Lessons From MLB Network

added 7/4/2009 by Bob Hulsey

As the season has progressed, I have found myself spending more time watching the MLB Network. On my cable system, it is available both in normal 4:3 formatting on the digital tier and in high definition. It is cool to watch them dart in and out of games around the majors, giving you hi-def looks at most of the action.

Unlike ESPN and Fox, the MLB Network has no discernible bias towards teams on the East Coast, nor is their programming cluttered with breathless break-ins about what Kobe Bryant did today or what Tigers Woods ate for dinner. They are about baseball and nothing else. Having started on January 1st, they still make rookie mistakes and suffer from some uneven production but I find I am learning things from the studio analysts that I've never heard discussed.

Dave Valle, the former American League catcher, had a video seminar on the proper way to slide into home and the proper position for the catcher to take in blocking the plate. The video showed two plays from that day's action where the runner was out at the plate and both, in Valle's opinion, took the wrong approach.

"For my money, the best way is always to slide feet-first into the plate because it forces the catcher to have to bend all the way down to apply the tag and you only need to get one foot through or around the catcher's legs to touch the plate," Valle explained. He said runners who dive at the plate with their hands or try to run over the catcher are most likely making it easier for the catcher to make the play.

Sitting next to Valle was former Astro reliever Mitch Williams who offered another gem I hadn't heard discussed on any telecast. Again, there was video of the Dodgers' Eric Milton punching out Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. with a low inside pitch. "He's setting him up," Williams observed as they went to a live update where Griffey took the same pitch in the same location and drilled it into the seats for a home run.

"People talk all the time about pitchers setting hitters up," Williams added, "but it happens the other way too."

"Really?," asked the studio host.

"Yeah. Ryne Sandberg was one of the best. If a lefthander threw him a high curve, he'd act like he'd never seen such a pitch before in his life. But he wants that pitcher to get comfortable so he'll throw him another one and, next time, Ryno would send it to the bleachers."

Folks, you don't get that kind of insight anymore from Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver.

Bob Costas recently had a round-table with three former umpires who discussed a number of topics, including some controversial calls that have hounded them through the years and how they've lived with it. You came away with more respect for the men, even if you disagreed with them.

Recently, the network has been showcasing highlights of past All-Star Games and I hope to eventually make some Astros clips to add to our media library.

It was interesting to see highlights from the 1950s and note how many players eventually joined the Colt .45s or the early Astros, often as a last harbor in the majors before their careers ended. Stars like Nellie Fox, Billy Goodman, Pete Runnels, Turk Farrell, Robin Roberts, Johnny Temple, Jim Gentile and Gus Triandos came back to life in film. There was also footage of Bob Cerv, an outfielder who's legs were so weak by the time he came to Houston that Mickey Herskowitz noted he was once thrown out from second trying to score on a triple.

When the Houston franchise was new, management believed that they had to fill the roster with familiar names to attract the fans, even if some of those names no longer played like the stars they once were. There were some good young players in the pipeline but few were truly ready for the majors in those early years, although a handful were forced to mature quickly.

Think about that now when you see names like Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Darin Erstad and Ivan Rodriguez dot the Houston roster. They were once top players, but not anymore. Are they being used as much to lure fans as they are to win games? And are they simply placeholders until young stars in the farm system are ready to take over?

In those early years, future stars like Jim Wynn, Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub and Jerry Grote weren't allowed to develop fully before they were traded away and became stars for other teams. Houston management was impatient and missed out on some of their best years.

Now, young talent is perhaps overvalued but the Astros have let many over-ripen in the minors or dealt them for a quick fix in July or August and missed out on the best that player could offer. Let's hope Ed Wade and the Houston front office don't make the same mistakes as their predecessors. We lived through a decade of 90-loss seasons because those early Astros didn't properly develop their players.

There's a fine art to pushing a player through that final step to the majors. With talents like Hunter Pence or Roy Oswalt, it's not difficult at all. But most players have to adjust to the major league experience and have to find some early success in order to grow in confidence yet find the humility to keep making adjustments as they progress.

As names like Bud Norris, Chris Johnson and Jason Castro approach their big league debuts, let's hope the Astros don't rush them to Houston but don't let them die on the vine in the minors either.