Royals showing how ‘small ball’ can come up big

BY MICHAEL SCHNEIDER  |  When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, baseball, to me, was as much a centerpiece of my life as it is today for my sons.

When I played ball, I thought of winning, of not making that crucial error, and of getting that game-winning hit. That has also remained a constant with today’s kids. What hasn’t remained a constant is the focus on the foundation it takes to get there.

In the movie “Bull Durham,” the manager of the Durham Bulldogs simplifies baseball by saying it’s a game where “You throw the ball, you hit the ball and you catch the ball.” Great line…but not totally true.

Baseball was built on a foundation just like music or art. You don’t become a modern dancer unless you have experience in ballet. Playing an instrument requires a mastery of the scales.

At Greenwich Village Little League, it starts with learning how to swing a bat, run to and through first base, run around the bases, catch a ball, pick up a grounder and throw to first base. Regardless of one’s talent, these things are picked up fairly quickly since all coaches at the T-ball and Junior Minor levels concentrate on them.

But the next level of development is where we have seen the evolution of the game change. Today the focus is on power — power hitting and power pitching. But is that better or worse?

Lorenzo Cain has been a key cog in the Royals’ “small ball” attack, while also playing stellar defense in the outfield. He won the M.V.P. in the team’s recent A.L. Championship Series victory over the heavy-hitting Orioles.
Lorenzo Cain has been a key cog in the Royals’ “small ball” attack, while also playing stellar defense in the outfield. He won the M.V.P. in the team’s recent A.L. Championship Series victory over the heavy-hitting Orioles.

Sure, the home run is what people want to see and the players want to achieve. Seeing that ball flying through the air and over the fence is thrilling. But the reality is that only a select few can generate enough power and hand-eye coordination to do it on any kind of regular basis. And is it essential to the success of the game?

Just look at the Kansas City Royals, who are playing in the World Series against the San Francisco Giants.

It doesn’t take long for someone to see that the Royals are playing a kind of baseball that is different from today’s norm. They play what many call “small ball.” Others refer to it as “station-to-station baseball.” By utilizing the bunt, the stolen base and not a little bit of daring, players advance from base to base until they score a run.

I find myself smiling as I watch the K.C. team play, remembering the days when the Dodgers’ Maury Wills would walk, then steal second base, advance to third on a ground ball to the right side of the infield and score on a sacrifice fly. One run. No hits.

As a team, Kansas City hit 95 home runs for the season. That’s an average of a little more than one home run every two games. Compare that to the 211 the Baltimore Orioles hit this year and it pales in comparison. In the last week or so, when these two teams faced each other in a best-of-seven-games series for the American League pennant, that power imbalance seemed to be a big advantage for Baltimore. Long story short, Kansas City won by sweeping Baltimore 4-0. So much for the home run.

At G.V.L.L., we recognize that bunting, base stealing, proper execution of rundowns, hitting the cutoff man, and knowing where to position yourself in the field based on where the ball is hit all need to be stressed at an early age. We have limited field space and practice time; and teaching kids the proper way to bunt isn’t exciting to them, especially when major league ballplayers hardly do it anymore. But it is an important part of the game.

We are working on finding enough field space and practice time to be able to teach these finer points of this most wonderful game. But showing them how to do it is only the beginning. These key skills eventually happen by creating “muscle memory” — practicing them over and over until they no longer require thought — just action.

A good way to start would just be to watch Kansas City in the World Series.  

Schneider is Greenwich Village Little League’s executive vice president in charge of baseball operations, the league board’s umpire liaison, and chairperson of the Rules Committee, as well as a coach. He managed the G.V.L.L. Senior Division team that captured the district championship in July.