Tuesday, May 23, 2006

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: Solid Hit

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the most amazing thing I saw all weekend. I don't want to be a rubbernecker or anything, but sometimes you see something that is just wrong in every way, and you're immediately grateful that you're alive, and that your impulses sometimes compel you to enjoy a thing that is bad and wrong and just utterly immoral in every way.

Having spent Saturday tooling around town trying to unload some of the enormous amount of stuff that we have been keeping, my wife went to return the car, whilst I checked the news I had missed during the day. And for news, read: the Preakness. Very sad about that. (He's doing better, so far. Let's all pull for a happy life of trotting and inseminating prize mares, shall we?)

When you go to ESPN.com, they sometimes pop up with little video packages on the side. Usually, this is irritating, since they invariably involve either the Mets, Yankees, or Stuart Scott, and I can do without all of the above. But this time, my attention, she was grabbed, because there were highlights of the afternoon matchup twixt the Cubs and White Sox.

When baseball instituted interleague play several years ago, it was really for the sole purpose of pitting storied rivalries against each other. The aforementioned Mets & Yankees, squaring off the the soul of New York. Reds & Indians, battling for Buckeye bragging rights. Marlins & Devil Rays, locked in combat for...um...well, anyway. You see, honestly, no one really cares if the Mariners and Phillies finally get to meet for the first time. No, it's all about these fantasy showdowns. So even though most teams rotate their opponents (witching divisions annually), the schedule makers are always careful to set aside time for the real jackpot matchups. And one of those is Cubs & White Sox.

Well, it was, anyway. This year, the Battle of the Red Line has proven to be the first casualty of the Sox World Series victory last year. For the first few years of interleague baseball, Cubs-White Sox was a faceoff between two teams with a long history of losing. Nearly a century without a championship, so this was all they really had: bragging rights over Chicago. "Sure, we can't beat the Twins, but we can beat the Cubs, dammit." But now, the Sox have nothing to prove. It's kind of weird.

Compounding matters is the fact that the Sox are playing quite well right now (that Thome-for-Thomas swap seems to be working out quite nicely, thank you), whereas the Cubs are downright atrocious. Even if Derrek Lee weren't injured, he couldn't shore up a porous pitching staff (floundering without perennial hospital patients Kerry Wood and Mark Prior) that coughed up a 3-0 lead in the eighth against the Padres. THE PADRES! Meanwhile, Dusty Baker is in a race with Buddy Bell to see who can get fired first this season. Cubs-White Sox has lost a little cachet.

With this in mind, I'm still curious to see how things are panning out at Sox Park. The Sox whomped on the Cubs in Game 1; would they do it again? The headline mentioned something about a dustup. Let's roll that puppy.

What followed was a truly glorious video clip indeed. It's the second inning, there's a line drive to left, and here, rounding third, comes Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski. The throw is off, for Cubs catcher Michael Barrett is still standing right in the basepath, so Pierzynski does what you do in this situation: he barrels into Barrett, sending him flying.

It's quite a blow, but it's a clean play, and Pierzynski seems pretty pleased with himself. He slaps home plate, confirming that he did indeed score the run. Then he sort of staggers to his feet, and Barrett catches him. In fact, it looks like he's trying to stop him, like a bouncer working the line at a club.

Then there's this brief moment, where they're looking at each other. I told my friend Ted that it looked like Barrett was thinking, "I don't know whether to hit you or kiss you."

That's when Barrett hits him.



I can't tell you how glorious this moment was. I'm not a fan of violence. It accomplishes little, and hurts many. I also bear no ill will against A. J. Pierzynski. A lot of poeple dislike him, but he was a key element of the Sox playoff run last year, and seemed like a genuinely fun, irreverent fellow. And I've always like Barrett, going back to when he was about the only thing the Expos had going for them. Nevertheless, this was amazing video.

Consider the average baseball fight. It's usually pretty pathetic. One guy glares, the other guy glares back, and then they run at each other, the benches clear, and there's just a bunch of pushing and shoving. Jim Bouton has a nice passage in Ball Four about looking for someone he knows during a brawl, so he can look like he's supporting the fight, but not actually get himself in harm's way.

Probably the finest specimen of the bench-clearing brawl is the legendary charge of Robin Ventura against 46-year old Nolan Ryan. If I recall correctly, Ryan plunks him, Ventura storms the mound in a rage, and Ryan coolly grabs him in a headlock and starts bonking him on the head. It's a fantastic image.

When he retired at the end of that season, the Rangers game him a pair of steers for his ranch. Named Ryan and Ventura.

And that's what makes Barrett punching Pierzynski so remarkable. This was a real, fist-pulled-back, Hollywood-style punch. More than one commentator said he coldcocked him, which doesn't seem quite right to me, since coldcocking ought to involve the butt of a gun or a candlestick or something. But by god, this was a genuine, no-doubt-about-it punch.

I watched the clip several times, in part for the sheer enjoyment of seeing something so completely unexpected, but also to watch the astonishment of other people. There was a couple behind home plate who sat impassively, even after Pierzynski had scored and the crowd was cheering, right up until the moment that Barrett hit Pierzynski. Then their hands rose to their dropping jaws, and you just know they were saying in unison, "Holy crap!"

The best has to be Scott Podsednik, the Sox on-deck batter. There's no doubt he's stunned when Barrett launches his punch, and as soon as Pierzynski goes down, he takes the Cubs catcher down like a lineman. He was like a Secret Service agent, springing into action at the sign of trouble. This is as close as we are ever likely to get to the seminal moment in The Naked Gun when Detective Frank Drebin, in disguise as an umpire, leaps upon a hypnotized Reggie Jackson to prevent him from assassinating the Queen of England. In the dugout, the players go nuts, screaming, "He got Reggie!" I like to think that the reaction in the White Sox dugout to Barrett's punch was almost identical.

Cubs pitcher Rich Hill called Pierzynski "gutless", which would be comical if it were Hill's biggest blunder of the day. Of course, giving up two homers to Tadahito Iguchi was far more atrocious. When my friend Padraic questioned why Hill didn't get yanked immediately, I had to admit that it showed remarkable restraint on the part of Dusty "Goin' to the Bullpen" Baker. And anyway, Hill got sent back down to the minors on Sunday, where the guts are plentiful. So I would have to say to Padraic that Dusty was merely biding his time.

I think what made this so much shameful fun was that it was pure. Recent on-field scuffles have largely been ugly. Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire. Drunk fans beating up a first-base coach. Delmon Young throwing his bat. Distasteful to the extreme.

But this had no pretension about it. Barrett just let his brain go to screen saver, wheeled back, and popped a guy on the jaw. The reaction of everyone around was pure shock, the kind we so rarely get anymore; it was a moment of truth. And it was unadorned beauty, and I loved it, and for that I am truly sorry.

I shouldn't still be talking about this. Everyone has moved on. Pierzynski homered in the third game, but Barrett got the game-winning hit, so everybody's focused on baseball again. And Barrett has repeatedly said that he has no idea why he opted for a haymaker, and that he's really embarassed. So, that's cool. Bygones.

So, just to recap the important lessons we've learned from this column:
1) Violence doesn't solve anything.
2) It is possible to move beyond shocking events.
3) This was really cool.

1 comments:

Paul Winston said...

Not to pick some nits, but A.J. was tagging from third - not rounding.

Still fun, though