Sunday, August 28, 2005

Legging it Out: Baseball and Karate

Hanging in my office is the scorecard for a game from August 1969 (I think it was the 19th) where Juan Marichal pitched 14 innings against the Mets in a losing cause, as he gave up the game winning home run with one out in the 14th, to Tommie Agee, who was 0-5 until that point. Marichal was an incredible pitcher, a short man from the Dominican Republic, who had a high leg kick as he pitched, and probably about 20 different pitches. I always marveled watching him, because he could give up seven or eight runs and Giants manager Herman Franks and later Clyde King would always leave him in. I could never figure out if Franks and King were afraid of him (Marichal had hit Dodger catcher John Roseboro in the head with a bat during an argument one time; they supposedly made up years later, but Roseboro was never really the same player after that) or if he realized that when Marichal was tired, he would still be able to throw off speed junk that would dart and dive better than anyone he had in the bullpen. Once he found his stuff, the lineup of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds (Barry's father), and Jim Ray Hart would eventually pound away at the opposing pitcher. I saw him interviewed recently when he said he threw over 220 pitches that night.

Gary Gentry and Tug McGraw held the Giants at bay (sorry about the San Francisco pun), but Marichal kept striking the Mets out or baffling them with his crafty mix of overhand, sidearm, fast, off-speed, and breaking pitches. He even struck out the side in the 11th inning. He struck Agee out three times as part of his 13 strikeouts for the night. He only allowed 5 hits all night, and 4 of them were singles, with 1 of those an infield hit.

Tommie Agee was known for his stolen bases and outfield play, but he always looked like he was tired. He looked slow and lumbering when he ran, but he was actually very fast. There were players like Lou Brock of the Cardinals, or even Willie Mays, who could look fast when they were on a Sunday stroll, but Agee was the opposite.

Legs have been the hardest part of karate for me. I wish I could kick like Marichal, or be sneaky quick like Agee, but it's just not there. My hips seem locked and my knees that always find new ways to be sore; I can't get elevation or look smooth in my kicks. I talked to my doctor about it, and he said, "you're over forty... join the rest of us."

The style of karate I'm studying has a lower posture than many other styles which tend to be a bit upright. The stances are distinctly old style, as feet are turned in, back legs are locked, the floor is grabbed hard with your toes, the butt is kept low with shoulders back, and your gaze is high. I never understood the difference until I saw films and pictures of other styles. I was once doing punch and block practice with one of the black belts, who seemed to suddenly disappear from view when he got into his stance. He dropped a whole eight inches, I figured out, and was nearly unmovable. The center of gravity drops so low that it's hard to get one to tip over.

You don't realize it at first, but in the process of making firm stances it's almost like there's a hidden isometric exercise in process, and over time your legs just start getting stronger. The harder and firmer you keep the stance, the stronger you become. (This also happened with my pelvic floor muscles, discussed in my first post, which has been a major reason for my virtual cure of prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome).

I had a leg setback earlier in the year. In the quest to improve my stamina and strength, I worked my way up to 100 sit ups a few times a week over a couple of months. I would shove my toes under the sofa, and start the exercise. A couple of months later, my knees were killing me, like a burning inside them. I finally realized it was the moronic way I was anchoring my feet was putting stress on my knees. It also meant that I was pulling my chest to my knees with my legs and not my abdominal muscles. Rats. This getting in shape thing can drive you crazy with unintended consequences.

Whatever it takes, practicing kicks isn't the only answer. My leg muscles are so out of balance that I need something in addition to that. I've wondered if my treadmill time has made my legs strong for walking with good front-to-back strength and flexibility (my front kicks are better and can be high once I stretch out) but has not done anything to strengthen other parts of my legs, and perhaps hindered my chances. My agility moving sideways is not the best. I've pretty much stopped treadmilling since I hurt my knees, since the constant grinding on the knees may just start the problem up again.

Gradually, things should start to improve by just sticking with it. But this seems to be such a frustrating and lagging part of my karate experience that it's easy to get discouraged. Since I see progress elsewhere, there is nothing else to do except press on. It seems when my legs are an issue, going slow seems to make more sense. More than one black belt keeps encouraging me to concentrate on the right mechanics and the speed and height will come. The most important thing is to remember all of the other benefits that have been accruing, especially my cardio health and the decline in the instances and severity of my pelvic pain.

I'll always remember Tommie Agee's 1 for 6 effort on that amazing August night where the 0 for 5 start and striking out three times just didn't matter. It's a reminder to keep pressing ahead and never give up. And I remember Juan Marichal, who despite his setbacks with Roseboro years before, and his heartbreaking loss that night, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and is considered one of the game's most visible ambassadors. His stats for 1969 were just incredible.

Tommie Agee
Juan Marichal and also
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