Who cares about numbers?
Why do we have to reduce baseball to numbers? The numbers tell a story, but they don’t tell the whole story. Not nearly. Not at all.
I could give you the numbers, my stats, for the game I pitched, my first game pitched in thirty-four years, but they wouldn’t tell the whole story.
In fact, the numbers will obstruct; they will take away from all of it.
I woke up Sunday morning, Opening Day, and gently put pressure on my right leg to test the Achilles. I was worried that I might still be in significant pain.
The tendon, the whole calf in fact, was agreeable. That was a good sign. I knew that if it didn’t kill, if it wasn’t on fire, that I’d give it a go.
I’ll also say this. I once ran the New York City Marathon with a stress fracture in my foot. Today would have been similar. I really wasn’t concerned with how much it hurt because I was going to pitch no matter what.
If I could stand up, I was going to play ball.
And I could stand.
Maybe if there is a doctor out there, he or she can explain how my Achilles tendon hurts if I try to run and how it even hurts when I walk (though not as much), but why it doesn’t hurt nearly as much, or it seems even at all, when I’m pitching.
But, I am getting ahead of myself…
At 7:25 a.m., we got in the car to head to my first baseball game as a player in decades. Laurie, my wonderful wife, took the thirty-minute drive with me to Bloomfield, New Jersey to offer support, love, smiles, and to also take a ton of photos to document my return to baseball.
We were one of the first to arrive. My coach, Ryan Yates, was already there. I told him I was ready to pitch. I could see he was also excited to play. We gathered our gear and walked to the beautiful baseball field in Bloomfield. Slowly, the rest of the team arrived. We had eleven players in all.
When one looked at the two teams, there were obvious and apparent differences between them and us. The Bloomfield Buzzards were polished. They were crisp. I heard that this team has been playing together for years – and it showed. I was also told that this team was one of the best in the league. I’d be making my inaugural start against this league’s version of the New York Yankees.
Oh, they also had uniforms. Ours haven’t come in yet.
The teams slowly warmed up. I assumed my old role as a coach and hit the balls for infield practice, and, after what was forever and no time at all, we were lined up on the third base foul line as the Star Spangled Banner played over the intercom.
Since we were the visitors, we batted first. The opposing pitcher set us down in order. He didn’t throw hard, but from the comments from the guys on my team, he had a tremendous curve ball. It mattered little to me, I wouldn’t be hitting. There was a DH for me. I was just pleased to see that their pitcher didn’t throw gas because I knew I couldn’t.
With my team’s third out came my time to return to baseball.
I left the dugout, walked to the mound, picked up the ball, and then, as I wiped the dirt from the pitching rubber, said a quick prayer and asked God to please make sure that I didn’t get killed by a line drive hit up the middle.
(If one saw the towering home run hit off me later that morning, he would have known that I shouldn’t have been too concerned about line drives. Towering long bombs hit over a high metal fence into a brook? Yes. Line drives hit at the old pitcher? No.)
I must add here that as I walked to the mound and first picked up the ball, I was almost overcome with emotion. The sheer joy I felt to have the chance to pitch again filled me with immense joy – the kind that can take one’s breath away and make one’s eyes water.
I reined in my emotions and set to the task at hand.
Who needs to talk about numbers?
I’m telling you, I was great. I was sensational. I was amazing.
I really was.
After the first two batters hit long doubles to left, I settled down and escaped the first inning somewhat unscathed. I allowed only two runs. More importantly, I threw strikes. I was consistently around the plate, and I felt good.
I felt great actually.
There was some rust to shake off… but it came off (mostly) quickly.
When I imagined this start, I pictured myself pitching mostly from the wind-up, but, because of all the base runners I allowed, most of the time I had to go from the stretch. I let up my fair share of hits, but I didn’t walk many batters (maybe only two all game). Some of the rust was apparent as I pitched this way. While in the stretch, I had to be reminded by the umpires to make a full stop – sometimes I didn’t. The umpires warned that if I didn’t come to a complete stop, they’d have to call a balk. They were nice about it.
I slowed things down and was balkless on the day.
In the second inning, I allowed no runs. As I recall, it was in the second inning that I recorded my first strikeout of the game.
That strikeout was my first in about 12,418 days. Nolan Ryan might have struck out 5,714 batters in his career, but my number might be more impressive. I might have set the all-time record for days between strikeouts.
I allowed only one run in the third inning. I recorded another strikeout that inning. In that inning I also caught a popup hit between the mound and home plate. (It’s good when the pitcher helps his own cause.)
Do I have to write about the fourth inning?
Numbers? Who cares about numbers? The numbers only detract from the story.
Later, after the game, as I scrolled through the many great photos that Laurie took, I was struck by the fact that, while I felt like a kid again, I am a middle-aged man. The guy in the photos she took looked older than the guy who was pitching today.
During the fourth inning, I recorded another strikeout. I also walked a batter and hit a batter (but he could have gotten out of the way. It was a pitch with a 1-2 count and he just stood there and took my slowball in the middle of his back).
In between all of that, there were some well-placed line drives, some long fly balls, a towering home run, some missed ground balls on the infield, and a few flies that weren’t caught (it couldn’t have been all my fault, right?).
And when the dust had lifted and when they saw what had occurred…
The Bloomfield Buzzards had scored eleven runs.
I got us out of the inning, eventually, but after all those pitches, my day was done.
It’s evening now. The Achilles is sore. Because of the Achilles, I still can’t run so I couldn’t play in my softball game later in the day. (We won!).
But my arm feels great.
Coach Yates indicated that I’d get another start. It’s three weeks from today – April 28. (I hope it doesn’t rain!)
But, in the meantime…
I did it.
I did something I never thought I’d ever do again.
I played baseball.
And it was great!
Previous installments of this series can be found here:
The entire story can also be found at www.drpaulsem.com