In our never-ending quest to find new methods of teaching baseball, especially the hitting aspect, perhaps we should stop and look back instead of always looking ahead.
Once upon a time a high batting average of .380% or .400% was not that uncommon and of course there have been a lot of changes to the game since then, but still … the change explains it all. I do not think so.
A veteran baseball player named Tony Peña once served as catcher for the Pittsburg Pirates and, although he gained great notoriety for his unorthodox catching style, he literally caught and threw while sitting astride the ground, he was especially known for its swing on almost every pitch hitting style.
For pitchers of that era, walking Tony Peña was almost as difficult as throwing a no-hitter, and despite his seemingly wild swings in just about anything that looked like a baseball, he hit a high average. How could a player, who seemed to completely abandon self-control and proper hitting mechanics when hitting, hit a high average against major league pitchers?
Tony Peña grew up in a very poor Latin American community where baseball was the all-time favorite sport of neighborhood youth, but no family could afford the bats, balls, and gloves that we consider so critical to the game.
However, they all drank soda, and since the aluminum can had not been inserted into the soda, it was packaged in a glass bottle with a metal cap. The metal caps of the bottles, carefully removed so as not to bend them, could be navigated and a broken broomstick could be used as a bat to beat them. This is where Tony Peña learned to hit.
Now, after a bit of practice, a bottle stopper can be made to sail, dip, zoom out, and get up at will, and since this was the only activity available in town, there was constant practice. Hitting such a difficult target with a broomstick required exceptional vision and timing, again the result of constant practice.
Here’s how and why Tony Peña apparently made a wild swing, which we now know was actually an extremely controlled swing, but averaged high. He had spent his entire life swinging and throwing darts, jumping objects with a small stick.
Hitting the coaches of today would require Tums, for his heartburn and Advil, for his headaches, to try to coach a player like Tony Peña. It just wouldn’t happen again and I’m not recommending that the free swing strategy be revived.
However, I think a good old-fashioned whiffle ball game, where the ball is thrown, soars, and bounces, would make a great occasional substitute for batting cages. Rather than trying to perfect timing through mechanics, which is perfecting the hit of a ball that travels essentially the same path dozens of times in a row, we play contact ball.
Let’s expose our eyes and reflections to the split second that is thrown and plunged from a moving object and learn how to hit it. I don’t see that that hurts anything. You can?