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THE HOT CORNER: Stupid baseball tricks

by Jim Allen (Nov 4, 2010)

The tension was thick Sunday afternoon in Nagoya with Japanese baseball's favorite parlor game: guess the starting pitcher.

Before Game 2 of the Japan Series in Nagoya, there was some question as to who would start for the Chiba Lotte Marines. Would the Chunichi Dragons face lefty Bill Murphy or right-hander Shunsuke Watanabe?

Watanabe went out to the outfield with the other pitchers, but returned to the clubhouse early, as pitchers typically do before a start.

Murphy, however, ran, stretched and then stood around in the outfield right up until the end of batting practice as he does when he's not starting, all in effort to fool the Dragons nine-man platoon of advance scouts.

"I knew I was starting for a couple of days," Murphy told The Hot Corner on Tuesday in Chiba before Game 3. "They're like, 'Hey come out, stretch, warm up with the team.'

"I'm going, 'Really?' They said they do it in the Central League."

The ruse worked, or so it seemed.

The Dragons, who use a variety of players in center and right, opted for left-handed batters in those positions, ostensibly to face Watanabe.

It didn't matter.

The Dragons may have been fooled before making up their lineup, but Murphy didn't fool anyone once the game started. Chunichi hammered him in the first inning and knocked him out of the game in the second en route to a 12-1 rout, Lotte's worst Series defeat ever.

"We did it the first day, too," said Murphy, who went 12-6 in the regular season but slumped in the second half. "I went in with [Yoshihisa] Naruse, but everybody knew Naruse was throwing. In Game 2 they had Shunsuke do it with me.

"I never do it [stay in the outfield before a start], so it was really weird. But you've got to do it."

Yes, one has to do it. But why do it all?

Teams do it because the game here is not entirely about exciting plays and the great atmosphere to be enjoyed at the ballpark, but about the final score.

Because of that, spying and playing mind games off the field is looked on as part of the game's charm.

Chunichi's Hiromitsu Ochiai is one skipper who is adept at pulling starting pitching surprises and for sniffing out his opponents' plans.

This is all fine, but what does it have to do with the game on the field, about plays that are made or aren't?

The answer is nothing.

The practice is about winning, not about baseball. It's a tradition, but one that contributes absolutely nothing to the quality of the game.

One can argue that deception is intrinsic to the game, and one would be right. Pitchers conceal their deliveries, fielders will try to conceal the defensive shifts they make, batters in potential bunt situations often try to conceal their intentions.

But those things happen on the field as part of the interaction between offense and defense.

In a preseason meeting of managers in 2005, then-Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura ridiculed the Pacific League's practice of announcing starting pitchers.

"Announcing your starting pitcher is like fighting a war and telling your opponent when you will launch your missiles," Nomura said.

It's an interesting but flawed analogy, since unlike a war, the baseball teams are trying to sell tickets to their battles--and people aren't really paying to see the manager conduct espionage missions.

CL teams have so far resisted the policy of announcing starting pitchers. Sooner or later, however, we are likely to see it from Opening Day through the Japan Series.

Why? Because the game is evolving. Things once considered essential are cast aside or modified as times change.

Until a decade or so ago, managers and coaches here used to physically intimidate umpires here in the name of winning baseball. Now it is a rare occurrence. Baseball in the majors underwent a similar evolution over a century ago as a business decision.

Announcing starting pitchers allows consumers to be informed and keeps the focus on the field, where the action should be.

Some fans may miss the skullduggery but they'll get over it.


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