How to Watch Baseball, Pt. 1: Wag the Dog

mayo-jarSome ballgames are like the opposite of ballgames. All the overdone nonsense about “the church of baseball” (Bull Durham) and “no clock” and Whitman and “national pastime” and “boys of summer” really sounds silly when you & I are sitting at the ballpark on a frigid April night with the temps plummeting toward freezing, maybe 500 people in the stands and the concessions kiosks closed on account of no customers left.

And it’s even sillier when the Bulls’ third-string catcher, Mayo Acosta, comes into the game to start the eighth inning–as the pitcher. Sure, this sort of thing happens in Triple-A at times. It even happened in the majors last night, or rather, early this morning. Former Bulls catcher Craig Albernaz carved out a little niche for himself as “short reliever” (Montoyo: “I only said that because he’s five-foot-two,” ha, ha), but only in blowouts. One time, Ray Olmedo–who was available to Montoyo last night, again, five years later, I might point out: the eternal Ray Olmedo–Ray Olmedo came into an out-of-gas extraneous-innings game; blew the tie, of course; then got the win in what remains the craziest game I’ve ever seen at the DBAP. (It turns out you were right: Reggy the Purple Party Dude is the creature’s name. Also, Deunte Heath, who lost that game, is still kicking around the International League.)

But when Acosta came in, the Bulls had just tied the score in the previous half-inning. While the Bulls were doing that, I looked down to the bullpen to see who was warming up (well, as warm as you can get on a night like that). Didn’t recognize the guy, thought it might somehow be starter Nathan Karns.

But then, no, it was Acosta who took the mound in the eighth. It’s too bad the Bulls weren’t leading at that point, not because they would have won the game but because a pun about hold-the-Mayo would be exploitable here. His real first name is Mayobanex, which sounds like a Mexican plumbing supply company. He had a brief stint in Durham two seasons ago and disappeared down to Double-A shortly thereafter. I thought we would never see him again, but on the other hand: Craig Albernaz. Acosta has been in the Rays organization his entire pro career, since 2007. It’s funny, Albernaz is five years older than Acosta, but he, too, spent the first eight years of his career, which started in 2006, in the Tampa Bay organization. Repetition. See below.

I haven’t been following the team as closely this year, so I didn’t know to expect that there might be no one left to pitch. I had the dim awareness that the Bulls scuffled through what Neil Solondz used to call a “bullpen-by-committee” game on Monday (they won the game). What he meant by that, of course, was “starter-by-committee,” but even with that it didn’t seem like the Bulls should be down to just three available pitchers–one of whom, it might be added, Doug Mathis, just became a Ray/Bull two days ago, picked up off release waivers from Texas. Yet Mathis, reliever C. J. Riefenhauser, and starter Mike Montgomery were the only dogs in the kennel.

Which brings me to my title. It was Bark in the Park night. Nothing to say about that except to note that if any given game is the pooch in question, when you’re watching Triple-A there are stronger, longer tails (stronger, longer tales?) wagging it. The “bullpen-by-committee” game on Monday owed to doings in Tampa Bay. The Rays thought they might need to call Enny Romero up from Durham, so they scratched him from his Monday start. The Bulls used five relievers to get through those nine innings, and won the game. I’m not sure how exactly this meant that no one was available last night after Montgomery save Mathis and Riefenhauser, because three pitchers on Monday–Juan Carlos Oviedo, Adam Liberatore, and Kirby Yates–pitched only one inning each that night, and none threw more than 21 pitches. Oviedo threw only seven, but on the other hand, Oviedo is returning from Tommy John surgery, and Montoyo is probably under strict and constricting usage orders from HQ.

Further speculation: Liberatore had also thrown more than 20 pitches on Sunday, and was perhaps due two days off. Yates was pretty decently rested, but the Rays’ pitching is a mess in the majors, and Yates is probably the next guy in line for a callup (Brad Boxberger got the 7-and-7 the other day instead), so it’s probable that the Rays told the Bulls to go easy on Yates in case they need him up there.

Who really knows, except this: part of the Triple-A story is always a known-unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld would say. The Bulls are the tail on the big-league dog, and we can’t see the snout. When I went on Twitter and said that Acosta had come into a tie game in the eighth inning, one of my followers replied, “Why?” Because it’s Triple-A, that’s why. Another follower took offense (“an insult to the fans”), but no offense is meant and none should be taken. The Bulls have no say in this, they’re in service to someone else’s wins and losses, to be offended is to cop to fandom of a team that plays in a a league where fandom is an obtuse concern. That the Bulls happen to be a good team almost all the time is something like living in a place that happens to have nice weather nine months of the year, like Berkeley. But there will still be rain, gloom, even catastrophes like earthquakes and Mayo Acosta pitching in the eighth inning of a tie game, which is the same thing as conceding it.

That is, fandom in Triple-A must include rooting for Mayo Acosta to pitch in last night’s game, in the cold. The Bulls only had seven innings of baseball in them last night, thanks to Mike Montgomery (see below, again). That is hilarious, and beautiful, and true to life, which is a frequently cut-short, poorly-budgeted enterprise. Last night was a shaggy dog story: you followed it, panting, for seven tie-ballgame innings, only to have a third-string catcher make his pitching debut and then: release the hounds! Watching Mayobanex Acosta throw weird-looking low-80s wrinklers in the frigid “midwinter spring” (to borrow from Eliot) is not an offense; it’s part of the peculiar joy of watching Triple-A baseball. It was somewhere in the space between the deeply absurd, the touchingly pathetic, and the downright charming. I was so happy sitting there watching this wagged-dog of a game with you, two of just a few hundred fans left by the time Acosta came in, that I didn’t mind that I could barely feel my fingers, even though they had gloves on them.

The silliness of no-clock/Whitman/church-of? It’s all there, and all silly, except this one thing: In baseball you can fall right through time, because baseball repeats itself. It always finds a way, no matter how ludicrous its language. Suddenly it was 2009 again and we were at a game in June, what, a month after we met? It was a ninth-inning blowout. The Bulls had started a left-hander with poor control–remember this: a left-hander with poor control. He hadn’t made it far into the game, the rest of the relief corps took a beating, one of them was a scrap-heap desperation replacement part (like Doug Mathis) named Jorge Julio who was plucked out of the independent Atlantic League and then gone again by August, and when I wrote my game story I put down this paragraph at two in the morning:

And so that is how I found myself explaining to a deeply confused young woman in the stands [not you, it was a stranger; maybe you weren’t at this game] why Alex Jamieson, the Bulls’ third-string catcher–the one who all season long keeps getting “sent down” to “Hudson Valley,” which is code for covering his uniform jersey with a sweatshirt, and then getting “called” back “up,” which is code for taking it off again–was standing on the mound for the second time this season, throwing 44-mph “knuckleballs” (was that what they were?)…

I asked Jamieson what they were. “I call it ‘The Tumbler,'” he said, smiling. Third-string catcher. Scrap-heap reliever. Left-hander with poor control. (As it happened, last night’s Norfolk starter, Eddie Gamboa, was a knuckleballer.)

That night in June 2009, the left-hander with poor control was James Houser. Houser was a favorite whipping boy of mine that year; he was released around the time the Rays released Jorge Julio. Houser actually made it to the major leagues with the Marlins later that season and allowed Miguel Tejada’s 290th career homer, which if memory serves was some sort of landmark homer for Tejada (whom we would see as a Norfolk Tide three seasons later, at our pre-wedding ballgame party two days before we got married).

It was the only big-league appearance of Houser’s life. Career ERA: 20.25. Houser had a major heart problem that cost him the entire 2011 season. If I’m not mistaken it almost killed him. But he came back and he’s still around. Baseball is so tenacious. He wound up in indy ball with the Camden River Sharks and the York Revolution and the Long Island Ducks, where he was pretty good in his second year in the Atlantic League. Now he pitches in Mexico. He has a 1.62 ERA through three games with the Acereros de Monclova. He might very well wind up in Triple-A again. He’s still only 29.

Will Mike Montgomery turn into James Houser? Left-hander with dodgy control. And dodgy with the media, too, like Houser–I’ve never talked to Montgomery, and he was never around the clubhouse after the games he pitched last year. When I tried to interview Houser in 2009, he looked helpless, even terrified. “What do you want me to say?” he pleaded with me, drowning, after I asked him a couple of questions that did not have the answers embedded in them. He had been busted for PEDs the previous season, but because he was on the 40-man roster, he didn’t have to serve a suspension (tricky bit of accounting by the Rays). For the first three months of the season, he somehow always seemed to go five innings and allow only three runs despite five walks, five hits, a hit batter, and an 85-mile-an-hour fastball. He would wiggle out of jams, as Montgomery did last night in the first inning when Caleb Joseph tried to advance to second on a curveball in the dirt and was thrown out to end the inning.

These things catch up with you, like your own dogs chasing you down. Houser’s luck ran out and his ERA climbed. He led the league in walks at the time of his release. Montgomery is better than Houser, but how much better is he? Montgomery was a first-round draft pick, 36th overall in 2008; but Houser–here’s a surprise–was a second-rounder in 2003, 38th overall. Is the distance between them really just that tiny, after all? How soon till we know? Montgomery is 24, the same age that Houser was in 2009.

Montgomery walked five batters last night. He threw 16 pitches to open the game before any Tide swung the bat: he got a strikeout looking on a full-count pitch, then allowed a walk, then reached a 2-2 count on Henry Urrutia before Urrutia swung and missed to strike out. Montgomery balked the guy he walked to second base, which allowed him to score on a ground-ball-with-eyes single by Caleb Joseph.

He allowed four more walks in the second inning. Yes, the ump’s strike zone was a mess; no, that was not why Montgomery walked five batters, nor the reason he allowed a double and a homer in the third inning before Montoyo pulled him–Montoyo no doubt cussing to himself that now he was almost sure to need Mayo Acosta before the night ended. Did he already suspect he’d need Acosta for two innings?

Doug Mathis came in and walked five more batters. Yes, again, inconsistent strike zone. No, again, not why he walked them. Mathis has not had especially good control since 2010, and he hadn’t pitched in more than a week since Texas released him, and–again–it was freezing cold. By his third inning of work, Mathis looked good: a nine-pitch inning, the only 1-2-3 inning any Durham pitcher recorded last night.

In the eighth, Acosta walked the first two batters he faced, and balked the first of them to second. Baseball has these brackets sometimes: Montgomery walks and balks, Acosta walks and balks. Urrutia doubled to score a run, Brett Wallace hit a sacrifice fly to score another, the game was effectively over. Acosta allowed another run in the ninth.

I have only this to add. Look at these position-player-pitching games: last night in Durham; last night/this morning in the majors between the White Sox and Red Sox; and in 2009 when Alex Jamieson poured out his Tumbler. They’re all quite different in circumstance. One was a blowout (it was 14-7 when Jamieson came into the game); one was an extraneous-innings game in the major leagues and so infielder Leury Garcia–who played for the Charlotte Knights in the Bulls’ division-clinching game last year–had to pitch; and last night was the most improbable, a tie game in the eighth inning. (Had it been a playoff game, or a major-league game, Acosta wouldn’t have pitched, of course.)

But this thing binds them: walks. Durham pitchers had walked seven batters by the time Jamieson took the mound in the ninth inning in 2009. (He walked an eighth himself.) In Chicago last night/this morning, the White Sox walked 12 Red Sox hitters over the first 13 innings of the game. Two pitchers faced consecutive batters in the eighth inning and walked them both; they were the only batters those pitchers were allowed to face. Leury Garcia walked two more, as Acosta did last night for the Bulls. The position players were pitching because the real pitchers had wasted themselves with walks. If you allow walks, those ugly, leaden, wasteful, aimless things–the sludge of baseball–everything bad happens. Walks are the tails that wag the dog.

Plate discipline. It’s the key to living well. What should you offer at? Should you buy a vanity or a dress? Fix the basement or the roof, or neither? How many shifts should you say yes to? How many years of saying yes and no to them? How long do you wait before the right one comes along–and what do you do when it happens, and what can’t you do? How long do you keep trying to conceive of a plan before you quit? Once you have actually come up with the plan, then what? You see that discipline begets the need for more still more discipline, greater discipline, with higher stakes.

The lack of it is what causes so many emergencies, failures, farces. I write sometimes about how pitchers are authors and hitters are readers. I spent all winter struggling with you-know-what and I think we can both agree in retrospect that, while my problem may have ramified wildly, it was really very simple: I couldn’t hit the zone. I threw so many balls at the wall in an effort to find my… what? Release point? Grip? (What is the appropriate analogy?) All I had going for me was stamina and history, and that is how I got through that first complete-game loss. I had to pitch another game after that, and although that one was much better, I left with what was more or less the equivalent of an eighth-inning tie. I’ll need to pitch (“pitch,” the right multipurpose verb in this case) a third game, and perhaps more after that, in order to have a chance at a callup. Plate discipline is also this: if you miss the first time, and the time after that, keep trying. Sometimes discipline is doing it over and over again. The Beckett line: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Baseball: the game of better failure.

 

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