September 16, 2014

From the Eastern League All-Star Game

July 21, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Strasburg Was Here

First Installment

From the Eastern League All-Star Game

“. . . They develop

Argument in order to speak, they become

unreal, unreal, life loses

solidity, loses extent, baseball’s their game

because baseball is not a game

but an argument. . . .”

George Oppen

It’s ten minutes after Nate Spears flew out to John Drennan to end the 2010 Eastern League All-Star Game at Metro Bank Ballpark in Harrisburg, Pa. I’m standing next to a giant inflatable bust of Albert Einstein. Genius as he is, Al (or is it Bert?) is wearing a flaming red Hawaiian shirt that sports white irises or lilies. He begs me to use my noodle and shop at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, sponsor of tonight’s game. Beyond Al (it’s only Bert to his friends), beyond the left field fence, the last of the fireworks ascend and blossom, the tallest pyrotechnics saved for the finale.

Funny how I like ‘tacky’ in baseball and only tolerate it outside of the game.  I”ll take this up on the long drive home along the western bank of the Susquehanna River, but it’s no big surprise. After all, a line of children’s inflatable rides stands behind the first-base side of the stadium, and even if Stephen Strasburg is no longer a Harrisburg Senator, the circus, the stage, and the opera all surface in the gratuitous, unnecessary contest that we have called together. Funny how I don’t like opera.

When I arrive at the stadium I have just enough time to run down to the Spot and wait twenty-five minutes for an Ollie Dog. Dipped in barbecue sauce, with onions, cheese and ranch dressing, this Ollie Dog is just as good as the first one. Maybe better for the waiting. With this assurance that I will never live long enough to be put in a nursing home behind me, I climb the ramps and find my seat. I’m carrying an index card box full of notes on the players, but I still don’t know who the starters will be. For Harrisburg’s own Western Division, this turns out to be Harrisburg’s own Tom Milone. Milone has walked only nineteen batters in ninety-nine innings pitched, but his IP/H ratio is a concern, and batters are hitting a hefty .274 against him. Not tonight they aren’t. Milone throws two innings of airtight baseball, capping it off with a swinging strikeout of New Hampshire left-fielder Eric Thames. I don’t know if  Eric is related to Marcus Thames, he of Detroit and the Yankees, but his lithe build and exceptionally long legs tell me he is.

The starter for the East is Kyle Drabek, son of former major-leaguer Doug. Only twenty-two years old, he’s snapped back from Tommy John surgery in ’08 to post a .220 opponents average the first half of this season. As the visiting starter he works only one inning, inducing Altoona’s Hector Gimenez into a double play after Gimenez’s teammate Josh Harrison had registered the first hit of the game. Just last night the Major League All-Star game had begun with six scoreless innings, and we are beginning to wonder if we are in for the same rote tonight.

It isn’t going to happen. Leading off the third for the East, Reading first baseman Matt Rizzotti grounds a single to center off of Rudy Owens. Owens is an answer to a trivia question, the first opponent Stephen Strasburg faced in organized baseball. You may remember my telling you earlier this year about his rise in the Pirates’ organization from the 26th round in 2006. He too has walked only nineteen batters in ninety-nine innings. His record indicates that between ’08 and ’09, some wizened and wise pitching coach gave him  a new twist  that saved his career. But tonight he’s fooling no one. Portland’s Ray Chang grounds a 3-1 under the glove of shortstop Danny Espinosa before Chang’s teammate Nate Spears drives a double to the gap plating Rizzotti. Owens then settles down and retires his batters one-two-three, but not until New Britain lead off man Ben Revere plates Chang on a sacrifice fly. It’s 2-0, East.

On for the East comes New Britain’s Deolis Guerra, also an opponent of Strasburg that I have seen before, and also the answer to a trivia question as part of the deal that sent Johann Santana to the Mets. Guerra has been promoted to Triple-A Rochester (N.Y.), this year, where he was clubbed for an 0-3, 6.84 record. Richmond’s Thomas Neal lines a first pitch single to left. After third-baseman Lonnie Chisenhall flies to right, Ray Chang, normally at the hot corner for Portland but playing shortstop tonight, picks a grounder, hesitates on a throw to second, and is late to get Espinosa running down the first base line line. Erie’s Andy Dirks strikes out on three pitches. This brings up Altoona second baseman Josh Harrison. Harrison is a product of the Cincinnati city baseball machine, and doing them proud with a .313 BA and twenty-four doubles at the break. Now he jumps on the first pitch and sends Binghamton’s Kirk Nieuwenhuis back towards the wall. Nieuwenhuis is tentative, but the ball echoes off the wall. Both runners may have scored by now, but no one knows because we are all watching Harrison run. Already he has rounded second; he will reach third standing. Certainly Harrison is the best athlete on the field tonight. This doesn’t always mean the best player, but tonight perhaps it does. Teammate and catcher Gimenez flies to center 3-0 to end the inning, but the game is tied.

The middle innings pass in clean tension. Erie’s Brooks Brown works into trouble in the fifth, walking Rizzotti and allowing a single to Chang, but with two out and an 0-1 count, Altoona first baseman Matt Hague leaps and stabs a floating liner off the bat of Ben Revere, saving two runs.  On for the East c0me Reading’s Vance Worley, Trenton’s D.J. Mitchell, and New Britain’s Kyle Gibson. They pitch an inning each untouched. Either something has to give, or we could be here all night until the game is declared a tie.

In the stands I am having a well–argument–with the poet Oppen. Is it all that cheap, the game I love so much? Is it just that men like to jaw? Let me describe Harrison’s triple again, this time without names. The pitcher would like to get ahead in the count with an 0-0 fastball. The catcher signals his agreement. Not expecting power from a two-spot second baseman, the outfielders are straight away and perhaps have taken a step or two towards the infield. The batter swings, one foot leading as it strides to the ground, then the shoulders following, the torso and head as still as possible. Everyone hears the crack of the ball off the bat, and the right-fielder turns and kicks to top speed knowing he’s in trouble. He tries to feel for the fence and turn back to look for the ball at the same time. The ball aborts its arc, booms off the fence and pounds the warning track. Running ahead of the play with two outs, the runner from first is about to plate the second run. The batter rounds second, his hips flexing as if gravity is an aide rather than a hindrance. Already the third base coach is giving the ‘stand’ rather than ‘slide’ sign. The throw from right field to shortstop has been reduced to a protest, or maybe an assurance to hold the batter at third base.  This is why I come to baseball games. If there is an argument, it comes in  the  pure and crystallized form from the geometers, for whom an argument, after all, is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Back to the game. Harrisburg’s Rafael Martin pitches the top of the seventh. A find who played in the Mexican League in ’09, it looks as if he, too, has been shown a new trick. His strong showing including two strikeouts sets him up for the win, if only the West can plate some runs. Reading’s Drew Naylor pitches the bottom of the seventh. An Australian, my notes tell me he’s surrendered ten home runs this year, and his GO/FO ratio has decreased every year but one, until it is well under one.  Harrisburg’s Chris Marrero flies to center 2-2, but Akron left fielder John Drennen pounds one through the left-side hole. Bowie’s Tyler Henson follows with a double to the alley, sending Drennen to third. Thomas Neal draws a four pitch walk. Akron third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall goes after the first pitch and places it under the glove of Ray Chang, now playing his usual position. The West leads, 3-2.

To the plate steps Chase D’Arnaud. I am already familiar with his brother Travis, who hit .309 for the ’08 Williamsport Crosscutters, the minor league team nearest to my home. Travis is doing well this year with the Jay’s franchise in Dunedin, Fla. His older brother Chase is struggling at the Double-A plate, hitting only .240. But what the D’Arnaud’s have, I can tell you, is ‘field presence,’ that undeniable something that steps forward in the big moment and comes through. I look up from my notebook as I hear the contact at 2-2, and the ball blends into the lights and the crowd in the left field stands. Perhaps East Division manager (from the New Britain Rock Cats) Jeff Smith would like Naylor to settle and finish out his inning, but Erie’s Andy Dirks takes a 1-0 and golfs it over the right center field wall for back to back blasts. At last Smith comes and takes the ball.

The game blown open, the pace falls to a creep. The East responds in the eighth with three consecutive singles from New Hamphire’s Darin Mastroianni, his teammate Adam Loewen, and yet again the Fisher Cats’ catcher Brian Jeroloman. At last Richmond’s Jake Stevens on the mound forces Reading shortstop Freddie Galvis into a double play, before Harrisburg favorite Adam Carr, a last minute addition to the team, comes on to strike out Reading first baseman Kevin Mahar. In the last of the eighth, Drennen adds a two-run thumper to right off of Trenton’s Josh Schmidt.

After the 10-3 victory for the West, after I visit Al, who has retired from physics and joined advertising, and after I watch the fireworks I tread out the ramp to my car. I am thinking of Harrison and the D’Arnaud’s. The season so far is good news for the Jays in New Hamphire, and the Pirates’ sharp franchise at Altoona.  The fretworks of the pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge shine lined with lights from one bank of the Susquehanna to the other, a heartwarming and heart-rending sight. The teenager directing traffic allows nearly every spectator I have beaten to my car across the street before my line of traffic can move, although we are only four feet from the exit to the Market Street Bridge. At last on my way up Fifteen and along the the river in the dark, I ponder on how games are lost, rather than won, but the subject holds no weight. Baseball is not the only affair of the human heart in which triumph trumps loss. Again I ponder Oppen and the cheap inflated argument, but this too cannot hold back the current of the river. As I drive upstream I fall into silence,  my writer’s droll resistance to the passage of time a rock in the onrushing water.

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