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A Farewell to Finesse

It was finesse that counted. But then this slugger stepped up and away went strategy—along with the ball

In my salad days as a ballplayer, some 30 years ago, when I was second baseman and captain of the Ironclad AC, the boy who could hit the long ball was not necessarily held in high esteem. He was called a slugger, of course, and when he came to the plate we'd wave frantically to the outfielders, shouting to them to play back. But the slugger, then as now, struck out frequently. It was generally agreed by the "good field, no hit" fraternity, to which most of us belonged, that he hit the long ball not because he was endowed with special skill but because he was bigger and heavier and usually older than the rest of us.

The slugger had standing, of course. He was accorded a grudging respect (who knew when he would get hold of one?) but if he was admired it was as a freak is admired at the circus, an object to stare at, perhaps, or to wonder about. One did not envy a freak, so it did not occur to us to envy a slugger.

We won games because we played heads-up baseball. Craft and guile were the virtues we cultivated, not brawn. That wasn't in the book yet. Innocents that we were, we played for one run. We took pride in winning the close ones. We lived for the moment when we could confound the opposition with the smart play. Strategy, pure and preferably intricate in design, fascinated us, and surely it was an intricate piece of strategy, with a minor but unfortunate deviation, which won for us, one year, the championship of the Eagle League.

I was reminded of that bygone classic, witnessed by a dozen or so lackluster fans (younger brothers and sisters of the contending parties), by an event I once saw at Yankee Stadium. Trailing by a run in the ninth inning, with two out and a man on first, Ralph Houk called on Johnny Blanchard to pinch-hit.

Houk's strategy was simplicity itself. Blanchard swung at the first ball pitched, lofting it in a graceful arc far and deep into the upper deck of the right-field stands. The game was over. The Yankees had won. It was, to be sure, a dramatic victory, but it lacked subtlety. Thirty-four years ago, in a situation not unlike the one just described, the Ironclads had done it differently.

We used a pinch hitter, too, but we didn't call on a slugger. We called on Shrimp Bogler. The Shrimp was 13 years old. He was the extra man on the squad. Agile and nimble, there wasn't anything on a baseball diamond that he couldn't do. He was the best infielder we had; once, in an emergency, when Art Timmons had the measles, he caught two games for us. He was death on fly balls. I don't believe I ever saw him drop one. But the machine, so delicately designed, had a defect. Shrimp Bogler could not hit.

As I said, we were in the ninth inning. The championship of our division (was it the Midget?) of the Eagle League was at stake. A run behind the Spartans when we came in for our last at bats, we had tied the score on a double and a fading Texas Leaguer behind second, but the boy who had hit the blooper tried for two and was cut down. Then our slugger, George Haywood, struck out. It was two out now, and Art Timmons was up.

We held a hurried conference, and it was decided (Gene Saddler and I were the brain trust) to pinch hit for Art, who had struck out on three previous trips to the plate. I can still see Art's face when he was told that he was being taken out of the game, but more distinctly still can I hear his anguished screams when he learned that he was to stand aside for The Shrimp. Art was a big boy, too, and there was the little matter of getting the bat (the only bat) away from him. This was finally accomplished by having Manny Gold, Herb Goetz and Phil Williams pile on Art, pin him to the ground and rip the bat from his straining fingers while Gene and I conferred with The Shrimp.

The Shrimp's instructions were simple and to the point. We knew what we wanted him to do. Every possible contingency was thought of, not forgetting the threat that if he didn't do what we told him to do, exactly and down to the last detail, he'd be sorry. The Shrimp knew that he would be, too, and he kept on nodding his head. "Sure, sure whatever you guys want."

The Shrimp was about 4 feet 8 inches tall, and his instructions were, if memory does not fail, to step to the plate, crouch low, making himself as small as possible, and keep his bat on his shoulder. Under no condition was he to swing at the ball. If he was called out on strikes, we would take the blame.

We figured it this way. The opposing pitcher knew that The Shrimp could not hit the side of a barn, and would suspect that we were hoping for a base on balls. He'd become overcareful and wouldn't be able to put one across the plate.

It worked. The Shrimp walked, and Gene Saddler went down to coach at first base. Again we played it smart. In a clear, loud taunting voice Gene kept yelling to The Shrimp, "Remember now, he's up in the air, go down on the first pitch. You can steal it, kiddo."

War of nerves

I don't have to tell you that the pitcher, alert to the developing threat, made a hurried throw to the bag, that it was wild (we'd foreseen the possibility of a bad throw, of course) and The Shrimp scooted to second.

Along the first base line, the Ironclads en masse, including the recently stricken Art Timmons, were screaming insults at the opposition, while at the plate stood the next batter, Billy Mason, waving his bat menacingly and calling to the pitcher to put one over (also part of the overall strategy).

I was coaching at third. Now I got into the act. "Come on, Shrimp," I called through cupped hands, "the second he lets go, steal." The pitcher let go, the ball was in the dirt in front of the plate, and The Shrimp, sliding unnecessarily but with typical Ironclad finesse, was safe.

The winning run was now at third. There was one ball on the batter. Again we called time. Billy Mason was instructed to swing at the next ball pitched. He was to swing (to confuse the catcher), but he was to miss. For on the pitch The Shrimp would attempt to steal home.

Like Art Timmons before him, and like so many people in this world who refuse to play the lesser role even though it serves the greater good, Billy was reluctant to go along with the overall strategy. He felt that he was entitled to a good healthy cut at the ball. So we had to reason with him. We were not in any position to jump him, pin him to the ground and have someone pinch-hit for him, someone amenable to authority. We didn't have the someone, amenable or otherwise. Instead we fell back on the intellectual approach, explaining that we were operating according to a master plan, that victory was within our grasp if only he made this single and selfless contribution, and anyhow, who did he think he was? Ty Cobb?

Now I don't want to record in print that Billy Mason doublecrossed us, or that it wasn't his sincere intent to swing and miss as he had been instructed. But he didn't miss. He caught hold of one, and there was the ball winging its way into Mr. Dakin's rose garden (an automatic home run according to previous agreement), and The Shrimp was over with the winning run. Mr. Dakin copped the ball.

Yelping with joy, we rushed to the plate, expressing the moment's ecstasy by piling on The Shrimp, pummeling him and each other with such indiscriminate enthusiasm that Manny Gold and Gene Saddler squared off in earnest, and had to be separated by the more peace-loving members of the team.

Meanwhile, Billy Mason had circled the bases, but by the time he had touched home plate there was no one there to greet him, to grasp him by the hand, which was in my day, even as it is now, the etiquette of the situation. Instead, with The Shrimp precariously perched on George Haywood's shoulders, we formed a procession and marched in the general direction of the street where most of us lived. "Hail, hail, the gang's all here." we sang.

Bewildered by our indifference, and not yet having had the opportunity to reflect on the enormity of his crime (he was to swing and miss, wasn't he?) Billy Mason ran back and forth along the line of singing and dancing boys, grabbing one, then another, trying to attract attention to himself, seeking some sign of approval for the tremendous blow he had struck in the pinch. But we did not pay any attention to Billy.

In fact, because we were sound baseball men, it was agreed without a dissenting voice that Billy had to be disciplined. After some debate he was fined 50¢ (which he never paid) and was suspended for the balance of the season.

It all came back to me at the Stadium, when Houk called on Blanchard to pinch-hit. What a moment it would have been for Ironclad strategy. I wonder what Gene Saddler and I would have dreamed up had we been sitting on the Yankee bench? Would we have dug deep into our bag of tricks? Would we have figured that we could win by confounding the opposition, by doing the unexpected? Would we have passed up Blanchard and, peering down the bench, called on a pitcher with an anemic batting average? And then have him stand at the plate with instructions not to swing, remembering that it worked for us with Shrimp Bogler the day we spoon-fed panic to the Spartans, and that it might work again?

I don't know. We would have squared the circle somehow. But we wouldn't have told Johnny Blanchard to knock one out of the park. That would have been too simple.