A lot happened in Sunday’s Tigers-Angels game. The drama really started when Magglio Ordonez was taken by complete surprise. He seemed to guess the wrong pitch, hit the shit out of a changeup anyway, get confused about what happened, realize two things—that it was headed toward the foul pole and would not land in play—take a second to gather his wits, and, finally, watch it land fair. Then he jogged around the bases under the seemingly happy-to-have-evil-thoughts-toward-you gaze of Jared Weaver. This led, as you know, to a chain of decorum-testing reactions: Guillen’s this-is-how-you-pose, game-winning homerun, Avila getting a pitch over his head, Aybar almost ending a no-hitter with a bunt, and JV eventually losing the no-hitter, perhaps as a result of all the aforementioned drama. Then there was the normal drama of a one-run finish between two teams chasing the pennant. An action-packed game indeed.
But it is something that happened after all the hubbub, when the game was still on the line, that exemplified the one baseball element any fan must appreciate in order to truly appreciate the game. Izturis was the tying run, on second, having just spoiled the no-hitter, with two outs. Torii Hunter stepped to the plate. All of a sudden, this wasn’t a historic game. It was just a huge game, the kind that top teams play all the time. More specifically, it was a huge at bat. It was also a particularly interesting matchup. Verlander and Hunter are both fierce competitors and have a long history of staring each other down in big at-bats, dating back to Hunter’s Twins days. They’ve faced off 44 times now.
Hunter V. Verlander
Torii Hunter is a joy to watch, even if, like me, you root against him most of the time. For instance, I’ll never forget a home run he hit in the 2003 playoffs against the Yankees. It was one of those series when Twins fans got their hopes raised, then smashed. But for a brief time, the Twins were up by one game and Hunter hit a homer to tie game 2 at one. He stood for just a millisecond, knowing it was gone, and for a second his swagger had you thinking just maybe the Twins will knock them off. There’s also Hunter’s legendary defense and the run-of-the-mill stuff he does, the hard work, skill and determination, that you have to admire.
That was all on display Sunday with two outs in the eighth. Verlander had faced Hunter earlier in July, near the end of another pitcher’s duel, and had given him nothing but that late inning heat. That long at-bat ended with Hunter catching up with something near 100 and unluckily lining it right to the centerfielder. Hunter hits the curve and slider well, as Rod Allen informed us, so JV wasn’t messing around with that. This time looked to be no different. Hunter took a fastball at 100 on the outside edge of the plate for strike one. Next, high and outside, same speed. Then, outside corner again and Hunter, in Mario Impemba’s words, was “tardy on 101 [mph].” Nothing to be ashamed about. The next pitch should have been the last, but that’s where Torii is a bit different. It was a huge curve, like 15 mph slower than the last three pitches. This should be that pitch where the batter just buckles at the knees and turns into a passive visual art critic: “look at that arc right through the zone, perfect use of deceptive perspective.” Not to be. Hunter did buckle at the knees as anyone would, but he managed to foul if off and stay alive, prompting Rod Allen, with a somewhat disgusted and jealous laugh, to say “I don’t know how you foul a pitch like that off.” Hunter then missed the one pitch he might have had a chance to crush, a hanging breaking ball over the inside of the plate. He pulled it on the ground foul, but can you blame him when that fastball always threatens? After fighting off one more outside fastball, Hunter finally missed a 101 mph fastball, bringing the count to three-strikes, one-ball. Verlander wins, but you have to give Hunter credit for even surviving to the seventh pitch, especially when he was down in the count the entire at-bat.
This was about as good as an at-bat gets: two elite veterans facing off in a prolonged battle with high stakes. But you have to enjoy more than just the outcome to appreciate this confrontation. You have to appreciate the process of the battle, the strategy, the way the pitcher plays with creating a regularity and then deviating from that regularity in order to catch the batter off guard. You have to love Verlander chancing two curves in a row against a guy he didn’t dare throw a curve to earlier in the month, and pulling it off. You have to appreciate the risk the batter must take, guessing one pitch, but hedging that bet by being ready to fight off a different pitch (as Hunter did with that curve ball). If you don’t appreciate these minute details, then I don’t see how you can really enjoy the game at all; it would be like watching soccer or hockey without enjoying the passing.
Pitcher as Arist
Sure, there is a lot that goes on in baseball beyond the pitcher-batter battle, as this game clearly showed. But you will be sorely disappointed in the game if you simply wait for plays in the field, hits, base-running and score changes to provide all the entertainment, because those things often occur so slowly or with such gaps between them that you are sure to grow board waiting for them. You can see how this limited kind of baseball viewing might lead to the Homer Simpson strategy of baseball fandom, in which you must be sloshed to get through the game, because nothing ever happens.
There was a time not long ago when I ascribed to this strategy (not always with the getting sloshed involved, but this did include much of my college years). The Tigers sucked, so I didn’t watch enough games to catch on to all the game’s subtleties. That all changed when I watched a few playoffs and noticed that damn near every single pitch in the post season is at the knees and on the outside corner. I noticed that the stakes had become so high that each pitch seems crucial, while my previous viewing strategy considered an individual pitch only something that might lead to something interesting, like a strikeout or a hit. Now, I started to get it: the pitcher is like any kind of artist: someone who deals in expectation and surprise. Just as a poet, rapper or jazz soloist establishes a rhythm so that it can be played off of with coy variations and the subtle evolution of a central governing pattern (or rhythm), the pitcher implants an expectation in the batter’s mind, but can employ a variety strategies that may or may not line up with those expectations. That is, like any artist, the pitcher (with the catcher and manager) is given two basic elements with which to compose: rhythm and variation. To loosely draw this principle to its logical end, you could say the fastball is like the iambic pentameter Shakespeare normally used, and the other pitches are like the variations in that pattern, which the Bard used to keep his lines from becoming too predictable and boring.
The batter, then, becomes analogous to the reader or viewer of an artist’s piece, albeit an active one, with the fan becoming a viewer of the whole transaction between pitcher and batter. Like one listening to a Miles Davis solo, the batter is left to predict what will come next: will it be what you expect, given the count (or the progress of the solo so far), or will the pitcher play off your expectation and try to sneak an unconventional pitch by you? Miles Davis famously mimicked Mohammad Ali’s hang-back “rope-a-dope” strategy on “Kind of Blue,” and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a similar idea transferring from a pitching strategy to a fine art. If you were to channel Verlander’s strategy against Hunter into a music, however, I think it would come out sounding more like Tool.
In any case, the point is that you cannot really enjoy baseball unless you are into the battle between pitcher and batter. Without that interest, watching a game becomes a lot of waiting around. With that interest, a game becomes a long series of fascinating micro-battles between pitcher and batter, all of which occur against the backdrop of everything else that happens in a baseball game. In the latter case, the game offers multiple layers of interest and enjoyment, while in the former the game becomes what I suspect, sadly, most people see the game as: a boring excuse to drink, to sit outside, or maybe just to tune out until someone finally does something! (Side note: this situation totally changes if you go to the game, and so can’t see the pitches as well or hear the analyst. But being at the game has its own advantages, the company of tens of thousands, sun, scenery, and, yes, beer, even if it’s a thousand dollars a bottle.)
In a sense, this analysis actually gives me a little hope. It takes a lot of attention span and patience to really enjoy a game in the way I am proposing, and I doubt the game could survive as well as it has if a significant amount of the public didn’t actually have the attention span and patience to enjoy the game in the way I am suggesting. With that in mind, might there be enough intellect out there to save our asses from our multiple looming crisis’? That’s a question for another day. For now, let me simply salute the art at the heart of baseball, the game’s core and base, not the game within the game, but the game throughout the game.