Ted Kubiak knew where baseball was heading and spelled it out in his book “Old School.’’
Kubiak, 79, played 10 years in the majors and was on three World Series winning teams with Charlie Finley’s A’s. After retiring in the spring of 1977 and leaving the game for 12 years, he came back as a minor league manager and infield instructor.
He had to come back to the game he loved. He went on manage 2,260 minor league games. His minor league career consisted of 803 games as a player, so all told, Kubiak has 4,040 pro games under his belt.
A switch-hitter, he was a gifted middle infielder, it was his glove that kept him in the game so long. He knows all the ins and outs and with that in mind, this past week he sent me an email that did not pull any punches.
It was addressed to Rob Manfred and began:
“This was the last straw for me. I’ve been trying my best to preserve the memories I have of America’s pastime, but I can’t do it anymore. You’ve won.’’
Kubiak goes on to point out that those in charge, the new age GMs have little understanding of the game.
Later in the letter he makes these points about the home run happy game baseball has become. All categories of the game have been diminished.
“Look what’s happened to some aspects of the game. You can’t slide into, or knock down a middle infielder on the double play anymore, the catcher has to give the runner ‘home plate, four balls’ is now just a wave of the arm, pitchers have to face three hitters ruining managerial strategies. The game is just a home run hitting contest. Pitchers can’t pitch despite the protestations that throwing 100 miles per hour makes someone a pitcher. Today’s speed is probably as false as it was when two guns were used to measure velocity. Pitchers can’t find the plate. It sometime seems that flashing lights should indicate where it is. Balls in the dirt are beating up the catchers; backstops are often stopping more balls than the receivers, and too many times the umpire is in the firing line, and takes the brunt of a ‘cross up,’ or just an inept catcher who can’t put his glove up in time.
“Major League Baseball is all about winning, nothing else.”
“Why are there so many strikeouts? Is the pitching that good?
“Maybe we should take a look at what players are being taught; they have no strike zones; and don’t know what one looks like. I got dumbfounded looks when I asked the conglomerate of position players I was managing one year to tell me theirs…I got no answers.’’
All that is frightening and explains why baseball is where it is at today.
Only four teams: the Astros, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Angels have more hits than strikeouts.
Kubiak is not hesitant to speak his mind about Manfred’s understanding of the game.
“Unfortunately, because of my ‘inside’ connections, I know for a fact that you do not understand the ‘old’ or ‘old school’ game. Actually, it shouldn’t be labeled as such because in those days it was THE game.’’
The Game. Two words that mean so much. This is not about Old School. This is about The Game.
Every week I am hearing from more and more baseball men who have had enough. Believe me, they are not old men yelling at clouds.
They are Baseball Men yelling at the thunderstorm raging above them.
Baseball deserves better. Fans deserve better. Players deserve better. Most of all The Game deserves better. Kubiak makes so many strong points and I will address only a few. I highly recommend baseball fans get a copy of “Old School’’ and read it for yourself. And for coaches and parents there are plenty of salt of the earth tips on how players can improve their game.
The publisher is iUniverse. The 11-page forward, written in exacting detail by Tony La Russa, who just happens to have his White Sox in first place despite a slew of injuries, is worth it just for getting to the heart of the baseball matter.
La Russa, 76, breaks down how he manages a game and compares it to the book.
“Our teams divided a game into three-inning segments,’’ La Russsa wrote. “We wanted to score early and often in inning one through three. In innings four, five and six we reacted to the scoreboard by either adding runs or coming from behind. And because many games are decided in innings seven, eight and nine, we sharpened our focus to a single run, scoring one or preventing one, with the goal of our closer completing the win.’’
Infielder Ted Kubiak #11 of the Oakland Athletics watches the ball fly against the New York Mets during the World Series at Shea Stadium on October 1973 in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
That is a fascinating approach and explains a lot of la Russa’s Hall of Fame managing success.
He looked at “Old School’’ the same way and came up with his closer:
“The end suggests that those responsible for reconciling this critical issue embrace the teaching of a legendary baseball coach and mentor, George Kissell… He wore a St. Louis Cardinals uniform for sixty-nine years,’’ La Russa said of the coaching legend. “He impacted the baseball lives of thousands in organizations besides the Cardinals. He was famous for developing techniques that featured simplicity and effectiveness.
“George combined the Golden Rule with his Test applies directly to those entrusted with finding the solution to the Ops issue that serves the best interest of the game,’’ La Russa added. “The Rule requires that everyone who chooses to work for baseball pledges to do his best while understanding (the) first priority is what’s best for the game.’’
Magic words. What’s best for the game.
“The two sides that are passionately analyzing the game from their different ideologies must structure their thinking and work with the priority attached to the Rule.’’
Ted Kubiak has always honored the Rule and as La Russa noted, ”The more you learn, the more you will love the game.’’
For Kubiak this love showed itself in many ways, including a garage wall in his home, growing up in Highland Park, N.J. He created a rebound drill that he would do for 20 minutes a day, throwing the ball across the garage into the cement blocks. “Every day without moving my feet was murder on my legs, but it was an excellent way to manipulate my glove, coordinate my hands, build leg strength, stay low to the ground and work on the accuracy of my return throw,’’ Kubiak said. “As my legs strengthened my hands got ‘softer.’ ’’
Ted Kubiak and Dick Green celebrate their 1972 World Series win in the A's locker room. (Ron Riesterer / Oakland Tribune Staff Archives)(Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)
Such a drill, so simple, yet so much. He could also run “pick-ups’’ in his garage, going back and forth over a short distance.
“Their benefits far outweigh many of the drills used today that are not position specific,’’ Kubiak explained of two old school methods to develop glove abilities..
Then this deep point: “Once weight rooms and what they afforded became popular, there was an eerie sense that those in charge believed what was accomplished in them was more important than what could be accomplished on the field,’’ Kubiak said.
Weight rooms have their place, certainly, but there is more to learning the game.
This is Old School but it’s also Back To School.
There are different ways to succeed and as Kubiak noted, “Much of what happens in the game of baseball today is missing the goodness of its history. I learned about winning from other players, and from an individual who was not a player, Charles O. Finley. This gentleman was more than an owner, he epitomized organizational leadership that I believe morphed into an individual governance that went unrecognized.’’
Finley was the legendary A’s owner.
“Disrespected by many, his demands forced those who he employed to search for more within themselves,’’ Kubiak said. “He did not lord over them every day with his presence, but everyone knew what was expected, and that he was somewhere watching. No excuses accepted. No reprieves given. You either contributed or you were out … There is no greater satisfaction for an athlete than playing for someone with that passion.
“That, and a good kick in the pants, is often all you need,’’ he said.
Those words put Charlie Finley in a much different light. Accountability was the order of the day. It’s not like that anymore.
“Major-league baseball is all about winning, nothing else,’’ Kubiak noted. “Putting a team together with the talent to win is not easy, and realistically, is probably more improbable than possible, but when talent is found, getting the most from it seems not to be very well understood. Mistakes, miscues, and obvious limitations are going unaddressed – not necessarily missed – just not responded to appropriately.’’
Let the kids play is fine, but when the kids mess up, let them know they need to fix it. That is part of the magic sauce of winning. Players improve, teams improve.
Perhaps that is exactly what La Russa was doing earlier in the year when he criticized Yermin Mercedes for his 3-0 home run hit when position player Willians Astudillo was on the mound in a blowout and Mercedes missed the take sign in the process.
That’s why La Russa noted after that game, “Big mistake … It won’t happen again.’’
Feelings were hurt in the Twitterverse. La Russa was slammed for that reaction. Too bad. He made his point. His White Sox, who have been slammed by injuries, are in first place in the AL Central.
Don’t waste your time yelling at clouds and yelling at me on Twitter about my defense of La Russa. You can point it out to EIC Chris Vitali, he usually responds, I don’t.
Kubiak continues to search for baseball answers to baseball issues. As he so rightly stated: “I may not have known what was best, but I had a grinding commitment to find out.”
A grinding commitment. He is the ultimate grinder.
And it paid off. “Finley’s personal motto was ‘Sweat plus Sacrifice equals Success.’ It’s emblazoned as ‘S + S = S’ on all three of my championship rings,’’ Kubiak stated, adding of Finley, “He was proof of its worth, having survived almost a two-year battle with tuberculosis as a young man to become a millionaire selling disability insurance to doctors.’’
All this brings us to fundamentals. Fundies. My favorite part of the game. And where the game is today with fundamentals. Kubiak does not sugar coat it.
Ted Kubiak #11 infielder for the Oakland Athletics checks his swing during the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium on October 1972 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images
This may be the most important point he makes.
“Something has either been forgotten, ignored, or misunderstood in the instruction our potential professional players are receiving,’’ Kubiak said. “This is not to say that today’s major league organizations ignore their responsibilities, but the change has been significant. Things are different because they’ve been allowed to be. Plays that were at one time fundamental to the game, for example, are now rarely attempted, because they cannot be executed with enough reliability.’’
Again, things are different because they’ve been allowed to be. Players don’t work at it Iike they did in the past because the instructors have changed and even old school coaches, who may be young, have been limited in numbers or in approach by higher-ups who prefer the softer approach.
Six items Kubiak listed as lost.
- That no one can bunt goes without saying.
- Locating pitches is a lost art. Pitchers just throw.
- Contact by hitters is such that the strikeout is taking on home run proportions.
- Inaccurate throws to home plate make it appear that it has somehow moved.
- Manipulating the bat now means swinging hard enough to hit a home run.
- And might we sometimes just catch the ball – please.
That last one was written long before Joe Girardi went off earlier this year on his sloppy Phillies saying, “Catch the ball. Just catch the ball. That’s all we need to do … just not following the ball into their glove, miscommunication. It shouldn’t happen at this level.’’
Yet it does, game after game after game. Great athletes mess up easy plays. That’s focus, attention to detail, and teams not emphasizing the specifics of good defense and working at it during what used to be baseball practice but has evolved into home run hitting practice.
Pitchers can regularly throw 98 to the plate, but they somehow lob toss bad throws to first base, if they manage to catch the come-backer. Pop flies drop in front of outfielders like the one that dropped in front of Juan Soto this week as first baseman Josh Bell flailed at the ball when the Nationals blew that crazy 8-0 lead to the Padres the other night.
As a minor league manager, heading into a post-season run, Kubiak once addressed the team’s recent lackadaisical play and was promptly criticized by his boss, told his motivational speech was a mistake and should not have been delivered in such tones. “Why we won the championship he may still not understand,’’ Kubiak recalled. “Mathematical assessments have become the life blood of baseball.’’
Exactly. Fundies be damned. I’m also adding base-running to Kubiak’s list. It has never been worse.
Kubiak honors The Game in many ways and noted, “My joy was playing the game, not creating its history … It is difficult to conceive that something as innocuous as a little ball is single-handedly responsible for giving America more than its fair share of unforgettable moments, fulfilling , and, in some cases, transforming as it has the days and lives of so many.
“Every ballpark excites me, not only because of their size and idiosyncrasies, but because there is something magical about the competitiveness they invite.’’
Baseball can’t forget that. Old School has its place in The Game.