODAY IS MY 10TH BIRTHDAY. No ballplayer, not even an embittered benchwarmer with chewing-tobacco juice dripping from the corners of his scowl, can resist a heart-tugger like that. I saw Chuck Knoblauch—a notorious soft touch, now playing for the Kansas City Royals—sign and pose for a birthday boy last year. So did several hard-to-get players, including the Arizona Diamondback aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson.
And if all else fails, you can try actor Charlie Sheen's strategy. One night several years ago, he bought all 2,500 pavilion seats in Anaheim Stadium's left-field stands, priced at five bucks each. Then he sat there all alone, waiting for a home run. But, alas, nobody hit one.
Maybe he should have waved a sign that read: TODAY I AM 10.