Long before this season's crop of major-league hitters began feasting on expansion pitching, they learned to hit between ages 4 and 12, the small window of time that exists for beginning to create a future big-leaguer.
If a person has not begun swinging at a baseball during those young years, the odds are much greater against them making it as a hitter.
This is something baseball coaches and scouts have always suspected . . . and something that neurologists have recently begun to confirm. "I don't know of anybody (who began playing baseball for the first time as a teen-ager) and made it as a (big-league) hitter," Ken Griffey Sr., former right-fielder for Cincinnati's Big Red Machine and the Reds hitting instructor. "That'd be tough to do." Griffey Sr.'s son, Ken Griffey Jr., the slugging star of the Seattle Mariners, began playing baseball at "4 or 5" and never really stopped. Griffey Sr.'s other son, Craig, started baseball at the same time, but lost interest in it after age 8. He went on to play football at Ohio State. He picked up again with baseball at age 19 "but he struggled," Griffey Sr. said.
Did the long layoff from hitting a baseball have anything to do with that struggle?
"I think it had a lot to do with it," Griffey Sr. said. "I think it (hitting) would be a difficult thing to try to come back to." The late Dr. Harold Klawans, a Chicago neurologist, professor and author who was the leading authority on neurology and sports until his death five weeks ago, wrote a book called Why Michael Couldn't Hit.
"No one wanted (Chicago Bulls basketball star) Michael Jordan to become a virtuoso violinist," Klawans wrote. "Had he tried and failed, no one would have cared very much. At his age (31), though, what he had wanted to do was equally impossible. Because he was Michael, we hoped that he could (hit a baseball). We should have known better. Perhaps, deep down in our hearts, we did."
Baseball coaches and scouts certainly knew it.
Branch Rickey III, a former Reds farm director who is now president of the Pacific Coast League, was among those who knew. The grandson of the great baseball pioneer, Branch Rickey, worked for two years in the early 1970s as assistant director of "The Baseball Academy" in Florida that was the brainchild of the Kansas City Royals. The academy's mission was to take the best possible athletes who had had little or no exposure to baseball and to try to turn them into major-leaguers.
There were some success stories -- Frank White and U.L. Washington among them -- but all of those players had had at least some experience in swinging at a baseball in their formative years. What did "The Academy" conclude about the chances of turning 18-year-old super-athletes into a major-league players if they'd had no exposure to baseball early in life?
Tips for kids
Chris Nelms' basic advice for kids ages 5 to 13: |
Get your mom or dad to do "soft-toss" hitting drill with you, kneeling off to the side and flipping the ball over the plate in a spot where you can cream it with arms extended. Begin with a larger ball (a big Wiffleball) and gradually work down to a smaller ball like a tennis ball or plastic golf ball. Make a game of it.
Get a buddy to do a two-person fielding game with you, lining up whatever distance is comfortable, and tossing the ball on one hop at the other player. If your buddy doesn't field your one-hop toss cleanly, that's a point for you.
Chris' quote: "A wall is always available. A wall will always play with you. You can get 100 throws and 100 ground balls in no time at all."
Overall advice to parents: "Don't pressure your child. Show them, and lead them, by example. Get involved and above all else, make it fun."
"The chances were almost nil," Rickey said.
Chris Nelms, a former Reds minor-leaguer who was a stellar shortstop at Central State University and is now a Reds scout and youth baseball coach, knew it, too.
"It was the first quote that came out of my mouth when people asked me what I thought (Jordan's) chances were," Nelms said. " "He'll never make it.' He can run, he'll be an adequate defensive player, but he'll never be an excellent hitter. He didn't develop that motor skill as a young person."
The reason behind the impossibility is explained by Klawans, who noted that while there have been no studies of scientific windows of opportunity in baseball players, there have been appropriate studies done in violinists. And from a neurological viewpoint, the two disciplines are quite similar.
"In order to become a violin virtuoso, a musician has to start playing before the age of 13," Klawans wrote. "Not at 14, not at 15, but before the age of 13."
How was this shown? Scientists studied magnetic images of the brains in violinists.
They found that those violinists who started playing at age 13 or younger activated larger and more complex circuits in their brains than those who started playing later.
"The magnetic images of those who had started at age 3 or 4 looked no different than those who started at 11 or 12," Dr. Klawans wrote. "After that, things changed. The abrupt change occurred between the ages of 12 and 13. Those who hadn't started by 13 never caught up. The circuits they activated were smaller, less complex and more restricted. The time frame during which their brains could be guided to select those circuits had come and gone and left them forever without that ability."
Why is hitting so difficult?
A good big-league fastball travels from the pitcher's hand to the plate in .041 seconds -- forty-one thousandths of a second. An average swing takes about .028 seconds. That leaves the hitter only thirteen thousandths (.013) of a second to decide whether to swing.
Breaking pitches, high-and-inside pitches and sidearm and submarine deliveries make the task all the more complex.
The science of it is this: Hitting depends on visual-motor coordination, in which an image is recognized in the visual system of the cerebral cortex of the brain. This cortical system learns what that image means and then generates a message to the spinal cord to get the bat to the right place at precisely the right time.
Ken Griffey Jr. developed that system during the age 4-12 window. Nelms notes that a common misperception is that baseball has to be practiced as a team sport, with nine kids on a side.
One-man rubber ball games are a great teacher. All you need is a brick wall or a concrete stoop to produce ground balls, pop-ups and line drives. You can even develop hand-quickness by practicing double plays (throw yourself a "ground ball," then make two hard, line-drive throws for the double play).
Bob Howsam, the former Reds general manager who put the final touches (trading for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo and George Foster; signing Davey Concepcion and Ken Griffey Sr.) on the Big Red Machine, recalls Kansas City wanting to test the Reds' players eyesights in the early 1970s, when "The Academy" was just getting started. "Ewing Kaufman (the Royals owner) said that his players on the Royals expansion team had tested in the 80th to 89th percentile of eye-hand reflex time," Howsam recalled.
"He asked to test some of our hitters. I said, "Sure, as long as you let our scouts use the device to test the guys we are scouting. And from that day forward, we did. We sent them Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Bernie Carbo and one or two others. They all tested at 100 percent for eye-hand reflex time."
And from that day forward, Howsam said, Reds scouts carried with them "a small box" that fit in their briefcases and could be used to test future prospects' eyes for quality of vision, depth perception and eye-hand reflex time.
"The more you find out, the better your chances of (projecting) a player's chances (of making it)," Howsam said. "In baseball, eye-hand coordination is of critical importance."
Howsam thinks that good athletes who have been involved in some sort of stick-and-moving-ball sport have a much better chance of being able to be converted into baseball hitters.
"Hank Greenberg (the former Detroit Tigers slugger of the late 1930s and 1940s) was a softball player," Howsam said.
So was Cesar Geronimo, who hit for a pretty good average -- .258 -- in his 15 years in the majors, including .307 in 1976.