A Simple Secret to Success

By Tom Kersten (adapted from June 17, 2015)

If Leonardo da Vinci was correct and in fact “simplicity IS the ultimate sophistication”… Then I am, by all accounts, one very sophisticated guy. I like my vanilla ice cream in a cone and my well done steak on a plate. I like my pants at waist height and my beer canned by the case, delivered by teamsters, preferably from a macro-brewed post-modern industrial hellscape, 68 miles east of Madison. I believe motorcycles reverse the aging process, that Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is the most complete rock song ever recorded and that Freddie Prinze Sr.’s proverbial Puerto Rican in an alleyway with a switchblade bit… cha-chin…“I cut you, mang”… was light years ahead of other comedians of the mid-1970s. On second thought, there’s some higher level complexity developing towards the end there… but let’s not split hairs.

To say that something is simple in concept is not to say that it is easy. Skydiving is simple… step out the door and gravity does all the work… but managing to not have to clean out your shorts 20 minutes later is by no means easy. As a sport, baseball has a very simple concept at its heart… the pitcher throws the ball and the batter hits it… Or not, whatever the case may be (our team did lead the league in strikeouts last year… and by a wide margin). Sorry guys, sometimes the truth… like our pride against the proctologist’s finger… truly hurts most of all. Among all the sports you can play, hitting a baseball is generally agreed to be the most difficult athletic endeavor anyone can attempt. In football, the quarterback calls the play, reads the defense, knows the pass route and has the ball, literally in the palm of his hand; choosing the timing, speed & direction of the pass. In the NFL, the success rate is so high that completing only 50% of all passes gets most guys fired. In basketball, the odds of success increase at an even greater rate as teams with dismal shooting from the field make 40% of their shots, with superstars hitting 75% and even “bad” free-throw shooters average a 65% success rate; the best in the business over 90%. In hockey, ever the sniveling little brother to the other major America sports, players have tremendous control over their speed, degree of turn and positioning on the ice prior to the puck being delivered, usually from a teammate trying to put it “right on the stick”… then the player has the opportunity to place the puck, exactly where it needs to be on the blade or for the slap shot, timing the wind-up with the puck moving slightly or completely still but matched perfectly with the player. Tennis… don’t even get me started on the size and composition of these rackets… where are the purists??… begging for a return to the days of wood and skill. While the modern game is frantic with movement & speed, it maintains controllable ranges and options for the player to reach and return the ball in all but the most powerful ground strokes… points continuing sometimes for 45 seconds or more before a decisive shot can be made. Forget soccer… even the World Cup at its best has become a nightmarish flop-fest of boredom, only occasionally broken by rioting and tear gas, I’m assuming against the mere thought of having to sit through any more of that mess… and golf, barely acknowledged to even be a “sport” by most baseball enthusiasts, actually places the ball on a tee… a TEE!!!… unmoving… with ALL the known variables of wind, distance, direction and obstacles placed in front of the athlete for careful manipulation. The best golfers in the world are so good at controlling these variables on the course, though apparently not off of it, that they can spin the ball on contact, dropping it the required distance BEHIND the hole and allow the spin to pull the ball back to where they want it to be positioned for the next shot. Even discounting the wide array of jokes regarding balls, shafts, dimples, strokes, clubs, holes, rims, cups, shanks, short-cuts, long-roughs and pounding woods… they still make par, on the most difficult courses in the world, an astounding 80% of the time on the PGA tour.

Compare this to a baseball player standing at the plate. As Ted Williams put it, “the hardest thing to do is to hit a round baseball with a round bat, squarely”… not discounting the remarkable feats of athleticism some individuals are capable of under carefully controlled conditions… no other sport provides so little control to the player, in this case the hitter, while simultaneously having so many variables in flux. It’s the pitcher who has the control in this co-dependent relationship, choosing the pitches’ movement, speed, location and timing… even throwing from an elevated position to help increase velocity and accuracy. The batter has such a minuscule amount of power over the outcome of events that, as has been commented on repeatedly over the past 150 years, a Hall of Fame hitter will fail… FAIL… nearly 70% of the time. Tom Hanks summed this dilemma up well in A League of Their Own when he said, “If it was easy, everyone would do it… It’s the hard, that makes it great.” This quote is nearly always followed by another Mr. Hanks classic, “there’s no crying in baseball”… a seemingly simple lesson that far too many players need to relearn, but that discussion will follow later… much like the inevitable results of that late night trip to Taco Bell.

SIDENOTE: The video link here is from Youtube… Earth’s one-stop superhub of fraudulent, super-edited videos (some included in this clip) and extreme douchebaggery… (yes, it could be a word… it’s not, but it could be… if we all agree to use it often enough, Webster’s will simply create it and put it in, just like they did when SaraH Palin crank-cobbled “refute” and “repudiate”… then tried to justify her use of the then non-existent “refutiate”. PALIN 2028!!!

Considering all of the challenges facing hitters, it’s a wonder why so many continue to try and reinvent the wheel, like a 4 year-old jamming that square peg into that round hole in that… whatever-the-hell you call that thing… with all the shapes in it… never mind! These players repeat again and again the same mistakes, refusing to take corrective advice, swinging harder and harder, hoping to get a different result. This is the very definition of insanity. They routinely violate the basic fundamentals of hitting as continually passed down through generations from the greatest hitters of every era. From Honus Wagner’s bowlegs to Ty Cobb’s split hands… Lou Gehrig’s endurance, Joe DiMaggio’s streak, Jackie Robinson’s fearlessness, Mickey Mantle’s power, Willie Mays’ consistency, Ted Williams’ fluidity, Rod Carew’s calm demeanor and Pete Rose’s hustle; each man made hitting an art form utilizing his own skills, knowledge and disposition. From George Brett’s wide open stance to Robin Yount’s extremely closed one, Tony Gwynn’s fast hands… as he learned to love the inside pitch to Derek Jeter’s durability covering the outside corner… each hitter, regardless of where their feet, hands and head begins; everyone…. EVERYONE…. Has to arrive at the same place when the ball arrives at the plate. Back foot planted, front foot turned, hips rotated, shoulders square, hands in, chin down and eyes on the ball.

These are the fundamentals that all great hitters have in common and as each of us struggles with the frustration of mid-season lapses in performance, we should remember that those struggles are caused by OUR own violation of one or more of these basic principles. These are the variables that we as players have under our control and this is where our energy and attention should be focused… though the occasional glance at that massive rack in the tight, white t-shirt in row 3 is TOTALLY understandable… ala “front row Amy” at Miller Park… I mean, that girl is… Wait… what?

Okay… shaking that off… there are many facets to good all-around team ball… a solid offense is rarely enough… especially against quality opponents. A coherent and tactically efficient defense is crucial to overall success, as it saves pitchers arms, which no team has enough of at any point in the season. Unfortunately, it is many times easier to allow an opponent to score with poor defense than a team can usually produce themselves at the plate, even with quality at-bats by skilled hitters. Bad hops and questionable base running are to be expected… like a 16 year-old on prom night, sometimes nothing seems to be going you’re way. Everyone has the right to make a mistake, but some of us are abusing the privilege. There are basic fundamentals to fielding and running, if you don’t know them, consult the magic box… that’s the goggle link on your smartphone, not the special name for your girlfriend’s snatch.

As the name of this article implies, I’m focusing on a simple secret to success… not the only one, maybe not even the most important one… but merely one among many that could be helpful and I will use an old story to illustrate the point. When a reporter asked then Head Coach Jerry Glanville of the Atlanta Falcons in 1991, why he was keeping an underperforming kid, he had sworn he would never play, on the team’s roster as a third string quarterback, Glanville simply tossed a ball to the rookie and said, “Mississip, show him why you’re still here.” The then unknown Brett Farve cocked his arm and threw the ball onto the roof of the stadium’s third deck… Glanville simply looked at the reporter and said, “that’s why.” The coach recognized the potential of that million dollar arm but was unimpressed by the ten cent head it was attached to and was unwilling to wait for the latter to catch up to the former. Glanville coached just long enough to regret his decision to trade Farve to Green Bay the following year and that as they say is history… And the lesson to be learned here, as Kevin Hart is fond of saying in his stand-up, “You do you, boo… you do you.” In other words, take care of your own shit… do the things you can do and do them well… control the variables YOU have control over, in order to

put YOUR best game on the field, without complaining about the strike zone, field conditions or over-reaching beyond your skill level and the universe will work out the rest. Legendary poker commentator and author Mike Sexton was fond of reminding players, “you can’t win the tournament on the first day, but you can lose it on the first day,”… baseball works much the same way… you can’t win the game on one play, but you sure as hell can lose it on one play.

Ahhh the hell with it… I’m going for tacos!!!