A ‘Strasburg Was Here’ Doubleheader
Friday, August 27, 2010
“The greatest powers of the physical environment
slam into the resilient forces of life,
and nothing much happens.”
The Diversity of Life
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â It’s the first day of the New York State Fair, and I’ve dropped my sister off for a concert by her favorite rock band. Me, I’d rather be at the ballpark. True, I did stay a while and see the farm lamas, and the tigers and elephants in their cages, the ‘wild’ animals who have it over baseball players for being on the road and responding to bells and whistles. Even Pavlov never had this fate in mind for them. But the minor league baseball season is winding down, and I’m curious as to how Stephen Strasburg’s potential teammates have done for the year.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The Chiefs hover five, six games out of the wildcard with ten to go, hoplessly behind the tangle of Louisville and Columbus in the International League’s Western Division. It’s been a good run for Syracuse, exciting at points, and the first team they’ve had over .500 for quite a while, but in short, the season is over.Â Now Pete Orr and Danny Espinosa, Leonard Davis and Chris Duncan must nightly remind themselves that they are here to improve, and they had better not slack off or they can be sure it will be noticed.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â It takes a good ten minutes wandering through a field to find my car in the fair parking lot, but one exit down and a right on Hiawatha, a shortcut through the Carousel Mall lot, and I am back at Alliance Bank Park, that half-spirited medieval castle, whose bricks, if theyÂ or their architectsÂ knew it, are a mumbled comment on postmodern pastiche.Â At last I am ready to forgive this park for the death of Andres’ father. To stir my legs I walk around the outside, over the railroad tracks to a lot used for overflow customers. It is open, but it will not be needed tonight. I name my section and get my ticket and discover that, without a clue of it in the world, I have stumbled onto Stephen Strasburg figurine night. In the line waiting for the gates to open, everyone is joking about this: ‘Yeah, but does it have one arm in a sling?’
Â Â Â Â I don’t know: I’m fourty-four,Â and a little embarrased to feature a figurine in my room. I have it now, a heavy plastic model, his knees bent,Â his glove arm flung forward at the back of his pitching motion, even a white pitching rubber beneath his right leg.Â He’s smiling, which SS never does on the mound. The little black cap is blank, but the details of the jersey are correct. “Chiefs” it says across the chest. “Made in China” it says on the bottom of the figurine’s base. And if I’m reluctant to make much of this momento, I don’t have to worry compared to the crowd, some of them older than me, who line the rails behind the visitor’s dugout carrying scrapbooks full of carefully spaced and pasted baseball cards, which, as the players emerge up the steps, Â the collectorsÂ shout and plead for theÂ them to sign. Is it me? Am I not fan enough?
Â Â Â Â Â I’ve drawn another surprise tonight. The Chief”s starter is Yuniesky Maya, the twenty nine year old All Star emigree from Cuba. There are no stats next to his name in the program. For all I know, this might be his American debut. The right-hander’s windup is a minimal two-step or line dance: the left leg briefly crosses the right, his weight kicks back where it came from, and the ball is on the way. Waiting for the pitch is Buffalo Bisons shortstop Andy Green. The Bisons are in a worse snag than the Chiefs, being nine game over the line rather than five, and still short of an invite to the postseason.
Â Â Â Â Green grounds neatly to Danny Espinosa at short. Espinosa pegs toÂ Jason Botts at first. Botts watches the ball drop from his glove.Â Second baseman Russ Adams pops to short, but left fielder Lucas Duda draws a walk, and the runners advance when Maya forgets to pause his motion and is called for a balk. Bisons’ first baseman Nick Evans swings and misses 3-2, but Maya uncorks a pitch that bounces right and short of the plate; Green scores. Valentine Pascucci, the pinch hitter who ended my game in Buffalo, now sees more playing time and has hit fifteen homers for the year. He walks 3-2, but behind him third baseman Mike Cervenak goes down swinging.
Â Â Â The guy in the seats before me, in the first row, turns and asks if anyone is keeping score.Â He’s somewhere in his fifties, with longish graying hair and a black t-shirt. I tell him what he wants to know, and this begins a long running conversation. “When a batter strikes out swinging, do you do the backwards ‘k’ then?’ “No, ” I tell him, that’s when the pitcher. . . .” He snaps his fingers in regret. I always do it the other way around, the backwards ‘k’ for the swing. I think it’s right. I’m the only one who does.” With one out in the first, Danny Espinosa drives a ball past the second baseman. Shortstop Brian Bixler looks at strike three. Jason Botts sends a chopper into no-man’s land in the infield and beats a throw by Bisons’ starting pitcher Josh Stinson. Espinosa ran with two outs and stands at third. Seth Bynum, the Chiefs’ man at the hot corner, hits into an easy 6-4 fielder’s choice.
Â Â Â Â Stinson and Maya settle in. There will be no more runs until the top of the fifth. Indeed, twelve outs for each side will be recorded by strikeout tonight. Partially, this is because fall weather has made an early return to the plains and marshes of Upstate, and the players have not readjusted to the chill. Neither have I. My jacket is in the car. In the third Nick Evans hits a long foul ball down the right field line, and against the darkening blue twilight, no one, not the umps, not the first or second baseman, not the right fielder Pete Orr knows where it is. Evans knows, but only because he has hit it, and doesn’t begin to run. In an inning break, a woman must don a bulky, rigid, Dunkin’ Donuts cappuccinoÂ mold and then try to toss t-shirts into the stands. In the bottom of the fourth Seth Bynum pops foul where we sit down the first base line. The ball’s almost on top of us; my scorer of the backwards ‘K’s reaches out with his mitt, but Evans is taller than he is and records the out. I ask if I should score this as ‘failed interference.’
Â Â Â Â In between looking around I am thinking of the season that was, and the Nat’s future. Of the players promoted from Harrisburg to here, Espinosa at short and Leonard Davis in left field have made the steadiest contributions. (This doesn’t include the best pitching, Strasburg, Storen, all rushed up to the majors for a team desperate for moundsmen.) Both Espinsoa and Davis hit somewhere in the .260′s, Davis with power, and they can expect to call Alliance Bank Stadium home next season. Espinosa, who played shortstop on the Susquehanna, Â may challenge or outright replace Ian Desmond in late ’11 or in 2012. Or perhaps this is why tonight they are trying to grrom him to second base. Davis is cruising, and will need to show more spirit next year.
Â Â Â Â As for the set of ex-major leaguers I’ve seen at Alliance this year, the news is not good. Chris Duncan may have hit a light-tower shot in Rochester this year, but it is only one of seven homers, amidst a .191 average. He is not on the roster tonight. Pete Orr, the scrappy INF/OF who has seen the majors with the Braves, hits .264 now and leads the team with twenty-nine doubles, but in D.C. he is a bench player and an insurance policy against injuries. Kevin Mench has been promoted to the majors, where last I checked he held one single in eleven at bats. Catcher Carlos Maldonado, still in Syracuse, has hit .212 in 170 at bats.
Â Â Â Â The other player who has been here all year, Chase Lambin, hits .251 and leads the team in R.B.I.’s. You must excel when you are stuck in the system behind Ryan Zimmerman.
Â Â Â By the fifth inning I am anxious for something to happen. It does, only because Maya, most likely on a cautious pitch count, Â is pulled after four and two-thirds. In comes Jeff Mandel, another promotion from Harrisburg. At Triple-A this is his eighth relief appearance against fifteen starts, with an E.R.A. at 4.67. The Bisons are glad to see him; they rip off four consecutive singles and two runs, Pascucci and Cervenak plating Duda and Evans.
Â Â Â Â Â I have punched a ticket amongst a bunch of regulars. I learn from their talk that the man behind me is a family counselor, seeing ten to fifteen clients a week. He is ready for a career change, not least, as he puts it, because his wife holds his profession against him whenever he starts an argument. “You’re a family counselor, you can’t start an argument. Are you crazy. . . ?” The Chiefs put runners on first in both the fifth and sixth, but one is caught stealing and the next is stranded.
Â Â Â In the top of the sixth with a runner on second base and one out, Andy Green grounds back to Mandel on the mound. Mandel turns and loops the ball over Espinosa’s head. The runner, Bisons’ catcher Mike Nickeas, starts for third, but Boomer Whiting in center and Orr in right are quick to close in and Nickeas scrambles back head first.Â My scorer turns his head to me. “No error, right? Just a fielder’s choice, safe? I mean, nobody advanced. Technically there’s no error.” Isee his point. The throw was such a beautiful arc that I have already called the error for myself. And the official scorer has already added it to the scoreboard. “I’m not sure, ” I tell him. I ‘ll have to go home and consult my rulebook.” We talk again between innings. “I can see your point,” I tell him. “I just not sure what the call is.” Some stickler I am, I have still not looked at the rules.
Â Â Â Â Â Behind me the wives are mixing school politics, television, and baseball. The game never resembled a sitcom until Laurel and Hardy came along. “Do you remember Dave Winfield? Did you like him? I thought he was a little arrogant.” “He killed a seagull!” the other pipes in. It’s the second time this year the incident has been brought up around me. Maybe the question is whether Dave Winfield has ever read Samuel Coleridge. He must somehow rid himself of the albatross. “You know why it is,” my scorer says. “It’s because when you write the K backwards, it ‘swings’ around. That’s why I think it’s right.”
Â Â Â Â Somewhere in all this is a game of baseball. Evans singles to lead off the top of the seventh. I must find my way back to the fair, to pick up my sister. Her Kansas concert must be over by now. The next two batters fan, but Colin Balester, now pitching for Syracuse, surrenders a two-out double to Kirk Nieuwenhuis, plating Evans. It’s 4-0. I wish Syracuse would rally, but I want them to make quick work of it.Â I might go, but I stay.
Â Â Â Â “You know what it is?”, one of the fans down the row asks. “It’s been bothering me all year, and I just couldn’t place it. Look at the jerseys. They’re still wearing the Blue Jays colors. It’s the Jays equipment.” Now that I see it, it snaps in place for me, too. All along I’ve thought maybe they were the traditional Chiefs colors, but the white jerseys and the blue stripes are just another element out of place, another reason I haven’t been able to ‘settle’ into Syracuse. I shouldn’t make so much out ofÂ it.
Â Â Â Â “Mitch, you bring your glove to every game?” “Unless I forget it.” I come to a baseball game and a fair breaks in.Â The mascot, a large orange dog named ‘Scooch,’ is doing the seventh inning stretch dance on top of the Chiefs’ dugout. “What’s a ‘scootch?’” someone asks. “First we had an indian, and then a Chief, and now we have a scootch.” “It’s all p.c.,” someone tells him. ” Next year, we’ll probably just have the Syracuse Scootches.”
Â Â Â Â In the end I stayed. I stayed becaue the Chiefs staged a rally in the ninth. Jason Botts leads off with a 2-1 single. Seth Bynnum singles him to third. On the mound is Yhency Brazoban. Brazoban had a good 2004, his rookie season, with the L.A. Dodgers. His four year career after that was a disaster. Now the Bisons are taking a look at him after he has spent the year Â in the Mexican League. The Bisons can’t be liking what they’re seeing. Pinch hitter Michael Martinez drives a sacrifice to left. Bynum then steals second. Â Leonard Davis draws a walk. Brazoban fans catcher Jamie Burke, but Bison’s manager Ken Oberkfell is out of trust. He calls in Michael O’ Connor. My poor sister is sitting at a lampost by an empty stage. O’Connor, the best of an apparent bullpen by committee (anybody good in this department is busy with the Mets), has struck out sixty four in as many innings pitched. Chase Lambin, now in right, singles hard up the middle, scoring Bynum. Davis must hold at second, but takes third base, no contest, with pinch hitter Carlos Maldonado at the plate. Maldonado works a 3-1 count, the scattered fans standing at their seats. Maldonado swings and clubs a vicious line drive down the left field line. The ball is already past Mike Cervenak at third when he reacts and spears it with his leather.
Â Â Â The crowd roars, the crowd moans. They ground their hats in frustration. Maybe they’re saying ‘Wait until next year.” And, if they’ve been paying attention, just maybe they’re right. Because out of the blue, good news isÂ simmering Â in Harrisburg.
Â Â Â Â Â I drive home late that night, and when I rise in the morning there in the newspaper is the picture of Stephen Strasburg, shaven and shaken, answering questions from reporters as he himself tries to digest the news. I can almost see his wife urging him to get rid of the bragging billy goat, land on earth, and see who he is and what he isn’t. The news about the Tommy John surgery doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps it should. I might tell you that in his first couple of starts the pitching motion I saw was Tom Seaver’s; upright and foursquare, the forearm bent ninety degrees to the upper arm, the release inches in front of his ear. I might claim that as the starts passed I saw the angle of that arm drop to eighty-five, eighty, seventy-five degrees. But to claim “I knew” would be silly. I am no medical expert, and before I started this series of articles, the pitching motion was far from my range of baseball expertise. I knew, and know, only what I saw: call that motion as smooth as you would like to, it had to be a major stress. For two or three years, no one threw a curve/slurve/slider any harder than Stephen Strasburg. I cannot tell you if he is paying the price now, far too early into his career.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
“Besides, there are some things that can’t
be the truth, even if they did happen.”
Sometimes a Great Notion
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â When Strasburg pitched for Harrisburg, the Senators were well, awful. You remember my telling you about the park on the river, Candlestick East, the team struggling to prop its slugging average over three hundred? That team is now a dead heat with the Bowie (Md.) Orioles for second place and a ticket to the playoffs in the Western Division of the Eastern League.Â Okay, it’s a um. . . minor drama at best: both these teams are seven games behind Altoona and probably aren’t given a snowball’s chance in Hades to beat the Pirates, much less Trenton or New Hampshire in the league championship. But two days before I drove to Syracuse, I drove to Harrisburg, and watched a suddenly cohesive unit, full of guys who have never even seen Stephen Strasburg Â keep their head above the water in the hunt for the postseason.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I spend the late morning and the afternoon at the National Civil War Museum. Perched at the top of Reservoir Park , its grounds offer anÂ uninterrupted Â thirty or fourty mile view of the river valley below, showing clearly the terrain of mountains and ridges that dictated the fighting in the theatre of the Potomac. I spend hours on the second floor where the exhibits begin, through slavery, succession, Fort Sumter, details of uniform and equipment, First Bull Run, Mc Clellan’s continual posturing, Â and then Second Bull Run and the Peninsula campaign. The musuem is an attempt to draw people here from Gettysburg. Since it’s opening, it’s averaging 47, 500 visitors a year.Â Now I must rush through the entire room dedicated to July 1-4, 1863, through the display on Civil War medicine. Now a long bow of a hallway leads me through the end years, Grant refusing to retreat after draws, Sherman’s march to the sea, the trenches at Petersburg foreshadowing WWI–all the war after Gettysburg, which basically, we would all like to be able to forget. It is a relief when I pay for my purchase and walk out into the evening air.
Â Â Â Â Â The opposition at the stadium tonight is the Portland Sea Dogs. Bouncing around at four or five under .500, they are still mired twelve and a half games behind the dueling Trenton Thunder and New Hampshire Fisher Cats. The AA franchise for the Red Sox is reduced to playing out the string and playing spoiler.Â Their shortsop Jose Iglesias leads off. He swings a decent bat if not a good guitar, hitting at .303. He’ll go 3 for 5 tonight and keep the ‘Dogs lively. Now he singles to center on a 1-1 count from Senators’ pitcher Brad Peacock, and promptly steals second. Second baseman Nate Spears, an All-Star at the break this year, grounds to first, advancing Iglesias. Third baseman Ray Chang, an EL Posteason All-Star, pops to short 2-2. First baseman Tom Rizzo grounds to second to extinguish the threat.
Â Â Â Â The Sens waste no time in responding. Second baseman Stephen Lombardozzi slashes a 1-2 offering from Jeremy Kehrt past Rizzo and rounds second as the ball bangs around in the right field corner. He pulls into third standing as scores when shortsop Josh Johnson takes his first pitch deep to center. Jesus Valdez goes down looking, but after first baseman Chris Marrero singles 2-2, right fielder Michael Burgess drives the first pitch he sees deep to center and off the wall. Designated hitter Michael Lowrance grounds to second, but two triples have plated two runs for the Senators in the first inning.
Â Â Â Â This is a playoff race for the home team, and the crowd knows it. Talk as at a minimum and focus is at a premium. That rarest of animals, aÂ roaming hot dog vendor, passes in front of me and finds some takers. I watch the steam rise from half of his bin as he pulls out a link of meat, places it in the bin as neatly as a bunt down the third base line, and lays neat rows of ketchup, mustard, relish, side by side.Â A fewÂ tease him for his red and white striped shirt and white pants, but I am pleased with the crisp anachronism.
Â Â Â Â With one out in the top of the second and a runner on first, Sea Dog’s center fielder J.C. LinaresÂ sends a chopper to the left side of second. There Josh Johnson creates an uproar when he picks a short hop clean and steps on second all in one improbably balanced motion and guns to first to complete a double play. The Sea Dogs return the favor in the bottom of the frame in a much more routine manner, Iglesias to Spears to Rizzo, to end the inning. With two out in the third the Sea Dogs stage a mini rally; Spears walks, Ray Chang loops a ball over his counterpart’sÂ head at short, and Rizzo smacks a ball hard at first baseman Marrero. The official scorer will call this an error as the ball seeps away towards the fence and Spears scrambles and scores from second. The official scorer is one of those people you never think about unless you disagree with a call. Peacock regains his composure and sends hulking Sea Dog’s catcher Â Luis Exposito back to the bench on three swings.
Â Â Â Â Even this the Senators do not take laying down. Steve Lombardozzi guesses right 0-2 andÂ jerksÂ a pitch over the right field wall to lead off the inning. Josh Johnson singles and Jesus Valdez follows with a base hit so hard that Johnson can only scoot to second. Two outs later, Michael Lowrance drills a ball past Rizzo, plating Valdez. Third baseman Tim Pahuta doubles, scoring Valdez and sending Lowrance to third. In the ensuing conference on the mound, Exposito towers over his batterymate to such an extent you wonder if he shouldn’t be wearing hockey skates.Â Â Whatever the advice dispensed, it works, as Sens catcher Devin Ivany whiffs to end the inning.
Â Â Â Â It’s five to one. The crowd relaxes a bit. The middle innnings go scoreless.Â They feature a perect throw of the resin bag from the dugout to the mound. Every once in a while, Kehrt livens himself up with this, or by throwing to an occupied base, or by just grabbing a handful of dirt off of his hill and sifting it through his fingers: anything to break the pace and then re-establish his concentration. In the stands I am wondering what happened since I was here for the All-Star break. The team out there in the home solids is playing like a cohesive unit. I begin putting together a future Nat’s lineup: Lombardozzi at second leading off, Michael Burgess inÂ center field second, Bernardina in right third, Bryce Harper catching at clean-up; Marerro at first base batting fifth; Zimmerman still the anchor of the team sixth at third base; seventh I’ll leave an outfield position open for a trade (maybe Leonard Davis or Jesus Valdez, but not yet), Ian Desmond or Danny Espinoza at short eighth; and We Can Rebuild Him on the mound and batting ninth. Well, I’m gushing.Â Johnson, Burgess, and Pahuta are up from Potomac where they posted decent numbers, and so far by the Susquehanna, still are. Lowrance had a brief taste of Syracuse this year and hit only .190, finding his comfort level here at Double-A. There’s a good long distance to go.
Â Â Â Â Â In the seventh Iglesias singles up the middle with one out. Spears draws his second of three walks; Ray Chang hits a surefire double play ball, but Pahuta double clutches it out of his glove and the bases are loaded against Rafael Martin out of the Senators’ pen. But Rizzo grounds a first pitch to first, plating only one runner and advancing the others; and Exposito, who has struckout twice and grounded into a twin killing now flies a first offering harmlessly to left. It’s five to two and the fans begin to stir. I go for ice cream and Lombardozzi slams a double to left. But Josh Johnson and Jesus Valdez cannot ‘capital-’ize.
Â Â Â Â Onto the mound for Harrisburg steps fourty-four year old Orlando Hernandez, ‘El Duque,’ as he was knownÂ in his prime. He’s wearing his age as his uniform number, which is my age, which is a little disturbing. (Forget about it.)Â Livan has obviously convinced the Nat’s organization to take another look at his older brother. A look is all it promises to be. Sea Dog’s designated hitter Ryan Lavarnay rides a fastball to center field, but Brad Coon is there to track it down. Jorge Padron singles, but is sent 2-2 and cannot scramble back to first when J.C. Linares lines toÂ Josh Johnson.Â These are outs, but they are not easy outs.
Â Â Â Â The Sens go down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the eighth. Hernandez returns to the mound and works an 0-2 to right fielder Chih-Hsien Chiang. Hernandez thinks Chiang is nothing and channnels it over the plate. Much like Lombardozzi’s earlier home run, the ball is gone in a blink, swiped at rather than hit, and the Maine-ers are down only two. Heranandez corrects himself and deals only three pitches to Iglesias, who swings at the last one and sits. Next in the lineup, Spears draws his third and final walk, and Harrisburg manager Randy Knorr has seen enough. He calls on young Cole Kimball, who has struck out fifty six in fourty five innings, garnering five saves in thirty appearances. Spears runs, perhaps impulsively, as Ray Chang swings and misses. The throw from Ivany is somewhat to the right and Spears slides in safely underneath the tag. To the plate steps Rizzo as the tying run. The count goes 3-2. The fans are here, in Harrisburg, 2, 959 of them, clapping, stomping, and whistling. They are the difference: Rizzo chases a breaking ball four, low and outside, and twists in digust as he connects with nothing.
Â Â Â Â After the game I walk the pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge again, all lit up, the full moon and Mars, (or is it Venus?) a duet in the sky. I’m searching for a breeze before I climb in the car, but there is none. It’s a floating world out here, on the iron limb across the Susquehanna, the city and the Capitol dome lit up on the other side. It really is a floating world. Jus tonight, the dreams of these locals are still intact. But can they keep it up?Â Â Floating worldsÂ develop the bad habit of floating away.
Â Â Â A week later the Senators are still holding offÂ Bowie by a half-game, one less in the loss column. With four days left in the season, they are scheduled to play 4 and a makeup at the Binghamton B-Mets. Meanwhile, Hurricane Earl barrels up the East Coast, threatening to soak the season’s ending. Who will win, and how many days will it take through the weather?
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