Curve Again

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ formidable leftie known as Mad Bum or simply Bum, stands tall atop the mound on a cool Friday night in September—the famous San Francisco fog not yet manifest, a soft breeze blowing in from McCovey Cove, the yard packed with zealous fans, the Dodgers in town battling to keep the Giants from overtaking them in the division race—both teams destined for the playoffs.

Having put down the first nine Dodgers in order, five by strikeouts, Bum walks Dodger leadoff hitter Dee Gordon to start the fourth inning and thereby forfeits his chance to throw a perfect game. Prior to the walk, Bum’s control was superb, scary the word muttered by seven of the first nine Dodgers to face him.

Bum takes a deep breath and glances up at the sky. Why did I walk their leadoff man? Why do I so often walk the leadoff man when everything is going so well? Don’t think about it. Stay out of your head. Relax. Life goes on.

The next batter strides to the plate, makes a big show of settling into the batter’s box, and crowds the plate. This is Yasiel Puig, a big powerful right-handed outfielder with a weakness for sliders away and fastballs up. Puig is hitting .293 for the year and has been an absolute terror against the Giants this season. Bum struck out Puig on three pitches in the first inning and made him look bad—two fastballs and a slider in the dirt.

He’ll be waiting on my fastball.

Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher, flashes the sign for a curve and sets up low on the outer half of the plate. Bum nods, glances at the speedy Gordon inching away from First, and pitches.

Let it be told throughout the land and the myriad dimensions known and yet to be discovered, that this particular pitch is the most exquisite curve Bum has ever thrown, the ball arcing so high and faraway from the straight line to the plate that Puig gives up on the ball the moment it leaves Bum’s hand. But at the end of its trajectory the ball hooks back over the plate just above Puig’s knees and smacks the very center of Posey’s unmoving glove. Alas, the umpire is as flummoxed as Puig and calls the exquisite strike a ball.

Bum winces as if someone slapped him in the face—the crowd groaning and booing to echo his outrage. Anger and despair rise from the depths of Bum’s being, emotions he knows he must control if he wishes to remain in the good graces of the umpire, though the effort to suppress his feelings makes him shudder.

Sensing Bum’s distress, Posey trots to the mound to have a chat with his pitcher. Posey is a youthful twenty-seven and five years into what many predict will be a Hall of Fame career. Bum is a seasoned veteran at twenty-five, his stuff so good that when he’s on his game he is virtually unhittable. His eternal challenge, however, is that he can fall off his game in a twinkling when something goes awry, something like an umpire calling a brilliant strike a ball.

Posey looks Bum in the eye and says, “That was zenith, man. Best curve ball I’ve ever been privileged to catch. You not only fooled Puig, you fooled the ump.”

“How could he call that a ball?” cries Bum, glowering over Posey’s head at the umpire. “Is he myopic? And if so, how did he get this job?”

“You surprised him,” says Posey, winking at Bum. “Don’t worry about it. Your stuff is stellar tonight. Primo. They’ll be lucky to get one out of the infield if they ever manage to hit one.”

“Okay,” says Bum, reaching his arms high above his head to release the tautness in his back. “Let’s get him.”

Posey trots back to home plate and fiddles with his mask before going into his crouch and flashing the sign for a fastball.

Bum shakes his head, a response that comes as a surprise to Bum for three reasons. First, a fastball seems like an excellent idea coming after a curve ball with the runner on First likely to steal. Second, Bum almost never shakes off Posey because Posey calls excellent games and they almost always agree on the pitch to be thrown. Third, Bum wants to throw a fastball because he is still furious with the umpire for calling his perfect strike a ball.

Yet he rejected Buster’s call for a fastball, which tells Bum that his unconscious mind has taken control of the situation. But did my unconscious mind shake off the fastball as an act of self-sabotage or as an act of intuitive genius? In either case, Bum nods his approval of Posey’s second suggestion: another curve.

Curve again thinks Bum as he checks the speedy Gordon at First Base and intuits he’ll be taking off with the pitch. Of course. Because my first curve was perfect. Who cares if the umpire missed the call? So what if Puig guesses curve and hits the ball out of the park? Buster wants to see that beauty again, and so do I. Yes, I do.

So Bum coils and releases the pitch. The runner goes. The ball arcs so high and faraway from the straight line to the plate that Puig starts to give up on the pitch but now he remembers the perfection of the previous pitch that should have been called a strike and maybe this time the pitch will be called a strike so he swings late and gets just enough of the ball to drive a soft liner to Ishikawa standing a few feet off First Base.

Catching the easy floater, Ishikawa grins like a kid in a candy shop and ambles over to the bag to complete the double play—Gordon hung out to dry between First and Second.

Bum covers the bottom half of his face with his glove to hide his grin as he watches the celebratory slinging of the ball around the infield and takes the congratulatory toss from Crawford, the Giants nonpareil shortstop. Now Bum climbs the backside of the mound, toes the pitching slab, grips the ball, gazes in at Posey and nods Yes to Posey’s signal for a high fastball so I can let off some steam.

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