By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – I love baseball but, clearly, baseball does not return my affection.
Baseball teaches us that much of life involves failure and derision. Frustration might also be a good word to associate with the sport and that rears its ugly head when a batting slump goes into a second week.
Speaking of derision, you haven’t lived until you’ve been taunted by opposing players as you attempt to throw the next pitch. And for most of us, the absolute tiniest segment of the sport, and therefore life, deals with success.
Success. What’s that?
It’s said that the toughest thing in all of sports is to hit a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher. I suppose that this is the very reason that we celebrate anyone who can get a hit three times out of every 10 at-bats. Today, batting .300 easily puts a player on the all-star squad.
After spending a week playing fantasy baseball in Florida some years back and barely hitting .150, I vowed to never again boo any player capable of batting .200, the so called “Mendoza Line” named for a player known for his glove but not his bat.
Relating the Mendoza Line to life is easy. Most of us succeed at most things a mere two out of 10 attempts.
I sometimes think that my Mendoza Line – and let’s call it the Louzona Line – results in victory in one of 10 tries. And that means any part of life from choosing the best car, selecting a knowledgeable tax preparer, finding a new tailor, even choosing a dog for the family.
We humans fail a lot. In fact in baseball one thing is always predictable and that is failure.
Let’s also add heartbreak to the list since in baseball you could be celebrating one moment and shortly thereafter put your head in your hands to fight off despair. To say that the sport is humbling is an understatement.
Every so often an individual appears on the scene with abilities far beyond those of mortal men. One such person was the Boston Red Sox outfield star of the ’40s and ’50s, Ted Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter.
So while he failed more than he succeeded, no one has of yet matched his ability to hit a baseball for that high of an average.
A friend and I were discussing Williams the other day. Out of our friendly discussion came the observation that if he were around today and if teams tried to put a shift on him, he would surely bat over .500. His abilities were such that he could place a batted ball wherever he desired.
Only Tony Gwynn in recent years was praised for his Ted Williams type of bat control. But even Gwynn never measured up to Williams in the batter’s box.
You may have heard about what Japan has sent our way. And I’m not talking about the new Honda Accord. It’s a man, but not just a man. They’ve sent us perhaps the greatest baseball player since Babe Ruth.
I’m talking about Shohei Ohtani who plays for the Los Angeles Angels and who his teammates call “The Show.”
What’s so special about Shohei? How rare is this? He can pitch a baseball harder than anyone. He can hit a baseball farther than anyone. He can catch a baseball better than anyone. He can run faster than anyone.
What can’t he do on the ballfield? That’s a good question.
The other evening he was pitching an outstanding game. The manager walked out to the mound to tell him that he was needed in the outfield to shore up the defense. And then he was asked to close out the game. All of this defies belief.
Some years ago we invited George Plimpton, the legendary television personality, film actor, sports writer and novelist, to The Butler. We invited him in his capacity as the fireworks czar of New York City.
The Butler, at that time, was featuring an exhibition of art inspired by fireworks. When I asked him about an article he had written on baseball, he proceeded to tell us about a hoax that he had perpetrated in a magazine.
It was about a player by the name of Sidd Finch in the Mets organization who could throw a baseball 168 mph. His article, which caused a stir, and which many people believed true, eventually became a Plimpton novel titled “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.”
As it turned out, his character Sidd Finch was a Buddhist monk who could throw a baseball harder than any human ever.
Were George Plimpton still with us, he would certainly make reference to Shohei Ohtani and perhaps indicate that his accomplishment was as close to Finch as any human had ever come to this imaginary Plimpton ballplayer.
Those of us with little natural ability may want to avoid the grueling sport of baseball, especially those of us who might be thin-skinned.
One of the worst days of my life and one of the best days of my life occurred on a baseball diamond at a ballfield called Sheep Hill in Lawrence County, Pa.
On that particular day, I struck out the very best player in the league with three pitches. Honest to goodness, I actually did that!
When the manager moved me to second base, the cheers turned to jeers. That same player whom I had struck out, hit a pop up that was so high that I thought that it would bring rain. It was dropping like a bomb over the second base position. That meant me!
Slowly, ever so slowly, I backed up to get under the ball. But not far enough.
As I went backward to catch it, I realized that the ball was a good 15 feet over my head. The worst part: I fell on my behind.
To this day I can still hear the laughter coming from the other bench.
My embarrassment level was such that if I could have stayed on the ground or crawled into the neighboring wheat field, I would have. And I’d probably still be there – frozen in time.
Baseball, be not proud!