Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Grace does Bell a favour

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Grace does Bell a favour

by Matt Smith

WhgbHlSqThe ‘commentator’s curse’ is a phenomenon that carries across all sports.  If a cricket commentator states that a batsman looks set for a big score, you know he’s going to be walking back to the pavilion in short measure.  Similarly if a rugby commentator claims that the number 10 ‘can’t miss a conversion attempt from there’, the ball is guaranteed to slam off the up-right.

The same holds true in baseball.  That’s why commentators avoid mentioning an ongoing no-hitter attempt, like actors refusing to utter the name of the Scottish play.  If they mention a no-no, they’ll jinx it and be subject to endless grief; despite that being completely irrational. 

We even had an example in last night’s game on BBC 5 Live Sports Extra.  In his preview to the Braves-Cubs contest, Josh Chetwynd stated that Cubs starter Randy Wells is good at keeping the ball in the park. The first batter he faced, Omar Infante, sent the third pitch of the game into the centre field seats for a solo home run.

But there’s another commentating phenomenon that gets less attention and it’s one that Fox’s Mark Grace conjured up on Saturday.

Let’s call it the ‘commentator’s charm’. 

Grace was co-commentating on a game between the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles from Camden Yards.  Cliff Lee was on the mound for Texas and the game was scoreless heading into the bottom of the third inning.  Left-fielder Felix Pie singled to lead off the inning before Craig Tatum was called out on strikes.  With one on and one out, the Orioles’ rookie third baseman Josh Bell stepped up to the plate.

Bell was acquired from the Dodgers at the trade deadline last year in the deal that saw reliever George Sherrill head to Los Angeles.  It was yet another piece in the Orioles’ much-needed rebuilding process, trading away one of their best-performing Major Leaguers for a youngster that they hope will be part of a contending team a few years down the line.  The scouting report on Bell is that his defence needs a fair amount of work at the hot corner, but he posses genuine power at the plate.

We hadn’t seen any evidence of that power over Bell’s first twenty-three appearances in the Big Leagues.  He was hitting just .216 with no long balls in 76 plate appearances prior to Saturday’s game; however Grace emphasised the potential that Bell possesses as Lee threw a first-pitch fastball for a strike. He described Bell as “a big man with big power” adding that “he hasn’t shown it yet at the Major League level, but if he can get those big arms extended, he can hit it an awfully long ways [sic]”.

Grace had barely finished his sentence when the rookie hammered a 93 MPH fastball into the centre field seats for his first Big League home run. And that’s the commentator’s charm. It was almost as if Grace had willed it to happen.

In fact, Grace’s ‘charm’ powers were working in overdrive. After waiting for his first home run, Bell made it two in two at-bats by taking Lee deep in the fourth inning as well.

Grace warmly congratulated Bell on air for getting his first career Big League home run (not that he could hear it, but it’s the thought that counts) and the moment had the former Cub and Diamondback discussing his first round-tripper with co-commentator Chris Rose.

The camera had panned in on the fan who caught Bell’s first home run and an Orioles official was soon seen calling to him to negotiate getting the ball back as a memento.  While Rose pondered what he would ask for in that situation (deciding that he would hold out for a late season pinch-hit opportunity), Grace noted that he had recovered the ball hit for his first homer and it is still a treasured possession.  Rose then asked Grace if could remember the details and he told the story of how he hit the home run off Keith Comstock in his second Major League game against the San Diego Padres, adding with a chuckle that Comstock was “released the very next day”.

It was a good story and one designed in part to highlight Bell’s achievement of hitting his first bomb off a pitcher as talented as Lee (Grace noted that Lee “won’t get released tomorrow”).  However, as soon as Grace said it, my mind turned to a great book entitled “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends” in which Neyer delves into a collection of baseball tales to see if the story as it is remembered actually reflects the reality.

As with most tales, there are elements of truth to it, but Grace didn’t quite have it right.  Firstly, Grace hit his first home run in his third game rather than his second, as shown in his 1988 batting game log on the essential Baseball-Reference.com website.  Secondly, the punch line to his story, that Comstock got canned the next day, is not true.  He lasted two more weeks, six more appearances, before being demoted to Triple-A and was not actually released by the Padres until over a year later (18 June 1989).

But we can forgive Grace for those inaccuracies.  His ‘commentators charm’ more than made up for it, especially for Josh Bell.

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