THE FASTBALL AUGUST 15, 2012, SAFECO FIELD, SEATTLE, FIRST INNING
It is a typically gorgeous, sunny Wednesday afternoon in Seattle. To outlanders, the sun might seem a surprise, but Seattle summers are drenched in sunshine and dry, with long, languid evenings that can outlast a night game. If this is at odds with the image of Seattle as a wet, dark, and dour place inhabited mainly by caffeine addicts, hikers, and perhaps hobbits, well, it’s only a seasonal departure. It rains every day from November through June. A constant cloak of low gray clouds hangs like a mighty weight pressing down on your disposition. If the sun rises and sets—as has been rumored—it does so in secret, unseen by mortal men and women.
But once summer actually starts—stow the calendar, this is typically some days, perhaps weeks, after the Fourth of July—Seattle is a very summery place. This afternoon’s getaway game features the visiting Tampa Bay Rays versus the home-standing Seattle Mariners. The teams are headed in opposite directions—the Rays streaking up into the thick, dangerous atmosphere of a pennant race, the Mariners stumbling down the basement staircase. Again.
The Mariners don’t have enough history to have become endearing like the Cubs or bitterly tragic like the once and possibly future Red Sox. They lack the brickworked ivy or sentimental melodramatics necessary to usher the franchise into cultural sainthood. There is abundant misery here, but few martyrs. The team has nonetheless been very good at losing. They’ve played thirty-nine seasons and have finished with more wins than losses in about a third of them. They made it to the playoffs in four of those winning seasons, slightly more than once per decade. They are at this writing one of only two current franchises that have never played in the World Series, much less won it.*
The 2012 season, like so many before it, had become a lost cause well before the All-Star break. Yet another rebuilding plan was under way, and the lineup had been turned over to prospects and pretenders in the hope of finding out which were which. The team’s lone star, Ichiro Suzuki, recently had been traded off to enemy lands to give him a last chance at glory and, not inconveniently, remove his huge salary from future payrolls. Unusually for such a wretched team, Seattle had produced a number of the game’s great players over the past quarter-century—the exquisite artist Ichiro; the sluggers Ken Griffey, Jr., and Alex Rodriguez; the best right-handed hitter of his generation, Edgar Martinez; and one of the most intimidating pitchers of all time, the gangly, angry southpaw Randy Johnson.
Ichiro was—oddly, given some of the things he did in the batter’s box—supremely elegant and a big fan favorite. He has also been one of the best players in the majors for a decade and is the last link to any past greatness the franchise had ever enjoyed—he was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2001, when the team won a major league record of 116 games.
The man who is supposed to be the foundation upon which future greatness would be built, Felix Hernandez, is taking the mound this Wednesday afternoon. Hernandez, a husky right-hander, had been a genuine, classically old-fashioned teenage phenom, arriving for good in the major leagues as a nineteen-year-old flamethrower in 2005. He had been signed by the Mariners as a pudgy sixteen-year-old high school kid from Valencia, Venezuela. His abilities were so advanced he was given the blogosphere nickname King Felix almost as soon as he started his brief three-year minor league apprenticeship. He had since lived up to the name, quickly becoming one of the best pitchers in the game. Winning the American League’s Cy Young award in 2010 merely formalized his status.
Despite his team’s lousy record, Hernandez was having one of his better seasons in 2012. In the weeks before this game, he had been virtually unhittable. Included in that stretch were complete game shutouts against the entrenched powers of the league—the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox. In eleven starts, he had given up on average a hit every other inning and had allowed more than two runs just once. His earned run average over that span was 1.73. He was striking out five times as many people as he walked.
Opposing hitters were reduced to mumbles. David Ortiz, the great Red Sox slugger, suggested King Felix was inhuman. Ortiz’s teammate Dustin Pedroia said after one game that in four at bats against Hernandez, he was thrown just a single pitch that he thought it was even possible to hit.
Consider the major league hitter’s basic problem. The pitcher stands on a small hill sixty feet six inches—give or take a foot, depending on where in the batter’s box the hitter stands—away. The pitcher strides forward before he throws, and, by the time he releases the ball, has already shrunk the distance between him and the hitter by almost 10 percent. An average fastball from an average pitcher leaves his hand at about 90 mph. A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice.
The batter is using an implement uniquely unsuitable to accomplishing his task. A baseball bat is normally somewhat less than a yard long; it weighs somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-six ounces. At its thickest part it is 2.25 inches in diameter. If the bat is to strike the ball solidly, the ball must hit near the center of the bat’s circumference about six inches from the bat’s end. The spot varies from bat to bat, depending on the type and hardness of the wood and the shape and weight of the bat, but at its largest this spot is about five square inches in area.
Think of that for a moment. A hitter must swing a yard-long piece of round wood in such a way that he contacts a small round ball moving faster than he is legally allowed to drive his car. The contact has to occur within a five-square-inch area of the wood. The plane of the strike zone varies from hitter to hitter but is theoretically seventeen inches wide and approximately two feet tall. Of course, the zone is not a plane at all, but a volume of approximately 4.5 cubic feet. It extends from the front of home plate to the rear, and a ball passing through it at any point is supposed to be a strike. In real life, the zone tends to be wider and shorter than the rulebook stipulates. Nonetheless, the batter is defending more than four cubic feet of space with a five-square-inch weapon, and he has to swing the bat at a speed of 70 mph in order to move it from his shoulder to the center of the plate. “It is far more likely that the pitcher will accidentally throw the ball in the way of the hitter’s bat than it is for the hitter to time the pitch perfectly and execute flawless swing mechanics to achieve 100 percent on-time contact on their own,” according to Perry Husband, who has studied pitcher-batter interactions extensively.
The deck, in other words, is stacked.* As long as he doesn’t throw the ball at the hitter’s head, a pitcher can do pretty much anything he wants. And sometimes he can also do that. Baseball is one of the few sports in which the defense—the pitcher’s team—initiates the action. The hitter is on offense in name only. The offense is utterly reactive and is only called the offense because the score is kept depending on how it performs. It’s as if the middle linebacker scored a point every time he stuffed a run in the three-hole. The nomenclature derives from baseball’s earliest days, when the pitcher’s sole job was to set the play in motion. In the mid-nineteenth century, pitchers threw underhand and were required not to do anything to deceive the hitter. Runs scored by the dozen. Games lasted all day. Things have changed.
With a few exceptions, some notable,† the history of baseball since has been an arms race, pitchers developing new weapons to deploy against hitters. Every time hitters somehow manage to catch up, pitchers regroup and devise new weapons.
It began with allowing pitchers to get a running start, as in a cricket match, then throwing overhand; pretty soon pitchers were doing everything they could dream up to frustrate hitters. They smeared mud on the ball, scratched and scarred it, spit on it, threw it from every arm angle they could achieve. The worst of this—well, a little of the worst of this—was gradually eliminated, and by the turn of the twentieth century the game had a regularized set of rules, an established strike zone, and looked more or less like the modern game.
Copyright © 2017 by Terry McDermott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.