THE BIG HIT | The Agony of Baseball

by Ken Napzok

Oh, the agony of the baseball. 

These players work so hard and play for so long and then — boom — a fastball catches the meat of a bat and it all comes crashing down. The cheers turn to jeers and hope fades long before the opposing player rounds third. 

That’s baseball.

The wonderful agony of baseball.

What happened this weekend in Chicago was both tough to watch and impossible to look away from. Big hits and important wins had been rolling out like the cold winds off the lake, but the weekend came to a close with their sixth consecutive loss and Kris Bryant hurt.

The weekend sweep at the hands of the Cardinals was best summed up by two straight Craig Kimbrel pitches being sent back to whence they came. Molina. De Jong. Agony. Baseball. 

If the Cubs hadn’t won it all in 2016 we’d be submitted all of this as evidence of a curse.

This is not the first late season collapse of a major league team and it certainly won’t be the last, but why are they so gripping to us fans?

Unless you grew up hating the team in retrograde — so Cardinal fans are a little extra happy this week — these historic collapses, these group failures, are haunting reminders that failure, pain, and suffering lurk around every corner of baseball. This could be your team, too.

As it was for the 1995 Angels. The 2010 Padres. Or the 1987 Blue Jays who had a 3 and a half game lead with seven to play. 

Fans of the 1978 Red Sox and 1964 Phillies know the pain. And the world knows the suffering of the 1951 Dodgers.  

Collapsing is part of the game. As is that aforementioned agony. Yet you have to wonder… do we secretly love it? Do we feed off of this pain? 

Perhaps we do not because we are a morbid group, but because we know that on the other side of that pain is the opportunity for healing, the chance for redemption, and the hope of the next at-bat, game, or season.

The agony feeds the joy. Baseball is very much about overcoming a series of failures and obstacles in order to reach the success you want. We’re always told that a great hitter will still fail seven out of ten times. The game is about getting to those three successful moments. 

When Christian Yelich fouled a ball off his knee on September 10th, that agony reared its head in that moment. As the team’s star was removed from the game and season it seemed as though the postseason hopes of the Milwaukee Brewers were not just in doubt with 18 games left. They were over. The story seemed to have it’s end. And it was painful.

But baseball doesn’t always go the way it’s supposed to go. 

After a successful weekend the Brewers are 15-2 in their last 17 games, tied with the Nationals for the Wild Card, and are playing with that special kind of energy and momentum that baseball seems to reward come October. There is great joy in Milwaukee that was made that much more sweat by the agony they experienced on September 10th. 

There is still time left. That’s the worry in Milwaukee and the mantra in Chicago. Not much time, but there is still time. For the Brewers this week will be about pushing away the nagging shadows of fear that state this is all going to end and riding this wave onto different shores.

For the Cubs, it’s about bearing down and trying to erase the memories of the weekend through the healing power of the very next pitch. 

Two teams, two stories, agony and joy.  And we’re set up for quite a final week. 

And that is why we can’t turn away. 

Also, congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals. 


Power Rankings

The baseball week that was

5 – Not Celebrating

The New York Yankees were getting healthy at just the right time. Big names were finding their way back to the field making an already great team that much better. 

Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino were later in the week, but starter Jordan Montgomery and Dellin Betances returned late last week. Start polishing that World Series trophy. 

Except… after striking out his second of two batters in his return, Betances celebrated with a little hop. It was a well-earned celebration after such an arduous comeback from the shoulder injury that struck him down in March. In the process, he partially tore his left Achilles tendon. 

What? How? I remember watching Dan Marino fall to the football field in agony when he suffered his Achilles tendon tear. (“Yes, I’m a Dolphin fan,” he begrudgingly admitted.) I’ve seen drunk Uncles at weddings tear up dance floors with the elegance of an elephant chasing a mouse and come away less injured than Betances after this.

While this doesn’t sidetrack the Yankees’ championship dreams, (the division has been clinched now) it does give one pause about ever celebrating something again. Keep both feet on the ground, act like you’ve been there before, and let your drunk Uncles do the hopping. 

4 – House Biggio

One of the fun sub-stories of this season has been the emergence of a new round of second generation stars, most of them, it seems, on the Blue Jays. Cavan Biggio is among those and this week he joined his father Craig in a small club: Father and Son Cycles.

Cavan hit for the cycle this week against the Orioles, sliding into third with a late triple 17 seasons after his father did so against the Colorado Rockies on April 8th, 2002. Cavan had that games ticket stub up on his wall and reaching the majors probably seemed like a realistic goal, but to do this was probably not on the radar screen.

Cycles, we baseball fans know, aren’t easy (despite six this season), so this is a fun note on Biggio’s rookie season. They are only the second father-son duo to accomplish this. No, not the Griffeys — the Wards! Gary and Daryle. Thanksgiving around House Biggio is going to a fun swapping of stories from a Hall of Fame father and a future star son. 

3 – 30

We know, we know… the game has changed and become a collection of long balls and strikeouts. Records are falling and the numbers don’t mean as much as they used to.

There is a lot of truth to that line of thinking, but we’ll have plenty of time to reflect on this season during the cold, lonely days of winter. To focus on that now is to stew in a simmering pot of cynicism. This game has gone through many o’ eras.

This is not the first era of unbelievable stats and won’t be the last. If you want to go back to watching Jessie Barfield lead the American League with just 40 home runs in 1986, that’s fine. But great numbers are still great numbers.

On Tuesday, Miguel Sano went upper deck with a home run and rounded the bases into history. The Twins now have five players with 30 home runs or more. (Nelson Cruz, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, and Mitch Garver were already in the exclusive lounge, martinis in hand, waiting for Sano to gain access.) It’s impressive no matter the era.

All the home runs in the world don’t change injuries, slumps, and the simple idea of five players doing this. Even the most recent record-holders were from different eras. The 2009 Phillies and 2000 Angels. Launch angles and exit velocities were dominating those locker rooms. So here’s a tip of the cap to the number 30 and the Minnesota Twins being the first on a new page in the record books. 

2 – 300

You want more numbers? Numbers were big this week. From five 30 homer guys we go to the big 300. As in Gerrit Cole struck out his 300th batter and kept going this past Wednesday. He’s the 18th pitcher to do so. (Totaling 37 seasons with 300 plus strikeouts.)

He’s going into the post-season to add to his resume. He’s going into a free agency off-season. Gerrit Cole is in the driver’s seat and almost on top of the pile this week.

Again, for all the wind coming out of stadiums this season (and recent ones) from the missed swings across the game, do not let yourself diminish this feat. The home run record books do sometimes get filled with names that don’t carry the weight the record suggests they should. 

 1 – 2,000

Two thousand major league wins. 

Only ten other managers in the history of this great game have achieved that number. In a week full of important statistical achievements, Bruce Bochy reigns supreme thanks to this milestone. 

Bruce Bochy is the last of the old school managers. We may never see his kind again. He is the type of manager we grew up watching and feel asleep reading stories about.

The Joe Torres, the Tony La Russas, the Casey Stengels, the Connie Macks, the John McGraws. The type of manager who you saw sitting in the dugout with his bushy mustache, hands in his pockets, the very essence of the sport etched into his face and you knew — as did the entire stadium and roster — that it was his team.

Oh yes, there were always executives, general managers, and other expensive suit wearing overlords in the luxury boxes above him, but the team on the field was his. He made the decisions. He answered for the stumbles. He let others celebrate the success. The Padres first, then the Giants, belonged to Bruce Bochy. 

None of this is to say the job of the modern manager is easier than previous eras. There are a new set of challenges in this time of the present-day future and you still have to answer for what goes wrong, charts, graphs, and shifts be damned.

However, the modern manager does seem to be a smaller part in the larger machine. A key part, yes, but a part, nonetheless. Bruce Bochy never seemed just a part.

For twelve seasons in San Diego and thirteen in San Francisco, this former major league catcher with a career batting average of .239, guided the entire city. 2,000 wins, a modern dynasty with three championships in five seasons, and his name on a short list of legendary skippers. Bochy wins the week as he rides off into the sunset and, most definitely, the Hall of Fame. 


In the Bullpen…

Quick thoughts on the week ahead.

Cleveland. Tampa Bay. That’s it. That’s the thought. One week. One spot. Let’s go…

On Sunday, Justin Verlander notched his second 20 win season with a five inning warm-up against the Angels, but the real question is whether Verlander will get to air it and go for two big personal marks this week.

Verlander is now 12 K’s from 300 on the season and 3,000 for his career. Houston has clinched and this week will be about staying healthy and getting all their ducks in a row before the post-season but what better way to end this season of big numbers and record setting feats than some historic punch outs. 

Eyes should be on Minnesota and Atlanta this week. Both teams sit at 96 wins and if only one of them gets to the century mark then we’ll have a new record.

With their 100th win on Sunday, the Dodgers joined the Astros and Yankees in that big win club tying the Major League Baseball record for most teams with one hundred wins in a season. This has now happened eight times. Never has there been four… and with a good week in two cities we could see the record smashed. Happy hunting, boys. 

Domingo German and Felipe Vasquez. One was set to keep holding down the Yankees often up and down starting pitching during the post-season. The other was wrapping up another dominant season as a top closer. But baseball doesn’t matter in their stories right now.

It’s hard to ignore that this past week both these players had their season’s stopped cold for reasons outside the lines. German for violation of the domestic violence policy and Vazquez was arrested on charges of child sex crimes.

Investigations are still on-going with German and Vazquez will be arraigned this week and will possibly face deportation if found guilty. As we celebrate another end of a glorious season of baseball, we should watch how the sport handles both these situations.

The words that A. Bartlett Giamatti uttered while banishing Pete Rose comes to mind, “One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts that have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts.” 


This week in baseball history…

He said he would do it. Despite having only stolen 31 bases in his previous two seasons and a cup of coffee, Oakland A’s slugger Jose Canseco, the Future of the Game at that point, claimed that he would become baseball’s first 40/40 man.

The home run side of that never before achieved feet seemed like the easy part. He was coming off two consecutive 30 plus home run seasons and had the physique of someone built to club 400 foot homers in his sleep. (That physique would come into different discussions later — but this was 1988 and we all just congratulated him for eating his Wheaties.)

The stolen bases would be the hard part, even in this era of Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, and the freewheeling ‘80s speed game. But Jose Canseco said he would do it.

And he did.

This week in baseball, on 9-23-88, in Milwaukee, Jose Canseco slid into second base ahead of a B.J. Surhoff throw for his second steal of the night and the 40th of the season. It was an accomplishment a season in the making that was talked about daily.

“He stole another one,” was not an uncommon thing to hear around the baseball card shops and playgrounds of the time. Fans felt like they were chasing history along with him.

Canseco would go on to have one of the more interesting, controversial, and, at times, head scratching — or head bopping a ball over the wall — careers in baseball history. At times he seems to be one of the biggest “would could have been” players who still hit 462 home runs. That’s odd to say. He did have a good career no doubt, but in 1988 he was the new Sultan of Swat and a God among mere mortals. 

The record setting creation of the 40/40 club was a signpost of the modern game. (Though shout out to Bobby Bonds for almost doing in 1973 and Ken Williams in the not so modern 1922 season.) Power and Speed was here like some sort of peanut butter and chocolate combo candy that everyone wanted a piece of.

Stolen bases weren’t just for the slap hitters at the top of the line-up. Your clean-up hitter could do it too. How many times would Canseco do this again was the only question on our minds.

But that’s the thing about baseball — the future is never certain. Canseco would never steal more than 29 (that coming in an impressive bounce back year in 1998 for Toronto.) and his career is now remembered more as a signpost of the Steroid Era that came later. But never forget the legacy and impact of this feat

Though we’re watching Ronald Acuna Jr race toward it right now, only three other players accomplished this. Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriquez, speaking of that era that did come later, and Alfonso Soriano. Despite all of the big stats, bigger bodies, and video game-like leaderboards of the late 90s and early 2000s, only three pulled it off. That says a lot about what he did. 

I wasn’t an Oakland A’s fan, but in the winter of 1988, I received a Jose Canseco 40/40 poster for Christmas and proudly hung it on my wall. It had Canseco in the middle of his mighty swing in the main photo and him leading off second base (I believe in old Tiger stadium) in the other one. Below those photos it just simply said “Forty-forty. * September 23, 1988” 

A date worthy of its place on the walls of all baseball fans.


Remember when… 

… the 2011 season came down to one day?

Four teams turned the final day of the season into its own chapter of whatever addition Ken Burns one day hopefully makes to his legendary Baseball documentary. The Cardinals, Braves, Rays, and Red Sox all came into the final day with their post-season hopes very much alive and very much intertwined with each other. Call it’s “destiny’s crossroads,” Mr Burns.

The drama that unfolded was built on the month before it when Tampe Bay climbed out of a nine and a half game whole to force the Red Sox into a must win situation in game 162, but it was fueled by what happened on that day. 

There was a dominant complete game effort from Chris Carpenter for his Cardinals in Houston coupled with a Craig Kimbrel blown save against Philly in Atlanta that sent the Braves to extra innings and the Cardinals to their clubhouse to wait. The Braves in 13 and the Cardinals celebrated, but the best was yet to come.

The Red Sox were the Orioles who had been playing out the string and they jumped to an early lead for the rains came — perhaps sent by the Baseball Gods themselves to amp up the tension — and they watched from the clubhouse as the Rays fell behind against the Yankees 7-2. 

It was 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth when Evan Longoria hit the home of his life — at the time — and reignited his team’s fire and hope. Dan Johnson then tied in the bottom of the ninth with a home run of his own. Yet all the Red Sox had to do was win. Destiny was in their hands and they were up 3-2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. 

One. Out. Away.

Two hits later — one of them a squib of a hit that Carl Crawford almost caught — and the Orioles were victorious, and the spotlight was back on the Rays inside their concrete wasteland of a stadium. The Red Sox score flashed up. The crowd and players cheered. Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate. The 2011 regular season had brought us all to this at-bat. The dreams of Spring were distant memories. The long summer days were fading. The fall air had brought with it that crisp sting of finality. And on a two and two pitch, Evan Longoria hit a line drive up and barely over the left field wall and reminded us all that the long journey of the game often comes down to one swing. 


Walk Off Quote

“Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered or booed. And then becomes a statistic.” – Ernie Harwell

***

Ken Napzok played little league with  a Tom Seaver-model glove from 1969 in 1987 but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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