Friday, August 7, 2015

Double Play Ball

Few things in sport can go from elegant to awkward as easily as turning a double play in baseball. To me, even at the pro level, most double plays look a shoestring away from a trip, stumble and a mouthful of dirt. The second baseman takes a sharp grounder off the chest, picks the ball up and twists awkwardly to the wrong side and flicks it to the second base bag. Stutter-stepping, the shortstop catches the ball with both hands on his left side, leaps off the wrong foot, and rotates right to fling the ball to first. Amid the dust and dirt, the runner slides with one foot high in the air trying to take out the shortstop, forcing him high and wide to avoid him. Finally, the first baseman does the splits and catches the ball high over his head, then falls awkwardly to the side. Bang-bang, two outs and everyone’s happy. Everyone except me, I guess.

1986: Some municipal lot with a chain-link backstop and three rows of bleachers on one side. I’m playing second base for the Diamond Cutters, a work league softball team for General Motors outside of Pontiac, MI. Some middle-aged guy with coaches shorts and kneepads is tucking in his shirt on first, having hit a blooper to get on base. I nod to Scotty playing short; get ready for a double-play ball. The batter smacks a one-hop rocket up the middle of the infield on my side. I’ve got no time to get in front of it. In two steps, I backhand the ball; the momentum carries my glove around in front of me. Without even thinking, I take the ball in my free hand and flip it behind my back like Pete Maravich. Scotty’s on a slow run, does a little skip step and catches the ball on his right hip with his arm already cocked. In one fluid motion he rifles it to first about 50 feet ahead of the stunned runner. Nonchalantly, I nod once more to Scotty – two down.

Yes, that really happened. Once. I’ve had my moments, and that was one of them. The groan from the other dugout was priceless. I was good enough in those days to stop that particular grounder and I just got lucky on the toss. Scotty and I had played together enough to completely trust each other and, frankly, he was really good. That’s why he was at short and I was at second. But a lot of things went right on that play besides my stop and his catch. Timing is so important for the shortstop. His steps have to be just perfect to step on the bag when the ball arrives and have the lead foot out front for his throw. The ball has to come out of the glove just right and lead him into his wind-up without twisting his shoulders or causing a double-pump. The more the left shoulder faces first on the catch, the easier the whole motion is. And that day in 1986 was the smoothest double play I ever experienced myself.

Look up “behind the back double play” on YouTube; it’s a meme.

Aside from hitting a home run, the double play ball is the quintessential daydream of every Midwestern kid of my generation. Bouncing a tennis ball off the garage wall, we’d quietly whisper the play-by-play to ourselves, “Tinker to Evers to Chance! And the crowd goes wild, aaaaahhh.” The Detroit Tigers were my team in the 1970s; Sweet Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, who also played on the ’84 World Series team. There were several first basemen during that time, so the double play combo was simply Lou and Alan. Before them, it was always Norm Cash but that’s another story.

So who were Tinker, Evers and Chance? Or as I thought when I was eight years old, Tinkers to Evans to Chance.

Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance are, arguably, the best-known Chicago Cubs of all time yet last played together in 1912. They were good, but they are remembered because of an eight-line poem.

"Baseball's Sad Lexicon" first appeared over 100 years ago. It was written by Franklin P. Adams, a New York Evening Mail columnist who had been born in Chicago (and was a Cubs fan). Those were the days when the Cubs were a dynasty, unlike today where the Cubs are synonymous with *not* winning the World Series. From 1902 to 1912, shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance were the best double play combination in baseball.

For the New York Giants, the combo’s proficiency caused much frustration and inspired Adams to write the poem:
These are the saddest of possible words:"Tinker to Evers to Chance."Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,Tinker and Evers and Chance.Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,Making a Giant hit into a double—Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

Adams conceded: "I wrote that piece because I wanted to get out to the game, and the foreman of the composing room at the Mail said I needed eight lines to fill. And the next day (an editor) said that no matter what else I ever wrote, I would be known as the guy that wrote those 8 lines. And they weren't much good, at that."

The poem has been altered slightly over the years. Researchers, Bales and Wiles found the original version. They suggest a different seventh line: ‘Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble' which I prefer.
Words that are weighty
Nonetheless, even though I had never seen or heard that poem until just now, I knew that Tinker, Evans and Chance meant double play. Of course, I also thought some guy named Taylor was significant.


My shortstop's name was probably not Scotty. I can't remember.

Wikipedia, Baseball's Sad Lexicon

“Remembering 'Tinker to Evers to Chance'” July 05, 2010|By William Hageman, Tribune Newspapers,

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