Author Archive

The Twists and Turns of Edwin Jackson

It is 2019, and Edwin Jackson is making his first major league start of the season.

As far as games in mid-May go, this is not a particularly compelling one. The Blue Jays are not very good, and neither are the Giants; it is a sleepy grey afternoon in San Francisco, cool and windy. The Giants do have Shaun Anderson making his major league debut, and the Jays have the constant allure of Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. There is little promise, though, of fireworks on the pitching side.

Jackson is a veteran right-hander filling in a vacancy in a weak rotation. There is no expectation of transcendence here. He opens the frame by hitting Joe Panik with a cutter; he follows that up with a four-pitch walk to Steven Duggar, he of the 5.0% walk rate. Two men on, nobody out.

Jackson doesn’t seem frazzled. He gets ahead of Evan Longoria, and then, on a 93.6 mph fastball, induces a double play ball. And though he doesn’t emerge from the inning unscathed thanks to a Pablo Sandoval double, the damage is minimal. One run comes across; the game is tied.

When the third out is recorded, Jackson walks back to the dugout, having finished his first inning on a new team for the 14th time. Read the rest of this entry »


Mike Fiers Threw His Second No-Hitter

Last night, Mike Fiers threw his second no-hitter. He no-hit the Reds on 131 pitches, with three batters reaching against him on two walks and an error. It was the 300th no-hitter in major league history, and Fiers became the 35th pitcher in major league history to throw multiple no-hitters.

“You almost get emotional,” he said after the game.

***

The lights were out. Three panels of them out of five on the tower were non-functioning, looming barren above left field at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Where usually there were rows of bright lights, a series of illuminations hanging above the names of Jackson, Henderson, Eckersley, there were instead the unimpressive shadows of bare bulbs.

The problem was unanticipated, and clearly not easily fixed. I was watching when the lights went out at Dodger Stadium last year, and that technical issue certainly looked more impressive — one moment I saw a ballpark where a baseball game was happening; the next, a panicky wave of cell phone flashlights cresting a sea of darkness. But while play resumed for the Dodgers in just 20 minutes, it took almost two hours for the scheduled game between the Reds and the A’s to begin. Fifteen more minutes and the game wouldn’t have happened at all. Even as Fiers took the field to begin warming up, the lights still flickered, unsure. Read the rest of this entry »


The Unstoppable Matt Shoemaker

I thank God every day. It’s still a dream. Being here, it’s a dream. It’s surreal and I’m trying to hold onto it.

Matt Shoemaker, 2013

***

The Blue Jays are playing the A’s. Two out, an 0-2 count in the bottom of the third, a runner on first. Matt Shoemaker is facing Stephen Piscotty.

You can probably guess what’s coming next. It’s Shoemaker’s specialty, his put away pitch, the pitch he has thrown 71% of the time this season when facing a right-handed hitter in a two-strike count: a splitter, diving out of the bottom of the zone. Matt Chapman guesses, and he takes his chances, straying a few steps away from first. Stephen Piscotty guesses, and when the pitch leaves Shoemaker’s hand, he doesn’t swing.

They guess right — it’s a splitter, low, and it hits the dirt in front of Danny Jansen. Ball one. But Jansen recovers it faster than Chapman can recover his steps. He throws to first, where Rowdy Tellez is waiting, ready. They have Chapman caught. And as Tellez chases after him, ball in hand, Shoemaker does what he’s supposed to do. He runs from the mound to cover first, and when the ball comes his way, he, too, is ready. He sprints alongside Chapman, both of them unstable, the unwieldy dance of the rundown clearly in its dying stages. Shoemaker reaches out his glove, turns to avoid a collision, and suddenly —

Something is wrong. Read the rest of this entry »


The 17-Year-Old Boy in the 16-Foot Boat

The summer of 1962 was one of political turmoil. Within the United States, the civil rights movement continued to fight for an end to racial segregation, and outside the United States, the globe-consuming tension of the Cold War continued to intensify. The Vietnam War continued to escalate, with Robert F. Kennedy declaring in February that the United States would not leave Vietnam until Communism was defeated. The Space Race proceeded apace, with both Americans and Russians being launched into orbit. And the brewing conflict between President Kennedy’s administration and the still-new Castro regime in Cuba was reaching a fever pitch. In February, President Kennedy extended the embargo on trade with Cuba to include almost all exports; in March, the participants in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of the previous year were put on trial by the Cuban government, and in May were sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment. Both the United States and the USSR continued to test new kinds of nuclear warheads. The Cuban Missile Crisis loomed on the horizon; by midsummer, it was already clear that the pressure was about ready to boil over.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that this conflict found its way into the relatively uneventful world of American professional baseball, where the most interesting thing going on was the Mets’ 120-loss inaugural season. Baseball in the United States, after all, is embedded in the national mythology, from the legends surrounding the sport’s invention to its status as America’s Pastime. The cultural significance of baseball was not lost to either side of the Cold War Conflict. New York Mirror columnist Dan Parker wrote that he was sure the world would be a better place “[i]f more ambassadors used sports instead of double talk as their medium of expression,” and that he’d “like to see the new envoy to Moscow introduce himself in the Kremlin by fetching Uncle Joe Stalin a resounding whack on the noggin with one of Joe Dimaggio’s castoff bats.”

Soviet paper of record Izvestia, meanwhile, in an attempt to undermine baseball’s status as a pillar of American values, claimed baseball was actually a descendant of the old Russian game lapta. In Cuba, where baseball had been the country’s most popular sport for almost a century, the game had developed yet another ideological purpose as a nationalist symbol, with the excellence of Cuban baseball demonstrating the values and victory of the revolution. 

In August of 1962, the ideological tensions existing in baseball manifested themselves in the form of one unlikely person: a 17-year-old boy in a 16-foot boat.

***

On August 5th, 1962, the Associated Press ran a curious news item. The headline read “Cuban Baseball Player Branded as Traitor,” and opened with this paragraph:

A Cuban baseball player who signed a U.S. major league contract but kept it a secret so he could disqualify his nation’s entry in the Central American Games has been denounced as a traitor, Havana Radio said yesterday.

The story identified the player as one Manuel Enrique Ameroso Hernandez. There was no other information about him, no age or identifying characteristics. All that was known was what he had done, and what he had planned to do: He had signed a contract with a major league team, which made him a professional baseball player, and had intended to identify himself as such and claim political asylum in Jamaica, where the Central American Games were being held. The Cuban team, then, having had a professional play for their team, would be disqualified from the competition.

Given baseball’s cultural importance to Cuba and the revolution, this would have been a stunning act of sabotage if it had been successfully carried out. But Hernandez’s reserved, apathetic demeanor leading up to the competition drew suspicion, and he eventually admitted his plan to his teammates. His actions were condemned in the strongest possible terms. Teammates were quoted as saying that they “would prefer death a thousand times before selling ourselves for the bloody dollars of the Yankee monopolies,” and the team issued a statement condemning “the traitorous and miserable attitude of Ameroso Hernandez for having signed as a professional and keeping this secret for the ruinous and cowardly object [of giving] our enemies the opportunity to disqualify our invincible team.” There was no clarification of what was to happen to Hernandez, nor of which major league team he had signed with in the first place.

In the coming days, as the story spread in the American media, more information came out about Hernandez. There was, first, the fact of his talent: Raul Castro had only recently sung Hernandez’s praises on the national stage as Cuban baseball’s finest player, and assessed his annual value at $60,000. (The highest salary in the major leagues in 1962 was $90,000, earned by both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.) This revelation was followed by one that made the former all the more surprising: Hernandez was only 17 years old. Read the rest of this entry »


A Surgical Probe into the State of Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox

Getting a major, non-emergency surgery is a strange experience. One moment you are yourself, living in the body you have always inhabited, even if that body is now dressed in an unfamiliar and unflattering set of garments foisted upon you by the nurses. You are then wheeled into a cavernous room, where you are laid out on a slab for dissemination, surrounded by a motley crew of strangers with covered faces. Some bustle around with arcane metal implements; others pat you on the shoulder and tell you to have good dreams, thereby placing an unnecessary amount of pressure on you not to have bad dreams, in which case you would have failed at one of your two tasks in this scenario. (The other task is, of course, not dying.) And in what seems like moments (but also seems like a very long time, somehow), you wake up confused, unable to move or speak, with your body permanently altered in ways that you will likely never be able to fully understand. In just a few hours of unawareness, your experience of reality is fundamentally changed. There is nothing you can do but try to adjust. 

The last baseball game I watched before I went under was the Mariners home opener. The Mariners played this game against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox and ace Chris Sale, and they won 12-4. Save for their poor defense, they looked all-powerful. The Red Sox looked uniformly awful. The baseball season is full of these little flauntings of expectation: fun, ultimately insignificant. A larger data set irons everything out in the final reckoning. When I got knocked out for surgery in the early morning on March 29th, I had differently-arranged bones, no titanium screws or plates in my body, and a fundamental, unshakeable understanding that the 2019 Seattle Mariners were not, and the 2019 Boston Red Sox were, a reliably excellent baseball team.

I spent the several days post-surgery in a quasi-real state, drifting in and out of consciousness, oozing blood from various orifices, unable to eat much more than hospital-issue jello. When I got home, I tried to watch some baseball. My attention drifted with such hazy determination that it seemed as though a higher power were directing it away, and even without that, I couldn’t stay awake for three hours on end. As my energy and ability to function gradually returned, I was confronted by the massive backlog of undone tasks and unresponded-to emails that appears when you disconnect from the world for a few days.

And so it happened that I didn’t really get a chance to clue back into the baseball universe until this weekend. The world that greeted me was nothing short of astonishing. While I was gone, the Mariners had become the greatest offensive juggernaut that has ever been seen in the history of professional baseball. The Red Sox, meanwhile, had continued to be awful. Just awful! It was astonishing, an astonishing truth to reckon with, especially while on four different kinds of medication.

One reliable element of this new reality, though, was that the Blue Jays were terrible. The team has a collective wRC+ of 63, which in layman’s terms could be described as “ass.” I have seen the Red Sox beat the Blue Jays many, many, many times, and I have seen Chris Sale dominate the Blue Jays many, many times since he made the move to the Red Sox. In 43 innings pitched against the Jays with the Red Sox prior to this season, he allowed but 11 earned runs, and struck out 37.9% of the batters he faced, which has made for some frustrating baseball-watching experiences as a Jays fan. But as an appreciator of all things Sale — the violence of his pitching motion, the sweep of his slider, his cryptid-like frame and terrifying demeanor, his alleged belly-button piercing — watching him pitch against the Jays is a treat.

And there he was on Fenway’s Opening Day, a day of celebration, a reminder of the indomitable World Series championship team of last season, and a reminder that the team taking the field this season is much the same one. The fans were loud, and the weather was gloomy. This was the first game since my surgery that I had a chance to sit down and really focus on; and this, at last, was comfortingly familiar. The Red Sox were an anchor in my sea of uncertainty, the team connecting my pre-op baseball experience to my post-op existence.

For the first three innings, the game wasn’t much more than a great opportunity to catch up further on my rest. Sale retired the first seven batters he faced. His fastball velocity, a matter of justifiable concern for him this season, was up from his last start (though he still failed to generate any swinging strikes with the pitch). Same old 2019 Blue Jays. Same old Chris Sale. The Red Sox managed to score a pair of runs off Matt Shoemaker; everything was as it should be. Sale struck out Richard Urena to lead off the top of the third.

Then Alen Hanson poked a high slider into left field.

It was not a good pitch — Sale’s slider, like virtually all his other pitches, has not had its characteristic venom so far this season. He has not located the pitch well, and this one, too, was poorly placed, high and hanging over over the center of the plate. The ball was not exactly well-hit either, though, and it was just the one baserunner. No big deal. Nothing to see here.

Then Billy McKinney poked another high slider into center field. This slider was a better one — harder, coming at 81 mph instead of 77, and floating less casually over the plate — and McKinney hit it softly, without much conviction. But now, all of a sudden, the Jays had a rally brewing. (The Jays have had three or fewer hits in four of their 12 games this season.) And on Sale’s first pitch to Freddy Galvis, with the hit and run on, the Jays turned that rally into a scoring play. A sac fly tied the game on the next batter before the inning came to a close.

This sequence of events was bizarre to witness — the hit and run actually working, and the Jays managing to get enough runners on base to make the hit and run a viable possibility. As it turned out, the real break in the fabric of reality was yet to come.

The top of the fourth began with yet another single, this time by Randal Grichuk, off a slider that failed to sweep across the plate, instead hanging up and out of the zone on Sale’s armside. (Last year, 48% of swings generated by Sale’s slider were whiffs; this year, that number has dropped to only 28%. Sale threw 26 sliders against the Blue Jays; he generated five swinging strikes against seven balls in play.) This was promptly followed by a Danny Jansen single on a fastball out of the zone, which was promptly followed by an aborted bunt attempt by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Perhaps confused by the sudden switch from bunting to not-bunting, Christian Vazquez let the ball bounce off his glove.

Grichuk advanced to third. And after a long plate appearance, which included at least one other failed bunt attempt, Gurriel finally shot a single into right field. The Jays had their second three-hit inning of the day, and they had the lead again.

By this point, I felt like I was losing my mind. While all of these singles were certainly the result of some amount of contact-related BA(d)BIP luck, and the passed ball was certainly not his fault, the fact that Sale was allowing this much contact at all — that, almost two weeks after that fateful game the day before my surgery, he looked almost as bad as he had back then — that the Reliably Excellent Red Sox had the same number of wins as my sad little Blue Jays, and that those same Jays now had the lead — none of it made sense. None of it tracked with the concept of baseball reality I had nurtured through my absence. I wondered if the painkillers were eating away at my brain cells.

A sacrifice bunt moved the two baserunners over. Hanson struck out swinging for the second out of the inning. The put-away pitch was Sale’s first swinging strike generated on a four-seamer this season, yet another fact that makes me feel that I have phased into a different dimension of existence. Sale stood for a moment, his jersey rippling gently in the wind, signifying a peace and tranquility that would never come. He threw to the plate, and Vazquez assumed an ideal catching position.

The ball sprang away. One runner came home; the other, Gurriel, scampered to third — from whence he proceeded to do this.

A straight steal of home, on a ball thrown a mile wide of the plate, after an inning where a catcher was possessed by the departed spirit of Rudy Kemmler, and a team with a .193/.268/.320 collective line put together two three-hit rallies. How does one even react appropriately to this? What’s the precedent?

The inning ended with no further runs, and Sale left the game, but its effects lingered, rippling through the chilly air, through the frequency of the boos that rained down onto the field from the Red Sox faithful. Something was off. This was not what was supposed to be happening. The team faded out for the winter, and when they woke up in the spring — the same team with the same players who had won the World Series — their experience of reality had fundamentally changed.  The Red Sox fell to 3-9, in the cellar of the AL East. Their playoff odds, sitting at 88.7% on Opening Day, have nosedived to 63.4%.

Yet that’s still a better chance than not. It’s still better than the Rays, who have flapped their slimy ray wings and glided into first place. Sale says that he’s never felt this lost, but the likelihood of him remaining lost forever seems slim. The experience of reality has changed, but most of the time, things have a way of smoothing over, of returning to the way that they’re supposed to be. Most of the time, the statistics normalize; the issues are problem-solved; the physical and mental injuries are recovered from. The pitcher who’s losing his fastball finds different ways to pitch. The cracks where the bones were separated fuse together again. Something has changed — it will heal, eventually. The titanium screws will always be there, but you’ll largely forget they exist. You just have to survive the adjustment period.


The Meaning of Ichiro

Sure, he’s won seven straight batting titles in Japan, but it’s telling that, in English, “Ichiro Suzuki” roughly translates to “Can’t hit Pedro.”

– The Utah Chronicle, March 30th, 2001

It is late afternoon in Seattle, and it is the beginning of April, and it is quite cold. The Mariners are going to play the Oakland A’s. Today, the baseball starts counting. Across the infield dirt, just behind second base, a few faint letters mark the time: 2001.

More than 45,000 people are here, the most that have ever crowded into this still-new stadium. There’s less team spirit on display than you might expect. Most of the attendees aren’t flaunting jerseys; they’re bundled up, hands tucked into coats. The fading sunlight falls over the stadium from behind the pale, high clouds, and as a few Mariners take the field, running sprints across the outfield grass, a hearty cheer rises up to greet them. The men in white stretch, pulling arms and bouncing in lunges, before trotting back to the dugout. Not much longer, now. Not much longer.

High up on a view level fence, in front of a kid and their dad, you can see a white posterboard, letters painted in amateurish block text: “WELCOME ICHIRO.”

Many of them know only what the numbers can tell them, the list of achievements that made him worth tens of millions. Seven straight batting titles and a lifetime .353 average. Some may have gone down to spring training, gathering in the Arizona heat, and seen it for themselves: 26 hits, catching batting practice fly balls behind his back, throwing runners out at third with seemingly effortless throws from deep right. The speed — the Mariners said they’d clocked his home-to-first time at 3.7 seconds. (The fastest average home-to-first time among major leaguers in 2018 was 3.86.) Read the rest of this entry »