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The last word: Who owns home plate?
In a new book, two legends of baseball’s World Series dissect the duel between batter and pitcher.
 

REGGIE JACKSON: When I stepped into the box, I felt the at-bat belonged to me. Everybody else was there for my convenience. The pitcher was there to throw me a ball to hit. The catcher was there to throw it back to him if he didn’t give me what I wanted the first time. And the umpire was lucky that he was close enough to watch.

Gibson was the same way. That’s why people thought he was mean. And that’s the attitude you’ve got to have. When I hit, I felt I was in control of the home-plate area, and it was important that I felt that way. If I let the pitcher control it, it would give him an advantage.

BOB GIBSON: I got a lot of mileage out of looking angry. Sometimes it wasn’t intentional—like when I was squinting in for the signs, and the batters thought I was glowering at them. But the fact is, I was deliberately unfriendly to the opposition. I wouldn’t even say hello to hitters on the other teams. I didn’t want them knowing me. I didn’t want them knowing what I waslike or what I was thinking. It was important to me that I retain an air of mystery. I wanted [batters] wary of me. Uncertain. Intimidated. The Pirates had a young outfielder named Gene Clines who came up to me before a game with a baseball and asked me to sign it. I took the ball and tossed it over my shoulder into left field.

JACKSON: There are at least three kinds of advantages that the pitcher and batter contest. There’s the physical advantage, the strategic advantage, and also the psychological advantage. I didn’t want two out of three. I wanted them all.

The pitcher has the ball, and nothing happens until he lets go of it. So, as the batter, I felt I had to fight for any bit of control I could get. I expected the umpire, the catcher, and the pitcher to wait on me. I wanted to get ready on my time. I’d call time or pause or do something that wasn’t too annoying but at least would get the pitcher off his pace. If I could disrupt his rhythm a little bit, just for a second or two, the advantage swung to me. But I didn’t want to create an ire, some kind of anger to make him bear down harder. I didn’t want a guy to step back and grit his teeth. Being a jerk about it just doesn’t work. There’s a fine line between annoying somebody just a little bit and angering him to the point where you may get drilled in the back.

GIBSON: Him backing out of there all the time, that is annoying, because I liked to pitch in a hurry. But I never let it annoy me to the point that it distracted me. You don’t knock guys down for that kind of stuff. They give you plenty of other reasons to knock them down.

JACKSON: It’s not just stepping out of the box or slowing things down. It’s any little edge you can get. When I went to home plate in a game-tied situation or with a chance to do something and help the ballclub win one, I’d try to make eye contact with the pitcher. Now, you didn’t do that with Hoot—that’s what a lot of us like to call Gibson, after the old Hollywood cowboy—or a Mickey Lolich or a Jim Palmer or a Catfish Hunter. You weren’t going to stare down those guys. But if a guy was a young player, I would wait to get into the box because I wanted him to look at me. If he wouldn’t look at me, I felt I had him beat. If a guy did make eye contact, you could find out if you could intimidate him. Later in my career, when I had the weight of a reputation behind me, I did that a lot.

GIBSON: Heck, I couldn’t see if a guy was looking at me or not. I had enough trouble trying to see the signs back there. Tell you what I did, though. I used to look in and shake off signs just to mess with the hitters. Did that all the time. [Catcher] Tim McCarver would give me a sign and then give me another one that meant shake me off. The thing was, I didn’t have that many pitches to shake off to. So I’m out there shaking my head, and the batter’s thinking, What the hell?

JACKSON: Everybody in the league knew I had trouble with the inside pitch. I got away with it only because the great majority of pitchers were afraid of making a mistake in that spot. The threat of power is one of the best weapons you have in the batter’s box. They were also concerned that if they missed inside, they’d hit me, put me on base. Now, for a guy like Gibson, that was okay. His attitude was, if I’m gonna miss, I’m gonna miss at you.

GIBSON: What pitchers are really afraid of is their own control. They don’t truly believe that they can get a pitch in there exactly where they want it—especially against a hitter as powerful as Reggie, who can put his team on the board at any moment. They know that if they miss in the wrong place, a power hitter will knock the crap out of it. But you can’t go out there with the attitude that you’re going to miss your spot. You can’t go out there afraid of the hitter or afraid of yourself.

Contrary to what people thought, I didn’t make my living on the inside corner. My idea was to pitch away, pitch away, pitch away, come in, pitch away. I mostly worked the outside part of the plate; but you can’t be scared to come in when the time or the hitter calls for it. The thing is, if I’m pitching a guy inside, I’m going to make sure I get it way in there. If you put the ball in the strike zone inside—especially against a guy who can hit the ball out of the ballpark—that’s horrible. Left-handed or right-handed batter, it doesn’t matter. Don’t do that.

JACKSON: As a hitter, what I had to learn, mostly, was what I could do and what I couldn’t do. A good pitcher might have an advantage with a big fastball or breaking ball, but I had an advantage, too—a major advantage: I could hit a fly ball and get it out of the ballpark. If I could get the barrel on the baseball, I could put us on the scoreboard.

It took a while, but eventually I came to realize that there was something else in my favor: My weakness—my inability to handle the ball inside—was one that most pitchers were reluctant or afraid to expose. It would have been a different story if I hadn’t been a home-run hitter; but my power was the reason a lot of pitchers wouldn’t throw me inside.

Hoot may say he didn’t like to pitch inside too much, but you can bet he would have buried the ball in on me. He’d have shown me the ball away to make me think something might be there, then he’d have thrown it as hard as he could inside.

GIBSON: I threw my slider a couple different ways. I had a quicker one that got right in on your belt buckle. That’s what I would have shown him. That’s what I did with [Willie] McCovey when I showed him a slider. Most of the good hitters like that—those big, strong lefties—I’d work pretty much the same. Try not to give them anything down and in on the plate.

JACKSON: One of Ted Williams’ principles of hitting was that an average hitter swinging at a good pitch to hit is better than a great hitter swinging at a bad pitch to hit. I go along with that. And I honestly felt that when I went to home plate, 85 percent to 90 percent of the time I was going to get a ball to put in play hard. Even facing a guy like Gibson, or any of the great ones. It may not be exactly what you want, and it may be tougher to handle than you hoped for, but you’re going to get something hittable.

GIBSON: Even the good pitchers make bad pitches, and plenty of them. I couldn’t count how many bad pitches I’d make in the course of a game. I’d guess maybe 20, 25 a game. Some you get away with, some you don’t. It depends on who you’re missing to. Most of the time good hitters don’t miss bad pitches. Other guys go, “Damn it!” and foul it back. These good hitters go Whack! And they’ve got you saying “Damn it!” Guys like [Willie] Mays don’t make mistakes. On the whole, Mays didn’t hurt me as much as [Hank] Aaron, and I found him easier to pitch to, but Willie was an example of a guy who just did not miss a mistake. If you threw him a breaking ball and missed it, home run. Willie didn’t hit singles off hanging breaking balls.

JACKSON: When I was facing a great pitcher late in a ballgame, and the ballgame was close, I’d try to get really focused on doing what I do best. That’s when it’s fun, because the great pitcher is doing the same thing. If it’s the eighth or ninth inning, with the game on the line, and Gibson can throw me three strikes on the inside part of the plate, I’m going to be an out. I would settle for that, because at that point in the game I’m holding out for something away. And I’m pretty sure Gibson’s going to give it to me, because that’s his strength, too. In that situation, we both want to go strength against strength. That’s the time to bet on what I’m capable of doing, not try to handle something in my weakness.

GIBSON: There’s a pretty good chance you might get what you’re looking for, too. Say, for instance, I’m working him all night with sliders in. That’s [been] my plan. Well, when we get to that moment of truth in the eighth or ninth inning, [if] I’ve got nowhere to put him [because the bases are full], I might say the hell with that. There’s a decent chance that, since I’ve pitched him inside all night, he might not be looking away. On the other hand, there’s also the risk that he’s given up on the inside pitch by this time and he’s holding out for something on the outside part of the plate that he can get the barrel on, since that’s his strength. I’m well aware of that risk, believe me. But at that point, I don’t care anymore. I’ve gotten myself into a spot where I can’t afford to care. I need a strike so badly that I might just go ahead and throw the ball out there where I know he can crush it if I make a mistake. The thing I’ve got going for me is confidence that I’m not going to make a mistake. When push comes to shove, you have to do what you do best.

JACKSON: I would have one advantage against Hoot. His strength is away, he’s confident away, and I want the ball away. I’m on the defensive when it’s 0-and-2, 1-and-2, but if the count gets turned around and there’s no place to put me and it’s all there out on the line, I’m going to get what he does best. We both know that. Sooner or later, it’s going to be me against him, his strength against mine. Now I feel like, come on, let’s go.

GIBSON: Yep. Here it comes, ready or not. And it’s coming out over the plate, just like he likes it. I have no choice but to throw a strike, I can’t be that concerned with location, other than just getting it over. I’m just going to throw it down the middle, above the belt, with the best stuff I have. When my back is the wall, it’s on.

Here it is, buddy.

From the book Sixty Feet, Six Inches by Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. ©2009 by Robert Gibson and Reginald Martinez Jackson. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

 

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