Jim Paduch Retires; Durham Bulls Beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre: Suddenly

Photo by Alex Harris.

Just as there was little to say about the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders’ 9-1 pounding of the Durham Bulls on Saturday, there isn’t that much to pick apart about the Bulls returning the favor, more or less, 7-4, on Sunday. The game was not as close as the score indicates, as the sports cliché goes. Mike Montgomery, the somewhat mysterious lefty making his second start for Durham since returning from an arm injury, “tossed” six innings of six-hit, three-run ball. Wil Myers hit his tenth home run of the year and fell a double short of the cycle. Cole Figueroa and Juan Apodaca added back-to-back solo home runs in the fourth inning, the first homers of the year for both players. First-place Durham leads the Norfolk Tides by two games in the International League South Division, and blah blah blah. Enough.

My editor and I went for a beer after the game. It was one of those 5:00 Sunday affairs: sleepy crowd, nothing sunlight, drama-free innings. Montgomery wasn’t around to interview after the game (a common occurrence among this year’s Bulls), so there was little horse’s-mouth insight to take away. Yet it was only 8:00 p.m., time enough for a drink to separate the game from the report, talk it over, hash out ideas. As we sat drinking and talking at Surf Club, the weird patio bar not far from the ballpark, weather that had not been expected until Monday blew in prematurely. It rained hard. The whole night changed. Darkness set in with the rain. We moved under the awning with our beers and shop talk.

Suddenness is sobering. Whatever you took for granted no longer applies. The lassitude and complacency you had lapsed into are shaken loose from their moorings. No wonder we felt this way in the sudden, driving rain. On Friday night, Jim Paduch threw his best game of the season, and the Bulls beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The next day, victim of a numbers game on the roster–which is to say held in no regard by the parent club–he was sent down to Double-A Montgomery. We got word on Sunday that he decided to retire instead of going there.

I had spent about half an hour before Sunday’s game talking with Dan Johnson. Regular readers of mine will know that Johnson is the closest thing to a protagonist in this de facto nonfiction novel I’ve been writing about the Bulls and Triple-A baseball for the last five years. (You can read chronological installments herehere and here.) Johnson played for the Bulls in 2010, when he won the International League MVP award and earned himself a million-dollar big-league contract for 2011. But 2011 was a disaster for him, and he wound up spending most of his million-dollar season plying his trade in ten-dollar Durham. In 2012 he played for the Charlotte Knights, finally getting called up in September when major-league rosters expanded and punctuating, well, everything, by hitting three homers in a single game for the Chicago White Sox on the very last day of the season.

Johnson signed with the New York Yankees in the off-season. He had a bad spring training and was assigned to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. He has gotten off to a bad start with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, too, and he knows it, and that’s all you need to know about him right now. I’ll have more from the interview later. The point is that Dan Johnson is always around, somewhere in the milieu that surrounds me, and every year I check in with him, catch up, and reassess him and by extension the Bulls and Triple-A and thus myself, a little. He is a touchstone, an anchorage, a habit.

What if Dan Johnson is suddenly not around? I don’t ever really think about that, but he could be not there without warning. He could go to the Pacific Coast League, or back to Japan (which he considered doing last winter, against better judgment gained from his previous experience). He could earn a major-league starting job, bless him, which he is still holding out for and thus why he turned down offers from National League teams who wanted him only as a big-league bench player. Or he could retire.

Dan Johnson is thirty-three. That is young, but in baseball, especially minor-league baseball, it’s old. He was twenty-nine, in his prime and destroying baseballs, when I first saw him as a Bull in 2010. He’s now, four years later, at the end of his prime and right near the precipitous falls where essential skills like bat-speed don’t just fade, they vanish. Is that a prediction? No. Johnson is a good hitter, and we all know better than to try to predict anything in this game (and in life). But if Johnson is suddenly not there, not here, what frame of reference disappears with him? How will I recalculate what all of this Triple-A-ness adds up to if this pivotal number is deleted from the formula? How will my novel continue without its great but flawed, itinerant but gravely necessary hero?

It could happen. Johnson could quit. He has a side business flipping houses in Minnesota, where he lives. He just started in on a massive apartment complex, gutting it and rebuilding it. He has work awaiting him, a family, too. He’d like to do more of the construction work himself but of course he has no time. His partner does it. He doesn’t want to stop playing but he could if the moment demanded it, or if he suddenly wasn’t interested anymore in overnight bus rides and horrendous batter’s eyes and line drives that end up as outs. At least when you’re flipping houses the work you put in gets visible results.

I just re-listened to the two-and-a-half-minute interview we reporters conducted with Jim Paduch after he beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Friday night. I rewound and played it again, and again, like the tape in The Conversation, trying to separate his quiet voice from the din of rap music blaring in the clubhouse (almost drowning him out, appropriately). Were there clues in his tone, in his choice of phrasing, incontrovertible evidence of his imminent retirement (if that is indeed what Paduch just began)? No, there’s nothing. Bland repetitive comments about fastball command. “Felt the best mechanically that I’ve felt all year.” Keeping the ball down with his sinker. Ordinariness in extremis. Quotes that could come from a can.

The last thing Paduch says in Friday night’s interview, just after a sentence about “working on some things with [pitching coach] Neil Allen,” is: “It was just one of those things where things start turning around.” Those are his last words although he doesn’t, as he says them, know what they mean. It’s usable irony, of course. What turned around was the direction of Paduch’s progress. He had his breakthrough in Durham and then was pushed right back through the break. He may have already had a deal with himself, or with his wife (is he married? I think so), that if he was sent down again, he’d quit. Or he may have driven halfway to Alabama, but somewhere on I-85–its unbroken, five-hundred-mile, eight-hour stretch between Durham and Montgomery–suddenly realized that he could not do this anymore. He could not go one more country mile, could not out-drive this latest pursuer or accept this passenger–that is, the voice telling him that he, a thirty-year-old in his eleventh pro season, with over a thousand innings pitched on his résumé, with a win over Daisuke Matsuzaka in front of a standing-room-only crowd, was no better than a Double-A roster-filler.

Jim Paduch is a person. Wouldn’t he like to be treated as one, instead of as a pile of messy stats to be moved between junkyards as suits some suits in Tampa Bay? His arm is killing him. He just threw the best game of his Durham career but lost his rotation spot and his Durham roster spot to a recent Double-A teammate, Matt Buschmann, who couldn’t hack Durham himself last year, didn’t have a third pitch till after he got sent back down to Montgomery after two crummy starts as a Bull, is twenty-nine years old, and has a career Triple-A ERA of 6.85, even worse than Paduch’s.

F*** it. Excuse the expletive, even in asterisked form, but that is what belongs here. Enough. At some point, it’s all enough. It builds and builds and builds, and suddenly one day new weather rolls in and everything that came before it no longer means anything. The always-good Bulls won again last night, I talked again with Dan Johnson, the Triple-A world as I know it persists, but now there is a permanent hole where Jim Paduch was. He’s not coming back. Death, Tom Stoppard reminds us, is the failure to reappear.

Today, the Bulls play their final afternoon home game of the year, at 1:05 p.m. It’s also their final regular-season game versus Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and thus your last chance to see Dan Johnson play this year. It could, in fact, be your last chance to see Dan Johnson play, ever–weather permitting. The rain is still falling here. It’s expected to continue, and I for one wouldn’t mind if it kept falling all day long and washed the game away, in Jim Paduch’s honor. The Bulls and Railriders don’t play again this year, and if they’re rained out today, they won’t make the game up. It will just be gone for good.

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