[To whet your appetite for the upcoming Major League Baseball season, I present once again my essay, "Proving Giamatti Wrong." This was written in the Fall of 2003 when I was living in Philadelphia and had adopted the Phillies as my National League team. Essays about baseball are a unique American genre, one I have long loved and admired. The game lends itself to the written word far more naturally than any other sport. This is my small contribution to the canon.]
“It breaks your heart. It was meant to break your heart.” So wrote late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, reflecting on how the game of baseball so utterly disappoints, yet continues to addict, its thousands of fans. It may well be true, but just the same it masks the occasional converse reality. In the case of a Philadelphia Phillies fan, that is a very occasional converse reality. George Will said it best: “The Phillies have had a bad century.” I am undeterred.
Perhaps I’m affected by the weather. I always get sentimental and unduly emotional when Fall rolls around; it is just a melancholy time of year with its dark skies, swirling wind, leaves falling to the ground. All good songs are written in the autumn. It’s late September, and a hurricane is coming – Isabel, they call her. Already her outer bands like tentacles have invaded the skies and the winds buffet occasional sprays of rain. The news of her imminent arrival changed the game time, the original 7:05 rescheduled to 1:05. Good. I could catch the first pitch on the radio on my way home from class, and then I’d be able to catch some of it on TV before buttoning up my uniform and heading off to work.
We’re in a playoff race – a bona fide playoff race. Okay, perhaps not really bona fide to true baseball purists. The Braves have long since run away with our division for the twelfth consecutive time. Disgusting. But we are hanging on to that newly invented breath of hope of which Giamatti never knew: the wildcard. Today is game three against our nemesis, the pesky and utterly infuriating Florida Marlins. We split the first two, today’s the rubber game. Marlins lead us in the wildcard race by a game and a half. We have to win today. We have to. We “get” to play them again next week, only in Florida. But we always lose in Florida.
I’m in graduate school – theology. I had a class today, St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. I asked our august professor mid-hour, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “Moving on to the really important things… do you think the Phillies can pull it out?” Never one to duck crucial questions, he pinched his chin with his fingers and frowned. “Where were you in 1950?” he asked me. “In the mind of God,” I shot back. “Well, I was a little further along than that, and given our history things don’t look too promising.” Leave it to him to match his baseball passion with his eschatology. He and the ghost of Giamatti. What does he know? Being right about St. Paul doesn’t make you right about baseball. I need a little more optimism.
Class is out, I’m cruising home. Radio’s on. Oh, I forgot. We’re facing Willis. He’s this young, powerful lefty – a rookie, but dominating. “The D-Train” they call him. That kind of hype always rubs me the wrong way, but he seems like a pretty nice kid. He’s the front-runner for the Rookie of the Year award. We’re doomed, I think. His hitless inning on the way home won’t change that opinion.
The screen door shuts behind me, I say ‘hi’ to my wife, who’s busy in the kitchen. I quickly get the game on TV, go upstairs to get my baseball buddy – she’s eleven months. Last night – I swear – she said exactly her fourth word. “Kitty” was first. Then came “Daddy,” which comes out a hilarious “Da-duh.” “Momma” is a rarely used third. Last night when the game was on, she pointed her finger at the screen and said, “Bay-bah.” She did it four times, that kid. Who ever heard of “baseball” as a fourth word? She’s overjoyed to see me – does her little scrunch up of her neck, mouth wide-open smile. A quick kiss for Daddy, then we’re down in the La-Z-Boy watching the game like always. She even claps as daddy teaches her new cheers.
Not much to cheer about. Millwood’s on the hill for us. He’s our ace, but he’s been an inconsistent one. He was a big off-season pick-up for us, a major coup from those Braves, who from the looks of it don’t appear to be too disturbed about it. But he’s sharp today. Maybe Isabel’s wind – now ruffling the umpire’s pants – is helping that nasty breaker snap a bit more. Trouble in the fourth, though. Millie had been able to get out of a two-on, no out jam in the third, but the Fish won’t let you make that mistake twice. They put three on the board. 3-0. Facing Willis, that’s not good.
Grilled-cheese sandwiches and soup for lunch. Boy is it that kind of day; and with the weather closing in, I know it’s destined to go even further south – one of the hazards of baseball in September. I just hope if they have to call the game early we’re in the lead…
We catch a nice break in the fifth. Tomas Perez, our second baseman, finally gets us on the board with a nice line-drive into the left field bullpen. So, the D-Train is fallible after all. But the inning isn’t over yet. With two outs we manage to scratch and claw to get runners on first and second, and Mike Lieberthal steps in. He’s our catcher, and what a year he’s had with runners on… He shoots a little flare pop up down the right field line – a true chest deflator. But wait! Isabel gives the ball a little push toward right field and the first baseman reaches over his head…has it…no! Our runners, both going on the pitch, come around to score. Tie game. Relief.
Every time we score a couple runs lately the Fish inevitably come back and bite us the next inning. But Millwood, determined to stop that trend, fires and mows down the first two batters of the sixth. Boy he’s got that curveball crackling today. He’s got the rookie Cabrera in the hole 0-2 now. The next pitch is a mistake. Watching the replay they show him come out of the wind-up, throw the ball and almost immediately thrust his fists toward the ground in frustration, mouthing a word probably not fit to print. He never even looks at where the ball goes. He knows. Marlins on top again, 4-3.
Just now a little rain starts to fall. Come on, Izzie, hold off just long enough for us to get the lead! How long will we make her wait?
At least longer than the sixth. We come up short and time is running out. The seventh inning arrives, and I’m getting antsy because I’ve got to get ready for work. But I can’t pull myself away from the action. I finally turn the volume up loud enough to hear upstairs, and head up to change clothes. I make it quick. We manage to keep them off the board for the top half, but suffer two quick outs in the bottom half. I’m gathering my stuff together, my backpack, coffee thermos, coffee cup, bag of dinner, water bottle – the essentials for a long night at work. All this while hardly taking my eyes off the screen. Polanco is up – Polly, the team calls him – our last hope for the seventh. I’m wondering how he’s feeling. Guy’s been playing Gold Glove infield for us all year, batting near .300, only to be sidelined the past two weeks with a hamstring pull. Is he rusty? Do guys on the DL even do batting practice? These questions unconsciously swirl around my head. Crrrack! My eyes shoot up to the screen – I have been briefly distracted – and I see a bullet line-drive toward left-center. He hit it hard. It only took but a second to clear the fence. Tie game again. This is going to be a gut-wrencher.
I’m in the car again, fighting the traffic for five miles heading to work. I had kissed my girls goodbye with the usual fanfare, but Tara nudged me on. She says, “Get out to the car so you can listen on the radio!” She’s become a fan. The drive is its normal, miserable animal. Fighting traffic, red lights every fifty yards, seems like. It’s very dark for three o’clock, a little bit of rain drifts down, slickening the asphalt. But I lie. I don’t remember the drive at all. I remember the sound of the crowd – only twenty thousand due to the time change and weather, but still strong – the slap of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt (the radio guys must put microphones down on the field to get that effect), the occasional pop! of the ball being fouled out of play. I hear the emotion in Scott Graham’s voice as he calls the play-by-play. He’s as nervous as me. Our color guy, Chris Wheeler, is truly beside himself.
Top-eight. I feel a little better now that Cormier’s on the mound. He has been unbelievable this year, an ERA that seems like its under 1.00. He’s on-form today. He’s a lefty, has a very crafty delivery, great location on his fastball, and a killer split for his “out” pitch. Two outs and a man on, the batter scorches a line drive down the third base line…but Polly – it’s great to have YOU back – is guarding the line in a “no-doubles” defense and snares the wicked hit.
Mid-inning, I listen to all the usual radio advertisements. If you listen to enough games, you get really, really sick of the same ads over and over: a car dealership, a local bank, hot dogs, buns and rolls, a cacophony of the most obnoxious voices radio can find. Over the last few games I’ve been in the habit of switching stations instead of enduring the torture. Not today. I can’t afford to miss a pitch.
Bottom of the eighth and Jim Thome is up. He played for the Cleveland Indians for about 12 seasons, I think, and I know him from growing up a Twins fan. He was nothing less than a Twins-killer, which is the reason I’ve always hated his guts. But now he’s on my team, and I’ve since discovered that perhaps I don’t hate him as much as I hate any successful Cleveland team. The Phillies picked him up as a free agent in the off-season, sweetening the pot to some ungodly number of dollars. For the most part, he’s paid off. He’s one home run back of Bonds right now; that’s saying something. But one thing about picking up great sluggers: unless their name is Barry Bonds, you always have to deal with the strikeouts. Oh yes, the strikeouts. In Jim Thome’s case, something like 170 of them.
At least it’s a new pitcher – we finally knocked the D-Train out of the game. Thome steps in the batter’s box. “Swing and a miss!” I hear the call. That’s okay, I tell myself. He’s swinging first pitch fastball and got a slider instead. No problem. Pause. “Swwwinngg and a miss!” I hear again. Oh boy. Thome is terrible in 0-2 counts – his prime strikeout count. I could call the next pitch long before it came. It’s signature, and every pitcher in the league knows it: Thome is a sucker for high fastballs. He can’t lay off of them. I’m probably breaking the first rule you learn in driver’s training right now: never drive when you’re stressed out. “The set… the 0-2 pitch… lays off a high fastball!” I can hardly believe it. Nor can I believe it when he lays off the next two fastballs. Full count. The 3-2 pitch is on the way…
The “crack” registers in my head. I hear the roar of the crowd. My throat sinks down into my stomach and I can feel the adrenaline pump into every limb. All this in the millisecond between the sound and the moment Scott Graham makes the call, “DEEP DRIVE TO RIGHT CENTER…” – my knuckles whiten as they grip the steering wheel – “TO THE TRACK…” – my foot is a little too heavy on the gas pedal – “TO THE WALL…” – every muscle tensed – “LOOKING UP…THAT BALL IS GONE!!!”
I can hear the crowd, frenzied. It’s enough to make a grown man choke up. Trust me. I know. Pumping my fist, completely despising my past, I mutter to myself, “I love you Jim Thome, I love you Jim Thome, I love you Jim Thome. You’re worth every penny.” The commentator, caught up in the moment, emphatically asks a rhetorical question, “Do you want some DRAMA here at Veteran’s Stadium???” He shouldn’t have asked that. Spoils the drama. Oh well, it’s dramatic nonetheless. And I thought our color guy was beside himself before the hit….
Cormier pitches the ninth. That’s been another problem this season: having our veteran closer have a near complete mechanical and mental breakdown going down the stretch. It’s hard to get into the playoffs without a closer. But Cormier quickly guns down the pinch hitter and the lead-off man. One out to go. The count runs up to full. The crowd is standing, getting louder. “As if on cue,” the commentator reports, the spectator everyone forgot about for the past inning makes her appearance. Isabel starts kicking up the wind. The rains come down. The set…the pitch… “pops him up….”
I know as well as my seasoned theology professor the reality. I know that we don’t play well in Florida. I know that the final series of the season has us playing the seemingly unbeatable Braves while the Marlins play the all-but-pathetic New York Mets. In my heart of hearts, I know that Bart Giamatti was right: the game was meant to break my heart. Then why do I come back? Why do I know that tomorrow, faithful as ever, and the next day and the day after, I will be glued to my radio or television set – determined to follow every pitch to the bitter end? I know all the realities, but now I also know something else.
Today Giamatti was wrong.