June 25, 2018

Strasburg in Syracuse Start Three: Dwarfing, the Sequel

May 22, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

“I was looking at your hands.
They move when you’re asleep.”
Emanuelle Riva, in Hiroshima, Mon Amour

The game today is at Frontier Field, in Rochester, N.Y. I’m at home, hovering over the computer, an ear on the play-by-play as I call up rows and rows of statistics onto the monitor. But I can see the park in my mind’s eye, the long, solid brick façade that looks like so many other stadiums these days, across Plymouth Avenue from a Kodak plant; the banners to former players hung on the streetlamps: Mike Boddicker, Joey Altobelli, Johnny Oates, Boog Powell, Joe Mauer. Through the gate I can catch a glimpse of the day’s lineups written out on two poster boards on a side wall. The center field features a roofed pavilion, as if we were at Churchill Downs, waiting for the gates to open and the horses to go off. There is, of course, a railroad track nearby; it’s been lofted onto an overpass above a street below. As I stand there I am surprised as an  Amtrak passenger train heads southbound.

I can see all this so clearly in my mind because I was there—yesterday—outside the park, anyway—in a steady, pour-down rain. A few of us hardier souls stood underneath a canvas awning set up by a local radio station before the exiting VIPs told us the game was called and that Strasburg would pitch the night end of a split doubleheader tomorrow. The trip was not a complete loss: I got out, I saw something different, and to some extent, this is all that counts. I sat downtown in the Rochester Public Library, looking out the window and wishing the rain would stop, and read the story of how Christy Mathewson, at age four, to show his mother that he could play with the bigger kids, threw a ball entirely over a barn.

Now the next night I listen in as Justin Maxwell sees a 1-2 changeup cross the plate to lead off the game. There’s a whole lot of nothin’ going on. Perhaps this first thought is still a reflex to the death of Andres’ father. But it’s also my reaction to tracing Stephen Strasburg through his minor league career. I travel miles and hours, sometimes six hours in a day, to get to a game and see—nothing, absolutely nothing. The nothing that should be and the nothing that is. Formally, and philosophically, I am not a believer in void, but his performances have become journeys into the subatomic realm. His statistics are infinitesimals, quintillionths, his pitches the perfect example of the effect at a distance that so baffles quantum physics. Leonard Davis, promoted from Harrisburg perhaps a week ago, lines a single into left on the first pitch, but Kevin Mench, his bat no longer pink, grounds into a 5-4 double play to end the inning.

Now the Magus strides to the mound, the man who reduces every baseball park in which he plays into a laboratory. Before second baseman Matt Tolbert goes down looking at a slider, Strasburg’s first two pitches miss their mark. Chief’s broadcaster Jason Benetti raves over Strasburg’s form, calling it ‘fluid,’ and ‘eminently repeatable.’ This is in my mind a bit of radio hyperbole, but at this point, hyperbole is all he or I have to offer. Red Wings’ shortstop Trevor Plouffe works a count to 3-1, and then grounds weakly to third. Left fielder Brian Dinkelman goes 2-2, fouls off two more pitches and then taps back to the mound. This will be a theme tonight: more is less. Struggling ever so slightly, Strasburg will hurl a career high ninety-two pitches.

A twist on my theme of physics; we have learned that Andres’ father did not die in a car crash. My cousin Rob heard the word ‘accident,’ and this was what he assumed. Rather, as an electrical engineer, managing a crew installing high-voltage power lines, Senor de Moya fell to his profession’s ultimate peril. Dissatisfied with the work, he tried to show his men the ropes, and suffered electrocution.

After almost falling to his knees on an offering from Red Wings’ pitcher Ryan Mullins, Josh Whitesell singles to left. Chase Lambin follows with another single that only sends Whitesell to second. The day game of this doubleheader featured four home runs. Chris Duncan, late of the Cardinals, bombed a shot of off one of Frontier Field’s light towers. But tonight the Chiefs chip away one after the other: taking a cue from their pitcher, they too plunge into the realm of minutiae, scoring five runs on eleven hits, all singles. Now Duncan flies to right, allowing Whitesell to tag from second. Carlos Maldonado brings him home on a sacrifice fly. The Chiefs lead 1-0. Eric Bruntlett goes down looking after nursing a two-ball count.

Red Wings’ Catcher Jose Morales, I hear, will soon suffer the tragic, grindingly dramatic Spanish trauma of playing backup to Joe Mauer. He uses his time in Rochester well, now drawing a walk against Strasburg. Second baseman Eric Bruntlett then boots a ball, allowing left fielder Dustin Martin to reach base. Third baseman Danny Valencia grounds into a 6-4 double play, but this has historic dimensions. Morales is the first player in Triple-A to reach third against Strasburg, the means doubtful or not.

With two out and a chance for Rochester to score, a familiar name steps to the plate: it’s Jacque Jones, late of the Twins and the Cubs, back with his first franchise for another try. Age thirty now, and robbed of a step or two, he’s the designated hitter tonight for Rochester. Here is a truly recognizable name, the first Strasburg has faced, and the duel goes to a full count and two more pitches fouled off before the younger man reaches back for his big drop and fans the veteran. I can hear the ensuing silence seeping over the air.

Is Strasburg electrifying or a lesser and certainly gentler form of electrocution? In the last article I talked of ‘dwarfing,’ and a kind of dwarfing is what’s going on here. It’s earned on the part of Strasburg, but Benetti has pointed out several times tonight the game is simply different with Strasburg involved, and it seems undeniable to me that something is simply missing; the entire collective buzz and hubris of one team has been neatly demolished.

It’s the Sunday night before the Monday-in-Pawtucket holdback, before the Tuesday rain-out before the Wednesday night game, and I am watching Hiroshima Mon Amour from Netflix. Filmed in 1959 and directed by Alain Resnais, it stars Emmanuelle Rivas and Eiji Okada as star-crossed adulterers who cannot avoid the magnetism of their collision. As the movie opens we see flesh amassed on flesh, limb upon limb, and we soon realize that we have no way of distinguishing the living from the dead, and the two lovers from the victims of the bomb fifteen years before. All at the moment is drained, exhausted, and still.

With two down in the top of the third, back at the park on Wednesday night, Leonard Davis singles and steals second, Kevin Mench walks and Josh Whitesell raps one just out of the reach of shortstop Trevor Plouffe. Davis steps on the plate for the second Syracuse tally. Chase Lambin flies out to right on the first pitch he sees. The Red Wings threaten again in their turn. Pedro Lopez throws a grounder into the dirt around first, forcing Whitesell off of the bag. Jason Repko (think the Phillies) promptly grounds into a 4-6 two-sacker. But with the slate wiped clean again, Matt Tolbert walks at the top of the lineup. He too swipes second base. Trevor Plouffe hacks a chopper towards third which he has no trouble beating out. Again there’s a man on third with two out;  now left fielder Brian Dinkelman fights off to a full count—and again Strasburg delivers the slurve. Dinkelman hears himself punched out to end the inning.

I’ve talked of dwarfing. But as for crowds being worse than they were before, is this even true?  I’m a baseball historian: faced by a wager on whether there were more fistfights at ballgames before or after World War Two, I know which era to place my money on. Particularly before the turn of the last century, whether they attended in suits and hats or not, quaint as the era may be portrayed, many of the outrageous exploits of the fans of baseball in the early days are simply not documented. It seems that two World Wars uniformly drilled the sarsaparilla-barrel, John L. Sullivan slugfests out of the game’s spectators.

Today’s dwarfing is more suppressed, more implicit, and for this more agitated. The frustrations circling the circling of the bases flow not from Italians against Irishmen united against Protestants, not truly from the tide of drink ever present in the game, nor from any tensions that can be released by merely brawling. The first set of  frustrations stem from the enormous difference in incomes between the players and the fans, and the inhibiting effect on play that the enormous amounts of money involved induce on the field. As the players become multi-million dollar investments, they are pulled from the game if they pull a muscle, turn an ankle, or seem to be breathing wrong. As every day players suffer  long stints on the disabled list that would have enraged Gehrig or Cobb, youngsters who start the season at the Double-A level play increasingly key roles in the progression of major league seasons. Anxious not to hurt themselves, the players reduce the game to ‘zone ball,’ conceding areas of the field that will be doubles and triples. Gone are the days of Charlie Hustle. Knowing they are paying more for an inferior product, and none too anxious to admit that wealth creates its own set of problems, the fans sit bored and smoldering in the stands, watching what  Braves’ announcer Skip Carey once called ‘a cartoon of itself.’

In the fourth, Chris Duncan walks, Carlos Maldonado singles him to third base and Eric Bruntlett brings home Duncan on a groundout. Pedro Lopez grounds to his counterpart at short and Maldonado takes third. Justin Maxwell guides a 1-1 pitch into center, plating Maldonado, before Leonard Davis taps to first. It’s 4-0 Syracuse, and time for the show. The Red Wings follow the advice they’ve heard and don’t let a show develop. Catcher Morales singles on 1-0, the hardest base hit Strasburg has given up at Triple-A; but Dustin Martin lines to center on the first pitch, third baseman Danny Valencia lines to third on the first throw he sees, and Jacque Jones grounds to short for a fielder’s choice.

In the top of the fifth, the Chiefs tack on their final run. Mench and Whitesell single. Lambin strikes out, but Kyle Waldrop, now pitching for Rochester, uncorks a wild pitch, sending the runners to second and third. Red Wings’ manager Tom Nieto loads the bases, intentionally walking Chris Duncan to set up a double play, but Maldonado lofts a fly to right that brings home Mench before Bruntlett grounds out.

In the second scene of the movie Sunday night, Emanuelle utters a line out of the blue. It’s the ‘morning after.’ Dressed in a kimono, her character strolls out onto a balcony to view Hiroshima, circa 1960. She wanders back in and stares at the man in the bed. His eyes open.”What were you dreaming about?”, she asks. “I don’t know,”he replies. “Why?”

She says, “I was looking at your hands. They move when you’re asleep.”

Pumped up in the fifth, Strasburg unleashes his best stuff of the night. He buckles first baseman Brock Peterson on a 2-2 slurve that will be replayed again and again on the news that night. Jason Repko hits a 1-1 single. With two balls to his credit, Matt Tolbert looks at called strike three. Shortstop Trevor Plouffe is over-matched and falls behind in the count, and swings 0-2. Maldonado must throw to Whitesell to confirm the putout.  This is the nothing that should be and the nothing that is.

A rock is a rock you say, and a wall is a wall. Objects are solid. I pick up a book. I set it down. But over a century ago, science began to set this model aside. Maxwell’s experiments with electromagnetism and his four equations were finished before he died in 1869. Roentengen discovered the x-ray in 1895. By 1903 Ernest Rutherford had discovered radioactivity, and from it put together not only a model of an atom, but the map of its smaller particles. Everything, science now proposes, including ourselves, is a cloud of these smaller particles. And these particles themselves are mostly empty space.

Burdens are historical. They linger in the mind. They nag. Not least of the burdens which lead towards the habit of dwarfing is the burden of fighting two world wars, and how many smaller interventions, over the course of the twentieth century, and into our own.  I know a Serb shot an Austrian Archduke in 1914. I know that from there, a schedule of mobilizations and trains seemed unavoidable. But part of the long fuse, and part of the first frenzied welcoming of the war was also our inability to accept the model science proposed for ourselves. Descendants of apes or not, we were not just puppets on an evolutionary string. We were not empty and insubstantial. We would prove it by exercising the ultimate controls. So began the long century which would ingrain in us habits of dwarfing.

In the bottom of the sixth, Brian Dinkelman is called out swinging by the third base umpire. Morales flies to left, 0-1. Maldonado is having a hard time behind the plate tonight, and must once again throw the ball to Whitesell to finish off the putout of a swinging Dustin Martin. Up to now, Strasburg has pitched only six innings. Tonight, toughening him up for the majors, he pitches six and a third. In the top of the seventh, he strikes out Danny Valencia on a ninety-six mile an hour fastball. That’s enough for the day. He has set a new personal best with eight strike-outs. Annoyed at having buckled and turned away from a called strike three, Brock Peterson pummels a two out offering from reliever Jesse English over the fence. It is the last run of the game.  English settles in and strikes out two batters, one in the seventh and the eighth. The Chiefs’ closer Joel Peralta is called in for the last out. By now the crowd in the stadium is considerably sparser. “Strasburg can’t only fill a room,” announcer Benetti intones, “he can clear one, too.”

I do not want to cheapen the accomplishments of the soldiers of the Second World War. They fought, and died fighting, two fascisms. Their efforts contained the Soviet Union within the Eastern bloc. They brought a halt to the Holocaust.

Sickened by the trench warfare in the fields of Flanders, many thought war could never come again. Yes, the Germans brought tanks to the field and rolled towards Paris in two weeks. But there’s a sense in which we found a new field for our conquering. Listen to Hitler’s shrieking speeches, to Churchill strengthening his people under the weight of the Blitzkrieg, or to President Roosevelt’s calming intonations, and you will understand if I say that World War Two became a war for the possession of sound.

Through no one’s fault, victory became never having to hear anything other than ourselves; and in contemporary times, dwarfing for teams has become compensation for the gradual understanding that our seemingly exclusive possession of sound cannot be held forever.

No doubt the atomic bomb saved American lives; and, compared to the consequences of invading the Japanese mainland, perhaps Japanese lives, also. But the use of these bombs remains the hallmark of our inability to accept our dual natures. Just as a particle seems to act as a wave, just as Heisenberg tells us that we can measure either a particle’s place, or its acceleration, but not both at the same time, so we cannot come to terms with  ourselves as both solid, and yet somehow particulated beings.

Tennis on asphalt dominated by the serve, baseball only the duel between pitcher and batter; and now the course at Augusta, and most other golf courses, extended for hundreds of yards: gradually, after World War Two, we have reduced these sports to their initial power strokes. In football, we have reduced rugby to nothing but the initial power stroke. No context for us, no accidents; only the intention and the consequence, the strategy  and the sound.

You may well ask, then: if I am such a prig, so delicate and oversensitive that I cannot even be wished a ‘one’ instead of a ‘day;’  if all I can see in baseball is the continual bragging triumph, the continual nauseous slosh of ‘safe or out’ ‘ball or strike,’ ‘win or loss,’ ‘my team or yours;’ or that boy back  in the bleachers at Harrisburg who loves and hates, loves and hates; why is it then that I bend my ear to the radio, tense with anticipation, or rush to ball parks to blend  myself into the excitement of crowds that I am wary of?

Ego is not the only content of art; nor is dwarfing the only content of sport. There lies in sport a desperate wish to trust the flow of life; to discover, beyond Freud, a positive aspect to the unconscious. One of the first things a high-school athlete  learns is that you cannot play a game at your best by playing angrily. You will lose your focus and your control of your own body. You must somehow be assertive within bounds; angry and awkward, you will stand out like a sore thumb. Focus on the dialectic of win/lose, and you will lose; the game must be played one motion at a time.

The answer is somehow there in Emanuelle’s line: “I was looking at your hands. They move when you’re alseep.” We must trust that we know what we’re doing even we aren’t sure. We must trust that the empty spaces are simply what is necessary if the energies of life are to play out. Hiroshima, Mon Amour ends when the two lovers renounce themselves and swear to remember each other only as the names of the decimated cities from which they have come. “Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers—in France.” Baseball knows all about this. Every year, the teams come: these people represent Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo, Norfolk, Richmond. Those places still exist. And whether they have conquered or not, or whether they have been decimated, no matter what happened last year, the association rises again.


One Response to “Strasburg in Syracuse Start Three: Dwarfing, the Sequel”
  1. Paul says:

    A family commitment prevented me from traveling downtown to see Strasburg. Great write up. I am thinking of making the drive to Syracuse this weekend.

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