Baseball, it has been truly written, is not a team game at all. It is a soloists’ profession. It is a complicated stage revue. Sometimes, the game is incidental to the artist, like Barrymore in a bad play.
Victory does not depend on cooperation. You don’t “double-team” in baseball. Nobody gives you a block, a pick. The defense is always zone.
But there is one important area where team effort comes into play--power hitting. The Philadelphia Phillies’ great slugger, Mike Schmidt, can tell you all about it.
A perusal of home run statistics develops a curious pattern. Almost without exception, the great home run hitters of history were part of a tandem. They had partners. They came paired. They had a symbiotic relationship to each other.
Look it up. Ruth had Gehrig. Maris had Mantle (and vice versa). Henry Aaron had Eddie Mathews. Frank Robinson had Brooks Robinson. Willie Mays had Willie McCovey. Jimmie Foxx had Al Simmons.
And, in his salad years, Mike Schmidt had The Bull, Gregory Michael Luzinski.
There were years there when Greg Luzinski could match Schmidt homer-for-homer. And the Phillies got in an annual playoff or World Series.
It is impossible to overestimate the significance of the one-two punch in baseball--to the individual and to the team. It takes a great weapon out of the hands of the pitcher. Faced with one mighty slugger in a lineup, the crafty pitcher can “pitch around him.” English translation: Don’t give him anything good to hit, never mind whether you walk him. Faced with back-to-back mighty sluggers, you have to get one (or both) of them out. You have to come in with good pitches. For the offense, one hand washes the other.
Consider the remarkable history of, to pick an example at random, George Foster. When George was on the Cincinnati Reds of the ‘70s, he had the likes of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez hitting around him. In 1977, George hit 52 home runs. In 1978, he hit 40.
As that great lineup dissipated around him, George’s homers declined and, when he got traded to the light-hitting Mets in 1981, his homers slumped to 13. With Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez hitting around him this year, he is revivifying somewhat (17 homers, to date). But you don’t get 50-plus homer seasons in a chorus of banjos.
Mike Schmidt is not entirely willing to ascribe any decline in his home run production to the departure of a Luzinski, although the facts of the matter are that the last year he played with Luzinski, he had 48 home runs, his high-water mark, and the year before he had 45, his second-highest. The pitchers, Mike feels, might have something to do with it. “They all throw this rising fastball now--and the rising fastball is not your home run pitch. The sinker is. The slider.”
Still, Mike, mired in a batting order not guaranteed to make any good pitcher sweat, has 23 home runs this season to date.
Mike will almost surely become the 14th player in major league history to hit 500 home runs before he retires. But, a case could be made he would be there now if he had another big bat in the lineup alongside him, if the pitchers had to throw to the Bull.
Years ago, a phenomenon used to be noticed where a journeyman ballplayer would be traded to the Yankees from a second-rate club and immediately become a scourge. His batting average would go up several points and his power go up exponentially. Conversely, a guy would leave the Yankees with solid power and hitting statistics and become an easy out on the St. Louis Browns.
The press of the time put it all down to “the pride of wearing the pinstripes,” It was those other guys wearing the pinstripes that made the difference. Moving into a lineup that had Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, or DiMaggio, Lazzeri, or Berra, Mantle and Maris on it meant you got a worn-out pitcher to take your cuts at.
After Maris left the Yankees, and Mantle, his home run production his last two years declined to 9 and 5, respectively. His RBIs declined to 55 and 45. In 1961 when he hit 61 home runs, Maris had 142 runs-batted-in. That year, he and Mantle had 115 home runs and 270 runs-batted-in. That, you have to say, is really the old one-two.
Willie Mays would hit home runs with a backup of the Meglin Kiddies. Willie hit home runs off bad pitches through Yukon gales.
So does Mike Schmidt. But, if there is one place baseball might seem to be a team sport, it is in the middle of a batting order where two guys with awesome power gang up to mug the pitcher and break the back of the game to say nothing of the seats. In golf, they call that “Ham’n egging.” It’s the one time in the grand old game where 2-on-1, the old double-team comes into play--and works.