Small Up.

I was saddened to hear of Roger Angell’s death — though not surprised, since he was 101 years old. He was the greatest baseball writer who ever lived (and he only got into the Hall of Fame by the skin of his teeth, since the sportswriters who do the voting didn’t have time for a magazine guy who wasn’t there day in, day out like they were); an annual highlight of my life as a fan was buying the copy of the New Yorker with his essay on the season just past, and I’ll never forget the palindromic title of the 1986 installment that culminated in the long-drawn-out, agonizing defeat of the seemingly eternally cursed Red Sox by my long-hapless, suddenly triumphant Mets: NOT SO, BOSTON. I am smuggling him into the hallowed halls of the Hattery by quoting a paragraph with an unusual verb usage, from his brilliant 1980 piece on Bob Gibson (the article link should work at the moment even for nonsubscribers, and anyone who loves the game should read the whole thing):

On another day, Omaha slowly came to a broil under a glazy white sun while Gibson and I ran some early-morning errands in his car—a visit to his bank, a stop at the drive-in window of another bank, where he picked up the payroll checks for Gibby’s—and wound up at the restaurant, where the daytime help greeted the boss cheerfully. Gibson seemed in an easy frame of mind, and he looked younger than ever. I recalled that many of his teammates had told me what good company he was in the dugout and on road trips—on days when he wasn’t pitching. He was a comical, shrill-voiced bench jockey, and a grouchy but lighthearted clubhouse agitator, who was sometimes known to bang a bat repeatedly and horribly on the metal locker of a teammate who was seen to be suffering the aftereffects of too many ice-cream sodas the previous evening. While he drove, Gibson, with a little urging, recalled how he had pitched to some of the prime hitters of his day—inside fastballs to Willie Mays (who feasted on breaking pitches), belt-high inside deliveries to Eddie Mathews, low and away to Roberto Clemente, and so on. He said that Frank Robinson used to deceive pitchers with his plate-crowding (Robinson was a right-handed slugger of fearsome power, whose customary stance at the plate was that of an impatient subway traveller leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train), because they took it to mean that he was eager for an inside pitch. “Besides,” he said, “they’d be afraid of hitting him and putting him on base. So they’d work him outside, and he’d hit the shit out of the ball. I always tried him inside, and I got him out there—sometimes. He was like Willie Mays—if you got the ball outside to Willie at all, he’d just kill you. The same with Clemente. I could throw him a fastball knee-high on the outside corner seventeen times in a row, but if I ever got it two inches up, he’d hit it out of sight. That’s the mark of a good hitter—the tiniest mistake and he’ll punish you. Other batters—well, somebody like Joe Adcock was just a guess hitter. You’d pitch him up and in, and he’d swing and miss every time. He just didn’t give a damn. I don’t know what’s the matter with so many hitters—it’s like their brains small up.” He shook his head and laughed softly. “Me, too. I got beat by Tommy Davis twice the same way. In one game, I’d struck him out three times on sliders away. But I saw that he’d been inching up and inching up toward that part of the plate, so I decided to fool him and come inside, and he hit a homer and beat me, one-oh. And then, in another game, I did exactly the same thing. I tried to outthink him, and he hit the inside pitch for a homer, and it was one-oh all over again. So I could get dumb, too.”

(I read aloud much of that paragraph, like so much else in the essay, to my wife, lingering with especial delight on “whose customary stance at the plate was that of an impatient subway traveller leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train.”) I was struck by Gibson’s “it’s like their brains small up”; the OED has an entry for the unusual verb to small (1. transitive. To make thin or small; to lessen, reduce. Also with down. […] 2. intransitive. To become thin or small; to diminish, grow less. Also with down, off), but no examples of it with up. Here are a couple of recent citations:

1999 National Geographic Dec. 47/2 The deer adapted to their environment by smalling down and enjoying having Big Pine to themselves.
2002 S. Burke Deadwater viii. 75 Her voice smalled off so pathetically that he might have hugged her but that she was responding too well.

Maybe now Gibby will make it in to the OED on Angell’s wings.

Incidentally, I was pleased to see this in Tyler Kepner’s NYT reminiscence:

Angell was not a gauzy romantic — he hated “Field of Dreams” — but he saw enough baseball to know when something seemed off. The last time I spoke with him, on the phone last spring, he mentioned that his eyesight was failing but that he still tuned in daily to the games. One new wrinkle appalled him: the runner placed on second base to begin each extra inning.

“It violates everything in baseball,” Angell said. “You put a runner on second who hasn’t earned it, you’re trying to shorten the game. Every effort now is to shorten the game instead of letting it go on. The man on second is the first in baseball history to never earn what he got.”

In baseball, I agreed, there should always be a how and a why.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “There’s an accounting for every space. It balances, as we know. That’s one of the fascinating, great things about the game. It balances so evenly and has so many astounding events in the middle of it.”

I’ve put up with a lot in my long life as a fan, from my beloved Washington Senators moving to Minnesota and becoming the Twins to the addition of interleague games (when Gibson beat Detroit in the 1968 Series opening game — “It was like watching a big-league pitcher against Little League batters” — most of the Tigers had never seen him pitch before) and one, then two, layers of playoffs (so that two mediocre teams who get lucky can wind up facing each other in the Series); I always threatened to give up the game if the National League ever adopted the designated hitter (“Who wants to see pitchers try to hit?” is the inevitable snappy comeback; “I do!” is mine), but it turns out that damnable development didn’t bother me nearly as much as the extra unearned runner. It is truly a debasement of the game, and though I’m enjoying the Mets’ current domination of the NL East, I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm. For me, it ranks right up there with global warming as a sign of the End Times.

Comments

  1. I know little of baseball, but as a first approximation the man on second seems to remove about 25% of the game, whereas soccer’s penalty shootout removes about 98%. Either count yourself lucky, or prepare for the opening of six more seals.

  2. Yes, the penalty shootout is an abomination, but there doesn’t seem to be a good alternative accepted by a convincing majority of fans and other (shudder) “stakeholders”; in baseball the alternative is simply to play the damn game and let it take as long as it takes. If you want a quick finish, watch a horserace.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Baseball is as complicated as a natural language. You learn it (if a typical American) in childhood by osmosis so it seems sort of natural and largely common-sensical and then it is only when you have occasion as an adult to try to explain it to a foreigner (who keeps asking totally reasonable clarifying questions that you have great difficulty giving simple answers to) that you realize how complex and convoluted and non-intuitive (to an outsider) it all is.

    There seem to be multiple Angell pieces where someone-or-other will have claimed that this particular one is the greatest piece of writing about baseball ever.

    To mollymooly, I am actually old enough to remember soccer from before the days (at least in the U.S.) of penalty shootouts. In 1982 my high school’s boys’ team won the state championship in a game that lasted two days. When it was still tied after as much overtime as the officials thought medically tolerable, the teams were sent home and told to come back the next day to play some more overtime until someone won, and eventually we did. (I should perhaps clarify that I was there as a spectator/supporter rather than as a player!)

  4. There seem to be multiple Angell pieces where someone-or-other will have claimed that this particular one is the greatest piece of writing about baseball ever.

    As with Mozart concertos or Miles records, it’s folly to try to pick just one.

  5. I detest both penalty shootouts and the free man on second in extra innings. Both are terrible ways to bring an exciting tied game to a timely conclusion. However, I just don’t watch much sports at all these days, so I avoid being specifically bothered instances of either.

    I understand the logistical and financial issues that make the leagues want to get games over with quickly, but I think that professional athletes should be able to keep playing more or less forever. (For a wonderful fictional overtime baseball story, I offer you /”The Hector Quesadilla Story”, by T. C. Boyle.) However, at lower levels, you generally cannot let the game continue indefinitely; the players generally just can’t take it. In one of the rare examples of basketball games that went to six overtimes, the two lower-level college teams were already so tired out by the end of regulation that nobody managed to score for the first four overtime periods.

  6. cuchuflete says

    Thanks for posting that Angell piece. What a fine fan and writer he was.

    I used to cut school to take the train to New York, then the subway up to the Polo Grounds to watch the Mets pretend to be a baseball team. Choo Choo Coleman days. Stengel didn’t believe in relief pitchers. He’d leave Spahn in after six or seven strong innings, the old master would get tired, and there was yet another Mets loss.

    Who wants to watch pitchers hit? The first time I took my little boys to Shea, the pitcher—whose name escapes me—homered.

  7. I used to cut school to take the train to New York, then the subway up to the Polo Grounds to watch the Mets pretend to be a baseball team.

    I envy you! (And of course I have to reference Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?)

  8. I wish there were film of the game in which Tony Cloninger (who I remember from his stint as the Red Sox’ extremely combative pitching coach) hit two grand slams.

  9. It is truly a debasement of the game

    Indeed. Were my father not already deceased, it would have been the death of him. He was a dedicated never-miss-a-game Giants fan, but in the Series would inevitably root for whichever National League team had prevailed in the playoffs as, to his mind, the NL were “the only ones who played baseball” because of the DH rule.

    Of course, any baseball fan can call to mind games that have been tortuously long. The one that springs to mind for me is Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS (Giants v. Nationals) that went 18 innings. But for true baseball fans, the remote possibility of such “it ain’t over till it’s over” games is part of the fun. (Though I must confess, as a long-term expat, my own interest in the game has already diminished over the years.)

  10. I remember an extra-innings game between the Red Sox and the Braves, probably in the first year of interleague play.* It was a great game, but it was also unusual because the broadcasters had probably never done a game at the park in Atlanta before that series. So they didn’t really know what to do when it got very late and remained, apparently, stiflingly hot and humid, with millions of flies buzzing around the lights and broadcast booths, clearly visible on the television feed. The guys in the booth were getting very uncomfortable, and around the eleventh of twelfth inning, they announced that (what with the extra innings) they had gone through essentially all of their written notes,** so they were turning off all the lights in the visiting team broadcasters’ booth, hoping the flies would go away. The remainder of the night, they called the game with nothing to draw on except what they had memorized and what they could see of the game on their monitors. It was hilarious.

    * I haven’t kept track of how they schedule interleague play these days, but when it was introduced, each team was designated an official rival in the other league, who they would be guaranteed to play against every year. I don’t know how most of these were picked out, although some were dictated by obvious local rivalries: Mets versus Yankees, Giants versus A’s. Since the Braves had started in Boston, they were the designated rivals that the Sox played every season.

    ** That kind of information would undoubtedly on smart devices now, but this was the late 1990s.

  11. January First-of-May says

    Yes, the penalty shootout is an abomination, but there doesn’t seem to be a good alternative accepted by a convincing majority of fans and other (shudder) “stakeholders”; in baseball the alternative is simply to play the damn game and let it take as long as it takes. If you want a quick finish, watch a horserace.

    The penalty shootout is not that old; AFAIK it was first used in a competitive game in 1951 (in Yugoslavia), and not introduced as the main option until well into the 1970s.
    (Though long before that a lot of games were decided “on corners”, which I gather was something very much like a penalty shootout, but with a different kind of kick.)

    And even sometime afterwards the FA Cup had continued doing what they were doing all along: replaying the game (from the start each time) until someone actually wins. (If it took more than two replays, the winning team then usually lost in the next round because they were so tired.)
    Even to this day they do one replay, but that’s it AFAIK – after that is a penalty shootout.

    For a while the alternative rule was indeed to let the game run until someone wins, the so-called golden goal rule; it was mildly unpopular because a large part of the mystique of soccer is all about coming up from behind and you can’t come up from behind after a golden goal, and it was very sparsely used after a game in 1946 went on for 3 hours 23 minutes and concluded not because anyone scored but because it was too dark to continue.
    (I hadn’t heard of J.W. Brewer’s 1982 game, which sounds like it would have been close to this record. I guess the US soccer competitions always did their own thing, because it was such a minor sport. Do you have any sources?)
    [EDIT: some googling told me that the 1985 NCAA final lasted 2 hours 47 minutes, and apparently that’s the NCAA record but maybe not the full US soccer record. It falls short of the 1946 game, which is said to be the world record.]

    I suppose in baseball, like cricket and quidditch (and until recently tennis), it is (or was) just considered acceptable to let a game run over multiple days if it came to that. AFAIK this was never a thing in soccer except in the form of replays (which were considered separate matches rather than continuations of the same match).

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m not keen on penalty shootouts in practice, but I’m not sure that I’m keener in theory on any other solution – football is one of those games that carries on for a certain period of time, not a certain number of actions, and 120 minutes already feels like quite a long time.

    And in such a close game, I’m not sure the momentary happening that let in a golden goal or whatever would be much less arbitrary than the momentary happening that kept a penalty out…

    (Scotland have to beat Ukraine to get into the World Cup. Half the flags flying in central Edinburgh at the moment are blue and yellow. This could be an interesting match.)

  13. Given that Italy seems to win on penalties more often than not, and England lose more often than not, you have to assume that this seemingly arbitrary system actually does reward virtue.

  14. John Emerson says

    Ted Williams was another top-tier Hall of Famer who disdained the press, even more than Gibson.

    Gibson is proud but pretty generous about other pitchers, notably Juan Marichal.

    I have a list of players who changed the rules of game they were in, sometimes in pairs. Gibson and Koufax lowered the pitcher’s mound. Russell and Chamberlain brought the goaltending rule. Dick Fosbury changed everyone’s high jump style. Grace Kelly’s father changed rowing with a shorter faster stroke. I don’t know if Filbert Bayi changes the 1500 meters with his frontrunning victory over Walker, but it was unprecedented.

  15. The penalty shootout is not that old

    I didn’t say it was old, I said it was an abomination but there doesn’t seem to be a widely acceptable alternative, which is true; see Jen’s comment:

    I’m not keen on penalty shootouts in practice, but I’m not sure that I’m keener in theory on any other solution

    The difference between the sports in this regard is that baseball fans are used to games lasting an indefinite amount of time (though the average time has stretched out from 2-2½ hours when I were a lad to well over 3 hours now), whereas soccer/football fans expect a game to last “a certain period of time.”

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    @Jan-F-of-M: Even within the hierarchy of soccer-as-a-minor-American-sport in 1982, the Delaware state high school championship was not one of the more high profile titles, so I doubt it attracted much notice outside of the immediate area even then. But it was memorable if you were there. I suspect though am not certain through memory’s haze that it was still such a “minor sport” within Delaware that a significant minority (perhaps conceivably even a bare majority?) of the state’s high schools did not even field a team, especially downstate. (Even now, the popularity of soccer in the U.S. has a lot of regional variation.)

    That championship game FWIW was played at one of the few (in those days) stadiums in the area used for high-school sports that had lights, so sunset (as opposed to player endurance) was not the limiting factor.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat – the stretching out of average time needed to play nine innings may make extra innings more irksome, although I expect there may be subtle rules tweaks that could do something about the average nine-inning time. Unless it’s all motivated by having room for more advertising on the tv version of the game (and prioritizing tv revenue over the experience of those actually at the ballpark), which is a claim I’ve heard but never seriously investigated.

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says

    As far as I can tell, winning ‘on corners’ seems to mean counting up the number of corners awarded during the match, like counting up away goals in a two-leg contest or goals scored against the equally placed team in a league situation. So that’s something I never knew before.

    20/5/1944 Scottish Southern League Cup Final
    Hibernian 0 v 0 Rangers ( HIBS won 6-5 on corners)

    50000 fans attended this war-time Cup Final at Hampden Park and in the event of the scores being even after ninety minutes corners would count

    As the minutes of the second half ticked away Rangers were leading 5-4 on corners when with 12 minutes left HIBS drew level but there was still no scoring.

    Excitement was high and tempers frayed when with only three minutes left Jimmy Caskie won a corner which was greeted by Hibernian and their fans as if it were a “goal”

    https://www.hibs.net/showthread.php?345939-On-this-day-in-history&p=6178264&viewfull=1#post6178264

  19. the stretching out of average time needed to play nine innings may make extra innings more irksome

    Sure.

    although I expect there may be subtle rules tweaks that could do something about the average nine-inning time.

    One would think, and they keep talking about it but never actually do anything.

    Unless it’s all motivated by having room for more advertising on the tv version of the game (and prioritizing tv revenue over the experience of those actually at the ballpark), which is a claim I’ve heard but never seriously investigated.

    “Follow the money” is always a winning tactic.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Cherchez la braise !

  21. Thanks, I always like learning new French slang terms! (I mean, new to me; braise seems to have been around forever, I just hadn’t run into it.)

  22. When I saw the “Small Up” title and Mr. Angell’s name my first thought was a defensive crouch, being less a target– batter, hedgehog, rollybug.
    Perhaps also influenced by “go small” with a team in basketball.
    To relate an unrelated use (Christian Century, [via GB] 1924, 41/242/1):
    “The field and findings of psychology have been smalled-up by this methodology [ i.e., ~behaviorism].”

  23. To me, the idea that a football match could go on and on simply seems bizarre. I hated the golden goal, precisely because it violates the idea that a game has a fixed length that can be used by both sides to reach a result. And I like the penalty shoot-out because it is a dramatic way of finishing a match that couldn’t be finished the normal way.
    On corners: when we were kids playing in the schoolyard, we didn’t execute corners, but had a rule that three corners give you one penalty shot. AFAIK, that never was an official rule, but I know that it was not unusual in street and schoolyard football.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    I think part of the issue is that (at least in most places) there’s nothing wrong with a “regular” soccer game ending in a tie/draw if that’s how the score stands when the fixed period of time (as affected by the rules about when the clock is/isn’t running …) expires. It’s only when you’re in some sort of tournament mode that you need to tweak the rules to get a clear winner and loser, and people are going to have different views about the best way to do that, since it’s sort of an add-on to usual practice. By contrast, the tradition in baseball (as with e.g. tennis) was from very early times to just continue until there was a clear winner/loser (subject to complications like the eventual arrival of sunset in ballparks which lacked artificial lighting etc.). So if the score is tied at the end of the ninth inning, you play a tenth inning.* And if still tied, you then play an eleventh inning, etc. But the super-long games the dodgy-sounding new rule is intended to minimize were already pretty rare. Someone online claims that in 2019 only 8.6% of MLB games went into extra innings at all, and of that fraction about three-quarters were decided in the tenth or eleventh innings, meaning only 2.3% of total games got as far as the top of the twelfth.

    Some sports are unstable over time in this regard. Ties (in regular season games) in American football were (in a non-tournament context) perfectly acceptable, if comparatively uncommon, in former times, but then the rules got changed for whatever reasons, not necessarily good ones. I attended a college-level tie game myself in 1985.

    *Not necessarily even a full 10th inning, because if the team batting in the bottom of the 10th pulls ahead the game is over w/o waiting until there’s a third out.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Didn’t know braise either, only fric.

    soccer/football fans expect a game to last “a certain period of time.”

    Der Ball ist rund, ein Spiel hat neunzig Minuten.

    I think part of the issue is that […] there’s nothing wrong with a “regular” soccer game ending in a tie/draw if that’s how the score stands when the fixed period of time […] expires. It’s only when you’re in some sort of tournament mode that you need to tweak the rules to get a clear winner and loser, and people are going to have different views about the best way to do that, since it’s sort of an add-on to usual practice.

    Exactly.

  26. My understanding, from the father of a college teammate who would know this sort of thing, is that Massachusetts high school soccer tournament games were settled by ten-minute extra time periods, each played with one less player than the last, until someone scored. That would be my preferred method.

  27. John Cowan says

    Of course, any baseball fan can call to mind games that have been tortuously long.

    Two months, 33 innings (and other record-breaking games).

  28. January First-of-May says

    It’s only when you’re in some sort of tournament mode that you need to tweak the rules to get a clear winner and loser, and people are going to have different views about the best way to do that, since it’s sort of an add-on to usual practice.

    Pretty much, yes. (Though some leagues did end up having penalty shootouts even for regular games!)

    As I mentioned, historically the usual option was to replay the game again (usually at a different field) until there is a winner; this rapidly became untenable as the replays piled up.
    For a while the option chosen was a straight-up coin toss! IIRC this was abandoned after complaints by several teams about the unfairness of “losing” for reasons that had completely nothing to do with the quality of their players.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    I saw Angell’s name last night in a non-baseball context because my 12th-grader received one of the numerous awards being handed out to members of the graduating class (huzza!) and her award came with a brand-new copy of the latest edition of Strunk & White (boo!), which features a foreward by Angell.* Angell was of course White’s step-son, which perhaps gives him an excuse. I suppose it could have been worse; she could have been awarded a copy of Syntactic Structures?

    *Presumably this was thought important enough for marketing purposes that “FOREWORD BY ROGER ANGELL” is in even bigger type on the cover than the blurb by Charles Osgood. I’m skeptical as to whether a material percentage of incoming college matriculants these days have any idea of who either Angell or Osgood are/were, but maybe their names retain resonance with the sort of well-intentioned older folks who are likely to think the matriculant needs a copy of Strunk & White?

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