Many of us have quirky aversions to words others find harmless.
For instance, if I’m taking my time eating a meal in a restaurant and the server stops by and asks, “Are you still working on it?” I lose any desire to take another bite. Hearing that one word — “working” — sends a message from my brain to my stomach.
Brain: “Didja notice that word?”
Stomach: “Of course I noticed the word, and thanks for your help. But what were you thinking an hour ago, when you asked for three side dishes with the Meatlovers Combo Platter?”
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Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is similarly irked by a baseball term used to describe starting right-handed batters against left-handed pitchers and left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers.
“I’m not crazy about the word ‘platoon,’ ” McClendon told reporters the other day, “because it puts you in a box. You want to be a little more dynamic than that with your managing skills.”
I understand McClendon’s resistance to being put in a box, a grave destination for anybody who is not blessed with the escape mechanisms available to master illusionist David Copperfield.
But if the manager follows through on his plans for Dustin Ackley to alternate with Rickie Weeks in left field, and for Seth Smith to alternate with Justin Ruggiano in right field — decisions that generally will depend on whether the starting pitcher is a righty or a lefty — there aren’t many more economical ways of defining such a system than “platoon.”
Time sharing? Managerial hunching? Percentage playing?
Whatever McClendon calls it, the notion of giving a left-handed hitter a better chance against a right-handed pitcher, and vice versa, is as old as the curveball, which spins into a batter’s wheelhouse when thrown from the opposite side.
The first manager to fully grasp the advantages of platooning was George Stallings, who studied his potential outfield for the 1914 Braves and thought: Rotating six players to assure favorable matchups makes more sense than starting three everyday players vulnerable to unfavorable matchups.
By the end of the season, Stallings’ outfield rotation included four left-handed hitters and four right-handed hitters. How’d that work out? Seemingly destined for another last-place finish in the middle of July, the Braves went on to win a World Series that earned Stallings a worthy nickname.
The Miracle Man.
Over the 101 years since Stallings’ determination that the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts, platooning has fallen in and out of fashion. It had been disregarded until Yankees manager Casey Stengel revived the concept during the early 1950s, when he implemented platoon rotations at third base, first base and left field.
Stengel could be as unintentionally hilarious as Yogi Berra, his Hall-of-Fame catcher.
“Never make predictions, especially about the future,” the “Old Perfesser” once said.
He also said: “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had a plenty of them.”
But another Stengel quote, not as funny, explained an essential challenge of platooning: “Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.”
Which brings us to the dirty little secret of platooning, and it’s not exactly a secret: Like any other pro athlete, a big league position player is wired to compete by an ego necessary to produce at the highest level. When a left-handed hitter learns he’s sitting on the bench only because the starting pitcher is a lefty, that’s not exactly an ego boost.
Take Ackley, among the most outstanding hitters in the history of college baseball. McClendon’s revelation that Ackley will share left field with Weeks — a second baseman who’ll spend spring training learning how to play the outfield — surely was a gut punch for the second overall selection of the 2009 draft.
But the numbers don’t lie. Platooning is a good idea, and for reasons only a physicist might understand, it is an especially good idea for left-handed hitters. Dustin Ackley’s ability to adjust to his modified role — and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t adjust like a total pro — will determine whether platooning is a good idea for the 2015 Mariners.
As for a “platoon” synonym that doesn’t rankle his manager?
I’m still working on it.