The Summer Nate Pearson Came to Town

I’m biased, but I think summer in Vancouver can be one of the most beautiful seasons anywhere in the world. The rainforest, having spent the autumn, winter, and spring growing lush under the cover of clouds and rain, shines rich green under the sun, illuminated by the light coming off the ocean. It’s hot, but not overwhelmingly so. On some days, you can look out over the water and see the spout of a humpback whale or the dark, swift-moving fins of a transient orca pod. And at sunset, the bright place where the sky and the ocean meet seem to go on forever.

In the summer of 2017, fires engulfed the Pacific Northwest. There was record heat; record time passed between rainfalls. I spent that summer working in a basement shop, bitter and sad, and when I emerged from the top of the staircase at the end of every day, I would often see a sky choked thick with ash and smoke, the sun swollen and red. Everything that was normally so vibrant was cast over with a dull haze. It was sometimes difficult to breathe. I thought, at the time, that it seemed apocalyptic: the reality of climate change clearly visible above me, around me, hanging in the air itself.

That was the summer Nate Pearson came to town.

***

The Vancouver Canadians are the Blue Jays’ short-season affiliate, playing in the Northwest League. Baseball has a long, diverse history in Vancouver, though the city isn’t exactly baseball-crazy. Back when the Canadians were a Triple-A franchise, affiliated most recently with the A’s, there were some pretty lean years in terms of attendance and interest. But a renovation of their ballpark, the 68-year-old Nat Bailey Stadium, and affiliation with the recently-successful Blue Jays has made the franchise one of the healthiest and most well-attended in the minor leagues. The banners around the stadium show some of the Canadians alumni who are currently successful major leaguers — Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard, to name a few.

They show, too, the legends who visited and played in Vancouver in days long gone: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who came north on barnstorming trips. Though thoroughly renovated for the demands of a 21st-century baseball team, the Nat is deliberate in making you feel its history. A little museum is tucked into the concourse under the grandstand; the tall wooden scoreboard is a replica of the original, salvaged from the remains of Sick’s Stadium in Seattle.

The concourse on game days is a cramped hubbub of strong smells and motion — families and groups of adults squeezing into shapeless lines to get their beers and helmet-shaped buckets of nachos before maneuvering to their seats. Most are just there for a fun, low-stress night out  — affordable entertainment can be hard to come by in one of Canada’s most expensive cities. But even if you’re just there to chill, have a drink, and watch the sun fade over the trees, there’s always the chance that you will encounter a player on the first steps of their journey to professional baseball greatness. They might not even be on the field: Jeff Francis, in his college days, manned the Nat scoreboard.

When I was a kid, I went to Canadians games infrequently, as a treat. It was before the renovations, before the team’s revival; I didn’t think too much of the experience. In 2017, though, spending my days in the basement listening to the Jays struggle on the radio, I felt the pull towards live baseball. I wanted to sit in the stands with my pen and my scoresheet, to hear all the noises and see all the people.

Every few weeks, then, I would leave work and go straight to a game. I would get there just around when the first pitch was thrown, ready to forget everything except baseball.

***

Nate Pearson debuted for the Canadians on July 23, 2017, after spending all of one game in rookie ball. It didn’t take long for it to become clear that Pearson was beyond the level at which he was playing. He was almost 21, a huge man with a youthful face. When I saw him throw his fastball for the first time a week later — when I saw the triple digits light up on the screen — I almost thought there might be something off with the stadium gun.

Until I saw how totally overmatched the Northwest League hitters looked — how late and desperate their swings were, reaching for any contact at all. And then I saw his slider, swerving hard under flailing bats at 91 mph. My idle ballpark trips were suddenly infused with purpose, my journeys from work more excited. Even an untrained eye could see that this was someone rare — someone whose appearance here in Vancouver, at the lowly short-season level, was special.

The Canadians were in a playoff push that August. That’s likely why we got the chance to see Pearson pitch for so long. It was obvious enough that he was at a higher level of play than his competition. It took until his seventh and last regular-season start for Pearson to finally allow an earned run. His final official line as a Canadian: 19 innings pitched, two earned runs, five walks — 24 strikeouts.

***

When the Canadians did end up making the playoffs, Pearson was the obvious choice to start the first game. That first game was scheduled to take place in Spokane.

But over the six weeks Pearson had spent in Vancouver, the fires hadn’t stopped burning. Down in Washington, they spread even farther and faster than they had in BC. Just days before the series in Spokane was scheduled to begin, a decision was made: The air quality was too poor for the game to be played there safely. It would be played instead in Vancouver, with Spokane as the home team. As soon as I heard about the game moving, I got myself a ticket. I showed up early, ready to experience something amazing.

The first batter of the game reached on an error. The stadium groaned. Pearson struck out the next three batters on nine pitches.

The next inning followed the same pattern. This time, the error was Pearson’s — an overthrow on a groundball. Again, he struck out the side. The third inning began with a single, followed by a walk; three strikeouts ended it. By the time the fourth came around, Pearson’s pitch count was running high. This would likely be his last inning.

And it started well: the first two batters were retired quickly. A four-pitch walk followed. Then another. Then another. Suddenly, the bases were loaded, and Pearson seemed to have lost the zone — gone, all at once, from locked in to lost. The Canadians, at this point, had yet to score a run, or even come close to scoring a run. The game could slip away from them quickly.

Pearson recorded the out. And even though it was a game that wasn’t supposed to be there, that was only happening in front of us due to flames engulfing the forests that we live in — even though it was just a short-season playoff game, not a big-league championship — the cheer that went up from that little grandstand was thunderous.

A week later, the Canadians won the pennant.

***

My strongest memories of that summer of 2017 aren’t of the lonely hours I spent working in the basement. They’re not of the red sun, nor of coughing in the smoky air. They’re of watching Nate Pearson pitching at the Nat. And maybe that shouldn’t be the case. Maybe, in my desperation for joy, I focused on the wrong thing.

Today, Nate Pearson will make his major-league debut against one of the best pitchers in the game. He will face the team that, less than a year ago, won the World Series. He will do so in an empty stadium, in a season that has already been irrevocably marred by a pandemic and a mismanaged outbreak, on a home team that has no home. And I’ll watch every second of it. Because I’m excited about it. Because I am still selfishly looking for joy, even though I can’t shake the feeling that I should be looking somewhere else.

We hoped you liked reading The Summer Nate Pearson Came to Town by Rachael McDaniel!

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Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Stevil
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Stevil

Great story! I’m looking forward to his debut as well, but I really can’t wait to see him square off against Hancock and the Mariners in Seattle some day in the hopefully not so distant future, preferably with a stadium full of Mariner fans.