My friend Dirk Hayhurst is getting a lot of ink – and a lot of grief – for correctly identifying that Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox was doing something to his pitches in Toronto. Whether Buchholz is mixing rosin with sweat, water, or some other kind of gelatinous abomination, Hayhurst noted the trick, called it out, and gave a combination of rebuke and complement today.
I’ll leave it to The Baseball Police to determine to what degree Buchholz is cheating (i.e. acceptable or legal cheating, or unacceptable and thus illegal cheating). I’ll laugh out loud at the contention that Hayhurst is in some way homering this, or trying to make a name for himself, or trying to tear Buchholz down. Hayhurst was a major league pitcher, which means the odds that he cheated in some way are about 101 out of 100 (I’m on the pitchers’ side on this. All rule changes since 1893 have been designed to screw the pitcher into the ground to increase hitting).
Pitchers doctor the baseball in the big leagues. Buchholz isn’t innocent because nobody ratted him out before Dirk did. Teams don’t push it because then their pitchers will be policed (‘So seven of our guys cheat? We have tape of twelve of your guys cheating – and five of them are hitters’). If you look back at the bizarre Kenny Rogers ‘hand discoloration’ saga from Game Two of the 2006 World Series there is reason to hypothesize that Tony LaRussa went to Jim Leyland and said ‘this is over the top. Get that crap off his hand – and all your other guys’ hands – or I’m going to the Commissioner.’ I mean, that could easily explain why Tigers pitchers Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Justin Verlander made errors in the next 22 innings: they were having trouble holding on to the baseball.
But this is not really about any of that.
This is about a simple fact: I doctored a baseball.
I was taught to do it by an ex-big league pitcher, I used the skill while throwing out a ceremonial first pitch – and it worked like a charm.
“Hey, why can’t I hear you clearly?” asked my friend the ex-MLB pitcher (not Dirk Hayhurst).
I explained I was on the ferry to Staten Island to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees’ minor league game and the cell reception was mediocre. “Oh. I suppose you know what to do to raise your chances of not humiliating yourself, right?” I told him I hadn’t really thought about it. “Well first, what happens when somebody throws a ceremonial first pitch in the dirt?” I told him that to the best of my recollection, people booed or laughed derisively. “But what happens when they throw it over the catcher’s head?” I said there was a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing. “So aim high, not low.
“Second thing, don’t go up on to the mound.” No? “No! The mound is for pitchers. You are not a pitcher. All you can do with a mound is fall off it. Stand on the skirt of the mound in the front. This’ll give you the illusion of standing on the mound.
“But most importantly, get the baseball as early as possible.” Here he got very quiet. “Pick at the seams.” What did you say? “Pick. At. The. Seams. With your fingernails. Just pull up on the stitches with your nails. Get the baseball half an hour before the game, or if you have to, just find a ball somewhere and start picking at the seams, then use that for the first pitch.” Seriously? “Why would I make this up?” But what could it possibly do? “You’ll see.”
So given the undeniable logic of his first two suggestions about throwing high and not actually getting on the mound, as soon as I got to the Staten Island ballpark I grabbed a loose baseball and tried to pick at the seams with my fingernails.
I don’t know if I expected them to come loose, like that wandering thread in your suit or your sweater that turns out to be 44 inches long. All I know is, nothing moved. I could’ve used a nail file or a drill bit and I wouldn’t have been able to budge them. After 20 minutes of this, I realized that my friend the pitcher had just foisted one over on me. He had gotten me to pick at the seams of the ball as the equipment manager gets the naive batboy to go search for the “key” to the batters’ box.
Nevertheless, I went over to the catcher, P.J. Pilittere, and warned him I would be aiming head-high to avoid all those boos, and I stopped moving after I reached the skirt of the mound. And I pulled the ball whose seams I had pointlessly and with eminent futility pulled at for 20 minutes, went into a mock wind-up, and let go a pretty decent pitch that I could instantly see was going to hit the mitt, which Pilittere was appropriately holding face-high.
And about fifteen feet in front of the plate the ball dropped like it had been hit by a poison dart. It split the strike zone perfectly and nearly hit Pilittere in his privates except that he deftly swung the glove down and grabbed my textbook cutter. And as I stood there amazed he ran out towards me with a big smile on his face and said exactly four words: “Picking at the seams?”
I got my friend the ex-pitcher on the phone immediately. “Told you so.” I asked him how on earth the ball could have been defaced when I had no sense whatsoever that the picking had had any impact at all. “That’s physics. I was a Communications major. All I know is: it doesn’t take much. That’s why they throw out your first inning warm-up ball and give you a fresh one nowadays. But in school I used to get the game ball half an hour before first pitch and I never threw anything except strikes, just like that one. An artificial cut fastball. Which all the batters would then be convinced I had in reserve all game long.”
He added one more thing: “You’re welcome.”
The entire roster is very small and I’m not even confident we have one guy for every position (although we have the beginnings of a pitching staff), but there is no question that if they ever open a Players/Authors Hall of Fame next to the larger one in Cooperstown, Dirk Hayhurst will be a first ballot electee.
And as of today he has two titles to put on his plaque. Out Of My League is now officially published and available in all formats, and without a prescription.
The Bullpen Gospels, his startling and unexpected 2010 debut as an author, told the gritty yet funny and redeeming story of a ballplayer’s sudden realizations that a dream career can still turn into a desperately unpleasant job, and that all but about six guys in his minor league were merely there to provide game-like practice for the actual prospects. It became a New York Times best-seller. If you want my detailed unabashed joy at reading the best baseball book since Ball Four, here is my original post from December, 2009.
In Out Of My League Dirk’s journey takes him to the majors with the Padres in 2008, and while the experience does not have quite the range of emotions as his first book (that would have required him to produce two baseball versions of Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum) there are enough laughs and terrors to keep any baseball fan – or just any person – riveted.
Without scooping his story and telling it as my own, Hayhurst goes – in the span of one baseball season and one book – from moments of absolutely certainty that his career will end with nothing more achieved than the faint afterglow of a Texas League Championship, to being the starting pitcher against the San Francisco Giants. The same kind of disillusionment that made The Bullpen Gospels a universal story of handling the sour taste of reality – and one that you also discover to your shock, not everybody around you is bright enough to perceive – continues in the new book.
That this unhappy surprise comes at the major league level makes Out Of My League a touch more heretical, because it dents the fiction that The Bigs are Perfection With Whipped Cream On Top. Just because you’d give your right arm to pitch a game in the majors does not mean that’s a greater sacrifice than giving 20 years of your life for exactly that same singular opportunity. When you think of it in those terms – and Hayhurst forces you to – it suddenly seems less like the childhood dream of fame and success, and more like the scenario in which you get that bicycle you desperately wanted for Christmas, and are promptly directed to spend nearly all of your youth learning how to ride it, with the reward being your opportunity to guide it across a tightrope stretched across the two rims of a bottomless pit.
And still it’s a fun read. Plus, it will explain the hesitation of most modern pitchers. Once you read Out Of My League you’ll understand exactly where that uncertainty comes from: The pitcher staring back over his own shoulder is not always just checking a baserunner’s lead.
I’ve written before about our friend The Garfoose, Dirk Hayhurst, author of The Bullpen Gospels, formerly of the Padres and Blue Jays and this year back from surgery to compete for a job in the rebuilding bullpen of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Because the book came out after Dirk established himself as a middle reliever in Toronto but before he got hurt, a lot of his fans have – to put it bluntly – never seen him pitch. To correct that, we offer a photographic record of his scoreless inning against the Jays this afternoon in Dunedin (The Rays used seven pitchers – four got lit – Hayhurst, Rob Delaney, and Brandon Gomes were the only ones who did not):
The cry from behind the Rays’ dugout was not the most common one, but it’s not like Evan Longoria had never heard it before.
“Evan!,” the young boy bellowed. “Can I have your batting gloves?”
Longoria, out by the batting cage on McKechnie Field in Bradenton, decided to engage. “I need them to hit. What am I supposed to do when I hit?” The boy looked back, startled and without riposte. “Yes. I’m talking to you. About batting gloves. I mean, if I give them to you, what do I use? Can I use your instead?”
Now the boy was back on more familiar ground. “My batting gloves are in my bag in the car.” Longoria played peeved, but evidently was, in fact, charmed.
“Maybe I should give you everything I use. Gloves, bat, cap. I just won’t hit.”
The boy became thoughtful. “No, don’t do that.”
Seemingly the end of the exchange, and Longoria went ahead and hit. And as soon as he finished, he ambled back to the Rays’ dugout without looking at the boy. And he popped back up and slapped a bat on the dugout and, with a big smile, pushed it towards the youngster, and raced off to shag fly balls before the boy or his mother could even say thanks.
The bad news for the Yankees is that Mark Teixeira suffered a Grade 2 strain of the hamstring and will miss the rest of the season.
Bulletin news from the esteemed author and DL’d pitcher of the Toronto Blue Jays, Dirk Hayhurst. The Bullpen Gospels is no longer a cult classic. It is not only going to stay on the best-sellers’ list of The New York Times, it is going to move up on it. It is now considered the 15th best selling non-fiction paperback in the country.
MARVIN MILLER AND THE HALL OF FAME
The venerable organizer of the first successful players’ association in sports turned 93 today and if there was justice, he would be starting to prepare his speech for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies over the summer.
As Joe Morgan so aptly noted on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, it is not just the players who should thank Miller for increasing rookie salaries from $8,000 to $400,000, and the top end of the equation from $100,000 to Eleventy Billion. The owners, despite doing everything possible to stop Miller before he started, then stop him while he was dismantling their plantations, then roll back his accomplishments, saw similar income explosions, and the growth of franchise values from a high then of around $12 million, to the fact that a couple of clubs are now worth a $1.6 billion.
That’s what the owners were fighting.
It is literally true that when Miller came to the MLBPA in 1966, the most expensive seat in any big league stadium was $3.50 or $4. The seat that now goes for a couple of grand in a luxury box, or for $1250 in the front row in the Bronx, was $4 – or less – before Marvin Miller almost single-handedly changed the nature of the business of the equation, and thus of the sport.
It can be rightly argued that fans don’t get to see players playing as long for one team as they used to (although I suspect a thorough study would indicate the change is a lot less than people think). They also don’t see many players spend their careers on the outside looking in, enslaved to one club literally forever, and never even getting to the post-season (Ernie Banks). The free agency that Miller rightfully won has not contributed to the small market/big market dilemma, it has only redefined it, and more importantly it has provided for the first time in the history of the game, the opportunity for less robust clubs to climb out of their holes through shrewd spending of the dollar (Cleveland in the ’90s, Tampa Bay today).
I don’t know what parallel there is to Marvin Miller among the players. I guess you’d have to start with Babe Ruth and double his longevity. Miller’s influence has been that strong. Was it painless? No. Was Ruth’s? The new game he created turned bunting, running, sacrificing, and hitting-and-running – and the men who excelled in them – into afterthoughts. It killed off John McGraw and “Inside Baseball” and for all we know led to the New York Giants moving out and the Dodgers going to LA, too.
But ask the players of today, and the fans of today, and the owners of today, if they’d really like to go back to, say, the ’60s, before free agency. It cost less to get in. And each team and each player lived on the margins of financial collapse. Is it just a coincidence that the geographical chaos of the time ended four years before free agency began? Between 1953 and 1972, Boston became Milwaukee, St. Louis became Baltimore, Philadelphia became Kansas City, Brooklyn became Los Angeles, New York became San Francisco, Washington became Minnesota, Milwaukee became Atlanta, Kansas City became Oakland, Seattle became Milwaukee, and Washington became Texas. Cleveland nearly moved. Oakland. San Francisco. Cincinnati. The Cardinals were going to Dallas.
In the 38 years since, for all the other turmoil, one franchise has moved.
Marvin Miller is a Hall of Famer, and with the special elections afforded Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente as precedent, he should be sent to Cooperstown now, not later – now while he can still enjoy it, and now while we can still honor him.
How many teams can see their ace carry a no-hitter into the 8th and still create a handful of controversies out of it?
News from America’s favorite pitcher/diarist/author. His book The Bullpen Gospels has made it to The New York Times best-seller list, and will debut this week as the 19th rated Non-Fiction Paperback in the nation.
As we congratulate Mr. Hayhurst (who will remain in a state of giddiness until at least May 1), let me also note here something I left out from my Opening Day reporting. The first person at CitiField to express condolences for the passing of my father was Mike Vaccaro of The New York Post. Considering I was far from kind in reviewing his book here over the winter, I have to say that was as classy an act as I’ve ever been the beneficiary of, and whatever complaints I might have about the quality of the book, I have none about the quality of the author.
Having careened through the NL (Rockies beating the Braves in the NLCS, after the Rockies had beaten the Reds, and the Braves the wild-card Giants), we begin three nights’ worth of AL divisional previews, in the East:
BALTIMORE not have pitching. Surely they could have pitching by 2011, but right now
there is nothing on which to rely beyond Kevin Millwood, and no team relying on
Kevin Millwood has made the post-season since 2002 (and what is the excitement over
a pitcher who has produced exactly three winning seasons since that long-ago
last playoff appearance?). There are also worries offensively. Adam Jones was a
superstar at the All-Star break, but flatlined soon after, and any team relying
on Garrett Atkins clearly has not seen a National League game since 2006.
the unasked question in BOSTON: would the Red Sox rather have David Ortiz at DH
this year… or Luke Scott? Where, production-wise, will Not-So-Big-Papi fall in
2010? I think he’s behind Guerrero, Kubel, Lind, Matsui, Scott, and maybe
others. If the demise of the beast continues, the Red Sox are suddenly
presenting a very pedestrian line-up, one that might be the second weakest in
the division. Of course, Theo Epstein might have made this determination
already, which would explain the willingness to fill the big openings with the
great gloves of Beltre, Cameron, and Scutaro, rather than slightly bigger bats
that couldn’t have changed the overall new dynamic – the Red Sox are a pitching
and defense outfit. Mind you, as those outfits go, they’re among the best in
recent years. The rotation is deep enough to survive Matsuzaka on the DL, the
bullpen robust enough to survive if that soggy finish by Papelbon in the ALDS
was more than a one-game thing, and the cadre of young cameo pitchers has been
refreshed with the rapid maturation of Casey Kelly. But no matter how the Old
Towne Team fairs in 2010, keep the Ortiz thought in the back of your mind. What
if the second half of ’09 was the aberration, not the first half? Will the Sox
have to bench him? And if so, could the twists and turns of fate find them
suddenly grateful that they had been unable to trade Mike Lowell?
Oh is this
a conflict of interest. This will be the 39th season my family has
had season tickets in NEW YORK, and I’m not convinced the Yankees will be
hitting me up for playoff ducats this fall. Things I do not expect to see
repeated from 2009: 1) A.J. Burnett’s reliability and perhaps even his stamina;
2) Joe Girardi’s ability to survive without a reliable fifth starter (if Phil
Hughes really can pull it off in this, his fourth attempt, he might become the
fourth starter if my instincts on Burnett are correct); 3) Nick Swisher’s
offensive performance (his average and his RBI totals have never increased two years in a row); 4)
Derek Jeter’s renaissance (as the Baseball Prospectus folks note, 36-year old shortstops
deteriorate quickly); 5) Jorge Posada’s prospects of getting 433 plate
appearances (which begs the question: if you were hoping to DH Posada on
occasion, why did you sign as your primary DH, a guy who cannot play the
outfield, and can barely play first base?). As I have written here before, I am
not buying the premise that what in essence was a trade of Melky Cabrera,
Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, for a full-time Brett Gardner plus Curtis
Granderson and Nick Johnson was necessarily an upgrade – even if Javier Vazquez (9
career post-season innings; 11 career post-season earned runs) was thrown in,
in the bargain. Anybody wanna buy some of my tickets?
BAY, I’m betting 2009 was the fluke and not 2008. What does one not like about
this team? Is rightfield confused? Stick Ben Zobrist there and let Sean
Rodriguez have a shot at second. That doesn’t work? Wait for mid-season and the
promotion of Desmond Jennings. You don’t like Crawford and Upton? Bartlett and
Longoria? Pena? The law firm of Shoppach and Navarro? The Rays seem to summon a
fully-grown starter from the minors each year – Price in ’08, Niemann in ’09,
Wade Davis in ’10. I do not think Rafael Soriano is the world’s greatest
reliever, but his acquisition is an acknowledgment that championship teams do
not muddle through with closers who pitched in All-Star Games prior to 2001.
What is the most remarkable fact about this extremely talented and balanced
team can be summed up by the caveat I have to offer in praising them. Shortly
after they were ransomed from Vince Naimoli, I discovered to my shock that a
college pal of mine had, for all these years, been married to the man who had just
done the ransoming. A
few innings later, Stu and Lisa Sternberg and I sat in their seats at Yankee
Stadium and he was earnestly asking how I thought he could convince the players
to accept a salary cap so the Rays could contend. I told him I wasn’t sure, but
he wouldn’t have to worry about it any earlier than our next lifetimes. So what
you are seeing in Tampa is, in fact, Plan “B” – and it may be the greatest Plan
“B” in baseball history.
know TORONTO is a small market team? Here is something the writers apparently
promised not to tell: the Jays got almost nothing for Roy Halladay. Sorry. When
the reward was Travis D’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor, it was only a
pair of pants being pressed. When the Jays inexplicably swapped Taylor to
Oakland for the lump-like Brett Wallace, it became the full trip to the
cleaners. One of the oldest rules of talent evaluation is: if a prospect has
been traded twice in four months, he may not be quite the prospect you think he
is (one of the older rules is: if one of your starting middle infielders has a
weight clause in his contract, you only have one starting middle infielder). On top of
which, when you consider the Jays paid $6 million in salary offset for the
privilege of giving Doc away, this trade has to be called what it was: a salary
dump in which ownership was admitting it had no interest in competing. Jays
fans are left to cheer three very exciting hitters in Aaron Hill, Adam Lind,
and Travis Snider; to try to get the correct spellings and pronunciations of the
guys in their rotation (“excuse me, are you Brett Cecil, or Cecil Brett?”);
and, since there really won’t be much else to do under the roof this summer,
buy and read injured reliever Dirk Hayhurst’s marvelous book The Bull…
oh, sorry, did I already mention it?
Tampa Bay steps back into the forefront in an exciting race with the
well-managed but decreasingly potent Red Sox, and bests Boston by a game or
two. The Yankees contend – possibly even dominate – into June or July before the
rotation, and/or Posada, and/or Jeter, blow up, and they fade to a distant
third. The Jays and Orioles compete only to be less like The Washington
The update on Dirk Hayhurst’s surgery appears positive — fraying labrum, repaired, out most of the season but possibly not all of it. All in all, probably couldn’t have been better.
Now I’m not criticizing anybody’s name (I have never completely mastered pronouncing mine, although I have not misspelled it since about 1963), but the surgeon was Dr. Mark Schickendantz? I mean, how could you not go into orthopedic surgery at least with a weak smile on your face contemplating the fact that your surgeon’s last name includes the words “chicken dantz”?
The fella who took out my appendix two and a half years ago was named Kimmelstiel, complete with the “steel” pronounciation. A guy allowed to use scalpels, named Kimmelstiel. Heckuva surgeon, by the way.
UPDATE: The author-pitcher quickly regained typing ability (one-handed) and reports himself feeling pretty good, all things considered, but with control of the remote ceded to the Mrs., he says he did briefly consider trying to get a hold of the anesthesiologist for a booster.
FROM A RESEARCHER’S NOTEBOOK: Just stumbled across this in the Fall 2009 edition of The Society for American Research Journal: a law student at the University of North Carolina named Trent McCotter busted his research hump to analyze the official scoresheets from all of Ty Cobb’s games, to generate his splits. It is startling to consider that Cobb, in 2,109 games in which he faced righthanded starters, batted .375 lifetime (.347 versus lefties). Perhaps more impressive, Cobb’s numbers in games started by the pitching legends he faced:
Cobb Versus: Games Average
Walter Johnson 92 .380
Rube Waddell 21 .354
Cy Young 25 .354
Babe Ruth 21 .338
Eddie Plank 54 .333
Remember, Cobb hit .367 lifetime. He did better than that against Johnson, whom he always claimed he could hit because he knew Johnson wouldn’t pitch him inside because he was mortified at the thought of hitting batters in the pre-helmet days – and killing one of them. He actually managed a .454 on base percentage against The Big Train.