Memory Chip

The New York Times

April 25, 2013

by Doug Glanville


The Greinke-Quentin altercation is a reminder that, rightly or wrongly, baseball players never forget — and really can’t afford to.

The smoke has cleared and punishment has been meted out. Baseball’s brawl of the year (so far) pitted the San Diego Padres’ Carlos Quentin against the $147 million man, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke. The fight left Greinke with a broken collarbone and two solid months of inactivity. Quentin has just finished up an eight-game suspension for his actions, the longest recorded sentence ever handed down for charging the mound.
Apparently, there was a history. Greinke had hit Quentin with a pitch twice before, and one of those times Quentin almost started toward the mound, then decided against it. But having been hit by various pitchers 115 times previously, he’d clearly had enough and exercised what is considered an available option to settle the score: he rushed the mound.

When asked about his choice, Quentin was virtually incoherent. He urged those listening to check the history, to look at an alleged pattern of intent that led Greinke to hit him again.

At first glance, the moment impeached Quentin’s argument. He was hit by a pitch in a situation that would make no sense on the risk scale for the pitcher (assuming the pitcher wanted to win). The Dodgers were leading by one run, late in the game, and Greinke’s hitting Quentin allowed the Padres to bring the potential winning run to the plate. It was also a full count to Quentin — one strike away from an out. Even if Quentin hit a home run, it was, at worst, a tie game. So why would Greinke hit him?

Answer: it doesn’t really matter.
From Quentin’s perspective — and the perspective of any player similarly situated — the tactical calculus is only a small part of weighing how and whether justice will be distributed. In baseball, there is an underlying “eye for an eye” mentality. A street order of balance that sometimes contradicts its poetry. It can snap into place through a bad dream or a misunderstood gesture.
Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press After Carlos Quentin, center, of the San Diego Padres was hit by a pitch, he took on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke.
Baseball is a game of memory. It is a game of patterns and repetition. You play nearly every day, and go through daily routines to get ready for each game — routines you can eventually do in your sleep. You hear the national anthem until the words become part of a cadence that syncs with your breathing.
Those rare times you can exhale, you prepare for your opponent. Your memory can be the most important part of this exercise. Everyone in the major leagues can hit a fastball, catch a ball, run a little, do things within a margin of the median skill set of the best. So the points of differentiation among players skirt those intangibles. How you prepare, how you adjust and, most important, how well your memory can train you to predict the future.
Pitchers often have patterns. They throw certain pitches in certain counts. Maybe they dip their shoulder when they throw a slider. Or they take exactly 15 seconds between pitches. It is your job, as a hitter, to know this as well as you know how tight you like your spikes. It allows you to have a plan at the plate, to anticipate their next move, to know what is relevant and what is not.

Hitters also have patterns. They look for, and swing at, certain pitches in certain counts. They might stand close to the plate when they are looking to fight with two strikes against them. Or, as base runners, they’ll pull on their belt buckle when they are going to steal.

In a game of patterns and codes, the more you can retain and remember, the better prepared you are for baseball’s endless unknowns. Your ability to recall in a timely fashion is your currency. Of course, there’s plenty that you don’t want to remember, but the urge to forget is replaced by the hope that stacking new memories will bury the inconvenient ones.

The optimistic part of the game tells you that time is on your side. With enough sample space, it all evens out, or in some cases, you can get even. The scoreboard, the “who was on first and what was on second” that usually dictates the situational plan, wasn’t relevant to Quentin’s reaction. Given his lurking suspicion that Greinke might hit him a third time, Quentin was prepared to act every time the ball left Greinke’s hand.
But there is another train of thought, the one that allows Quentin to counteract Greinke’s plan for how he is going to pitch him. It is hard to separate these two moving trains: the memory that allows you to keep a log of how a pitcher got you out, and the memory that houses your ego — the one you need to believe in yourself. The ego memory has a built-in chip on its shoulder, sometimes seeing things that are not necessarily there. It is why Charlie Hayes charged Todd Stottlemyre from second base in 1999 for no apparent reason other than “I just don’t like him,” or why it is hard to accept that a team that traded you might have done you the biggest favor in world, as opposed to rejecting you as a person.
These memories describe a history — they look backward — but they also lay out a plan. It is part fiction, part self-preservation, part science. It helps make sense of the constant barrage of information that comes with having a game every day. It allows you to get through the day and best your opponent while providing context and meaning to the time that blows by you like an exploding fastball.
Maybe that is part of how baseball sits in the hearts and minds of its fans for so long — they have the same long memories regarding the game, albeit not from the same perspective as the players. But it allows one and all to jump from era to era, framing an event, a moment, a pitch in the deepest of contexts. Players survive on such skills, on the ability to time-travel and craft an approach, a story. We all remember things differently, but maybe the most important thing is that we all remember.

Even if, upon reflection, we are not sure if we had a good reason for why we ended up on the mound.

Reprinted from The New York Times.


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