“Bull Durham” Night: Wil Myers Called Up

silhouette of boy pointing

Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.

I wrote this in my last game story:

Not all ballgames should go nine innings, even tie ballgames. Is it necessary to have a winner, I sometimes think? Can we not appreciate seven innings of rich, rip-snorting baseball and then, satisfied, go home?

Later, my editor reminded me that plenty of people leave before the end of every single game. In the seventh inning, the fifth, whenever—at some point in the game’s latter half, you’ll see people start to trickle out of the ballpark, then stream out as the game wears on. They depart not knowing the final score, often not even knowing who won. They appreciate fewer than nine innings of (perhaps) rich, rip-snorting baseball, and then they leave, satisfied.

They have kids, many of them: tired kids, sleeping kids, kids out past bedtime. On Father’s Day, you couldn’t help noticing, a little wistfully, all the parents leaving with their kids. There are priorities far higher than a Durham Bulls game, which is only the light entertainment background to a richer, more rip-snorting life. And that’s as it should be. Baseball is only a diversion. The word “pastime” attached to it is exactly the right one. There are hours in life, many hours, that must be passed, and baseball is one of the things you can pass it with until the demands of other, harder hours assert themselves. It’s time to go home, go to bed, go to work, go to life. That the game may still be going on, its outcome hanging in some immaterial balance, is less important than the balance at home, and out in the world. Baseball may have an axial presence in the lives of some—people like me, for example—but there’s a reason Bull City Summer is subtitled “a season at the ballpark and beyond”: If you’re not watching the games with an eye to the beyond, you might as well not watch them at all.

Just minutes before Sunday’s ballgame started, we got a rather remarkable iteration of how to see beyond the game. It was yet another thing I had never before seen happen on a baseball diamond; this season keeps bestowing such unprecedented gifts on me. As is the custom, shortly before first pitch the two teams’ managers convened with the umpires at home plate to exchange lineup cards. Upon arriving, Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor started in immediately with some pointed comments for the umpiring crew. These grew more emphatic, and then irate, heated, and finally intolerable: Treanor was ejected from the game before it even began. How’s that for not needing to stay for the whole game? And that’s a team’s manager.

To dispense with the explanation: The previous night’s game had ended with a controversial play. (I could not attend the game, so I’m going by relayed reports here.) With two outs in the top of the ninth, and trailing by two runs, the Indians put two men on base via walks by Durham reliever Kirby Yates. The tying runs were on for Jared Goedert, who hit a grounder that looked like a sure base hit. But Durham second baseman Mike Fontenot made a great diving catch to keep the ball from finding the outfield. He leaped to make an off-balance throw, which appeared to pull first baseman Vince Belnome off the bag—he lunged as he caught it. The umpire ruled that Belnome’s foot came back down on first base before Goedert arrived, and he called Goedert out to end the game. The judgment seemed dubious, if not downright wrong. Both Goedert and the Indians’ first base coach were ejected  for arguing the call.

The word the next afternoon in the press box was that Treanor, after watching the replay following Saturday’s game, was so mad that he decided to get himself ejected before Sunday’s game even started. We heard that Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, informed of this plan, even tried to talk Treanor out of it. No dice. Treanor not only made sure to get tossed, he continued to rail at the umpires for a while after he was thumbed out, repeating his point long after it mattered. Yes, his team was about to play a baseball game, but Treanor abandoned it early—before it even commenced, in fact—in favor of another of life’s demands, a more important one that tries our courage: that of standing by one’s convictions.

Treanor did not preside over his team’s eventual 5-2 loss to the Bulls. Just as well. They were dominated by Durham starter J. D. Martin, who now has the International League’s fourth-best ERA among starters (2.89) and leads the league in wins, as well, with nine. He also happens to be tied for fourth-most home runs allowed (eleven), but Martin is precisely the sort of pitcher whom you would expect to see succeed with a rather high home run rate. He walks few batters, throws strikes (which accounts for the home runs), and keeps runners off of the base paths. Martin was not around after the game, but it’s a lead-pipe cinch that he would have said he’d gladly take the homers over walks. Key stat: of the eleven homers Martin has allowed this season, nine have been solo shots. The other two were two-run homers. (One of them was hit on Sunday, by Andrew Lambo, in the second inning, briefly tying the game.)

Martin has not allowed more than three runs in any of his fourteen starts, and in two of his three losses he allowed a total of two earned runs in 14 2/3 innings. The Bulls are averaging 5.43 runs per game when he starts, which would be the second-highest average in the league, but note that A) the Bulls scored twenty-four of the seventy-six runs they’ve amassed for Martin in just two of his starts, inflating the overall average; and B) the only team with a higher runs-per-game average than 5.43 happens to be the Bulls themselves, who are stampeding along at a prodigious 5.90 clip. The Bulls’ lineup actually falls short of its normal production when Martin starts.

One way in which the Bulls outperform their opponents, however, is by getting into them early. Just as Treanor got ejected in all haste, so too did the Bulls waste no time in having their way with Treanor’s team. The Bulls took a quick 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning with a pair of walks and a double, getting help from the Indians, who committed an error. The error, of course, was a gift, but when you put pressure on another team, as the Bulls did by loading the bases with two outs, you invite misplays. The first-inning attack was no fluke: Durham is outscoring its opponents in the first inning this season by a cumulative (and astounding) score of 66-32. Having the upper hand early does all kinds of things for a team: It allows pitchers to relax and throw strikes, it gives the whole club a psychological edge in confidence, and it forces the opponent to go into catchup mode, which promotes bad habits.

About that double in the first inning, though, and where it takes us: It was hit by Wil Myers, a hard, low liner down the third-base line. The Indians’ third baseman was actually shaded that way, and Myers did not appear to swing all that hard at it: An easy, smooth whip of the bat was what it looked like—and that is all you need to know about what separates true big-league talent from Triple-A approximations. Despite the apparent ease of Myers’ swing, the ball he hit had such speed and force on it that it shot right past the third baseman and continued all the way down the left-field line to the wall.

Myers scored the Bulls’ second run, minutes later, on the Indians’ error. It was probably the last run Myers will score as a Durham Bull unless he returns on a major-league injury rehab assignment somewhere down the line. That’s because he was removed from game an inning later, and called up to Tampa Bay.

This was exciting, but really no surprise. The issue of Myers’s promotion had grown enormously pregnant over the last couple of weeks, with the media flogging the issue hard, and his call-up was almost sure to have happened by the time this current home stand concludes on Thursday. Myers has been on a tear for the last three weeks or so, and it’s the kind of tear that signals not merely a hot streak but permanent mastery: Myers had obviously played out of the Triple-A level. There was simply no reason to keep him in Durham, given that Tampa Bay traded its most durable starting pitcher for him, that they haven’t been winning enough games without him, and that they had roster redundancies that made it easy to swap out another player for him. (It was utility infielder Ryan Roberts who was optioned to Durham. He’ll be the team’s best-paid player, with a three-million-dollar salary.)

We can leave the game early, then, as Myers slides home in the very first inning with the game’s second run. Yes, the Indians will tie it in the top of the second, but the Bulls will untie it in the bottom of the third, never trail again, and ratify our decision to leave with eight innings left to play. There are plenty of other places to find blow-by-blow accounts, and we have other business to attend to.

It was Fathers’ Day, but the focus at the ballpark Sunday was on another generation-old influence: the movie Bull Durham, which was released twenty-five years ago this past weekend. Last night’s game was themed by the movie: lots of between-inning clips from the film; the latest three-character race between Nuke, Crash, and Annie (Bulls employees in oversize mascot costumes); and, most arresting, the appearance at a Bulls game, for the first time in a quarter century, of the original Wool E. Bull. That ancestral mascot happens to have been a creation of the movie itself. Like America, the Bulls are spun out of an ideal, not the real.

That is, Bull Durham itself is the Bulls’ Constitution: the founding document to which the team returns, again and again, for meaning, identity, and law. One of those laws has to do with how to mitigate an inherent injustice in life. Wil Myers, fortunate son, was headed, inevitably, to the major leagues, just as his Bull Durham forebear, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, was headed there. It was only a matter of time, and not much of it. The staged race between innings at the DBAP between “Nuke,” “Crash,” and “Annie” results, every single time, in “Nuke” not winning the race. This is part of our collective wish, that the greatly gifted and privileged not outrun us to life’s prizes, and a good deal of American mythology (and law) tries to secure an equality for us. But the ironclad fact is that Nuke wins. Always. He and Wil Myers were born major-leaguers. The Constitutional ideas of merit and justice are noble, but what’s in the blood trumps them. It will forever be this way. Bull Durham celebrates the faintly blue happiness and peace the rest of us can find—we, the Annies and Crashes of the world—even after the Nukes rocket to stardom, fortune and greatness. We could not have had a better night than this one, saturated in Bull Durham, to send Wil Myers to the Show.

After the game, we reporters trooped downstairs into the clubhouse and encountered Myers in the hallway before we got to Charlie Montoyo’s office, which is where we always go first. But we had to seize the moment: The urgent business was here, not at Montoyo’s desk, and Myers himself seemed to recognize it, too. “You want just to do it here?” he said, almost resigned to having been surrounded by media monkeys and seeing no way out of the inevitable interview. Myers is no fan of doing them, and he said very little of interest, nothing worth quoting at all, offering short, shut, guarded sentences in the two minutes he gave us before closing up commentary shop and, to all intents and purposes, the Wil Myers chapter of Bull City Summer. He left our game early. He had somewhere much more important to be, and he was in a hurry to get there.

Myers never had much to tell the local press at all during his brief stay in Durham. The very first interview he gave, on Media Day in early April, just before the season started, was notable only for how little Myers had to say and how quickly he wanted to have done with saying it. That set the tone for the next two months until he was called up to Tampa Bay. He’s young, of course, and a little shy around microphones, and he isn’t to blame for preferring to let his bat do the talking. But last night, Myers gave off a faint air of not really wanting to be bothered with minor-league media. Why waste time on us when soon he’ll be surrounded instead by major-league reporters, in major-league clubhouses and stadiums, with major-league teammates and money, on national television, interviewed by Peter Gammons and Buster Olney and the guy in the bow-tie and and all the rest of them?

I’ve got news for him: They ask the same innocuous, often inane questions we do. What will change is Myers, not what he’s asked. It was Fathers’ Day, and the child is father to the man. Myers has only been a prospect here, but he’ll be a star up there, and he’ll learn to give star answers to the same dim questions, just as Crash instructs Nuke to do in Bull Durham. The best art has lessons in it. By beholding them, we become changed, no matter how much of the game we stay for, provided that we perceive the bleachers as pews and the ballpark as the church of baseball, for as long as we’re there.

One Comment on ““Bull Durham” Night: Wil Myers Called Up

  1. Pingback: A Quick Break From the Road: Crooked Nuggets! « Ben's Biz Blog

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