Feb. 24, 2011
The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men Often Go Awry
One of my first bosses after college, Paul DiNino shared many words of wisdom. As a thirty-something supervisor of twenty-somethings, he would make a point, but try not to sound too old-fashioned with his axioms by always giving credit to his father for the pearls. Many of his gems have stuck with me over the years. My favorite was, "Follow-up is the chariot of success." The other one that I routinely use is, "Plan your work and work your plan."
Over the course of the offseason, our coaching staff planned our work. Inspired by an efficient short-game implemented to perfection by Oregon last June, and by the NCAA-mandated switch to toned-down metal bats for the 2011 season, we pledged to adjust our team to the changes we expected would come to the game this year, and simultaneously enhance our chances of winning as many games as possible. We emphasized the importance of bunting for hits, executing hit and runs, laying down sacrifice bunts, defending the bunt, getting hit by pitches, stealing bases, and commanding the fastball to both sides of plate in order to challenge batters early in counts. With our experienced pitching staff, excellent team speed and athleticism, we believe the plan was and is a sound one.
We then worked the plan by spending more practice time on defense as soon as our fall season concluded. Infielders didn't just bring their bats to their small-group workouts. They used their gloves into November at J.O. Christian Field. In January, we executed more bunts for hits, and made more plays on lead runners than in the last seven pre-seasons combined.
Then, on opening night against Purdue on Friday, we didn't get it done. The plan wasn't worked at all. We had five plays to make from the area between the mound and the plate, and we made one. We had three opportunities to be hit by pitches in the first inning, and avoided each. We hit four Boilermakers, and walked six more. In short, we didn't have a successful bunt for a hit, sacrifice bunt, or stolen base. Of course, we didn't have much of anything. While Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright allowed for stealing of second, third, and home, there still is nothing in the official rulebook that permits the pilfer of first. We reached with our leadoff man once in nine tries (our leaders struck out to begin the third, forth, and fifth innings), and Purdue led off seven innings with a base runner. In short, we played our worst game in a long time, and I hope in a few months, I can call it the worst of the season.
The sun actually did rise in the East on Saturday morning, and we headed to Jack Russell Stadium to do battle with the Gophers of Minnesota. They got the best of us in a better-played game that resulted in a 3-2 loss. Matt Barnes was stellar in striking out 11 through six innings in his first start of the year, but we were our own worst enemies again. A walk, balk, and error accounted for all three of Minnesota's runs, and we couldn't get any offense going for a second consecutive night. Matt, Dan Feehan, and freshman Brian Ward all gave us good pitching performances on which to build.
We rose before six a.m. Sunday in order to have a good pre-game breakfast, and headed for an hour of early batting practice. In spite of the 0-2 record, our team seemed loose for the first time since last year, and we played a more carefree game. Our dugout was a little too carefree and lippy for my taste, and that will be adjusted. Our play was much improved with hard liners and ground balls hit instead of fly balls. Seized opportunities in the forms of executed bunts, steals, and hit and runs were plentiful in our 16-9 win over Michigan.
We sure do hope follow-up is indeed the chariot of success, as we spent time this week rededicating ourselves to the plan, and slowed things down this week in practice. At times in Florida, it appeared as though the weight of the world was on our shoulders. We drilled some sound mechanics Tuesday and Wednesday, but emphasis was on being in the moment with each pitch seen, and making plays without fearing failure. Baseball is a difficult game to play and it becomes even tougher to execute when one tries to play it "harder." I'm sometimes envious of basketball and football coaches who can call timeout and shout in the face of a player to get a positive result from an adrenaline rush, and more emotion.
Baseball doesn't work like that. A small forward has a greater chance of dunking if his heart is pounding as fast as it can and his adrenaline is spiking. A pinch hitter has a greater chance of missing that belt-high hanging curve if he's trying too hard to hit it. If the shortstop catches the grounder, but squeezes the ball too tightly, he's more likely to throw it away. Kind of like golf, it is a game of focused relaxation (pro-am partner Bill Murray undoubtedly kept D.A. Points loose and focused in Pebble Beach a couple of weeks ago). One must allow the game to come to him, not the other way around.
In John Steinbeck's classic, Of Mice and Men, cognitively-challenged Lennie loves to pet soft things. He constantly asks his best friend, fellow migrant worker, and caretaker, George to tell him the story of their shared dream to one day live on an idyllic farm of their own with rabbits Lennie can tend, and of course, pet. It is that dream - their grandiose plan that winds up being Lennie's undoing. So obsessed with the plan and the irresistible thought of petting those mythical rabbits one day on their future farm, he repeatedly gets in trouble by allowing his emotions and his difficult-to-control physical strength to get the best of him while working on a ranch. First, a dead mouse is found in his pocket. Then, a puppy suffers a lethal petting at his hands. Finally, when the ranch boss's daughter-in-law invites Lennie to stroke her hair, an accidental broken neck is the result, and George is forced to abandon the dream forever and save Lennie from himself.
Too often this weekend, for whatever reason, when the opportunity came to drive in a run or make a play, like Lennie, we were our own worst enemy -- we just squeezed it too tightly. Sometimes big plans can get in the way of the small opportunities that cannot be missed for the plan to come to fruition. Thankfully, we're going to have many more opportunities - pitches to execute, bunts to get down, runs to drive in from third with less than two outs. With more chances, I am confident we're going to make the most of those.
Finding the balance between planning our work and working our plan, following-up, and not squeezing our opportunities to death when they present themselves will be the modus operandi in moving forward. Paul and Lennie have taught the lessons. We've all studied. This weekend in Texas, Oregon State, Indiana, and Texas A&M - Corpus Christi provide the tests.