Olympic baseball

September 2, 2018

I once had a character in a novel (that I finished, and published chapters of, but never, alas, published in book form) who was a 17-year-old pitcher of MLB-draftable quality. He had excellent stuff but just didn’t enjoy being a member of a team. He enjoyed pitching—he loved throwing unhittable baseballs-- but the game of baseball, not so much. He simply wasn’t a team player, particularly because his high school team (and his high school coach) were a bunch of simple-minded yahoos whose company he detested. (They were mostly into getting drunk, avoiding academic work, wearing crewcuts, pulling pranks that closely resembled bullying, while he was a longhaired type who was exploring Hermann Hesse and getting high. Wonder where I got that from.) So the part of the game that didn’t involve him throwing a baseball over the plate was not of interest to him. He could really throw the baseball—he had a lively fastball and a better curve, that befuddled high-school batters-- but the harder his coach or his teammates worked at teasing him or mocking him or shaming him into pitching in games, the harder he resisted. This was just one character, and one story line, in a long complicated novel, but his situation stuck with me.

I’m not much a pitcher myself—my throwing arm was the weakest of a pretty weak set of skills—but my brother was a talented high-school pitcher, so I had some insights into what a misanthropic teenaged pitcher’s mind might be. (In later life, he channeled his competitive nature into golf and fishing, both of which solo activities he’s been very successful at.) My fictional pitching star was a lefty, an homage to my brother and to Sandy Koufax and to John Franco, all of whom attended my high school at one point or other, giving me plenty of quirky minds to plumb as I researched this character. One of my big projects in retirement is going to be to re-read this 500+ page tome and see if any of it is salvageable—I haven’t taken this monster out of the box in decades.

Anyway, this concept gave rise to the thought of pitching as an Olympic sport in itself. Pure pitching, nothing to do with the game of baseball itself. It would be measured as other solo gymnastic events are measured: partly by judges on style and form alone, but also by objective measures. There would be several related but separate tasks that would be part of this Olympic regimen. A radar gun would be involved, for sure, and accuracy tests (in some combination with the radar gun) as well. We would set up some sort of Candy Cummings-like test for curveballs, and there would be some sort of endurance test as well, like after all the other tests are done, 30 or 50 pitches’ worth, to maintain speed and accuracy for as long as possible.

In a very real sense, I think this sort of thing should be what the Olympics are all about. Team sports really don’t make that much sense in a Olympic contest, which are primarily tests of individual skills: javelin throwing, weightlifting, 100-yard dashes. Team sports are too dependent on luck and random factors. You wouldn’t, for example, use a three-game series between two MLB teams to decide definitively which would be the better of the two teams, would you?  The team losing 2 out of 3 games could make a legitimate case that it just didn’t get the pitching matchups it wanted, or that a few key umpires’ judgment calls didn’t go their way, or that their best hitters were injured or in slumps, or that a few balls took bad hops for their side, or that—well, you get the idea. A few games doesn’t prove very much in a short series, not even when both sides are going all out, as in the World Series. I’ve seen some World Series and thought, "If they played that one ten times, the losing team would win eight of them," even when the team I was rooting for was the winner.

But you would have to admit that the radar gun does provide an objective measure of who throws a faster ball. In that particular contest, I’m envisioning a (non-human) target 60’6’ away, a taut, rectangular piece of paper that the pitch must tear through (making it dangerous to nip the corner, which might not tear). Each pitch is measured by radar guns, and points are gained and lost for speed, and for accuracy (bonus points for closeness to the center of the target, points lost for missing the target altogether, etc.)

You could have other events that emphasize control rather than speed. In such an event, the target might be a smaller piece of paper, and it would keep shifting location between pitches. Perhaps a sequence of locations could be specified in advance or (another separate event) they could be relocated in random order. You could have another event in which a timer is employed to monitor how quickly the pitcher could throw strikes: that would a fun one, I think, with a Pedro Martinez or a Johan Santana or a Justin Verlander trying to throw eight strikes within one minute, just beginning his motion as the ball comes back to him.

Just curious here: how many strikes do you suppose would constitute the Olympic record for one minute? Under my imagined rules, the first pitch that is NOT a strike would end the event, so I’m really asking how much time a pitcher needs to collect himself between pitches. Thinking a little further, it really wouldn’t even be necessary to have the balls returned to the pitcher, since there wouldn’t be a catcher in my scenario anyway. The pitcher could have a tray of baseballs set up by his side on the mound, and get to throw them as rapidly as he could. How rapidly would you suppose that would be?

Of course, the baseball Olympics need not be limited to pitching. The batting competition could consist of some form of Home Run Derby, for sure, but you could also have a bunting competition, and a spray-hitting competition (with perhaps a pre-set sequence of hitting to RF, to CF, to LF, with each area marked off. You could have a Sacrifice Fly competition, with clear parameters for how deep you need to hit a fly ball, and with bonus points for each succeeding gradation (and maximum points for a HR). Opening round: batters have to hit a fly ball over a short fence 250 feet away, next round 275 feet, and so on. You could have baseball-specific track events like running first to third with a mandatory slide. Or an inside the park HR race. You could have fielding competitions—a fungo hitter bats balls 100 feet or so away from where the fielder is standing and he has to race after them—extra points for remaining on his feet, extra points for an accurate throw into second base, or the cut off man, etc. These could be judged by style as well as results.

Some could be "team"events—the fielding competition I just described could be a team event for the fielder and the fungo hitter who would need to place the ball at least 100 feet from the fielder’s starting position. If after the fact the caught ball is measured as being only 98 feet from that point, the team gets penalized, so the fungo hitter bears a heavy dual responsibility, to hit the ball over 100 feet away but not so far that the fielder doesn’t have a play.  Likewise, many of the batting competitions could feature pitcher-batter teams, so the ball gets placed exactly where the batter wants the ball pitched to him.

Baseball skills are varied enough that I think there could be a full and satisfying set of skills displayed that baseball fans could follow easily but would be more in keeping with the Olympic spirit than with the pace and random outcomes of actual baseball games. I never watch Olympic baseball (I think they eliminated it as an Olympic sport a while back, come to think, but then they revived it? Or not? I don’t know, and my knowledge dwarfs my interest in Olympic baseball.)

An analogy occurred to me as I was practicing a song on the guitar just now. (My baseball-throwing skills are on a Koufaxian level, compared to my musical talent. I amaze myself on guitar—whenever I can torture a song into sounding anything like it should, I am flabbergasted. This rarely happens.) I have to learn songs in little bits and pieces: I’ll play an intro for a couple of days before tackling some of the chord changes, and then I’ll spend a week learning how to play a little riff, then I’ll work on mastering the strumming pattern of the main chords, then it’s another week or so learning the segue between the verse and the chorus, by which time I’ve probably forgotten some of the earlier bits, and when I’ve finally taught myself the entire song’s parts, I’ll add them together, one by one, until at long last (a year later? Two years? Never?) I’m able to play the entire song, start to finish.

Performing the song is one thing, analogous to playing in a competitive baseball game, but each of the separate bits could be what I’m calling an Olympic event: playing a six-note riff, for example, smoothly and melodically, with zero buzzing of the strings, would be an event complete unto itself. It’s impossible to think of listening to a series of competitors playing six-note riffs as "music": it’s not music, it’s a tightly focused display of very specific techniques.

In the same way, javelin-throwing isn’t war. It had its origins in war, until someone felt that javelin-throwing in itself was an interesting competitive event, for accuracy, distance, and whatever the hell else they’re looking for. But you can’t have two teams of javelin throwers facing off, unless you’re interested in seeing a lot of men skewered.  To have validity in warfare, they need other skills, like shield-use, and armor-design, that aren’t a part of the javelin toss.

"Pitching" isn’t "baseball." In a real game, the pitcher himself must do things that aren’t pitching-related. He must field ground balls. He must cover bases. He must try to pick off baserunners. He must back up fielders. He must think strategically. He must understand how various batters are thinking. He must bear in mind the game situation. In the NL, he must bat, run the bases, know how to bunt, etc. and all these things will help him to win baseball games. But they are not "pitching."

If you have any ideas for turning a display of baseball skills into an Olympic event, I’d be interested in reading your thoughts. Some of my ideas (the Candy Cummings test) could be refined, technologically, for example, in ways I haven’t fully imagined. Or my idea for a paper target could be improved upon. Or you might have other ideas for different baseball skills that would make interesting discrete events. Thanks for reading my nutty notions, as ever, and thanks for your comments.



COMMENTS (3 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Doesn't this help level the playing field?

"anything that takes someone from their favorite team and exposes them to risk is silly, even for the glory of America. Could you imagine the Dodgers letting Clayton Kershaw enter a multi-round tournament to see how many strikes he can throw in a minute, or how fast he can throw?"

If MLB players are prohibited from entering by their employers, or by their concern for the well-being of their lucrative careers, doesn't that open the door to amateur athletes to compete, exactly as the Olympics were designed? By eliminating the vast majority of well-paid professionals, wouldn't some top college athlete, scouted perhaps by MLB but ultimately washing out of organized baseball in his early 20s, see this as an opportunity to do the thing he loves and is good at?

Some events are low-risk. Kershaw is presumably trying to throw as fast (maybe not as quickly) as he can frequently for the Dodgers, and the team encourages him to max out in practice on occasion, after rigorous warmups, of course. DOn't really see this as high-risk. Some events, like the quick-throw, are. But haven't the pros competed in Olympic games before, where they do presumably go all out, risking injury to life and hamstring? Is there really a difference between that risk and some of the events I'm raising here?
4:21 AM Sep 6th
- One of the reasons that baseball has only sporadically been an Olympic sport is that few countries seriously play. US, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, DR, Aruba, Venezuela, Netherlands, Columbia, Australia... we're probably already down to the level where any remaining countries couldn't field a good AA team. Maybe a dozen out of the ~200 countries that participate in the Olympics. American/Canadian/Australian football isn't in the Olympics. Neither is cricket, or hurling.

- MLB controls 95% of the best players in the world. They look at competitions they don't run as high risk with zero reward. Many American fans have the same outlook - anything that takes someone from their favorite team and exposes them to risk is silly, even for the glory of America. Could you imagine the Dodgers letting Clayton Kershaw enter a multi-round tournament to see how many strikes he can throw in a minute, or how fast he can throw?

- Many US players look at the World Baseball Classic as something to be avoided. They might see this as less than the WBC.

This is a reimagined Field Day, where the players used to compete in timed baserunning, and longest throw, most accurate throw, etc. MLB decided that was a bad risk 75 or 100 years ago. I'd like to watch it. But I don't see a path to the Olympics for a skills competition for a sport that barely hangs on to Olympic acceptance. Maybe it could be an annual television special to fill time for the MLB network in the offseason, using free agents not currently under contract to a team that would object to participation.
1:22 PM Sep 4th
Pretty sure what you're describing is covered by the shot put and the hammer throw. But I pretty much only watch curling now, so I might not remember so good.
9:48 PM Sep 2nd
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