The Washington Nationals have already committed the most baffling and dreaded play in baseball twice this season. The following is a fan perspective of baseball's most embarrassing miscue and what the Nats need to do to prevent it in the future.
The Washington Nationals are 4-5 to start the 2011 MLB season, which isn't bad, but it could have been a whole lot better had Jayson Werth and Jerry Hairston team not made fielding errors in two key losses. In my first feature, I wanted to go through the anatomy of a dropped ball from the perspective of a Nationals fan. Hope you enjoyed it.
The dropped fly ball. It takes place in the space between the air and the ground. It is an event that takes only moments to unfold, but baseball fans talk about it long after the play is over; for days, sometimes weeks, maybe months. Nightmarishly, for those involved, it sometimes becomes part of baseball lore itself. The conditions for it happen in nearly every single baseball game.
Time stops for its genesis.
Its seed is hurled into the sky at the explosive crack of a bat. As the ball reaches its apex, it comes to a point where energy can no longer push and the ball refuses to stick to heaven. For a breath, the ball stops and with it all sense of time or surrounding as all of Nationals Park watches in bated breath as the ball finally begins its descent back to earth. Eyes quickly snap to the ground surrounding its approximate impact. Hopes, dreams and all the wishes of a fanbase are willing a ballplayer to get under the ball as quick as possible. Here comes Jayson Werth, already setting up for the catch with time to spare, and setting fans up for the orgasmic sound of the ball landing safely in a leather glove. Euphoria develops in some, groaning disgrace in others.
Then it happens: a cold, hard, sickening thud of something hard plunking the lush ground. It is the sound of the world turning upside down. Whole ballgames are decided by it. It is the sound that haunts the fielder who is unfortunate enough to hear it. Fans in the nosebleeds who have no possible way of hearing anything going on on the field say they can hear it clear across the stadium as clear as day. Nothing can raise the spirits of one team and completely demoralize the other in such a space of time.
Dropped balls are a ghastly part of baseball that no player or fanbase want to be a part of, and the Washington Nationals have been finding this out all too recently. On April 6 against the Florida Marlins, Werth dropped a fly ball on a key play that ended up deciding the game in favor of the Marlins. Then on Saturday night against the New York Mets, another "thud" happened when Hairston missed a Carlos Beltran fly ball in the outfield. The Mets ended up scoring three runs in that inning.
The dropped ball doesn't always lead to ultimate disaster, but they certainly can suck the life out of a game and are not helpful to the cause. If that sounds like Captain Obvious swinging in through the window, it is. But of course, this makes it absolutely baffling that professional baseball players continue to misplay such a basic part of the game to this day, and this sort of article continues to be written time after time.
There are various reasons why balls are dropped. Balls get lost in the sun or lighting. The wind can play a factor. The weather might be bad. Superstitions and deities aren't satisfied. The only route a player knows is the one from Texarkana, Texas to the Southern Classic in Georgia (the fact they might know this might be because it comes from watching Smokey and the Bandit too many times in motel rooms during stints in the minors).
There are equally as many steps in the prevention of the dropped ball, some of which have been taught since the Little Leagues. Watch the hitter's bat, track the ball, learn the routes, use two hands to make the catch, snag extra fungoes in outfield practice, nurture a team wide belief that any ball hit in the air is going to be caught and, perhaps the most important step in dropped ball prevention, communication between teammates.
Both Werth and Hairston Jr. referenced a lack of communication in talking about their miscues. Werth waved off Danny Espinosa, who probably could have had the ball, and Hairston was unsure where Rick Ankiel even was. Communication is essential, especially at this level of play. It should be instinctual in all Major League ballplayers. It has not been instinctual with the Nationals. These were two championship-caliber vets making these mistakes and two guys that are supposedly mentoring the younger players on the team.
The dropped ball is part of the game and will always be part of the game. There is not a sure fire way to eliminate them from the game completely, and fans understand that. But nothing is more aggravating for a fan than watching not one, but two well-paid professional ballplayers make "thuds" in the same week. On a team like the Nationals, they can afford only so many thuds before they lose the heart and faith of the fan base and the team itself.
How many fans will up and leave in those moments between the air and the ground?