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Monday, June 14, 2004

When The Pitching Doesn't Fall Apart - Guest Blog from Lisa W.

[Baseball Zeitgeist welcomes Lisa W. as a columnist for the N. S. Spirit]

MD, M.D. and I watched the North Shore Spirit down the New Haven Cutters 2-1 on Thursday at Fraser Field in Lynn.

The stands were packed with grade-school kids in lemon-yellow t-shirts, part of a literacy program the team runs in local schools. They call it The New Fraser Field, and they aren't kidding: I remember seeing it back when the Massachusetts Mad Dogs, another indy team, played there. Let's just say, well, there wasn't a jumbotron (or a staffed kids playground, or an immaculate field, or reliable delivery of hot dogs (For tales of our sojourns to see the Mad Dogs, see Coma Lady Does the Macarena).

Things fall apart/The center cannot hold could have been written by Yates about minor league pitching staffs. The biggest difference between pro ball and any other kind of ball is the quality and depth of the pitching. As a result, young pitchers get lit up by young batters, and in the semipro teams I've followed, scores like June 8th's 11-9 loss, also to New Haven, are common.

Bryan Morse, a lefty, started on the mound for the Spirit, alternating a fastball that would occasionally touch the nineties with an off-speed pitch that few of the batters could make contact with.

Looking at Morse and his teammates I was struck by the idea that the New Haven guys seemed so much bigger -- but then I dismissed the idea, thinking that my eyes must be fooling me. Looking down the rosters now, though, I see that over half of the Cutters are north of 200, while only a handful of the Spirit are. While baseball players aren't offensive linemen, this did seem to make a difference in the style of play between the two teams -- the jittery, almost caffeinated Spirit could barely stay still on the field, while New Haven seemed to be playing for offensive power, a bunch of guys with huge arms and shoulders coming up to the plate, a frightening sight for an opposing pitcher.

On the opposing team, Jordy Alexander, another lefty, took the mound. Alexander played on the World Cup team for Canada, and has been working his way around the Central and Northeast leagues. As Alexander pitched to Spirit shortstop Yuri Alexander, Marcos Agramonte stood a few yards from us in the on-deck circle. I love the little persnickety things batters do when they're on deck. Marcos watched every pitch Alexander delivered to Sanchez, and swung as if the ball were being pitched to him. His practice was rewarded; in his at-bat, he managed to make contact with the ball and send it skittering towards third, but not with enough authority to get him on base. A lot of Alexander's pitches ended up being batted straight up and landing on top of the netting that encloses the grandstand behind home base. Batters were swinging under it and pulling up, but often too late, striking the ball with the narrower part of the bat after the ball had mostly gotten by them, sending it up and back. Alexander's catcher, Adam Shorser, covered a lot of ground behind home base, popping up from his crouch, spinning, and scanning for fouled balls that could be converted into outs. Both catchers wore something I hadn't noticed before -- wedge-shaped foam pads attached to the back of their shin guards to make it easier to sit in the crouch.

Proponents of the theory of free markets need to explain one thing to me: why do I get ten times more showbiz for $4 at Fraser Field than I do for $44 at Fenway? Between innings, denizens of the bleachers at Fenway have to make their own entertainment -- as in years past when inflatable naked women would be bounced around the bleachers along with more conventionally shaped beachballs. At Fraser Field, fans are provided ample entertainment between innings -- by the fifth inning, we had already seen the team's mascot, Slugger, race a kid around the bases, liberally hosing him down with a bazooka of a squirt gun while people in the stands called for equal armament for the kid; we saw an adult choose between a prize in a dollhouse and one in a paperboy's bag, and win a can of beans, and my personal favorite, the laundry race, where two kids had to put on three t-shirts and then race to a waiting washing machine on a dolly, take the t-shirts off, and throw them in. Lest anyone think I am being snarky, the fact is I adore the sweet, lighthearted entertainment that the management crams into every game; they want you to like them, and they're not afraid to show it. And they're not afraid to let you on the field; the kind of pernicious demarcation between fans and players that you see in a major league park, where the fences are more like the Berlin Wall, and a single fan's incursion onto the field is reacted to as if it were the invasion of a horde of bloodhirsty Huns, reincarnated with tactical nuclear weapons.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, I said to MD, "The pitching should start to fall apart right about now." I went and got myself some popcorn and settled in for a rally -- a rally that never came. Ryan Bicondoa, a righty, came in as a reliever for the Spirit in the final inning, pitching a curious sinking ball that batters swung right over the top of. The rally didn't materialize, and the Spirit prevailed, 2-1.

While looking up references to players for this post, I ran into a couple of items that may be of interest to those who follow indy league baseball: Indy League Notebook, and an interesting story about the Aces. Just before the start of the 2004 season, the Allentown Ambassadors folded, and the Northeast League reacted by fielding a road team -- a team for whom no game is a home game. Looking around, I spotted this story: Aces may find a home in Utica.

[Thanks Lisa!]