Baseball players enjoy a variety of off-the-field pursuits. Some take up hunting. Some are avid video gamers. Some are even in bands.
Doug Bernier may have found his second calling.
“I feel fortunate that I’ve been taught and got to play with some of the best players and teachers in the world and I want to pass that along,” says Bernier, now with the Rochester Red Wings, the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. “I think I can help other people.”
As a slick-fielding shortstop with 11 years of minor league experience, Bernier’s had the opportunity to learn from some of the best. As founder and lead writer of the baseball instruction and advice website ProBaseballInsider.com, he’s sharing the wealth.
Originally conceived of as a place where Bernier and a collaboration of professional players, coaches, and scouts could offer practical, good-quality instruction to aspiring ballplayers in an effort to instill correct technique, Pro Baseball Insider has become something of a movement. Featuring step-by-step drills, position-specific skills, and a baseball advice column, the website has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception two years ago. In the process, Bernier has carved a niche for himself with a combination of experience, a unique perspective on the game, and a talent he didn’t even know he had.
Writing may seem like an unorthodox foray for an active player, but the 32-year-old has grown into the hobby.
“I hated writing in school, [but] now that i’m out of school, I enjoy it. Sometimes baseball gets so monotonous and the days and nights become so routine-oriented and it’s just the same, day after day. Writing [became] kind of an escape, and even though it is about baseball I feel like it’s still a way for me to relax, and I enjoy that.”
The enjoyment is evident, as Bernier generates content that belies his late start, offering crisp, easy-to-read essays on everything from equipment reviews to the importance of mental fortitude. And with this newfound skill comes an outlet for imparting his positive, focused brand of baseball to a new generation of players.
Though never counted among the elite infielders in baseball, Bernier remains focused on the basics–crediting his longevity to good, old-fashioned hard work and a lot of listening–an ethic he brings into his instruction.
“I’ve always had to grind it out as a player. I feel like some guys are just so incredibly talented and they might not know why they do what they do–they’re just good. Maybe there’s something to me having to grind it out, learn why I do what I do, and understand what makes me play well and what makes me not play well, and to try to just learn about my game, and hopefully when I understand what I do I can pass that along a little bit.”
One thing he’s passing along is a lifetime of being receptive to solid fundamentals. As a high school athlete, he had the opportunity to hone his fielding skills with MLB infielder Brad Wellman, who emphasized the importance of learning technique and practicing it until it became rote. From the experience, Bernier built on a skill set that would eventually lead to a reputation as one of the best shortstops in the league. But even more than that came an appreciation for instilling correct habits before bad ones become unbreakable. As a professional ballplayer, that thirst for knowledge hasn’t waned.
“I think every day, as long as you apply yourself, you’re learning something new. I know…sometimes it’s cliched, but I think you really can. I’ve been in the game for a long time, and I still feel like every day I’m trying and learning. I’m more receptive [now] to what coaches are saying because i think it could be an opportunity to pass it along to someone else.”
And Bernier leads by example. Coming from the unique vantage point of a player who still very much gets to take his own advice, he can point to his own career with pride in going about the game the right way–a valuable carryover lesson for anyone who might have been introduced to his words first.
“I feel like I give everything I have that day on that day. I try to pride myself on running hard all the time, being prepared, and being ready to go. I don’t want someone to ever look at me and say, ‘That guy wasn’t hustling’ or ‘That guy wasn’t trying hard.’ There’s a lot of things you can’t control. The things I can I want to do them well and play hard.”
In understanding that technique can only go so far before drive and sheer will to leave it all on the field have to take over, Bernier brings an invaluable perspective to his website. And that blend of precision mixed with dogged determination should be enough to draw prospective ballplayers to Pro Baseball Insider. But that’s not the whole picture. Not even close.
When Bernier discusses his website, he lights up. He speaks about the family element to the project–his wife, Sarah, serves as webmaster, managing the layout and acting as creative partner while his parents edit copy. He discusses future endeavors –the Berniers are working on the second in their new series of books on practice drills, as well as planning to expand the website even further. He revels in the opportunity he has to reach out to younger players and the positive feedback he’s received in return.
And running as an undercurrent to all of that–to the zeal for instruction and the excitement of being able to share what he’s learned–is genuine joy.
“I love baseball. I remember how I felt when I was a little kid playing, and it’s just so much fun. When you see kids [playing baseball], they’re having so much fun. It’s just 100% a game and that’s it. I get so excited and I just want to help those kids.”
That love for the game is evident, whether it’s in the countless hours Bernier puts into his own performance or the way he delights in discussing the “chess game” that is baseball. But what is also evident is his boundless desire to share that enthusiasm with a whole new generation of ballplayers. With Pro Baseball Insider, he’s given himself the opportunity to showcase both, and done so in admirable fashion. The advice and instruction he and his team of professionals have put together are a clear extension of the philosophies that have brought Bernier this far–and are allowing him to have an influence far beyond his own diamond.
And what’s the biggest advice he would offer–with all his experience and dedication and passion for the game?
“First of all, you have to love [baseball]. And then just work hard every day. You don’t want to look in the mirror after you’re done playing and think ‘Man, I could have tried a little harder or could have done a little more.’ Play hard, work hard and have fun, and everything else will take care of itself. If you can give a good effort every day, you’ve got to let the chips fall where they may. You might not make it; you might make it. But you’ve got to be happy with the effort you give, and at the end of the day that’s what matters. You’ve got to be happy with the effort you give.”
Doug Bernier has a lot of reasons to be happy.
Visit ProBaseballInsider.com for advice and instruction on all aspects of the game, or check out the Berniers’ first book, Baseball Hitting Drills for a Batting Tee, for a step-by-step guide to begin to build the fundamentals of a great swing.
One of the undeniably attractive qualities baseball offers its fans is a sense of intimacy. Over the course of the 162, and season after season, players become familiar. We come to know their rituals, superstitions, and quirks. The spot on the cap that’s always caked with rosin. The moment the bat comes off the shoulder. The way the cleat hitches against the rubber. The charming nuances become comforting, in a way, and remind us that there’s something beyond the name on the back of the jersey.
It’s fun, right? We watch our favorite players, remembering that story we read once about how Kevin Gausman eats a sleeve of donuts between each inning, or wondering if one of these days Lincecum’s just going to tip over. It’s America’s pastime, everyone’s happy, and we all remember why we loved the game so much as kids.
And then something happens.
Something like Carlos Quentin purposefully charging the mound on an imagined vendetta in a one-run game, breaking the collarbone of a smaller pitcher and shelving an ace for two months. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t in the script of the quirky, feel-good human nature of the game. But each incident like Quentin’s–each time a player reveals something of himself we’d rather not see– reminds us that there can be a dark side to that comfortable familiarity that makes baseball so appealing. We like our players flawed in palatable ways, like the french fries that fall to the bottom of the bag. But when dealing with human beings prone to human failings, there’s no such thing as pick and choose. Even if baseball makes us want there to be.
What Quentin did was inexcusable. He let anger and paranoia rule over common sense, driving him to turn his beef with Greinke physical, instead of calmly tossing the bat and walking to first base. And in that act, he made us all uncomfortable. Baseball doesn’t feel like it should breed villains–at least not outside a 90s movie–but that’s exactly why it’s at its ugliest when it does. We revel in every feel-good story–every pitcher who makes his debut after Tommy John and every backup infielder who drives in the winning run, against all odds. The grind-to-a-halt, center stage aura of the game breeds those moments. But the spotlight shines just as brightly on the things we’d rather not see. Greinke’s injury will be an eight-week reminder of that.
Please note: This post also appears here on Bronx Baseball Daily, Rob Abruzzese’s collaborative Yankees blog.
Joba Chamberlain looked lost. That much was clear in his outing on Saturday in the Yankees’ 8-4 loss to the Tigers. Pitch after pitch failed to hit catcher Francisco Cervelli’s target, and with each hitter who reached base, his bewilderment appeared to grow. A line-drive single, a four-pitch walk, a ball that skipped to the backstop. At one point, after yet another four-seamer missed the zone, Chamberlain took a walk around the mound, looking to the sky as though the answer might be written there. Frustration was mounting, and all other paths to success seemed to have been exhausted.
And if that lost feeling on Saturday is any kind of apt interpolation of Chamberlain’s career, the Yankees might want to check the heavens, too. Maybe it could spell out exactly what might have been.
Baseball, by its very solitary nature, lends itself to questioning and reflection. With results sometimes contingent on inches, second-guessing becomes a natural part of the game. Still, some story arcs loom more regretfully than others. And in the case of Joba Chamberlain, the fall from can’t-miss hurler to unsettled footnote has become perhaps the Yankees biggest current disappointment.
Six years ago, the Yankees thought they’d hit pay dirt. With their supplemental first-round draft pick in 2006, they landed a flame-throwing righty out of Nebraska. Impressive in both his durable stature and his biting arsenal, Chamberlain hit the fast track to the bigs, and by August 7th, 2007, he was making his major league debut. With a dangerous slider and blistering fastball that topped out at 100, Chamberlain immediately rewarded the Yankees for their loyalty, pitching 16 consecutive scoreless innings and finishing the year with a 0.38 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings. Though eventually felled in the ALDS by Cleveland midges and what was likely a healthy dose of inexperience, Chamberlain looked to be the Yankees’ perfect solution to the effective setup man they’d been looking for since Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton both donned pinstripes. The excitement surrounding him was palpable.
But the Yankees had other ideas. In what became a well-documented and heavily scrutinized process, Chamberlain began transitioning to the rotation in May of 2008. Though claiming that the move was part of the team’s long-term plans for the righty, the Yankees’ hands were forced by injuries and ineffectiveness in their rotation–one that saw pitchers like Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson make starts for the struggling team. The switch was bizarre, as Chamberlain made starts that expanded by two-inning increments every five days, remaining with the big-league team and being forced to exit effective outings once he’d reached his limit.
Chamberlain did eventually slot into the rotation, but results were mixed. Though he finished the year with a 2.60 ERA and strikeout rate of 10.6/9, he won only four games for the Bombers in an injury-shortened season that saw the Yankees miss the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. Though Chamberlain’s role on the team wasn’t close to being the pivotal force in finding October success that year, the impact he had in his first full season was a let-down compared to the hype following his 2007 campaign. The second-guessing had already begun.
If excitement had marked the first phase of Chamberlain’s career, inconsistency would be the hallmark going forward. Though seeing flashes of effectiveness in the years following, including a 154 ERA+ to begin his 2011 season, Chamberlain never approached the success he saw in the first 24 innings of his career. After the excruciating process of converting to a starter, he would pitch only one full inconsistent season in the rotation before losing his spot to Phil Hughes, who went on to become an All Star in 2010. Over the following three seasons, in between missing significant chunks of time to Tommy John surgery in 2011 and a severe ankle break in 2012, Chamberlain would appear in 122 games, posting a 4.02 ERA and 1.281 WHIP and seeing his strikeout rate tick down slightly to 9.1/9. Though acceptable, especially in the AL East, the numbers are a far cry from what the Yankees envisioned from their Midwestern boy with the golden slider.
There are many checkpoints on the road of Chamberlain’s career that lend themselves to the “what if.” What if the Yankees had given in to the multiple trade inquiries that dotted his early success? The front office famously made Chamberlain untouchable during Johan Santana talks following the 2007 season, but they also saw interest from the Orioles, White Sox, and A’s, including by Billy Beane in a possible trade for Dan Haren. Because the Yankees never put Chamberlain on the table, there’s no way to know whom they could have received at the height of their power righty’s career, but with the relatively small impact Chamberlain has made on his team since that first season, it’s hard to envision a situation where an enticing trade prospect wouldn’t have been an upgrade.
Or what if the Yankees had never transitioned Chamberlain out of the bullpen? How far could his star have risen had he been allowed to pitch in short, high-intensity bursts for the next several seasons? Could he have achieved the allure and legend of an Aroldis Chapman, overpowering hitters with sheer firepower and a flawless specialty pitch? Though a pitcher’s trajectory can be difficult to predict, the way in which the Yankees shuttled Chamberlain back and forth, imposing unusual restrictions on his arm, didn’t lend themselves to consistent late-inning success.
The answers are neither simple nor clear. Pitching is always at a premium, and the value of a starter versus a setup man can be debated in circles. But the inconsistency with which the Yankees treated Chamberlain combined with the inconsistency he gave them set both up for disaster. Out of that perfect storm comes far more questions than answers, and makes for years’ worth of alternate scenarios. As it is, the 21-year-old has now hit his late-20s with a legacy of disappointment rather than glory. The slider doesn’t bite nearly as much as it did, and the fastball has slowed down considerably.
Still, there may be time for the Yankees and Chamberlain to write a new story. With a strong 2013 spring training (2.61 ERA, 0.774 WHIP, nine strikeouts in 10.1 innings), Chamberlain drew at least preliminary interest from the Rangers. And though the Yankees appear eager to unload their big righty, numbers similar to the ones he showed in March will put New York in a much stronger position to either use his success to bolster a thin bullpen or have a trade chip to fill a need elsewhere. Having already invested over $6.1 million into a pitcher who will become a free agent at the end of the season, the Yankees are likely hoping for the latter.
Ultimately, Detroit scored only one run off Chamberlain on Saturday. But whether he ever found the answer he was looking for won’t become clear until he pitches again. What is clear is that the Yankees and their formerly untouchable pitcher are approaching the end of the road. And all the what-ifs will become a very expensive regret unless they can somehow make magic again together. Because what baseball also lends itself to are second chances. Chamberlain and the Yankees have one more left.
With Jorge Posada now three years removed from the game, and Russell Martin pricing himself out of the Bronx, the Yankees face an Opening Day dilemma they haven’t encountered since 1989: no clear candidate for the starting catcher job.
Just five years ago, the Yankees looked lousy with catching prospects. Powerhouse slugger Jesus Montero—he of the home run swing and wobbly defense—ranked as the organization’s No. 1 position prospect by the time he was 20, and looked to be able to make everyone forget about his limited range behind the plate with power to all fields and a generous learning curve.
On the other side of the coin, defensive wiz Austin Romine had everything Montero lacked: arm precision, range, ability to read pitchers. But where Montero was a buzzworthy slugger, Romine fell into the category of “he’ll make up for it behind the plate.” Still, between the two prospects, as well as second-tier options like P.J. Pilittere, Kyle Anson, and Jose Gil all languishing in the minors, the Yankees were sure to strike gold somewhere. Besides, with their war chest of seemingly unlimited funds, a productive backstop was only a contract away.
But, as any big-league team could attest, there’s no such thing as too many catchers. Montero was famously traded away before the 2012 season for phenom righty Michael Pineda—who promptly needed major shoulder surgery and has yet to play a game for the Bombers. Romine’s bat has progressed slowly—probably more slowly than the organization had imagined—and hit a wall at the AAA level. And Pilittere, Anson, and maybe-sort-of option Jason Brown are no longer in baseball.
Yet there is good news, and plenty of it. The Yankees have been spoiled for decades now with offensive production behind the plate. From All-Star Mike Stanley, whose departure from the Bronx in 1996 met with scathing criticism, to potential Hall of Famer Jorge Posada, the organization and its fans have become accustomed to seeing their catcher in the meat of the lineup. But a defensive wall with a pinpoint arm and a rapport with the pitching staff is worth his weight in contact money—even if he flirts with the Mendoza line all season.
With those criteria in mind, the Yankees have some options for a stop-gap season, as well as a new crop of notable prospects who are gaining momentum down on the farm.
The Yankees have been particularly reluctant in past years—to some criticism—to rush top-tier prospects, particularly if no emergency need arises. Though Romine could—and should—be given a look, the organization may break camp with a tandem of familiar players behind the plate.
Francisco Cervelli has become something of a household name among Yankee fans, after his infectious energy and bulldog work ethic played a part in the team’s 2009 World Series win. The effort landed him a large chunk of playing time in 2010, as well as the reputation for being an excellent pitcher’s catcher. CC Sabathia, in particular, lauded Cervelli for his dedication.
“He wants to learn,” Sabathia said, after the duo’s second consecutive win in early 2010. “He’s always asking questions. He wants to go over the first couple of hitters of the inning every inning. I think that helps out a lot. He watches a lot of video, and he’s pretty sure of himself when he calls a pitch, so that helps.” Pitching to Cervelli, Sabathia has put together some of the best numbers of his career, with a 2.98 ERA, 8.3 K/9, and .230 opponent BA over 272 innings.
In addition to his growing prowess behind the plate, Cervelli put up a respectable .275/.341/.357 slash line from 2009 through 2011, which made his last-minute exclusion from the 2012 roster even more surprising.
Unfortunately for Cervelli, he doesn’t project to be the starting catcher of the future. He managed just a .657 OPS for the 2012 Empire State Yankees—a disappointing number for a former world champion—and he’s currently embroiled in the same BioGenesis scandal that’s implicated teammate Alex Rodriguez. But for the time being, his energy, speed, and familiarity with the staff may make him the Yankees’ best bet.
The other veteran option is Chris Stewart. A full season into his second tenure with the Bombers, Stewart has gained a reputation as a good plate-blocker with an accurate arm. He, too, found some success with Sabathia.
Offensively, Stewart wasn’t a disaster. He managed only a .611 OPS, but his woes at the plate were largely unnoticeable given his solid presence behind it. (For what it’s worth, the .611 was a career high). Stewart would likely serve as backup, given his experience in catching approximately a third of each season.
Though a Cervelli/Stewart complement when camp breaks would be a surprise to no one, there are exciting options waiting in the wings.
If Romine doesn’t get his shot out of spring training, he’ll be the first line of defense as the season progresses. Long touted for his skills behind the plate, the former second-round draft pick has been named the organization’s top defensive catcher three years in a row. One member of the front office even referred to Romine as a “plus plus defender.” It is that promise, in fact, that kept the Yankees from pursuing more expensive free-agent options like A.J. Pierzynski this offseason.
But Romine’s growth has been stunted by injury. He’s missed chunks of time over the past two seasons with back issues, limiting his play to only 120 games since 2011. Without a consistent, healthy season, Romine’s development is difficult to extrapolate. He did average a .725 OPS over parts of those two seasons. Still, given that the Yankees don’t project to carry an offensive dynamo at catcher, there will be room for experimentation. If a healthy Romine can make the big league roster, he may not want to relinquish the position.
Unfortunately for Romine, he may not have a choice. Already leapfrogging the defensive powerhouse in the Baseball America prospect rankings is 20-year-old Gary Sanchez. Sanchez came out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 with a monster signing bonus and potential to burn. Groomed in the vein of Montero, with a solid frame and power stroke, his passable defense (literally: he’s allowed 60 passed balls in 181 games) is readily overshadowed by his .286/.350/.496 career slash line. With only 245 games under his belt, Sanchez ranks as Baseball America’s #56 prospect and top power hitter in the organization. Sanchez should start the year at high-A Tampa and should progress steadily, perhaps reaching AA Trenton by mid-season. Though not projected to reach the majors until 2015, Sanchez may be the homegrown catcher needed to finally fill the Posada-shaped hole in the clubhouse.
That is, if J.R. Murphy doesn’t get there first. Though not the offensive threat that Sanchez is, Murphy, 21, is powering his way through the Yankees’ farm system with eye-popping defense. In 2012, he allowed only 13 passed balls in 97 games and threw runners out at a 32% clip. And where Sanchez had garnered criticism for his focus, Murphy has shone. He even caught the eye of the big league skipper:
“I was impressed when I saw him catch the other day,” Joe Girardi told Bradenton Herald reporter John Lembo after a 2012 spring training start. “[He has a] tremendous work ethic, very bright, knows what he’s doing.”
The hard work paid off; midway through the 2012 season, Murphy was promoted to Trenton, surpassing expectations this early in his career. And though not billed as a slugger, Murphy hit .243/.316/.386 in his split season, with nine home runs. With the organization so high on his performance behind the plate and his focus already legendary, it may be only a matter of time before his services are needed in the Bronx.
Ultimately, what the Yankees will see when they look behind the plate will be plenty of options and little need to panic. Money saved by not signing Pierzynski or the far-less-affordable Mike Napoli has been spent on veteran pitching not dependent on the experience of its backstop. Meanwhile, prospects wait at every level, developing and growing and putting pressure on those ahead of them to play at high levels. Competition is good for a player, but it’s even better for an organization. The Yankees don’t have a dilemma at all.
Felix Hernandez has always been a breath of fresh air for his downtrodden Seattle Mariners, but on Wednesday afternoon, he was an infusion of life for a sport that could have used a second wind.
Just as Hernandez was about to toe the rubber for his start against the Tampa Bay Rays, news broke that San Francisco left fielder Melky Cabrera had tested positive for a prohibited substance under MLB’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and would immediately begin serving a 50-game suspension. One of baseball’s breakout stars, Cabrera was in the depths of a career season, leading the league in hits and collecting an All Star Game MVP while charming fans with his good-natured interviews and easy-going play. Though a smattering of players have turned in positive tests since the inception of mandatory screenings in 2006, Cabrera is far-and-away the most high-profile name to emerge from the post-steroid generation.
But Hernandez knew none of that on a sunny afternoon at Safeco Field. Long the lone bright spot for the 55-64 Mariners, who are mired in the middle of their seventh losing season in nine, Hernandez has kept the fanbase close. In his eight seasons with Seattle, King Felix has twirled a 3.19 ERA, made three All Star teams, and redefined what it means to be a Cy Young award winner. And as he systematically sent the Rays down in order, pitching to contact and keeping plenty in the tank, the ballpark was energized. Melky Cabrera was light years away.
There is nothing more pure than perfection–nothing more lily-white in its time-stands-still kind of masterpiece. No runners mar the basepaths; no cleats graze home plate. The 60 feet and six inches between mound and leather become sacred ground and the neat rows of zeroes take on a cherubic cast. Perfection is baseball at its inarguable best. What happened to Cabrera–what he brought about because of greed or hubris or stupidity–is baseball at its arguable worst.
Hernandez wasn’t that ugly black smear of a positive test. He wasn’t forced statements to the press and tight-lipped admissions. He was baseball on Wednesday, and baseball had risen above.
Sean Rodriguez was already 0-2 when he faced Hernandez in the top of the ninth. In an ironic twist on a day full of juxtaposition, Rodriguez’s hard-nosed play and valuable grit as a major league asset have only become popular again because of efforts to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs–otherwise known as the last time baseball needed to be saved from itself. But there he was: all hustle and steel and ready to spoil the King’s perfect day.
Instead, it was Rodriguez who blinked. Flummoxed on a 2-2 fastball, he froze, and let baseball’s newest golden boy, on loan from Seattle for just an afternoon, be the inarguable best.
Baseball has never been just a game for me. It is thrill and glory and fresh-cut grass. It is adrenaline and scuffed cleats and crisp double plays turned under mock-summer lights. It is gleaming fields on Opening Day and wind-frozen fingers raised in postseason triumph. But most of all, it is my father and me and pine tar memories that extend far beyond the lines.
As far back as I can remember, being daddy’s little girl has always involved a bat and glove. My earliest baseball memories turned our tiny backyard into a sun-streaked diamond. I was Don Mattingly with a pink bat, hitting a plastic ball likely far too dense for a six-year old without a helmet. My father, who was my Dave Righetti–no matter what the broken garage window said–lobbed pitch after pitch, patiently waiting for me to chase swinging strikes all the way to the back fence, and cheering me on when mighty hits cleared the swimming pool. It was there, in front of the swing set and next to the minefield of my mother’s flower garden, that baseball and family became intrinsically linked.
Though the core of the game remains, the changes in statistics and the way information is disseminated have given me an edge over my father in keeping up-to-date on the latest news. I throw fantasy ball tips his way during our draft–though he manages to beat me, every year–and I still have to remind him that he doesn’t have to read about day games in the paper the following morning. But when I was growing up, he was my number one source of information. Every summer evening, we’d sit in front of the television, watching Winfield and Kelly–and later Williams and Jeter–while my favorite fan explained the infield fly rule, suicide squeezes, and how it felt to watch Mickey Mantle patrol center field on a sunny day in the Bronx.
My father’s enthusiasm for my enthusiasm never wavered. With patience stretched nearly to inhuman limits, he interacted with me graciously while I recited baseball songs I’d painstakingly written, outlined charts and graphs of the Yankees’ likely starting lineups, and threw a ball against the side of the garage until I was sure it would crack. The September I hung a “magic number” countdown on my bedroom wall, he woke me up every morning asking how many pages I’d been able to eliminate at game’s end. In 1996, he helped me craft a postseason scrapbook, bringing New York newspapers home from work and saving every sports section he could get his hands on so I could preserve the memory of my first World Series.
When the wins turned into championships, and the trophies multiplied, our playoff rituals became more frequent. Though he could never quite stay up for west coast games and extra innings, October victories welcomed wake-up calls at 1am, and clinching wins warranted a trip to the TV room to watch the celebration.Over the years, he’s confessed to me that his postseason mornings are a little bit darker when he gets to sleep through the night.
No one understands how I feel about baseball like my father. He knows that the sounds of a ballgame on a night just chilly enough to need a sweatshirt by the eighth inning are better than any music–followed closely by the throwback crackling of play-by-play on AM radio. He knows that there’s never any shame in crying over a blown save, just as there’s never any shame in crying over an improbable victory. He knows that baseball is family and loyalty and perseverance and that a game of individuals would be nothing without the team. We’ve seen underdogs triumph and champions fall, but the love for the game is as predictable and constant as the stitches on the ball.
Baseball has never been just a game for me. It is backyard wiffle ball and slightly damaged flower gardens. It is homemade lineup cards and postseason wake-up calls. It is minor league baseball on a chilly night and scoreboard updates cutting through the static. But most of all, it is my father and me and a lifetime of learning exactly what it means to love the game.
A Sunday afternoon in May at a minor league ballpark likely held no distinction for Andy Pettitte. Just a stop on the road to the big leagues, it couldn’t have been much different than any other whistlestop bandbox in any American mid-size city.
For the 13,854 packed into beautiful Frontier Field, in the High Falls neighborhood of downtown Rochester, Sunday was pretty special. In the 16-year history of the ballpark, that has seen concerts and competitions, major leaguers–both of the the rehabbing and demoted variety–and, for one summer, the visiting Baltimore Orioles, no single ballplayer has provoked such excitement.
For the crowd and the 240-game winner, the outcome was trivial. Pettitte threw his predetermined 90 pitches, which took him through five innings. The defense behind him was shaky, which is par for the course in the minor leagues, and some big league outs fell for hits, leading to three earned runs for the lefty’s likely final tuneup before he heads to the Bronx. But Pettitte was healthy, the sun was out, and the excitement radiating throughout the stadium was palpable.
Rochester knows its baseball. Once named Baseball City, USA, the Flower City reveres its local sandlot legends as much as its industrial ones. Mr. Baseball, former world champion manager Joe Altobelli, is a beloved and frequent presence at Frontier Field. The Ripken (yes, those Ripkens) family, with ties to the Rochester region since the 1970s, has a place in the city’s heart. And the Rochester Red Wings themselves are community-owned, with local shareholders owning pieces of the franchise to ensure that the organization never leaves the city.
So it was unsurprising when grandstand and suite tickets to Sunday’s game sold out within four hours of the ticket office opening, with lines snaking around the parking lot. And with good reason. The big lefty is embarking on his 17th season in major league baseball. He owns the record for most postseasons wins, has a career 3.88 ERA, notched three All Star Game berths, and made four Cy Young leaderboard appearances. Andy Pettitte is contemporary baseball royalty.
Fans clamored for tickets all weekend, with the Red Wings playing diligent host by providing updates on availability to the major news outlets, as well as social media. Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle devoted the front page of its sports section to the lefty’s arrival. Though Pettitte would be pitching for the Empire State Yankees, this was the Red Wings’ coup–and the team didn’t disappoint.
Though capacity is still under 14,000, the atmosphere at Frontier on Sunday was big-league. Vendors circled the outdoor concourse, hawking programs and commemorative t-shirts as fans poured through the gates. Fans chattered with total strangers in the stands and along the field about Pettitte and baseball, sharing stories of games long past and musing on games yet to come. Though the garb held a decidedly Yankee flavor, other teams were represented throughout the crowd, joining like-minded fans in silent solidarity.
As game time neared, the crowd around the third-base dugout grew to four and five deep, phones and cameras trained on the clubhouse entrance. And when Pettitte emerged, clad in a warmup jacket and boasting his familiar stride, anticipation boiled over into exhilaration. Without self-consciousness, the city that hasn’t had a major league sports team since the 1950s welcomed the four-time champion like an old friend. There was no need for Pettitte to be lights-out, and no season on the brink. He was pitching, he was in pinstripes, and he was there.
Sunday afternoon was time frozen for the 13,854–a suspended moment when Frontier Field became the bigs. Pettitte wasn’t on a dutiful mission back to the Bronx, but putting on a show for the ballpark and the city. And when he completed his tour, and emerged briefly after the chants of “An-dy Pett-itte” swelled to unignorable levels, the lefty belonged to Rochester. If only for a few hours.