September 25, 2021

Strasburg in Syracuse Ninth Start: Getting Lost

May 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

His ninth start is a Monday late in May. I leave early in order to make friends with Syracuse. ‘Making friends with the city’ means getting good and lost on my way to a bookstore, and then driving in circles on three different routes from the bookstore to the ballpark. I see De Witt and Fayetteville, pleasant tree-lined suburbs more than a jot east of where I’d like to be. I take Route Ninety-Two back to the center of town. I find East Eighty One, which is good enough for now, since I’ll only need to turn down and take the opposite ramp North to get to Alliance Bank Stadium. In the morning I have toured the streets of East Syracuse: Teall, Erie, Genesee. Overeager to present the best sides of themselves, lawns and houses pose like actors and actresses nervous at a reading audition. Still they let me know that an ordinary and pleasant city hides beyond the drive through the concrete, glass, and steel jumble of Syracuse’s main thoroughfares.

For all my troubles, I need only wait fifteen minutes under a baking sun before the gates to the ballpark open. I tour the park hoping to improve my opinion of it. It’s still the same basic two decks, general admission in the higher seats. Along one wall, I do find a sort of Syracuse Hall of Fame. Along with an executive and a long-time player who never made it in the majors, the ‘Class of 2009’ includes Cupid Childs, Babe Dahlgren, Rick Leach, Gino Petralli, and Randy St. Claire. I climb the yet mostly empty second deck and see that some of the higher seats occlude a full view of the left-field foul line. Over my shoulder in the industrial complex the white warehouse of the G&C Foods Park St. Refrigerated Services prevents a full view of the stadium from the street. On the field below the grounds crew drag an enormous  batting cage back across center field and through an open gate.

I am steaming, weary and worked up, on my nerves from spending a day driving unfamiliar streets. The shirts and trinkets in the souvenir shop offer nothing I haven’t seen before. I find my seat, excellent, the closest to the mound I ‘ve been yet, and then queue for an Italian sausage and a soda. The sausage, too, is both good but nothing extraordinary.

Back at the bookstore I picked up a copy of a Ronald E. Shaw’s Erie Water West, still the best general history of the canal. I read it years ago when I thought I might write a novel, or a series of novels, set on the canal itself (‘Drama at 4 m.p.h!’), but in truth every book about the canal falls flat. The best might be Condon’s Stars on the Water, but no writer has yet conveyed the magnitude  and the trauma of packing up from a home in Ireland, England, Italy, or Germany, Sweden or Norway, and passing through ports only to throw a handful of  possessions on a mean-looking packet and bet your future on a narrow, four-foot channel through a wilderness infested with rattlesnakes and salt, your life in the hands of the muleteers and their captain.

At the park a young crew member has the task of filling in the batters’ boxes with a thin layer of lighter colored sand. He’s practiced at taking exactly the right pinch from the bag he carries and tossing the grains where he wants them to go. Like the Tibetan monks who trace out sand mandalas and then must destroy them to learn impermanence, so too the lined and sanded rectangles will quickly blur and smudge under the spikes of the men whose business is at and behind the plate. Beyond this, I can see Strasburg warming up down the left-field line. I have written too much of his motion, I don’t know what it is, or if he even has one. I have the impression that the Chiefs’ staff has given up on his motion also, that they only want him to throw and win while they have him, and as for a motion or a consistent release point, these things can work themselves out in the majors when they need to. As they say in the art world, “No form without necessity.”

I find no necessity tonight, and therefore no form. Wearied with its flurry of labels, the mind fades and the game remains. I stand with my hat off trying to find  a ‘theme’ for this start, and only on the long drive home will I recall that no gloss of abstraction is necessary, that I have been freed again for pure perception, the details of this world given as gifts if only I will perceive them rather than fretting over a lack of fretwork. The young woman with the clarinet who wears a stiff blouse and skirt is perhaps a music major from the University. Alyssa Barry, her name is, and she does well with the national anthem, particularly as she must deal with a split-second echo from the PA system. As she trips slightly ahead of the bulk of her own sound, a minor miracle occurs. There in the lower deck around home plate, people who would not ordinarily sing guide Alyssa and prop up the frail tone of her lone reed.

Toledo Mud Hen’s third baseman Will Rhymes leads off with a stiff drive into center that puts Pete Orr in motion to make the catch. Already this is a warning: Stephen Strasburg, Rock star, would never yield a strong liner into center. Designated hitter for the night, Scott Sizemore takes a ball that spins him from the plate, then goes down looking at a bender. Carlos Guillen, down from the Tigers on rehab, flies out solidly to left field. Three outs, two of them in the air: ridiculously, something is wrong.

Orr has been on a tear of extra base hits, and leading off for the Chiefs, this continues. He carries a 2-2 shot down the right-field line. A vertically oriented TOSHIBA ad hangs in fair territory from the (un)foul pole, and we all learn that this ad is made of wood and not metal as the ball knocks off of it and bounces back onto the grass. It’s 1-0 Chiefs. Kevin Mench singles after Leonard Davis swings and misses, but Josh Whitesell grounds 6-4 for the double play to end the inning.

All through the game wisps of dead dandelions carry from the wilderness over the center field wall towards home plate and the seats. The announcer puts a license plate on the scoreboard. “If this is your Toyota, the engine is running.” He pauses. “Don’t know if the accelerator’s stuck, or what.”

The Mud Hens have heard the book; swing while you’ve got a chance. First Baseman Ryan Streiby grounds to short on the first pitch. Right fielder Jeff Frazier finds the hole up the middle. Center fielder Casper Wells fans 1-2.  Strasburg throws gently to first; his move is still nothing. Shortstop Brent Dlugach works to 2-0, but then taps back to Strasburg. A great cheer rises for a ground ball that the fans would normally care little about.

A fan passes me in a bright orange t-shirt. It reads, “Just me and 34,616 of my friends.” It marks his presence at the Syracuse/Villanova basketball game in February which set a new NCAA attendance record. I am familiar with the ‘view’ some of those fans must have had. The gargantuans playing at hoops this previous winter may or may not have appeared smaller than the ones I watched as a six-year old from the upper deck at Shea Stadium in 1972. Perhaps Alliance Bank Stadium is only utilitarian and doesn’t turn me on, but there is no seat in the house which I don’t appreciate by comparison.

Chase Lambin leads off the second with a full-count walk, Chris Duncan flies to right against the pitcher L.J. Gagnier, and shortstop Pedro Lopez puts his foot in the bucket for another 6-4 inning ending double play. They’ve sold SRO tickets again, and the seat flap is in full motion at the park tonight. Three guys are kicked out of their places, and then I exchange for a lower seat so two of them can sit together. I’m at the second rail, all the better now for watching Mud Hens left fielder Deik Scram live up to his name as he lines a 1-0 Strasburg offering past Whitesell at first base. The ball rattles around in the Chiefs’ bullpen, the ump signals the ball is still in play and still live, and Scram blurs against deep green as he turns second and takes third. The pure form of the play is beautiful and has already passed me by. Catcher Robinson Diaz pops foul to first. Will Rhymes swings at the first pitch and grounds it to second, holding Scram at third. Just when the Chiefs think they are out of the inning safely, Strasburg throws one into the dirt that catcher Devin Ivany cannot control. The ball goes to the backstop and the tying run is home. Sizemore takes two balls and lines hard straight to Lambin at third. Stephen Strasburg has given up a run in Triple-A baseball; its up to the Chiefs to respond.

They do, sort of. Catcher Robinson Diaz makes a long run towards the home dugout to foul out Eric Bruntlett. Chiefs’ backstop Ivany flies to center, 2-2. Pete Orr(some) then clocks a 1-1 into deep center and runs for his life, pulling up at third only a fraction of a second before the ball arrives. Now, Leonard Davis chops a ball between the pitcher and first, and the Mud Hens have trouble. Gagnier leaps off the mound and tries a pallid toss, but Streiby cannot find the bag and drops the ball for trying. Orr scores from third. An annoyed Gagnier strikes out Mench looking 0-3, and I am marking this in my notebook when the trouble starts. The write-up the next day will say that Mench flipped his bat, and that this was the cause of his ejection from the game. The greater problem is that the Mud Hens have cleared the field quickly, isolating Mench at the plate in a way that can only bring trouble. Whether or not such a thing could be engineered by a team coming off is a question. Now after Mench is ejected, Chiefs’ manager Trent Jewett quickly follows him to the locker room, staying after the worst is done and having a good long say, bobbing his head in anger to let his delighted audience know that he is doing his job.

The radar gun attached to one of the light towers in center field has reached 97 or 98 once or twice tonight, but for Strasburg, that mysterious stuff called ‘stuff’ is missing. How stuff is lost, nobody knows. How stuff is regained in the repeated motions of a game remains a mystery. Like people in other people’s lives, it gets lost and shows up again.  Nobody better describes this flow and the tension of trying to find it than Ken Dryden, long time goalie for the champion Montreal Canadiens’ hockey teams of the 1970’s, in his book The Game. His pages, highly recommended, are not an anthem to the game of hockey, but more nearly a journal about the game of finding, and losing, ‘stuff.’

Speaking of losing stuff, the scoreboard begins a list of license plates of cars that are about to be towed. Its rotation becomes perpetual for the next two or three innings, a blur of algebra in which nobody could possibly find their number. On the railroad track over the left field fence gray cars pass. They’re as big as houses with seeming windows stacked to three stories. They grind to a halt like a frozen frame of ‘Schindler’s List.’ I wonder what’s in them: people? Chickens?

I’ve been jawing with one of the ushers whose station is at my rail. We pass the usual b.s. Pete Orr stands on third base after his triple, and we say, “You and I would be tossed out at second.” “If we even decided to make the turn at first.” By the end of the fifth, I ask him if he knows what’s in the railroad cards. “Cars,” he echoes me. “Automobiles. You can tell by. . . .” Something I miss. “Boy, when they start loading those babies, you’ll see people fly then.”

Chickens!? What do I think this is, the Depression?

Guillen leads off the fourth with a sharp single to right. Streiby goes down swinging. Jeff Frazier then clocks a 1-0 pitch into the left field lane; it’s a clear double, but Guillen, pro that he is, trundles to third and stops. Casper Wells takes Strasburg’s first offering to left and the game is again tied. After Dlugach k’s on three straight pitches, Deik Scram smashes a ball towards shortstop Pedro Lopez. Saving a run, Lopez launches himself in a full stretch and brings the ball down with him on a play that will make ESPN’s top ten of the night. In their turn, Whitesell fouls out to second, Lambin flies to right, Duncan walks, but Lopez, the hero with the glove, pops out to right field to strand the runner.

In the fifth Robinson Diaz climbs the ladder and misses everything for his pains, Rhymes goes down on a 1-1 grounder, and Sizemore sends a deep fly to center on the first ball he sees.  The game is in the tension of a 2-2 tie, and the play becomes automatic as both sides wait to see what, or who, will break it. Bruntlett strikes out. Ivany pops to the pitcher 0-1. Orr finally draws air, preserving the draw.

The usher and I are saying who knows what, so it takes a minute to register in the top of the sixth—Strasburg has been pulled from the game. Five innings pitched, with five hits, two runs, one earned, and five strikeouts, no walks, the night is shortened and lost for Boy Wonder. Now managing the game, pitching coach Greg Booker has seen enough warning signs for the night. Perhaps the long smash by Sizemore convinced Booker to pull Strasburg. But it’s Jason Bergmann out there warming up. No one in the stands has quite taken this in yet, even as Guillen strikes out. Steiby reaches on an infield hit to short, but then gets quashed on the front end of a double play hit into by Frazier.

The game breaks open in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Will Rhymes fumbles a grounder to third by replacement second baseman Luis Ordaz. Gagnier is then called for a balk. Whitesell singles gently to center, propelling Ordaz only to third. With runners on first and third, Chase Lambin spanks a ball to the right field alley that bounds over the fence on one hop. Whitesell must hold third by ground rules, but Ordaz has walked home. With the spell of the tie broken, Toledo manager Larry Parrish decides to walk Chris Duncan and pitch to Pedro Lopez. I had noticed this power gap in the lineup before the game and wondered if anything would come of it. Now Lopez sets me to rights, lofting a ball deeply enough to bring home Whitesell and send Lambin to third.  Eric Bruntlett follows with a strong single that plates Lambin and advances Duncan around the apex of the diamond.

Josh Rainwater finally replaces Gagnier, but the result is the same: Ivany shoots a grounder just off of Guillen at second, plating Duncan. Finally Orr, out of heroics for the night, pops to short.

The home team ahead 6-2, the crowd relaxes and the game slumps. Just as the train loaded with autos not chickens ground to a halt to allow passage for a train coming the other way, the game seems to halt to give leeway to another game headed in the opposite direction. The Mud Hens score in the seventh on a walk, an error to shortstop Lopez and a sacrifice fly, but Booker brings in closer Joel Perata, whose ninety-plus heat soon convinces the ‘Hens that they are cooked. Mailing the rest of the game in, the players on both sides slow down to a drag. Annoyed at watching a mail-in the fans spring to life and try to prod the players with their voices. It’s garbage time.

You can tell Carlos Guillen has already made it to the majors because every time he hits a foul ball he strides from the plate and pouts. Carlos shouldn’t hit no foul balls at pipsqueak Triple-A Syracuse. He manages to draw a walk but Streiby flies to center placidly to end the seventh. When Jeff Frazier leads off the Mud Hens’ eighth, he works a 2-2 count off Peralta before someone in the stands yells, “Down goes Frazier!” Worse yet, this works. He swings at the next pitch and grounds out to second. Dlugach slaps a single, but my new All Time, All Name Team left fielder Deik Scram is overmatched and goes down 0-3.

“Ought-oh,”I say to the usher in the top of the ninth. Robinson Diaz slams a 2-2 count deep to center, but Orr tracks it down. I want this thing to end, and yet I am in no hurry for it to end. I am good and lost, and I am in no hurry to be found. A fellow employee is coming up the aisle, and my usher makes a show of calming down a group of congregating teens who are filling the walkway to add to the heckling. Rhymes whiffs. At last Sizemore lofts a ball to left, where Leonard Davis tucks the game away. I pull out of the parking lot, see one sign for I-81, and then no others. I circle the Carousel Mall. I work alternate left and right turns and find a sign for 690 West and entirely by chance this leads to my route. Next time, I’ll remember to bring the atlas. With that mental note filed away, I settle in for the drive. There is nothing else in my head. I am watching the road for hazards.

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