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Are You Game?

Sit down with three of baseball's top TV analysts and get a primer on how to watch the game. Hint: Don't keep your eye on the ball.

April 01, 1999|DEVRA MAZA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have this fantasy about Joe Morgan: I'm at a baseball game, sitting behind home plate. Greg Maddux is pitching and Joe's sitting next to me, telling me every pitch he's throwing and why.

Joe feels the same way--when he broadcasts a game. "My philosophy is that I'm sitting next to you at home and I'm trying to explain to you why things happen and we're having a conversation." That philosophy has helped the Hall of Famer make the seamless transition from being one of the best in the game to one of the best in the booth.

I've had many conversations with Joe Morgan about the game we both love, and I'm a smarter baseball viewer because of them. We agree that people who find baseball boring don't understand the many levels of the game. So it seems appropriate, with the baseball season upon us, to share with both established fans and novices alike a way to watch baseball, to look below the surface to get the most out of each game.

To help me, I elicited the advice of three of my favorite analysts: Morgan, the all-star second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and one of the game's best, analyzes games for ESPN as well as postseason play for NBC. His book, "Long Balls and No Strikes," is dueout this summer. Ken Singleton, who played on the Baltimore Orioles team that won the World Series in 1983, calls the chronically victorious New York Yankees for the MSG Network. "I'm looking forward for the season to start," he quips. "I'm well-rested and ready to go." On TBS, Joe Simpson--who once played for both the Dodgers and Angels--gets to analyze Atlanta Braves pitchers Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, considered the greatest starting rotation of the '90s.

All three agree the best way to learn how to watch a game is to go to one. The first local exhibition game is Friday, when the Dodgers visit the Angels, and Opening Day is Monday. "Going to a game will always enhance your enjoyment of a game on television," says Morgan.

Baseball is great entertainment, filled with skill, suspense and strategy. And its diamond stage is the most beautiful in all sports. Singleton suggests taking in the colorful field, the sounds of the ball hitting the bat, the roar of the crowd, the ballpark food. Now it's time to delve deeper.

"There's a different way to watch a baseball game than just watching the ball all the time," says Morgan. "There's so many other things happening before a ball's put in play and there are different things to look for from different vantage points." So whether your seat's a sofa or in a stadium, a look at the hitter, the pitcher and team defense should help fans cover the bases:

The Hitter

"Pitchers are like bad criminals," says Singleton. "They always return to the scene of the crime. If they get you out one way, they will try it again, but maybe in a different pattern until hitters figure it out."

The great hitters, like the Padres' Tony Gwynn, figure it out early. "One of the most intelligent things Gwynn does is he doesn't try to hit everybody the same," says Simpson. "I love watching him adjust from at-bat to at-bat. He might even move around in the batter's box. He might open or close his stance a little. But he will make adjustments to whatever weakness a pitcher might have discovered on his previous at-bat, forcing the pitcher to make adjustments himself. Those are things fans at home can watch for on the good hitters."

A hitter's position in the batter's box can also tell viewers a lot about that hitter's capabilities. Morgan explains: "If he stands real close to the plate, that means he has a quick bat and has better plate coverage. If he stands far away from the plate, it means that he doesn't have a real fast bat and needs a little room to get it started."

The examples bring to mind sluggers Mark McGwire, who crowds the plate, and Sammy Sosa, who made an adjustment to his stance last season by backing off the plate. Morgan agrees. "Two different guys with two different approaches," both utilized to great success.

But standing off the plate has its drawbacks. A slower hitter doesn't have as much time to see the ball because he has to commit his swing earlier. It therefore seems that a pitcher like reigning Cy Young winner Tom Glavine, who has made a career controlling the outside corner, would have it all over someone like Slammin' Sammy.

"But how many Glavines are there in the world?" Morgan says."For every Tom Glavine, there are 10 pitchers who can't throw the ball consistently for strikes on the outside corner of the plate. Whoever can make the other make the most adjustments is going to win the battle." Morgan learned the lesson himself as a rookie when Willie Mays told him, "Joe, you fight off the great pitchers and beat up on the other guys."

"So that was Sammy's philosophy," he says. "He fought off Glavine and beat up on the other guys." The game is about adjustments. "McGwire makes people adjust to him. Now Glavine and Maddux make people adjust to them. So it's a cat and mouse game."

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