Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-02-18 10:38
by Alex Belth


When I was growing up, my uncle Fred taught me how to draw, paint and most importantly: How to look. He also taught me how to be a Yankee fan. Fred married into the family when I was about three years old, and he made a huge impression on my creative development, as well as my sporting identity. A painter who makes a living as an animator---he's done spots for "Seasame Street" for years---Fred went to Cooper Union during the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement, in the mid to late 50s.

Fred would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was a kid, and excitedly, expertly guide me through various galleries to specific paintings. He always had a lesson plan. The way he navigated his way around the MET made me feel like I was getting a private tour from an expert, which in fact, was exactly what I was getting. Whether we looked at Vermeers, or Carravaggios or Edward Hoppers or later on, Franz Klines or DeKoonings, Fred deconstructed paintings like he was a plumber. Straight, no chaser, no muss, no fuss, you know what I mean?

We looked at how painters work with spacial relationships, with composition, and tension, and color in their work. Essentially, Fred stripped away all subject matter, and was able to show me how painters paint, and how they made the viewers look, regardless if the picture was abstract or representational.

"Every great painter has a drawing or a painting of a sink," he used to tell me. And he's not far off the mark. Put your favorite artist to the test when you get a chance. A sink, after all, is not a glamourous subject, but it is a blunt, and simple one which requires basic discipline and concentration. A sink also stripes away all pretention. What is it? A lousy ol' sink, you say. But, it's a great subject for any artist, young or old. The beauty is in the simplicity, because it's such a throwaway, everyday object.

I've carried this notion of plumbing to other areas of interest as well---writing, music, moviemaking. I love dissecting the creative process, discovering the bare bones of a craft.

Of course, baseball offers both the art of pitching and hitting for us to dig our forks into.

This past weekend, there were several articles on the nuts and bolts of pitching mechanics, preparation and philosophy. So, let's take a break from all the other nonsense for moment and look at the plumbing of pitching...

I saw Tim Kurkjian file a report from Yankee Camp over the weekend, and he said that Jose Contreras looked impressive in his bullpen sessions for the Yankees. According to scouting reports, Contreras apparently uses his slider and his forkball/splitter early in the count to set up his fastball. Curious.

The Post filed a story on the Cuban pitcher this past weekend, detailing his training methods:

"Since I left the [Cuban national] team in Mexico [in October], I took one week of vacation. Since then I have been working out and throwing," Contreras said at his Legends Field locker. "I have pretty much been throwing for three months. I would say that's the reason I might look a little bit ahead of the other guys."

Yesterday was the second bullpen session for Contreras since camp opened and it was impressive. The fastball had life and the splitter danced. And his location, usually off for pitchers at this stage, was razor sharp.

"I am ready right now to start pitching in games," said Contreras, who signed a four-year deal worth $32 million.

"He is very businesslike, very compact and he seems very sure of himself," Torre said of Contreras, who uses multiple arm angles ala Orlando Hernandez when releasing the ball. "There is a lot there and you get a little anxious to see him but it's still not going to be until you see the games that we are going to take note of all the equipment he has."

Two pieces of equipment Contreras uses aren't conventional to most pitches. Prior to throwing in the bullpen, Contreras plays catch with a 12-ounce baseball (a regular baseball is between 5 and 51/4 ounces) and a softball.

"The [baseball] builds strength and the softball helps with the grip, especially the splitter," said Contreras, who was 117-50 during the past seven seasons in Cuban league play.

John Harper, who is as unassuming as he is outstanding, had a terrific feature on Tom Glavine's approach to pitching last Sunday:

Glavine's cutter moves in harder and later on righthanders than I would have guessed. It doesn't have the speed of Mariano Rivera's cutter, or the violent down-and-in action of Al Leiter's, but if it's thrown in the right location, Glavine's cutter has enough on it to tie up righthanded hitters.

"Yeah," he says, "but it's easy to throw that pitch when I don't have to worry about making a mistake with it. It's harder to trust it with a hitter in there. That's what makes pitching away so much easier. If I make a mistake out there, it's usually only a single.

"I've been stubborn over the years about pitching away, but even though hitters know I'm going to work them away, I find that most hitters are not going to allow themselves to hit singles to right field all day. They want to hit home runs and extra-base hits. In the back of their mind they're always waiting for you to hang that one pitch they can smoke, and when you throw the ball down and away where you want to, you get your nice little ground ball or popup."

Glavine then motions for me to slide out farther, so that the middle of my chest is in line with the outside corner. He tells me later he'll ask Mike Piazza to set up the same way on either side of the plate because he uses the catcher's body, not the glove, as his target.

"I can't throw to the glove," he says. "I want the catcher's body splitting the corner. I'm looking at your chest and I want the glove right there in your chest."

..."I don't have a complicated game plan," he says. "I might shake off 10 to 15 pitches a game, but everybody knows what I like to throw. Mainly I want my catchers to get out there a couple of inches off the plate so I can hit that spot and they don't have to move the glove to catch it."

Meanwhile, the Times had a good story on Chris Hammond, who is slated to replace Mike Stanton as the lefty set-up man in Joe Torre's bullpen. (Evidentally, Hammond had a relationship with none other than the Great Joe D himself. On a side note, one of DiMaggio's lawyers has just published an anti-Joe D book. Looks as if that trends here to stay.)

Hammond has a killer changeup.

Hammond has thrown the pitch since he was 10. It got him to the majors with Cincinnati in 1990, and brought him back a decade later.

"Very few pitchers really want to throw the changeup," Hammond said. "I was talking to John Rocker a few years ago about it: `If I were you, I would sit down and that's all I'd do in the off-season, work on my changeup.' And he goes, `I can't. If I'm going to get beat, I don't want to get beat on my changeup.' "
Hammond was incredulous at that logic. For him, the changeup is a devastating weapon, evaluated at a score of 80 ! the highest possible ! by the Yankee scouts.

"It has different action on it," Newman said. "He has great arm speed and command of it. The funny term people use for it is the `Bugs Bunny change,' because it's like it stops in midair. It's so good he throws it to left-handers and right-handers."

Hammond held right-handers to a .206 average last year, and left-handers were more helpless, batting .174. He delivers his changeup awkwardly, stomping hard on the mound with his right foot and then releasing it. The harder he stomps, the more he is concentrating.

..."It looks funny," Newman said, "but more importantly, hitters think it looks funny."

The Yankees' bullpen is stuffed with hard throwers ! Mariano Rivera, Steve Karsay, Antonio Osuna ! and Hammond gives them a different look. As it is with all newcomers, he must prove he can handle the pressure of being a Yankee. But wherever he is, Hammond said, he will always be nervous.

Joel Sherman has a piece on Andy Pettitte, who is facing a crucial season in his career, and Jonah Keri conducts an outstanding interview with Oakland A's pitching coach, Rick Peterson, at Baseball Prospectus, that is well worth reading.

Finally, Murray Chass wrote a compelling article about the Jesse Orosco and the fountain of youth on Sunday. He also compiled a list of aging veterans who are willing to play for a fraction of what they once made, which once again suggests just how difficult it is for some players to leave the game. (Jim Caple and Aaron Gleeman give their takes on Rickey Henderson, who has not been signed by a team yet.)

Here is Dennis Eckersley, always a straight-shooter, talking to Mike Bryan in spring training 1988, from the book "Baseball Lives:"

People say baseball players should go out and have fun. No way. To me, baseball is pressure. I always feel it. This is work. The fun is afterwards, when you shake hands.

When I was a rookie I'd tear stuff up. Now I keep it in. What good is smashing a light on the way up the tunnel? But I still can't sleep at night if I stink. I've always tried to change that and act like a normal guy when I got home. "Hi, honey, what's happening?" I can't. It's there. It doesn't go away. But maybe that's why I've been successful in my career, because I care. I don't have fun. I pitch scared. That's what makes me go. Nothing wrong with being scared if you can channel it.

I issued to hide behind my cockiness. Don't let the other team know you're scared. I got crazy on the mound. Strike a guy out, throw my fist around---"Yeah!" Not real classy, but I was a raw kid. I didn't care. It wasn't fake. It was me. This wasn't taken very kindly by a lot of people. They couldn't wait to light me up. That's the price you pay.

・I wish I was a little happier in this game. What is so great about this shit? You get the money, and then you're used to the money. You start making half a million a year, next thing you know you need half a million a year. And the heat is on!

Used to be neat to just be a big-league ballplayer, but that wore off. I'm still proud, but I don't want people to bother me about it. I wish my personality with people was better. I find myself becoming short with people. Going to the store. Getting gas.

If you're not happy with when you're doing lousy, then not happy when you're doing well, when the hell are you going to be happy? This game will humble you in a heartbeat. Soon as you starting getting happy・Boom! For the fans---and this is just a guess---they think the money takes out the feeling. I may be wrong but I think they think, "What the hell is he worrying about? He's still getting' paid." There may be a few players who don't give 100 percent, but I always thought if you were good enough to make that kind of money, you'd have enough pride to play like that, wouldn't you think? You don't just turn it on!or off.

This got me thinking about the David Cone situation. While Eck is scathingly honest, in the mold of a Pat Jordan, Cone is far more measured and polished. Still, I think Eck hits on something universal when he said:

I've been very fortunate to pitch for fourteen years in the big leagues. That's a long time for a pitcher. I'm afraid of life after baseball. Petrified. I'm not ashamed of saying it. I'll be all right, but nothing will ever compare with this. I will not stay in baseball. I think about commercial real estate and money!big money!

Or maybe I'll grow up after I get ouf of this fuckin' game.

And that, I believe is at the heart of the matter for all American men, not just aging jocks: The fear of growing up.

Perish the thought.

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