’78 Rookie Outfielders

October 1, 2006

Yesterday, the second-to-last day of regular-season baseball in 2006, Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle began his sparsely-attended post-game news conference with a plea: “Don’t accuse me if I don’t remember.” Presumably, he was referring to the 5½-hour extra-inning game between last place teams that had just concluded at Wrigley Field. As Hurdle massaged his head and offered his spotty testimony, I walked from Wrigley in the rain to catch the Ashland Avenue bus home, shivering below my flannel shirt for a few different reasons.

I’ll try to remember what Clint Hurdle can’t (or chooses not to), but first a few words about the amnesiac pictured here in a card that started showing up in packs in the spring of 1978, around the time Sports Illustrated
put Clint Hurdle on its cover. My brother had a subscription to the magazine, and I vaguely recall that the cover featured Clint Hurdle kneeling in the on-deck circle next to the blazing, dooming question: “The Next Mickey Mantle?” As it turned out, of course, Clint Hurdle didn’t become the Next Mickey Mantle, or even the Next Bobby Murcer. In fact, you could argue that Topps made the much better call on Hurdle’s future, sardine-canning him with three other guys who would have comparably unremarkable but not awful careers. Of the four, Hurdle almost certainly had to deal with the most pressure, the crushing weight of expectation on his shoulders from his first moments in professional ball. For a while there, everyone was waiting for Clint Hurdle to do something historic.

Obviously, he never did. But I as far as I can tell (and I’ve been researching it all morning), last night Clint Hurdle combined with the Cubs’ manager, dead-man-walking Dusty Baker, to use more pitchers than have ever been used in a single game in the history of major league baseball. I was unable to find an actual record for this, but I did find reports of a game on 9/25/92 between similarly long-eliminated teams, the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, in which the record for most players in a game was set (54; the game I saw yesterday featured 50). In the 1992 game, according to the September 25
page on Baseball Reference.com, the record for most pitchers used by a single team was also set, by the Mariners (11). By powers of deduction (or induction–I never got straight which was which), I add the fact that the Rangers only used 5 pitchers (eliminating that game from consideration) to the fact that the most pitchers any team had ever used in a game prior to that was 10 to conclude that the record for most pitchers used in a game by both teams could not be any higher than 20, and since the previous record for one team was unlikely to have been set or matched by two teams in the same game, I am going to decide for my own self anyway that if any two teams ever combined use 20 pitchers in a single game they would have accomplished something unprecedented in major league history.

And so, yesterday, as the rest of the world raked leaves or yelled about college football or spent time with their loved ones, I watched 20 pitchers take the mound (and in fact, by virtue of a wrinkle that made me feel for a few seconds like I was 8 years old again, I saw 21 pitchers in all, but more on that later). Pardon me for getting biblical, but these obscure singularities of negligible worth are the visionary pinnacles of my solitary religion, so here is the entire litany: Jeff Francis, Nate Field, Jeremy Affeldt, Manny Corpas, Tom Martin, Brian Fuentes, José Mesa, Ray King, Mike Venafro, Ramón Ramírez, Juan Mateo, Les Walrond, Ángel Guzmán, David Aardsma, Michael Wuertz, Ryan Dempster, Bobby Howry, Roberto Novoa, Will Ohman, and Jae Kuk Ryu.

The winning pitcher, Ramón Ramírez, entered the game with one out in the 13th inning. By this time, the great majority of the crowd had left. Many had trickled out at various stages during the first nine innings, during which the Cubs had fallen behind eight to nothing, and there was a large exodus (including the friend I had come with) during a significant rain delay in the bottom of the 11th. What does it say about me that that rain delay–a prolonged meaningless pause in a game that with its complete lack of competitive ramifications was itself a meaningless pause that was in the paused process of being prolonged meaninglessly into extra innings–was one of the happier moments of my life?

A guy for once in his life could just sit there and watch the fucking rain come down.

I had moved down close to the field on the first base side by the 13th, and I was starting to shiver both from the damp cold and from the growth of my private impossible hope that time itself had somehow been defeated, that the unimportant contest before me would remain undecided forever. With two outs in the inning, Cubs star Aramis Ramírez singled off Ramón Ramírez. Matt Murton came to the plate and was in the process of working a walk when I heard shouting behind me, something that ended with the words “you’ll never play baseball again!

I thought at first it was the kind of drunken barking loosed at ballgames in a jocular pantomime of anger, but I would be able to revise that view when a man stalked past me down the steps of the aisle and grabbed the shoulder of a blond teenaged kid sitting three rows in front of me.

“Get in the car!” the man shouted, a wiry, tightly-wound guy in his early 40s. He hit the kid hard in the face with his open right hand. The kid was wearing an Aramis Ramírez jersey.

“Get in the car! We’ve been waiting in the car for an hour! You think the whole world revolves around you? Get in the goddamn car! I’ve got kids that need to get to bed. We’ll leave you in the city. Get in the car!”

The man and the kid went back up the aisle past me, the man with a tight grip on the kid’s arm.

“Don’t think I won’t break your fucking shoulder” was the last thing I heard.

Murton trotted to first after ball four, but then Jacque Jones stranded Aramis Ramírez at second. I went down below the stands and called my wife from a pay phone then went back up to the game, this time sitting on the third base side behind the home team’s dugout. I sat there, my shivering now including the knowledge that I had just watched some kid’s childhood die a violent death. The Rockies scored two runs. In the bottom of the 14th the pitcher’s spot came up with two men out and Cubs shortstop Ronny Cedeño on first. A couple 8-year-olds with their hats turned inside out to pray for rallies had wandered into my row. They were standing, and I rose from my shivering seated position to join them, realizing at the same time they did what was about to happen. The Cubs had basically used all their guys. They had almost nobody left. Dusty Baker, who had endured the entire game with some prick directly across from the home dugout waving a “Bye Bye Dusty” sign at him, responded to the crisis with admirable style. He sent good-hitting pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who had pitched and lost the previous day’s game, to the plate to pinch-hit. The 21st pitcher. He didn’t have a stellar batting average but he had some power. Everyone still in the park had seen him, as I had, catch hold of one before. He could do it. He could tie the game.

“Come on, big C!” the eight-year-old standing closest to me yelled.

“Come on, Carlos!” I found myself yelling. “Come on, big man, give it a ride!”

Eventually Zambrano lifted a fly ball to the outfield. Centerfielder Brad Hawpe settled under it, but just before the end of the ball’s dim arc Hawpe slipped on the wet grass. His right leg went out from under him and his left knee buckled.

For Clint Hurdle, the inconsequential game began to dissolve the moment it ended. But for me, the only part of the game I want to dissolve is Zambrano’s attempt sinking into a stumbling fielder’s glove just inches above the grass. I want my final memory of the game to be Hawpe slipping and Cedeño and Zambrano rounding the bases with all their might and the inevitable seeming for the thinnest possible moment like it might once again be delayed.

One comment

  1. 1.  1 comment from old CG site:

    es said…
    ah. form mimics content. thank goodness

    thanks for a lovely long, cool, rainy pause on this insanely warm and cheerful sunny NYC day.

    3:13 PM

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