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Sports: Strikeouts And Curveballs This Week



That big stadium organ in that tune seems so appropriate this week because the Major League Baseball is heading into its All-Star break. And WEEKEND EDITION star, Mike Pesca joins us now to talk sports.

Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Thanks. I was named in fan balloting. I don't really deserve it.


GREENE: You got all the voting.

PESCA: Yeah.

GREENE: It was unanimous. So, baseball's actually been on your mind recently, especially the letter K which refers to a strikeout. Why does the letter K refer to a strikeout?

PESCA: Was Struck - it stands for Was Struck.

GREENE: The K in struck.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah - kah.

GREENE: Seriously, it's that simple?

PESCA: The backwards K - as far as strikeout looking - that came years later, actually.

GREENE: Why have you been thinking so much of a strikeout? Yeah.

PESCA: Why is this episode sponsored by the letter K, is what you're asking?

GREENE: Right, exactly. Yes.

PESCA: Well, you know, so the All-Star break where we celebrate greatness, what's badness? What's the definition of badness, or so we think in baseball, and it is the strikeout? In fact, it's entered the vernacular as getting nothing for your efforts, going nowhere on a date, that sort of thing. And I think there's been a little bit of a change in how we think about the strikeout. There's some evidence of this change in the fact that right now Major League Baseball is in its strikiest season ever - 1994 notwithstanding. More people are striking out this year - a greater strikeout per game rate - than ever before. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the attitude is changed. It used to be the case that a hitting coach or a manager would say never strike out. It's the worst thing you can do. A player would shorten their swing with two strikes so that they wouldn't be struck out. But now it's golden era for swinging and missing.

GREENE: I just want to help out our non-baseball enthusiasts, that the strike joke you made - '94 - there was an actual strike in baseball, a labor strike.

PESCA: There was a strike - labor, yes.

GREENE: There we go, OK.


PESCA: It helps so much to the humor when you explain the joke, thank you.

GREENE: I'm just, you know, taking away the moment from you. Well, these strikeouts, I mean, so if you have a lot of hitters who are swinging for the fences, that means more strikeouts but does it mean more power, more home runs? Does it change baseball in a good way?

PESCA: Yeah, home runs are up slightly this year. I think what's really happening is that pitchers are getting better. Walks are at an all-time low. And it also shows that hitters now, the ethic is just take a whack at it. Don't shorten your swing. You know, go for the fences. If you look at Joe DiMaggio. There's a guy who struck out 369 times in his entire career. Trist Speaker played for 22 years - 395 strikeouts. There aren't two years of Mark Reynolds's career, when he played a whole season, that he didn't exceed Trist Speaker's totals over 22 years. So, we're going to set the all-time strikeout record most likely. Jim Tome could pass Reggie Jackson for all-time strikeout leader. He strikes out about once a game. He's 80 behind Reggie. He has about 80 games to play. There you go. And we could have Adam Dunn set the single-season record for strikeouts. It's a crazy, crazy year. Can you feel the breeze?

GREENE: Yeah, I'm feeling the breeze, Mike. OK. So, your curveball for this week...

PESCA: All right. So, this is what I was thinking. Most times I come up with a stat or a way of looking at the game, but here I want to talk about language. You know, when there's a player who's important to his team who gets his teammates going, sometimes we use the phrase the spark plug, a guy like Steve Nash, now with the L.A. Lakers, or a hitter like Jose Altuve on the Houston Astros. But I want to change this phrase, or at least augment it. I'm looking to the world of science, and this week, the Higgs boson...

GREENE: That's this new particle that scientists have found that everyone's all jazzed about.

PESCA: Yes. So, the Higgs boson, which is a tiny little particle, sometimes called the God particle, but it kind of explains the universe. It's small, you can't see it but it holds everything together. And I'd like to say that Jose Altuve is the Higgs boson of the Astros; that Dustin Pedroia is the Higgs boson of the Boston Red Sox. This is what we should say. Look at Deron Williams with the Nets. The Nets are excited to have a point guard to act as the Higgs boson for that team as they move to Brooklyn. I think, with your help and maybe a hashtag, David, we could get this going. What do you think?

GREENE: I think we can do it.

PESCA: I would like to make another observation. I noticed, David, that sometimes when MORNING EDITION needs a host they call on you; sometimes when WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED needs a host they call on you. And I also noticed that, you know, you're not above-average in height. I'm going to posit that you, sir, are the Higgs boson of NPR on-air talent.

GREENE: My God, that is a true honor, Mike. I don't deserve it. But thank you.

PESCA: No, really, I don't deserve it, he says. You're welcome.

GREENE: NPR's Mike Pesca. Talk to you next week.

PESCA: Got it.


GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.