Are You Game?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have this fantasy about Joe Morgan: I'm at a baseball game, sitting behind home plate. Greg Maddux is pitching and Joe's sitting next to me, telling me every pitch he's throwing and why.

Joe feels the same way--when he broadcasts a game. "My philosophy is that I'm sitting next to you at home and I'm trying to explain to you why things happen and we're having a conversation." That philosophy has helped the Hall of Famer make the seamless transition from being one of the best in the game to one of the best in the booth.

I've had many conversations with Joe Morgan about the game we both love, and I'm a smarter baseball viewer because of them. We agree that people who find baseball boring don't understand the many levels of the game. So it seems appropriate, with the baseball season upon us, to share with both established fans and novices alike a way to watch baseball, to look below the surface to get the most out of each game.

To help me, I elicited the advice of three of my favorite analysts: Morgan, the all-star second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and one of the game's best, analyzes games for ESPN as well as postseason play for NBC. His book, "Long Balls and No Strikes," is dueout this summer. Ken Singleton, who played on the Baltimore Orioles team that won the World Series in 1983, calls the chronically victorious New York Yankees for the MSG Network. "I'm looking forward for the season to start," he quips. "I'm well-rested and ready to go." On TBS, Joe Simpson--who once played for both the Dodgers and Angels--gets to analyze Atlanta Braves pitchers Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, considered the greatest starting rotation of the '90s.

All three agree the best way to learn how to watch a game is to go to one. The first local exhibition game is Friday, when the Dodgers visit the Angels, and Opening Day is Monday. "Going to a game will always enhance your enjoyment of a game on television," says Morgan.

Baseball is great entertainment, filled with skill, suspense and strategy. And its diamond stage is the most beautiful in all sports. Singleton suggests taking in the colorful field, the sounds of the ball hitting the bat, the roar of the crowd, the ballpark food. Now it's time to delve deeper.

"There's a different way to watch a baseball game than just watching the ball all the time," says Morgan. "There's so many other things happening before a ball's put in play and there are different things to look for from different vantage points." So whether your seat's a sofa or in a stadium, a look at the hitter, the pitcher and team defense should help fans cover the bases:

The Hitter

"Pitchers are like bad criminals," says Singleton. "They always return to the scene of the crime. If they get you out one way, they will try it again, but maybe in a different pattern until hitters figure it out."

The great hitters, like the Padres' Tony Gwynn, figure it out early. "One of the most intelligent things Gwynn does is he doesn't try to hit everybody the same," says Simpson. "I love watching him adjust from at-bat to at-bat. He might even move around in the batter's box. He might open or close his stance a little. But he will make adjustments to whatever weakness a pitcher might have discovered on his previous at-bat, forcing the pitcher to make adjustments himself. Those are things fans at home can watch for on the good hitters."

A hitter's position in the batter's box can also tell viewers a lot about that hitter's capabilities. Morgan explains: "If he stands real close to the plate, that means he has a quick bat and has better plate coverage. If he stands far away from the plate, it means that he doesn't have a real fast bat and needs a little room to get it started."

The examples bring to mind sluggers Mark McGwire, who crowds the plate, and Sammy Sosa, who made an adjustment to his stance last season by backing off the plate. Morgan agrees. "Two different guys with two different approaches," both utilized to great success.

But standing off the plate has its drawbacks. A slower hitter doesn't have as much time to see the ball because he has to commit his swing earlier. It therefore seems that a pitcher like reigning Cy Young winner Tom Glavine, who has made a career controlling the outside corner, would have it all over someone like Slammin' Sammy.

"But how many Glavines are there in the world?" Morgan says."For every Tom Glavine, there are 10 pitchers who can't throw the ball consistently for strikes on the outside corner of the plate. Whoever can make the other make the most adjustments is going to win the battle." Morgan learned the lesson himself as a rookie when Willie Mays told him, "Joe, you fight off the great pitchers and beat up on the other guys."

"So that was Sammy's philosophy," he says. "He fought off Glavine and beat up on the other guys." The game is about adjustments. "McGwire makes people adjust to him. Now Glavine and Maddux make people adjust to them. So it's a cat and mouse game."

And if the cat loses, the mouse may hit the ball a long, long way. It's something even non-baseball fans enjoy watching, as evidenced by last season's home run chase. "Everybody wants to hit one out of the park, so when somebody catches hold of one, everybody can sense what that might feel like," Singleton says.

Morgan recommends looking into the opposing team's dugout while your hero trots around the bases. "You'll see some demonstration by the pitching coach telling you why that ball was hit out of the ballpark." He also suggests watching the offense's manager between pitches. "He will be giving signs, talking to hitters, and you will be able to decipher a lot of times what they're talking about."

"I've always said you can stand on your head if you can hit," says Singleton about individual batting styles. "The hitter knows what pitches the pitcher has, but he doesn't know the sequence or where he's going to move the ball around to." And every pitch upsthe ante as pitchers make adjustments to the adjustments the hitters make to them.

The Pitcher

"There is an art to pitching," says Singleton. "They're not just throwing the ball up to the plate. One pitch sets up the next pitch and so on." Pitchers use the tools of location, movement and velocity to bait and bluff their opponents in the batter's box. Learningthe pitches, how they're used to get hitters to swing at balls, take strikes or hit harmless ground-outs is key to understanding the battles of each at-bat.

In Morgan's superb autobiography, "A Life in Baseball," he recounts how he spent a season lost to injury sitting behind home plate, observing the pitchers. "That year cost me a 150 games, but it also made me a 200% better player than I was before," says Morgan. So it stands to reason that sitting behind home plate might make someone a 200% better viewer.

Morgan agrees: "If you're studying pitching, that's the place to study it. If you're observant enough, the pitcher's delivery will tell you what the pitch is." Maybe not with Maddux, the master of consistency, "because one of the keys to his success is that every release point, every pitch looks the same coming out of his hand, but an average pitcher may slow his arm down to throw a change-up, curve or slider and speed his arm up to throw a fastball. The good hitters can see that as well."

Morgan advises fans "watch the pitcher's release and try to figure out what he's throwing by watching the movement on the ball." Last season, Morgan analyzed the pitches of Kevin Brown, the ace who will be the Dodgers' opening-day pitcher, with the help of slow motion from ESPN's camera set from the low angle behind home plate. Fans could see the tight spin of Brown's slider by the seams circling the white "hole" on the ball as it hurdled toward them. "The rotation tells you the speed of the pitch and which way it's going to go: sink, cut or go straight down like a curveball."

Morgan recommends also watching the catcher "to see if he sets up inside, outside, up or down. That tells you a lot about how the pitcher's going to work the hitter."

"Watch how far the catcher has to move his glove to catch the pitch," advises Simpson. "With the best pitchers, especially with Maddux and Glavine, it's rare that they have to move the glove more than an inch or so to receive it and rarely do they have to move it at all."

Morgan notes how consistently a pitcher is able to hit the catcher's target may indicate which way the game will go. "If his fastball is up, meaning above the belt and in the middle of the plate, even if they're not hitting him to start the game, he will be hit before it's over."

Another way to predict if the hitters are going to be able to get to a pitcher is by keeping track of the balls and strikes. If the pitcher is giving up balls early, "then has to throw a ball in the middle of the plate, eventually they're going to catch up to him."

"Sometimes you can tell from the reaction of the hitter what the pitch actually is," Singleton says. "Such as if he's way out in front on his swing or if he's late. It helps to know the pitchers and what they throw before the game starts."

That's where great analysts are indispensable. A major reason for viewer boredom is that fans aren't engaged in the pitcher's duel with the batter until the batter engages the ball. They're put to sleep by broadcasters who, instead of telling fans what pitches are being thrown, only state the obvious: "Ball one, outside." We can see it's outside because the catcher reached out. We know it's a ball because the umpire just said so. Fans of the game want analysts to tell us what we don't know, what we can't know without them. Just as disturbing to Morgan are play-by-play guys who don't know the pitches, calling them incorrectly, misleading viewers in an effort to sound knowledgeable. Unlike Morgan, Singleton and Simpson, all former players, the booths are often crowded with voices hired more for their puns and poetry than for their perceptions and experience.

"I can tell every pitch that works in a game because I've sat on that bench and stood in that box and on that field. I've watched millions of pitches. I recognize the pitch coming out of the pitcher's hand," says Morgan. "If you haven't played the game, whatever the sport, how are you going to know what a player's thinking or what to anticipate?"

One way to learn pitches while watching the game on TV is by watching the fingers the catcher puts down when calling each pitch. Then Morgan suggests watching the pitches that follow to familiarize yourself with their speed and break. With no runners on, the signs are usually the same: one finger's a fastball, two's a curve, three's a slider and four is a change, depending on the pitcher's arsenal.

Watching how well a pitcher works with his catcher and agrees with the pitches he calls provides other clues. Pitchers don't want to shake off a lot because it breaks their rhythm--and alerts hitters. "If you have to shake off a lot of fastballs to get to a change-up, that pattern will be seen by the hitters on the bench," says Morgan.

If you're familiar with the pitches, or if a good analyst is cluing you in, you can chart them--which is what pitchers do the night before their next start. They'll note what pitch was thrown to what location with what result to which hitter. In this way they learn a lot about the tendencies of hitters. For the less ambitious viewer, Morgan suggests keeping track of two pitches: the pitch that got the hitter out and the one that set the hitter up.

Once you've done that, you become privy to the pitching strategy for that hitter's next time up. "See if that pitcher stays with the same sequence that made him successful the first time around," suggests Simpson. "Or does he play a mind game to get the hitter guessing,thinking that he's going to have to change his selection a little bit just to keep him honest? That all plays on the mind of the hitter." But even if a hitter wins his battle with the pitcher, he still has nine men on the field, conspiring against him, all working together to keep him off base.

Team Defense

People who watch football, basketball and hockey can see their teams all running at once. To the unschooled viewer, it may not look it, but when a baseball team takes the field, Singleton points out, "there's action every second."

"Watch where the infielders position themselves," says Morgan. "All those guys are actually working off the same signs." They're looking in to see what pitch is being thrown, where the catcher is setting up, taking into account whether the hitter is right- or left-handed and where he tends to hit. "That's how infielders get a jump on the ball," says Morgan. "It's called a team defense."

"For instance, if there's a right-handed hitter, take a look at the left side of the infield. See how they're playing him. That will tell you a lot about how the pitcher's going to pitch him. If they're positioning themselves for him to pull the ball to left field, it means the pitcher's going to throw him some off-speed pitches or pitch him inside. Now, if the outfield is playing differently, that means that the guy hits fly balls to the outfield the opposite way and ground balls to the infield by pulling them. A smart hitter will look at the defense to see where they're stationed, and fans at the game can do the same thing."

Often, fielders know where the ball might go, based on the movement of the pitch. Morgan gives an example: "If you see the ball move, say, Maddux's pitch toward the outside, if you look, the shortstop should be leaning up the middle and the second baseman should be leaning toward the right, toward the hole because, more than likely, the ball is going to be hit that way."

Simpson sees a lot of that: "Sometimes it looks, 'Man, they had him played perfect,' and you can get all the scouting reports in the world, but paramount to any defensive success is having a pitcher make the pitch he's supposed to make. We have had here in the '90s our share of guys who can do that, and it makes everybody look a lot better."

As fans learn their teams, Singleton suggests they "try to anticipate the moves that the managers might make as the game moves along. Watch the signals from the manager in the dugout to the third base coach to the hitter and baserunners." In that way, fans will be able to see when a play has been put on and learn the various strategies.

And there are boundless strategies in this physically challenging, brain-bending, plot-twisting sport. Everything from pitchouts and pickoffs to suicide bunts and safety squeezes, all designed to stop or advance the runner. Singleton advises fans bring a radio to the game to get more insight but points out one advantage to watching at home: "You are the beer man."

But wherever you choose to watch baseball, Morgan believes "the game will always surprise you, and good analysts will make adjustments, like good hitters and pitchers." He advises viewers do the same:

"Watch the game. The game will always take you where you're supposed to go. The game will take you to a pitcher's matchup if the pitchers are dominating the game. You will see why the score's 1-0. Because Maddux is on top of his game. Because Maddux hasn't thrown a ball in four straight hitters. These things, if you watch the game, they take you there.

"The game takes you."

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Screenwriter Devra Maza, who frequently writes articles about baseball, is writing a baseball movie called "The Show."


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