July 14, 2020

Strasburg in Syracuse Start Six: The Windup

June 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s the fifth inning of Stephen Strasburg’s last minor league start. After Pedro Lopez flew out aimlessly to center, Strasburg himself reached out beyond the far side of the plate on an 0-2 count and slapped a ball back up the middle. Left fielder Boomer Whiting, a new call up for the Chiefs, then hit an 0-2 straight to Buffalo Bisons’ first baseman Mike Jacobs for a tailor made double play. But Jacobs has thrown the ball into left field, allowing Strasburg to slide in safely at second base. Now Pete Orr, who homered to straightaway center in his last trip to the plate, is in the process of drawing a walk.

I’m at Coca Cola (previously Dunn Tire) Field in Buffalo, N.Y. I’ve told you before that this is my native city, that I was born here forty-four years ago in a blinding snowstorm. My mother was the last delivery to reach Mercy Hospital that day by taxi rather than by fire truck. She remembers looking out her fourth floor window and seeing the tops of the kids’ knit hats as they made their way to the still open schools. We moved from Buffalo six months later; the city is strange to me. My only real memory of the town is the one I have told you about, of the skyline at night, and a baby’s primitive awe when confronted by all the goings on.

Now I look up from my seat which sits left of home plate and deep in the first deck, just under the overhang of the second tier. Coca-Cola Park is the only field in all my project surrounded by tall buildings. A four deck parking garage looms over the right field fence. Behind this the white cap of HSBC Arena, home of hockey’s’ Buffalo Sabers, fades and gains distinction again in the arc of an afternoon sun.  To the right of the parking garage One HSBC Center, the tallest building in the city, looms down the right field foul line, five hundred and twenty-nine feet tall.

But the building that really interests me sits about halfway down the first base line on Washington Street. An off-color brick square edifice, its east and west sides indented so that obvious stairwells poke out at the corners, it looks like an old hotel converted to—to what? Even after the game at home on the computer I cannot identify it. It’s maybe twenty-three stories tall, and what really catches my interest is that on say, the sixteenth story, a window is open, and a man looks down on the game.

His standing there transports me instantly to all the black and white film footage I’ve seen of the Texas School Book Depository on November 22, 1963—the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The man in the window now has the perfect angle if he wanted to cause problems. But I see no rifle. Indeed, he wears a tan shirt, and a blotch on the left of his chest might be either just a pocket with a handkerchief in it, or a badge. I cannot quite make it out. Perhaps he is part of the security arrangements. More likely I am making even this up in my fertile if furtive imagination. He is only a man taking a break from his work to stick his head out the window and watch the game for free, as almost any man would want to.

Now Orr has drawn his walk, and after a conference on the mound between Bisons’ manager Ken Oberkfell and starting pitcher Dillon Gee,  Chiefs’ third baseman Chase Lambin tops a slow grounder back to Gee that suffices to bring home Strasburg. Josh Whitesell flies out to end the inning. The Chiefs lead 3-0.

Strasburg today has looked par for the course. More square-to and more consistent in form, he has thrown more called balls than in any other start. Again he grows impatient and tries to throw the fastball past some batters. It’s the I’m-Almost-There jitters. For Strasburg this means almost nothing. (Isn’t the plural of bison, well, bison?) Or today, literally nothing. Center fielder Jesus Feliciano, the league leader in B.A. at .386, leads off the game for the, oh well, alright, Bisons and grounds a 2-1 count to short. Second baseman Justin Turner turns a grounder to third. First baseman Jacobs works a full count and then watches an eighty-two mile an hour slurve eat the plate. In the second, third baseman Mike Hessman, leading the IL with eighteen home runs, goes three-and-two with two foul-offs before swinging through a fastball. Russ Adams fouls to third. Left fielder Mike Cervenak grounds to third. (And if we just add an ‘s’ to bison, doesn’t that imply, like, many different herds all come together, so that the plural of the plural already has the whole multicultural thing down flat, and isn’t that cool?) In the third catcher J.R. House whiffs with his eyes, shortstop Ruben Tejada grounds to second on the first pitch, and then Strasburg loses it for a minute and walks the opposing pitcher. This is such a crisis that manager Trent Jewett and the entire infield gather around the mound. Feliciano singles to left 1-1, but Gee can only reach second base. Finally Turner flies to left.

Buffalo is the loudest venue on my tour. The people around me simply can’t shut up and watch the game. I guess I shouldn’t expect the silence of a movie theater, but how do they even know the score? A man on my left in a tie-dye t-shirt is on his second beer in the second inning. Keeping score and passing him his foam become one and the same act. Behind me a gaggle of teenagers indulge the worst platitudes as the brashest of skills. Now the drinker looks at my notebook  and says, “You keep the most convoluted scoring I’ve ever seen.” (Gees, it’s not that bad.)

No drama in the fourth: Jacobs grounds to second 0-1. Hessman flies to left 0-2-1. Adams works a full count and then cannot raise his bat off his shoulder as the changeup nips the plate.

There is only one more inning for Stephen Strasburg in my project. I have seen eight of eleven minor league starts live. Altogether, Strasburg will have thrown 758 pitches, won seven games and lost two, with an E.R.A. in Triple-A of 1.08, and an overall E.R.A. of 1.30. In fifty-five and a third innings pitched, he will have struck out sixty five men, a full forty percent of his minor league outs, while walking thirteen. All those miles; were they worth it? There’s no doubt I have witnessed a phenom; a ninety-eight mile an hour fastball, four different pitches, any and all at differing speeds. I need to remind myself that if I feel gyped, this is somehow my own fault, perhaps an inherent bias towards offense, or even defense compared to the point blank shutdown of a terrific pitcher. Earlier in this series, I projected Major League stats for Strasburg of 13-3, 2.31. Seeing just a touch of bravado and panic in his last two starts, I might lower these numbers just a gnosh: let’s say, 11-5, 2.66. Will that make so much difference? After the game Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell will walk to the mic. “What’s he doing here?,” he will ask of Strasburg. Perhaps these eleven games are only punishment for holding out and signing big; or perhaps the Nats really do want to know what they have before they bring it to the front lines.

Far out beyond left center field, a crane swivels loads to waiting workmen. The gulls off the lake are beginning to run riot as more and more emptied peanut shells hit the concrete. The scoreboard here sits atop the batter’s background, the only place I’ve seen such an arrangement. The mascot, Buster the, yes, Bison, beats a kid in a race around the bases for the first time all season long, but the replay shows he forgot to tag second. The souvenir shop, the most expensive one of all my journeys, has sets of foam claws for the kids to slip over their hands and wave. I don’t see anyone wearing a set. Jammed as the stadium is into a downtown setting, the left field wall is only ten feet high, but fifty foot netting prevents balls from flying out onto the expressway beyond.

Mike Cervenak singles on 1-1 to lead off Strasburg’s last inning. Strasburg is still entirely ignoring runners, his throw to first next to nothing. It’s as well that he’ll have Nyjer Morgan on his side. House flies to center on a full count; shortstop Tejada singles to right, sending Cervenak to third. After a conference at the mound, the Bisons send pitcher Gee up to the plate, a curious decision. He strikes out looking with one ball to his credit. Catcher Devin Ivany lets a breaking pitch in the dirt get past: Tejada takes second, but tentative, Cervenak stays put. It brings up Feliciano, the current batting champion. On a 3-2 count he, too, tops a slurve and grounds it to second base.

In the building up above us, the window is closed and the man is gone, probably returned to his shift. I know very well why his standing there invoked Dallas and Kennedy’s assassination for me. It is not only his height and angle, but also a rushed symbol of destruction. Destruction because I am jealous of his view, or someone else’s, somewhere; or anyone else’s, anywhere.  Destruction because I must look the five month old baby I was in the face and tell him that he cannot have what he wants. Who are all these people, and what are they doing, so simultaneously and yet so varied? The summary is not for me to achieve, I cannot have the answer to the question. I am only one of us, I can have only one view at a time. All of life is not for me to summarize, systematize and track.

If this is a disappointment, it is also why I’ll come to the park and see something new every time. Below me now a girl sits on her father’s lap. His hat says, #1 DAD, and this time it must be true, because seats are empty around them, yet all the game they have bounced and hugged and kissed each other. Two people on the face of this earth could not be happier.

The summary view I have been trying to achieve now faded away, the rest of the game is a baseball game, alternately glorious and dull. Chris Duncan singles to lead off the top of the sixth. Justin Maxwell behind him strikes out, but catcher Ivany sends a shot down the left field foul line. From where we sit we think it’s a foul ball and we return to our seats, but all of a sudden the third base ump is twirling a raised index finger and Duncan and Ivany are coming across the plate. Since it doesn’t stir great argument from Oberkfell and the Bisons’ bench, it must be true. At the end of the inning a fellow pitcher, Jeff Mandel, pinch hits for Strasburg and goes down on three strikes. Atahaulpa Severino takes over the pitching honors and downs the Bisons 1-2-3 in both the sixth and the seventh innings.

Next to me an old-timer is talking about the old stadium, War Memorial, or ‘the Rock pile,’ as it is remembered in legend. “We used to get half a day off from school so we could go see them on opening day,” he says. House sparrows, smaller than the gulls and brown with black stripes on their back, alight on the ledge of the mezzanines and wait their turn for the plunder. Now the sun chases away overhanging clouds and gifts us with a brilliant evening. In the eighth, off of John Lujan, Whitsell doubles and finally, as I have been waiting for him to do, Chris Duncan sits on 3-1 and lets loose over the left-centerfield wall. The teens leave and I can hear myself think again. The man in the tie-dye has had enough sense to leave while he is still upright. Only the two old men to my right remain. In the bottom of the eighth, the Bisons spring a two-out rally. Feliciano doubles off of Collin Balester, and  Justin Turner plates him with a single to left. A Bronx cheer rises in Buffalo. Jacobs ends the inning on a fly out to left. “You know, “ the old man says, “I remember old Exhibition Stadium, up in Toronto. I was there the day Dave Winfield killed a gull with a pop up and got arrested for it.”

Jose de la Torre, who has pitched only four innings at Triple-A, induces two 1-3 groundouts. Chase Lambin flies to center. Josh Wilkie comes in for the Chiefs to throw the last inning of my journeys.

There is nothing I need retain. After the game a wrong turn will force me from my morning’s route. Thank goodness it does. I take the Thruway and get off as soon as I can, and look for a route south. I find Batavia, the Sport of Kings diner near the harness track there, where my mother and father attest that they ate one of the best meals of their lives. It’s a bit too early to stop. From Batavia I catch Route Sixty Three south, and the road from here to Danville is one of the most luminous of my life. On my left, to the north, the lowering sun sharpens the trees and the farmhouses. On my right to the south a front is swelling, ominous slate gray clouds piling against each other as they vie with the evening sun. I drive the line between these, the front, the trenches where both sides will win, wondering, for the thousandth time, why I didn’t remember to bring my camera.

Wilkie’s first batter is Mike Hessman. The Chiefs employ a shift left: second baseman Orr comes to the left side of the infield to form a picket with Lopez and Lambin. A great struggle ensues. After a full count and four foul offs, Hessman hits right into the shift. Lopez picks the ball and throws to first. Russ Adams grounds to the right side and Whitesell tosses to a scrambling Wilkie. Coca Cola Field is reasonably nice, but why do I like it more than Syracuse? It’s only the snazzier location, the pit of the park planted amongst the tall buildings, the large net in left field which haplessly evokes Fenway, and the dignified ‘High Victorian Romanesque’ façade of the old city hall, chiseled from Maine granite and now only the offices of Erie County, which sits across Swan Street from the park.  Pinch hitting for the pitcher, Valentino Pasucci is batting only .183, but has four home runs in thirty-eight at bats. He builds up a 2-2 count against Wilkie and then waves at a change of pace, bringing the game to an end.

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