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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: October 6, 2022 12:03 am PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Kudos to SNY. 

It’s not just about numbers and statistics and exit velo when SNY broadcasts a Mets game, it’s about what is happening in and around the game, the entire day.

That came through loud and clear in the top of the sixth inning Tuesday night in Pittsburgh at sparsely attended PNC Park. SNY showed some pre-game tape of three Pirate coaches sitting on stools behind home plate with one of the coaches feeding the other two coaches baseballs as those two coaches fed those baseballs into two machines that shot out ground balls to the infield.

This is the new way folks, and it is certainly paying off for the 50-86 last place Pirates who play in a dreadful division, the NL Central.

Why hit fungoes when you can sit around and shoot fungoes out of a machine?

Why carry around a $100 fungo bat when you can spend that much more money on machines that do similar work as a hard-working coach with a fungo?

This way you can spend more on machines, perhaps hire less human beings and either way, you are the Pirates, who cares if you win or lose. The owner doesn’t care.

I actually have been warned about this a while back from one of my scout friends who has been seeing this kind of infield “work’’ in the minor leagues all year. He insists part of the reason this is being done is because some of the coaches being hired today don’t even know how to hit fungoes ­– and he pointed to one Florida State League team this season that would not do a lot of infield work, but when the team did – perhaps twice a week – the “coaches” would feed baseballs into machines.

Not only am I used to seeing nearly 50 years of fungoes being hit, but I also see the fungoes being hit off a soft toss to get the fielder to read the path of the ball and the sound of it as well, all that is part of the big picture.

“I don’t think they had a coach on the team who could actually hit a fungo,’’ the talent evaluator, who can hit a fungo, told BallNine.

What do you mean: Coaches can’t hit a fungo?

Are you kidding me? Who in baseball can’t hit a fungo? Isn’t that a pre-requisite, doesn’t that come with the job, isn’t there a fungo test before you hire a coach?

Are you trying to tell me that pro coaches, even some in the majors, cannot handle a fungo bat? No way. Can’t be.

Being the intrepid reporter that I am – and being this is Baseball or Bust where I can get away with covering the game of baseball the way I want to cover baseball – I reached out to one of my top coaching friends, a man with vast experience and is still coaching; and he set me straight, telling me this story.

Turns out when this coach was running extended spring training for a team about 10 years ago, “I had to bring two new coaches to a back field and teach them to hit fungoes,’’ he said. “Buckets and buckets of balls. Then how I hit fly balls and pop ups.’’

The new coaches could not hit a fungo and this was 10 years ago. Imagine how bad it is now.

I’m still blown away. How could that be?

“They have no feel,’’ the top coach explained. “We grew up playing pepper and wiffle ball and having bat control. Today’s generation grew up with swing doctors and grooved swings.’’

Aha, he’s right, as a result, no feel, no fungo-ing.

View of fungo bat, baseball, batting gloves and fielding glove on tarp before New York Mets vs Atlanta Braves spring training game. Port St. Lucie, FL 2/23/2019 (Photo by Rob Foldy /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Then of course the Nerds had to get involved, and along the way some team started using machines instead of the fungo bat. And because baseball is a copycat business, other Nerds picked up on it and now you have major league teams with coaches sitting on their butts, feeding a machine – again they have to sit on their butts because said machine is lower than a pitching machine – feeding baseballs into a machine and players are scurrying around catching these baseballs that come out of a machine much differently than they come off a fungo and real bats. Different spin, different sound.

Not only am I used to seeing nearly 50 years of fungoes being hit, but I also see the fungoes being hit off a soft toss to get the fielder to read the path of the ball and the sound of it as well, all that is part of the big picture.

Now when Keith Hernandez was shown all this and prompted by the Great Gary Cohen, Keith lost his cool a bit. I believe that SNY loves to show this kind of stuff just to get a rise out of Keith, who has no filter and is a joy to talk and listen to when something sets him off.

Keith’s initial response said it all.

“This is fungoes,’’ Keith said incredulously as he watched the tape.

“Instead of hitting fungoes, they hit ground balls out of a machine,’’ Cohen explained.

“Oh, I so disagree with that,’’ Keith pleaded. ”I don’t care if it’s fungoes, you are reading a ball off a bat. Oh wow, Gar, we are not going to last forever, who knows what 10 years will bring.’’

Another prompt from Gary.

“All I know is that Buck Showalter walks around on the field before a game and he always has a fungo bat in his hand, whether he is using it or not,’’ Cohen said. “The thought of a coach who would not use a fungo bat but would use a machine to shoot out ground balls is really antithetical to everything we have ever seen.’’

Keith took the bait.

“And when you want your players to work hard and hustle and go about their job pre-game diligently, you’ve got three coaches sitting on a stool,’’ Keith stated. “That, to me, that just to me it doesn’t make sense. … You got one guy feeding the guy the ball in the middle, that’s all he is doing, it’s like an Artillery Team.’’

The Groundball Machine Artillery Team of the Pittsburgh Pirates. (SNY)

Boom! Making this all even more ridiculous was the music that SNY played over the clip, it was “Big Top Polka.’’ You may know it better as the theme from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Simply a perfect choice for the Clown Show that baseball has become under the Nerds under the Big Tent. I’m sure the Nerds will say “What does Keith Hernandez know about building an 50-86 team? It’s not like he won 11 consecutive Gold Gloves and is considered the best first baseman to play the game.’’

Another Nerd might then go to his phone and Google “Keith Hernandez’’ and show Top Nerd that Hernandez did just that, won 11 straight Gold Gloves.

“Yeah, so what, this is new age baseball. We’re not doing it the same old way and let Keith Hernandez yell at clouds. By the way, after M.I. machine infield, there will be L.A. practice, Launch Angle practice, with data immediately available that shows the perfect Launch Angle.’’

Launch Angle practice is working so well for the Pirates that the next day the Mets Chris Bassitt, using a cutter up in the zone – learn from this pitchers – struck out 10 Pirates in the first game of a split doubleheader in a Mets win. The Pirates lost both games and are hitting an NL-low .220, 29th overall.

Only the AA A’s (.217) are hitting lower than the Pirates.

But batting average doesn’t matter. We all know that.

Well, evidently fielding percentage doesn’t matter either.

Did I mention that the Pirates are dead last in fielding percentage in all of baseball with a .980 mark? That M.I. is paying off big time. Keep shooing baseballs out of a machine. I actually felt sorry for the coaches who had to sit there and feed the machines, but maybe they can’t hit fungoes.

Atlanta Braves third base coach Ron Washington (37) with fungo bat before game vs Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Game 4. Los Angeles, CA 10/20/2021 (Photo by John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

This is yet another example of Nerds ruining baseball every step of the way and then denying any of this is happening.

Don’t believe your eyes. Believe our numbers.

And the owners fall for that every single time.

Before they kill the fungo entirely, here is some Fungo History.

The word is derived from the Scottish word fungo, meaning to pitch or toss or fling. That is kind of what a fungo bat does.

Also in the history of the fungo no one knows the exact origins of how the fungo came to baseball, but in 1867 it first appeared in Henry Chadwick’s The Base Ball Player’s Book of Reference, according to Phoenix Bats. In 1937 writer David Shulman surmised, “The word may be explained through the elements of a compound word fun and go.’’

That seems like a guess to me. I’m not buying it.

Evidently there used to be and old game, similar to baseball, where the players used to chant, “One go, two goes, fun goes.’’

No matter where it came from I loved my fungo bats through the years. Still do. So does my oldest son who does a lot of coaching, and we were recently up in Cooperstown at All-Star Village where he was an ace hitting fungoes to his team for a solid week.

One of the small joys of coaching youth baseball is watching the coach from the opposing team come out and try to hit fungoes. My favorite is the one-handed swing guy but I saw something up in Cooperstown that showed me this one team had a lot of money, the coach was swatting fly balls with an oversized plastic tennis racket-like contraption.

They actually sell this item to fungo-challenged coaches. Dude, learn to hit a fungo.

Jim 'Catfish' Hunter (1946 - 1999) uses a fungo bat to hit ground balls to rookie pitchers during a spring training workout, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, February 26, 1980. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

I also can’t tell you through the years how many conversations I have had with coaches as they hit fungoes to their infielders. It was part of the passage of being a baseball writer. You have to time your questions and comments to the rhythm of the fungo bat striking the baseball. It’s also a place where coaches feel comfortable talking. There is a rhythm to hitting a fungo, there is a sound to hitting a fungo, there are different ways to hit a fungo, including having another coach toss them like soft toss.

A ground ball machine may have its place, just like a pitching machine has a place, but it’s a bad look before a game and it can’t replace the art of hitting a fungo, like Keith said, to have three coaches on stools, putting a baseball into a machine, just is a bad look.

This is yet another example of taking the human element out of the game and that is a problem.

“It’s the death of coaching,’’ a top talent evaluator told me. “It’s automation. Everything is going to be automated, you are going to have a computer to tell a guy how to pitch, a computer to tell a guy how to bat.’’

Sci-fi baseball is almost here.

“You’ll have a computer sitting in the dugout making all the decisions,’’ the evaluator said. “Machines shooting balls everywhere. No one coaching, you’ll have a robot voice saying: ‘Run now. Run now.’’’

Manager Ted Williams #9 of the Washington Senators shows the grip on the fungo bat that he used to hold his hands as former Detroit Tiger Don Kolloway looks on during MLB Spring Training February 25, 1970 at Pompano Beach Municipal Park in Pompano Beach, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Players won’t have to look at cheat cards in the future because they will have that information implanted in a chip. Stop the insanity.

On Jeff Frye’s #shegone podcast Larry Bowa said young players should not be given cheat cards as soon as they come into baseball, one of about 25 great points made by the former Gold Glove shortstop. As for the death of the fungo, Bowa did not hold back on what is wrong with ground balls out of a machine instead of coming off the fungo.

“First of all (with the machine) it’s going to be the same ground ball every time,’’ Bowa noted. “It’s going to have the same hop. To me, part of a coach hitting fungoes is go right, go left, you can’t keep moving that machine every single ball.

“The most important thing is to get your footwork right,’’ Bowa added. “You get your arm up quick enough once you catch the ball out up front. But to have the machine, I don’t understand that, I guess there are a few teams doing it. I don’t really agree with that. With fungoes you can make a guy go right, left, drop step, those are things the machines just don’t do and I really believe, I don’t want to call it laziness, but it’s easy to sit on a chair and feed that machine. I don’t think it gets the same effect as the fungo hitter.’’

Bowa learned from great infielders like Cookie Rojas, Tony Taylor, Bobby Wine and Ruben Amaro and by taking thousands and thousands of ground balls off fungoes, beginning in 1966 in the minors and eventually throughout his 16-year major league career.

Nerds, don’t kill the fungo like you are killing the game.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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