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Baseball And Bottle Caps
In our endless quest to find new ways to teach baseball, especially the hitting aspect, maybe we should stop and look behind instead of always looking forward.
Once upon a time a high batting average of 0.380% or 0.400% wasn’t that uncommon, and of course there’s been a lot of change in the game since then, but still…change explains it all. I do not think so.
A former baseball player, named Tony Pena, once performed catching duties for the Pittsburg Pirates and although he gained great notoriety for his unorthodox catching style, he was literally catching and throwing while he was astride the earth, he was best known for his swing at almost any terrain typing style.
For pitchers of that era, walking Tony Pena was almost as difficult as throwing a batting pitch, and despite his apparent wild swings at almost anything resembling a baseball, he hit for a high average. How could a player, who seemed to totally surrender all self-control and proper hitting mechanics when hitting, hit for a high average against major league pitchers?
Tony Pena grew up in a very poor Latino community where baseball was the all-time favorite sport of neighborhood youth, but no family was able to afford the bats, balls and gloves that we consider so essential to the game.
However, everyone was drinking soda, and since the aluminum can hadn’t been introduced into the soda, it was packaged in a glass bottle with a metal cap. Metal bottle caps, carefully removed so as not to bend them, could be made to navigate, and a broken broomstick could be used as a bat to hit them. This is where Tony Pena learned to punch.
Now, after a bit of practice, a bottle cap can be made to sail, dive, stray, and climb at will, and since this was the only activity available in town, there was constant practice. To hit such a difficult target with a broomstick required exceptional vision and timing, again the result of constant practice.
This is how and why Tony Pena apparently swung wildly, what we now know was actually an extremely controlled swing, but hit for high average. He had spent his whole life swinging and hitting darts, jumping things with a little stick.
To hit the coaches of today, it would take Tums, for his heartburn and Advil, for his headaches, trying to coach a player like Tony Pena. It just wouldn’t happen again and I don’t per se recommend reviving the free swing strategy.
However, I think a good old-fashioned game of whiffle ball, where the ball flexes, rises and jumps, would be a great occasional substitute for batting cages. Instead of trying to perfect timing through mechanics, which is perfecting hitting a ball traveling essentially the same path dozens of times in a row, we play contact ball.
Let’s expose our eyes and reflexes to the split-second dart and dive of a moving object and learn how to hit it. I don’t see that hurting anything. Can you?
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