Even in Baseball, Sometimes Distance Is the Best Thing for Everybody

At first you might think baseball is the safest place to be right now. The game is defined by distance: The 90 feet of chalk to first base, the fluctuating placement of an Atlantic League pitchers mound, the 500 feet between Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and a poorly located fastball.

On the field, everybody’s standing far more than six feet apart. But inevitably, distance closes as players congregate at home after a dinger or outfielders perform a choreographed jumping move following a win. Or, most obviously problematic, fans cluster together in the heat of summer, soaking in fluids, inhaling each other’s breath, and scraping against each other’s knees as they make their way to their seats, stepping in puddles of spilled beer and peeled-off band-aids. Really, it’s kind of surprising baseball wasn’t the epicenter of a global pandemic rather than a victim of its cultural impact.

Humans are drawn to each other. Not always, and not everybody, but before, during, and at the end of the game, we come together to celebrate or commiserate or get on the subway. In times like these, in which the future of baseball is left ambiguous given the alarming and very real nature of a planet-wide crisis, it becomes clear that on occasion, distance can be the best thing for us.

As common a tactic as the mound visit is, not having one can be just as valuable. Baseball is full of pitchers who understood the value of distance, and their instinct to maintain it has allowed them to find great success.

Mike Mussina famously told Joe Torre to “stay there” when he approached the field. Touching the dugout steps before Max Scherzer is ready to the leave the game is a great way to get screamed at. Twins manager Tom Kelly said he would have needed “a shotgun” to get Jack Morris out of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith once waved off Tommy LaSorda, and he was just trying to give him a pinch-runner after he’d been hit by a pitch.

Call it passion, drive, stubbornness; in this context, distance is a symptom of self-assuredness. Leave me alone. I can do it. I got this. Many times, a pitcher is not a reliable source on these matters, but in the case of the above examples (and others throughout baseball history), the manager on the receiving end of a pitcher’s ire has trusted the judgment of the man screaming at him from a dirt mound 30 feet away, and they’ve often seen it pay off.

Distance can be therapeutic in this way. While stopping the spread of disease is a primary benefit of it, distance can isolate us, devastate us, and let us forget how to communicate. But it can also bring us peace, quiet our screaming minds, and rediscover interest. Leaving a pitcher alone to figure things out can be crucial to in-game success — as well as out-of-game life decisions.

Over 92,000 people had helped shatter the Dodger Stadium attendance record for Game 5 of the 1959 World Series. Game 1 had seen the White Sox pound the Dodgers 11-0, but the next three contests were quieter affairs, as the Dodgers slipped past Chicago with scores of 4-3, 3-1, and 5-4. The series was coming down to who could hold the line, as one bad pitch, as it always can, could let a slim lead slip away.

Late in the game, White Sox manager Al López and Dodgers skipper Walter Alston went tit-for-tat with the lineup card, and when the dust settled, López had put Chicago’s precarious 1-0 lead in the hands of pitcher Dick Donovan. “The Smiling Irishman,” they called him; a man who’d once tried to get some distance from his manager, and when that failed, tried to get it from baseball entirely.

Four years prior in 1955, Donovan had his contract sold by the Braves to the White Sox. In his early twenties, he’d suffered from minimal usage and maximum earned runs in Boston, landed with the Tigers for two disastrous appearances, and been returned to the Braves like an unwanted sweater. The White Sox were a fresh start, though the deal to acquire him had been conditional, meaning the White Sox, like the Tigers, had asked the Braves for a receipt.

It was around this time that Donovan had considered stepping away from baseball, giving himself some distance from the mound and reconsidering his options. Perhaps he would be more successful selling insurance, he wondered; a curious thought from a man who had enough trouble selling himself. But from far away, the mound seemed to have appeared less daunting, and it would not be too long before he stepped back on it.

Donovan used his new Chicago setting to skyrocket to All-Star status at 27, making 24 starts good for 2.4 WAR, despite not being the most overwhelming talent on the staff: At his best, Donovan only logged 4.2 strikeouts per nine and 1.83 strikeouts per walk.

“I knew it was my last chance,” Donovan told reporters. “I was determined this time to make good.” (The Associated Press, October 7, 1959)

He was so determined, in fact, that in one early start with Chicago, he had refused to come out of a game. It was late April and the Athletics had pounded him with a singles barrage in the first inning and then again in the fifth, building a 5-0 lead. With two runners still on base, White Sox manager Marty Marion was ready to call it a day, but Donovan was… not. Despite Donovan’s protests, Marion closed the distance between them until they were both on the mound, having a frank exchange of ideas regarding whether or not Donovan would keep doing what he was doing. But this argument ended the same way it typically does, with Donovan handing the ball over, fearing his grumbling had cost him his job.

When the White Sox GM came to his room that night, Donovan had expected it to be with a train ticket for him to anywhere out of town. Instead, the GM told him they were going to keep him around all year. There would be no distance for Dick Donovan from the White Sox, it seemed, at least not in 1955; and he made sure they didn’t regret it, putting together a dominant first half that included a 1.46 ERA in five appearances in the month of May.

So here he was, four years later, still with the White Sox as they attempted to not lose the World Series in front of 92,000 screaming people who wished quite desperately that they would. With a 1-0 lead, he had to find the zone quick without inviting one of his classic singles barrages out of the Dodgers offense, and for whatever reason Al López felt Donovan was the man for the job.

After retiring the last two batters of the eighth, Donovan was informed of the news: He’d get to go out and protect that 1-0 lead in the ninth inning, too. What could have easily been a wobbly outing full of catastrophic baserunners became the exact opposite: Donovan took a deep breath, found his inner Koufax, and wiped out the Dodgers offense on seven pitches. When he opened his eyes, both he and the White Sox were still alive.

Of course, distance, quite literally, only gets you so far. In that 1955 game, after Donovan got yanked, the reliever that replaced him fired a wild pitch at the screen, which was followed by an error on the shortstop, both of which allowed two more of Donovan’s baserunners to come in and score. In the case of his heroic 1959 World Series appearance, the White Sox came back out for Game 6 and got shellacked, 9-3, losing the series with little of the drama that had defined Games 2 through 5.

As we sit here, yearning for baseball and burrowing into its history to replace its quiet present, it’s important we keep distance at front of mind: From each other, yes, for the sake of staving this virus off and just being decent, responsible citizens. But also, we can let it serve as a new perspective, let us look at the game from a little further away and remember what keeps us attached to it, why it matters, and how fortunate we are to have so much of it to look back on.

Because one day, it’ll be back; and maybe the distance we keep now will have made us feel a little closer to it.

We hoped you liked reading Even in Baseball, Sometimes Distance Is the Best Thing for Everybody by Justin Klugh!

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Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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