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Spring training: Eternal hope for Philly’s boys of summer

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Sam Waltz

Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

Baseball is yet more proof that God loves us.

That’s one reflection from my eighth annual talent evaluation project in Clearwater, Fla., otherwise known as Phillies’ Spring Training.

First, for the “hard news” angle, yes, the Phillies do look better, and surely will be better than their historic 99-loss 2015 season. I’d hope to see them break even, at least, at 81-81. Given the time frames for rebuilding in baseball, that would be an enormous improvement.

Supporting that is that the youngsters the Phils are developing as position players show some great promise, the kind that could get the Phils – with some breaks – back into the playoffs in three years or so. That’s the good news. More good news is that 2016 will be the last year hopefully that the Phils are stuck with Ryan Howard’s albatross of a contract. Question mark, though, is pitching.

Now, that being said, since this is a business paper, not a sports column, let me move on to that connection.

Baseball, once America’s national pastime, still appears to remain so among the business community. Although baseball’s following on a game-by-game basis may be less than football (where every one of the 16 NFL games or every one of the 11 or so college games mean so much more to the season), it’s still not as bad as NBA basketball, which is becoming more and more a niche sport.

But, as I sit in the stands in Spring Training – 10 games (eight with the Phillies) in 12 days in five ballparks this year, up from nine games in 11 days in 2015 – I see fans who look a lot like me. Many are more senior business guys and gals, although of course many are retirees (saw a favorite retired Milford physician and his wife there) and many are blue collar (sat at two games with a UPS Teamster driver from Chicago).

But disproportionately, the crowd seems to be professionals and business people.

Among the attractions, I think, are:

  • Tradition, and history, although replay has been accepted, and the clock has been added for between-inning changes, the designated hitter still is seen by many fans as usurping history.
  • Complex variables, although football has 11 players on the field versus nine for baseball, the range of variables that invoke strategy seem infinitely more complex. A 2-1 count for a hitter is dramatically different than a 1-2 count, and those multiply if a runner is on first, second or third bases.
  • The juxtaposition of the individual player and the team in the success profile of any game, and any season, that is, just how little, or how much, difference just one player can make.

One of the real beauties of baseball is its nuance, the finite difference between success and failure.

And most business people and professionals see that as a metaphor for business.

Just look at batting averages. A hitter with a .300 average will be an All-Star, one with a .250 average will be barely average, and one with a .200 average will be back in the minor leagues next season. What does that 100-point swing between outstanding success and mediocrity represent??

Just one extra hit in 10 at-bats. A .200 hitter gets four hits in 20 at-bats. A .250 hitter gets five hits in 20 at-bats. A .300 hitter gets six hits in 20 at-bats. Yes, the difference between great success and abysmal failure is a narrow and fine as that.

“For Love of the Game” (1999) is the third in Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy, one of the finest, a washed up pitcher in his last game pitching a perfect game, the game of his life. One of the great baseball quotes comes from that.  (Kevin Costner is Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Billy Chapel, and Kelly Preston plays love interest Jane Aubrey, a reluctant entry-level baseball fan.)

Jane Aubrey: Do you lose very much?

Billy Chapel: I lose. I’ve lost 134 times.

Jane: You count them?

Billy: We count everything.

Baseball, like life, has much room for forgiveness, but, at the end, our legacy is about what we’ve done, how we’ve performed, the choices we’ve made, and the impact it has left.

Baseball indeed is a metaphor for life. And its lore in some 150 years or so of history is great.

One of the great stories, by the way, is one of baseball’s great “characters, Moe Berg (1902-72). Google “Berg” and you’ll find a great book, and story, of Berg. Nicholas Dawidoff’s “The Catcher was a Spy” is one of the best-written.

I’m presenting a 40-minute talk “Catcher, Scholar, Spy: The True Story of Moe Berg” about 6 p.m. on April 12 at the University & Whist Club, no charge, and you’re welcome to attend if you RSVP Jenn at JSzper@UniversityWhist.com. And attendees are invited to stay and enjoy dinner.

A Jewish baseball player before Hank Greenberg pioneered for his faith in baseball, and a Princeton grad when few baseball players even were high school grads (many having not finished the eighth grade yet), Berg spent almost 20 years as a major league catcher before going on as a World War II spy for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.

Casey Stengel said of Berg, “He can speak 12 languages, but he can’t hit a baseball in any of them!”

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