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A Bird’s Eye View: September 10, 2010

The All-Raptor Baseball Team

September is when pennant races heat up, while October is when the World Series is played. Last year during both months at the Fire Island Hawk Watch, while counting migrating raptors, I found myself musing about the athletic abilities of these birds and how they compared with those of baseball players. With some first hand observation and a hefty dose of imagination, this is what an all-raptor baseball team would look like, position-by-position, if raptors could field, run and throw.

First Base: This position requires a bird with a long reach that can stretch and dig the ball out of the dirt on low throws. The bald eagle has an 80-inch wingspan, the longest of any North American raptor. This agile avian also joins in singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh inning stretch, making him a fan favorite. Plus, since bald is in, he’s a natural for post-game TV interviews.

Second Base: The bird at this position sometimes has to step on second, pivot and throw to first, with a runner sliding in hard, to break up the double play. The kestrel’s uncanny hovering ability makes the double play almost automatic. At 9 inches, the smallest of our falcons was slated to have a fleet of presidential helicopters bearing his name but the project was cancelled. His name, however, is a fixture on the lineup card.

Shortstop: This position requires a bird of uncommon agility to move to his left and right, go deep in the “hole,” then make the long throw to first base or begin the double play. The merlin is fast, has exceptional maneuverability and hunts close to the ground. This “magician” with a glove will find grounders coming toward him easy pickings compared with small birds fleeing for their lives.

Third Base: The bird at the “hot corner” has to dive for hard grounders and on occasion make the impossibly long throw to first base while on his knees. The peregrine falcon, which dives at 200 mph and takes prey in mid-air, is ideally suited for this role. This bird, once used for hawking by knights and ladies in the age of chivalry, has successfully made the transition to an electronic age sport. He also loves watching replays of his feats on the stadiums’ Jumbotron TVs.

Right Field: The bird at this position should have the strongest arm on the team to make the long throws to third base and home plate. The shoulder of the red-shouldered hawk resembles a rocket launcher as it catapults balls that beat base runners to the bag. The raptor’s vocal, repetitive “keeyuur, keeyuur” call rings in the ears of those trudging to the dugout after being thrown out at home plate.

Center Field: The bird at this position needs to cover the most territory in the outfield, occasionally go to the warning track or dive for low line drives to either side. The northern harrier is used to hunting low over marshes and taking mainly small rodents, frogs and snakes. This “white-rumped hawk” is an avian vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything in his way. A Gold Glove winner, his abilities have been recognized by the US, Britain, Spain and Italy which have military aircraft named for him.

Left Field: Need an outfielder with speed and agility? I once saw a soaring golden eagle make an uncanny running landing on the side of a steep, bare mountain. For this bird whose territory can be up to 60 square miles, covering left field is a breeze. He can “climb the wall” to snare balls before they land in the stands or race into the corner under long fly balls that may shift in tricky winds. The bird that European kings once used for falconry is a mainstay here.

Starting Pitcher: The bird at this position is the ace of the pitching staff. The red-tailed hawk attacks both sides of the plate and when he goes into his wind up, that bright tail is a distraction to batters. This guy isn’t interested in having a 5th Avenue address for his nest, but in seeing a scoreboard that shows zeros for the opposing team. Position players know that when he’s out there, they won’t have a long day.

Catcher: The bird at this position is the team’s quarterback, calling pitches, throwing out base stealers and blocking the plate. The sharp-shinned hawk is small but has a lightning quick throw to nail base-stealers. Because of its flattened, thin shank the “sharpie” is well equipped to prevent base runners from trying to grab a piece of home plate as they slide by. Who would want to accidentally touch his shins instead of the plate?

Closer: In the 9th inning with a one-run lead, you want a “lights out” guy who can bring “heat.” Ever look into the blazing yellow eye of an osprey that’s digging into a fish held in one of its manacled claws? When a late inning rally is needed to win a close game, the “fish-hawk” is the last bird a team that needs a run wants to see pitching. He throws only strikes and when he walks off the mound, the fat lady sings.

Pinch Runner: Need a late inning speed on the base paths or a stolen base? The snail kite is your specialist. This bird glides over the water snatching up apple snails then perches while removing their flesh with its deeply hooked bill. Although this bird is endangered in Florida, it’s the opposition’s lead that is endangered when he’s perched on base.

Manager: The Harris’s hawk is sociable and often a cooperative hunter. These are all-important qualities in forming group cohesion, which every manager must do. The post-game meal is a situation for bonding. For this meal the players unanimously chose those great tasting ballpark “dogs” over their usual individual preferences in freshly caught prey.