Archive for September, 2014

Bochy Dreams

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

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

Bruce Bochy, a pleasant slow moving man, is the longtime manager of the San Francisco Giants. A former catcher known for his gruffness rather than the poetry of his speech, Bruce seems much older than his fifty-nine years—his gray hair turning white and his reactions to exciting moments during games oddly delayed, as if he requires a few extra moments to come back into his body before responding to a great catch or a home run or a game-winning strikeout.

Though many pundits and fans find Bruce dull and often a batter too late in removing exhausted pitchers, he has won two World Series and been continuously employed as a major league manager for nineteen seasons. Because his after-game press conferences are invariably wooden and uninformative, few people are aware of Bruce’s two great talents: he is a master at instilling confidence in men who lack confidence, and his dreams frequently provide him with information he uses during games.

Only Bruce knows of this latter talent, for he has never revealed his baseball dreams to anyone, not even his beloved wife of thirty-five years or his best friend Dave Righetti, the Giants’ pitching coach.

The first time Bruce used dream information to make a managerial decision came during his second month as a major league manager when he stunned San Diego Padres fans and players by pinch-hitting for Andy Ashby who had thrown seven dominant shutout innings, exhibited no signs of tiring, and had a one-to-nothing lead over the slumping Phillies. At the post game press conference, Bruce explained, “I took Andy out because his pitch count was high, the bullpen has been real good lately, and I wanted to get that run in from second.”

What Bruce did not share with the public was that the night before the game in question, he dreamt that Phil Plantier, pinch-hitting for the aforementioned Ashby, beat out a slow grounder and set the table for Brad Ausmus to follow with a three-run blast, which is exactly what transpired in the actual game.

Bruce was no fool and knew better than to reveal the source of his inspiration to a society wholly unprepared for such nonsense. Indeed, Bruce ignored his dream visions for many years because he didn’t believe such metaphysical hoo ha could possibly prove true, and he probably would have continued to ignore his dreams had not curiosity gotten the better of him.

Today, nineteen years after that fateful game against Philadelphia, Bruce routinely uses dream data to help him make decisions in much the same way he uses baseball statistics. His dreams by no means guarantee victory, but they do suggest possible strategies and substitutions Bruce might not otherwise consider. Thus he now trusts his dreams in much the same way he trusts his sense of when a pitcher is tiring or when a player needs a good talking to.

But the greatest value of Bruce’s dreams is not so much strategic as emotional, for his relationships with his players in his dreams are much richer and more complicated and enjoyable than his relationships with those same players in real life, and these dreamtime relationships greatly amplify Bruce’s fondness and respect for his players when he is awake.

Brandon Crawford, the Giants acrobatic shortstop, once said of Bruce, “It’s hard to explain, but I feel like he really knows me. Not just how I play, but who I am. You know what I mean? I know that sounds quasi-mystical, but that’s how I feel sometimes, like he knows me better than I know myself.”

In last night’s dream, Bruce inserted Juan Perez, recently up from Triple A, into a game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Perez proceeded to foul off several pitches before hitting an inside-the-park home run. What makes this dream especially interesting to Bruce is that he hasn’t given Perez many chances to pinch-hit because he prefers to use him as a pinch-runner late in games. And though the dream does not necessarily presage Perez hitting a home run, or even getting a chance to bat in today’s game, Bruce knows the dream is telling him something important, so he will definitely keep the dream data about Perez in mind as the game unfolds.

Hensley Filemon Acasio “Bam Bam” Meulens, the Giants graceful multi-lingual batting coach, a former outfielder from Curacao who often appears in Bruce’s dreams wearing a tuxedo, leans into Bruce’s office and croons, “Buenos, Bruce. Good batting practice for Blanco and Pence today. They’re both seeing the ball much better now since they had those hypnotherapy sessions, and Crawford’s bat speed is finally picking up now that he’s attending aerobic yoga classes.”

“How about Perez?” asks Bruce, recalling Perez’s dreamtime smash into triples alley—Perez a blur rounding the bases.

“He needs to get into a game,” says Hensley, doing an impromptu cha cha. “He’s struggling with self-doubt from lack of playing time and the existential stress of going back and forth from the minors to the majors. His swing looks good. Level. Smooth. Quick hands. But he’s definitely getting a little sour sitting on the bench.”

“Might let him pinch-hit today,” says Bruce, smiling at Hensley’s dance. “Give him a start tomorrow.”

“Superb,” says Hensley, miming the swing of a bat. “Feels right, Bruce. He’ll be so happy.”

Bruce laughs drily. “Yeah, might let Perez pinch-hit today and start him tomorrow.”

“Love to see that kid run,” says Hensley, dancing away. “Kid can fly.”

And four hours later Perez does, indeed, fly around the bases, his inside-the-park home run the game winner.

When asked by reporters after the game about his decision to use Perez as the pinch hitter instead of Ishikawa who is hitting better than .350 in pinch-hit situations, Bruce shrugs and says, “We liked what we saw from Juan during batting practice and he’s been needing playing time, so…just a hunch.”

Curve Again

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

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.

Stealing

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Giants Mendo Hardware

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

Angel Pagan, the switch-hitting leadoff batter for the Giants, one of the swiftest outfielders in the game, takes a short lead off first base and tries to ignore his inner dialogue about base stealing while keeping his focus on the pitcher. Angel has reached first base with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning by beating out a slow roller to third. The Giants are trailing the Padres one to nothing. This would be, as everyone in the ballpark knows, the ideal time for Angel to steal a bag and get into scoring position. However, despite his blazing speed, Angel has had little success as a stealer of bases.

Quackenbush, the Padres relief pitcher, a hefty right-hander with a decent pickoff move, hates throwing to first because it messes with his mechanics. Angel knows of Quackenbush’s aversion to throwing to first because Roberto Kelly, the Giants’ first base coach, just reminded Angel of said aversion while Angel was taking off his batting gloves after safely reaching first. Thus informed, Angel widens his lead, though not enough to tempt the reluctant Quackenbush.

Quackenbush’s first pitch to Joe Panik, the Giants second baseman, is an eighty-mile-an-hour slider right down the middle, Joe taking all the way to give Angel a chance to steal. But Angel isn’t going anywhere. Strike one.

Angel returns to first base, toes the bag, and waits for Roberto to give him a sign or a bit of advice. But Roberto keeps his distance and barely makes eye contact, which Angel interprets as Roberto implying If I’d had your speed when I was playing I would have stolen a hundred bags a year, though that is not at all the sort of thing Roberto would say.

Angel takes his lead again, and Gyorko, the Padres’ first baseman, positions himself at the bag in readiness to take a throw from Quackenbush. Gyorko taps his glove and smirks at Angel as if to say Go on. Stretch out that lead. Quack’s got a better pickoff move than you think.

During batting practice, none other than the legendary Willie Mays approached Angel and said, “I got a bet with Cepeda says you steal twenty more bags this year once you get your timing down.”

Timing thinks Angel, unaware that he is slowly shaking his head as he watches Quackenbush come set. It’s not about timing. It’s about trusting my instincts.

Panik, having failed miserably as a switch-hitter in high school, only bats from the left side and rarely hits for power. He is, however, an excellent contact hitter and against a finesse pitcher like Quackenbush looks to pull the ball. Having double checked with Giants third base coach Tim Flannery that he has permission to swing away, Panik turns his full attention to the pitcher and tells himself not to swing at anything except something off-speed on the inner half of the plate. Panik has no problem with Angel staying put at first because Angel is so fast he can score from first on a deep single and trot home if Panik hits one to the wall.

Angel takes his role as leadoff man very seriously, some might say too seriously. In practice, he steals bases with ease, whether the pitcher and catcher know he’s going to steal or not. But in games, doubt makes him tentative and devours those precious tenths of seconds that make the difference between Safe and Out. For Angel there is nothing more humiliating than being tagged out while trying to steal.

In the dugout, Bruce Bochy, the Giants skipper, scratches the gray stubble on his spacious chin and ponders whether or not to signal Roberto to signal Angel to steal, knowing that commanding Angel to steal always makes Angel give away his intention by rising onto his toes and holding his hands out to the sides like a kid pretending to fly. So Bruce decides not to command anyone to do anything and just hope Panik knocks a single or better.

Meanwhile, from his seat eleven rows up behind first base, eighty-one-year-old Willie Mays, one of the greatest base stealers of all time, gazes intently at Angel and suddenly realizes why Angel has so much trouble deciding whether and when to go. He’s trying to figure things out with his head instead of letting the momentum of the game carry him.

And in the split second after Quackenbush checks Angel and begins his pitching motion, Angel takes off, the pitch way too high for Panik to swing at, Angel beating the throw with ease and springing up from his slide to stand atop the second base bag like he’s king of the mountain.

What was that? wonders Angel. How did I suddenly know?