Slade Cecconi’s First Career Strikeout

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Slade Cecconi must have been nervous. Staring down the first batter of his big league career, the 24-year-old couldn’t quite get on top of a 2-2 curveball. The looping pitch floated harmlessly past LaMonte Wade Jr., well above the strike zone for ball three. Wade called time out, and Cecconi used the respite to take a few calming breaths before returning to the rubber.

For the sixth pitch in a row, catcher Jose Herrera set up on the outside corner. For the sixth pitch in a row, Cecconi overthrew it, yanking a four-seamer toward the left-hand batter’s box. Wade had no time to react as it screamed in toward his hands at 94.8 mph. Only after the ball had made contact did he recoil, leaning away so far and so fast that he had to start jogging backward toward first base just to keep from falling over. Then things started to get stuck.

First, the ball got stuck. It caromed squarely into Herrera’s cup, bounced off his fist, and lodged miraculously between his cup and his groin. He very literally caught the ball with his crotch. For the briefest of moments, Herrera crumpled around the ball, an oyster clamped tightly around a pearl. Then, just as Morales was awarding first base to Wade, Herrera raised his right hand, which held the baseball.

That’s when the game got stuck. The Diamondbacks challenged the hit-by-pitch call. Wade returned to home plate to retrieve his bat, then applied some pine tar in the on-deck circle, which is what hitters do when they don’t know what to do with themselves.

As the replays rolled, it became clear that the ball had struck the knob of Wade’s bat and not Wade. The heat-seeking missile immediately acquired a new target and this time its aim was true. Cecconi had struck out the first batter he’d ever faced on one of the oddest and most literal foul tips in baseball history. But the replay decision was still stuck in New York, and there was time to kill in San Francisco.

Someone taking a 95 mph fastball to the crotch isn’t necessarily the funniest thing in the world. What’s funny is the awkward way it has to be finessed in order to fit into the conceit of a Major League Baseball game. For the broadcasters, the rules are simple: you can show as many replays as you want, but you’re not allowed to use a word that might offend anyone, anywhere. If that means you can’t accurately describe the very thing that the viewer is watching with their own eyes, then so be it.

Giants analyst Mike Krukow had to rein in his folksy charm, trying and failing to find a circumlocution for the word “crotch.” It’s the notes Krukow doesn’t play that turns his narration of the play into art. After all, sometimes people say more in their pauses than they do in their words.

“Take a look at where the ball gets [pause] lodged. Right there in his [longer pause] crotch. [Even longer pause just to make sure he still has a job after saying the word ‘crotch’ on television.] I’ve never seen that before.”

Torey Lovullo went onto the field to confer with crew chief Dan Iassogna. A camera caught him saying, “That’s still a catch, right?” Wade returned to the San Francisco dugout, where he made eye contact with Herrera, who explained through gestures exactly how he’d caught the ball.

The umpires gathered in a circle and chatted, which is what umpires do when they don’t know what to do with themselves. On the Giants broadcast, someone on the production team finally put all the pieces together and said very loudly, “That’s gonna be his first strikeout.” A few moments later, a disembodied f-bomb could be heard floating by, as if to object to the broadcast’s assertion.

Back in the dugout, Lovullo flicked a stray sunflower seed shell off the top of the railing, then called out to ask Herrera where the ball was. The catcher pantomimed a person writing on a baseball, indicating that the ball was already with the MLB authenticator. Its place in history, much like its place in Herrera’s crotch a minute earlier, was secure.

Through it all, Slade Cecconi, six pitches into his major league career, just stood in the middle of the diamond holding a new baseball.

Finally, Iassogna turned on his microphone, but the realization that it was his responsibility to explain to fans that the catcher caught the ball with his crotch seemed to hit him like a ton of bricks. He wore a thousand-yard stare as he began a halting, bowdlerized description of the play.

And then he decided that he just couldn’t do it. That if he were to utter the word ‘crotch’ in front of 28,956 paying fans, all the gravitas he’d earned over 24 years of umpiring would simply drift away into McCovey Cove as the offending monosyllable echoed around the ballpark. That what the fans don’t know won’t hurt them. “After review, the ball — the pitched ball — hit the bat, went into the catcher’s glove,” Iassogna said. “The call is overturned. It’s a foul ball — it’s strike three.”

Boos rained down on Iassogna. The Giants broadcast team showed no mercy either. “But it didn’t go into the glove,” said Krukow. “That’s right,” said Duane Kuiper. “I mean, that’s bad information given to the fans.”

Cecconi tossed the baseball he was holding into the dugout, believing it to be his newest, most prized possession, but Herrera pointed toward the authenticator who already had the right ball, shouting the decoder key that could have summed up the whole affair in an instant: “He got it! He got it!”

Gabe Kapler heaved out toward Iassogna for a chat of his own while Cecconi threw a warmup pitch, which is what pitchers do when they don’t know what do with themselves. Finally, Michael Conforto made his way toward the plate. In all, three minutes and 28 seconds elapsed between the time the ball hit Wade’s bat and the time Cecconi threw his seventh major league pitch. He yanked that one too, but only by a little bit.

Over 4.1 innings, Cecconi allowed two earned runs on four hits and a walk. Perhaps fearful of the awesome destructive power his strikeouts could unleash upon the world, he only whiffed one more Giant.

The NBC Sports broadcast showed five replays of the truth that Dan Iassogna couldn’t bring himself to deliver. It showed them in slow motion, and from various angles, and with the audio turned up extra loud for maximum impact.

The first waveform is the ball hitting the Wade’s bat. The second, much louder one is the ball hitting Herrera’s cup.

Once he realized that he could get away with using the word ‘crotch,’ Krukow tentatively worked it into a few more sentences. “I’ve never seen it happen where it gets caught in a guy’s crotch before,” he said. “I guarantee that’s not in the rulebook.” In fact, the word ‘crotch’ appears in the MLB rule book 15 times. However, none of those mentions refer to that crotch. When the rule book uses the word, it’s referring to the space between the thumb and index finger, in the section that regulates glove size and construction. Under no circumstances should you casually refer to the space between your thumb and index finger as a crotch during a conversation today, just to see what happens next. Once again, you absolutely should not do that. You will end up either at or in very uncomfortable conversation with someone from human resources.

The strange thing about Cecconi’s first strikeout (aside from the one-in-way-more-than-a-million odds that it could even happen in the first place) is that it was a rare moment that drew attention to an area that’s always hiding in plain sight. Baseball is about the only place in everyday life where the human crotch takes center stage. In just about every other situation, people are supposed to keep their legs closed and they do. But nearly every pitch you’ll ever see, every big moment in the last 50 or 60 years of baseball history, starts with the catcher’s crotch at the very center of your television screen, even if the center field camera often offers us a polite distance from it. We’re just so used to it that we don’t even notice anymore. Here’s a look deep into Jason Varitek’s soul a moment before the Red Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino.

With the advent of PitchCom, the catcher’s crotch bears less on-field scrutiny than ever. Gone are the close-ups of the catcher’s painted nails as he flashes through a sequence of signs. But what we’ve lost in tight shots of the battery trying to determine which pitch to throw, we’ve gained in footage from the center field camera, the broadcast staring straight down the barrel of a squatting catcher.

The human crotch is important in its own way. You could argue that it’s the primary difference between humans and merfolk. But on the rare occasion when a baseball player’s crotch enters the conversation, it’s usually for a bad reason: a pulled groin, a misplayed hop, a calamitously long backswing. Baseball is a rough sport. Cecconi’s roster spot was only available because a 100.5 mph comebacker sent Austin Adams to the IL with a fractured ankle. And yet for a brief moment, Jose Herrera, a rookie just like Cecconi, somehow managed to make a play that allowed his crotch to play the hero. When reporters asked how he was doing after the game, Herrera played it cool. “It feels a little sore,” he said.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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8 months ago

Long Live NotGraphs.