November 7, 2006

Mighty Mussina At Bat

One of the things I love and also hate about baseball is when a player makes a position switch. The old adage is that the ball will find them all the time to test them. For example, watching Sheffield at first base made me cringe because the switch from right field was made at a critical time of the year and extended into the post season. One needs a lot more than the time Sheffield was given to feel comfortable in a new spot, much less develop the instincts that go along with making a play. Still, it was interesting watching the experiment unfold as the heavily muscled right fielder nearly did splits at first base to dig the ball out of the dirt on bad throws.

Fans of American League baseball always sense the awkwardness a pitcher feels when stepping up to the plate in a National League ballpark during inter-league play, perhaps for the first time in his major league career. The pitcher is out of his element, and that adds a whole new dimension to the game. You root for the pitcher, hoping for a hit, a single, double, or a home run. I especially enjoy watching Mike Mussina at bat. He's so serious as a pitcher, and looks so uncomfortable with a bat in his hand, the disparity is amusing. But, a manager, even in the National League, never counts on his pitcher to hit, so Mussina's uneasiness with the bat isn't catastrophic. That's what I mean by fun.

Position moves are nothing new in baseball, the most prominent one in recent times being Alex Rodriguez's switch to third base from shortstop when joining the Yankees. Also, utility players often are adept at playing two or three positions. But, it is entertaining, to say the least, when these changes occur, if the game or the season is not on the line.

There are so many elements of the game dictated by the player's agility, power, baseball "intelligence", and attitude, that a move of a distance of a few yards to the left or to the right has the potential to throw the entire game out of whack, or even cost a team their season. Much will be written about Sheffield's brief term at first base. It certainly wasn't the cause of the Yankee's collapse in against the Tigers, but it didn't help. Remember Chuck Knoblauch's seemingly incurable throwing "yips"? Thanks to Tino Martinez's athleticism, many a ball headed for the stands were retrieved by his glove. A move of many yards to left field solved that problem for both Knoblauch and the Yankees as in his case, throwing the ball five or six feet off line from left field wasn't as dangerous as throwing from second to first.

Also, when a player you're a fan of sadly leaves your team and dons the uniform or another, you feel remorse when you see him swing the bat in a game for the "new team". The player seems alienated, a stranger to you, and you want to cheer for him again. Gone are the familiar pinstripes, and there are other fans from some different city claiming your hero. That's where the fun ends. I remember watching Tino Martinez in a Cardinals uniform as I was flipping through the channels following a Yankee game. Yes, I rooted for Tino, hoping he'd get a hit with a runner on first a no one out. He didn't get a hit, but he moved the runner over. Go Tino.

Tino did come back to the Yankees for one final, farewell season. It was great to cheer him one last time, to see him reluctantly come out for a curtain call as all modest baseball heroes do. Now he is gone, Sheffield will be gone soon too, hopefully, and that leaves Giambi. Time for a position change for DH.

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