Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Tools of the Trade-Baseball

There are tools for almost every occupation. Carpenters, bricklayers, dentists, medical personnel-they all have objects necessary and specific to get the job done.

Athletes also have items to enhance their games which are different from all other sports and endeavours. Football and hockey players do not enter the field of play nor the ice surface without preparing themselves with plenty of equipment.

The game of baseball has been played in back yards for almost two hundred years. In its natural state, it involves a ball and a bat, perhaps a few gloves for the fielders. At the professional level, in the Major Leagues, there are many “tools of the trade” that the players bring to the game. Most of these tools enhance the performance of the players. Some are questionable. Others are illegal.

It was not a group of rocket scientists gathered in Houston who came up with the idea that a catcher might need some protection. More than a hundred years ago, and likely derived from cricket, players who stood behind the batter wore protection. Cages for their faces to cut down on broken noses, chest protectors, shin guards, athletic cups-a host of gear to cut down on visits to the training table. That equipment has evolved over the years.

A few years ago, catchers began to wear masks borrowed from hockey goalies. These masks also had protection for the back of the head. Occasionally, a batter might swing the bat in such a manner that clunks the catcher on the back of the head. The mask also had a piece of plastic hanging from the chin to protect the player’s throat. Made good sense.

Catcher’s gloves were called mits. They were also called deckers, but that term has now fallen into disfavour. Their gloves were considerably larger, really huge if they happened to be catching a knuckle ball pitcher. One never knows where those pitches will end up!

Fielders wear a variety of gloves, depending on their position. First basemen need to scoop balls from errant throws. They need to stretch to catch line drives or high throws. Their gloves are long and narrow. Once upon a time, many years ago, they were called “trappers”.

Most infielders gloves are the smallest gloves worn by any player. Infielders need to get the ball into their throwing hands in a flash when they pick up ground balls. They might be in the process of turning a double play, or simply getting the ball to first base to beat a speedy runner.

Out fielders’ gloves are the largest on the playing field. Some are like huge jai alai baskets. Players are able to scale outfield walls and reach into the seats to record outs. Outfielders also work at diving for batted balls sailing away from them, depending on the wind and the type of contact with the bat.

Old Tiger Stadium had a fence that could be scaled to bring back home runs. Several years ago, I watched Griffey Junior as a Mariner reach over the fence to break a Tiger’s heart. I asked his manager, Lou Piniella, after the game if he had ever seen a better catch. “That was one of his best,” he said. “I think he was about eight rows deep when he snagged that.” Perhaps a slight exaggeration; nonetheless, he is tall to begin with, and carries an enormous glove.

On a recent trip to old Yankee Stadium, I had occasion to see the tools of a batter’s trade in a corner of the dugout just before the anthems were sung for the Jays and the Pinstripers. There were steel “donuts” to slide onto bats to make them heavier, There were steel bars that enormous players like Frank Thomas use to limber up. There were rags covered in pine tar to help the players hold the bats.

George Brett used to cake his bats with pine tar. Rules were in place to limit the use of the sticky material. On one occasion, Brett homered against the Yankees. The Yankees protested because of the amount of tree gum on the bat. The umpire agreed and took away the homer. Most of us have seen the demonstrative Brett’s run from the dugout after the call. A special baseball moment. That call, incidentally, was reversed.

Old baseball coaches and managers have perfected the use of the fungo bat, an art that has always intrigued me. The fungo bat is much longer and narrower than a normal bat. It is used to hit balls high, and almost straight up. It gives infielders a change to get a better feel for different ball parks-the lights, the backdrop, the angles and nuances of a different ball park.

The fungo bat weighs between 17 and 22 ounces, whereas game bats are 30 ounces or more. There is a display at Cooperstown at which you are welcome to hold the actual bats of former Major League players. The bats of players like Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Aaron are on a chained display. A little magic in your hands. (Check the word “Fungo” on the net----fascinating research!).

Certain pitchers also had their own implements to help their game. As he entered the twilight of his career, Gaylord Perry looked for ways to stay in the game. He found that he could alter the flight of the ball, ever so slightly, with a few subtle alterations on the mound. A little brush with a hidden piece of sandpaper, a nick on the ball from a razor-sharp belt buckle. A bit of Vaseline under the brim of a cap. Anything to get the edge, to make a curve dance a little more, a sinker to “fall off the table”.

When all is said and done, the batter’s responsibility is to hit that “little white pea” somewhere in the field where there “ain’t no fielders” to reach base safely. If that can be done thirty per cent of the time, you will remain a major league baseball player.

You can wear your batter’s gloves, you can snap on your guard to protect your front foot and your shin. Hopefully, some day you will play baseball in October. I read recently the season may stretch into November!

Trainers are now required to pack parkas and toques!

James Hurst
October 16, 2007

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