SCOTT SIMON, host:
For devout baseball fans who might be trying to draw a reluctant friends and family into the game, Zack Hample might offer help. He has a new book called "Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts and Deeply Serious Geeks." Mr. Hample, who writes for MinorLeagueBaseball.com, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ZACK HAMPLE (Writer, www.MinorLeagueBaseball.com): My pleasure, thanks for having me.
SIMON: Let's get to some of the revelations you have in this book. First, are some of the stats that we grow up with - runs batted in, RBIs, batting average - are they illogical these days compared to some of the new ones like slugging percentage or on-base percentage?
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah, the statistical evolution of baseball I think is really cool. You go back to the 1850s and back in that decade the hitter was out if the fielding team caught his hit on one bounce. So obviously that affected batting averages and all kinds of pitching stats as well. And you know, in the 1860s for example, the umpire would only call a ball after warning the pitcher for intentionally throwing bad pitches. Now, why would the pitcher do that? Well, because obviously electricity had not been invented at that point. So it was very common for the team with the lead to stall because the game had to end when it got dark.
And just all kinds of cool things. You know, the pitching mound was originally 50 feet from home plate. And in 1893 it moved back to its current distance of 60 feet six inches. So all these things contributed to change the way baseball was documented statistically.
SIMON: Why do so few pitchers throw complete games anymore? Are they just not as tough as the old guys?
Mr. HAMPLE: Because they're wimps. No, it's because they get paid so much money that teams would rather look at the big picture and think about protecting these guys over the course of years and decades even. And pitchers really throw a lot harder nowadays than they did a hundred years ago.
Mr. HAMPLE: You know, the balls are wound much tighter and a hundred years ago, there were often no outfield fences. Or if there were fences, they might have been 600 feet from home plate. So hitting homeruns was just not part of the strategy. So pitchers wouldn't throw it as hard and the batters could crank the ball, it just wouldn't go very far. But guys exert themselves so much nowadays that it's just - it's almost impossible to go more than 120 pitches consistently.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some Major League parks. Minute Maid Park in Houston, they have a flagpole in centerfield.
Mr. HAMPLE: In play.
SIMON: Yeah, exactly.
Mr. HAMPLE: On a hill.
SIMON: Which makes you want to ask - they have a lot of room to work with in Houston. Why do they have to put the flagpole there?
Mr. HAMPLE: It was common in old ballparks to have flagpoles actually on the field and other kind of kooky obstacles. I mean, fielders were actually allowed to leave their gloves on the field when their team went up to bat as late as the 1950s, and even groundskeepers would leave their tools on the field in the old days. But now you don't see any kind of crazy stuff like that. So it's pretty strange to have a hill and a flagpole that an outfielder could actually could actually crash into.
SIMON: Part of the game, right?
Mr. HAMPLE: Part of the beauty of baseball. Yeah, you know, every football field is the same size. Every basketball court is the same length. You know, almost every other sport, the playing surface, the playing area is uniform. But every stadium in baseball is different. There are certain measurements, obviously, that have to be consistent, like every ball park built after 1958, for example, had to be at least 325 feet down the lines and 400 feet to centerfield.
So when you see a ballpark like Yankee Stadium, which is only about, I think, 314 feet down the right field line, and even when they renovated it in the 1970s, they allowed the Yankees to keep that short porch there in right field. So you see all kinds of exceptions to the rules, and different rules, and I think that's part of what makes baseball so much fun.
SIMON: You defend umpires. You say it's hard for us on the outside (unintelligible) watching on television to appreciate how difficult it is to make a close call.
Mr. HAMPLE: It's very difficult. The home plate umpire, for example, has to choose which shoulder of the catcher he's going to look over. He can't be directly behind the catcher because he has to crouch down low to gauge the height of the pitch and the catcher's helmet would block his view. So he has to be on one side. And that kind of throws off his interpretation of the other side of the strike zone. So just even a little detail like that can get complicated.
But you know, umpires have to deal with the psychosis of managers who are often in a tough spot. If a player feels wronged by a call and starts to argue, well, the manager doesn't want that player to get kicked out a game, so the manager has to go out and protect the guy. And there are times when the manager might even agree with the umpire, might even know that the ump made the right call, but still has to give the impression that he's sticking up for his own guy.
So in extreme cases, the manager might go out and pretend to be kicking and screaming and yelling at the umpire, but he might actually be saying something like, you are the best gosh-darn umpire I've ever seen. I cannot believe how you got that call right. That was freaking amazing.
And you know, all his guys in the dugout just see him, you know...
SIMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mr. HAMPLE: ...making all these crazy gestures. And yeah, there's some pretty wacky stuff like that that comes up.
SIMON: It's a great sport for superstitions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMPLE: Baseball players are crazy. Yeah, you know.
SIMON: You inevitably cite the great Wade Boggs, now retired.
Mr. HAMPLE: Wade Boggs is perhaps the most superstitious player of all time. And he was always so intent on having a seven-for-seven performance, meaning seven hits in seven at-bats in one game that he would start his pre-game jogging at 7:17 p.m. And one time in Toronto, the scoreboard operator, who is aware of this, intentionally flipped the clock directly from 7:16 to 7:18 to mess up Bogg's routine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMPLE: And you know, Boggs would chicken before every game, and he got the nickname chicken man and he took the same number of ground balls every day at a certain time. He drew the Hebrew symbol, chai(ph), in the batter's box before every hit. I mean he did all kinds...
SIMON: He's not Jewish, we should explain.
Mr. HAMPLE: He's not Jewish. Yeah, he did all kinds of stuff, and clearly it worked because, you know, he's in the Hall of Fame.
SIMON: But I also like what Dusty Baker once said about superstitions when he was a player.
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah, they asked him if he, you know, had any superstitions and he said something like, you know, I wore the same underwear for five years in the minor leagues and I still hit 250, so no, I don't believe in that stuff. Watch the pitchers walk off the field in between innings. You just take a look and see how many guys will avoid stepping on the foul lines.
SIMON: Sounds like they all ought to be in St. Elizabeth's. I mean...
Mr. HAMPLE: Pretty much. Yeah, it's pretty crazy.
SIMON: Zack Hample. His new book is "Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts and Deeply Serious Geeks." Zack, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. HAMPLE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
For devout baseball fans who are trying to draw their reluctant friends and family into the game, Zack Hample offers help. His new book is called Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks.
For devout baseball fans who are trying to draw their reluctant friends and family into the game, Zack Hample offers help. His new book is called Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks. Hample, who writes for minorleaguebaseball.com, speaks with Scott Simon about the game's endearing quirks and history.