Three-Man Weave

The HBO Recycling Program

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Back into the Belly of The Beast

Dodging hot-dog shrapnel and enraged managers, an exile returns to the baseball beat

Without looking it up, I can tell you the night the Toronto Blue Jays won their first World Series — October 24, 1992 — because that was also the night I lost my virginity. I’m not nearly so sure of the night they won their second World Series. I was in college, watching the game in my dorm’s common room, on a TV that was suspended from the ceiling. When Joe Carter hit that home run off Mitch Williams to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993, I jumped up and cracked my head on the TV, opening a dime-size hole in my scalp. It turns out that holes in your head bleed a lot. Somewhere, there is a picture of me still celebrating, late that night, drunk, mostly naked, and covered in dried blood. I’ll be forever glad that we did not yet live in the digital age.

That’s how important baseball was to me back then. I still have the Ken Burns Baseball catalogue on VHS; I once spent an entire summer making a paper model of Fenway Park, complete with a ball-marked Pesky’s Pole. But then a couple of fate-changing events took place. First, there was that whole no-longer-a-virgin thing. Before sex, something like Dave Stieb’s wobbly retirement — ignoring his brief resurrection six years later — would have qualified as a significant life event of my own. Now, it barely registered as a brief. And then baseball went on strike. I was sitting on a couch in a Mexican hotel room when everything stopped — those 14 words are how all stories of loss should begin — and I took it very much to heart. The girl who claimed my virginity later cheated on me, and baseball’s cold shoulder gave me the same feeling: I should have left you before you left me.

So, when baseball made its inevitable, embarrassed return, I stayed away — mostly. I couldn’t leave it behind entirely, of course. I’ve never been good at stopping up my love like a potion. I moved to Toronto, and maybe once a week I’d go with friends and buy four-dollar seats in SkyDome’s fifth deck, high above right field, high above the visitor’s bullpen. But my relationship with baseball was meaner by then: My friends and I long took singular credit for the end of Mark Wohlers’ career. You might laugh at that, but I believe it to be true. This was in the spring and summer of 1997, coming off his World Series choke to Jim Leyritz and the New York Yankees. We spent entire games yelling terrible things at Wohlers until he broke in half. I have no idea why we did that. I don’t feel good about it, looking back. Some bitter part of me saw baseball players as baseball, as a flawed institution that betrayed me, rather than as a collection of human beings who were very good at throwing and hitting and catching a ball. In real life, Mark Wohlers was just some guy who threw a fat pitch to the man with the most muscular temples in major league history. He didn’t deserve to have to listen to us. We’d never set foot on that field. There would always be a distance between us.

Which explains why I was so surprised to find myself standing on that same field only two years later. I had finished school, having decided that urban planning wasn’t for me. (It’s not the same as playing LEGO, I learned too late.) As it happens, a new newspaper was starting up in Toronto: the National Post. After a series of extraordinarily strange events, very few of which were within my control, I ended up with a job there, in the sports department, having never written a published word except for four stories in my college newspaper.1 I started out covering boxing at the Post. And then I began writing baseball. And then, in 2000, I got the beat.

The first ballplayer I talked to was Jose Canseco. An older baseball writer had told me that when I talked to players, I shouldn’t be nervous, but I also shouldn’t try to bluff my way past them and their knowledge. They knew the game better than I ever might. My job was to try to steal just a little of that knowledge from them and pass it along to our readers. I should ask questions, the writer said, that I really wanted answered. I should let my fan’s curiosity be my guide.

That first game, Canseco had hit a home run into the fifth deck, one-handed, off a curveball that was very nearly in the dirt. I wanted to know how he did that. (I was naïve enough back then — we all were, I guess — to think that Canseco might have accomplished such an improbability with his natural physical gifts and baseball intelligence.) There was Canseco, standing naked near his locker, still holding his bat in his hands. I walked over and introduced myself. I’m pretty sure my voice cracked. I also had a bad case of the trembles. That only got worse when Canseco accused me of looking at his dick.

“What?” I said. And then I began to panic. “NO! NO, I DIDN’T!”

“Yes, you did,” Canseco said. “You looked right at it.”

I really hadn’t. I had looked down at my notepad, so that I might write down whatever sacred bit of wisdom Canseco was going to share with me. Instead, I stood accused of looking at his fungo bat and my embryonic career — hell, my career in its opening moments — was now doomed. I didn’t need to be told what happened to “lookers” in locker rooms. Once a writer got a reputation for that particular brand of investigation, he was done.

I was finished. It was over.

“Just messing around,” Canseco finally said. “Don’t be so nervous.”

I lasted 1½ seasons on the beat, and despite Jose Canseco’s sage advice, the nerves never left me. What did leave me, though, was the last of my love. Covering baseball was like seeing how your favorite sneakers are made: The process took all of the pleasure out of it.

The Blue Jays weren’t very good anymore, but Toronto remained a competitive market — four newspapers, and with lots of time spent in New York and Boston, as well, which will make any baseball writer crazy just by osmosis. I was young, and I hadn’t yet learned how to report. I couldn’t compete. Other guys, more senior guys, could walk into that locker room and look like they belonged. Raul Mondesi, a man I’d interviewed extensively for many months, once asked me to iron his shirt in Kansas City because he thought I was a clubbie. Invariably, I stood in the wrong place or asked the wrong question or made the wrong observation. Jim Fregosi, the manager, put me in a headlock more than once. I ended up trying to write about anything other than baseball, just to avoid looking as stupid as I was.

Back then, the Blue Jays had a promotion in which, between innings, a kid came out with a kind of bazooka. It was called the Hot Dog Blaster, and it used compressed air to lob tinfoil-wrapped hot dogs into the crowd. During a game against the Anaheim Angels, the kid had somehow packed a little too much powder into the cannon. He launched those hot dogs into the night sky, where they exploded in flight, like skeet, showering bits of wiener and bun on the crowd below. Watching the scattering masses, running for their lives, was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. It was like flaming arrows were raining down on them. I found my wife’s vegetarian sister, Sarah, in the crowd behind one of the dugouts. “Imagine getting sprayed with wiener shrapnel,” she said. “I would have died.”

Everything else possible happened during that game. The score became something ridiculous, like 16-10. There was a bench-clearing brawl. But I was determined that I was going to write about those disintegrating hot dogs. Baseball had become an afterthought to me, just the background noise during an interminable season. Here was this beautiful game, unfolding in all its glory, and I was dead set on writing about the airborne meat assault I’d just witnessed. I think the score ended up in the 16th paragraph. I did a follow-up story the next day. On the hot dogs.

It was coming time for me to get out. My last day on the beat was in New York City, in the middle of the 2001 season, when the Blue Jays were playing the Mets. I didn’t really know what I was going to do next, but I knew I had to leave.2 That last day, walking out of the giant blue-and-orange toilet bowl that was Shea Stadium, I was almost hit by a truck. I took that as a sign that I was right to get out. Maybe it was a sign that I should have stayed in my seat.

Now, 10 years later, I’m back in that seat, on behalf of another new journalism venture, Grantland. I’ve wanted to write about baseball again for a few years now, but the desire became especially strong one sunny weekend this spring, when I went with some friends to a few Grapefruit League games and realized that my love had, in fact, never left me. I had just somehow stopped it up like a potion after all.

My first game back in the press box was May 10, the Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox in Toronto. Already, it had been decided that I was going to write about the American League East, the best and toughest division in sports: The Beast. It was still a few weeks before Grantland would launch, but I wanted to get my legs back, to find that rhythm again. I went down to the field, to the dugout, and wondered how Mark Wohlers was doing these days.3

The night before, Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow had been pulled from the game by manager John Farrell, and he had been pretty upset about it, throwing things around in the dugout before storming down the tunnel and back to the locker room. It got me thinking about how you’d want to see your pitcher react after getting pulled. Do you want to see a little fire? Or is that unprofessional somehow, demonstrative of a lack of poise? During Farrell’s pregame session with reporters, I asked him how he wanted to see his pitchers deal with getting yanked. He decided I was trying to start something and chewed me out. Ten years since my last day on the beat, and nothing had changed.

I went up to the press box and settled in. I was going to watch the game — really watch it. Once, I saw a baseball game with Lenny Dykstra, and it changed the way I saw the game, too. He introduced me to the levels of the game — the deeper layers that exist below the game that’s unfolding on the surface, the game that’s really the least significant of all of them. Dykstra might be a meathead in many ways, but he sees baseball differently than most of us. He sees the hinges that open the doors.

David Cooper

That night in May, in the bottom of the sixth inning, Jon Lester bounced a pitch off Yunel Escobar’s ankle.

It had been a tough start for Lester, who, at that time, was one of Boston’s few reasons for hope in a dismal beginning to the season. He entered the game with a record of 4-1; his ERA was 2.33. But on that night, against the Blue Jays, he was off from the first at-bat. In his leadoff encounter with Escobar, Lester walked him, and then he stopped to take a long look at home plate umpire Paul Emmel,4 who took off his mask and took a long look back.

Lester later conceded that Emmel’s call had pushed him sideways — “I need to do a better job of controlling my emotions,” is how he worded it after, semi-carefully — and he gave up two more walks as part of a three-run first inning.

Despite that early hole, though, Boston rallied to take the lead in the top of the fifth. Given how the season had gone, the comeback might have looked a little surprising, but it wasn’t really. The Red Sox had felt, before the game, as though it was on the edge of a reversal. The night before, they had won in extra innings over the Minnesota Twins — thanks to a suddenly awakening Carl Crawford — to climb within a game of .500. Adrian Gonzalez was hitting the hell out of the ball, David Ortiz looked something like his old self, and Lester was going to start, right on time like a train. With a win against the struggling Blue Jays, the Red Sox could have been, finally, on their way to a more permanent restoration.

Instead, Lester gave up a couple of solo home runs, and then he bounced that pitch off Escobar’s ankle.

Escobar stayed down in the dirt. Eventually, he limped his way to first base, but he was taken out of the game. A 24-year-old rookie first baseman — a first-round pick named David Cooper — hopped off the bench and jogged out to pinch run.

A lot had to happen for Cooper to find himself standing on that base, one of the 125 players in The Beast — a long series of bottom-deck deals and accidents unfolding in some perfect, nearly impossible order. First, Cooper had to hit .395 at Triple-A Las Vegas. Next, the Blue Jays had to send down Travis Snider, who needed to rebuild his swing somewhere other than the major leagues. Adam Lind, one of Toronto’s starting infielders, had to wake up with back spasms, and he had to climb out of his taxi before that game in May looking as fluid as ice. And then Jon Lester had to plunk Escobar. John Farrell looked at his short bench and saw Cooper and backup catcher Jose Molina, who runs like a deer — an arthritic deer that was hit by a truck when it was on its way back from a big lunch. Cooper it was.

Cooper didn’t make it to second that inning, but in the top of the seventh, Farrell shuffled his infield to make room for Cooper at first — where he immediately flubbed what would have been a successful pickoff of Dustin Pedroia. Instead of one out, nobody on, Boston had a man on second with nobody out.

And just then, without the benefit of time, Lester’s errant pitch seemed the opposite of what it was: It looked — what with Pedroia edging off second and Cooper looking down at the ground and pushing his fist into his glove — as though it would become, in hindsight, a favor for the Red Sox. It looked like the start, or maybe closer to the middle, of their long, slow turnaround. It looked like the pitch that opened the door.

Instead, the Red Sox failed to bring Pedroia home. Cooper ran back to the dugout and forgave himself. And in the bottom of the eighth — after Boston tied the game in the top of that inning — Cooper hit the first major league home run of his career, off Daniel Bard, on a 3-2 count.

Cooper didn’t realize what he had done until he heard the crowd cheering. He had lost the ball in the electronic billboards that line Toronto’s outfield fence. He had been mostly terrible since his call-up, scratching out just two hits, but now he ran around the bases with a smile on his face and a surging confidence. He had just hit a major league home run. Jon Lester might have inadvertently saved David Cooper’s career. Lester’s pitch had opened a door, true enough, but for someone else.

“How many times do you see that,” Cooper said afterward, “where a guy just gets his chance and it makes all the difference?”5

I’m the sort of person who confuses flukes for signs; I also like to find the small, even imperceptible shift in balance that changes everything else in the world. One of the things I’ve always loved about baseball is the order behind its seeming chaos, its logic, and its reason. I like those moments when the entire game seems to go still.

At the time, I decided that Lester’s pitch off Escobar’s ankle was the sort of tiny earthquake that, with the benefit of hindsight, could become something calamitous. It looked like it might become the sort of thing that would finish off Boston’s already vanishing season.

Then the Red Sox flew to New York, where they swept the Yankees on their way to winning seven in a row and eventually, almost unbelievably, taking over the division lead.

That’s the trick with turning points: They don’t announce themselves so easily — not always, at least. Sometimes — but especially in something as monumental as a baseball season, and especially in a division like the American League East — they get lost in the chaos and drama until at last they surface, weeks or months or even years later, and only then can everyone point at them and say, That was it.

After the game, I went into the Red Sox clubhouse. Terry Francona did his usual postgame session. Jon Lester did his, and something he said made me want to ask Francona something else. I ducked back into his otherwise empty office, where he was sitting behind his desk, eating his chicken dinner. I introduced myself, told him I’d like to ask him a question off the record — not for quotes, just to validate something I saw — and I asked him the question. I was pretty pleased with myself. I wasn’t nervous. I felt like I belonged.

Terry Francona dead-to-nuts lost his shit. I won’t repeat my question because I told him it was off the record and I meant that, but believe me: It wasn’t the sort of question that I thought would ever in a million years cause Terry Francona to yell at me, storm out of his office, and leave his chicken dinner to go cold on his desk.6 That chicken looked pretty good. That chicken should have left him before he left it.

I stood there after, in the quiet and steam. It was a strange, surreal kind of moment. It’s hard to explain, but somehow, my own private history with the game — that night Dave Winfield stroked a double down the left-field line and I hit my first home run; that night I earned the dime-size scar that’s still on my head; encounters with Jose Canseco’s junk and wiener shrapnel; braying at Mark Wohlers and sitting in the sun with my friends in Florida; and now, back again, in the belly of The Beast, getting lit up by managers and watching Jon Lester throw a bad pitch and a kid named David Cooper hit his first big league home run — all of it strung together like pearls in my mind, like lights, a long series of bottom-deck deals and accidents unfolding in some perfect, nearly impossible order.

“I know everybody says, ‘It’s a dream come true,’” Cooper had said after the game. “But that’s what it is.”

That’s what it is.

That was it.

Chris Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire; he covers the American League East for Grantland.

Filed Under: Baseball