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June 27, 2013 8:16 am

Column Like I See ‘Em: My favorite individual sport

Written by Dante Geoffrey

The importance of team play – and the apparent lack of it in regards to the Powell Pioneers – was brought up in a letter to the editor that ran in the June 4 issue of the Powell Tribune.

A Powell reader claimed that in order for the Pioneers to find success they must “work together, become one union, harmonize, have unity and have pride.”

Now that the Pioneers have (as of press time Wednesday) won six straight games, I’d like to examine the idea that their teamwork, such as it can be, has improved and is to credit for their recent run of success.

The notion that cohesive play amounts to wins is true to some extent. There is something to be said about team chemistry and working together and feeling like your teammates support you both on and off the field, court, rink, whatever.

And since the reader’s letter focused on the Pioneers’ porous defense (which has improved over the last handful of games), I don’t totally disagree with his team-centric argument.

Just mostly.

To end his letter the reader quoted Yankee great Babe Ruth.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Ruth is absolutely right, unless he was talking about baseball, in which case he’d be dead wrong.

Out of the four major sports, baseball is the hardest for which to make the “team sport” argument.

Baseball is, at best, one-third a team game when it comes to actual on-the-field play. Of the game’s three primary facets — hitting, pitching and fielding — only the latter requires teamwork in any true sense.

It is likely beneficial to have a middle-infield duo that has played together for years and can turn a double play like clockwork. Having a catcher that is familiar with the pitching staff helps with calling the game and managing base runners.

But unlike football, basketball and hockey, where defenders are usually following a man and can be taken anywhere in the field of play, baseball players know exactly where they will be standing 99.9 percent of the time. The manager might shift the infield or outfield this way or that depending on the hitter or situation, but baseball players don’t have to communicate, “Hey shortstop, go stand where the shortstop stands.” There’s fewer moving parts, therefore requiring less communication and less reaction.

When you break down the mechanics of a run-of-the-mill defensive play, it’s apparent “working as a team” is even less of a factor than you might think.

Take a routine, bases-empty ground ball, for instance. When a ball is grounded to second, the second baseman moves in front of the ball, scoops it up in his glove and throws it to the first baseman waiting calmly at the bag.

The only thing about that play that remotely resembles team play is that a member of a team, the second baseman, threw the ball to another member of the team, the first baseman. They both happen to be wearing the same-patterned uniform and both desire to get the batter out.

But the first baseman’s work with the second baseman isn’t quite like a Tony Parker/Tim Duncan pick-and-roll or Arian Foster hitting the open gap created by the offensive line.

Baseball plays can, and often do, take as much athleticism and honed skill to execute as typical plays in other popular sports. I’m not here to say baseball is easy or the athletes who play it are less impressive or deserve less praise than those of football or basketball. Baseball has long been a passion of mine and I write this column only because I have spent countless hours studying the game in an attempt to understand it at a deeper-than-surface level.

If you despise the notion that America’s long-tenured pastime isn’t collaboration at its purest form, I suggest you argue semantics. If you want to say that good pitching plus good defense equals a good team effort, then I will concede to that. The definition of “team effort” probably reads something like “many members of a team performing at a high level.”

And I can’t argue that baseball players aren’t on a team. They wear the same outfits and stand together in the same dugouts. So there, you win.

But I will maintain that baseball, a sport in which teams do compete, is a team sport more so by definition than practice.

When it comes to the off-the-field and clubhouse aspects of baseball, I think team camaraderie is of monumental importance. But when it comes to playing the game, baseball is won and loss by individuals.

Every play starts with a mano-a-mano, pitcher v. hitter matchup. Baseball is a series of these isolated incidents that can end without any player besides the pitcher, catcher and batter factoring into the play (Frankie Vogt’s 19-strikeout performance, anyone?).

The Powell Pioneers are a talented group of individuals who are all playing for the same coach, the same town and the same goal. Their early-season struggles can be attributed to one thing in particular — it was the early-season. Players who had been investing their time in other sports just days before (and sometimes during) the Pioneers’ season had to refocus their minds and bodies onto baseball. Players that were fresh out of Babe Ruth were suddenly asked to perform like Legion players and needed time to acclimate to the advanced league.

If the Pioneers are now playing better baseball — and everything indicates they are — it’s because a majority of their players have worked hard and are performing at a much higher level, as individuals, than they were a month ago; not because of an “ah ha!” moment in which the lovable band of go-getters realized the importance of teamwork.

It’s a simple answer, and it might seem too cold-hearted to get behind, but it’s true.

Sorry, Babe.

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