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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 8, 2023 4:48 am PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Borrowing a few lines from this 1966 Buffalo Springfield song.

“There’s something happening here

“What it is ain’t exactly clear’’

There’s something happening in baseball – and what it is ain’t exactly clear – but today’s young players, to a great degree, are having trouble thinking and playing the game.

They need extreme guidance in many cases. It seems they have been over-programmed and under-worked on the particulars of the game and it is having far-reaching effects. Not only have I noticed this, I mentioned it to a number of veteran baseball people who agree, saying the way young players are being taught the game now is not the way to success. This is not the fault of coaches and managers who in many ways have had their hands tied by upper Nerd management.

It’s what is emphasized by those in charge and they are emphasizing the wrong things.

I began to research all of this at The Story because I read an article on young people in daily life, not baseball, noting, “Today’s 18-year-old are like the 12-year-olds from a decade ago.’’

That’s scary.

The article was written by Holly Korbey and Korbey notes our culture demands today’s children do little on their own for “safety’s sake.’’

There is too little independence and that their risk threshold is low, especially for American children.

In baseball this can be seen in different ways, low pitch counts for pitchers in the minor leagues to avoid injury. The lack of figuring things out for both hitters and fielders, being told what to do at every turn instead of learning through experience, failure and conflict.

Top prospects are promoted despite poor results and those organizational players who actually do improve on their own may not be rewarded as such.

It’s a fascinating subject and as one of the wisest baseball men I know stated to me: “If somebody does all your thinking for you, you never learn anything. So you have all the analytics people telling you how to hit and pitch, you never learn how to hit and pitch.’’

There is too much reliance on technology and not enough on a word I just made up.

“Life-ology.’’

I believe this starts with the young athlete and I constantly hear from youth coaches that parents, maybe the mom, maybe the dad, maybe both, are too quick to blame the coach for a child’s failures instead of learning through the school of hard knocks.

Interesting, according to Korbey’s article, Kansas State is now offering a workshop called: “Adulting 101.’’

Conflict is a part of learning, not something to be totally avoided. Emotional resilience has to be improved in our young people. In the article Dori Hutchinson, executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University states ,“some kids are growing up developmentally delayed, today’s 18-year-olds are like 12-year-olds from a decade ago. They have very little tolerance for conflict and discomfort.’’

Certainly this generation has learned to be rewarded more often than past generations.

Hit a home run now and it’s a carnival in the dugout with laundry cart rides, football helmets, cowboy hats, home run chains, home run jackets and the like. One of the best things about Aaron Judge setting the AL home run record last season with 62 home runs to break Roger Maris’ mark of 61 in’61 that broke Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 homers in 1927 is that Judge not only kept it in the Yankee family but also we didn’t have to watch him 62 times being pushed in a laundry cart, or 62 times putting on the home run jacket. He ran around the bases in a professional manner and was congratulated in an exciting but normal fashion by teammates.

The good news is that some teams are starting to demand more from their players and they will find they have better teams. It’s that simple.

Hopefully that makes an impression on young home run hitters moving forward.

I reached out to the pros to hear what they have to pass along about the subject so it is not just an old man yelling at clouds. The truth is, I do think young, and I am yelling about the thunderstorm directly over my head.

Again I have no problems with celebrations but don’t make it so over the top. I’m also tired of team’s sideline reporters in postgame celebrations being shocked that the Gatorade bath is cold. But that’s just me.

One such baseball pro, who has been coaching for decades told me, a lot of this is because the minor leagues have changed.

“Now they get a scheduled day off a week,’’ this coach, one of the top teachers in the game explained. “When I was in the minor leagues, we had one day a year off and that was the major league All-Star Game.

The work was done on an everyday basis.

“If you didn’t get rained out, you were playing,’’ he said.

And by playing more, you learned more from real life experience on the field – and you had to learn on your own.

“In a lot of organizations now the medical people also schedule days off,’’ he said.

You know, load management. Then there is this: “We all want them to be mentally tough and then everything is so easy on them. It really is,’’ he said. “They can say whatever they want to but we make it easy for them at every level.’’

That is the cold, hard truth and baseball snowflakes will go crazy over that, but too bad. That is the opinion built on a foundation of being in the game a baseball lifetime and seeing what has happened to the game. And you’ve heard so much about the lack of infield and outfield and true batting practice to not overwork this generation of players. It’s a reality. The good news is that some teams are starting to demand more from their players and they will find they have better teams. It’s that simple.

Casey Candaele of the Toronto Blue Jays speaks to the media prior to a game against the Kansas City Royals at Rogers Centre on July 15, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Excuses are made too easy. Society reflects back to baseball.

Many players work hard, but some don’t. There simply is not enough baseball in the young baseball player’s life.

“That genie is not being put back in the bottle with all the strength and conditioning and the mental skills (coach) and all that it is here to stay, it’s not leaving it,’’ our expert said. “So as coaches we have to get these guys adjusted to playing the game and play it to win and know how to win and be mentally tough while they are getting pampered at times.’’

You think it’s easy to be a coach? Try it on any level. It’s not so easy.

I am not hesitant to go the extra mile. Most of the younger GMs come from the same pampered background – if not more so – and they don’t like a lot of pushback; that’s why when you see so many teams, the front office people appear to be clones even in the manner of dress.

AMBS is not here to make friends, I’m here to let you know what’s going on with the game at every level.

“You’ve got a lot of material you can use,’’ said one longtime baseball man.

There is a lot of middle management on every level of baseball these days.

Another baseball man noted how life can be tough on young athletes especially if there is disruption in the home, a divorce or whatever. “A lot of kids are coming from broken homes, and they went through all the Covid shit, emotionally and mentally they are very, very weak,’’ he said.

He then told me about a recent conversation he had with an independent league manager in which a player came to him and complained because in his previous affiliated organization they were able to hit in shorts and tank tops.

This manager insisted on dressing in uniform to hit and told the player, “That’s there. I come from a different world and we go out on the field unified as a team and we do our pregame every day.’’

Seems pretty simple. Be a team. Act like a team. You can have fun but be professional. That is part of the buy-in and it also shows the players it’s not just about “You.’’

It’s about “Team.’’

Manager Bruce Bochy of the San Diego Padres (L) watches as Tony Gywnn takes batting practice in San Diego, Ca. (Photo credit: Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images)

Scouts have told me they have seen things recently they have never seen before in the minors with the approach to BP and the clothes that players practice in before games, including one player who took batting practice every day at one series in shorts, tank top and wearing a sombrero – and this was in an affiliated organization.

“One of the days it was pretty warm and he didn’t have a shirt on,’’ the scout recalled, “I said to myself, ‘what am I watching here?’’’

Anything goes.

In an encouraging note it seems some teams are hiring veteran coaches at the minor league level who will demand more – and I think you are beginning to see it in the major leagues as well with hirings like longtime manager Don Mattingly, 61, as bench coach of the Blue Jays. Mattingly has had success as a player and manager and learned the Yankee way under George Steinbrenner. The move enabled the Blue Jays to put Casey Candaele, 62, back to AAA manager.

At the time of the Mattingly hire, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said of the 1985 AL MVP and nine-time Gold Glove first baseman, “Experience and credibility are words that get used a lot in professional sports, in life and in corporate worlds, but it’s hard to quantify exactly how valuable that is. I think it’s something that will create a calming impact and influence. It will help not only with performance and lack thereof, but also with accountability, which will be huge for us.’’

Accountability is huge. Certainly the Bruce Bochy hire in Texas is another good sign and he will offer leadership and accountability to the players, something most players really want. At the minor league level some teams dealing in reality are hiring veteran coaches to pair with younger managers.

That is a good thing and a smart thing for organizations. Help is needed across the board.

Another longtime baseball man noted there are major league teams out there where pregame work is basically voluntary: “Every swing, every fly ball, every ground ball,’’ he said.

As far as hitting, “Everything is cage mania.’’

And if there is hitting on the field pre-game, what used to be called batting practice, I would call it swing practice now because hitting the ball isn’t emphasized, it’s grooving that perfect swing, often the hitting is done off a machine.

And you wonder why Johnny can’t hit and the rules have to be changed, “No shifting’’ to make it easier on Johnny. The MLB batting average last season was .243. You have to go all the way back to 1968 to find a lower MLB batting average and that was .237.

Not too long ago in 2012 it was .255 and has been pretty much in decline every season. In 1996 the league-wide batting average was .270. Yes, pitching has changed in that there are more high-performance arms, but the biggest change is the swing for the fences mentality throughout baseball on every level; when even in the minors you will see the No. 8 or No. 9 hitter hitter swing from his heels every time when a ball put in play would advance the runner.

I don’t want to hear that batting average is not important. It is important and remains one of the most important numbers in baseball no matter how much the Nerds try to change the game and change the language around the game. Putting the ball in play and getting base hits is pleasing to the fan who wants to see action.

Part of that is having batting practice on the field and getting instant gratification for the hitters and also challenging hitters. It was fun to watch Derek Jeter run his games within the game of batting practice. Same goes for Tony Gwynn. Teams have run away from that mindset and instead of insisting on having a true batting practice they have iPad practice and indoor batting practice cage work.

Get back on the field more.

In a nutshell, here is the great irony according to one baseball lifer: “There is diminished need, and want for bat to ball skills.’’

Now that the second baseman has to play second on the dirt against a left-handed hitter, and the shortstop has to play shortstop, launch angle will be emphasized even more by some teams.

There are a few teams insisting on more infield and outfield work after watching so many sloppy and embarrassing examples of inadequate play during the season.

Imagine that, asking and demanding more from your players.

Having players thinking and playing the game, practicing the game and learning how to deal with conflict is the way to build stronger players, physically and mentally.

Think of it all as part of Life-ology.

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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