Karma, Chameleon: Durham Bulls beat Charlotte Knights

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Photo by Frank Hunter.

The Triple-A troika that includes luck and momentum, both of which I’ve been writing about lately, is completed by karma. (Nice little alphabetical run there, k-l-m.) “As ye sow, so shall ye reap” is more or less the western analog to karma (or, more prosaically, “What comes around goes around,” which even Ratt knew).

What last night’s game suggested is that karma and luck are in some way intertwined, or perhaps that karma sometimes disguises itself as luck (chameleon, indeed); or at least that competing karmas — last night, those of the Durham Bulls and Charlotte Knights — can result in strange outcomes such as last night’s, in which the Bulls beat the Knights, 5-2.

The night before last, Charlotte drubbed the Bulls, 12-1. It’s hard to argue that a 12-1 game could have come down to one play, but games certainly do have pivot points, and Friday’s was easy to see. With a run in, no one out, and the bases loaded in the top of the second inning, and Charlotte having just tied Durham, 1-1, Knights catcher Bryan Anderson hit a bouncer to first base. It was not quite the world’s easiest play, but nor was it the anywhere near the hardest. Bulls first baseman Vince Belnome fielded it on a slight jump toward second base. He thought of trying to start a second-to-first double play; then he thought of taking the easy out at first and allowing a run to score; then he finally made the right decision to go for the out at home. The Knights slowest runner, slugger Mike McDade, was trundling home from third.

But Belnome’s indecision caused him to have to rush his throw, and he sailed it over Jesus Flores’s head for an error. The apparent karmic retribution for Belnome’s failure to do the right deed was that a rain of runs then poured down on the Bulls: the Knights wound up scoring eight times in the inning, all on singles and walks.

An additional karmic (it seemed) punch: the Knights scored their last three runs in the fourth on a three-run home run by McDade.

The next night — last night — again in the second inning (the second has the been the action inning lately on this home stand) — it was the Bulls who had the bases loaded and no one out. The score, again, was tied, this time 0-0. Mike Fontenot came to the plate. He swung at the first pitch: a dubious choice with the bases loaded; make the pitcher work, goes the thinking. Like Anderson had the previous night, Fontenot hit a bouncer to first base. This one was more or less right at Knights first baseman Andy Wilkins, and he made the play Belnome could not the night before: he immediately fired home to retire the lead runner, then retreated purposefully to to first base and took the return throw from catcher Anderson for a rally-suffocating 3-2-3 double play. Evan Frey followed by grounding out, also to first base, to end the inning without the Bulls scoring a run.

One of the things about karma is that, if you fail to do the right thing in a given situation, fate/chance/God will arrange for you to encounter that situation again, in this life or another one. (See another modern understanding of this phenomenon, which led one of my recent game stories: Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember history” — or perform it properly, in this case — “are condemned to repeat it.”) In the very next inning, the Bulls loaded the bases again with no outs, on a single and two walks. They got help in doing this. Jesus Flores, who led off the inning, should have been out twice, but his foul pop-up on a 2-2 count was dropped by Wilkins (so much for the double play he started in the previous inning), and the ground ball he hit on the next pitch was misplayed by second baseman Tyler Greene. It wasn’t the easiest play on earth and it was scored a hit, but Greene would probably say that he should have made the play.

Two walks followed to load the bases. But Tim Beckham struck out, swinging at the first pitch (like Fontenot had on Friday) and missing it (slider), at the second pitch (slider), and third pitch (slider!). Strike one, strike two, strike three, all sliders in exactly the same place, low and away, off the plate. Condemned to repeat it. One out.

Belnome flied out to center field, and the Bulls were one out away from loading the bases with no outs in consecutive innings and failing to score. The next batter was Leslie Anderson, and Anderson did something he seldom does: he hit a ground ball to the left side of the infield. The Knights had a mild shift on, and Charlotte shortstop Marcus Semien was shaded toward the middle, where Anderson often hits the ball. Semien had to range abnormally far to his right for Anderson’s grounder, dove for it, and had it hit off his glove for a single. Not only that, the force of his dive knocked the ball way off toward the foul line — momentum! — and two runs scored.

Luck — although you could argue, perhaps, that Anderson was karmically correct for hitting the ball where he normally doesn’t, using the whole field in a way he should do more often.

What to make of the following play? Shelley Duncan hit a mile-high pop-up to the right side of the infield. This was an easy play for Charlotte second baseman  Greene, except that Greene immediately spread his arms wide in the helpless gesture that is baseballese for “I can’t see it!” It’s not uncommon for fielders on the right side of the DBAP to lose high fly balls in the lights.

Semien raced over from shortstop. Travis Ishikawa ran in from right field. But no one could get to it in time. The ball fell on the grass, many seconds after Duncan hit it, for a run-scoring single. That gave the Bulls a 3-0 lead. Charlotte would wind up scoring two runs in the game — on a two-run homer by Tyler Greene.

All of this karmic seesawing would finally get thrown completely off-balance in the later innings. In both the sixth and the eighth, the Bulls scored unearned runs without a hit, both times the beneficiaries of walks and errors bestowed on them by the Knights (one committed by the cursed Tyler Greene, who threw a potential inning-ending double-play relay into the stands). When it was all said and done, the Knights engaged with their karma so poorly that it rendered the Bulls’ own actions irrelevant. Baseball karma does not take place in a vacuum. As Rochester manager Gene Glynn told me the other day, there’s a difference between losing and getting beaten. The Bulls did not beat Charlotte last night. Charlotte lost. Karmically, so did the Bulls, but the Knights performed more wrong actions.

What was it the gods wanted to teach the Bulls by allowing them to win a game they didn’t play especially well? I had a thought about that, which had nothing to do with karma, luck or momentum. It was instead entirely about environment and nature; about the phenomenological rightness of certain states of being under certain external conditions; about inexplicable, apparently random, possibly even mystical affinities. This has been a rainy, rainy summer. While it rained and rained and rained, the Bulls kept winning and winning and winning, somewhat improbably. Then, a few weeks ago, the rains finally departed, and the summer sun came out and stayed out. Almost immediately, the Bulls started playing mere .500 baseball; their 12-12 record over the last three and a half weeks coincides almost exactly with the departure of the rain.

There was a colossal downpour yesterday afternoon for a few minutes, about two hours before the game, but it moved past us quickly and the sky was clear again at first pitch, as if the storm had never happened. Yet it must have been a sign. In the middle innings, the rain came back, a gentle sprinkle that lasted a while before quietly subsiding, leaving the night damp and cool. For the Bulls, that’s winning weather.

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