Learning to hit big league pitching at the Opens

It’s rare these days that I have three hours free on a Saturday afternoon, or even the same amount of time on a random weeknight, but when I do I like to settle in on the couch and watch a Major League Baseball game.

I’m a fan of the sport, as well as particular players, and I follow the pennant races. Mostly, though, watching the game on TV allows me to fantasize that I could be jacking long shots over the centerfield fence, emerging out of nowhere like Roy Hobbs to revolutionize the game and earn a fat multimillion dollar contract and all the sunflower seeds I can spit.

Watching it on the tube, the game is greatly slowed down. Pitchers bring their best stuff from 60 feet 6 inches, and it seems like they’re lobbing volleyballs. Ninety miles an hour? It doesn’t seem that fast, or that intimidating.

Of course there’s the occasional outlier – Randy Johnson in his prime comes to mind – whose raw power is undeniable but for the most part even Cy Young caliber hurlers seem eminently hittable on TV. Of course, they’re not. If it was easy, they wouldn’t be doling out multi-year deals to big time hitters; they’d be signing potbellied middle-aged writers like me off the street on the cheap. Still, you’ve got to admit it: If you’ve watched any baseball at all, at some point you’ve said to yourself, “It can’t be that hard.”

If you take that kind of thinking to the next level, you start to assume you’d be able to see the spin on the ball, like so many acclaimed hitters routinely state in interviews. “I could tell it was a slider immediately,” they say. “It had a tight lateral spin and appeared to have a dot in the center.”

I’ve gotten into a batting cage against pitching that was in the 80-mph range, not necessarily fast enough to get a second look from professional scouts, and do you know why I couldn’t gauge the spin on the ball?

BECAUSE I HAD MY FREAKING EYES CLOSED.

It was that fast, that intimidating, that much of a blur. So much for believing everything I see on TV.

I thought of this at last week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open on Virginia’s James River, because so many of the 170 competitors on the pro side of the ledger had clearly let their TV goggles get to them.

Randy Howell throws a Senko? I throw a Senko. I should be able to whip him.

KVD wins with a crankbait all the time. I’ve caught TONS of fish with a crankbait. Hand me my check right now.

I’m a local. Some of these so-called pros have never been here. Can’t wait to take their money.

Once you step up to the plate, though, the pitching gets faster. You’ve got to be able to hit a major league fastball. Then, once you master that, they start throwing you curves. Once every fifth day, the opposition may bring a knuckleballer to the mound. Those guys even baffle their own catchers, so how can you expect to hit against him? The Randy Howells and Mike Iaconellis and Brandon Palaniuks who fished the Open have seen every pitch you can possibly offer. They may not hit it every time, but over the long haul they’re going to put up good numbers.

I’m not trying to detract from the unknown hordes who fish the Opens. Some of them will indeed come out of nowhere to win a tournament, as Fletcher Shryock did a few years ago, and then proceed to show that their success wasn’t a fluke, thus going from unknown to known.

In the case of the James River, the 2011 and 2012 winners were both locals, known to Virginians but not to the bass world generally, so I’m not saying that locals can’t compete. But I think it’s pretty telling that despite there being five Virginia residents in the Top 12 this year, there were far, far more who finished in the triple digits. Those are the would-be cautionary tales that get lost in the articles written by folks like me. Maybe instead of writing about Randy Howell and Mike Hicks and Kelly Pratt, I should have interviewed a random assortment of local hotshots who didn’t come anywhere close to making the cut.

I don’t presume to know why each individual who fished the James chose to plunk down his or her entry fee. From the results that some of them have compiled over multiple Opens, I’d say that a few just like flushing money down the toilet. Others have consistently performed and have come close to making the Classic or the Elites in the past. A bunch of locals probably want to see if they can exercise the same kind of dominance they’ve experienced in their bass club, or on some other regional circuit. Some probably just want to see how they stack up against the best, no matter where they’re fishing. A scant few would probably do anything to make the Elites or the Classic, even if they have next to no chance of doing so, now or ever.

I’m not here to pick on people who have faith in their abilities, or no fear of failing. Today, in what be atypical for me, I’m going to celebrate the dream. I may be jaded, having seen some pro bass fishermen lose their marriages, their mortgages or their pride in the pursuit of green and brown fish. I still think that except for a few ultra-talented, laser-focused freaks of nature, it’s a terrible way to make a living. That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. The best example of this is the distance people are willing to drive to take a shot at glory.

The pro side of this Northern Open field included five anglers from California, two from Arizona, one from Washington, one from Japan and one from Australia (and that doesn’t include Elite Series pros Brandon Palaniuk, from Idaho, and Chris Zaldain, from California).

What does it tell us about the draw of the Elite Series and the Classic if guys that most of us have never heard of are willing to drive over 3,000 or more miles to compete on a body of water they’ve never seen, against the best local and national talent?

To me, the first thing that jumps out is that people who’ve said the Elite dream is dead, who’ve argued that they’ll never fill fields in coming years, don’t know what they’re talking about.

Whether they’re capable of competing at the highest levels of competition or not, there are scads of anglers out there who will do whatever it takes, including divesting themselves of all material possessions and personal relationships, for a chance at the fishing big time. I’m not saying that all or even most of them have a legitimate shot of competing.

In fact, I’d argue that most of them don’t, but most collegiate baseball players will never get even a cup of coffee (or andro) in the major leagues. Multiple Heisman Trophy winners have been remarkable busts because they weren’t suited to the NFL style of play.

Unlike baseball and football, though, any B.A.S.S. member of sufficient age can compete against the likes of Ike and Randy Howell in the Opens to test their mettle. You don’t have to risk getting plowed by a 100-mph fastball or sacked by a 300-pound brute to do it, either. You might take a little bit of a mental beating, but that’s a small price to pay. And if you’re fishing the Opens, you don’t even need to quit your day job to do it – three weeks of vacation and some travel expenses will suffice. Maybe you’re the next KVD, maybe you’ll be a donor for life, but the opportunity is there.

I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s easy to succeed in any Open, no matter what your skill or experience level. Nor do I believe that everyone is suited to enter as a pro – you need to realistically assess whether you can safely navigate big bodies of water, whether your equipment is up to the task, and whether the decision to compete is good for your family.

The bad news for the dreamers? Not everyone can hit the fastball, and many of those who can hit it will never figure out a big league curveball.

The good news? If you somehow do ascend to the majors and manage to get just one hit every three times up, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up in the Hall of Fame.

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