When I was in eighth grade, I started taking guitar lessons from an older man named Dan, who smelled like musty cigarettes and wore a straw fedora. I had a real thing for Guns N’ Roses at the time (despite their height in popularity coming well before me), one thing led to another, and my parents bought me my first guitar. Like most things, I got really, really, obsessively into it. There were periods in high school when I was practicing for six hours a day, “played it till my fingers bled.” There’s also a possibility that I would sometimes pretend to be Slash standing on the piano at the end of the “November Rain” video — only I was standing on the couch in my basement. Alone. All teenagers are awkward; some are more awkward than others.
A funny thing happens when you learn a musical instrument — at a certain point, and all of a sudden, music sounds different. You can suddenly hear the individual guitars on a song and separate them out. You figure out what a bass guitar sounds like, and how it fits in with the drums. You come to appreciate the technical difficultly of certain licks. Jimi Hendrix becomes more mind blowing. It’s like Dorothy stepping out of her farmhouse into Oz — suddenly everything is brilliantly colored where it used to be sepia.
I don’t think this is an isolated phenomenon. I’ve written enough that a similar thing is beginning to happen when I read — I pay attention to the lengths of sentences when I never used to give it a second (or first) thought. I would guess that similar things happen when any skill is developed. I assume painters see art in a way understandable only to other painters, web designers appreciate features on web pages in a way only someone versed in HTML can, and athletes see subtle-but-difficult moves that most fans would fail to ever notice. If you spend hundreds of hours doing something — anything — I think it’s safe to assume that you see it differently. I assume that what I look for when watching a baseball game, and what Keith Hernandez looks for when watching a baseball game, are two completely different things. The amount of time, sweat, tears, mustache grooming, and effort Keith Hernandez spent developing his ability to play baseball must cause him see the game in a way those of us on our couches just don’t. He understands the difficultly of hitting major league pitching in a way I just can’t, and never will.
That’s not to say that non-artists can’t or shouldn’t criticize paintings, non-musicians can’t appreciate music, and fans can’t talk about baseball. That’s ridiculous. (Says the guy writing a blog doing so.) I don’t know if A.O. Scott ever made a movie, but I certainly trust his opinions about them. I don’t know if anyone understands baseball better than Bill James, and he used to work as the watchman in a bean factory. I call Joe Morgan to the stand as a witness for the defense. Sometimes the best analysts never actually did whatever it is they’re analyzing, and sometimes the worst ones are the ones that did. People are funny like that; we often have no idea what makes us succeed or fail.
But it is to say that the way a lay person sees baseball will be drastically different than the way someone who played in the major leagues sees baseball. It has to be. Unless you’ve actually played at the highest level, I don’t know if you can understand what it’s like. I’ll never understand what it takes to be a major league baseball player. I’m okay with that. I’ll never know what it’s like to be an astronaut either.
So here’s the thing: a majority of the decisions Jerry Manuel makes as manager of the Mets, I just don’t understand. I often have absolutely no idea why he does what he does. There are decisions he makes that I agree with, and there are those I disagree with but still see the thinking behind . . . and then there are some moves that I just can’t even begin to comprehend. Like last night. I don’t necessarily disagree with all of these moves, but in terms of controversial decisions from just one game, Manuel:
– Started a still-aching Angel Pagan, who is useless against lefties, against a left-handed pitcher. He removed him when a righty came to the mound.
– Went to his closer, Francisco Rodriguez, in the eighth inning. (I think I actually like this one, but Kevin Kernan of the NY Post is going to bash it, so I’ll leave it here.)
– Did not pinch run for the painfully slow Rod Barajas, with the Mets down two, Barajas at first and nobody out.
– Did pinch run Alex Cora for the slow-but-not-painfully-slow Chris Carter, with the Mets down two, Carter on second, Barajas on third, and nobody out.
– Let Pedro Feliciano face Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu, and Dan Uggla, all dangerous righthanded batters, in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth.
Manuel has wrought countless woes upon Mets fans this season. The opening day starting lineup, for starters. Hitting Alex Cora second. Moving Jose Reyes into the third spot. The way he used Jenrry Mejia. The way he uses Fernando Nieve. Running Jon Niese out after an hour rain delay and long Mets rally, just so Niese can take a shot at earning a win, then denying R.A. Dickey the chance for a shutout just to get Frankie Rodriguez work the very next day. I know I’m missing things here. Feel free to insert your own.
But leaving Pedro Feliciano in against the righthanders in a tie game was a particularly strange decision. On one hand, I understand that the Mets are going with six pitchers in the pen, and Feliciano was already the fourth one of the night. Maybe Manuel didn’t want to burn through more relievers, especially with the possibility of extra innings. But: Hanley Ramirez is a great righthanded hitter; Jorge Cantu, who scored the winning run, is a good righthanded hitter; Dan Uggla, who got the winning hit, is a good righthanded batter; Cody Ross, who was on deck behind Uggla, is a good righthanded batter. And there are no extra innings if you lose first. It seems to me that Feliciano, Manuel and the Mets have decided that Pedro can now retire right-handed batters, and is no longer simply a lefty specialist. He’s the eighth inning guy who faces both. The fabled crossover pitcher. So he faced the righties last night.
The problem with that assumption is that Feliciano is not a crossover pitcher, and has never been one. Righthanded batters have a .788 OPS against Feliciano for his career, and a .780 OPS against Feliciano this season. Lefties have a .582 OPS against Feliciano for his career, and a .593 OPS this season. In words, Pedro Feliciano can retire lefthanded batters, but struggles against righties. He has done so his entire career, and he has done so this season. I don’t understand why Manuel and the Mets have decided that Pedro Feliciano can suddenly face righthanded batters.
The answer most fans shout out, and the one I find myself giving often while staring slack-jawed at my television, is that Jerry Manuel just has no idea what he’s doing. The easy answer is that he’s just an idiot. He’s Michael Scott managing a baseball team. Goodhearted, desperate to be liked, hangs out with Ryan Howard, but ultimately clueless.
But . . . that can’t be it. He did win manager of the year in 2000, and managed the White Sox to a .515 winning percentage for six seasons. He played in the majors — not well, but he made it. He scouted, managed and coached in the minor leagues for six years before becoming a major league
coach and then manager. Coincidentally or not, the Mets turned around when he took over midway through 2008. They currently have the third best record in the National League, and have done so without Carlos Beltran. Or a bullpen. Even if I disagree with his decisions some (or most) of the time, he must have SOME idea what he’s doing as a manager. I think.
So there must be some reason Jerry Manuel believes Pedro Feliciano can succeed against righthanded batters, even if I don’t see it. It doesn’t mean he’s right; in fact, I’m almost certain he’s wrong. After all, the Mets lost. But he must see something I don’t. Maybe it’s Feliciano’s changeup, or the way he made Hanley Ramirez look silly with off-speed pitches. Maybe Manuel just sees something I would never think of on my own, something that makes him believe Feliciano can retire righties this season. He must see something.
So I don’t know if saying that Manuel is clueless is a good enough answer. It instead seems to me that Manuel is simply hearing the music in a way I don’t.
Photo via Keith Allison’s Flickr.