Photograph by Kate Joyce
Josh kissed Taylor through the barrier. Just a peck, an ordinary token of marital affection. He reached through the black grid and patted her little boy on the head. A peck and a pat—quick, simple human gestures. He pointed to where he was headed next. Then he turned and crossed back through the exercise yard under the floodlights, descended the concrete steps, and lumbered down the corridor to the mess hall, where he joined the other inmates for dinner.
He never saw the warden pointing at him, or informing the guard that he was going to be written up for insubordination.
Way No. 1. That you can change or seem to change everything by how you frame the events, and how you sequence them. They are unstable, indecisive. Do you include the kindness and the tenderness? If you include them, where do you put them? How formally do you address the characters? Call him Josh and he sounds like someone you know, or perhaps a slightly beset character in a short story. Call him Lueke and he sounds like nothing more or less than a ballplayer, coterminous with the name on the back of his jersey. Call him Josh Lueke and he sounds like a mythological being, a historical figure or an example of one; or a vessel to carry a cluster of ideas and meanings -- that is, he turns into a metaphor.
Do you know how to pronounce his last name? Does it, subtly, make a difference whether you know, and does he change in your mind depending on how it’s pronounced?
Way No. 2. In June, the Tampa Bay Rays cut Josh Lueke from their major-league club and their active 40-man roster, but they still paid him his half-million-dollar salary to pitch for them, as league rules required. It’s just that they paid him to pitch as a member of their Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls.
Way No. 3. Is that a relief? A victory of some kind? Or does his name mean nothing to you, regardless of how it’s pronounced? If you’ve never heard of him, you can type “Josh Lueke” into any search bar and it will auto-complete quite decisively. You can read more about him and see both the atrocity of the narrative and the obscurity of the actual details, which the narrative nonetheless auto-completes. It will tell you that in 2008, when Josh Lueke was playing for a minor-league team in the Texas Rangers organization, he and some teammates picked up a woman in a bar. They took her back to their apartment. She passed out in the bathroom, drunk. She woke up to horrible sights and later, sensations. Anal swab, DNA match, arrest. Charges brought, then dropped. No trial. Lueke traded, then traded again. Minor uproars each time; again when he was called up to the major leagues; again when he has come into games; none after his relegation to Triple-A obscurity.
Way No. 4. Josh Lueke is not obscure in Durham, or a metaphor. In 2014, he surpassed 100 career appearances for the Bulls,more than twice as many as he has made for any other team since his professional career began in 2007. The Durham Bulls are the team I cover. I’ve seen Josh Lueke pitch many times. When he came into a game here, often as the Bull’s closer, no one booed or heckled or raised protest signs. Someone might yell, “Yeahhh, Lueke!” During the Triple-A post-season, I saw a fan wearing a game-worn Lueke jersey from 2013. Game-worn jerseys cost $100 in the Bulls’ team store.
No one tweeted anything like this: “Drop a garbage truck onto that shitbag, please.” Someone tweeted that in August of 2013, when Lueke was called up to Tampa Bay.
Way No. 5. That tweet was not repeated any of the other seven times he was called up in 2012 and 2013.
Way No. 6. The possibility that we are obscure. The possibility that “obscure” is not an adjective but a verb. We -- Durham, the Durham Bulls -- obscure Josh Lueke, and this makes us unwittingly complicit.
In what, exactly?
Then again, the possibility that if he isn’t obscure somewhere, such as here in Durham, then he isn’t obscure anywhere. That, with him on our team, we are, like injustice, an indirect threat everywhere.
Way No. 7. The possibility that this makes us famous, again. The last time Durham was nationally infamous in sports, in 2006, also involved crime. A stripper made accusations against some Duke lacrosse players. You can look that up, too. Type “Duke La” into your search bar and watch it auto-complete.
Way No. 8. Even if Durham Bulls Baseball Club, Inc. attempted to refuse Josh Lueke, even if they cried, No, he’s not welcome here, we won’t have him, they have no say in the matter. The Tampa Bay Rays assigned Josh Lueke to Durham many times, and he had to report here or forfeit his half-million dollars, and his manager had to play him, and the fans and press had to watch him.
Way No. 9. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”
Way No. 10. “Drop a garbage truck onto that shitbag, please.”
But also all the tweets, the many tweets that called not for killing Josh Lueke with a garbage truck but rather, every time Tampa Bay called him up to the major leagues, for sending him right back to Triple-A.
Way No. 11. The possibility that people think of Triple-A as a penal colony.
Jessica Quiroli, in a column about Josh Lueke:
The minor leagues are not a dumping ground for convicted sex offenders […]The suggestion that going back to the minors is 'what he gets' is not only an insult to the players that would never hurt women, but also an inaccurate view of the minors […] The system doesn't operate independently of the majors […] Stop suggesting the minors are a place where guys who've committed sex crimes should be sent to play.”
Way No. 12. Seconded, except: “Convicted sex offender.” Josh Lueke is not a convicted sex offender. (The headline of this good and provocative piece about him by Stacey May Fowles is, in that sense, inapt.) He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor called “false imprisonment with violence,” a weird-sounding construction that sounds more like a punishment than a crime.
Way No. 13. He was sentenced retroactively to the forty-two days he had already spent in jail awaiting trial.
Way No. 14. The possibility that he is better suited to Tampa Bay’s major-league roster, which used to include a repeat-offending wife-beater (he went to jail for it), and would also have included another player who hit his wife, had that player not first been suspended from major-league baseball, more or less for good, for a third positive test for performance enhancing drugs. Which still includes a player who left his AK-47 unsecured in his residence, from which the gun was stolen; and also still includes another player who inscribed a homophobic slur into his eyeblack during a game two seasons ago.
The player suspended from major-league baseball is now a Triple-A hitting coach.
Way No. 15. In January, Bill James was asked whether steroid users should be allowed in the Hall of Fame:
Well, I'm not asking people to set aside what's right and wrong. If you think there's a right and a wrong here, and you want to vote on that, that's great, I don't have a problem with that. But I'm saying, for sake of understanding, set aside what's right and what's wrong. History doesn't coalesce around a compromise. History coalesces only around an extreme position. And there are two extreme positions: (1) the steroid users can't go in, or (2) it doesn't matter. It's impossible for history to coalesce around the position that steroid users can't go in, because, frankly, there are already steroid users in [the Hall of Fame] ... It's impossible for history to coalesce around that position, therefore it has to coalesce around the other extreme position, that [steroid use] doesn't matter.
There are more than 750 players in the major leagues right now. Do you know everything you need to know about them in order to assent to their presence in the majors?
What about the minors? There are thousands more players in the minors, other than Josh Lueke. They are all paid employees of major-league clubs, and bound for major-league rosters if they play well enough in the minors. What has been the progress of your thoughts about, for example, Jesse Meaux and Michael Mason? In 2013, they played for another North Carolina team, the Asheville Tourists. In 2014, neither of them played at all.
Way No. 16. Josh Lueke has a career major-league ERA of 6.16. What if it were 1.66?
Kobe Bryant? Ray Lewis? Roman Polanski, Woody Allen? How do you feel when you’re in a sports venue and you hear “Rock and Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter?
“I had a long chat with Adam "Pacman" Jones, who made some valid points in his media criticism. The full Q&A: [a link was here]”
is a tweet from last December.
Way No. 17. The possibility that Josh Lueke provokes singular outrage not entirely because he is a baseball player but partly because he is a bad baseball player.
Way No. 18. “Josh Lueke has paid his debt to society.” No. There is no debt, nothing has been borrowed and nothing has been returned. What happened, whatever it was, is permanent and life-changing for everyone involved. “… After her ordeal, she could no longer sleep in the dark, went through extensive therapy and bouts of depression and eventually lost her job.”
Way No. 19. Last year, I asked Josh why his 2013 season was so much better than his 2012 season. I call him Josh when I interview him. Reporters call players by their first names when we talk to them, but when we talk about the players -- with each other, at home, in print, everywhere else -- we almost always call them by their last names.
Q: Hey, have you ever talked to Lueke?
Q: How is he?
A: Not bad, actually. Very articulate.
Q: Did you ask him about…?
The full Q&A.
In 2012, Lueke’s Triple-A ERA was 5.59. In 2013 it was 0.60. I asked him how and why his numbers improved so dramatically. He throws lots of strikes; he threw lots of strikes in 2013, and lots of strikes in 2012.
“Yeah, but they were dick-high and right down the middle,” he said, on the record, putting his palm down in front of his crotch to indicate the location.
He had just put on a lime green t-shirt with a daintily cut v-neck. A couple of his teammates ribbed him about it, but he defended the shirt.
Way No. 20. In a game in late July, the Bulls took an 11-7 lead into the ninth inning against Toledo. Lueke came in to close it out. Although he has always been a strike-thrower, he walked two batters. With two outs, the batter was Mike Hessman, “the real-life Crash Davis.” It’s a comparison has blood in it here in Durham.
Lueke tried to get a first-pitch fastball by Hessman, 94 miles per hour. In 2013 he threw 96, 97, even 98. In 2014 it was 93, 94, 95, and that is the difference between getting a first-pitch fastball by Hessman and Hessman blasting it over the left-field wall for a three-run homer. Which is what he did.
Way No. 21. Lueke retired the next man. The Bulls won, 11-10.
Way No. 22. Sometimes I feel compelled to protect Josh:
In August, he came into the final inning of a 1-0 game to try to save it for Durham. The first batter he faced hit a tough grounder in the hole, which the shortstop made a valiant effort to field and throw. The shortstop was Nick Franklin, who came to Durham after the high-profile trade that sent David Price to Detroit.
Nick Franklin attracted extra notice, since he was traded for a Cy Young Award winner. But Nick Franklin was already notable to me because he is prominent in Lucas Mann’s 2013 book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. This book is unflattering to Nick Franklin; Mann often refers to him this way, as “Nick Franklin,” rather than as Nick or Franklin. He sometimes calls him Nick, but he never (or almost never) calls him Franklin.
Early in Mann’s book, this happens:
Nick attacked. He left the cage, tossed his bat aside, saw me open and vulnerable. He sprang, He snaked his right arm around my shoulder blades and pushed into my chest with his left. He tipped me back, as if we were dancing and I was the woman […] I looked up at him, saw no strain in his face, just a slight smile as he looked past me at the floor.
He held me there.
I heard my breathing, loud and labored compared with his.
“What would you do,” he said, “if I felt like dropping you?”
It wasn’t a taunting tone of voice, or angry in any way, just flat.
“For real,” he said. “What would you do?”
I would do nothing to him. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
And I said it. “Nothing,” I said, and I heard my voice catch on the spit that had pooled in the back of my throat.
“True,” he said.
He hauled me up and then bounced away from me, hands in the air, bobbing from one foot to the other, simulating the roar of the crowd that would have cheered at such a mismatch.
Way No. 23. Franklin made a good throw after fielding the tough grounder, but the umpire ruled that the runner beat the throw and was safe at first base. Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo came out to argue. He seldom does this, usually only on an obviously terrible call in a close game, or to defend and run interference for an aggrieved player. He admitted later, making light of the argument, that he wasn’t even sure the call at first base was wrong; replays clearly showed that it was actually correct. But that wasn’t the crux of Montoyo’s argument. This was the second game of a doubleheader, and Montoyo had made the case that it was very late at night, almost midnight, and everyone was tired, so why couldn’t the umpire comply and let us all go home sooner? The ump told him not to come out there with that.
With that dispute still rippling the air, and the tying run on first -- a good baserunner who was a threat to steal second and put himself in scoring position—the game became tense, and tenser still when Lueke went to a full count against the next hitter. At one point a close pitch was called a ball rather than a strike, and he seemed mildly aggrieved; but he recovered and struck the hitter out.
Even though Lueke didn’t throw quite as hard in 2014 as he did in 2013, when his Triple-A ERA was 0.60, he still threw hard. But the speed of his pitches is at odds with his delivery of them. He is a very deliberate and slow-working pitcher. He takes plenty of time off the rubber to collect himself between pitches. Once back on it, he puts his big, muscular body, which looks accurately listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, through an elaborate physical choreography in order to get fully upright and balanced. It always puts me in mind of a Civil War general arranging himself astride a horse, and has the effect of elongating his innings, making them that much more agonizing to sit through when they’re fraught with baserunners.
The next batter was a dangerous lefty slugger who was quite capable of giving Buffalo the lead with one swing. Again the at-bat went deep, eight pitches. These included a pair of breaking balls that appeared to be almost right down the middle, but the umpire called them both balls. After the first of them, Josh stared down at the umpire, whose name is Seth Buckminster, with the crowd railing on Josh’s behalf.
After the second close pitch, which ran the count to 3-2, Josh nearly lost his composure altogether. He flung out his arms in angry disbelief and shouted at Seth, who yanked off his mask and shouted back. This was the most contentious exchange over the strike zone between a pitcher and umpire I can remember seeing at the Durham ballpark in six years. Buckminster is on the major-league umpire roster and officiates big-league games when reserves are needed.
Way No. 24. The possibility that writing about Josh Lueke playing baseball in article like this one isn’t appropriate. Also the possibility that it is not only appropriate but also necessary.
Way No. 25. I yelled at the umpire.
I never yell at an umpire, but I yelled at Seth Buckminster, at Seth, on Josh’s behalf. I was loud. You could hear me yelling all over the grandstand, I’m sure. The crowd by this time was small. Almost everyone had gone home after the first game of the doubleheader. Bulls fans are not diehards, which may be why they don’t boo Josh Lueke or call him a shitbag or wish him flattened beneath a falling garbage truck or demoted further down the minor-league chain, perhaps to Double-A; not even when he blows saves. I am not a Bulls fan, although I sit in the stands among them. I am a reporter; I have a media pass; but I sit in the section behind home plate so I can see the game better. Mostly so I can see the strike zone.
“Come on, ump!” I yelled. “Those were strikes!”
Way No. 26. The possibility that Seth had it in for Josh. Also the possibility that Josh himself might think so.
Way No. 27. The count was full. The Bisons’ first base coach was Richie Hebner, who was the hitting coach for the Durham Bulls in 2006. That season, a Rays prospect named Elijah Dukes tried to choke Richie Hebner. Hebner was fired at the end of the season. Dukes was promoted to the major leagues. That same season, B.J. Upton, Dukes’s teammate, got a DUI in Chapel Hill, which is the next town over from Durham. Upton later told the media that he had outgrown Durham and should already have been promoted to the major leagues. This complaint allowed the notion to crystallize that Upton was suggesting he might not have gotten the DUI had Tampa Bay called him up sooner.
Way No. 28. That same season in Durham, another of Dukes’s teammates, Delmon Young, got a 50-game suspension for throwing his bat at an umpire who had called him out on strikes on a pitch Young didn’t think was a strike.
Seven years later, in 2013, Tampa Bay re-signed Delmon Young. Before he rejoined the Rays, Young did a short minor-league stint in order to ready himself for the majors. He did this stint in Double-A Montgomery, not Triple-A, which would have been customary, or even Class A Port Charlotte, which is right near Tampa Bay, and where Tampa Bay’s rehabbing big leaguers often go, for convenience’s sake.
The explanation for Young’s curious assignment to out-of-the-way Montgomery, which has not happened before or since in my six years of covering the Bulls, did not include any mention of the 2006 bat-throwing incident.
Near the end of August, I went to my first major-league ballgame in fifteen years: the Rays versus the Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Delmon Young pinch hit in that game, for Baltimore.
Way No. 29. Hebner sent the Buffalo runner on first base in motion. As Lueke reared back to deliver, Bulls shortstop Nick Franklin broke for second, in case the hitter struck out and a potential game-ending strikeout-throwout double play was a possibility. But the hitter made contact, stinging a sharp ground ball right up the middle. Under nearly every circumstance, such a ball would zip through the infield and into center field for a base hit. In this case, that would have put runners on the corners with one out, and the Bulls’ 1-0 lead in serious jeopardy. But with the runner breaking for second base -- which he almost certainly would not have done had the count not been full, but which it was, thanks to Seth Buckminster’s umpiring -- Franklin found himself standing exactly where the ball was hit, almost right on second base itself. He fielded the hot grounder, stepped on the bag to retire the lead runner, and then fired to first to complete a freakish but shockingly easy double play. Game over.
Lueke approached home plate and high-fived his catcher, but he did not retreat and join the customary high-five line forming over the pitcher’s mound he had just left. Instead he continued toward home plate and appeared to say a few more angry words to Seth Buckminster, who was already part way between the plate and the first-base dugout, which is the Bulls’ dugout and also the way to the umpire’s locker room. Umpires have a locker room. Seth said words back to Josh and then ejected him -- a symbolic ejection, since the game was over, with an accompanying fine -- but Josh did not see himself getting ejected. He was already past Seth, and past home plate itself.
Josh has a lumbering gait, the word lumbering as if made specifically for the way he walks -- as though the word “timber” should be bellowed after his every heavy, wooden, toppling step. He lumbered all the way to the backstop, where his wife and a young boy, her child from a previous relationship, were waiting for him.
Seth sought out Josh’s manager, Charlie, to let him know that he, Seth, had ejected Josh.
Way No. 30. Three nights after this game, my first since the one after which Lueke had been ejected, I stopped as usual into the press box to collect a score sheet, game notes, stat packs, and any other useful tidbits of information before heading down into the seats behind home plate. I asked the press boxers -- other reporters, Bulls’ staffers, the official scorer -- for their thoughts about the conflict between Lueke and Buckminster, and we all agreed that Lueke had lost far too much control of his temper with the umpire.
Especially, they said, over pitches that weren’t strikes.
You mean those pitches that were called balls really were balls? I asked.
Oh, yes, undoubtedly, they said. We saw the replays on television.
A few weeks later, I watched a recording of the inning on video. The disputed pitches Lueke threw were splitters, either just off or barely on the outside edge of the plate. Probably off. And they were tailing away from the strike zone, too. The catcher did a good job of framing them, but at best they were borderline pitches. In the video recording, after Josh and Seth had their confrontation over the second of them, the broadcasters agreed that Lueke could probably not throw any more splitters. He was not going to get any close pitches called his way after protesting to Seth, and he would probably have to throw nothing but fastballs down the middle. He threw a fastball down the middle, and that resulted in the hard grounder hit right to Nick Franklin.
Way No. 31. In the game following my talk with the press boxers, Lueke again came in to try to protect a 1-0 lead against Buffalo. He got the first two outs with no trouble. The third batter was Kevin Pillar, one of the best hitters in the International League. Lueke threw Pillar three non-fastballs, perhaps because Pillar is murder on fastballs. Pillar took a slider for strike one. The next pitch was a splitter, inside, ball one. The third pitch was another slider, low and away. Pillar swung and missed for strike two. Lueke was not going to throw him a fastball. This was smart.
The fourth pitch was a fastball.
Way No. 32. This season I heard that when Josh was arrested, his allotted phone call from jail wasn’t to family or friends. It was to a Texas Rangers scout.
Way No. 33. Pillar hit the 1-2 fastball high and deep and on a murderous rising straight line to left field. The Bulls’ left fielder turned and watched it blast over him. In nearly every park in baseball, it would have been a game-tying home run, just as that hard ground ball up the middle three nights earlier should have been a base hit. But in Durham Bulls Athletic Park and its model, Fenway Park, it isn’t. Pillar’s drive hit off the very top of the 30-foot-high “Blue Monster” and he had to settle for a double.
Way No. 34. Lueke retired the next batter and got the save. He high-fived his catcher.
The possibility that Josh Lueke is a person who narrowly avoids the worst consequences through sheer luck, unwarranted, unlikely. The possibility that he pitches how he lives, and lives how he pitches.
Way No. 35. Afterward, Lueke was sitting in the locker room near some of the other Bulls’ pitchers, having a general colloquy. One of them asked him about the pitch Pillar hit off the Blue Monster. Was it a fastball? Lueke confirmed that it was. The pitcher said that Pillar was plain hell on fastballs, shaking his head almost as if it wasn’t fair, as if being such a dead-fastball hitter betokened a one-track mind about hitting that shouldn’t have been permitted to get such good results.
Lueke took the other pitcher through the Pillar at-bat. Aware of Pillar’s fastball-hungry appetite at the plate, he started him with a slider for a strike. Then a splitter, then a slider in the dirt. But that was as far as Lueke elaborated. There was a blank space where the fastball and Pillar’s near-homer off the top of the Blue Monster would have been.
The other pitcher got up and went into the players’ lounge.
Way No. 36. Josh was now alone, so I asked him about the ejection after his previous game. Had there been any previous bad blood between him and the umpire before that game? No, he answered. Nor did Josh think the ump had actually ejected him, although he knew that the ump had filed the associated paperwork with the International League. He said he would appeal the ejection and its accompanying fine.
He said all of this quickly. He has always spoken to me quickly, often also turning his body away from me and avoiding eye contact. In this case he was also packing his bag; the Bulls were headed to Rochester very early the next morning. It had escalated so quickly between him and Buckminster, I said; why did he think that was? He replied that he had seen the ump not call close pitches strikes earlier in the game, so he was determined to throw strikes.
I didn’t really understand this. Sometimes, players’ apparently rational explanations for what they’ve done seem to contradict the actions themselves. It’s for this reason that players will sometimes express disdain toward the opinions of people, like writers, who “never played the game,” as the cliché goes. It’s also for this reason that I sometimes think they might be right—doubly right: that not only do people who write about baseball misunderstand how and why ballplayers do what they do, but in fact do understand, with too much certainty, the opposite of what ballplayers do. We are not ignorant; we are informed; but we gather incorrect information and generate the wrong theories.
I sometimes have this same misgiving over my thoughts about Josh Lueke, even after I take the opposite position. No matter what I think of him, it’s wrong.
Yet there was no disputing that the pitches Lueke threw and protested were balls. At best, I thought, he could only have considered them borderline pitches, on the outside edge of the plate rather than right down the middle. “I made a couple of pitches that I thought were strikes,” he said, adding that one of them was higher, one lower, as though he had been trying to find and comply with Buckminster’s specific strike zone. He did not have an explanation for the quick and steep rise in temper between them, but his tone and demeanor suggested that he considered his increasingly irate response to the ump’s calls normal.
Way No. 37. I could have asked Josh something like: “Do you think the ump has something against you?” This would have been a way of asking him something much more personal, via innuendo. I did not. In three years of having him in Durham, I never asked him a question about anything unrelated to baseball. I adhered to a strict distinction between what happens on the field and what happens off the field.
The possibility that this distinction is false.
In any case, if I was going to ask him something personal, it wasn’t whether he thought the umpire had anything against him. This was a ludicrous, fatuous thing to ask. If there was anything unrelated to baseball that I wanted to ask him, it was this simple but much more intimate question: What is it like to be Josh Lueke?
I don’t want to want to ask him this, but I do want to ask him. I want to know. About a year earlier, in late August of 2013, I asked him if he had time for a few questions. He shot back, “Depends what they’re about.” They were about baseball. He consented. With the September 1 roster expansion date approaching, I asked him if he was thinking past Triple-A and toward another promotion to the majors. He replied that he no longer much cared what happened after September 1. He said was already looking forward to the off-season, and that if he wasn’t in the Rays’ plans, he knew he would draw interest from plenty of other teams, what with his 0.60 Triple-A ERA.
On September 1, 2013, the Rays called him up. He remained on the big-league roster until June 7, 2014.
Way No. 38. I asked him how much the fine for his ejection would be. He said probably twenty-five dollars. The amount depended on the seriousness of the offense, and this one was not considered serious. There was no ump-bumping or anything physical, he noted.
I said that twenty-five dollars did not seem like much. I said, “At least you got your money’s worth.”
He smiled, a little mischievously, and said, “I’d do it again.”
Way No. 39. In his first appearance after the one in which Kevin Pillar nearly cost him his save and the Blue Monster preserved it, Josh again came into a game to protect a one-run Durham lead. Again it was a doubleheader, but this time it was the first game, the resumption of one that had been suspended by rain in Rochester the previous night, a Tuesday. Rain delayed Wednesday’s continuation, as well, and then the game went into extra innings. It was the eleventh inning when Lueke came in -- already a long night, a long two nights, really, and there was still a second game to be played.
The atmosphere was charged, as it had been on the night when Josh’s manager, Charlie, argued with one umpire and Josh argued with another, the night Seth ejected him. In the top of the eleventh inning, after the Bulls scored the go-ahead run, one of their batters was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game. He angrily threw his bat -- all the way into the stands, although it did not hit anyone -- and accosted the pitcher. Both benches cleared, and Charlie, protecting his player, was ejected from the game. The batter was later suspended for three games.
The Bulls led, 8-7. In the bottom of the 11th, Josh retired the side in order, easily, and while he was doing it, the Bulls’ radio broadcaster was complimenting him for coolly and efficiently taking care of business and defusing the tension. But after the final Rochester hitter swung and missed for a game-ending strikeout, Josh tipped his cap at the Rochester dugout. As the Bulls lined up over the mound for their postgame high fives, he tipped it at them several more times.
Way No. 40. On August 16, he came in to try for a save against Charlotte. It was 5-3, Durham, in the ninth inning. Even though he has great control and throws strikes, he hit the leadoff batter with a pitch.
The next batter doubled to deep center field, and the man Josh had hit scored from first base. It was 5-4. After a groundout, Josh fell behind the next hitter, 3-1. He tried to get a fastball by the hitter, as he had tried to do with Mike Hessman and Kevin Pillar, and the hitter crushed a long home run to right field. Charlotte went ahead, 6-5, and won the game.
Way No. 41. The next night, Charlie got Josh right back on his horse. The Bulls were winning in the ninth inning, this time by the much safer score of 10-4, and Charlie put Josh in. The first batter walloped a double. The second one hit what should have been a single to center field, but Bulls second baseman Mike Fontenot made a great play on the ball as he ranged behind second base. That would have kept the man who had doubled from scoring, but Fontenot tried to make a play at first base and threw the ball away, so the runner scored anyway. It was 10-5.
Way No. 42. Baseball punishes good deeds. It requires everything to be done correctly. Not just one of the things. All of them. The catch and the throw. The catch and the decision whether to throw or not. Physical control and mental control. Josh Lueke has always had good physical control. Yet sometimes this good control yields a 0.60 ERA and sometimes it yields a 5.59 ERA. Is he like he pitches? Does he pitch how he is? How is he?
Way No. 43. Baseball punishes everything, but it does not always punish. Perhaps it’s better to say that it punishes anything, but it does not punish everything.
Way No. 44. As soon as Fontenot threw the ball away, the Bulls’ pitching coach popped out of the dugout and urgently signaled to the bullpen for a left-handed reliever to warm up. A left-handed reliever started warming up.
Way No. 45. The next batter singled. There were runners on the corners. The next batter flied out to shallow center field. Runners remained on the corners, with one out. Charlie came to the mound and took Josh out of the game. A curious thing about baseball, as opposed to all other sports: the manager has to come onto the field and remove his player, but only in the case of pitchers. Few managers are former pitchers. The manager and the pitcher have a face-to-face interaction. It can be uncomfortable.
Way No. 46. It was uncomfortable, because there was no interaction. Without making eye contact or saying a word, Josh handed Charlie the ball and lumbered off the field. He did not go to the cooler, stay long enough to accept any high fives, or sit on the bench and watch the outcome. He went straight through the dugout and toward the clubhouse.
The possibility of him in a fit of rage in the clubhouse. I pictured it.
Way No. 47. I scolded myself for picturing it.
Way No. 48. The new Bulls pitcher was facing the same batter who had hit that long home run off Josh the previous night, which probably accounted for Josh’s removal from the game.
The batter hit a ground ball to Nick Franklin at shortstop. Franklin threw to Fontenot at second base for one out, and Fontenot threw a relay to first base, bidding for a game-ending double play. The runner appeared to be safe there, but it had been a long game, the night a slog, and the umpire called him out.
I did not yell. The runner expressed displeasure.
Way No. 49. The easiest way to get to the Bulls’ locker room for postgame interviews is to step onto the field, which is a slightly discomforting thing to do, and then follow the Bulls’ players down the rear dugout steps that lead to the corridor. Once there, we wait to be escorted in by a Bulls official who, after every Bulls win, takes a microphone onto the field and leads the crowd in a cheer, half-mockingly beloved by the players: “BULLS WIN!” he bellows. Then he conducts a short, awkward interview with the “Star of the Game.”
I usually reach the locker room door first, because I come from the stands instead of the press box. After the game, while I waited for the other reporters and the Bulls official, a Bulls player passed me and went into the locker room. He left the door open, and I could hear someone throwing a fit of rage inside. There was the sound of things being thrown and crashing into other things, and of a voice shouting. I couldn’t see who it was, but I could see two Bulls players, one a big league rehabber, standing by with eyebrows raised in a mixture of amusement, bemusement, and mild concern for their own safety. I heard a voice yelling the last part of a sentence, angrily: “... come out of the fucking dugout!”
As we walked through the locker room to the manager’s office, one of the players half-mockingly cheered at the Bulls star-of-the-game official: “Bulls win!” And then he added, smiling: “Although you can’t tell from some motherfuckers in here.”
Two weeks later, the Bulls clinched the division title. They celebrated in the clubhouse, and when Charlie Montoyo came in, with the beer-spraying already in progress, it was Josh, jubilant, who was the first to pour beer over his manager’s head.
Way No. 50. In game three of the International League championship series, the Bulls had a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Lueke came in for a save and took care of the first two hitters easily, the second on a strikeout--but the third strike eluded his catcher for a passed ball, and the batter reached first base. A double moved him to third, and the tying run was in scoring position.
The next batter, who had victimized Durham pitching all season, stung a sharp two-hopper down the first-base line, but right at the Bulls’ first baseman, who was guarding the line. A run scored and the tying run was on third base -- making Josh’s splitter and slider dangerous pitches to throw, since he sometimes bounces them for wild pitches -- but he got the next hitter to pop out and end the game.
Afterwards, three members of the media interviewed Josh. It’s doubtful that he had ever been interviewed by three reporters at once in Durham; it’s probable that I was the only person who had ever interviewed him in Durham until this moment. I watched from a few feet away. Josh’s face and body were completely straight, and he directly faced the three reporters, although his height allowed his gaze to go slightly over their heads. He seemed to be a completely different person from the one I was used to interviewing: formal, straight-faced, toneless. They asked him about the passed ball -- "It happens," he answered, diplomatically -- and also for his thoughts on being in the playoffs.
“Well, it extends the season a little bit,” he said, his voice as unrevealing as his poker face. Josh had told me the week before that he had plans to pitch in the Dominican Republic in the late fall, but first he needed time to let his arm heal. He had been dealing with shoulder soreness for much of the season, he said, which was why his velocity was down. The soreness came from a change in mechanics, imposed on him by the Tampa Bay Rays, who shortened his stride. After they outrighted him to Durham, he went back to his old motion, and it wasn’t until the playoffs that his velocity began to creep back up to 2013 levels.
Why had they shortened his stride, I asked him? To make him quicker to the plate? He shrugged. He guessed so. He didn’t really know. “It’s the Rays,” he said, by way of apparent explanation, and left it at that.
Had he given any thought to 2015? He had: “I’m going to Japan,” he answered. Why? “Money,” he said. Was he taking his wife and her kid with him? Yes. He was facing his locker. Would he later be amenable to coming back to the States? Sure, he said, but for now there was no point in thinking much about that. Why not?
“I’m not going to get a major league deal,” he said, with a bitter laugh.
It was a simple statement, but somehow I had no idea what he meant.
Josh kissed his wife, Taylor, through the netting. Just a peck, an ordinary token of marital affection. He reached through the netting and patted her little boy on the head. A peck and a pat -- quick, simple human gestures.
They made arrangements about where to meet outside the ballpark. Then he turned and crossed back over the infield under the floodlights, descended the concrete steps, and lumbered down the corridor to the clubhouse, where he joined his teammates for dinner.