I have no idea if it just comes naturally, through repetition, or both, but the coordination of professional baseball players is immensely impressive. I was reminded of that fact in the ninth inning of Friday night’s Mets game, when Ike Davis flipped himself over the dugout railing to secure a pop up and send the game into the bottom of the ninth still tied — I’ll admit, it got a fist pump out of me. Davis had to track the baseball while tracking his own location, realize he was near the dugout railing, time his leap right, and then throw himself over the railing so that he could extend his glove just enough to catch the ball. And he had to try not to crack his head open. All in the span of a few seconds.
If Ozzie Smith can claim the backflip as his signature, then I guess we can give Ike Davis the dugout-railing-front flip, as he has already performed it twice in his infant career. That and looking more like the child of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa than Springsteen and Scialfa’s actual children do. Davis can claim both of those things as his signature if he’d like.
Baseball players do immensely impressive things all the time — for example, hitting a fastball that takes just 400 milliseconds to go from pitcher’s hand to plate, keeping in mind that minimum human response time to something seen is around 150 milliseconds, seems a near impossible task, but happens numerous times in every game anyway — but Davis’ dugout dive was particularly impressive. It reminded me of something that my friend Andrew — a college relief pitcher for Brown University and therefore someone who knows far more about playing baseball than I do — said to me one time while watching a game. I can’t remember who was playing, but a shortstop made a diving play in the hole and threw out the runner. It was a made for EPSN web gem. I think it was last season, and it was a smooth play from a shortstop, so it definitely wasn’t the Mets. Anyway, the play got Andrew to remark that he was always amazed at how smoothly players can field and how easy they make it look, especially considering that the Major League players really only work on their fielding in spring training. Players take batting practice everyday, but they don’t take infield everyday. In fact, they almost never take infield. They most certainly don’t take diving over dugout railing practice everyday. I would hope. Most of their fielding practice in-season only comes in game. Even thinking about how infielders warm up between innings seems laughably useless — the first baseman rolls a ball directly to each fielder, and each one tosses the ball back lightly. Rinse and repeat. The warmups barely resemble baseball.
So that’s what I thought about as Davis was hanging upside down from the dugout railing. He made that catch without ever practicing it — I mean, sort of. Obviously Ike Davis has had years and years of practice and games and playing catch in order to get to the major leagues in the first place. But I would also guess that Davis never had a day which included a gruff high school coach, wad of tobacco in his jaw, telling the boys, “Okay men, today we’re going to practice catching pop flies while tumbling head-first over a waist-high railing. spits. Davis! You’re up first.” How many times could Ike Davis ever had made a similar play in his life already? Four? Five? Just once, when he did it a few weeks ago? It can’t have been very many times — Ike Davis made his dugout dive on nothing but pure athletic ability.
There’s a sense that baseball players are less impressive athletically than the players in other sports. After all, out of all the major sports, baseball is the one where body-type seemingly matters the least. Just look at the Mets opponents from this weekend, the San Francisco Giants. They look more like the cast of a Judd Apatow movie than a group of professional athletes — only, unlike in a Judd Apatow movie, everyone isn’t white. You have the Seth Rogan, lovable chunky guy in Bengie Molina, the pair of vacant-eyed stoners in Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito (who are Jay Baruchel and Jason Segal in this analogy), and then the Paul Rudd sensitive type in Mark DeRosa (analogy gets bad). To top it off, of course, you have Pablo Sandoval, who is the Jonah Hill of the group, if you will — and it’s not even as if Pable Sandoval is a notable exception in terms of his body shape. CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, and Matt Stairs are also of a similar girth. You can be both really, really fat and really, really good as a professional baseball player. The two are in no way mutually exclusive. You can also be Tim Lincecum sized, and be maybe the best pitcher on the planet. Size matters not.
Think about this: the most famous basketball player of all time is probably — probably — Michael Jordan, who is immortalized on sneakers, his silhouette dunking from the foul line. An image of supreme athletic ability, as if he were flying. I have no idea who is accepted as the most famous football player of all time — Joe Montana would be my best guess, but it might actually be O.J. Simpson, mostly for his off-field “pursuits” — but whoever happens to be the most famous, he’s impressive physically, and probably much bigger and far stronger than you are. The best known image of the best known boxer is Mohammad Ali, flexing his muscles, screaming at Sonny Liston to get up and fight. The sheer power is unbelievable.
And then you have baseball’s most famous player — Babe Ruth — who is remembered for being really good, and really fat. He was larger than life, both in his personality and his waistband. Consider this: the two best known legends about Babe Ruth are that A.) one time he called his shot in the World Series and B.) he ate a lot of hot dogs, sometimes before games. It doesn’t matter if he really did either of those things, because people like to say that he did those things. That’s the Babe’s legacy as the best player — he hit home runs and was fat. If you see pictures of him from his earlier career, you can see that he was obviously a tremendous athlete, a star pitcher, outfielder, and batter. Only he’s not remembered that way, because it’s not important for the legend of baseball. Baseball likes to presents itself as the sort of game anyone can play at the highest level — midgets, the one-armed, the fat, the skinny, teenagers, and the middle-aged. Everyone except for woman, really, but I figure we’ll see that barrier broken eventually too. Baseball likes to be able to point to it’s best player and have him be a big fat jolly guy, as if to say, See, anyone can do it.
Obviously there are body-type exceptions made in all sports — Shaq, Spud Webb, Maurice Jones-Drew and the NFL’s offensive linemen jump to mind immediately. Still, baseball seemingly has far MORE exceptions than the other sports. The rounded characters of Babe Ruth, Ernie Lombardi, Cecil Fielder, David Wells, and now Pablo Sandoval, or the stories of Wee Willie Keeler, one-handed Jim Abbott, and old Satchel Paige can lead one to conclude that baseball is not necessarily a physically demanding game, or at least one that requires far less athletic ability than football, hockey, or basketball — and, in a way, that’s probably correct. In fact, baseball even caters itself towards the seemingly unathletic, with the American League inventing a position that allows old fat guys to extend their careers without having to bothered to field.
Baseball the only game that has had someon
e claim to throw a no-hitter while tripping on acid, and someone else claim to have thrown a perfect game while still hung over from the night before. Jamie Moyer just pitched a shutout despite being ridiculously old. Dallas Braden just pitched a perfect game despite being ridiculously full of himself. Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter despite having just one arm. Stories like that make it seem as if baseball isn’t all that difficult of a sport to play.
That’s part of the special allure of baseball — anyone who has three working limbs can do a decent approximation of the what the pros do. You can’t say the same thing about any other sport, outside of maybe bowling and golf. But baseball actually has had all types of people succeed at the highest level — what other sport has men with the differing bodies and skills of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays claiming the two of the top three spots for greatest ever? Randy Johnson and Tim Lincecum on the same pitching staff last season?
Baseball doesn’t necessitate a certain body size or shape, like football and basketball do — the only real prerequisite is absurdly developed hand-eye coordination. That’s the secret to the game. If you can master the connection between your sight and your limbs, then you can play baseball at the highest level. There are still some physical limitations — you can’t be a left-handed throwing third baseman, for one, or be really slow and play center field — but if you can recognize and hit both a 90 MPH fastball and a 70 MPH curve, then there is a position for your size and shape, and even if there isn’t, they’ll just make one up for you — the Dodgers created an “old guy with broken back” spot on their bench for Jim Thome at the end of 2009.
This brings me back to Ike Davis’ dugout dive, which was a display of the highly developed coordination that allows him to play professional baseball. He made that play despite having made a similar play only a handful of times, if even that. After the game, as the reporters asked him about the catch, Davis could barely keep from going into Chris Farley Show mode and just repeatedly say how awesome it was, and how even he couldn’t believe it happened. He could barely put together sentences. So instead, Davis just elatedly smiled, just as anyone would. Even he was just amazed he came up with it.
That’s part of the fun of watching baseball. It’s a game played by human beings who don’t overwhelm you with their physical gifts. I love watching LeBron James play basketball, but LBJ is a freak. The guy is 6 ft. 8 in. and weights 260 pounds, and can effortlessly switch from moving like a cat to driving like a train. He overwhelms with questions about how he is even possible. If James walked into the room, his physical gifts would be immediately tangible. He really is something else. On the other hand, if David Wright walked into the room, it wouldn’t be so obvious he was a professional athlete — even though Wright may very well be equally gifted. The physical gifts of baseball players are not immediately apparent. Again, see the Giants, with Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum.
Baseball often looks so easy, so simple, because at its heart, it’s an intangible game — but not in the sense that the successes and failures as players comes down to their hearts or their guts or whatever you want to call it. Not that they don’t have those things — because they certainly do — but I think you’re selling everyone short if you think professional athletes are professional athletes because they have more heart and guts than the rest of us. Okay, sure, maybe someone hits a clutch home run because they have guts — but everyone has some level of guts. Maybe Bill the accountant down the street has just as much guts as David Wright. Maybe Bill the accountant even has more, but what Bill the accountant doesn’t have is the physical gift of hand eye coordination to hit that clutch home run. That’s the only thing separating baseball players from the rest of the population – that’s the intangible aspect of baseball. Coordination.
What I’m trying to get at here is nothing more than this: baseball players look like physically normal human beings. They’re not. They’re just as much freaks at their counterparts in football, basketball, hockey or (insert your sport of choice I’m leaving out here). Their gifts of coordination are unbelievable — that’s why you’ll see a shortstop ad-lib flip a grounder to his second baseman with his glove, or Alex Rodriguez make a millisecond adjustment to foul off a pitch, an adjustment visible only in slow motion, or Endy Chavez make a catch over the wall. And those plays are impressive on their own, but become even more so when you realize the players basically don’t practice them — you can’t practice making the tumbling dugout catch Ike Davis made.
Because baseball players look so much like normal human beings, it’s easy to forget how physically impressive so many of the things they do are. They’re freaks — but don’t forget, so are the rest of us.
Tim Lincecum image courtesy of Kimberly’s flickr photostream.