Episode 40 — Chapter 46
Many experts claim that the home run has become far too commonplace in today’s game. Astonishingly, home runs are up nearly 50% from just ten years ago, and the upward spike in strikeouts is almost as high. Strikeouts now outpace base hits, as every batter seems to swing from his heels, hoping to launch the ball into orbit. Batters go deeper into the count with far less frequent contact than yesteryear’s batsmen, causing a 50% increase in the number of pitches per game.
Can balance be restored to baseball? No one is suggesting making the fence-clearing home run extinct, as it was in the ancient game. But baseball could certainly benefit from fewer strikeouts and more contact between bat and ball. At first glance, it may seem blasphemous, but moving fences back, along with raising their height, could help the game’s balance. Today, the average distance down the foul lines is 330 feet, with centerfield 403 feet away. If we add another thirty feet to the foul lines and increased centerfield by twenty feet, the number of home runs would decrease by one-third—resulting in pretty much the same frequency as ten years ago. With fences moved back, we would see more fielders sprinting back to make great plays and home runs would become a little bit more special. Unfortunately, moving fences back would be a huge logistical nightmare—you’d have to demolish existing bleachers or other structures, and completely reconfigure most stadiums; good-bye to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, and that would truly be a calamity. Moreover, one of the fascinations with baseball is the fact that each park has its own dimensions, though that diversity could remain even if minimum distances were instituted. Of course, owners and players would most certainly revolt, so obviously it will never happen. Nevertheless, it could change the dynamics of the game in a very positive way—more contact and fewer strikeouts! The exceedingly rare inside-the-park homerun might even replace the triple as the most exciting play in baseball.
Some commentators have proposed tampering with the strike-zone or mound height, but few, if any, have considered what may be a far better alternative: increasing the mound distance from the plate. Before baseball purists rise up and revolt, it has happened before! Nineteenth-century pitchers threw from a distance of fifty feet—and were even allowed a running start before releasing the ball; batting averages began to plummet as hitters had little reaction time to track the pitch. As a consequence, the mound distance was changed to sixty feet six inches in 1893, where it’s been ever since.
Baseball is a game of symmetry. If we find the exact mid-point between home and second base, and third base and first, and place the pitcher’s slab smack-dab in the middle, it is 63.64 feet, or about 63 feet and 7 1/2 inches from home plate. The additional three feet would make a 95 mph fastball appear 90 or a 100 mph pitch look like 95. End result, more reaction time for hitters, resulting in more contact at the plate and a corresponding reduction in strikeouts. Some may argue that the change would create a wave of new arm injuries, but moving the mound back is a better alternative than making the ball more dense to reduce the distance it can travel, as some others have proposed. Most prognosticators, however, believe that the baseball brain trusts will lower the mound again, just as they did in 1969 during the “Year of the Pitcher,” before we ever see the distance from the pitching rubber to the plate increased.
In addition to commentary about improving the game, a secondary article was devoted to the never-ending debate as to how yesteryear’s Hall of Fame hitters would fare facing today’s pitchers. Baseball was the only major sport where such comparisons could realistically be made, since modern-day football players average a hundred more pounds of girth and basketball players six inches more in height than their early-day counterparts. Size and brawn in baseball never determined excellence, except when it came to hitting the long ball or throwing hard; rather reflexes, vision and reaction time were far more critical. In the modern game, a 5 foot 6 inch second baseman, José Altuve, emerged as the game’s best player for a time, a height that was considered puny even a hundred years before. While a pitcher’s velocity has markedly increased in the modern game along with the proliferation of relief pitchers, today’s hitters never had to face the spitball, nor a ball darkened with dirt and grime, exacerbated by growing darkness in later innings. Maybe, the top hitters from yesteryear would be nimble enough to adapt to faster pitches by reducing the weight of their bats.
Since returning home to St. Louis, Savannah stayed in frequent touch with Calvin and Annabelle. The topic of conversation, more often than not, centered on updates surrounding the progress and well-being of their guest. Savannah had composed several letters to Cobb, but only one had withstood her editorial scrutiny and been sent; it ended up rather sterile in content, thanking Cobb for his help with the story and letting him know how much she appreciated his friendship. She debated internally how to close the letter, before finally ending with simply “Love, Savannah.”
Savannah’s thoughts often returned to her haunted and lonely friend. There was something about Cobb that intrigued her, yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Maybe it was his simplicity, his brutal honesty and his lack of guile that she found refreshing. But, who was he really? Of course, it was a ridiculous notion that her new friend had been inexplicably thrust forward in time, yet when she was in his presence, the impossible seemed possible.
A year before, Savannah had vowed never to become involved with another professional athlete. She had dated a quarterback with the Las Vegas Raiders for a time, only to learn that he had been sighted with another woman in Miami. Before that, it had been a pitcher for the Orioles, who had become an overnight sensation after winning eighteen games; with his new-found celebrity, he suddenly found the female sex far more interested in him than before. There was just simply too much temptation on the road for the successful star; few men could withstand the unrelenting onslaught of flirting and come-ons from the fairer sex over an extended period of time. Yet, Cobb was cut from a different mold. He always displayed excellent manners and it was clear he was no womanizer. It was touching how much Cobb revered his wife, though Savannah couldn’t be sure if the woman was real or a creation of his delusion.
Anxious to see him again, Savannah made plane reservations for another trip to Augusta. Departing on the morning of April 3rd, she expected to reach her brother’s farm the evening before the Braves’ season opener.
The Cains and their guest had just sat down to dinner when the doorbell interrupted their grace. Annabelle left her seat at the table to answer the door and was mildly surprised to see Savannah standing at the door; she had seen more of her sister-in-law in the last sixty days than she had in several years’ time.
“I really meant to call, but it was easier just to…”
“I’ve got plenty more food,” Annabelle cut her short, “and you know how much we love having you visit.”
Entering the dining area, Savannah was surprised at how happy she was to see Cobb.
“Hello, Ty. So nice to see you again,” she said with a wide smile, addressing him by his first name for the first time, without thinking.
Cobb stood up from where he had been seated at the table.
“A pleasure to see you again, Miss Cain.”
“Annabelle, go set a place for Savannah, please” Calvin interjected as he gave his baby sister a warm hug. “Chicken fried steak tonight, sis.”
“Oh, I’m really not hungry.”
“Sit with us anyway. It’s mighty good to have your company and congratulations on that great story.”
“Thanks to our Mr. Cobb,” Savannah held her hand toward Cobb. “He deserves half the credit.”
“Only half?” Cobb joked. Savannah was pleased to see a rare attempt at humor by Cobb. She took a seat at the table and even helped herself to a small helping of the chicken steak.
“Ty and I are going to be payin’ a visit to Mr. Bolt, day after tomorrow. Drummond nearly threw us out on our ears.”
“Annabelle told me about it,” Savannah remarked casually referring to their phone conversation a couple of days before. “But I’ll just bet Mr. Bolt is daring enough to give Ty a look-see.”
“Especially after your article,” Annabelle added.
“He’ll do it, all right. After their glory years, the Braves could use a shot in the arm.” Calvin pulled out some tickets and turning to Cobb, remarked, “Speaking of the Braves, thought you might want to see your new club play. Box seats for the home opener tomorrow night. We can stay in Atlanta after the game and see Bolt the next day. Got an extra ticket, Savannah, if you’d care to join us.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
After dinner, Savannah and Cobb chatted by the fire for a couple of hours. The conversation had begun like so many before, with Cobb sharing his awe at discovering something new and exciting in the modern world. The latest revelation had been his introduction to a compact disc in Annabelle’s station wagon a few days before. Accompanying Annabelle on an excursion to the local store for farm supplies, Cobb had been shocked to hear a recent recording of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto from the Deutsche Grammophone label, one of his favorite pieces. Cobb explained to Savannah that his father would have sold his soul to have heard the masters performing in the privacy of his home.
The wonderment later gave way to a more sober mood as Cobb related his heartache in searching out his home and family. Savannah sensed a more mature friend, until Cobb lost his composure, and quickly exited from the room.
A few minutes later, Savannah found Cobb in the family room, his head buried in his hands. Savannah sat down next to him and put her arm around him.
“Ty, don’t feel ashamed. It’s beautiful thing to see how much you care for your wife and children. Somehow, things will work out. You’ll see.”