Pitching "Out There"

How did Johnny Cueto, a kid from the Dominican Republic, end up pitching from the center of a baseball diamond in Kauffman Stadium? Probably like anyone else who finds their way to Kansas City.
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How did Johnny Cueto, a kid from the Dominican Republic, end up pitching from the center of a baseball diamond not too terribly far from “the wind-beat wheat” Truman Capote once labeled “out there”? Probably like anyone else who finds their way to Kansas City. In some ways, it just sort of happened that way, and in others, Cueto willed it.

According to Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star , “The Reds signed Cueto for about $35,000,” but it was not so much his physical talents that bought his ticket to the Minor Leagues and eventually the Majors. He is not tall now, and he was not tall then. He is still somewhat pudgy. Yet comparisons range from Luis Tiant and Pedro Martinez to David Cone and Greg Maddux.

Perhaps there are so many comparisons to make because not a single one fits entirely. In this sense Cueto is less the stuff of baseball history and more the woven fabric of transatlantic mythologies and their commerce. Like Eshu, a Yoruba trickster god, he has made his way through time and space to hurtle strikes from a mound sitting atop the crossroads of America’s pastime.

But what does that mean? It may very well be nothing. He could simply be another trade acquisition buying time in a mid-market until free agency calls. Then again, baseball isn’t just baseball in Kansas City.

The first person I ever met from the city introduced himself by his name and then said, “Kansas City is known for three things: baseball, barbecue, and—” I always forget the third entry on the list, but I’m pretty sure he said, George Brett.

***

Since 1969, the Royals have existed in Kansas City. More importantly, they have not existed anywhere else. This is their first and only resting place. And, while the team possesses only one World Series title (1985) from the George Brett era, success has always been hard fought and fairly fleeting. The years spent pining for a third championship gave way to wishing for mere relevance, and it was this adherence to settling which made last season’s World Series run all the more magical.

Yet losing the World Series is not the same as winning it. Hence, a talent like Cueto is worth not just the wait but the excitement, too. In his home debut for the Royals, he received at least three different standing ovations: after the eighth, at the start of the ninth, and again as he addressed the fans from the field in post-game. Thus, in his glacial march to the mound, he brings not only great stuff but world-altering stuff.

When Cueto first reached the Majors, his delivery was not his own. He lifted his leg and drove towards the plate. He looked less like himself and more like everyone else. His ERA hovered well above 4.0. He was lost in a world of youth and potential that seemed destined for middle age conformity. In 2010, however, the experiments started. The Tiant comparisons began. The ERA dropped. And Cueto mattered because he discovered something old and forgotten.

Rather than simply lifting his front leg and driving towards home plate, he was now lifting his left leg and twisting with a weathervane’s patience towards the outfield wall and away from opposing batters. With this motion, both his gloved left hand and left shoe crossed the axis that runs through a pitcher’s body and splits the baseball diamond in half—almost as if his body might defy physics and align itself in the place where it started. At this moment in his windup’s motion, Cueto appears to be aiming as much at left centerfield as he is at home plate. Either his body or the field is backwards. Then, the wind changes directions, and he unwinds. The world is right. The pitch arrives, and the batter must handle what he was given too much time to see and not see.

There is a baseball history in Kansas City that precedes the Royals. The city is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which celebrates a time before the Royals’ founding and Jackie Robinson’s breaking into the Major Leagues. And, while every franchise in the Majors has retired Robinson’s 42, Kansas City is, unfortunately, one of the few places to learn the names and stories of ancient players who are not exactly encoded in the mainstream matrix. These are the names that do not roll off the tongue quite like those in Murderers’ Row.

Yet the histories starring Babe Ruth are not entirely separate from the histories starring the likes of Christobel Torriente. When the games segregated pasts entered into areas of confluence, they did so mostly through acts of small town barnstorming. These games did not survive as a matter of record, but as a matter of collective experience, relying less on the authority of governing bodies and more so on the power of witnessing. When Cueto impersonates Tiant—even though Tiant’s career came much later than the golden age of barnstorming—, he still manages to borrow from that tornadic calamity of worlds colliding. In essence, his motion twists between what lies behind him—Satchel Paige’s inheritance—and what stands before him—today’s hitters, and through the delivery of a cut fastball to the outside corner of the plate, he continues a legacy of altering the game’s angles and dimensions.

***

Approximately 230 miles to the east of Kauffman Stadium are the frontlines of Ferguson. The night Cueto received his three standing ovations from a majority white crowd was exactly a year and a day after the shooting of Michael Brown and one day after the shooting of 18-year-old Tyrone Harris. Regardless of his windup motion, Cueto landed his left leg on every pitch, to straddle the boundaries between Capote’s agrarian fears and today’s urban protests. Not to mention how the line running between Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas designated Bleeding Kansas as a battleground over slavery even prior to the Civil War. The coincidence of this moment’s place on the calendar and on a road map speaks to baseball’s capacity for what is either a state of transcendence or avoidance.

Like so many American stories, Cueto’s trips to the mound are about chimerical centers that either move or do not exist at all. While borrowing from Tiant transformed the former Reds pitcher into one of the game’s best, his thirst for invention has led him beyond the limits of mere mimicry.

As he amazed those fans in Kansas City blue who came out to support him against the Detroit Tigers, ESPN’s broadcast crew estimated that Cueto used at least nine different deliveries throughout the night. The number is probably closer to four, but regardless, his actions are ever more impossible to predict. After all, while still with the Reds this season, Cueto introduced what he calls ‘the Rocking Chair,’ which is the Tiant motion interrupted by Cueto’s rocking his shoulders side to side while his chest faces the outfield fence.

The height of this controlled chaos occurred in the ninth inning when he began his wind up by first lifting his leg and then corkscrewing his hips and torso towards the wall. At this stage, Cueto’s motion followed the forms of those who came before him. But the smooth transition of the weathervane did not occur and neither did the slow hesitation of the rocking chair. Instead, Cueto broke from design and shook his shoulders forward and back; a scarecrow in midst of a dancefloor. The pitch that followed was perfect, and Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain called this variation “shaking and baking,” as if the game were not so serious as the past to which Cueto turns as a means for altering the game’s established tempo.

Detroit’s manager Brad Ausmus said of the motion, “it’s an illegal pitch.” Yet, from Cincinnati to Kansas City, Cueto’s delivery draws laughter, reinvigorating what can so often become a very stale game. These are fundamental differences within the realm of interpretation; a realm in which Cueto morphs and bends with every pitch and every inning, making him the most artful pitcher in baseball and quite possibly a catalyst for something more.

On the night Cueto shut out the Detroit Tigers, the Royals’ lion mascot, Slugerrr, wore Cueto’s signature braids. And, on the one hand, this gesture along with the crowd’s enthusiasm for their new ace suggested a coronation, even if Kansas City is nothing more than another stop on Cueto’s eternal barnstorming tour. On the other hand, the spectacle of the night recalled the distant racism of the region’s Kaffir Corn Carnival and its exotic Kaffir Boy.

If those references to past institutions no longer register, then perhaps it is because the world is so much like Cueto, turning back on itself and then thrusting forward into the next pitch and a new set of rules to be broken.


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