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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Charlotte Knights down Durham Bulls: Commitment

Posted by on Sun, May 20, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—It has been a big home stand at the DBAP, about as close to big-league as the environment ever gets at the ballpark. Hideki Matsui is here. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kevin Youkilis came through, too, plus all the attendant media and excitement. The world has been watching.

And last night offered more in the way of pageantry. Just two days after the historic Matsui-Matsuzaka meeting at the DBAP, Saturday was "one of the most important nights in the history of the Durham Bulls," as longtime PA announcer Tony Riggsbee, who donned a coat and tie for the occasion, put it. Riggsbee emceed a pregame ceremony on the field to celebrate the induction of former Bulls manager Bill Evers into the International League Hall of Fame. The Bulls also retired his jersey number (20).

Evers, who is now Minor League Field Coordinator for the Rays, has won more games than any other manager in Durham Bulls history, which dates back over 100 years. This was a well-deserved honor, and he was warmly received by the near-sellout crowd. International League President Randy Mobley was on hand, and made a speech. Evers said a few good words. His name and number were colorfully logoed into the grass behind home plate.

Meanwhile, the press box was still packed with Japanese media covering Matsui.

And then, 21 minutes after the game's scheduled start time, Shane Dyer took the mound for the Bulls, and all at once the excitement burst like a lukewarm water balloon.

That is not Shane Dyer's fault. In fact, he was very excited, even nervous, he said later. The right-hander was just called up from Double-A Montgomery Saturday to pitch the first Triple-A game of his career. He was taking the place of Alex Cobb, who was recalled to Tampa Bay to fill in for the injured Jeff Niemann. Cobb threw seven innings of five-hit, two-run ball, beating the Atlanta Braves. He threw 113 pitches, which I believe is a career high, to earn his fourth career major-league win.

Just the day before, Andy Pettitte was telling reporters that "big league W's are precious." He should know. He has 241 of them. The most recent, on Friday, came well over a year after the last one, during which time he retired, got embroiled in the tawdry mess of Roger Clemens' legal fiasco, and then came back, doing a stint in the minor leagues at age 39 in order to ready himself for the majors.

Enlightened baseball adepts know that a pitcher's win-loss record is not to be trusted as an indicator of how good he really is, but big league wins really are precious, because they are the only wins that mean anything. That makes Pettitte, 54th all-time on the wins list, a truly wealthy man. Big-league W's are the only W's that matter. Triple-A glories are not so much fleeting as faceless, like unminted coins, currency without a national stamp of meaning, and of indeterminate value. Bill Evers' franchise-most 613 wins as skipper of the Durham Bulls are wonderful but weightless. Their importance can only be measured by what the players who earned them went on to do later, and even that is a dubious equation.

And that was part of the reason—along with the swapping out of A-list prospect Cobb for Double-A-list Dyer, who is not among the Rays' top prospects—why it was hard to get excited yesterday. It's the nature of the minors, of course, that the best players go away and you're left with the rest. Most of the time, swimming through life like a fish, not seeing what is above the surface, one can be content to go about one's daily business, such as narrowly focusing one's attentions on the minor leagues. There are certainly ample pleasures in watching Triple-A baseball, not least the opportunity to observe and (for reporters) talk to world-class athletes close-up, free of the chokingly tight control of media and its role in the big-league machinery. (That's part of the reason why most of the best big-league baseball writing comes from bloggers who aren't part of the assembly-line of the MLB-marketed press product.)

But when the pitcher you were recently covering here is suddenly up there, on the biggest stage, getting his fourth career win—how much more precious those first ones are!—and when, looking more broadly at the world, you see the drama of Chelsea's remarkable comeback win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League, one of Europe's if not the world's greatest sporting events... when you witness a venerable figure's induction into a Hall of Fame that is actually, when you think about it, resolutely minor-league and unvisited (almost no one reading this, including its author, even knows where the IL Hall of Fame is or who else is in it)... and when, as circumstantial color, the prestigious major-leaguer currently playing for Durham, Hideki Matsui, strikes out twice, looks bad at the plate, and is now 2-18 though his first five games in Triple-A... Well, it occurs to me at such times that the serial novel I wind up writing about the Bulls over the course of a given season is really not more rewarding than the prelude to a book whose more important chapters I will never be able to compose. Those take place in Tampa, in the big cities, in the big leagues, where I am not. My commitment to this project requires me to write an endless prologue. There is no ending. There is not even a middle. The true action never commences. Perhaps it is better to say that all of this, in the minors, is just a rough draft.

What must one's excitement build around at the DBAP, where the vast majority of fans can name not a single player on their team and have only a nominal interest in what happens on the field? Temporariness and insubstantiality and infinite regress (and also regression to mediocrity) are our totems. The uniform is the same, but the men wearing it change. The good ones discard them for major-league jerseys, the rest keep trading them off. Mayo Acosta is Marquis Fleming is Andy Sonnanstine is Chad Orvella, all wearing No. 12. Exactly how many major-league wins do Bill Evers' 613 Durham Bulls wins equate to? The answer is zero. It is an imaginary number. There is no common factor. The wins here have no value; they are just raw ore in an unseen seam of the earth. The Rays bear upon the Bulls, never vice versa.

I recently reviewed Dirk Hayhurst's new book for Baseball Prospectus, and spent time considering

this key moment [...]: not long after he is called up to San Diego, Hayhurst finds himself in conversation with a fellow Portland Beaver who had also been promoted, earlier in the season. The teammate, referred to as Bentley (a pseudonym), asks if Hayhurst is “enjoying your seven-and-seven”—the seven nights of luxury hotel plus per diem (about $1,000) provided gratis by the Padres by way of allowing callups to get settled in. Hayhurst is clearly overwhelmed by the extravagant treatment and isn’t even sure it should be granted":

“Maybe I’m wrong for thinking this, but it makes me wonder why there is such a huge gap between the guys up here and the guys in the minors. I mean if you just spread out the smallest portion of all this to the guys below, it would make their lives so much easier, don’t you think?”

“That’s a terrible idea,” said Bentley.

Moments later, Bentley explains:

“This is the only level you can make an impact at. It’s the only one that matters—the only one people care about. All the rest of that stuff is just practice to get here.”

“But—“

“No buts.” He stopped me. “This is the only league that matters. Your career in baseball starts here.”



If that is the case, then what can I tell you about yesterday's rather drab game? Dyer's start "wasn't good," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said afterward. "I"m not going to sugar-coat it. He got behind early. He got hit hard, pitched up in the zone." Dyer's go-to pitch, like Andy Pettitte's as it happens, is a cutter—he seemed to throw it a third of the time, maybe even oftener—and as Montoyo noted, "if he doesn't cut it, lefties are going to get him pretty good."

They did, tagging him for six hits and four runs in five innings, with help from two additional right-handed hits. There were some encouraging things to take away: Dyer threw strikes, got 10 swings-and-misses with 78 pitches, and when that cutter really cut, it worked. But actually, on this night, it didn't matter that it didn't always work perfectly and cost him four runs (and the loss). The Bulls hitters were AWOL again. They briefly tied the game, 1-1 when they scratched out three singles and a run in the third inning; but in the Knights' ensuing turn, in the top of the fourth, consecutive leadoff doubles and a sacrifice fly made it 3-1, Knights—just like that.

In the next inning, Dyer got two quick outs and should have had a third. Dan Johnson—yes, that Dan Johnson— hit a sharp grounder down the first base line. Juan Miranda fielded it deep behind the bag, veering into foul territory, and seemed to expect to see Dyer close to covering first. But Dyer wasn't there yet, Miranda hesitated, and by the time he recovered and ran to the bag, Johnson's slide beat him there.

The next batter, Hector Gimenez, tripled into the right-field corner, a nice addition to the two doubles he already had. 4-1, Charlotte, and it might as well have been 14-1. Montoyo repeated, after the game, a line we often hear from him. "Like we always say, it's gonna be up to the starter to give us a chance."

Frankly, four runs in five innings is giving the team a chance. Plenty of pitchers earn wins by allowing four runs in an outing. Montoyo was a hitter, not a pitcher, and it's easier to put the onus on the pitchers when all you've ever known is how hard it is to hit. Pitching probably looks like a breeze in comparison, so why can't these guys just show up and do it right?

Down 4-1 in the fifth inning—and still in the eighth inning—the Bulls were in this game. But they had only two hits past the third inning, and one runner in scoring position. In other words, the hitters have to give you a chance, too.

But when last night they didn't, the pitchers finally cratered. Alex Torres actually looked much better than his line will show (three runs in 2 2/3 innings). He struck out six of the 12 men he faced, throwing his fastball up to 94 mph (he fanned Dan Johnson up in the zone at that velocity), delighting in his pet changeup, and looking confident and purposeful on the mound.

But Torres is also constitutionally incapable of avoiding walks, and the one he issued was a leadoff pass to Gimenez in Torres' third and final inning, the eighth. This was virtually guaranteed to doom him. After a soft single by Josh Phegley, Torres struck out Jordan Danks. But Jim Gallagher hit another single, a long one into the right-center field gap—it was the only really bad pitch of Torres' outing—that Jesus Feliciano did a good job of cutting off to prevent extra bases and keep Phegley from moving to third. Still, Gimenez scored, and that made it 5-1. Game slipping away...

Torres then nearly got the inning-ending double play he needed, but Cole Figueroa's relay pulled Miranda off first base (Miranda didn't exactly extend himself to achieve the double play) and Tyler Kuhn was safe. Montoyo replaced Torres with Ryan Reid, who has been pretty good lately, and Ozzie Martinez greeted Reid with a ringing two-run double off the Blue Monster. 7-1, game over. Buried this far down in the game story is where the final score belongs.

The bright spot, other than Torres, was Charlie Shirek. The Knights' starter moved at blazing speed through the lineup and tossed seven innings of one-run ball, allowing five hits, all singles, and a walk. No sooner did he get the ball back from his catcher than he was looking in for the next sign. It was about as fast as I've ever seen a pitcher work. (Shirek told me after the game that he doesn't like to make his fielders stand around out there; he knows they want to get back into the dugout so they can think about their favorite thing to do: hit.)

This was the third time already this season that Shirek had faced the Bulls. He has held them scoreless in all but two of the 18 innings he has pitched against them. He knew them as an aggressive bunch of hitters, he said—a bumpkin-faced North Dakotan of disarming modesty—so he exploited that aggressiveness with quick activity on the mound. Pitch, swing, pitch, swing. The Bulls swung at almost exactly half of Shirek's pitches: a good 92-93 mph fastball with life on it, a decent slider, a slurvy curve, an occasional changeup. But mostly it was Shirek's relentless pace on the mound that beat the Bulls.

(Dyer generated an even higher percentage of swings: 43 of 78 pitches were offered at. That's very, very high, and in Dyer's case a sign that he needs to keep hitters off-balance a little better, keep them from swinging so freely at his very hittable pitches.)

***

One thing I might like to ask Hideki Matsui, if he sticks around for a bit, is why he's still playing baseball. The moment was right for Matsui to retire after he won the 2009 World Series MVP Award and then found himself mostly unwanted during the following off-season. Still, he was only 35, so he signed with the Angels in mid-December and had a very good season, which he followed with the worst one of his career with Oakland a year later. After 2011, there was no off-season offer forthcoming.

Yet Matsui must have wanted to keep playing. He doesn't need the money, he has nothing to prove. He's just married to it. He doesn't want to do anything else. I suspect that's what he'll tell me, if I ask—something like that. The Rays, he said the other night through an interpreter, were the only team that made an offer, an in-season minor-league deal that pays Matsui $10,000/month, which is approximately what most Triple-A free agents get and which probably doesn't come close to covering his Godzilla-sized expenses. The maximum major-league value of the contact, should Matsui make it to the majors, is under $1 million, 1/13th of what he made in each of his last four seasons with the Yankees.

No surprise that questions of commitment—mine to Triple-A, Matsui's to the game as a whole, etc.—have been on my mind. This is going to be my last game story for a while. I'm getting married next weekend, and then going on a honeymoon that I hope doesn't wane for weeks, even months, and some other obligations that will keep me away from the DBAP for the time being. Perhaps that's just as well.

Heather and I met because of a baseball game, and we have watched an awful lot of baseball together—it has been good practice for the meditative and often time-burning yet quietly rich quality of married life, as it has been described to me—and I must say that it feels right to me that the big step we're taking also means a step away from the Bulls. Having a girlfriend is minor-league. Having a wife is big-league.

But there is one reason why the minors have been a great place to learn how to get married. Triple-A is dominated by change. Players come, players go, players leave and return or achieve a sort of legendary status. Fortunes rise and fall, there are big paydays and huge losses, fabulous successes and total washouts. Good teams go bad and bad teams suddenly bloom. Today's catcher is tomorrow's mop-up reliever, your roommate and pal this season is your opponent next year, and there are long rides to odd places you never imagined you'd visit. And there is tons and tons of downtime.

The game itself—its remarkable, deep design—is stabilizing, just like the institution of marriage. But Triple-A, the place where our game is played, is unstable, always changing, and that is precisely what sustains it. It, like the practice of marriage, is not about getting somewhere, not about the promised land of championships—the daily W's aren't precious here—but rather about the simple, cleansing habit of showing up each day to the very same place, where you come upon, somehow, a whole new set of circumstances, different from yesterday's, and you adapt to them, incorporate them, reconsider what you thought you knew, enjoy the new arrivals and bid farewell to the departed. Look for your pitches and take your swings. The mood is always in flux, the goals are ever-changing. All you can ever do in Triple-A is try to make today, this game, this inning, this pitch, a success. You can't look ahead to what may come. It will come, that's all.

All the while, we trust that, by choosing to don the uniform each day—in our case, the raiment of husband and wife—certain of our truths will perdure, including those in ourselves which attracted the other to us the very first time we met. The game is beautiful as long as it is played with commitment, no matter each individual outcome and no matter how unpredictable its milieu. Everything is going to change, including ourselves, but we will, over and over again, lean in, pick up the signs, come set, and deal. Keep doing that, pitch after pitch, day after day, and I think we'll be alright. If the sport of baseball is also a pastime, then the pastime of marriage is a sport.

Let's play ball.

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If the sport of baseball is also a pastime, then the pastime of marriage is a sport.

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