Prodigal Pastime (2)

I think every seven-year-old with a work ethic knows in his bones that he’ll go pro in his thing. I remember being thoroughly convinced that I would play major league baseball. The notion now is laughable. My final season of league baseball was for the Prospect Heights Middle School Yellow Jackets and my stats were hilarious. It might seem weird, fifteen years later, that I remember them at all until I recount: 0 for 12 on the season with ten walks and fifteen or twenty stolen bases. I got hit by a pitch square in the head once and batted myself to first base another time on a fielder’s choice. I thought it was a base hit but Dad put me straight. Comical. Memorable.

A full-time pinch runner, I was relegated to right field when I even played a full inning. I wasn’t middle school material, let alone JV, varsity, college, pro. But I think everyone denies that fact on some level until forced to stare it in the face. I suppose I could be wrong. My small hometown offered little exposure to the world, but that’s the point. Maybe folks in larger cities or with wider reaches have the bubble popped earlier. More interesting are the different avenues down which that hopeful bubble leads. I remember agonizing over what sort of baseball star I would be, but there were only two options: Cy Young or Triple Crown. I wanted to be either a pitcher or a slugger.

I wasn’t interested in being a Frank Thomas or David Ortiz kind of bat. If either one were an Oriole I would’ve been ecstatic, but I always thought them slow and lumbering. I remember when I moved up from tee-ball to baseball, my Granddaddy commented on my socks. “Ya look fast, boy.” I wore them high, up around my knees (I was also fast). At the time most players wore their pants rolled all the way down over their socks so that they bunched around the tongues of their spikes: Troy Glaus, Manny Ramirez, even Derek Jeter. He hated the New York Yankees but could begrudgingly tip his hat to Alfonso Soriano if for no other reason than that he looked fast – he looked like a ballplayer. It certainly helped that he was fast, that he was a real ballplayer, but something about those socks pulled up to his knees, wading out between first and second base, just screamed “check my lead” to a poor nervous righty.

Fast players were exciting, but I guess home runs were exciting too. I think the main problem was that home run hitters who drew intentional walks, either got one base or the whole diamond, struck me as one-dimensional. Some were. Tactics and the brain game always appealed a bit more. But I was interested in the Albert Pujols model. In his rookie season he hit .329 and racked up 37 home runs, 130 RBIs, and a slew of doubles. I loved watching him and others like him play: Ken Griffey Jr, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada for a couple years. Somewhere deep, I knew home runs were strangling the rest of the sport, so I gravitated to stars that hit enough to grab the spotlight, but whose stats resembled those of former greats. Carl Yazstremski, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and the like weren’t usually a fifty-home-run sort, but they were tops in their eras. Still, I wanted to be the kind of batter with stats: big numbers that jumped off the page, late game heroics people saw from the stands. My other ambition validated that feeling.

I could never shake the romance of pitching. A pitcher with no infield won’t get very far, nor will a stellar defense without any juice at the plate. But no one on the field leaves a more herculean impression than the pitcher. Every play starts in his hand, a bad pitch and the whole thing’s blown, a stellar performance can keep even a struggling offense in the running. Atlas at the mound with 20,000 people on his shoulder.

I watched every minute of the 2001 World Series. It was somber and stretched into the first week of November after the events of two months prior. I was raised to loathe the New York Yankees, but in that series felt a twinge of support. Everyone was rooting for the Yankees but not in the same way that every always roots for the Yankees. Most baseball fans hate the team for their splashy contracts and tendency to win, but the playoffs and World Series pick up quite a few fair weather fans who bet on racehorses. They just want to pick a winner. “My cousins all live in New Jersey.” One friend of mine used that one to excuse his Yankee fandom. His favorite hockey team (sure, hockey) was the Devils, which was fine. His favorite basketball team was the Lakers and his favorite football teams (in chronological order) were the Cowboys, the Rams, the Buccaneers, the Patriots. You’re not fooling anyone, kid. That year, though, it seemed like people really wanted the Yankees to win, to send something big and shiny back to a city battered.

The memorable part of that series, however, was not the odd sense of unity, but the unbelievable top two of the Diamondbacks pitching rotation. The rest of Arizona’s pitching was forgettable, but Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were both future Hall of Famers (for all intents and purposes – Johnson is in, Schilling managed to make himself less palatable in his years as an analyst, but would be otherwise). Johnson was 21-6 that year with a 2.49 ERA and 372 strikeouts (which may as well be a million). Schilling was 22-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 293 strikeouts.

Randy Johnson was an absolute blast to watch. He was 6’11” with scraggly hair and a bizarre three-quarter sidearm delivery that, coupled with his height, made it look like the ball was coming to home plate from down the first base line. He also threw hard – well over 100 mph when he was in the zone. Early in the season he hit an errant bird with a fastball and it exploded in a burst of feathers on the spot. Johnson was quirky, fiery, and damned near unhittable when he got his stride. Curt Schilling was just scary. He was unhittable like Johnson but without the quirks and personality to humanize him. He never spoke or reacted until he boiled over and popped off. Johnson yelled and shook his head, cursed himself, stared down batters. Schilling just spat on the ground and mowed lineups down.

The two were a heck of a combination in the regular season but nothing is sustainable for that long. Going into the playoffs everyone watching knew they’d be unstoppable if they locked in at the right time, at the same time. That’s exactly what happened and I’d never watched anything like it. The two combined for barely a single earned run per nine innings, nine wins and one loss, and over a hundred strikeouts. They were almost literally unhittable.

I fell in love with the idea of being a pitcher as I watched that series. Just the idea. I never had the nerve for the real thing. No one would hit me for two innings, then someone would, I’d walk the next three guys, and get yanked from the mound. The pinnacle of my pitching career was my start in the first game of our end-of-season all-star tournament outside Charlottesville. I made it four innings with maybe a half dozen strikeouts and almost as many walks. I passed off a two-run deficit to the reliever if memory serves. We lost. Mediocrity (if even that) was the extent of my achievement from the mound.

I doubt I would’ve amounted to much of a baseball player even if I’d leveled my head and stuck with it. But I sometimes think about what I missed in my dreams of glory. I wanted to be the guy that knocked runners around the bases or stood alone on the mound and single handedly held the enemy at bay – a Chipper Jones or a Tom Glavine. In the end I was more like a Kenny Lofton but never realized it: not much of a batter though risky enough a jam, not because I’d clear the bases, but because I made doubles out of the occasional single. More to the point, I was a glove.

They keep track of far more stats than they used to, but there’s little tangible glory in being a fielder. My dad was a second baseman and spent most of his time coaching me on how to field ground balls (I just wanted to go to a batting cage but he knew one was more important than the other). He played every sport that way: baseball, tennis, basketball. He was methodical, technical, and infuriatingly frustratingly hard to beat. Granddaddy Melvin is still a legendary amateur league baseball player in my hometown, but I’ve never once heard anyone mention his batting. Apparently he was an acrobatic first baseman, a brick wall on the right-field line who could tag the pitcher’s mound without lifting his toe from the bag. I started at first base with Granddaddy’s help and then moved over to second with Dad’s. For most of my time I played shortstop and a little third base and I was good. But I was twelve years old and didn’t appreciate such things. Double plays and diving snags are a thrill in the moment but ESPN doesn’t televise a race to the season record in putouts.