Designated HitterApril 06, 2006
Baseball Without the Numbers
By Larry Borowsky

There's a college campus not far from my house where I used to walk the dog. I say "used to" because old Fred didn't quite make it to opening day this year; after 14 years, the hips finally gave out. He liked the campus because nobody enforced the leash laws there; I could just let him roam. He'd lead and I'd follow, and at some point my mind would go off duty and head on back to the car, leaving Fred and me to wander unsupervised. A wolf pack of two.

It was on such an occasion last summer that he walked us around a one-story building and down a hill, on an asphalt path we'd never followed before. It darkened briefly as the forest closed in; then the boughs parted, and there appeared in the clearing a ballfield - instantly recognizable even to a subcognitive BEING - with a game in progress.

The bats were aluminum and the uniforms ugly - burgundy and squash yellow at bat, spearmint and berry in the field. Neither team was the home nine; the college team wears navy blue with yellow trim, and in any case the Division II season had ended weeks before. Some of these players could have been college-age, but for the most part they looked older - thicker-built, hairier, more deeply settled into adulthood. I reckon it was an adult league game.

Fred and I were about the 7th and 8th spectators, joining one old guy in a grey nylon windbreaker and a handful of girlfriends perched on aluminum bleachers. We had approached from behind the third-base dugout - the spearmints', empty but for the manager and a couple of subs. There was a guy on first, and the ump called ball four on the batter just as we ambled up. That put two men on with . . . how many out? The scoreboard was dark. What was the score, anyway? What inning? The girlfriends could probably tell us, but when Fred and I went wolf-packing he was the Alpha dog; I took my cue from him. He parked his belly down on the grass; I laid myself on one side and propped myself up on an elbow.

The next hitter stepped in, 6'4" or so with a long stride. Looks like a hitter, I thought, and my eyes turned reflexively to the blank scoreboard, as if expecting the guy's batting average and HR/RBI totals to appear. But the board remained empty; no stats. No scorecard in my lap either, nor any graphic across the bottom of a TV screen. Just the plain old batter, holding the bat. I sized him up as he took his stance; didn't look particularly hard, but I must've seen something I liked - maybe his grip, or the geometry of his limbs, or the way his head locked into place. For whatever reason, I looked at this guy and thought, Here comes a base knock, and seconds later he rapped it on one hop to the centerfielder to load the bases. The ensuing batter gave off the same vibe - "hit" - and he got one, too, chasing two runs home. But there was something off about the hitter up next - a little too broad, maybe, or too blocky in his motions; maybe too far forward in his stance. "Grounder to short," I mused, and sure enough he hit it right there - another run scored on the force out.

How seldom we watch baseball this way in the post-James, post-Rotisserie, post-Moneyball era - without the collar of numbers tugging our perceptions into line. If you're younger than 30, you probably don't know what it's like to sit in ignorance of platoon splits and win expectancy and value over replacement; and if you're older you may well have forgotten. When we watch baseball today - in person, on TV, via the Web - we expect to be fed a steady diet of data, and augment the supply from our own warehouses. Sometimes the numbers help us understand and anticipate; at other times, they're just background noise. But their omnipresence shapes the way we follow the action. They condition what we look for, hence what we see.

Out here, on the back diamond with my dog, there was no scoreboard, no radar gun, no pitch count, not even a distance painted on the outfield fence. Baseball without numbers. We were off the leash, completely unsupervised.

The Spearmints brought in a new pitcher - the former centerfielder, lean and wiry, his obvious athleticism wasted on the mound. He looked pissed off about it, too; his warmup pitches came in hard, and the catcher's mitt popped. I took a half-glance at the on-deck hitter, a big jowly dude sporting a mustache like Bob Horner's; and knew right away what would happen: He'd swing late on a couple of fastballs and foul them off the other way, then chase a slider in the dirt and get himself out. Which he did, in just that order; down on three pitches.

There was a time when I fairly routinely had what can only be called premonitions - accurate foreknowledge of baseball outcomes. They invariably came to me when I was distracted, semi-engaged in the game - watching from a figurative distance or through half-closed lids. Ordinarily I didn't share these inklings with others, but once in a while I would chance it - and then be the least surprised person in the room when I turned out to be correct.

On my first trip to Fenway Park, in 1987, Jim Rice came up with two outs in the 9th, Sox down by a run, and was greeted by a shower of boos. "You people should never boo this guy," I told the fan sitting next to me. "You know what's gonna happen? He's gonna golf one up over the Monster, then run around the bases really slow with his head down - no emotion, nothing. That'll show 'em." I said this without the slightest hesitation; also without the slightest idea that Rice, in nearly 30 career at-bats against Dennis Eckersley, had never homered - and had struck out nearly half the time. Had I been aware of those numbers, then I surely would never have "known" what was about to occur - viz., that Rice would indeed hit a game-tying homer over the Monster and then circle the bases matter-of-factly, head bowed, while the boos turned to cheers. this game, where Albert Pujols literally barred John Rodriguez from going out to the on-deck circle in the midst of a 9th-inning rally. "Eckstein's going to end it right here," Pujols said - even though it would take at least a double by Eckstein (hardly known for his power) to drive home the winning run.

Eckstein hit a walk-off grand slam, the Cardinals' first one in nearly 20 years.

Asked afterward if he'd seen something in the pitcher's delivery or pitch selection or some such, Pujols demurred. "I couldn't tell you," he said. "I just knew."

The Spearmints still were not out of it; still one out to go, and the sacks jammed again after another walk. It had been a long half-inning, but I was still enjoying myself and in no hurry to leave; Fred appeared content to wait around for a while. But as the next hitter stepped into the box the dog suddenly stirred; hoisted himself up onto his front paws and then painfully, laboriously stood up. He stretched, shook, and looked down at the field with his tail erect. For a moment he fixed his gaze, as if reading a sign; then he turned and sauntered off slowly, his nose in the grass.

I was watching him go, trying to decide whether or not to get up and follow, when I heard the clang of the bat. By the time I picked up the ball, it was already soaring over the fence. The Burgundys came charging out onto the field, and the Spearmints walked off dejectedly; game over. A grand slam. The girlfriends were not happy; Spearmints. Sorry, ladies.

I hadn't seen it coming and still wasn't sure it had really happened. But the field was empty, so I picked myself up and started walking after the dog, who was already halfway up the path on his way to the car.

Larry Borowsky writes Viva El Birdos, a blog about the St. Louis Cardinals.


Nice piece, enjoyed that. Actually, I enjoy pretty much everything on this site - the content is well balanced, and the writing just seems to get better and better. Congratulations on a job well done to all concerned.

Agreed. The content has been consistently terrific for the past, well, I'll just say for a long time.

Very nice!

Thanks for that. That was a wonderful story.

If you're younger than 30, you probably don't know what it's like to sit in ignorance of platoon splits and win expectancy and value over replacement; and if you're older you may well have forgotten.

Ahh the bliss of not knowing Wins are a team dependant stat. Counting stats were the rage and I had serious man love for George Foster in 1977.

I didn't care that his BA drove his batting line up or that being a Red enabled him to produce so many RBI's.

I just counted and counted.... good times.

Excellent story. Thanks.

The dog knew the game was over. He could smell the fear on the pitcher from there.

A most fine story. A pleasant departure from every other baseball blog posting I have ever read. I commend you for warming my heart.

I'll have to remember this site, (as my last name appeared in it!) Good resource, great info. Sixty-six: a number I'll always remember.

"For Love of the Game."