Friction & Discipline: An Epilogue, Part Six (the Last)

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Two weeks ago today, the Durham Bulls lost the Triple-A National Championship game to Omaha in Allentown. Immediately afterward, the perfectly healthy Brandon Guyer was informed that he was being transferred to the 60-day major-league disabled list with a “back injury”; and Tim Beckham and Jake Odorizzi were told that they’d be going up to the major leagues the next morning. The following night, Guyer’s replacement, Freddy Guzman, pinch ran in the eleventh inning and scored the game-tying run. This is all review.

The night after that, September 19, Tim Beckham made his major-league debut, about five years and three months after he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays were getting soundly beaten by Texas, so manager Joe Maddon sent Beckham into the game as a pinch hitter in a moment of no importance.

As soon as Beckham was announced, Texas made a pitching change. They brought in hard-throwing right-hander Tanner Scheppers, as if to make Beckham’s debut as hard as possible on him. Scheppers routinely reaches the upper nineties with his fastball, and Beckham’s critics fault him for having what is known as a “slider bat”: he just can’t catch up to the really hard stuff.

Beckham fell behind Scheppers, looking at strike one and then swinging through a high, blazing, ninety-eight-mile-an-hour heater for strike two. He took the third pitch for ball one and made an adjustment on the fourth pitch: he simply reached out to a Scheppers fastball on the outer edge of the plate and poked it into right field for his first major-league hit — in his first major-league at-bat, no less. Another no. 1 pick for the kid: first in the draft, first at the ballpark.

Beckham, always an animated player, allowed himself a skip and a small clap as he rounded first, and then took a breath to gather himself. This was no time to celebrate. It took six seasons for him to get to the great estate. Staying here will require many, many more at-bats and hits like this one.

Shouldn’t that have brought all of this to a close? Tim Beckham — the lightning rod of the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor-league system, revealed here under major-league lights (finally!) as the Durham Bulls’ most important player of the last three seasons, all things considered — Tim Beckham gets to the majors and starts off his new life with a base knock. It’s not an electrifying debut homer, like Brandon Guyer’s in 2011; it’s not David Price coming up out of the minors and throwing late-inning darts during the 2008 post-season; it’s not Dan Johnson’s two legendary home runs for the Rays, one that same season and one three years later.

No, it’s simply the next incremental advance, an important one but short, of the slowly growing career of Tim Beckham. It was liberating to be unburdened by Beckham’s base hit of everything in the minor leagues but the promise of youth. All of the noise and mud of it was cleared away. In the end youth is what this world is all about, even Triple-A.

The next night, September 20, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles played an eighteen-inning game. It took almost seven hours to play, making the Bulls’ fourteen-inning win over Pawtucket about a week earlier look, well, minor-league. The two teams used a major-league record twenty-one pitchers, and they threw 593 pitches. The Rays won, 5-4. The winning pitcher was Jeremy Hellickson, who was scheduled to start two nights later. He came into the game in the bottom of the sixteenth inning and shut out the Orioles until David DeJesus drove home the winning run with an eighteenth-inning single.

A large part of the reason the game went on that long was that Jake Odorizzi, who had started the Triple-A National Championship game three nights earlier (he pitched four innings), threw three and two thirds shutout innings for the Rays from the eleventh into the fourteenth inning. In that same fourteenth inning, Tim Beckham pinch hit for Rays outfielder Sam Fuld. He grounded out to shortstop, then stayed in the game at second base, where he had not played a single inning of baseball since May 18.

In the bottom of the next inning, the fifteenth, the Rays had runners on first and third with two outs. Joe Maddon sent in another pinch hitter, Chris Gimenez, who until Labor Day had been the Durham Bulls’ starting catcher. He worked out a walk on a full-count pitch.

That brought up Beckham again. Beckham smacked a hard grounder to the right side, but right at the second baseman, who threw him out to move the game to the sixteenth inning. Gimenez stayed in the game — as the first baseman. He had played seven games there in Durham this season, only one since May 16.

The first play of the top of the sixteenth was a grounder to second base. Beckham fielded it and threw to Gimenez to retire the runner. The Tampa Bay Rays were in a dogfight for a playoff berth, and Triple-A players Tim Beckham and Chris Gimenez were collaborating on a 4-3 putout at Tropicana Field. It was well after midnight, yet the game had the feeling of a May-flowers revival.

The eighteen-inning game was its own storm system, far more than mere friction. It played havoc with Tampa Bay’s roster, and by extension Durham’s. I’ve written a lot about the weather this season, largely because the weather has been so strange all year. But it has seemed to me increasingly probable that we might gain a better sense of history (or at least fuller documentary truth) if we started thinking of the weather less as a backdrop to life and more as the primary, primal force that dictates it. Metaphorically speaking, eighteen innings were the weather of the day, and they changed everything.

The Rays needed reinforcements immediately. Jeff Beliveau, who had been informed on Tuesday that he would not be getting a callup, was called up. He was sitting at home in Providence when the telephone rang, and when he saw the Tampa Bay area code on his caller ID, part of him wondered if he was getting bad news. Maybe he was getting designated for assignment? But no, he had a flight to Tampa the next day, Saturday the twenty-first. He stayed with the Rays until the end of the season, finally getting into his first major-league game of the year, after a summer’s worth of dry callups, on September 27. He pitched two thirds of an inning in a loss at Toronto.

After the eighteen-inning win, Joe Maddon gave the newly mustered Rays a public shout of approval: “Durham showed why they won the championship tonight,” he said of recent Bulls like Odorizzi and Beckham. All that toil to win the Governors’  Cup series was really in the service of a higher purpose. The Bulls’ fourteen-inning triumph over Pawtucket in game three of the International League championship series turned out to be a trial run for the eighteen-inning game to come, and a dual friction point: the minor-league marathon not only decided, in essence, the winner of that series; it also put the final coat on the team’s toughness. Now they were ready, and having showed it in Pawtucket, they proved it in Tampa Bay.

Because Hellickson and Odorizzi had both pitched in the eighteen-inning game, the Rays had no one to start on Sunday. On Saturday, they were still listing Sunday’s starter as TBA. Enny Romero, who had pitched in two games for the Bulls following his Labor Day promotion from Double-A Montgomery, took to Twitter: “I could come pitch tomorrow,” he offered from his home in the Dominican Republic.

The Rays didn’t ask him if he was being serious or not: they took him up on it. They flew him back to the United States and started him on Sunday against Baltimore, about three weeks after he made his Triple-A debut against Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides.

In case Romero couldn’t hack it, the Rays wanted insurance. They called J. D. Martin. Martin was in Louisiana, where his wife’s family lives. The Rays told Martin he’d be suiting up in Tampa Bay the next day. To make room for him on the roster, Tampa Bay traded Durham Bulls reliever Frank De Los Santos to the Chicago White Sox, the very team from which they’d acquired reliever Jesse Crain in July. Crain will soon figure into this narrative, powerfully, yet without ever appearing.

Martin is always a pretty cool customer; I think I’ve used the word “insouciant” to describe him in one of my stories this season. He was no different in the Rays’ clubhouse. He took all the little questions like a pro, and if that barely suppressed smile on his face in the video is one of childlike giddiness over his first trip to the majors since 2010, he’s doing a great job of making it seem like a seasoned smirk. The interview ends with one of the reporters asking Martin about his changed hairstyle (news to me; apparently he had grown it out), and he plays it off fine. “It’s natural,” he says: appropriate words for Martin, the the most natural and grown-out presence in the Bulls’ clubhouse all year.

Enny Romero worked into the fifth inning on Sunday, September 22, allowing one hit, four walks and no runs. The hard-throwing lefty didn’t strike anyone out, and he needed a couple of standout fielding plays behind him to keep runs off the scoreboard, but he did what the Rays were hoping he’d do: he got the game to the bullpen. Thus J. D. Martin wasn’t needed, and he was designated for assignment the very next day.

The player who took Martin’s roster spot was Jesse Crain. Crain is one of the best relievers in baseball when healthy, but an injury has kept him from pitching since Tampa Bay acquired him. Still, the possibility that he might be able to pitch by season’s end, which was just a week away, made Martin expendable.

Martin told me after the Omaha game that he’d be “very disappointed in the Rays” if they didn’t give him a chance, after the excellent season he had in Durham. Some people thought he was naïve to feel this way. He was, they said, a journeyman, a soft-tossing minor-leaguer in a system rich with top-quality, golden-armed pitching prospects. Martin knew the Rays’ farm system was loaded with strong pitchers when he signed with them; the Rays went so far as to inform him that he might not even make  the Bulls’ starting rotation. That’s how deep the Triple-A talent was.

Martin got into the rotation and made the very most of it, but exactly what September “opportunity” did he have in mind? The Rays were in the thick of a playoff race, and every game counted; this was no time to throw Triple-A functionaries into the mix. Did Martin really think he was going to start in place of recent Bulls teammate Chris Archer and his ninety-eight-mile-an-hour fastball, to say nothing of David Price and Matt Moore? There was exactly one game in which Martin might legitimately have been needed, in Oakland on September 1, when the Rays had no healthy starter available. But rather than fly Martin all the way out to California to pitch that one game, they decided to piece it together with relievers instead, burning through seven of them in a loss. They could afford to do that because September 1 was also the day major-league rosters expanded, and they had called up Josh Lueke from Durham to pad the bullpen (Lueke pitched part of an inning that day).

So much of a player’s chances relies on sheer timing. The Bulls’ Jason Bourgeois had no legitimately foreseeable shot at the major leagues this season, but three other players who happened to play his position got hurt, and he was the last man standing. Martin learned that it’s harder to be that man after rosters expand and there are suddenly so many more of them at hand.

It may seem naïve (and perhaps it is) of Martin to suppose that he had any reason or right to expect a big-league callup under all of the prohibitive circumstances, which had been in place since the day he signed his contract. But it’s important to keep in mind that athletes do not see the world the way most of the rest of us do. To them, performance is performance, pure and simple, something akin to Leslie Anderson‘s “imaginary game against imaginary opponents,” and excellent performance ought to stand quite apart from the friction of circumstance, and trump it. The larger operation is not so much misunderstood by athletes as it is disregarded, by necessity, in order to keep striving to overcome that operation.

Martin probably knows that young Enny Romero and his ninety-seven-mile-an-hour, left-handed fastball had the inside track on a coveted big-league opportunity, but didn’t Martin’s fully realized season-long accomplishments — a record-breaking sixteen wins, the lowest walk rate in the league and its Most Valuable Pitcher — count for anything? Martin had exceeded all expectations, and he done it right on the mound, every five days. Athletes work with their bodies. They more connected to what’s real, what a person can do and how, than the rest of us are. What’s real is all those cutters Martin threw, getting people out, putting up zeroes inning after inning, and winning games.

So it seemed just that, despite everything against the possibility, an eighteen-inning storm required Martin to be in the Tampa Bay clubhouse for a single day: a mayfly, May Day Ray. Yet how did he feel after he, the best pitcher in his league, was called up merely as an understudy to a wild twenty-two-year-old — who was in Double-A for almost the whole season — and then, unneeded, was immediately shoved right back out the door in favor of an injured, recently-acquired Chicago reliever who was unable to pitch at all? Would Martin have preferred never to get a callup if he had known it would be this hollow one? Is he less disappointed in the Rays, having gotten to wear their uniform, having been their last man standing for a single day, than he would have been had he never worn it at all?

I’m not talking about the money here, which is nice for Martin to have but irrelevant. I’m talking about justice. Martin said he wanted “an opportunity,” but he didn’t get one: he probably knew he was unlikely to pitch for the Rays when he got the news of his promotion. The entirety of Martin’s dominant season in Durham was in the prospective service of an unforeseen emergency like last Sunday’s, one in which the Rays were hoping not to have to use him, and their hopes were fulfilled at the cost of Martin’s. A nutshell could hold his sixteen wins as a Bull. That is Triple-A baseball: its friction and its discipline — which is to say: All of that, just for this.

Last night, the last day of September, the Rays found themselves in a one-game tiebreaker against the Texas Rangers, their longstanding nemesis, for the final American League playoff berth. David Price pitched a complete game, and in the most complete sense. It was a classically mature performance, and it encompassed so many of the skills a pitcher needs in order to survive. Price didn’t have his best stuff, he missed his spots frequently, and the Rangers hit the ball hard numerous times. He struck out only four batters.

Yet Price asserted himself when it mattered. He picked two runners off base. He made an extraordinarily difficult fielding play look easy in a key moment. And he retired the last five batters of the game in order, eliminating even the possibility that he would be relieved by another pitcher. There were times when the sheer force of Price’s energy, a live current of unyielding determination, kept the Rangers at bay. It was a great performance, not in objective quantity but in pure dramatic quality, built on an extremely rich, complex character who had the ability to overcome his flaws. The impoverished, unwatched Rays beat the Rangers, 5-2, and they are in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six years.

Shortly before last night’s game, the Rays made one last regular-season transaction. They called up, shockingly, Kevin Kiermaier from Triple-A Durham. Actually, Kiermaier was probably in Arizona, where he had planned to spend the off-season. Kiermaier is twenty-three. He had never played in a big-league game. Any reasonably sound projection of his arrival in the majors would probably put it in 2015, maybe late 2014 at best.

But they called him up. Kiermaier wasn’t on the 40-man roster, so a move was necessary to clear a spot for him. Jesse Crain was placed back on the 60-day disabled list, all but guaranteeing that he will never throw a pitch for the Tampa Bay Rays.

In the ninth inning, Kevin Kiermaier made his major-league debut. He came into the game to play center field. It’s likely that Rays manager Joe Maddon had never seen Kiermaier play. It’s likely that numerous members of the Rays, including David Price, had never met Kiermaier, or even heard of him. Yet there he was, entrusted with protecting David Price’s complete game victory by manning one of the premium positions on the baseball diamond, in the ninth inning of a regular-season tiebreaker. Kiermaier was wearing no. 41, which was Frank De Los Santos’s number in Durham this year.

No balls were hit to Kiermaier. He did not have a chance to show off his extraordinary speed or his cannon throwing arm, and last night occasioned no story about his ascension to the majors, not yet, even though he was front and center in a postgame clubhouse shot on the MLB Network as teammates poured beer down his gullet in celebration. Kiermaier is almost surely not going to make the Rays’ post-season roster, which will be limited back down to twenty-five players. He, like J. D. Martin, was called up for a single day. But the nature of his callup has so different a feel from Martin’s: Martin’s was a last hurrah, Kiermaier’s a glimpse into next year and all it promises.

Here in Durham, next year has already begun: discipline. The Bulls are in the process, right now, of ripping out Durham Bulls Athletic Park’s sod and substrate and replacing the entire field (which is its own off-season documentary). It’s a convenient metaphor — new season, new field — but it’s a lazy one, too. The game is different every year, every day, on a new field or an old one. Nothing that happens on it will ever happen again, and what will happen can never happen here, not quite. The old grass is always renewing itself, cut today and regrown tomorrow and cut again the next: friction. You can never step on the same field twice.

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