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On Magic, Ignorance, And Jealousy In Baseball

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Just how do strong organizations get that way? And how do they keep winning against sometimes seemingly impossible odds?

Thearon W. Henderson

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. --  Arthur C. Clarke

In pretty much anything involving science, if you go back far enough in time, many of the modern-day standard functions appear to be magic. Whether dealing with flight, health care technology, or anything else with front-line computers, much of it would look like magic to a citizen from 60 years ago. That entirely ignores basics like gravity and genetics, which have existed forever, but weren't explained until rather recently. As the field of baseball is applied science, quite a bit of the game we love can appear to be magic. Part of what I try to examine in my articles is unexplained science, or apparent magic.

Among the things I consider to be magic still is the concept of hopping on a tin machine, loading it with fuel, and flying from one coast to the other. I know airliners have science behind them. Many very intelligent people grasp the concept. Nonetheless, to me, it makes no sense. It shouldn't be able to happen, but it does, including many out of O'Hare every day, some of which arrive on time.

When I fail to grasp the concept of flight, I am showing my own ignorance. There shouldn't be humiliation in ignorance, as we are all baffled by some concepts. What is important is to know what you know, and what you don't. For the things I need an expert on, I have to decide if the topic is important enough to figure it out. If I decide against, I will likely remain in ignorance.

When watching a baseball game, there is plenty of science. From hitting behind the runner, throwing to the cutoff man, or getting the hitter to swing at one in the dirt, science's fingerprints are all over the game. Aside from the obvious parts of the game, managers must utilize their bullpens, executives must manage rosters, and medical staffs have to get and keep players healthy. All of these, in a way, involve science. And for people who don't grasp the science behind them, there is a smattering of ignorance.

***

This didn't start to be about flight or medicine. It began as a look at minor league players from 'back then' like Howard Farmer. Never a Cubs farmhand, Farmer ran rather quickly through the Montreal Expos system before getting a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 1990. He pitched in six games, four as a starter, losing three and winning none. Farmer matters to me because he pitched in Rockford in 1988. He pitched well in the 815 that year, unless I went. I seem to remember him getting bombed twice with me in attendance. It's kind of like how when I listened to Jake Arrieta pitch twice, he got shelled both times.

In the day, minor league baseball was magic. Players were sent to some faraway outpost, and nobody cared in the least. Unless a guy was a high draft pick, nobody cared. After all, the minor leagues didn't matter. The draft was a crapshoot, and there was no way to tell who was good.

But then, the standard cure for ailments used to be leeches.

A few years after Farmer left town, the Cubs affiliated with the Rockford Midwest League franchise. I don't remember going, though I might have. If Bleed Cubbie Blue had been around then, I'd have been a bad advocate. They were bad teams, as I remember. As much of a happy face as I tend to put on the minor leagues now, there wasn't much shine to those teams. I'd have been rather negative about the hopeless talent on those teams. Teams such as those throughout the pipeline have returned to bite the Cubs fans to this day.

Was it magic that made those teams bad? No, it was... frankly, I have no idea. I wasn't there, as was the case with many others. Few were interested in the Rockford Cubbies in their Rockford stay. As with most everyone else, I plead ignorance on why they didn't regularly produce major league-quality players.

***

The Giants and Cardinals will play in this season's NLCS. Many people are tired of those two always being in the post-season hunt. While it could be hatred, I'll give the benefit of the doubt and call it jealousy. Why are these teams always so "lucky?" Look at their pitching staffs? When Tim Lincecum fell apart, Matt Cain was there. When Cain had a bad year, Madison Bumgarner ruled the mound. The Cardinals have had plenty of injury problems through the years. They have, however, managed to back up the injured arms with homegrown and well-trained options to cover until the next injury.

Pixie dust, or applied science?

Both teams have very good catchers in Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. To find a two-way catcher that good, the Cubs have to go back to Gabby Hartnett. Or further. The Giants and Cardinals train their prospects, in whichever cities they find themselves, to be smart players that know what they can and can't do. When the opportunity presents itself, some are good enough to get the job done. With a mass of players being effectively trained, math says that someone might be able to be a capable fill-in. Or better.

It isn't magic. It only appears as such.

Don't begrudge these two teams that are good year-in and year-out. Instead, ask what the Cubs should be doing differently to put themselves in the same situation the next three decades. The brass finally seems dedicated to developing internally. This will mean fewer positions at the parent club level will need to be filled by expensive veterans. The veterans that are interested, if the team is getting that good, won't necessarily require a huge free agent dowry.

When you have a better parent club, a more reliable bullpen, and options aplenty on the way up, other teams get to grow sick of you. Why? Because they hate magic.

But then, what do I know? I don't believe planes can fly.