Right off, I knew that Pitchers and Poets was on to something. It may have had to do with Fernando up there glaring at the heavens or a baseball mitt. And now I’m glad to be a part of it, and what will hopefully be a long, winding baseball conversation, which is all any of us should think to ask for. So, on with the conversation.
Baseball is a game of moments, a fact which from one perspective makes the game tedious for the less obsessed, and from another perspective enables statisticians to parse the broader game into a series of incidents, mincing the events of an afternoon into malleable data bytes, yielding otherwise imperceptible insights. It is, in fact, a great pleasure of mine to fall almost asleep around about the 6th inning of an afternoon game and have one of said moments jolt me teary eyed from my near-slumber. This in direct opposition to another great pleasure, which is scoring the game, which requires a consistent level of attention-paying, from which derives the payoff of a completed scorecard in the back pocket on the way home, as satisfying as a completed tax return.
There is one particular moment that I will ruminate upon here, which I call The Stillness. This is the one- or two-second swatch of time after the pitcher accepts the sign and comes set on the mound, just before he starts into his motion. All attention is paid him, and he will soon rock forward and set the play a-reeling. It is the proverbial calm before the storm, which if you took a snapshot of it would look like a guy standing on a pile of dirt, but would in fact be a pastiche of potential energy, of muscles loosened just before they contract and expand. (The Stillness is best enjoyed via television viewing, as it allows for that rare batter-pitcher-umpire POV, and you can watch them all at the same time, gearing up as they say.)
Witness the moment of Stillness, in which, simultaneously:
a. The pitcher comes to his set position, with the ball-hand-in-glove at the waist or the chest, looking in at the catcher, already having accepted the sign, with the posture of a stuntman about to leap from a building.
b. The hitter has completed whatever stylistic waggles he prefers, and settles into his true ready-to-hit position (example: after the journeyman Tony Batista completed his absurd face-the-pitcher-completely-with-bat-on-shoulder routine and actually rights himself to perpendicular). The hitter, like the pitcher, leans only just perceptibly into destiny.
c. The umpire has lowered himself into his preferred crouch, and stares at the pitcher’s throwing shoulder like a lion on the hunt.
d. The announcer hushes. There is nothing more to explain, only life and the living of it.
e. The fielders inch forward and put their gloves out in front of them, again–and I hate to repeat myself but it’s true–lean into the gaping maw of fate.
e. Some dude in the stands is almost asleep, dozily ignorant of the lion’s share of these most tense, coiled moments.
One of my favorite movies is Master and Commander, and one of my favorite scenes is the first one: a shifty midshipman thinks he sees an enemy ship through the fog. In case there is in fact a ship out there, Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey beats to quarters, meaning he prepares the crew for battle. Once they are all prepped, at their guns with the decks swept, they sit, waiting, in total stillness. In the distance several soundless flashes momentarily brighten the mist, like fireflies far away in an evening meadow. Captain Aubrey cocks his head at this silent apparition. All is still. After a beat, Aubrey realizes that the phantom ship pursuing them has released a broadside from within the mist, and bellows “down!” and his decks explode. That still moment between the flash and the terror, Aubrey’s questioning, anticipatory glare into the gloam, the held breath before the cork pops: that is The Stillness.
Every baseball pitch provides this moment, before the strategies are enacted, when the pitcher and the hitter rest on an even plane, and each eyes the other, and everyone else eyes them.
Every player approaches the Stillness moment in a manner consistent with his style and temperament. Whereas pitchers are required by edict to come to a stop–an imposed stillness–hitters regularly defy my terminology. David Eckstein, for example, channels his anticipation into manic tics, juddering the bat about and stamping his feet like a little kid waiting for the john. Gary Sheffield pummels the Stillness over and again, in open defiance of calm expectancy, pulverizing my papier-mâché cliches.
There are those hitters, though, who own the Stillness, and command it like the Dog Whisperer with a pit bull. Ken Griffey, Jr., waits like a boat gently rocking in the tide; Lance Berkman sits low and gently taps his shoulder with the bat; Alex Rodriguez cocks his left foot, like a sprinter at the starting gate before the gun.
Taking the cake, though, for the most impressive, and well the stillest Stillness, is the greatest hitter of this generation, the Machine himself, Jose Alberto Pujols. He spreads his feet terribly wide, and the terribly high position of his hands forces his chin up into a royal downward peer towards the pitcher. This optical illusion–that Pujols in the batter’s box seems to actually look up at the pitcher on the mound–is at the core of his mondo Stillness quotient. And when he pumps his arms up and down just as easy as you please, that moment before the pitcher goes into his motion and throws seems to offer only one conclusion: powerful, purposeful contact.
As noted, pitchers are required to stop before starting up again. Given that, there’s a more subtle manner by which pitchers express themselves and the Stillness. Roy Oswalt, for example, doesn’t seem to come to a rest at all, such is his blistering pace, as though he met the Stillness in a nightmare once as a child and vowed never again to allow it purchase. A quick militaristic nod to the catcher, a poker face, and he fires forward. Mike Mussina, with a man on base, would bend low at the waist and shimmy back up to the still position; Greg Maddux, may his career rest in peace, eyed the catcher’s sign with not a poker face but a sort of non-expression, like he was watching reality television, veiling his well-recorded analytical prowess. The pitcher’s participation in the Stillness moment is in essence to stand still and look in.
The Stillness moment is infintely applicable. Each player must face it down, whether from the mound or from the batter’s box, and it can–with the right doses of presumptuousness and armchair psychology–tell you a lot about a player and the way that he approaches the pitch, the inning, the game, the season.
So look for it, the next time you’re watching a game. Chances are good that you already feel it, especially in the later innings, maybe in a tie ball game, perhaps in the playoffs; that tight feeling in your gut that wants more than anything for the guy to throw the damn pitch already, and let’s see what happens.