Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bobby Cox and the end of infield practice

It's a very minor footnote in the long and illustrious managerial career of Bobby Cox, but it's something I think about almost every time I get to a stadium early enough to watch batting practice: He's the man who essentially killed infield practice before major league games.

Say good-bye, Bobby
Twenty years ago it was routine: Batting practice was followed by a round of fielding fungoes. Coaches would rap grounders to infielders, who would throw to the various bases; they'd hit flies to the outfielders, who would fire throws to third or home. (Legend has it that during one World Series, Joe DiMaggio had a sore arm and figured he had just a couple good throws a day. He used them in infield practice, figuring that the opposition would see him throwing hard and decide not to run on him.)

Nobody takes infield anymore. It's hot in Atlanta in the summer, or so I'm told (I've never been there, but it's difficult to believe it can be worse than Cincinnati or St. Louis in July or August), and Cox — doubtless with the concurrence of his players — decided it was better to save their energy for the game. And since the Braves won consistently without taking infield, other teams followed suit.

I miss watching infield. I understand the rationale for its demise, but I enjoyed the rhythm of the baseball ballet. (Some of the barnstorming black teams in the days of the old Negro Leagues would do infield without a ball — shadowball, they called it.)

It came to mind again the other day when Brooks Conrad, an Atlanta infielder, had a three-error game at second base. It helped cost the Braves the game; that game would have put the Braves up 2-1 in the division series, and instead it put them down 2-1.

Conrad is a 30-year-old rookie who won some games for Cox as a pinch-hitter, but he's spent the bulk of his baseball life in the bushes because he isn't a major-league quality fielder. There was probably no amount of infield practice that would turn Conrad into Nick Punto. The old Pepper Martin line applies: I got me a mule back in Oklahoma, and you can work him from sunup to sundown, and he ain't never gonna win the Kentucky Derby.

But it seems appropriate that the man who ended infield practice had his career end because his utility infielder couldn't handle second base.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the anecdote--I really enjoyed it!!