Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
A Delicate Balance
2006-01-12 05:11
by Alex Belth

One of the most compelling aspects of baseball is the balance it requires of its participants--players, managers, owners, and fans alike. For the past couple of years, I keep thinking about Greg Maddux and his philosophy of throwing softer rather than harder when he's in a tight spot. Back in August of 2004, Mark Prior told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci:

"He's helped me tremendously," Prior says. "I've always gone harder whenever I'm in trouble. He's got me thinking, Go softer when I'm in trouble. I never thought that way before, and it's helped me develop confidence in my changeup."

In an earlier profile (August of 1995), Maddux told Verducci of a game in 1988 against the Cardinals, when he was still pitching for the Cubbies. Maddux lost in the 11th inning when Luis Alicea hit a fastball for a seeing-eye single with the bases loaded.

"I pitched 10 scoreless innings and lost because I was afraid to throw a changeup," he says.

"Now," says [then Giants pitching coach, Dick] Pole, "if he gets a full count on you with the bases loaded, he'll throw a changeup. That s.o.b doesn't even care about walking in the tying run."

I love the idea of doing something that seems instinctively wrong, counter-intuitive, but at the same time makes all the sense in the world. After all, how many times do we see a flame-throwing reliever over-throwing when he's in a jam late in the game? In this case, going with a softer pitch like a changeup, shows a greater sense of confidence and strength than going with a power pitch.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Peter Guralnick's outstanding book on Southern Rhythm and Blues music, "Sweet Soul Music". Willie Mitchell, who was responsible for producing most of Al Green's major records, is like the Maddux of music. Mitchell's wonderfully full and warm production style helped make Green a star; moreover, he knew how to harness Green's talents (like many soul singers, Green had strong gospel roots). Mitchell tells Guralnick:

"Well, you see, after we had done 'Tired of Being Alone' and 'I Can't Get Next to You,' I said, 'Al, look, we got to soften you up some.' I said, 'You got to whisper. You got to cut the lighter music. the melody has got to be good. You got to sing it soft. If we can get the dynamic bottom on it and make some sense with pretty changes, then we gonna be there.' He said, 'Man, I can't sing that way. That's too soft. That ain't gonna sound like no man singing.' We had the damnedest fights, but I think 'Let's Stay Together' really sold him that I had the right direction for him musically, 'cause, see, all the things I told him turned out to be true. Like 'Let's Stay Together' he didn't like at all, but when we put it out, it was gold in two weeks. So we softened and softened and softened."

...Willie Mitchell and Al Green would soon take soul music--real, unabashed, wholehearted soul music--to quiet, luxuriantly appointed places it had never been before.

A terrific example of what Mitchell describes can be found on Green's "I'm Still in Love with You," the album that also features "Love and Happiness" and "I'm Glad You're Mine." The last cut on the first side is called "Simply Beautiful," and the song has a special feel to it that is hard to describe. Intimate is the best word I can come up with. Anyhow, a record producer friend of mine explained to me a few years ago that the unique quality of the record was achieved by Mitchell turning up the recording levels on all of the microphones in the studio, and then getting Green and the musicians to play as softly as possible. Softer than soft. The results are subtle but powerful. It's like Green is right in your ear--and it is a devastatingly emotional love song.

In the black-and-white world we currently live in, where being "hard" is virile, powerful, masculine, and being "soft" is nothing short of an insult, it's great to remember than vulnerability is often the greatest sign of strength, the most powerful tool, no matter what art form you are talking about.

2006-01-12 05:59:16
1.   Rob Gee
Just back in the country and one quick stop here shows why I love this site so much. Thanks Alex.

For my personal closure, 1 rupee on the Damon acquisition, esp. in light of, what kills me is the Yanks of 2002 - present use the power pitch (spend mad duckets) instead of the equally effective slider or off-speed (MB). Any idiot GM with those ducks could have pulled in Damon. My question is: with all the people in the Yankee organization, this was the solution?

Yeah, it works, esp. since it hurts the Sox. But we know it's only a 2-3 year fix, and one with dimishing returns on OUR money (see increased ticket and cable costs). When you compare the other options (Crazy Uncle MIL-ton), the organization shows a marked lack of testicular fortitude. And the bullpen moves echo that same pattern. I thought last year taught them the value of risk/benefit analysis - obviously I thought wrong.

Sorry for being one month behind the news cycle.

2006-01-12 06:25:48
2.   Alex Belth
I love that Prior was picking that stuff up from Maddux. I mean, that's what makes pitchers like Pedro and Santana (and Gagne) so special--the fact that they can bring the heat, but also go softer'n'soft. Maddux never really embarrased hitters too tough--just frustrated the hell out of them. The guys who combine power and finesse, boy, they can make a batter look flat-out silly, huh?
2006-01-12 07:03:45
3.   Sliced Bread
The Maddux/Prior "less is more" approach reminds me of that classic Bugs Bunny baseball episode.

He's playing every position (pitcher, catcher, first, second, etc) against a team of gigantic, cigar-chomping brutes aptly named the "Gashouse Gorillas."

On the mound, Bugs tips his pitch to us, "Eh, I think I'll perplex him with my slowball." The ball approaches the plate at the speed of a glacier, striking out three Gashouse Gorillas in a row, "One, two, three strikes yer out! One, two, three strikes yer out! One, two, three strikes yer out!"

Later, Bugs is clinging to a 96 to 95 lead in the bottom of the ninth. A massive Gorilla steps to the plate, swinging a tree trunk. Bugs, on the mound, turns to us again, "Watch me paste this pathetic paloooka with a powerful pachydermous pitch." Of course the palooka smashes it out of the park. Luckily, Bugs manages to catch up to the ball atop the Umpire State Building, tosses his glove into the air, and makes a catch for the ages.

Of course the moral of the story to astute baseball observers is that Bugs could have saved himself the cab fare of a trip from the Polo Grounds to the Empire State Building by perplexing the palooka with his slowball.

2006-01-12 07:08:45
4.   Dimelo
I never understood why Clemens didn't try to develop a killer changeup to go with his fastball and splitter. That would have made him that much better. Is it just that some pitchers can't go soft w/o giving it away? There was a time late in 2004 and the begining of the '05 season where Ray Miller was preaching that to his pitchers in Baltimore. They seemed to be listening because they were winning a lot of games. At least the pitching was better. I believe his motto was: be quick, don't hurry, and change speeds often. Kaat is always questioning the logic of scouts who think that the fireball pitcher is a big prospect, and they discount the pitcher who doesn't have the mid 90's fastball but can outthink the hitter in the box. In my short life, I still feel the year Pedro had in '99 was one of the best I've ever seen from a pitcher - where the September game in 99 vs. the Yankees was one of the best single game pitching performances I've ever seen.
2006-01-12 07:30:21
5.   Alex Belth
"I never understood why Clemens didn't try to develop a killer changeup to go with his fastball and splitter. That would have made him that much better."

I'm not sure what the answer is as to why he's never developed a slower pitch--there is always talk about Mariano doing the same, but man, it is hard to imagine Clemens being any better than he's been. My guess is that throwing an off-speed pitch just isn't for everyone, for any number of reasons. And when you have a 90mph splitter like Roger's, or an insane cutter like Mo's, changeup? They don't need no stinkin' changeup.

2006-01-12 07:59:14
6.   jonm
That may be one of my all time favorite posts, Alex. It combines my two favorite subjects in the world -- baseball and soul music.
You're right about the Guralnick book, a true classic. It's not just the production, though. Green's musicians were the remnants of the old Stax band. The sublime drummer, Al Jackson, played on some of the earlier Green albums. Jackson was a drummer who played with utter restraint. He wasn't a basher at all and I really think that he was the vital cog at the center of the great Memphis soul sound.
What is great about the Memphis sound as a whole is that those musicians knew when not to play (I think this is something they picked up from country music which is all about restraint). The Stax/Hi musicians were just like great hitters who know when not to swing and great pitchers, like Maddux, who know when not to throw.
2006-01-12 08:08:57
7.   wsporter
A guy I remember as taking the path of least resistance through a lineup who had a lot of fun doing it was Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. He threw everything but the kitchen sponge at any speed possible at any time and got outs. He also shook infielders hands after a great play, during the inning. He threw balls out that had "hits in them", conducted grounds keeping chores between pitches and would take time to explain to an uncooperative ball where it should cross the plate on the upcoming pitch then would congratulate it when it did. He also looked like Big Bird's lost twin. He did his act one Monday night against us when A.B.C. carried a Monday Night Baseball package. He beat us pretty easily and made us look kind of silly doing it, lots of big cuts and plenty of dribblers to second and short. Thurman Munson was so pissed that in the post game interview he leveled an expletive ladened diatribe at "The Bird" ending it by describing him as a "Bush Leaguer". When asked about it Fidrych responded by asking "Munson who?".

He was so much fun and put so many asses in the seats in Detroit that they let him pitch on a bad knee which led to an arm injury which led to the end of his career. But he was fun while he lasted.

2006-01-12 08:17:23
8.   BxSparksNYC
Haven't posted since the baseball season ended but had to say the analogy with pitching and music plus the brief history on Mitchell and Green was tremendous. Great work Alex (no wonder SI scooped you up!)
2006-01-12 08:27:50
9.   Dimelo
Alex, I wasn't implying that Clemens isn't already dominant. Clemens has been great his entire career, but I'm just saying….that would make him that much more dominant with a changeup in his arsenal. I think back to the Angels series in '02, game 7 in '03 vs. the Sawx and the Cabrera at-bat in the World Series, if Roger had a change-up then whenever that splitty isn't splitting then that's a good hold-up-I-still-got-this-in-my-backpocket pitch. But like you said, there are a variety of reasons why pitchers don't develop a changeup.
2006-01-12 10:13:21
10.   Jon Weisman
Great post about a nuance that so many miss.
2006-01-12 10:13:42
11.   Beth
great post alex.
2006-01-12 10:13:42
12.   Sliced Bread
The "less is more" lesson Al Green learned in the studio is probably as old as music itself. Restraint, subtlety, understatement are the virtues of so many music masters.

My favorite story about a talented old music dog learning a few new tricks involves the clarinet virtuoso, Benny Goodman.

By the 1950's, Goodman was already a jazz legend, regarded as the top clarinet player in 'Swing.'

So what did he do? He sought out the top clarinettist in London (whose name unfortunately escapes me now) who completley changed the way Goodman played.

I don't recall all the details, but Goodman knew this English clarinet guru could help him with his fingering, even the way he held the instrument in his mouth, which could enrich his tone (which was somehow flawed to Goodman's ears).

In 1950-something, in the middle of his very successful career, Goodman secretly took clarinet lessons! and totally altered his technique.

As the story goes, Goodman went back to the start, only practicing low notes at a soft volume, working his way up from there.

He took lessons for a few months, and then stopped because he had to go back on tour.

In the middle of his tour, (from somewhere in the U.S) he called his teacher in London, asking if he could see him the next day.

Goodman flew to London, busted out his clarinet, and played some scales for his teacher. "Well?" he asked. The teacher assured him it sounded pretty damn good. Goodman replied, "I thought so, too" -- then jetted back to the U.S.

Going back to Alex's post, I'm not sure if Goodman would be described as a 'vulnerable' man -- but I thought it was very cool that an artist at the top of his game would go so far out of his way to make himself a better player, and to seek the praise and advice of a teacher.

2006-01-12 10:39:25
13.   Dimelo
The Griddle
Tommy Lasorda's diplomatic touch

You should read the Griddle on the right hand side. Tommy Lasorda apparently is pissed that Matusi & Iguchi aren't patriotic enough because they aren't representing Japan in the WBC. Lassorda, if you are reading this...please shut up!!!

Respectfully yours,
Your 3 pounds of spaghetti and meatball dinner.

2006-01-12 10:52:01
14.   Alex Belth
Less is more, man, it takes DISCIPLINE to go that route, doesn't it? Interestingly, sometimes it's a matter of ability. Miles Davis was mentored by Dizzy Gillespie and the other bop musicians whose style was to cram as many notes in as possible. Miles wanted to be like those guys. But he techically couldn't play as fast as Dizzy, and as a result, Davis' "cool" sound, which was in a way antithetical to the bop guys developed. He couldn't keep up with them, so his music, which had so many spaces in it, was born.

Of course, you can go too far in the other direction. A modern filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch actually bores me silly with all the minimalism--there isn't enough to keep me interested. But figuring out the balance is the key. How to make things breath. In painting, it's how the negative space in a picture is as important as the objects.

Which isn't to say that there are some great artists who go to extremes--look at Orson Wells or Scorsese. I love those guys. But I think I probably admire the artists who strike that balance between emotion and technique, action and space or silence, the most.

2006-01-12 11:28:02
15.   rbj
I'll chime in with a "good post, Alex" too.

This approach also works with Aikido. Whenever I screw up (which is most of the time) it's because I'm going hard and trying to force something. My sensei is always going on about being soft, but not being a limp noodle.

2006-01-12 11:50:52
16.   wsporter
Thanks for this one today Alex, it has a good feel and tone. When I think about doing more with less I think of Hemingway's prose and John Coltrane's Favorite Things and Samuel Beckett's plays and Ted Williams' swing and Pedro's change and Alex Arguello's short right hand. We look at these people and wonder how they do so much by doing so little. What we don't see is how much pain they endure to find and pare their art down to the razor's edge. To take away all that is unnecessary and leave only that which is needed to create something beautiful is the genius that keeps us coming back for more.
2006-01-12 12:38:51
17.   Dimelo
wsporter just waxing poetic....
2006-01-12 12:45:14
18.   bp1
Speaking of doing so much with so little (wsporter), anyone else amazed at how many of A-Rods home runs look like fly ball pop-ups? Effortless swing, the ball zooms up out of the tv screen, and you think "fly ball to left center".

Next thing you know - it's gone. Sometimes way gone.

That always gets me.

Sometimes it fools the TV guys, too, like his game winner off Schilling this past year. Listen to Michael Kay when A-Rod hit that ball. Not his typical "DEEP to center", but rather a somewhat subdued "fly ball to center". He didn't think it was gone.

It was. Way gone.

And you always hear in the post game "Just trying to get good wood on the ball" or "Just looking for a pitch to drive.".

Contrast that with Sheff (or someone like Dave Winfield), who almost come out of their shoes with the effort of their swings.

A-Rod is poetry in motion with that baseball bat. He makes it look very easy and effortless. Amazing.


2006-01-12 13:01:51
19.   JL25and3
Great point about ARod. Last year there were suggestions, coming from both the Red Sox and Gary Sheffield, that he wasn't the "most feared" hitter on the Yankees. I think one of the reasons is that he doesn't look the part - doesn't lean over the plate and waggle his bat menacingly like Ortiz, doesn't swing nearly as hard as Sheffield (no one does). But ARod hits some astonishingly long home runs - one last year went out to the left of the visitor's bullpen, out by the ambulances. I've been going to the Stadium for 40 years, and I don't recall ever seeing one hit out there.
2006-01-12 13:37:23
20.   Dimelo
Nice piece on Jeter.

2006-01-12 13:47:43
21.   yankz
Haha Dimelo you just beat me. here's the tiny url:
2006-01-12 13:53:47
22.   Dimelo
Yankz, did you click on the link with Jeter's girls? That was great. I loved the batting 9th comment.
2006-01-12 14:12:07
23.   yankz
Yeah, that was hilarious. Also check this out:

2006-01-12 14:47:33
24.   wsporter
Speaking of minimalism, a Mr. K. Millar signed with the O's today. Is there any point in playing out the string or should the AL East crown simply be handed to Wild Bill Hagy and the Lemon Aid Guy right now?
2006-01-12 16:41:35
25.   bobtaco
Hey Alex, you may be interested in the new Cat Power album "The Greatest" which is dropping on January 24th.

"Marshall (Cat Power) returned to Memphis, pursuing this time the slinky Hi Records sound of the 70s, famed for its sensuous feel and beguiling rhythms. She got Al Green's guitarist and songwriting partner Mabon "Teenie" Hodges to play guitar on the whole album (Teenie co-wrote "Love and Happiness" and "Take Me to the River," among other soul classics). With Teenie came his Hi Rhythm bandmate (and brother) Leroy "Flick" Hodges, who plays on half of the album (Memphis A-team bassist Dave Smith supplements). Anchoring the band is Steve Potts, whose reputation on drums was solidified when the surviving members of Booker T. and the MG's asked him to replace their late drummer, Al Jackson. Other top Memphis musicians guest on keyboards, horns and strings. Cat Power went right to the sources, and has created her own paean to the songs and styles she grew up on."

Check out the full review:

2006-01-12 18:30:25
26.   brockdc
Just listened to the "The Greatest" single on Itunes and really dug it. Thanks, Bobtaco. If interested in musical minimalism, you may also want to check out Iron and Wine and/or Wilco, if you haven't already done so.
2006-01-12 18:31:07
27.   uburoisc
Great post, Alex. Bill Evan's exquisitely restrained solo on "Blue in Green" comes to mind as a great example; it's not just the notes, but the space between them, the anticipation, that creates the mood. In my opinion, it is the ballads that really distinguish the great from the mediocre musicians; it is very difficult to play soft. Charley Parker could really fly, but his ballads are absolutely heartbreaking; tender, delicate, refined, and thoughtful.
2006-01-13 11:53:33
28.   vockins
Re: restraint

Sometimes you get Al Green, sometimes you get Pablo Cruise.

2006-01-14 08:05:09
29.   Blah Blah Blah
Al Green is so great. Thanks for the memory-jog. His less-is-more approach made his cover of the Bee Gees "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart" another classic piece.
2006-01-14 11:36:22
30.   The Mick 536
Woderful how you mixed baseball and blues. Al Green on this grey Vermont Saturday. Terrific.

Watched The Man Who Wasn't There today, too. Black and White on color film. Has an ethereal quality. Noirish characters not only come from the shadows, but they sort of glow. Music makes the story move slower than it really does. Quite unexpected. Quite different from After the Fall or Double Indemnity where the narrator seems asleep but the action zips forward. A tip to Maddox who evidently applied the same tempo.

2006-01-15 12:35:10
31.   The Mick 536
Sorry to post twice. Noirish movie was out of the past with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. And how could I ignore the barbershop implications of the Coen Bros movie in light of your story about the Smith Street shop. Boo on me.

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