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Friday, March 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Spokane Indians face a difficult learning curve

You reach a certain age when nostalgia becomes commonplace.

Little things can set off a wave of the stuff that sends you way back, to a time when the cartoon version of Mr. Peabody and Sherman had the WABAC Machine cranked up. Back to a time when people didn’t look at you with that “Gee, he’s old” look when you mention there was an earlier version of the new series. Sort of like when you point out that Sir Paul McCartney was in a band back in the 1960s.

The latest wave of nostalgia washed in while watching the Spokane Indians on a beautiful, summer evening.

Watching a minor league baseball game is an open invitation to go back in time.

I can still remember sitting along the first-base line while Tommy Lasorda coached the hometown team. One of my favorite players was a lanky first baseman named Tommy Hutton, who the Dodgers traded to Philadelphia for Larry Hisle – introducing me at an early age to the concept of “bad trades.”

Part of the attraction of Hutton was the length of his stay in Spokane. Bill Buckner, another early favorite, was here for part of the 1969 season as a 19-year-old kid and 111 games in 1970, when he hit .335 to earn a September call-up by the Dodgers.

Of course, the Dodgers traded him, too. He was sent to the Cubs along with Ivan DeJesus and Jeff Albert for Rick Monday and Mike Garman.

What I remember vividly is the sound of the bat hitting baseball. It still resonates like a tuning fork hitting middle C – something that feels just right from the inside out.

I watched the great Frank Howard take batting practice. His playing career was over, but he still liked to put on a show, and what a show he could put on. Where a player like Ken Griffey Jr. had a long, elegant swing that produced a pleasing crack when it connected, men like Howard and Harmon Killebrew had violence stored in their bats and they took it out on baseballs.

Watching players in the Northwest League, who are all still in the early stages of their professional career, has a different sound to their swings. But it makes sense, I suppose, that they do.

Players of my generation grew up swinging wooden bats, and there are definite advantages to doing that as a hitter.

Ever notice that professional hitters take a second to look at their bat before they step into the batter’s box? They’re not just reading the label. The name Louisville Slugger or Adirondack is always written on the weakest part of the bat, so hitters are careful how they hold it. Label up or label out – either way assures them that they will hit the ball with the strongest part of the ash or maple, or whatever wood they choose.

A wooden bat is not a forgiving tool. You had to make sure you held it just right or it would break on you. And you had to know where the small, magical sweet spot was on the bat – that’s where you wanted to strike the baseball.

You would be disappointed when you reached for an outside pitch and caught the ball off the end of the bat – where unless you were Frank Howard, there was no power. And you quickly learned that hitting a ball off the handle of the bad produced the quintessential negative feedback that only a baseball player knows: the sting of a mishit ball.

If you know that feeling, you just had an involuntary flashback.

The downside of the wood bat happens in this situation. Hitting the ball off the handle can easily break the bat in half. It’s where the expression “sawing him off” comes from.

Hitting coaches will tell you that swinging a wooden bat teaches you to be a better hitter with better swing mechanics. It teaches better plate discipline – that’s the phenomenon of the wood bat. In many ways, it self-diagnoses your swing.

And there is no feeling in all of sports, in my humble opinion, quite like the exquisite feel of smashing a baseball off the sweet spot. Golfers will try to convince you that hitting a drive on the screws has the same feel, but I disagree. Golf balls don’t come at you at 90 miles per hour and sending a Top-Flite down the middle of a fairway pales in comparison to watching Mr. Rawlings sail over the outfield fence.

But because of the high cost of broken bats, youth leagues and school leagues have shifted to man-made materials. Not only do they not break, they are quite forgiving of shaky swing mechanics.

That adds to the list of things players must adjust to when they come to professional baseball.

Along with playing the game as a full-time job, playing every day and facing what would otherwise be an all-star team, you have to learn how to play with a tool that can be finicky, but has a satisfying reward to its mastery.

You face someone who would likely have been the ace of your pitching staff back in your school days with every pro at-bat. Someone with a fastball that gets on you faster and moves more than you ever thought possible – and they make it look surprisingly easy, too. Some can change speeds to make you look silly and throw a breaking ball to make you jelly-legged.

That would be enough of a transition.

But these young men are learning to face that kind of pitching while adjusting to a wooden bat that leaves then with a significantly smaller margin for error.

Adds a whole new level to the term “learning curve.”

But that would be what makes baseball special – the sport that sends you to the plate with a cylindrical bat to face a guy throwing a leather-bound sphere at you, and the hitting coach tells you to “square it up.”

No, that doesn’t make sense.

Those of us who love baseball? We overlook that.

For nostalgic reasons, if nothing else.

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