Friday November 6th, 2009

Mollycoddle (verb): To be overprotective and indulgent toward; to pamper. -- WordNet definition

I once knew a Molly Coddle. Close friend of Jimmy Jack. Neither is related to Joe Girardi, as it turns out, and for that we should all be grateful.

The World Series gave us a novel's share of heroes -- Hideki Matsui, Chase Utley, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera -- but for me, the lasting impression will be Girardi's three-man rotation. He used it throughout the postseason, 15 games' worth, with spectacular success. He turned back the clock, drove a lot of people nuts, and emerged with a great big trophy in his hands.

Checking the national-media reports as the World Series reached its most crucial stage, you got the impression Girardi was an odd sort of dead man walking. "You'd better be right, you idiot," was the general tone. "Because you'll lose your job if you blow this."

In truth, Girardi's job never was in jeopardy, but such was the tone of panic and paranoia as the Yankee manager wielded that deadliest of weapons: common sense. He employed a strategy that worked in baseball for, oh, about 70 years, not including the 19th century.

Somewhere along the line -- and I'm sure it's connected in some sinister way with the Nixon administration -- baseball lost its way. Forever the province of workhorse starters, pitching entire seasons on three days' rest and approaching 150 pitches in a given start, the game surrendered to the Mollycoddle Generation. Five-man rotations became the rage, and "100 pitches" equated to a traumatic overload, certain to destroy a man's arm and perhaps cause flooding in the neighboring streets.

The old-school guys didn't know whether to holler or weep. A number of them, including Bob Gibson and Robin Roberts, were hanging around this year's World Series, wondering aloud what happened to the game's integrity. "I don't get it," Gibson said after Game 4. "A guy can't pitch with three days' rest? I don't think it's going to kill somebody."

Or to put it another way: When are these modern-day managers gonna stop Jimmy-Jackin' around? They're mollycoddlin' these guys.

It was so refreshing to watch Girardi go through a month of excruciatingly tense baseball with CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte as his starters. It could have been Koufax, Drysdale and Podres; Lopat, Reynolds and Raschi; Holtzman, Hunter and Blue -- open most any page in the World Series record book. There wasn't any big puzzle to the strategy. Teams went with their very best, not some questionable fourth or fifth starter, with the idea of rising above the rest. Other sports, notably football and basketball, have found ways to maximize the "bigger, faster, stronger" element and develop athletes more fit and productive than ever before. Baseball has managed to go backward, and it's not as if the pitch-count madness has improved the product. There has never been an era with more elbows, forearms, rotator cuffs and labrums on the shelf.

Without question, Girardi didn't have many options. Over the course of the regular season, the Yankees pampered a potentially excellent starter, Joba Chamberlain, into a virtually worthless malaise. Chad Gaudin didn't strike anyone as a particularly attractive No. 4 man. Still, Girardi had to pull the trigger on a traditional stance, and I found it astounding how many seasoned critics -- people who grew up watching the likes of Gibson, Jim Palmer and Jack Morris -- were appalled. Somehow, they forgot. They all got fitted for enormous spectacles, assembled libraries full of statistical analysis and moved into the basement, surfacing only for meals, or to pay the plumber. At least Tim McCarver got it right. During Fox's Game 6 broadcast, he said that after facing and catching pitchers throughout the 1960s, there was "no discernible difference" between pitchers working on four, three or (in rare cases) even two days' rest.

Foreboding statistics abounded as Pettitte took the mound for Game 6, all about ill-fated starters who worked postseason games on short rest. You could peruse those numbers, recoiling in fear, or you could watch Pettitte work a crisp 1-2-3 first inning, show the nerve to throw a 3-and-2 curveball to Pedro Feliz with two runners on (retiring him on a grounder to end the fourth inning), or get the tough Jimmy Rollins on a double-play grounder to end the fifth. Pettitte was masterful before his departure in the sixth, Rollins noting, "When he needed that one pitch, he was able to make it. That's what Andy does -- he keeps his team in the game. You walk away shaking your head."

One intriguing World Series does not change a prevailing mindset, nor can we all pretend it's 1956 and Don Larsen is pitching his perfect game in the afternoon. The game has changed in far too many ways: smaller ballparks, juiced balls, performance-enhancing drugs, shrinking strike zones, top-to-bottom strength in the lineups (particularly in the DH-friendly AL), slugging middle infielders in the Chase Utley-Ian Kinsler mode, the obsession with pitch counts, patient hitters working long counts, videotape available for mid-game inspection, protective body armor, and hitters unfazed by the inside pitch because they grew up using metal bats. All of these factors make it difficult for pitchers to craft complete games, throw 130 pitches or work in a downsized rotation. It takes foresight and commitment to block a landslide, and as former Twins great Jim Kaat said last year, "What organization is going to have the guts to go down to the lower minors and have four-man rotations and forget about counting pitches and let them figure out how to pitch? I think a lot of them want to. It's a combination of agents, the money in the game today and fear."

That's the great thing about the World Series: Girardi didn't just want to shorten his rotation, he did so -- out of fear, absolutely. The fear of losing. Nice payoff, too. A fine memory to take into winter.

• Seasoned scouts like to talk about "the good face," a certain look in an athlete, admirable traits revealed in countenance. Hideki Matsui has the good face, a window into his strength and humility. The first day he ever came to bat as a Yankee, back in 2003, Matsui's Japanese legend preceded him. People expected to see him belt one about 580 feet on a dead-pull path to right field. Instead, on the first pitch he saw, he steered an off-field single to left, driving home a run. A very revealing look into the man's character. In the wake of Matsui's six-RBI performance in Game 6, and his natural fit as the Yanks' DH, they cannot let him get away.

• An endearing scene, played out time after time over the course of any summer or postseason: Derek Jeter on the top step of the Yankee dugout, smiling broadly, applauding his teammates' good deeds. It was so fitting to see him christen Game 6 with a nice play in the hole, then step to the plate to open the Yanks' first inning against Pedro Martinez, and wind up with three hits for the night. Just another punishing indictment of the stat-minded geeks who never venture into the sunlight, claiming Jeter is the worst fielder in the league or can't hit in the clutch. As a man, a ballplayer and a presence, Jeter walks among the gods, in this or any other era.

• Few players ever spoke so eloquently in their second language as Martinez, who enlivened the Series with his witty and provocative remarks and so brazenly welcomed the big stage of Yankee Stadium. In a moment fully out of character, he didn't stand up to the clubhouse questioning after Game 6 -- and if a couple of reporters hadn't caught him waiting for an elevator, he wouldn't have been quoted at all. He ducked out early, hoping not to be noticed. A shame.

Bud Selig and the Fox people seemed especially proud of their 8 p.m. starts (or thereabouts) this postseason, after pushing the 9 o'clock hour in the past, but that's not nearly improvement enough. Throughout the season in New York, Philadelphia and most everywhere else, a typical night game starts at 7 p.m. That's prime time in sporting America, OK? The Selig-Fox version is a myth. Maybe one year they'll get it right.

• Each year we hear sensible ways to shorten the postseason and get the World Series done by the third week of October: Shorten spring training. Start the regular season earlier. Throw in some doubleheaders. The esteemed Peter Gammons has long called for a 148-game regular season and a Sept. 20 start for the playoffs. Great ideas, all of them. But wait -- we can't do any of that because the owners won't hear of it? Because they'll lose some valuable home dates? Hey, tell the owners to take a hike. They're lucky to be in this game. If Major League Baseball is too weak to institute sensible rules for the good of the game, instead kowtowing to a group littered with self-serving blowhards, it deserves every cruel fate that comes its way.

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