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Pure Baseball

Former first baseman Keith Hernandez, who played 17 seasons and had a lifetime .296 batting average, wrote a book (with baseball writer Mike Bryan) 17 years ago called Pure Baseball. All Hernandez did was analyze each and every pitch of two major league games from the 1993 season - Braves vs. Phillies and Yankees vs. Tigers - one in each league taking into account the use of a DH.

The "battle of wits and balance of talent between the pitcher and the hitter is baseball," states Hernandez at the outset. "Everything else is secondary."

While this confrontation between pitcher and hitter is the heart of the game, the average fan might think that nothing happens until the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Of course, that is inaccurate.

Hernandez also spends 200-plus pages detailing all the moves that occur prior to each pitch. The defense positions itself differently for each batter, and oftentimes for each pitch depending on the situation and what's being thrown. And there is much more in the mix.

Take yesterday's sixth inning when the game got away from the Sox in their 4-3 loss to the Tigers. One might argue that Tigers' manager Jim Leyland won the game from the dugout when - with one out and the Sox leading 3-1 - he had runners on first and second running on a full count to Superman, otherwise known as Miguel Cabrera.

Phil Humber induced Cabrera to ground to shortstop Alexi Ramirez, a sure double-play ball to end the inning had the runners not been going. As it was, they moved to second and third from where Detroit not only scored them but added another run - all after two outs - to sink our impotent athletes.

Although Cabrera is a feared power hitter, he's struck out only 52 times this season in almost 400 plate appearances. (For comparison, Paul Konerko has fanned 51 times.) So Leyland figured that Miguel would make contact or draw a walk. He does so almost 90 percent of the time. He liked those odds. Who wouldn't?

Had Cabrera lined out, a double play no doubt would have ensued. A pop-up also might have resulted in a double play. However, Leyland's gamble - if you want to call it that - paid off big time, and the Sox were unable to produce the tying run in the final three innings.

Leyland is not necessarily a genius, although he has earned a good deal of respect in his 20 years of Big League managing. (Check out Leyland telling Barry Bonds to pack up and go home during spring training in 1991.) Most managers, and certainly Ozzie Guillen, would have made the same hit-and-run call yesterday.

I coach a group of 15- to 19-year-olds each summer in what's known as the Liberty League. This is not one of those fancy and pretentious travel league teams where parents fantasize that their kids are potential pro players even when they have a remote chance to play even college ball, let alone professional baseball. This is a house league at Rogers Park, played under the auspices of the Welles Park Parent Association. Nevertheless, we take our baseball seriously. At least I do.

My club this year . . . well . . . we stink. The kids are wonderful individuals. They show up; they're smart; they go to impressive schools, both public and private; and they tell me they are interested in playing summer baseball. And we just finished a 3-12 season with the playoffs (every team qualifies) looming this week.

Nine of our 12 losses have been by four runs or less. Our team batting average is .213. Nevertheless, we've managed to stay close only to get beat in the late innings. In fact, one game so much resembled the Sox that I was spooked as I drove home. Playing against one of the elite teams in the league, we took them to ten innings before losing 6-3. We left 15 runners on base and just couldn't get the big hit. Sound familiar?

Getting back to the intricacies of the game and Hernandez's book, we drill a certain amount - not enough obviously - on relays, cutoffs, positioning, picking up signs, bunting, etc.

A couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that the fellas were most often in position for relays and cutoffs, but I wondered whether they grasped the reasoning behind these alignments. So I got them together around second base, and we talked. I focused on the third baseman cutting from left field with a runner trying to score or the first baseman handling the throws from center or right.

"Why do you think we do this?" I asked. Silence.

So I called on one of my kids, a guy who has played a bit of baseball as a youngster who actually shows potential as a hitter. "I don't know what you're talking about," he replied.

I thanked him for his honesty as the light went on in my head that more understanding was required. What Konerko does as habit to keep an opponent from taking second base is foreign to a 15-year-old who is just learning the game.

We had another doozy last Wednesday. The kids were playing well and had a 4-2 lead against a decent team going into the bottom of the sixth. (These are seven-inning games.) My starting pitcher did a fine job before turning it over to a reliever who is a nice ballplayer.

We botched a double play which would have gotten us out of the inning with no damage, but we were still in the game at 4-4. My pitcher got an 0-2 count on the next guy, and a high fastball out of the zone, I'm sure, would have found the kid grabbing some bench. But my guy grooved one, and the kid got a hit.

Same thing with the next hitter. Two strikes and then the kid hit one that stopped rolling just short of Irving Park. Please understand - we were playing just north of Touhy.

It's desirable to be ahead of the hitter, but that's the time to make him hit a pitch other than one right down the middle.

No big deal. This is all part of a game that is much more complicated than it looks. My job is to teach and inculcate an appreciation for the game which I hope will last a lifetime. A little fun mixed in goes a long way as well. If that happens, we've had a successful season.

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Comments welcome.

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