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Too Late

Bob Feller throwing a no-hitter on opening day, 1940, at age 21.

Bob Feller throwing no-hitter on opening day, 1940, at age 21.

[From Sports Illustrated]

Joe Posnanski has been running a series of posts on the 100 Greatest Baseball Players Ever. I gather this will turn into a book. The posts were coming pretty quickly a couple of months ago, but then he went to Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics and things slowed down, which has been fine with me. The post-every-few-days pace allows me to enjoy each new entry a little more.

Today we learned Posnanski’s choice for number 48, Bob Feller. Posnanski attempts to explain just how extraordinary a pitcher Feller was from the moment he arrived in the big leagues at the age of 17 in 1936 through the 1946 and 1947 seasons, despite missing all of the 1942-1944 seasons and most of 1945 while serving in World War II. We can safely assume that Feller’s rare level of dominance would have continued right through the war years. (See Feller’s stats here.)

One accomplishment that Posnanski highlighted caught my fancy. Before describing it, I’ll take a detour into golf.

You are perhaps familiar with the golfing notion of shooting your age. The par score for an 18-hole golf course is typically 70 or 71 or 72. Top golfers will routinely score in the 60s. On a handful of occasions, players have shot 59s in tournament play. (A list of occasions when men have done it is here.)

The best players, when in their 30s or 40s, are never going to shoot a score equal to or lower than their age. However—and this is one of the benefits of aging—once you hit your 60s you can begin to think about “shooting your age.” It’s not that unusual a feat, at least for the golfing elite.

I haven’t played a round of golf in years, but even if I had, I’m too young to be shooting my age. In a few years, who knows? I could take up the game again and at least dream of shooting my age.

Oh, I just found an article from a few years ago by the WSJ golf writer, John Paul Newport on “The Wonders of Shooting Your Age.” Doing so is more common than I realized:

Phil Schlosser has always been a determined fellow. As the founder and owner of a forging company in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., his happiest moments came in defying competitors who whispered that he’d taken on a job his facilities couldn’t handle. “Every fiber in my body started to vibrate,” the strapping 84-year-old told me recently at his golf-course home in an elite Palm Springs-area community called The Reserve. “And I thought, ‘I’ll figure out how to do her.’ ” Usually he did.

So it’s not surprising that 11 years ago, when he was paired at his golf club in Bend, Ore., with two major-league baseball players who almost totally ignored him, he grew miffed and took action. Despite having scored less than 80 only three or four times in his life, he rolled in an eight-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 73. “How’s that for an old man!” he told the players, whom he prefers not to name.

It was the first time he shot his age or better — and it was on the number. Since then, including Friday’s round of 81, Mr. Schlosser has shot his age an additional 381 times. That’s far from a record: A Minnesotan named T. Edison Smith, a retired physical-education professor, has shot his age or better nearly 2,700 times. Ed Ervasti, a member at Turtle Creek in Tequesta, Fla., and other clubs, last year at age 93 shot 72 on a course measuring more than 6,000 yards.

I shouldn’t just dream. I should do it.

Back to baseball, and the notion I was previously unfamiliar with of “striking out your age,” which Posnanski describes in writing about Feller.

He made his Major League debut two weeks later by pitching one shaky inning against Washington. He made his first big league start about month later, August 23, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15. That’s when the papers really went crazy. To sum up the coverage in one sentence: This lad, who learned to throw by pegging at a makeshift backstop in his father’s cow pasture, this boy wonder not long out of short pants, this high school boy has a future brighter than the sun.

Less than a month after that, Feller had his most remarkable day of that remarkable year. With his father in the stands, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics — an American League record. The United Press account probably described it best: “A fastball, a mystifying curve and a flare of wildness that made the Philadelphia athletics step back from the plate made 17-year-old Bob Feller today the amazed possessor of a New American League record of 17 strikeouts.”

That’s 17 strikeouts in one game at the age of 17!

Posnanski continues:

Feller is one of only two players, by the way, to strike out his age. He struck out 17 at 17. Chicago’s Kerry Wood, more than 60 years later, struck out 20 at 20.

I missed Feller’s feat but remember Wood’s. What I don’t remember is anyone making the connection to striking out one’s age.

Alas, doing so has an age upper bound. You’re not going to do it once you turn 28. Too late.

Oh, I know. It’s possible to strike out more than 27 players in a game. A batter strikes out, the ball gets away from the catcher, the batter runs to first and arrives safely. It counts as a strikeout, but not an out. (Here’s a list of the occasions when a pitcher struck out 4 in an inning. It was done just last October.) If enough players strike out but get on base, you can have unlimited strikeouts. But basically 27 is the natural limit. Or let’s say 36 to be safe, nine consecutive four-strikeout innings.

This is one rare feat, for sure. And one I can’t dream of doing. Even if I somehow defy the laws of aging and become a professional pitcher at my age, it’s too late for me to strike out my age.

No baseball when I retire. I’ll focus on golf.

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Categories: Baseball, Golf, Life
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