The Way Things Used To Be 35, Stanky At Bat

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on February 19, 2009 0 Comments

As leadoff batter, Stanky steps into the batter’s box at the start of a game, and just as the pitcher begins his windup, Stanky throws up his hand, steps out of the batter’s box, asks for a time out. An imaginary speck of dirt has flown into his eye. The pitcher, all warmed up, filled with start-of-the game adrenalin, ready to throw a first pitch strike to the notorious walk-seeking “Brat” at the plate, has to stand on the mound watching as Stanky tugs at his eyelash and rolls his eye. The pitcher know it’s a vicious charade, but there’s nothing he can do.

Once the speck is dislodged, Stanky steps back into the batter’s box.  The pitcher puts his foot back onto the rubber ready to throw that crucial first-pitch strike. Suddenly, Stanky throws up his hand and backs out of the box again. He goes to the batter’s circle, picks up the rosin bag, dusts his hands. The stress of dislodging the imaginary speck of dirt has made his palms sweat.

Another minute goes by.  Now, eyes clear, palms dry, Stanky returns to the batter’s box. The pitcher gets back on the rubber, starts his windup and suddenly sees that Stanky has stooped into an exaggerated crouch, bending at the knees and waist in a way that reduces the height of his already short strike zone by at least twelve inches.

Again, the pitcher stops in the middle of his windup. He steps off the rubber and howls a protest to the umpire. The pitcher’s manager comes running to home plate, howling his own protest. Stanky steps out of the batter’s box shaking his head in disbelief. What will these bush league morons think of next?

The umpire listens to the pitcher. He listens to the manager. He turns to Stanky and tells him he cannot exaggerate his crouch. Now Stanky howls a protest. He is not exaggerating his crouch! That is his natural stance!

Leo The Lip Durocher erupts from the Giant dugout and comes running out to home plate. “Conspiracy!” he cries.  “Delay of game!” The pitcher and opposing team manager are trying to prevent his athlete from assuming his normal stance!

Ten minutes have passed. The pitcher has not yet thrown that crucial first pitch and now he is no longer all warmed-up. If it is a home game the people in the stands are hooting at the pitcher, the pitcher’s manager and the umpire. If it is an away game, the people in the stands are booing Stanky and Durocher. The pitcher’s start-of-the-game adrenalin has turned to gall and Stanky’s malignant spirits have seeped into the pitcher’s head, into the pitcher’s manager’s head, and into the heads of the crowd.

Stanky smiles. The game has not even started yet, but he likes it when the crowd is booing. He likes it when the pitcher is angry. Angry pitchers make mistakes and Stanky’s methods of infuriating pitchers before they pitch are benign in comparison to those he brings to bear once a pitcher actually starts throwing the ball. Unlike other ballplayers, Stanky cares little about getting hits. He cares only about getting to first base and in the most demoralizing way possible, Nothing demoralizes a pitcher more than giving unintentional bases on balls to hitters as weak as Stanky.

Stanky steps back into the batter’s box. He wiggles his shoulders. He wiggles his hips. He is attempting to adjust his body to the unnatural stance the pitcher and umpire have forced him to assume.  

His batting eye is the best in baseball. He knows each umpire’s individual strike zone, never swings at a pitch a single millimeter outside that strike zone, and strikes out fewer times per time at bat than anybody but Don Mueller, who is batting third in the Giant lineup this day.

The average ballplayer strikes out more often than he walks; Stanky walks better than three times for every time he strikes out. Only thirty-three players in the entire history of baseball have ever gotten on base a higher percentage of the times they came to bat than Stanky—Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, the greatest hitters in history, all hitters opposing pitchers give scores of intentional bases on balls to cut their batting effectiveness. 

No pitcher ever gives an intentional base on balls to Stanky, but Stanky’s on-base-percentage is .410. He gets to first base more than four times in every ten times he bats. Not Joe DiMaggio, Hans Wagner, Rod Carew or Alex Rodriguez have equaled that. In fact, no other ballplayer with as low a batting and slugging average as Stanky has ever equaled that. How does he contrive to do it?

Today, the pitcher’s first pitch is a fastball, but irate over Stanky’s antics and the way he is wiggling about in the batter’s box, the pitcher puts too much on it, releases too soon and the pitch sails high—ball one. The catcher stands up, raises his hand to calm the pitcher down, calls for a slow curve. The pitcher throws toward the inside corner, the ball crosses the plate, curves down and away and Stanky, hands high on the bat, contemptuously taps it foul down the first base line. The pitcher throws another strike. Stanky taps this one foul down the third base line. The pitcher throws a fastball high and tight trying to blast it past and strike Stanky out. Stanky lets it go—ball two.  The pitcher throws two fastball strikes that Stanky, with perfect bat control, spoils by tapping foul. He is baseball’s leading expert at spoiling pitches by tapping them foul. He holds his hands high on the bat handle but not spread apart in a way that would allow the umpire to call him out for bunting foul with two strikes. Stanky is also baseball’s leading expert at following the literal word of the rulebook while violating its intent.

The catcher comes out to the mound. “This is not baseball,” the pitcher complains. The catcher agrees. “Do not lose this son of a bitch,” he says. They’re correct. It’s not baseball. It’s Stanky Ball. The catcher returns to his position. Stanky crowds closer to home plate. He leads the league in getting hit by a pitch. The rumor is he starches the left sleeve of his uniform so he can stick it out across homeplate and get it hit. The catcher calls for change-up, but outside. Too far outside—ball three. Two more fastballs. Stanky slaps them foul. The pitcher cannot afford to walk him. Alvin Dark is on deck. If Stanky walks, Dark will hit and run and slap a shyster ground ball through a hole in the infield. Stanky will go around to third. Then there will be men on first and third, nobody out, with Don Mueller, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays and Bobby Thomson, all the Giants’ heavy hitters coming up.

The pitcher comes in with his best fastball. Stanky slaps it foul. The pitcher comes in with his curve. It is his eleventh pitch of the inning. It breaks too far outside—ball four. Stanky throws his bat away. He trots to first. Dark steps into the batter’s box. On the first pitch, Stanky fakes a run toward second. The second basemen breaks for the bag. Stanky stops. Now Dark knows where the hole will be in the infield. That is where he will hit his shyster ground ball. Durocher signals hit and run. Dark touches his cap. Stanky smiles. He is a man ahead of his time. He has introduced 1990s morality into the 1940s and 50s.

Herb L

About the Author ()

Born in New York City, 1932, attended PS 6, Bronx Science, Heights College, NYU, (now closed), English major, 1952 US Army. Went to graduate school in Europe on the GI Bill 1955-60, studied art history at Courtauld Institute of Art, languages at Universi

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