by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM—During his post-game interview last night, after Charlotte clobbered the Bulls again, 10-4, Knights manager Joe McEwing said: "One thing I won't ever forget is how hard this game is."
He said that last time I interviewed him, too, way back on April 20, in virtually the exact same words: "One thing I'll never forget is how hard this game is."
I ran with that in April, and even though it's clearly a line McEwing feeds the media, I'm running with it again four months later. That's partly because I got home from the ballgame, gathered round the old Twitter, and was confronted with this tweet from the great Neko Case:
Music is too hard. Other people make it look so F-ing easy.
McEwing and Case affirmed what I'd been thinking while I watched the Bulls lose their fourth straight game: Right now, everything about the game of baseball looks really hard for them, and they compound the difficulty by making it harder on themselves.
I've actually never read Dickens's Hard Times (yes, I feel embarrassed), but I know a little something about it and I have a copy on my bookshelf. I opened the book when I got home, right after I read Neko's 59 characters of frustration, and was introduced to Dickens's "Thomas Gradgrind, sir—peremptorily Thomas," a school headmaster who "seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts." "Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts."
Now by "pitchers" Dickens meant something different than we baseball folk do, but I don't care about that and Dickens is too dead to protest. The fact with which the Bulls' little pitchers are to be filled is that they are currently a very naughty class and earning very low marks indeed.
Last night, it was Andy Sonnanstine's turn to stick his head in the muzzle and take the Knights' cannonballs right in the face, although you wouldn't have predicted that after the first two innings. Sonnanstine uncharacteristically struck out the side on just 10 pitches in the first inning, snapping his curve ball down below hitters' knees and watching Justin Greene, Eduardo Escobar and Dayan Viciedo—who was removed from the game after the first inning and called up to the majors—swing over it.
(McEwing, by the way, much more relaxed than he seemed back in April, raved about the progress Viciedo has made this season. He praised Viciedo's command of the strike zone, the way he now sets up pitchers in his at-bats, the improvement of his throwing arm since being moved to the outfield. Viciedo has been a terror against Durham, and it was fun to hear an opposing manager, especially one in a good mood, effuse about a visiting player rather than hear Montoyo fret about him.)
Sonnanstine retired the side in order in the second inning, adding another strikeout—of K-master Jordan Danks, to qualify it a bit—and opened the third by fanning yet another batter, Andrew Garcia. The Bulls were leading, 1-0, thanks to an RBI single by Ray Olmedo.
Sonnanstine then got ahead of Gookie Dawkins, 0-2, but proceeded to miss badly with four straight pitches. Then Jared Price punched a single to shallow center field.
Two on, one out. Sonnanstine coulld have used a double-play ball here. He got ahead of another batter, Greene, 1-2, getting his 10th swing-and-miss with the second strike. Sonnanstine often makes two full starts without getting that many swinging strikes.
He would get only two more after that: This was the second time through the lineup. After the second strike, Greene hung in there and ran the count full. Then he indeed hit the grounder Sonnanstine needed, but instead of starting a double play it went up the middle for a base hit. Dawkins scored. 1-1.
Eduardo Escobar singled to right to load the bases, and then Sonnanstine got the double-play grounder he needed again, just to the right of first baseman Leslie Anderson—who had it bounce off the heel of his glove for a run-scoring error. 2-1, Knights.
Five pitches later, Dallas McPherson hit a grand slam. 6-1. Game over. In the third inning.
The Bulls are making it so hard for themselves to win! They walk batters. They commit ruinous errors. The make S.B.G.s. They put runners on base and don't drive in enough of them. Durham outhit Charlotte last night, 12-9, but they left 12 runners on base, six in scoring position—and lost by six runs, naturally.
An emblematic at-bat: Joe Bateman pitched the seventh inning. He allowed a leadoff walk to Jim Gallagher, who replaced Viciedo, and then Dallas McPherson came up. Bateman got ahead, 0-2 on a foul ball and a swinging strike. Then McPherson stayed alive for 11 more pitches, fouling them off, fouling them off, taking two balls, fouling more of them off, etc. They were pretty much all fastballs. By the eighth or ninth pitch, Bateman was laboring so hard that it felt more like watching a shot-putter than a pitcher.
Finally, on the 13th pitch, Bateman tried a 77-mph slider, and McPherson hit his second home run of the game. It landed pretty much where the first one did.
Credit McPherson, sure. He fought off all of those pitches. He's a good hitter. The homer he hit off of Sonnanstine was on a curve ball, down and in. Not really a terrible pitch, except that Sonnanstine threw that low curve ball over and over again last night, and it was only a matter of time before a mature (and really, really huge) hitter like McPherson walloped it.
But still, the Bulls' little pitchers are helping opposing hitters look big. Bateman's slider was a bad one. Sonnanstine's curve ball was a stale one.
The littlest of the Bulls' little pitchers was infielder J. J. Furmaniak. After 6-foot-8 Adam Russell threw a scoreless eighth inning, the 5-foot-8 (in his spikes, maybe) Furmaniak tossed a scoreless ninth. It was his first outing since high school. Furmaniak is 32. Coolio was popular when he was in high school. Furmy struck out McPherson on three pitches, including a changeup. Okay, so he had to throw 24 pitches to get through his one meaningless inning. Joe Bateman had to throw 28 to get through his.
There was a 45-minute rain delay in the fourth inning, when part of Hurricane Irene managed to cut itself loose from the big wheel and go rogue over Durham. This was something like the 15th rain delay of the season at the DBAP, and I decided to make it easy on myself by going across the street for a beer. Figured it'd be at least an hour. But the rain ended sooner than I anticipated, and somehow the grounds crew managed to get the tarp off the field in what must have been about 43 seconds. Play resumed while I was still in mid-Kolsch. (This was the first time I've ever left the park during a rain delay, and will be the last. Sorry. I'm coming clean here, kids. Slumps are hard to sit through, especially when they're prolonged by rain delays. But they must be a lot harder to play through.)
I ran back to the park to find that, although I had missed only three at-bats, the score had gone from 6-1 to 8-1. I was informed by another Press Boxer that one of the Bulls had indeed tried to make things easier on himself. When Justin Greene drilled a Sonnanstine pitch to deep center field, Justin Ruggiano was so sure it was going to leave the park for a home run that he didn't tire himself out by chasing after the ball. He took a few steps back and then just watched. But the ball hit the railing and bounced back on the field. Ruggiano went and got it, and Greene had a double.
Ruggiano apparently had no chance to catch the ball, as I heard it from my colleagues; Greene had a double the whole way. But wouldn't you know it, on a night when the Bulls could have really benefited from making things easier on themselves, their attempts to do so made them look like loafers. In the third inning, Tim Beckham whacked a high drive to left field. My eyes followed the arc of the ball, which hit way up on the Blue Monster. When I turned to see whether Beckham would have his first 300-foot, round-the-bag-and-hit-the-brakes Blue Monster single, I was surprised to find him just arriving at first base. He must have slowed down, easing up his stride, thinking it was surely going to be a home run—certainly it would have been in most parks.
Seeing that the ball hadn't cleared the 30-foot wall, Beckham now turned on the jets—the play suddenly went from easy to hard for him—and was fortunate that Knights left fielder Lastings Milledge was also making the play easy on himself. In no great rush to field the ball, he let it land and come nearly to rest on the grass, picked it up and made an unhurried throw toward the infield. Beckham had a double, and everyone looked lazy. The penalty for Beckham was having to going into high-effort mode past first base after 90 feet of pacing himself.
In other words, you have to pick your easy spots. Did you see what I did with Hard Times? I made things easy on myself by borrowing its title for mine, opening Dickens to the second page and cherry-picking a quote to which I assigned an inappropriate meaning. I don't feel like I need to read Hard Times, anyway, because I've read plenty of indictments of industrial capitalism and the exploitation of the working class (Orwell, The Jungle, Richard Wright, James Kelman, Marx, etc.). I'm already convinced. I'm probably not going to read Hard Times, and I'll probably get punished for that, if in no other way than by missing a great book.
The Bulls have a fairly routine set of between-inning games and promotions, which three years into covering the team I barely notice anymore, even with the emcee and the music wailing out of the DBAP speakers. There's one called "Bugs in the Bucket." A kid, usually between 6-11 years old, stands by the visitors' dugout, facing a line of three plastic buckets. The first one is about five feet away, the second 10 or so, and the third a good 20 or more. The kid is given stuffed animals that I suppose could be described as insectoid in shape and form, and has to throw them into the buckets in sequence. The kid gets a prize for each successful shot. I think sinking the farthest bucket nets tickets to a Bulls game.
The nearest bucket is a first-try gimme, and most kids hole out the second one after a few lobs. The third, however, requires legitimate skill and sometimes overhanded throws; oftener than not, the allotted 30 seconds expire without the kid making that last shot.
Two nights ago, the little rugrat contestant—littler and rugrattier than usual—sank the first one, and then did something unique: He took two bugs, ran right up to the second bucket and dropped a bug in, and then ran up to the third one and dropped in another. Game over. Gimme my three prizes, mister.
Well, and why not? They didn't tell the kid he had to stand there with his toe on some imaginary line, heaving furballs at some distant (to a six-year-old) bucket in the vain hope that they might somehow go in. No: just get the bugs in the bucket. So he did. One, two, three, like little J. J. Furmaniak striking out big, bad Dallas McFearsome on three pitches. Why do you need 13, Joe Bateman? Why do you need 13 and then Dallas still hits a homer?
I don't know what the baseball analog is to what that little kid did. A hitter can't go up to the pitcher, grab the ball out of his hand, and run out to the outfield wall with it and toss it into the stands for a home run. Leslie Anderson isn't allowed to just go run around the infield and tag all the runners he wants to after he chases down the ball he misplays. But if the Bulls can figure out how to do something, anything—maybe even win a game—the easy way, now's the time. That picture of the downtrodden bull up around the beginning of this post? Came out of the box of Cracker Jack that Heather bought after the rain delay. It's probably a cow, anyway, not a Bull. Close enough, though, right? I found it by accident—actually, Heather found it, not me; I was just sitting there watching the Bulls get blown out. Whatever. It gets the job done.
Something like that is what the Bulls need right now. A little luck from a box of Cracker Jack, or a little ingenuity like running up to the bucket and dropping the bug into it. But do me a favor, willya? Spare us the old saw from Bull Durham, when the manager says: "This... is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball." That line is a bunch of bull. Just ask real-life manager Joe McEwing, whose already-old saw—"I won't ever forget how hard this game is"—is the one the cuts Bull Durham's. And right now, it's cutting the Durham Bulls, too.
As for Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, he's doing his best to make this untimely losing streak easy on himself. First, he's still cracking some jokes: "I think I know what we need to do. We need to give up less than ten runs."
He is also simply changing his verb tense."We had a good season," Montoyo said. (Had?) "Whatever happens from here on, they're playing hard." Four-game losing streaks happen. That Montoyo's team happens to be suffering hard times right now, in the final furlongs of the stretch run, is unfortunate but hardly more than a coincidence. Until Thursday, the Bulls had had no losing streaks longer than three games since the first week of June. Had they suffered one or two of those in July but found themselves with a three-game division lead on August 27, they'd probably feel pretty good about their chances.
Nonetheless, to borrow from a much more famous writer's baseball prose, for Montoyo "it is all falling indelibly into the past." Montoyo fell into the past right near the end of 2010, too. "We had a hell of a year and we're struggling here at the end," Montoyo said two days before the regular season ended. He continued: "Eighty-six wins, that's not that easy to do." He could afford to be detached then: Although the Bulls had lost seven of 10 games, they were by far the league's best team and had long since clinched the division.
But it's as if, no matter the particulars of the endgame, Montoyo goes into non-attachment mode via the preterit tense. If you want to be uncharitable, you could say that Montoyo, under the present-tense (and present, tense) circumstances, is dropping his team in a bucket and taking whatever prize he wins for having gotten them this far—in this case, another winning record, a shot at the playoffs, and the season-long ascendancy of heretofore unheralded Russ Canzler—but I don't think Montoyo is relinquishing his team to the Fates. His awareness is more complex than that.
For one thing, Montoyo knows it's just a losing streak, and not even a really long one. It will come to an end. For another, his current pitching staff isn't very good outside of a few durables, and there's not much he can do but run the guys he's got out to the mound and hope for the best.
Third, Triple-A teams are so hodgepodge, so dominated by change and chance, that to invest oneself in winning, winning, winning is futile. The Durham Bulls aren't a team trying to win the championship. The Durham Bulls are a couple dozen or so ballplayers trying to make it to the big leagues. Should they happen to wind up dropping their bug into the Governors' Cup on the way to the Show, great; if they fall short, well, that could turn out to be because some of the guys who could have helped the team seize the trophy get called up on September 1; and instead of, say, Rob Delaney closing out a must-win, extra-inning game, it's some terrified kid who just arrived from Montgomery to fill Delaney's spot.
Speaking of kids who just arrived from Montgomery, Chris Archer makes his Class AAA debut tonight for the Bulls. As you may know, Archer is a Raleigh, N. C. native, so there's some extra buzz coming from tonight's
bug game. (Here's my recent profile of Archer, if you'd like to know more about him.)
Archer's opponent will be the Knights' Justin Cassell, also making his first appearance with his current team. Cassell has seen a tiny bit of action with Charlotte over the last two seasons—in fact, he has pitched at the DBAP once before, starting against the Bulls way back on May 5, 2009. Cassell hasn't pitched much either this year or last, so I assume he's had injury problems and been shelved.
The game tonight could very well be shelved, too. I understand we're expecting rain today? If it washes out the game, then the Bulls and Knights will have two games to make up. The teams already have a doubleheader scheduled for Sunday, the last day of the series, so they may have to make up another game in Charlotte when the Bulls play there next week. Or perhaps they'll just have the game canceled by the league, which would make the already-complicated end-of-season playoff math even harder. Can't anything be easy for the Bulls anymore? You hit the ball. You throw the ball. You... Wait. How does it go again?
See you at 7:05 p.m., weather permitting.