Those five games back

This post is about Buddy Hield and basketball but first a bit about Joe Castle and baseball. One my favorite baseball books is a one-off novel by John Grisham. It’s about Castle, a man who was born to play baseball.

As soon as he found his way from northwest Arkansas to the big leagues, he was hit. Quite literally. The man could flat-out hit. Didn’t matter who was pitching, what they threw or where the pitcher placed the ball. If pitch was in the strike zone, Joe Castle could crush it.

The best part about Castle, or Calico Joe as he was called, was he loved to play the game. He loved to play it the way we baseball fans loved to play it as small children on the tee ball diamond, as burgeoning adolescents on the Little League diamond, as half-men on the high school diamond. It was what he lived to do.

“After thirty-one games, he had sixty-two hits in 119 at bats, with eighteen home runs and twenty-five stolen bases,” Grisham wrote. “He had made one error at first and had struck out only six times. His batting average of .521 was easily the highest in the majors, though he had not had enough at bats to qualify for the official ranking.”

Hell of a ballplayer. But being part Roy Hobbs, part Hercules, playing ball was really the only thing for Castle TO do. That’s why I still hate Warren Tracey to this day. Tracey was a big league pitcher in name only. The kind of guy who had long forgotten why he began playing baseball and only kept playing to draw a paycheck.

He was surly and an absent father. When he was home, he was no picnic. On the mound, he could be much worse. He was a disgruntled journeyman and liked to take out his frustrations on the mound.

Tracey came from the old guard of beanball pitchers. The kind of pitcher who used to throw at a hitter just for grinning at him as the hitter rounded the bases after belting a home run. Grinning or preening or slow-jogging around the bases is a sign of hubris, and baseball isn’t the place to show any kind of pride or arrogance.

Tracey hated to be shown up. He hated it even more when he THOUGHT he was being shown up by Castle — a young guy who hadn’t earned more than a cup of coffee in the majors. So Tracey did what most cowards do when the best of us can’t be competed with, can’t be beaten. He hit him

Tracey stared down Castle looking for even a hint of a smile to justify his beanball, waited for eight other batters to go through the lineup once more and then threw a 90-plus mile-an-hour fastball straight at Castle’s face. Castle needed to be helped off the field and never became the kind of ballplayer he once was again. He went back home and worked as a janitor in Arkansas, where one of his tasks was cutting the grass on the diamond he once played on in high school ball.

The story is tragic, as is the way with most great stories, but I’ve always wondered since I read it what might have happened if Castle was given back those years of baseball he couldn’t play? How might his career have gone? What records might he have broken?

It’s a tricky question to ponder, as is the way with most What if questions. Hindsight might be 20-20, but foresight is blind as a bat.

Still, I wonder. I wonder what Buddy Hield’s freshman season might have looked like if he was given back those five games he missed after breaking his foot?

***

I wrote recently about Jordan Woodard being on pace to becoming one of the best freshman basketball players in OU men’s basketball history. While I was doing my research I found Hield’s name listed among the top 10 in two freshman categories. One was steals and the other was free throw shooting percentage.

Now a percentage in this case, as you already know, is an average. After a time that percentage gets to be pretty steady. It doesn’t waiver too much to one side or the other. However, Hield shot 83 percent from the foul line as a freshman. That tied him with Hollis Price for third on the all-time freshman list.

He only took 36 free throw attempts in 27 games. That’s a small sample size when it comes to free throws and an average of just 1.33 foul shots a game. If you gave him those shots in the five games he missed, he’d have still only taken about 43 free throws last season, though he’d have probably made 36 of them.

Since Tiny Gallon ranks tenth among OU freshmen in made free throws with 62 and Eduardo Najera is tied for tenth with David Johnson for free throw attempts by a freshman with 92, I highly doubt Hield would have cracked the list for top 10 freshmen for free throw attempts or makes.

Hield also ranked in the top 10 among OU freshmen in steals. He recorded 33. The record for a freshman is held by Tim McCalister at 61. Hield averaged 1.22 steals a game. So, again, if you give him those five games he missed back, he ends up with about 39 steals for the season.

But that moves him just one spot up the ladder from tied for seventh place with Blake Griffin and Wayman Tisdale to alone in sixth place just ahead of Najera with 38 and a couple steals behind Willie Warren who recorded 41. Hield wasn’t close in any of the other freshman categories, but if nothing else it answers the question about what MIGHT he have been able to do with those other five games should the law of averages hold true.

Hield is no Calico Joe — and neither is Woodard for that matter — but at the very least we know he’s one of the more talented players who have come through OU as a freshman. And, at very least, we know he has an opportunity to be one of the better players in school history. I think that’s worth knowing.

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