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Student of the Game
2008-06-12 05:55
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Michael Bamberger has a good piece on Chipper Jones, professional craftsman, in the latest issue of SI. The story reminded me of just how difficult it is to play the game, as well as how hard it is to stay healthy once an athlete reaches his mid-thirties. The mental and physical grind is considerable, no matter how well-paid these guys are. But my favorite part concerns just how tricky it is to measure success, even for a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Numbers are so enlightening in baseball, much more so than in the other major sports, but they can't tell us everything:

When Atlanta was in Philadelphia in May, Glavine started the second game of the series, still looking then for his first win of the season. In the fourth, with the Braves leading 5-0, Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard headed to the plate. With the Howard Shift on, Jones moved from third to short, and the shortstop, Yunel Escobar, a young Cuban émigré whom Glavine barely knows, moved to the outfield grass just to the right of second base. Glavine walked out to Jones and said, "I'm hearing whistling, from their dugout or bullpen -- from somewhere. I don't know if they're stealing signs or what. Tell me if you hear or see anything."

Jones was surprised. He could never remember Glavine coming off the mound to ask him a question before, let alone one about possible sign stealing. He was flattered that Glavine recognized that Jones could stay focused on the batter but also open his ears to the external sounds of the game, if that's what his pitcher needed him to do. More than anything, he was impressed. He could feel Glavine's urgency, his need to win a baseball game.

Glavine retired Howard, and when the inning was over, Jones told Glavine that the whistling was coming "from one of our guys" -- from Escobar, a serial whistler -- and that fans in the stands were whistling in response to him. Nobody, he said, was stealing signs.

The Braves won, and Glavine got the decision. The box score shows that Jones went 2 for 4, with a home run. It doesn't show how he helped settle down his pitcher. What Chip Jones did that night was nothing and everything.

He went to the team hotel, slept in, woke up, got his old body moving again and headed back to the park, looking for any little baseball thing that he could do right.

There is always more to learn about the game. I feel as if the more I know, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. There are always more nuances, details and insights to soak up. And that's why we do this every day.

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