by Adam Sobsey
Sorry about that. Couldn't help myself. In fact, Bulls reliever Josh Lueke had been on an oversized roll after an absolutely dreadful first three months of the season. Through all of July up until yesterday, Lueke had allowed just two runs over his last 23 innings, shaving more than two runs off of his bloated 6.57 ERA. "My hottest guy," Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said later of Lueke, and he wasn't talking about Lueke's looks.
So last night, the Bulls were leading the Gwinnett Braves, 4-1, in the top of the fifth inning. Durham starter Jim Paduch, back in the rotation temporarily while up-and-coming prospect Alex Colome deals with an injury (upper rib cage, it seems), put the first two Braves on base with a hit and a walk. Paduch hadn't exactly been stellar to that point, despite having allowed just the one run. Nursing a three-run lead, Montoyo decided Paduch should quit while he was ahead, and called on Lueke.
Lueke struck out Felix Pie for the first out.
Then the next eight men reached base, seven of them via hits.
The only other out Lueke recorded came when Jose Yepez, with runners on first and second, hit a high and deep fly ball to right field. At the wall, the Bulls' Stephen Vogt leaped but could not make the catch. The two runners on base waited, as they are trained to do, to see if the ball would fall in safely. But Yepez did not. He assumed he had a double, and by the time he looked up, halfway to second base, he saw Josh Kroeger standing on it, and was put out on the basepaths after a 320-foot single.
Four hits and a walk after that, with six runs and about 40 minutes already in the books since the inning had begun, Adam Liberatore relieved Lueke and allowed a two-run single to Pie, which a) made the score 9-4, Gwinnett, after an eight-run inning, and b) gave the Braves a share of what must be a very rare feat: every batter in the lineup had exactly one hit in the inning—which took so long to play that Braves starter Randall Delgado went down to the bullpen with backup catcher J. C. Boscan and threw warmup tosses, just to stay loose. Halfway through the game, we were on a four-hour pace. (These two teams played a nine-inning game even longer than that last month down in Georgia, a 15-walk slog that took 4:15 to play.)
Speaking of slogs: From what I can tell, the Bulls took an overnight bus ride from Ohio, got in around lunchtime, tried to sleep/unpack/regroup, and then headed to the DBAP to play against a Gwinnett team that was chilling at the Marriott and ducking into Beyu Caffe for lunch.
The Braves went on to win, 10-5. They're just a game behind Durham, poised to push the Bulls down into last place in the South Division.
The Charlotte Knights, meanwhile, beat the Norfolk Tides, mathematically ending the Bulls' chances of winning the division and their run of five straight division titles. After you stop crying, believe in magical thinking anyway and make the jump.
Earlier this month, I saw the magician Joshua Lozoff perform in Chapel Hill. He lives near Duke Forest, but he travels all over the world performing. Magic is sort of a niche entertainment form, but within that niche he is, as the saying goes, kind of a big deal.
I've known Josh since he and I were little kids, so it's impossible for me to offer any substantive commentary on his magic act. All I found myself thinking the whole time was "it is so awesome that Josh is up there doing all that and entertaining the pants off of all of these people." (No one's pants were actually removed, although I suspect Josh could probably pull off that cunning stunt.) His mother was in the audience, and I, like her, simply felt proud and fulfilled, beaming as I watched Josh do his thing—which is more impressive to me for its sheer technical skill than for "that mystic shit," as Lou Reed calls it in "Sword of Damocles" on Magic and Loss.
The show did get me thinking about magic generally, though, and as luck (or was it magic?) would have it, a few days later Lapham's Quarterly arrived in my mailbox, and sure enough, the new issue is called "Magic Shows." It includes excerpts from commentary by Teller, of the great and iconoclastic magic duo Penn and Teller. The full texts aren't that long and are really fascinating (here and here), so as soon as you get bored here you should go read them. Okay, take care, thanks for coming; I'm here all week.
Teller tells it like this:
People who don’t know magic believe it’s all just a simple trick. They say, “oh, it’s all just misdirection.” And they think misdirection means you’re watching the performer, and all of a sudden a gorilla jumps out of the closet behind you, and you turn around and look, and meanwhile the magician has done something sneaky onstage.
Misdirection is a huge term that means whatever you use to make it impossible to draw a straight line from the illusion to the method. It’s an interruption, a reframing. It comes in so many varieties and is so fundamental, it’s quite hard to formulate in a neat definition.
I flashed on that thought after the Bulls lost last night, while we were interviewing Charlie Montoyo. Another reporter brought up a play in which a ground ball to the left side found a vexing hole between fielders, and diving shortstop Tim Beckham had it smack off of his glove and all the way into the visitor's bullpen down the left-field line for a double. Bad luck. Montoyo, nodding in recognition, said: "I don't want to start saying it's that kind of year, but for sure it was that kind of game. That's just the way it goes. It's funny, this game is funny."
And then he quickly looked ahead to Sunday, when the Bulls have rehabbing Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann (who was a Durham Bull in 2007 and 2008) starting for them.
But notice what he did there. Montoyo engaged in a little misdirection, flashing the card he wanted to play and then turning our eyes away from it by negative reinforcement: "I don't want to start saying it's that kind of year" is the very same thing as saying it's that kind of year. In fact, Montoyo said it, in exactly those words: It's that kind of year. He just pretended he wasn't saying it. Don't think of a red barn.
And it happened to be that kind of night, too. Not many balls were hit hard in Lueke's disastrous inning. Of the two that were, one was Yepez's off-the-wall single that became an out, and the other was a line drive up the middle that ticked off the glove of second baseman Cole Figueroa. And "ticked off" is appropriate here: The liner was procedurally scored a hit, but Figueroa slapped his glove angrily because he (and indeed everyone, including the official scorer) knew he should have caught the ball. Had he done so, it's likely that Gwinnett would have scored only two runs in the inning instead of eight.
Five other batted balls went off of fielders' gloves or, in Brandon Gomes' case, foot. None of these was ruled an error, and none should have been, but there is no question that the ball itself seemed to be performing a certain amount of misdirection, glancing hither, caroming thither, and getting fielders to give chase but escaping their grasp.
It didn't help at all that last night's outfield has got to be one of the least rangy in recent Bulls history. Jesus Feliciano isn't half bad out in center field, but when you surround him with Leslie Anderson and Stephen Vogt, there's a lot of uncovered ground out there. Compare that to the Bulls' pasture ca. 2010, when it was roamed by the likes of Desmond Jennings, Fernando Perez and Justin Ruggiano, sometimes in the same game.
Meanwhile, at third base, Brooks Conrad couldn't snag two hot grounders that he got his glove on. At first base, Henry Wrigley wouldn't quite catch a pop foul out beyond the Durham dugout.
The preceding paragraphs were misdirection, too, because if you think that the Bulls were blown out due to crummy UZR, I'm sorry but the ball is not under that shell, fella. The Bulls lost because they are a team that plays bad baseball most of the time. And at this point in a lost year, they have also lost a good deal of the competitive spirit that animates personal effort. They do not run out all their grounders. They slouch on the mound when things go poorly. They flip broken bats aside petulantly. You want to add your "lollygaggers" line now? If you must...
And then little things begin to seem like they're met with punishment. In the top of the third inning, Jim Paduch loaded the bases with one out via a pair of walks and a single. Yepez followed with a hard chopper wide of first base. Henry Wrigley leaped and made a fine snare, and threw to second base to start a double play. Doubtless Tim Beckham was standing on the base at some point during the transaction, but when he made the relay throw to first base, where Paduch was covering, he was nowhere near it—more misdirection, as Beckham drew our (and the umpire's eyes) to the bag as he crossed over it. The runner at second was called out and Beckham made an excellent relay to first base to complete the exciting, attractive, inning-ending double play. But was it really "completed," strictly speaking, or was it a phantom, the fruits of misdirection?
The punishment for this fancy footwork came in the form of a bad decision, a deception foiled by a self-deception. In the bottom of the inning, Stephen Vogt drove a one-out double to deep center field. Wrigley followed with a single to shallow center, not deep enough to warrant sending Vogt home—especially with the league's leading hitter, Leslie Anderson, on deck—but Montoyo, coaching at third base, waved him around anyway. Braves center fielder Luis Durango threw Vogt out by plenty. Anyway, I get nervous watching Vogt run into close plays at the plate, because it was on one of those in 2009 that he mangled his shoulder and lost almost the entire season to injury.
As it happened, Leslie Anderson followed with a two-out bloop single to shallow left field, scoring Wrigley (who had advanced to second base on the throw to nail Vogt and was running hard, to his credit). The single "redeemed" Montoyo's gamble, but there is yet more misdirection here: It was now 4-1, Durham, but lost in the general home-field delight about this was that there were two outs and a man on first base. Had Vogt been held at third base on Wrigley's single, as he should have been, there would have been two men on and one out, and the Bulls on the verge of a big inning that could have knocked out Gwinnett starter Randall Delgado and blown the game open in Durham's favor.
Instead, the inning ended with the next batter, Chris Gimenez, who struck out. Delgado, who had been rocked for two homers (Brooks Conrad, Nevin Ashley) and three runs in the second inning, didn't allow the Bulls another hit over his last three innings. He struck out seven of the last 12 men he faced and retired the last seven in a row. It can't have hurt that he magically found his groove right after his teammates scored eight fifth-inning runs for him. By the time Delgado left, after six innings, the score was 9-4—the game blown open, but for Gwinnett: more misdirection—and it was more or less all over.
"More or less" because, in fact, it was not all over, not at all. The Bulls scored a fifth run in the seventh inning and had Leslie Anderson at the plate with two on and two out. A homer would have closed the Bulls to within a single run. And indeed Anderson drove the ball a long way out into left-center field, but he had gotten under it a little bit and the speedy Durango ran it down at the warning track. An inning later, Jesus Feliciano came up with two runners in scoring position and two outs, but grounded out weakly to third base.
The thing is, in neither of these innings did it seem like the Bulls were really in the game. They were just playing it out. This is in great contrast to the Bulls of say, 2009—a team constructed much like this one in many ways—who found all kinds of ways to battle back and win games they ought to have lost. (The two wildest comebacks I've seen at the DBAP took place in '09: here and here, if you're interested; those games even made thrillers like this one seem practically routine that year). Durham has the worst record in the International League when trailing after five innings.
Some players have underperformed in 2012, and the Bulls' parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, has been trying a little sleight of hand with a goodly number of them, hoping we won't really notice that they've dealt Charlie Montoyo a deck missing royals (no hot young prospects this year) and aces (especially Alex Torres, now "rehabbing" an injured ability to pitch, by my diagnosis, down in the Class A Gulf Coast League). The rest of the cards have lost tricks. No fewer than five minor-league free agents signed during the off-season—the stalwarts who are supposed to carry the load—have been released. In order: Juan Miranda, Jhonny Nunez, Jeff Salazar, Romulo Sanchez and Matt Mangini, all gone. (The latter was hidden away even before he was released, mysteriously slipped up the sleeve of the Temporary Inactive list for an extended stay of almost three weeks. He recently signed with the Diamondbacks and is playing in Double-A Mobile.)
That is an awful lot of veteran oxen cut loose in a single year, more than in any other season since I've covered the Bulls. A sixth Triple-A acquisition, Kyle Hudson—picked up as a last-minute reinforcement—was traded away just weeks into the season for Rich Thompson. It almost appears as though the Rays gave little thought to these selections; there were better choices available (as Hudson for Thompson demonstrates) but the front office went with lesser players. Mid-season swap-outs—not just Hudson for Thompson but also Miranda for Brandon Allen (since departed for Japan) and Mangini for Brooks Conrad—have helped, but decent hitting always seems easier to find than good pitching. There's just no magic for that—the hardest place on a baseball field to hide is the pitcher's mound, and you can't conjure balls into strikes. The fact is that most of the key members of the staff have regressed this year. If I were Durham pitching coach Neil Allen, I might start wondering about my job security.
That last thought leads to this aside, worthy of a whole other piece of writing which I will attempt iin full some other time: We have known since the seminal book Moneyball that the way low-budget teams like the Rays succeed is by exploiting "market inefficiencies." I'm starting to wonder if there's one right on every team's own farm: coaching. I'm not going to pretend to know what minor-league coaches really do, but it seems to me that more and better instruction—hands-on, highly directed, personalized and particular instruction—could lead to a much higher yield of viable big-league talent. Reading books like Dirk Hayhurst's two bestsellers, as well as that of Matt McCarthy (Odd Man Out, a compelling memoir), both between the lines and in them—plus what I've been able to infer from player comments over the years in the Bulls' clubhouse—it seems to me that much of what a minor-league coach does is stay out of the way and wait to be asked for help. If he volunteers expertise and it backfires—i.e., if it results in poorer numbers for the player in question—he risks losing his job.
Maybe it's different in the lower minors, where the players are younger, rawer and more malleable. But as long as a player has intelligence, motivation and at least a baseline level of talent, there's no reason why a greater percentage of them couldn't rise higher than they seem to do. I wish some strong-willed, expert hands would take players like Lueke, Tim Beckham, Reid Brignac and Nevin Ashley and work them into players—not by any hocus-pocus or magical thinking but by dogged, firm, one-on-one tutelage. All three of those still-young players have major-league tools that are simply not being used to their fullest capacity. Among this year's Bulls, only Chris Archer and Leslie Anderson are substantially improving on last year's Triple-A performance. When I watch some of the other, underachieving Bulls play, or when I look elsewhere and see, foe example, the pile of pitchers in the Orioles organization who can't seem to escape Triple-A once and for all, I find myself wondering whether they're getting the support they need.
Perhaps they are getting support; perhaps coaches have tried, are trying, with these players, more than we know. I have no idea. The press is always going to be shut out of access to player development and training, because it is precisely that place where some of the most sensitive trade secrets live: adding or tweaking pitches, changing batting stances, and so on. As an example of this shielding of the process—or, to borrow again from Teller, of "making it impossible to draw a straight line from the illusion to the method"—take last night. I went into the visitor's clubhouse to ask Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage how Randall Delgado turned around what had begun as a bad start and left with six ultimately strong innings and the win. Brundage called him a "good competitor... a strong kid" and gave me some of the usual vague stock answers that managers give reporters (Brundage is especially seasoned at this). Not surprisingly, more misdirection arose when Brundage subtly contradicted himself: Delgado was, as he put it, a strong kid and good competitor, but he then added that "the team went out and scored eight runs for him. That didn't hurt."
The implication there is that Delgado got better after the competitive pressure was released by the Braves' scoring outburst. You don't have to be "strong" or much of a competitor when you're suddenly handed a five-run lead. Credit Delgado with tossing an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning immediately after Gwinnett's eight-run fifth inning, but let's not forget that all he had to do was rear back and pitch at that point. Mental toughness is no longer essential in that circumstance.
I asked Brundage what, specifically, Delgado needed to improve in order to make it back to the majors. (Delgado lost his roster spot in Atlanta last month, after having made the Braves' opening day big-league starting rotation.) He declined to answer, referring me instead to "Marty"—Marty Reed, that is, Gwinnett's pitching coach. Reed was in the cramped office with us, about six or seven feet away from me. He was sitting at his locker, face practically buried in it, back turned resolutely toward the room, and there was no question that Reed had no interest whatsoever in answering my questions. I imagined that he would have found a way to sit there like that even if I'd waited an hour. In any case, he likely wouldn't have told me anything even if I'd persevered. Nor has Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen so much as acknowledged my existence, even when I've walked right past him and said an amiable hello. His predecessor, Xavier Hernandez, was more genial but hardly more accessible. That is simply the way it is. Pay no attention to the coach behind the curtain.
"Theater," Teller says, "is 'willing suspension of disbelief.' Magic is unwilling suspension of disbelief." (Sports, I sometimes like to think, are the suspension of belief.) For five years straight, we in Durham have grown so used to the Bulls winning and going to the playoffs that we may have forgotten that there is not necessarily a rabbit in the hat each and every season. Unwillingly, we must suspend our disbelief that the Bulls can lose, can fail to reach the post-season. Before our very eyes, and with nothing up their sleeves, that is precisely what they're doing. The division title has disappeared and the wild-card will soon be mislaid as well. This season's show will end early and have no encore.
Losing, like winning, has its own kind of magic, just as a coin flip does, as magnets do. Or perhaps it is better to say that magic and loss are deeply interrelated. Ask Joan Didion, who spent a year of magical thinking trying to resurrect her dead husband. Ask Lou Reed, who devoted a whole album of songs to the notion. "You pass through humble/You pass through a maze of self doubt," he sings on the title track of the enveloping Magic and Loss (1992), an elegy to two loved ones lost to cancer. The Bulls and their fans are passing through humble and self-doubt this year. "There's a bit of magic in everything/And then some loss to even things out," Reed concludes. When there is as much loss as this season's Bulls are suffering, maybe it's only to balance a past surplus of magic.
One last thought here, occasioned by two mutually echoing sentiments that have nothing to do with magic. Tim Beckham struck out weakly in the seventh inning last night, the second of three strikeouts on his ledger. After his tentative swing for strike three, an irate fan shouted, "Come on, commit!" Later that night, coming out of Charlie Montoyo's office, I spied this message on the team's dry erase board: "8/18: Everyone must weigh in."
In other words, the magic has ended, and so sincerity, the full weight of one's commitment in the face of failure, is all that remains. The Bulls have this final tenth of the season left to at least make up some of their deficit—not the deficit of games so much as the deficit of dedication. Each man is playing now for integrity, for the opposite of magic. He has to get on the scale and commit every last pound to these last days.
The full measure of 6-foot-9, 260-pound Jeff Niemann takes on the mound for Durham this afternoon at 5:05 p.m., at which hour he will cast quite a shadow on the diamond. For the Braves, it's the puzzling Julio Teheran, a top prospect who has had a rough, rough season. On paper, it might be the best pitching matchup of 2012 at the DBAP. On the field, well, come see for yourself. You might not believe your eyes.