We don't have a TV at our new apartment. Or, more correctly, we have three televisions at our new apartment, but they aren't hooked up to anything. So when Monday night featured a pitching battle for the ages between Boston's Pedro Martinez and Oakland's Tim Hudson, I headed out to find a sports bar to enjoy the final innings of the contest.
Tim Hudson is probably my favorite major league pitcher to watch, with a few caveats. First, he often has repulsive facial hair, characterized by the lower-lip patch of fuzz known colloquially as a "tickler." Also, his wife's name is Kim Hudson, which is to my mind unacceptable. She could very easily go by Kimberly, or he could be Timothy, and their names wouldn't annoyingly rhyme, and seeing their public service announcements wouldn't make me hate life. but I probably just need to move past it.
The goodness of Tim Hudson outweighs even the badness of the his beard. He's a very effective pitcher, probably the best on in the American League last year, and one of the top two or three this season. He's won over 70% of his decisions for his career. He gives up very few runs, and doesn't walk too many hitters. His strikeout totals are not especially high, but that's not too bad because Tim Hudson gets lots of ground balls. Besides being an effective pitching strategy, watching ground balls is a lot better than watching guys swing and miss.
Sports fans often decry modern baseball as boring. Games take too long, offensive levels are high, and, in the immortal words of Irish visitor Andrea Pappin, "All the players are fat." Too much, the home run is demonized as being responsible for this slow baseball, which I think is unfair. The problem is, there's no real disincentive for striking out. For the hitter, an out is simply an out, whether it's a ground ball to third or a swing and miss. Sitting with the bat one's shoulder forces pitchers to throw more pitches, and often leads to more walks. So, while strikeouts are aesthetically unpleasant, a guy who strikes out a lot is no worse than a player who makes many outs through weak grounders or pop-ups.
The problem is this aesthetic side of things. Fans like watching team sports because of the team. A high-strikeout game is the baseball equivalent of that play in basketball where four guys walk over to one side of the court so the shooting guard can go one-on-one. Maybe that's exciting for some people, but I always think of one-on-one as what you play where there aren't enough guys there for a real game. Interaction between people is interesting, whether you're watching a rock band, a basketball team, or an improv group. Strikeouts just involve the pitcher, catcher, and hitter, while seven guys stand out in the field adjusting their cups.
In Bull Durham, Crash Davis tells Nuke LaLoosh, "Strikeouts are boring and besides, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls; it's more democratic." The Athletics' pitching staff has taken that to heart. More players are involved, games go faster, and it's an all-around better scene when Hudson or Mark Mulder is on the mound. The strikeout trend probably won't change unless the strike zone or bat designs change, but until then, long live the ground ball pitcher.
[End strikeout tangent]
Tim Hudson's opponent in this game was Pedro Martinez, historically-great pitcher and historically-great quote machine. Pedro is known for his stellar pitching but also his non-stop talking on the bench. He also delivered one of the finest post-game quotes in recent memory, after a game where he nearly threw a no-hitter against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Devil Rays responded by beaning three or four Boston players. Many Devil Rays complained that Pedro had been "head-hunting," throwing at batters intentionally, but Pedro dismissed the complaints. "There's no crying in baseball...They almost got no-hit, so tell them to swallow it."
Pedro is great, but also fairly fragile. He doesn't throw a lot of innings, and is at risk for a shoulder injury every time he takes the mound. Boston's manager doesn't seem to know this, leaving Pedro in to throw over 125 pitches in two of his last three starts. Not surprisingly, a tired Pedro couldn't pitch past the fifth inning, and by the time I arrived at the bar, he was about to give way to reliever Casey Fossum, with Oakland leading 2-0.
At the bar, I was seated between two silent, seething young Red Sox fans. They both looked like nice guys, but clearly, watching hitter after hitter pound the ball into the ground against Hudson was making them wince. Red Sox fans are a notably tortured bunch. Though always one of the richest teams in baseball, the Sox haven't won the World Series since 1918, often falling short in memorably painful ways. For a team that routinely spends $100 million on payroll, it has to be especially awful to finish behind the Yankees every year. Consequently, Red Sox fans seem to expect disaster at all times. Even with their best pitcher on the mound, these fans seemed to be waiting for the game, the season, and their playoff chances to be slipping away any second.
Still, I wonder how satisfying a playoff appearance would be for the fans of Boston. Yes, they're tortured, yes, men in New England don't want to die having never seen a World Series win, yes, Boston is more special than the rest of the country. Still, the Red Sox have so many new players, it must not even feel like the same team. Since the end of last season, Boston has acquired four new first basemen, a new second baseman, a new third baseman, a new reserve infielder, a new backup outfielder, one new starting pitcher and eight new relievers, not counting ones that have been acquired and then released. Their starting center fielder was signed as a free agent last year, their starting left fielder the year before that. 60% of their roster is different from last year. Boston is a team full of ringers. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, the Red Sox fans end up cheering for the shirts, not the players. How meaningful is a title when it's won by a pack of mercenaries?
(Note: Boston's main rival, the New York Yankees, is also a team of ringers.)
That last question can also be addressed to the fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, as they attempt to recover from their playoff defeat by recruiting a new squad of ringers. If it means that Karl Malone gets a ring, do you even want your team to win the championship?
Now, my favorite team, the Giants, has also acquired ten new players since last season, but it's slightly different. First, a few of those acquisitions were made to cover injuries. Secondly, they didn't simply buy players from other teams, as Boston did in deals with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Third, they're my favorite team, so shut up, OK?
Back at the Coliseum, the Athletics were extending their lead with a three-run home run off of Fossum. Hudson had given up just one hit through six innings, an infield hit that was immediately erased by a double play. The Red Sox offense, one of the best in baseball history, had only managed to hit two balls out of the infield. The seventh inning showed a glimmer of promise for the Red Sox when New England hero Nomar Garciaparra (when speaking with a Boston accent, the best-sounding name in baseball history) reached on a weak ground ball to third, muffed by overrated Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez and generously ruled a hit. Boston's best hitter, Manny Ramirez, stood at the plate, and the disconsolate Boston rooters at my sides seemed to regain their last hope. The hope lasted for only four pitches, as Hudson induced yet another ground ball, this time a double play ball to short, and the Red Sox were retired again. The guy to my right ordered another whiskey.
Hudson finished with a two-hit, complete-game shutout, both hits coming on ground balls that never left the infield. He threw only 93 pitches the whole game, an impossibly low number. Only three balls reached the outfield. The whole thing took only 2 hours, 24 minutes. Baseball as it should be played.
I felt bad as I watched the two Sox fans bolt for the doors, seconds after former Athletic Johnny Damon struck out swinging to end the game. I wouldn't swear that I saw tears in the eyes of the fan to my left, but I don't think Pedro would have approved of his reaction all the same.