Hospitals are wonderful places, temples to science and healing. Also depressing: I find myself in need of diversion. And what better diversion does American society offer than baseball.
It's late August, and the Giants and the Dodgers are essentially tied for first place in their division. Based on the games they show, ESPN seems to think the greatest rivalry in baseball is Yankees/Red Sox. Strewth! Balderdash! That's like the rivalry between Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck--that's Microsoft v. Google. When the two richest teams in the land go at it, I'll admit to a certain schadenfreudish hope for comical catastrophe, but that hardly meets the criterion for a rivalry. Giants/Dodgers goes back to the New York roots of both teams, given a NoCal v. SoCal twist. Giants/Dodgers is sick.
A week ago, though, things looked grim for my 'Jints. Melky-gate had rendered us all gloomy. This past off-season, the Giants pulled of a comically one-sided trade that landed us the second best hitter in the National League, Melky Cabrera. He instantly became a fan favorite, with an entire section of the ballpark devoted to fans of his dressed like milkmen; i.e. the Melkmen. (Or Melk-maids, for those of the female persuasion). Then we learned of the possibility that his success was due in part to chemical enhancement--he had tested positive for testosterone. It got worse--turns out Melky had paid someone ten grand to create a fake website, to create the impression he'd ordered a vitamin supplement on-line, not knowing, see, that it was laced with PEDs. It ain't the crime, it's the cover-up that gets ya.
So he's gone, suspended for the rest of the season. And he's a free agent at the end of the year, and the Giants have lots and lots of historical reasons to be real uninterested in signing a steroids abuser. So Melky's gone, the Melk-man outfits permanently retired. And a team that struggles to score runs anyway just lost its best hitter.
Or second best. Because our catcher, Buster Posey has, without much fanfare, put together a wonderful season. Last year, Buster's ankle was destroyed in one of the ugliest injuries I've ever seen on a baseball diamond. A complete recovery seemed unlikely. For him to come back, this season, better than ever, well, beyond a miracle of medical science, also suggests a young man of remarkable strength of character.
And this Giants team is about pitching, about a brilliant core of young pitchers. For us to have any hope of winning the pennant, the kid pitchers are going to have to step up. This Dodgers' series--in Los Angeles--would show us all what they're made of. So the Giants are about pitchers and the guy who catches them. That's the core of my favorite team.
Most twenty two year old pitchers are still in the minor leagues, trying to harness their talent, developing secondary pitches, honing their craft. Madison Bumgarner is already pitching big games in his third pennant race. Madbum is a tall left-hander, from Hudson, North Carolina. A good Christian kid, married to his high school girlfriend, his Mom's a schoolteacher. He's got a smooth, three-quarter pitching motion, hides the ball well, throws a big fastball and sweeping curve, but his best pitch is a slider, which he gets in on the hands of right-handed batters. Monday, he was up against the Dodgers' best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and it was a gorgeous game, a taut duel between two terrific young lefties. Giants' first, Angel Pagan (and yes, that's his name, got to be the most conflicted name theologically since Jim Gott was facing Tim Teufel) hit a double, got bunted to third, scored on a fly ball by the Panda. Pablo Sandoval, in other words, who resembles the Kung-fu Panda enough that it's become his nickname. Panda knocked in another one later, and that was all Madbum needed: Giants 2, Dodgers 1. Giants in first place, barely.
My favorite baseball player right has to be Tim Lincecum, the Freak. Most great pitchers are tall: 6'3, 6'4". You get more leverage, throwing down. Lincecum is generously listed at 5'11'. Skinny, long-haired, he looks and dresses like a skater dude. Been busted for pot, won two Cy Young awards, can do a standing back flip from a table, over a sofa, and land on his feet. When we won the World Series in 2010, Timmeh impishly made sure to drop at least one F-bomb in every network interview. But when Giants' fan Bryan Stow was beaten half to death in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, Tim started a fund to help Stow's family, and seeded it with a generous donation.
He's kind of a Franken-pitcher. His Dad's a mechanical engineer, and figured out the optimal way for a kid to throw a baseball. Which means that his throwing motion isn't like anyone else. And Tim throws a mid-90's fastball with movement, a nasty curve, a mean slider, and those aren't even his best pitches. His change-up looks like a fastball coming out of his hand, and then drops off a table. It's basically unhittable. At his best, he doesn't get hitters out, he embarrasses them.
And this season, he's been terrible. Not must a little off, completely terrible. It's been excruciating to watch, to see Timmeh, invincible Timmeh look unsure of himself on the mound. He's kept working hard, trying to figure it out, he's changed his training regimen (it's no longer as In-'N-Out burger intensive), and he's looked good his last few starts. Tuesday . . . well, he wasn't quite the old Freak, but he was darn close. Six innings, one run. Buster got him two runs in the first, and Timmeh breezed from there. Final score, 4-1.
Wednesday: Matt Cain.
It's funny: most players have nicknames, sometimes pretty cool ones. Matt Cain is just Matt Cain. Big kid from Tennessee. Tall, blonde, throws hard. None of that captures him.
Let me try this: Matt Cain is a grown-up. He's the team's union rep. He's just unflappable. For years, he had a reputation as a bad luck pitcher--the team had a horrible time scoring runs for him. There's a stat for that (there's a stat for everything, it's baseball), run support--he had the worst run support in the National League. Never a word of complaint. At all, ever. He just went out there an competed.
He throws a good fastball, not great, a good curve, a good slider, a good change. Normal repertoire of pitches. He just goes out there, game after game, and quietly, without much fuss, gets guys out.
Wednesday, I was following the ballgame on GameCast, with ESPN's Baseball Tonight on TV. And in the first inning, Angel Pagan (who's been great lately), scored a run, and Curt Schilling was on ESPN, and he said (I'm paraphrasing) "That game's over." His co-host was all, 'it's only the first inning, it's only one run, surely there's plenty of time for the Dodgers to win,' and Schilling (a heck of a pitcher himself, back in the day) said "it's Matt Cain. It's August, it's the pennant race. Matt Cain will not lose this baseball game." And he didn't. Sweep.
Baseball has the longest season of any major sport. 162 games, April to October, game after game after game, night after night. It's about staying physically ready, having a routine, doing your stretching and your lifting. It's about staying focused, staying mentally alert, ready to go. Going to work, even when you don't feel much like it, it's about hard-working, lunch-bucket values. That's really the appeal of the game. This is what Melky forgot: being good at baseball is like being good at life.