August 23, 2017

Strasburg in Syracuse: Start Two: Dwarfing, Part I

May 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Ballplayers, they say, are superstitious; which doesn’t mean that everyone else isn’t, too. After Saturday’s interruption at Alliance Bank Stadium, I simply do not have the heart to drive back to the scene five days later. Through no fault of its own, the park is now a cursed site for me. I am at my post at the radio.

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness night at the ballpark, and announcer Mike Cousins tells me that the Chiefs are wearing pink jerseys with blue numbers and lettering. This is enough to make  me happy I’m not there. Chiefs right fielder Kevin Mensch (he of the Texas Rangers), will come to the plate with a pink bat. He must have a wife who has been touched by the disease; or perhaps one who will use the bat on him if he doesn’t use it at the game.

Leading off, Norfolk Tides’ center fielder Joey Gathright flies to left field. This in itself is a rarity. Strasburg will allow three fly outs tonight, one of them in the bottom of the sixth inning to catcher Adam Donachie (DAWN-a-hee) the longest in the minors against Strasburg, sending left fielder Chase Lambin to the warning track.  Strasburg is elevating his pitches once in a while, but not so as anyone has yet to catch up to him.

Have I told you lately that I am seeing and listening to a legend? After tonight’s game Strasburg will have pitched twelve innings in Triple-A baseball, striking out thirteen batters and walking only two, allowing one measly hit to trickle up the middle of the diamond. One runner in Triple-A has reached second base against him, and this only by means of a weak ground out to third. Now designated hitter Justin Turner taps an 0-1 to short. Jeff Salazar draws a walk but cleanup hitter Josh Bell drives a fly to left after going in the hole 0-2. The Chiefs cannot muster much in the bottom of the frame. Kevin Mensch reaches on an error by shortstop Robert Andino; no doubt Andino is blinded by that pink bat. But Gathright in center runs down a liner by designated hitter Mike Morse to end the inning.

Again, media has its advantages. Cousins lets out that Morse is on a rehab assignment, but I had never heard of him. Checking the Chiefs’ site while the game continues, I know why; Morse has gone 1 for 6 this season before his injury; he has spent brief time with the Mariners, who I never see on television.

Strasburg stands in for the second, and catches Scott Moore looking at his looping breaking ball. Now Cousins tells us more about this pitch: it’s more of a ‘slurve’, Strasburg has told Cousins; if he applies more pressure with his index finger it acts as a slider, but if he decreases his pressure it falls straight up and down. The greater secret is that he can vary his speed with any of this pitches at any time.

All this is nice as far as it goes: I’m surprised Stephen has given out this much about his pitches. But there is a secret he is not telling, hidden in plain sight. One of my programs from his time in Harrisburg, “Collector’s Edition #2,” features a cover photo of him on the mound, his arm slung back and ready to come forward. If you can find this, look closely at the right hand. The ball isn’t in his hand; even at the moment when he must surge forward for the release, the ball is entirely in his massively long fingers. Except for the palm ball, which acts as a changeup, the more separation from the palm a pitcher can achieve, the greater the effect of the pitch will be.

In the rest of the second inning,  shortstop Andino grounds to first with one strike against him. First baseman Michael Aubrey works the count to 3-0 and then throws his opportunity away, repeating Andino’s result. With one out in the bottom, the Chiefs’ Seth Bynum draws a walk, and third baseman Pete Orr singles him to second, but the rally fizzles. The sun, Cousins reports, causes problems as it sets down the left field line; where there is usually a strong and even aiding wind to right, tonight there is none.

Right fielder Blake Davis reaches on an error by the Chiefs’ Pedro Lopez; Donachie watches a slurve and sits; catcher Carlos Maldonado pegs out Davis running; Gathright watches the ball drop his doom across the plate. Justin Maxwell is robbed when the Tides’ third baseman Josh Bell gets off his knees and throws to first; Chase Lambin singles; Mensch, wielder of the pink bat, pops to second on the first pitch; Mike Morse grounds into a fielder’s choice. This is life following Stephen Strasburg: we’re through three and there’s no score.

I have not told you, have I, how entirely admirable the skill, the discipline, the persistence and the work must be to maintain this level of dominance. I do not doubt this. Other sportswriters have dwelt on the values that an athletic discipline can induce. I haven’t forgotten them, and particularly, springing back as I am from ‘the valley of the shadow of death,’ I should remind myself of them as well as you.

The next day Curt ‘Bloody Sock’ Schilling will come on the air and tell announcers at ESPN that when Strasburg arrives in Washington, he will already be the best pitcher in the major leagues. I watch as the people whose job it is to deal in superlatives punish Schilling for using them. They cite Doc Gooden and Mark Prior as examples of minor league pitchers who were supposed to be all-world and turned out to be good-good in their first years, but not absolutely dominating.

Part of the problem may be that the title of ‘best pitcher in the majors’ is up for grabs these days. Likely it’s Roy Halliday, late of the Blue Jays, now with the Phils. But Halliday could not, all by himself, pitch the Phillies to a Series victory over the Yankees. Maybe it’s Tim Lincecum, but the Giants haven’t even reached the playoffs yet in his career. Cliff Lee has had bad and good seasons, and hasn’t adjusted to his new home in Seattle on the West Coast yet. There’s Zach Grienke in Kansas City, who cooled off a bit in the second half of his first season last year. He has yet to prove himself. There’s C.C. Sabathia, but his E.R.A.,  steady around 3.50, betrays him as an absolute ‘best.’ Certainly the title is Mariano Rivera’s; but do relievers count?

Having watched Strasburg for seven games now, I tend to agree with Schilling; almost certainly, until the hitters adjust, he will be the best pitcher in the game; however briefly that may be. Once he reaches D.C., I am thinking somewhere about 13-3, 2.31 for the rest of this season.

It’s somewhere in the fourth, perhaps with the Tides’ Justin Turner fighting Strasburg at 2-2, when Cousins lets out, “I tell you, it’s a merciless crowd here if you don’t catch those foul balls.” He has his tongue in his cheek, I suppose, or then again. . . I remember that crowd from Saturday.  It was a crowd ravenous for victory, a crowd which , if the dates painted on the left field fence are anything to go by, hasn’t won a title since 1989; a crowd which, on a cold night in April and in the habit of watching their team lose, dwindled the gate receipt to five hundred stranded souls. Apparently Syracusans have had it up to here with ‘the love of the game,’ which they would love if there had been any daylight in twenty-one years. I understand this, and I am equally alarmed by it.

As a junior in high-school I played on a soccer team that went 0-14 and was outscored 46-8 in those games. After the first practice of the next season I realized we were not doing the drills necessary to win—we were only splitting one half of the team against the other, and creating tension amongst ourselves. I quit that day; part of me does not regret it if the drills were not going to be in place. But another part longs to have that senior season on the pitch. I have been there with frustration, but the crowd Saturday was ravenous for victory, and couldn’t have cared less who gave it to them; Strasburg, or Joe Blow, or a robot, if somehow they could qualify it under league rules. The cheers were somehow too loud and too much and too soon. Later, in that hotel room in Cortland, when the Chiefs came on the news, I would watch the clips and see that after all, it was an ordinary crowd at an ordinary game, just eager to have a good time. But at the time, in the park, I sensed a collective stirring which might have, but did not, tip over into darker triumph.

In the fourth, on the radio, Turner finally flies to right, left fielder Jeff Salazar whiffs through a fastball, and Josh Bell can only pop to second. In reply Josh Whitesell flies to right before the opposing pitcher Troy Patton saves his own head by raising his glove to his face on a Seth Bynum line drive. Was the ball caught or was it simply ‘hit into the glove?’ Patton then fields a weak grounder from Pete Orr and throws to first.

I have not been kind to Syracuse. The architectural mess on the hill pretty much deserves what it gets, but no doubt the individual fans or citizens do not. It is not the Chiefs or their frustrations alone. My father hasn’t attended a professional sporting event in years. He is one who hasn’t come back since the strike of 1994, but he also says, “I don’t like the fans anymore.” At times I know what he means. When a Phillies fan forces himself to gag on someone wearing an opponent’s shirt, or when hockey fans in Montreal riot after a game seven victory; this is no longer sport. It is dwarfing.

Dwarfing in the sports world is in many ways the equivalent of abortion in the real world: dwarfing aborts the self by trying to abort the texture of life. It lends no credit nor credence to the skill and resistance through which the victors have had to wend their way.  It fashions an isolation from its rewards. It cheats a trophy of its viability.

Everyone does this: everyone dwarfs. I dwarf whenever I ceaselessly compare baseball statistics. I dwarf every time I pick up a pen or open a new blank document on  my computer. I want my words to see print, and why should they, particularly? Even though no one would really know much about me for mouthing the syllables of my name, I want something I say to outlive me. I persist in this habit of writing, even when I see its folly. Perhaps most painfully, we dwarf our children when they point out flaws in our reasoning. “Because I said so,” “Because it’s my house and you’re living in it.” Or we try to de-dwarf others pre-emptively  when we say, “Have a good one,” instead of “have a good day.” If the word “one” was shorter than the word “day” I might understand this as a contraction,  but we all know what that “one” means—it means “Up yours, buddy, your day is going to be just as generic as mine.” It means, “There are no wonders left in this world and this pleases me, since otherwise you might have an experience I wouldn’t.” Have we gone so crazy comparing our memories as possessions in this society that we can no longer wish each other the sunlight?

*

In the fifth Scott Moore does not see a called ball before taking a third strike; Andino grounds to third 0-1; Michael Aubrey watches the drop and drops his bat to resume fielding at first base. This is magnificent and stifling, luminous and breathless, a wonderment and also a conspiracy with the silence under which the laws of physics assert their relentless chokehold. It reminds me that, technically, no one has ever seen the force of gravity at work; we infer its powers through the objects it coerces.

The Syracuse Chiefs are, statistically, an odd team. Down the middle of the league in almost all team statistics, only two stand out: the pitching staff has allowed the third least walks, and they have surrendered the least home runs. Now, after Pedro Lopez grounds into a double play for two outs in the bottom of the fifth, the Chiefs’ bats break out in support. Center fielder Justin Maxwell walks on a full count. Chase Lambin singles to center, stopping Maxwell at second. And wouldn’t you know it, Kevin Mensch and his pink bat bring home the game winning run, scoring Maxwell on a single. Following Mensch, Morse walks, reloading the bases. It’s first baseman Josh Whitesell who breaks the game open, slamming a triple to the wall in center and plating all three runners. Whitesell doesn’t just break the game open; he closes it, too. The scoring is over for the night: Bynum strikes out to end the inning.

Strasburg pitches once more; Blake Davis grounds to second on a full count, Donachie follows with his warning-track fly, and ‘Glove’ Gathright is put out catcher to first after swinging at a slurve that ends in the dirt. The commercial break cuts out the hand for Strasburg. The Chiefs muster only a walk in the seventh and a hit batter in the eighth. Drew Storen, who will one day close many a game in Washington for Strasburg, pitches his way out of a walk with a double play, and then, after walking a batter in the eighth, is lifted for a familiar name: forty–year-old Ron Villone. Villone, who has not pitched in the majors this year, is struggling in Syracuse with a high ERA. He immediately gives up a double to Blake Davis, putting runners on second and third, then walks Donachie to load the bases. Then his luck turns: he induces Gathright into a groundout, pitcher to catcher to first to end the inning. He sets the Tides down in the ninth, striking out Jeff Salazar and Josh Bell to end the game.

I am not a ‘who wins’ person. If it happens to be the L.A. Dodgers, I might stare in numbed disbelief and then feel like a two-year old for getting my way. Concurrent with this, if it happens to be the Yankees, I will not be too happy. But come October, (uh . . . I mean November), I will be sad no matter who lifts the trophy, for the diamonds will fall silent as the silent crystals of snow begin their descent. As silence falls on the season, so it falls now on the radio as milb.com cuts out its pickup. This same silence fell at Saturday’s game. After Strasburg squeezed home a run for his second R.B.I. of the game, a fan behind me yelled, “DUDE, you are AWEsome!” He is right of course, Strasburg is awesome, but the silence that fell after this exclamation was somehow the unavoidable silence of too-obvious assertion.

A Note

Two days later I see in the paper that Chiefs’ third baseman Seth Bynum has been suspended fifty games by the offices of Major League Baseball for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. Steroids are perhaps the ultimate attempt to dwarf, and finally, the ultimate isolation. Do you know how old Ken Caminiti was when he died?

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