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It's The Nationals' Pastime
Jim Kaplan
April 04, 1983
With its tougher style of play and deeper talent, the National League has left the American in its dust
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April 04, 1983

It's The Nationals' Pastime

With its tougher style of play and deeper talent, the National League has left the American in its dust

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Surfaces affect play in other ways, too. National League outfielders must be fast enough to cut off skidding turf hits and strong enough to throw from farther out. "They make some plays we don't," concedes California Centerfielder Fred Lynn. Because it's easier to run on carpets than on dirt basepaths, the senior circuit stresses running on offense, too. Though Oakland's Rickey Henderson set a major league record with 130 stolen bases last season, National League teams, with speedsters like Montreal's Tim Raines, stole an average of 49 more bases than those in the American League.

Six of the National's last seven Series champs—the Cards, the Phils, and the Pirates and Reds twice apiece—play on carpets. This is no coincidence. First, it's easier to switch from turf to grass than vice versa. Turf players adjust from making long throws to short ones, less of a task than the reverse. "If you're set up for grass, you'll have a tougher time on turf because you'll find you're slower," Boone says. Compounding the American League's transition problem is the fact that its teams play so few regular-season games on turf. "When I was with the Orioles, we never did well in K.C.," says the Mets' Bamberger. "It was like kids against men. We'd get singles and they'd go to second on the same hits." No team was ever more consciously molded to a small grass field than the Orioles. They've had the league's best record over the last 20 years, but they've lost three of five Series, including two to Pittsburgh, a turf team. In postseason play, American grass teams are 9-12 on National League turf.

Second, a hit-and-run team will usually beat a home-run-hitting team. The American League has outhomered the National 23-16 in the last four Series and lost each time.

7) HIGH, LOW, FAST, SLOW

Ball-park differences, though, are only part of the story. They don't explain how in 1980 a National League turf team (Philadelphia) beat an American turf team (K.C.) or how the Orioles lost the 1979 Series after coming home to grass with a 3-2 lead.

During the years American League umpires wore outside chest protectors and couldn't bend low, that league had a high strike zone and the National a low one. The umpiring equipment rule was standardized in 1979, new umps not being allowed to use outside protectors, but most baseball men feel old strike-calling habits have persisted.

The effect of this becomes clear in interleague play. Most homers are hit on high pitches, and that's where the American's high zone is costly. The long ball is uniquely significant in All-Star Games, which are reduced to basics—"homers and relief pitching," says Lynn.

Generally, National League pitchers throw fastballs and hard sliders, and American League pitchers favor slower breaking balls. Most observers think the dissimilarity can be traced, again, to parks; big National League fields encourage hummers, while small American League fields dictate slower stuff.

The fastball orientation gives the Nationals a significant advantage in inter-league play. "Fastball pitchers give you little reaction time," says San Diego First Baseman Steve Garvey. "If you don't see them frequently, it can be very difficult." Conversely, a player can more easily adjust to breaking balls if he's used to fast-balls. The talk of the off-season was how the hard-throwing St. Louis pitchers handcuffed the middle of the Brewer batting order. Since 1960, American League All-Stars have struck out 207 times, National Leaguers 163.

8) THE DESIGNATED HITTER

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