Get Me Over

On the lonely, essential, terrifying, clarifying and utterly unique job of pitching.
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At first you could only do it underhand, with a straight wrist, and “for the bat,” meaning throw it where they can hit it. In 1883, after the sidearm curveball had been developed and permitted, the rule makers dropped the pretence. They allowed overhand throwing, and accepted the fact that the pitcher’s job was to get hitters out. In 1893 they moved the pitcher from fifty feet away to sixty feet six inches, and the modern discipline was more or less established. The game we know took shape. If it’s hard to imagine what a hitter might do with a 102mph Aroldis Chapman heater from a distance of only fifty feet, it’s because we’ve had more than 130 years to get used to things the way they are at present.

Pitching has changed during that period, but then again it hasn’t really changed at all: throw strikes, get hitters out, keep the other guys from scoring. Pitchers have enjoyed eras of dominance (The Dead Ball Era; the 1960s), then been put in check by tweaks (changes to the makeup of the ball, smaller parks, and Babe Ruth in the case of the former; lowering the mound from 15” to 10” for the latter). Pitching may win games, but offense is what sells tickets. That suggests that pitchers are, in some sense, in inherent opposition to baseball’s very makeup. This is not a new thing, of course, but in a year during which pitchers have emphatically dominated hitters, it feels especially urgent. What has been clear throughout the game’s whole turbulent history is that pitchers comprise a very different sort of human being. They’re not quite like the other people who play baseball for a living, and they’re not quite like the rest of us, either.

Pitchers are touched in some way. How else to explain a breed who are accepting of the sort of pressure a pitcher endures, or the willingness to throw a baseball in the direction of Giancarlo Stanton, in full awareness of what Giancarlo Stanton does to baseballs? Who would choose this?

It makes sense, given those odds and the murderous intent of the bat-wielding men they face, that pitchers would create their own mythology. Inside the fraternity, they are curators and practitioners and lay-priests of an ancient art, though the game they play isn’t yet two centuries old.

Perhaps they recognize their role as alchemists; participants in an inexact discipline, one requiring as much guesswork as knowledge, and enough courage and confidence to patch that gap. To be a pitcher is to put stock in something bizarre; it therefore fits that the believers themselves are somewhat bizarre. They could not be what they are, or do what they do, if they were not.

***

Mordecai Brown had three (and one gnarled half) fingers on his hurling hand, but decided pitching was a viable career option anyway. Cy Young had a sixth-grade education but was so gifted at his chosen craft that he coached pitchers at Harvard. Walter Johnson is the second-winningest pitcher in history, but openly tossed meatballs to his buddy Sam Crawford of the Tigers; they’re both in the Hall of Fame. After the final out of the 1955 World Series, Sandy Koufax drove himself to Columbia University to attend class. We are not even dealing in the various pre-Eisenhower Dizzys and Dazzys here, nor are we pausing to examine more recent fringe elements, such as toothbrushing Turk Wendell. These are the icons of the craft we’re talking about; the establishment was this strange, this different.

Which fits, because a pitcher’s situation is unique in sport. He represents the defensive team, and yet he holds the ball and is in most ways on the attack. He stands alone, while the batter is backed up; there’s another one standing just behind him, waiting his turn. The pitcher perches on a little round hump of earth, and all eyes are on him. Nothing happens until he decides it should. He controls everything. This is not defense as we generally understand it. "Good pitching in a close game," Roger Angell once wrote, "is the cement that makes baseball the marvellous, complicated structure that it is."

And yet he controls so little. He takes his sign, or shakes it off and waits for the one he wants, and then he winds, and cocks, and swings wild his arm, the muscles and tendons stretched to the very limit of their capacity, and he releases the ball. It rolls off his fingertips and he follows through, and then he too is but a spectator, watching the ball churn through space toward the plate. It finds its mark or it doesn’t; it is hit with a bat or it isn’t; the hit ball lands fair or it lands foul; the fair ball is caught or it isn’t. He has done his job, or he hasn’t.

It's worth remembering that even the very best get hit around on occasion. The ball is struck and the fielders wheel like constellations into their preset positions as the hitter becomes a baserunner. Then the pitcher must return to the mound and summon anew the resolve to do his job, only now with a man dancing off first, or the tying run standing on third, and nobody out, and the odds now, suddenly, very different.

Little wonder, then, these men are often themselves unique. They are supermen, often, highly valued (and compensated), but living always with the likelihood of terrific failure. They know it sits just around the next bend, because they’ve all seen it, just like we have: their successes are beautiful to behold but when those same pitchers begin to falter, they can do so with sudden and awful totality. They seem to be doing the same things they’ve always done, but with heartbreaking results. The history of baseball is speckled with pitchers who ascended to great heights, only to be humbled seemingly in their next breath.

Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the jubilant Tiger whose 2.34 ERA and 19 wins earned him the 1976 Rookie of the Year nod, saw his career go downhill fast after that astonishing campaign. He was out of baseball within five years. Rick Ankiel threw a good fastball and a devastating curve for the Cardinals, starting in 1999 and continuing until the third inning of Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series against Atlanta, when he suddenly lost altogether the ability to throw strikes, producing one of the most awkwardly unwatchable innings of baseball ever televised. He later reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder, eking out another decade in baseball. Barry Zito stands as a recent example of the position's fickleness: an initially dominant pitcher who, at a certain point and for unclear reasons, appeared to simply misplace his mastery of the craft.

These, and hundreds more, some with more striking suddenness than others. They may have known success, but they learned not to trust it, because failure haunts their kind. The precariousness of their chosen discipline shines a light back on our own lives: no matter how good things look, we’re all just hanging on by a thread. No matter how in command, no matter how good the stuff, the truth is that we are on defense the entire time, and we will eventually be reminded as much.

***

“Chicks dig the longball,” said the commercial, and though its expression is sort of sexist and frivolous, the sentiment is largely valid: most of us choose a favorite player based on what he can do with a bat. Watching a ball travel 420 feet, or knowing your guy is likely to knock in the runner on second base: these are surely satisfying things, and their impact on the game’s outcome is obvious. Runs are scored, and if your team collects more runs than the other team, they win. This is how it works, and it makes sense, and we all understand it.

But there are among us those whose hearts race at something so mundane as a fat, get-me-over curveball thrown for a strike in a 3-0 count, or who savor bearing witness to the sweathouse pressure of a closer dealing with a speedy runner on first with two out in the ninth inning of a one-run game. Those drawn to pitchers are so attracted precisely because of the uncertainty outlined above, not in spite of it. Even when a pitcher appears to have the world in his back pocket -- Orel Hershiser’s 59 straight scoreless innings; Eric Gagne’s 84 consecutive saves; Justin Verlander’s 24-win, Cy Young and MVP-winning 2011 -- the threat of failure is never far off.

It is, on the contrary, ever present. It’s the darkness which makes such bright light so beautiful, just as failure is the air that baseball breathes. Each matchup, each hitter faced, every pitch, is a chance to fail, and as successes are strung together they become more thrilling because they become increasingly unlikely. The odds mount against that pitcher’s continued good luck, and fans wise enough to know as much simply wait for the turn.

What these pitchers do appears to be so simple: chuck a ball over a plate. Do it well and they’re successful; do it right long enough and they’re fabulously rich, to boot. View it that way and there are very few external factors to bear on success or failure. The rest of the world is rendered pointless. A pitcher must do only one thing, and if he does not do it well the consequences are obvious. Those among us who strive to live in ways similarly simple and authentic are drawn to that practical obviousness. The pitcher’s craft may rely upon craftiness, but there is no masking the result. He succeeds until he fails, and then he has to go out there and do it again. It’s an emotionally punishing undertaking, masochistic even. It is also extremely familiar to most any human resident of planet Earth.

Modern pitching is analytic and sterilized, subject to biometric analysis and pitch counts, and increasingly backed up by defensive shifts gleaned from computerized spray charts. But the guts of the thing remain unchanged: on each pitch, one player is responsible for his team's fate. He holds the ball, and then he releases it into a destiny he only faintly controls, or can be said to create; if he is good, things remain the same. If his mechanics are off, if his release point is inconsistent, or if he's lost contact with the mysterious forces that determine how a ball dances through air, things change drastically.

Pitchers all contain the seeds of their own undoing, and they all hold within themselves a shot at redemption. Another hitter. Another inning. They stare down failure to find deliverance. Those of us whose favorite ballplayers do their work on a mound move through the world knowing that, at some point, we're all pitchers. They are the beautiful, tragic stand-ins for our lives, and their work is not so different from our own.

So we cheer for them and, in so doing, encourage ourselves. This is sport's most basic mission: to show us what we can do, and the limits of our abilities, in order to motivate us to stretch them. So we hump fastballs into the catcher’s mitt, stabbing at success while suspecting defeat. We might want to hold onto the ball, to halt the world, but eventually we must let it go. That's the exhilarating truth, the terrifying truth. We must let it roll off our fingertips and spin out into space, and then, in that interminable moment, we can only await the results.


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