Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Quality Start Amid Base-running Blunders: Game 70 in Niles, Ohio

In baseball terms, a quality start for a pitcher means that he has completed at least six innings, giving up three runs or less, and keeping his team in the game.  Former Whittier colleague and perennial fantasy league competitor Jon Moody dubbed my anthem progress a quality start since he attended performance number 70 with me for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers’ game against the State College Spikes.  With 70 games completed and 35 still scheduled, the game in Niles, Ohio marked the two-thirds point in my project—or, in baseball terms, the end of the sixth inning.

Like me, a young fan is embraced by the Scrappers.
Call me an old warhorse or a performer from bygone years: I expect to go the distance.  I don’t see a reliever in sight, and I certainly don’t have a closer waiting in the pen to come in for the final inning—or dozen games.
If baseball metaphors apply to my anthem tour and performances, then my appearance in Mahoning Valley also was fuelled by a rally of enthusiastic reception.  Publicity about the anthem tour by Scrappers’ staff on the team’s website prompted TV journalist Dan Martin to conduct pre-game interviews with Bonnie and me.  (To see the piece that was telecast that evening on WKNB, click here.) Their respect for the project energized my anthem performance, as did the presence of Jon, his wife Jane, and his son Jonathan.
After I had sung Scrappers’ manager Dave Wallace shook hands with me, and I took the opportunity to wish him better luck than the night before when I had sung for their game in Jamestown.  That night, they lost to the Jammers 6-5 when the relief corps allowed three late-inning runs.  In response to my comment, Wallace quipped: “If we lose, I’ll hold it against you.” 

Lots of kids join in the fun, assisting a Scrappers' staffer in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
On the outfield wall in Niles, two names and numbers appeared “retired.”  One, of course, was Jackie Robinson's #42, a number officially retired from all Major League teams and Minor League affiliates, with the exception of a player (like Mariano Rivera) who was already wearing the uniform number when the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first game with Brooklyn was reached.  The other Scrappers' number was 13, which was identified with the name “Wolcott.”  
Through a screen of years, Wolcott's 13 and Robinson's 42 are memorialized.
Two things puzzled me about the sign: Wolcott’s name does not appear on the roster of former Scrappers who have made it to the Majors, and the number 13, which appreared to be retired, was being worn by starting catcher Alex Lavisky.  
I wondered aloud to Jon about the conundrum and told him how in Erie a couple of days earlier I had seen two retired numbers on the outfield wall.  There I had inquired of a couple of staff members about the identify of the companion number and name to that of Robinson: “Jethroe #5.”  None knew. 
Immediately, Jon effused, “He was my favorite Braves’ player when I was growing up in Boston.  I’m not sure why, and I didn’t understand his significance until later—what he meant [as the first African-American player] for Boston and the Braves—but he was somehow my favorite.”  Sam “the Jet” Jethroe, had starred in the Negro Leagues before playing in the Major Leagues during the first wave of signings of Black players. 
In the year following Jackie Robinson's debut with the Dodgers, Jethroe also signed with the Brooklyn team and played two seasons for their Triple-A team in Montreal before being traded to the Boston Braves following the 1949 season.  As the starting centerfielder for the Braves in 1950, Jethroe made an immediate impact, hitting a home run in his first game, leading the National League in stolen bases for the season, and being named the League's Rookie of the Year--the oldest player ever to be accorded that honor.  Yes, there were plenty of baseball reasons why Jon might have identified Jethroe as his favorite Brave. 
While Jon and I caught up on each other’s professional work, it looked like the young players in the NYP League had trouble getting caught in base-running blunders.  In the first inning the Scrappers’ leadoff batter hit a routine bounder toward the second baseman.  Hitting a pebble in the infield dirt, the ball took a wicked hop and hit the Spikes’ fielder in the face, felling him and forcing his removal from the game.  
There’s a belief in baseball that a batted ball quickly finds a new fielder.  It did.  Yet seemingly oblivious to the pattern of making a miscue on the first fielding opportunity, Walker Gourley immediately made a sensational play, turning an unassisted double play in a way that I had never seen before.  The Scrappers’ batter hit a soft line drive between first and second, and the base-runner paused to see if it would be caught.  Ranging far to his left Gourley scooped the ball on a short hop while the base runner retreated toward first, trying to delay a tag to allow the batter to reach base safely.  Still, Gourley overtook him, tagged him near the bag, and lunged across the baseline to tag the batter a half-step before reaching the first base bag.
Base-running blunders continued a couple of innings later.  With Scrappers on first and third with one out, the batter hit a deep drive to the right centerfield alley.  The runner on first advanced to second, where he paused to watch the flight of the ball while the runner on third retreated to the bag to tag in case the ball should be caught.  It was. 
While the runner on third tagged and scored, the runner who had paused at second failed to return to first and instead proceeded toward third. The relay throw from the second baseman to first was fumbled but retrieved easily to double-up the runner who had never attempted retreat.

The mystifying adventures of base-running were not restricted to the Scrapper nor even the Spikes.  The umpires also  joined in their confusion.  In the top of the third with a runner on first, the Spikes’ batter hit a line drive to the third baseman who got his glove on it, juggling it up in the air a couple of times before watching it drop beyond the sweep of his bare hand.  The base umpire ruled that the ball hadn’t been caught, and the base-runner, already retreating toward first in anticipation of a catch was caught off guard.   The third baseman tossed the ball to the second baseman, who tagged the retreating runner; but his throw to first failed to beat the batter who, after crossing the bag, started back toward the dugout before being told by the first base coach to return to the bag.  The base umpire had called him safe.  Befuddled by whole sequence—as though this description might be any clearer—both runners stood on the first base bag while the plate umpire convened near the mound with the base umpire to sort things out.

Who's on first? Umpires try to solve the mystery.

The result: A double play was ruled because the home-plate umpire had had a better view of the play by the third baseman who had snagged the line drive before fumbling the ball in the exchange between his glove and his hand.  The umpires determined that the runner who had been on first had been doubled off by the tag that was applied as he had retreated to the bag.

Who's on first?  The umps rule "none," as Spikes manager Kimera Bartee seeks an explanation.

While I enjoyed a quality start, the Scrappers' starter didn't fair quite as well.  After a solid start, he reached his pitch count after four innings, leaving with a five-run lead.  His relievers continued to dull the Spikes until the ninth, securing Mahoning Valley's win 6-1 and preventing Wallace from holding me accountable for the outcome.

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