Sometimes unnoticed, precision can't be underrated
Overshadowed aspect of game manifested in great players, should be celebrated
NEW YORK -- Precision is an often overlooked and routinely underappreciated element of the game, the generic game. We acknowledged and applauded the ability of Tony Gwynn to hit any pitch between the shortstop and third base and marveled at the uncanny ability of Greg Maddux to elicit a catchable foul pop from a batter after promising Bobby Cox he would. Yes, that's a true story.
The great players -- Maddux will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, and Gwynn already has a plaque -- carry precision in their equipment bags; and some of the less renowned do, too. Former Mets shortstop Rafael Santana was machine-like in his delivery of the baseball to his double-play partner at second base. "It's always right there," partner Wally Backman used to say, extending his hands in front of his chest. "Every time."
And Dennis Eckersley, another resident of Cooperstown, had command that was described as uncanny. He could hit any gnat right in the fanny.
The reputation Derek Jeter carries is not necessarily linked to precision. To be precise, he has been too proficient in so many other aspects of the game, his exactness often goes unnoticed. Not so in the top of the sixth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series. Jeter made an impossibly accurate relay to the plate to cut down Caddilacking Timo Perez, the Mets outfielder, who had downshifted after rounding second base.
Jeter's throw kept that eventual Yankees victory scoreless, and provided those Mets a memory they still curse and lament.
A precise throw from their shortstop would have served the Mets well Thursday night in another Subway Series showdown. But Ruben Tejada airmailed his relay from short left field to the plate in the seventh inning, and, on that play, the Yankees scored the lone run in the fourth installment of this mostly entertaining Inter-borough, Interleague interlude.
A quicker and lower throw from Tejada might have cut down trudging Brian McCann and denied the Yankees what became their margin of victory in the first 1-0 final score in the history of the Subway Series. For that matter, had David Wright, overshifted into assuming shortstop duties, made a more accurate throw to first base on a potential double play earlier in the inning, McCann never would have reached base.
Tejada's imprecision can be noted, but neither his 747 throw nor Wright's in-the-dirt relay hardly was the primary element in the Mets' loss. They weren't about to win, 0-0, even if McCann was thrown out at first or the plate. Their Lilliputian offense bears the burden in this one. Their total bases (three) and walks (three) combined didn't equal half their strikeout total (14).
(And while we're here at the K Corner, why is it that Yankees manager Joe Girardi was almost giddy about the strikeout acumen of his three relievers -- 15 batters, 10 strikeouts -- while the Mets blindly maintain that strikeouts are no more damaging than groundouts? What are we missing in their argument? We know what they're missing. But that's a topic for another swing-and-miss evening which is bound to occur.)
Precision prompts awe; it is borderline magical. It ought to be celebrated. Jeter's throw 14 Octobers ago is a far better measure of his greatness than his dangerous and celebrated dive into the stands. (Please note, he thought better of risking bodily harm in a similar scenario Thursday night. With age comes wisdom and fewer facial scars.)
The great ones create legacies with their exactness. Ozzie Smith regularly practiced catching throws at second base, leaping off the base and making perfect relays to first. He closed his eyes after taking the throws.
When Eddie Murray was in his first Mets training camp in 1992, Todd Hundley noticed him drawing lines on his bat with a pen. He inquired. "What's that for?" "I'm marking the sweet spot," Murray told him, prompting a "What for?" from the son of a big leaguer who had been around the game for most of his life.
"'Cause that's where I want to make contact," was Murray's response.
"Yeah," Hundley said. "But how many times are you going to do that?"
"In two weeks," Murray said, "all the time."
Hundley was incredulous. Murray is a Hall of Famer, too.
And then there was Tom Seaver, the perfectionist/Hall of Famer. He says that on four or five occasions each season, his command was so precise he could dictate exactly where a batter would hit his pitch. "And when I had that kind of control," Seaver said, "I always won."
Seaver still bemoans a game in the mid-'70s. He was in absolute control of the baseball. But an infield hit and an error had put Pirates on first and third with one out. Seaver needed a double play and was fully confident he could elicit one. His shortstop, Buddy Harrelson, was injured. Teddy Martinez played in Harrelson's stead.
Seaver was well aware of Martinez's limitations and decided he would throw a pitch that would be hit to Martinez's left. "It would be an easier play for Teddy that way," Seaver said years later.
Seaver threw his DP slider to Gene Clines, and the Pirates outfielder hit a grounder to Martinez's left. But Harrelson's understudy didn't charge the softly struck ball. The Mets achieved a forceout, but Clines was safe at first, and the Bucs tied the score at 1. They won by one run after Seaver had been removed.
"That's the one time I didn't win when I had that kind of precision," Seaver said. "Nancy and I were supposed to go out for dinner that night with the Koosmans and the Grotes. I couldn't. I was ticked off two days. I stayed in the hotel and told my wife, 'Don't let the door hit you on your way out.'"
Seaver retold the story three years ago, and the frustrations resurfaced. "You know how people say they'd rather be lucky than good?" he said. "Good luck trumps precision, too."