SPORTS WATCH

The great myth of the batted ball

TRENT FRAYNE May 9 1994
SPORTS WATCH

The great myth of the batted ball

TRENT FRAYNE May 9 1994

The great myth of the batted ball

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

It is now, in springtime, with such superior goaltenders as Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour and Mike Vernon performing their frantic magic, that Williams’s words come floating back, the voice of one of the alltime great hitters giving birth to one of the all-time great myths. Although nearly a quarter of a century has flown since Williams put his name to this fantasy, it persists among otherwise stable Americans in a country where lunacy over baseball is rampant.

Hitting a baseball—I’ve said it a thousand times—is the single most difficult thing to do in sport.

—former Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams

Yet surely no man of sound mind or practised eye is prepared to elevate the task of a ballplayer swinging a club above that of the poor devils in their padded cells. One night in late April, performing typically, the redoubtable Roy, with a tender appendix yet, faced 61 shots in Boston’s teeming Garden as his Montreal teammates (they ought to be called his dependants) tottered to a 2-1 win in overtime. This sort of thing is commonplace for Stanley Cup goaltenders every spring—though, in truth, usually to a less turbulent degree than the dazzling Roy survived that night at Boston Garden.

Even so, the Williams myth endures. A man named Dr. Porter Johnson, chairman of the physics department at the Illinois Institute of Technology, gasps as he contemplates the enormity of a human being actually striking a thrown baseball with a stick of wood.

“The remarkable thing I see as a physicist is that these guys can hit the ball at all,” Dr. Johnson says in The New York Times of last March 27. “A batter has to judge the location and when the ball will be at a particular point at a particular time with incredible accuracy. And he has to do it in a remarkably short period of time, about 0.4 seconds against a fast major-league pitcher.”

Williams used to lament that even a consistent .300 hitter was going to fail at his job seven out of 10 times

Further fuel was tossed upon the Williams theory last spring when Michael Jordan, basketball’s most spectacular contortionist and greatest scorer, turned up at the training camp of baseball’s Chicago White Sox seeking outfield employment. It turned out that as a hitter, Michael had a great slam dunk. Days passed in exhibition games as he strove earnestly and fruitlessly to give the ball a boost into orbit (or even clear the infield).

Eventually, he was farmed out to the Class AA Birmingham Barons, where he went 0 for 7 with five strikeouts in his first two games in the Southern League. Later, responding to AA pitching, he improved. But obviously, if a pro athlete of Jordan’s astonishing physical skills had trouble distancing himself from a baseball, Ted must have something.

No doubt about it, in his time Williams was special and knew it. “In my 22 years of professional baseball, I went to bat almost 8,000 times, and every trip to the plate was an adventure,” he penned in The Science of Hitting in 1971. “I honestly believe I can recall everything there was to know about my first 300 home runs—who the pitcher was, the count, the pitch itself, where the ball landed.” And as every fan of the Blue Jays’ John Olerud

knows, Ted is the most recent batter to produce a .400 average (.406 in 1941). Still, he often used to lament that even if a ballplayer was a consistent .300 hitter he was going to fail at his job seven out of 10 times, and Ted wondered in what other occupation such failure would be tolerated.

His protestations, however, do not hold up under a daily scrutiny of the box scores. How can it be hard to hit a baseball when the Blue Jays can score 10 runs in the eighth and ninth innings to grasp a 13-6 lead on the California Angels and then yield seven runs to the Angels in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings? How can the Red Sox beat Kansas City 22-11? What of the Braves pummelling the Cubs 19-5, the Dodgers beating Pittsburgh 19-2, the Blue Jays nudging the Oakland A’s 14-5? Each of these results assaulted sportspage readers during April, and in all of them the batters were surely having their way with “the most difficult thing to do in sports.”

Still, how can I, a lowly scribe, maintain a presumption to know more about the subject than Ted the Thumper, the Kid, the Splendid Splinter? Well, what then of the word of Tommy Lee Jones, the man who won a Hollywood Oscar as the best supporting actor in March? Tommy Lee recently filmed the movie Cobb at Lake Tahoe, where Ty Cobb, the baseball legend, had lived. Tommy Lee was interviewed by Lillian Ross for a New Yorker magazine piece in which he explains how to hit a baseball, following careful research into the great Cobb’s life.

“It’s a lost art,” Tommy Lee tells Ross. “Ever since Babe Ruth started hitting home runs, the skill, the art and the science have been lost. You see, the bat is like a wand, a magic wand.” Here he pauses, Ross writes, and swings a walking stick he is carrying. “He was Ty Cobb, giving his lines,” Ross writes. Then she quotes him: “Hitting a baseball is re ally very easy. You can’t force it. You can’t overpower it. You go with the pitch. You let the bat do the work. It’s all rhythm and flow.”

So much for Ty Cobb. As for the Michael Jordan troubles, the man himself provided the answers late in his White Sox endeavors, observing that physiologically he is not suited to baseball. “Look at these arms,” he invited interviewers, spreading the long sinewy pair attached to his 6-foot-6 frame—toothpicks beside the tree trunks belonging to White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and even the former Expos fire hydrant, Tim Raines, another teammate.

Surely, then, Ted Williams had never visited a hockey rink in springtime when he proclaimed—“a thousand times”—that laying a bat against a speeding baseball was the most difficult task in sports. Nor could he have been present when his contemporary, the nonpareil Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante, spoke up on behalf of his peers. “How would you like it if you were out on your job or in your office and you made a little mistake? And suddenly a bright red light flashed behind you and then 18,000 people started screaming ‘Pig!’, ‘Stupid!’ ‘Get the bum out of there!’ ”