From the Cheap Seats

Whenever we are graced with an edition of "From the Cheap Seats," we can count on a heartfelt essay that strikes a deep emotional cord in our Cardinalmaniac souls. Usually, we are uplifted by the end of a piece from MizzouCard, but our beloved Midwestern scribe has some criticism to offer this time. The 2005 Stanford Baseball season is not faring as it should, and he offers an explanation for why...


It is getting tougher and tougher to find good news around here these days. A mega-star football recruit who was wanted by the hated _._._. actually chooses us over them (finally), but fails to get his paperwork submitted before the deadline. A much needed combo guard who, by all indications, was wowed by The Farm last winter has to go elsewhere. For the second straight year, one of the twin evil Carolinian empires (in slightly different shades of blue) swoops down at the last minute and shows interest in a basketball player we have been wooing for years. Our beloved point guard declares for the N.B.A. draft and is starting to draw (well deserved) attention from the N.B.A. talent scouts, who we had calmly assumed would pass him by due to their usual inattention to what makes athletes winners.

But it is spring. The one dependable thing about spring for Stanford sports fans is Cardinal Baseball, right? For quite a while, the baseball team has been the safety net under the high wire act of Stanford sports fandom. Even if we fall off the wire in other sports, as we usually do, the baseball team is always there to stop our free fall with its steady string of series wins.

Not this year, though. We have still won more than we have lost, of course. If there is one sport where that is not enough for Stanford fans, though, it is baseball. The baseball team has spoiled us enough over the last couple of decades that we have every bit as much "that is not good enough" obnoxiousness during what others would consider a fairly decent year as fans of the aforementioned men's basketball teams, the _._._. or USB football teams, or the Yukon or Tennessee women's basketball teams.

If you cannot count on the baseball team to cheer you up, at least MizzouCard will come through with one of his patented sappy tomes about the wonders of everything Cardinal, right? You would think so. But, frankly, I am not in the mood.

To be quite honest, this baseball season has been a disappointment. I am the first to admit that I am ridiculously spoiled by Stanford Baseball, but I thought we were going to have a better year. The "year," of course, is not yet over. The future schedule still includes huge series against Arizona and _._._. After that, we should qualify for the post-season, where we could pull an "Arizona" or perhaps even a "Fullerton" (from last year) by making a big postseason run after a somewhat disappointing regular season. Baseball, especially college baseball, is a funny game, after all. As any Stanford Baseball fan with a memory of last year can attest, often several of the teams that do well in the regular season stumble in the postseason. Somewhat less frequently, teams that stumble in the regular season get hot in the postseason.

At this point, though, an honest assessment of our team is that our won-loss record does not match our talent. That is one of the hardest things for any Cardinalmaniac™ to admit. We take great pride around here in outperforming our talent. It hurts like hell to see the opposite happening right before our eyes (or, in my case, right before my ears). Why is this happening? What is missing?

Of course, the answer I should give is "how the heck should I know?!?!" I have not seen a single Stanford Baseball game this season, though I have listened to almost all of them. But The Bootleg would not be nearly as much fun if a lack of hard evidence kept us from speculating. So I will add my speculation, for what little it is worth.

Before doing so, I will of course list the usual caveats. First, though this will undoubtedly come off as critical (because, at least to some extent, it is critical), there should be no doubt about my passion for Stanford Baseball, including the 2005 team. I will continue to crank up the computer four times a week or so, waiting for the big turnaround that I keep thinking is just around the corner. When and if it comes, nobody is going to be any happier than me. [Well, one person will be, I suppose: eleven-year-old MiniMizzouCard. After missing the annual trip to Omaha that he thought was his birthright last year, he desperately wants to go back this year.] There is a lot to like about the players on our team, and there is a lot I do indeed like about them.

Also, I will note that others are far more qualified than I to offer suggestions about wait ails us on the baseball field. Joe Ritzo, of course, is at the top of the list, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Stanford baseball. Thousands of others, including many familiar names on the BaseballBoard, have actually seen our guys play this year, so they have databases (and processing mechanisms!) far superior to mine. I simply offer this as one possible explanation, from a crazed Cardinal sports fan trying to figure out this season. Read it if you like, but read it with the understanding that I may very well be wrong. It would not be the first time.

So I am just a sports fan, and an often misinformed one at that. But a lifetime of fandom, including two and a half decades as a Stanford sports fan, has taught me that the basic ingredients to winning a game or having a successful season are, in no particular order: talent; coaching/tactics; luck; and intangibles/chemistry. We fans tend to focus on the first three, in part because they are more observable than the fourth. But none of the first three explains our troubles on the diamond this year.

We have talent. Perhaps not the offensive talent that spoiled us in the last three or four seasons, but plenty of talent nonetheless. Many a school ranked ahead of us is getting by with less baseball talent. In a recent BaseballBoard post, Joe Ritzo noted that "an MLB scout a few days ago who watches Stanford regularly and has drafted a handful of our players … said that if everyone played up to their potential/ability on this team, they shouldn't lose a series all season." That seems about right, though perhaps slightly overstated.

How about coaching and tactics? Of course, baseball is a game with plenty of tactical decisions available for second guessing. On the baseball board, we have done our share of second guessing of coaching and tactical decisions, particularly regarding the handling of pitchers. But I am willing to assume that the same coach who got us to five straight College World Series (and three final games/series) has not all of a sudden lost his coaching ability.

How about luck, including umpiring? That does more to explain a game or a series than a season. During a game or three-game series, luck and umpiring can have a dramatic effect. For example, if one of our two (or was it three?) hard hit balls to the outfield had been just a few inches further away from that Rice outfielder who made the amazing grabs in the first game of the final series in 2003, the story of that CWS would have been how Stanford swept Rice. Over the course of the season, though, luck and, hard as it is for me to admit it, umpiring, tends to even out. Both bad breaks and bad umpiring have reared their ugly heads a time or two this year, but not often enough to explain our record.

That leaves the fourth factor, which I have labeled intangibles/chemistry. This is the part of the equation that we fans tend to underappreciate, partly because it is difficult to observe or measure. Except for luck, though, it is the most difficult thing to coach into the team and therefore the biggest wild card in any season. In college, coaches can affect their team's talent through effective player evaluation and recruiting. Obviously, coaches can control most or all of their team's tactical decisions. It is difficult to coach leadership into a team, because it is difficult to predict which 16-year-olds will become leaders.

Think about the teams that you watch that are successful, especially the teams that are more successful than their talent would predict. Almost all of them have at least one vocal and effective leader who has taken over the team.

The most obvious example for Stanford sports fans is Chris Hernandez. That guy just oozes fight and leadership. Stanford had pretty fair talent in 2003-04, but not enough talent to go undefeated into the last regular season game on talent alone. Stanford had a lot less talent in 2004-05, but made the NCAA Tournament nonetheless. Chris Hernandez had a lot to do with both teams overachieving. Remember that game in Oregon last year? The one against UCLA at home this year? When things are at their worst, Chris says, essentially, "Dammit. We are not going to lose this game. Gimme the ball and get ready to roll!"

That does not mean that he, or any other leader, always succeeds, of course. But he succeeds often enough, against high enough odds, to give both himself and his teammates the confidence needed to win games they have no business winning.

Another example from the recent Stanford sports past is Ogonna Nnamani. A recent The Bootleg Magazine article about the 2004 volleyball season indicates that the team was struggling during the first half of the season. At some point, Nnamani returned from Olympic duty. By the end of the year, she was imposing her will on her team and, for that matter, on opposing teams. She is, of course, also immensely gifted athletically. But her team become dominant when she contributed not only her immense athletic talent, but also her leadership.

Baseball, of course, is the most "individual" of team sports. At its core, though, it is still a team sport, so the right leader can still take over a team and lead it. From this admittedly distant observation post, Ryan Garko was the most recent Stanford example. By his junior year, if not earlier, that was his team. Like Chris and perhaps even Oganna, he did not always succeed when he took the game into his hands. Baseball, it should be remembered, is a game of failure. Ryan Garko pretty much led the world in hitting into double plays, which are, by definition, failures to capitalize on opportunities. But those failures never put a crimp into his willingness to shoulder the load at the next opportunity. He also seemed to lead the world in late game clutch hits.

In the more distant past, consider John Elway. Was there ever anybody who so loved having "one last shot" when his team was down at the end of the game? But Elway is a dangerous example, because it would be easy to dismiss him as aberrational due to his substantial physical talent.

Without a doubt, athletic talent helps one to impose his (or her) will on a team. Teammates are more likely to follow the most athletically gifted teammate, if that teammate is also willing to lead. Nnamani and Elway are prime examples. But there are plenty of athletes who have taken over teams even when they have not been the most athletically gifted member of the team. When Chris Hernandez took over the basketball team in 2003-04, Josh Childress was more gifted athletically. Similarly, Ryan Garko was not as athletically gifted as Carlos Quentin. To their credit, both Childress and Quentin were willing to support Hernandez and Garko, not fight them.

Back to the point, MizzouCard. Isn't this supposed to be about the baseball team? Okay. I hesitate to say it, because I really do like the players on this team. That having been said, I do not see the Hernandez/Nnamani/Garko factor helping our baseball team this season. Our team has some very talented players, some very intelligent players, some very good players, some players who are and will be very important contributors to their team(s). But I cannot find Chris Hernandez, Oganna Nnamani, or Ryan Garko on the team.

I fully realize that what I am asking for is not something that can be accomplished easily. Even though they are better off with a strong leader, elite athletes do not like to be led. Pretty much every Division I scholarship athlete has been the star of his (or her) team for all of his (or her) career. It takes a very strong leader to overcome the inevitable, often subconscious, resistance from those who are not used to being led. So it is perhaps not surprising that a leader never emerges on many college (and, for that matter, professional) teams.

Also, some athletes, including many with awesome athletic talent, are not natural leaders. Some, I think, are simply too "nice" to want to get into their teammates' faces. That is not entirely a bad thing, of course. The world needs nice people. But you do not want a team loaded to the brim with folks so nice that nobody leads.

On occasion, an athlete who initially avoids leadership has a change of heart when thrust, sometimes kicking and screaming, into taking over a team. Nnamani seems to be an example of an athlete who resisted becoming her team's leader, but then overcame that reluctance and ultimately flourished in that role.

That, of course, gives me hope for the baseball team. Although I do not think anyone has imposed his will on this team, I believe that it is not too late for someone to do so.

Somebody on this team has to grab it by the throat and say, "Enough is enough, guys. Let's go kick some butt!" If that happens, this can still be a good, or perhaps even a great, baseball season. But it better happen soon.

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