Monday, May 9, 2011

No-no: The Disappointment

Being the itinerant slacker that I so proudly am, my housing arrangements are often precarious and sometimes quite unexpected. It was about nine months ago that I left the salt-sniffing female I happened to be rooming with at the time to discover the homeless hippie in her living room, where she very zenly and peaceably threw him out onto the street. Needless to say, both I and Body-Shop girl have since moved onto slightly more palatable living arrangements.

So in some ways, I guess, it shouldn't be all that shocking that it was in the company of a tanned backpacking stranger that I found myself sitting on my couch Saturday afternoon watching history unfold. For six innings, as I idly absorbed the depressing failure of my team, we shared glorious memories of drunken misadventures as impoverished travelers (she in southeast Asia, I in backwoods Saskatchewan, but what's the difference?). Then, as the sixth inning ended, the Sportsnet camera followed Justin Verlander to the Tigers' dugout and I heard Buck's voice catch. At that point, I sat up, turned up the volume, and proceeded to tune out fresh-off-the-plane-from-Thailand's comments about clothing and Italian coffee for the rest of the afternoon. Gracious host, I am not.

I must admit, it was a little bit disorienting. I've always had an obsession with the broken promise of the no-hitter. I start counting the outs early and lose myself in the dream of what it all could mean. In one of the very first baseball games I can recall watching - it must have been '94 or '95 - Pat Hentgen carried a perfect game into the fourth inning. I was delirious with possibility, but my father warned me three good innings wasn't a huge deal. Sure enough, it was over by the fifth.

As my fanhood progressed, I continued to hope every time a pitcher came out showing strong stuff. If a guy dominated the first inning, by the second I'd be on the edge of my seat, waiting anxiously to see if this was the night I'd see history unfold. I was eternally searching for that pitcher's ideal, honing in on potential targets. For a while in the mid-90s, I was enamored with Marty Janzen and Huck Flener. Looking at their career lines, I can't imagine why, though I blame Jerry Howarth.

Of course, the childhood game that really niggled at me was the Higginson game. My memories seem to be from the TV footage, but I've been told I was there in person (and speaking of all this talk of post-facto no-no commemorative tickets, that's a ticket I'd love to dig up), but either way, the game has lived on in my imagination. If only it weren't for Felipe Crespo, I thought to myself for years, it would have been a perfect game! I was 13 years old, and I thought I'd seen the rarest of rare feats, even in the wake of Higginson's homer. In the years afterward, I had a few heated arguments over whether Halladay's game was more impressive than Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game from earlier that summer. Maybe it wasn't, in retrospect, but who cares? I know what I saw, and it was historic.

As the years passed, I began to realize that a pitcher dominating for a few innings at a time wasn't all that rare a feat at all, but it didn't hinder my hopes. Every time I saw a great game for five or six innings, I would start thinking no-no, he's got a no-no - often before the lineup had even turned over once. I even remember one game he-who-shall-not-be-named threw against the A's. If I recall correctly, he wound up surrendering just two singles, both to the same hitter, one of the infield variety. I hated E---- L---- as much as the next Jays fan - but hey, a great game is a great game.

The one that sticks out in my mind - even, maybe, over the ones that lasted into the ninth inning - was Shaun Marcum's six-inning no-hitter against Tampa Bay on May 13, 2007. I was sitting directly behind the plate with my grandmother, a passionate Blue Jays fan who was nearly blind by then. I dared to dream early - maybe the third - and at a certain point I grew terrified that he wasn't going to finish the game. He was straight out of the bullpen, he was on a pitchcount - but goddamnit, it was a no-hitter.
It was agonizing trying to communicate what was happening. My grandmother, who could barely see the field, was left to feed off of my excitement. She didn't seem to understand why I cared so much, since nothing much seemed to happening on the field. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Jays fan from the late 80s, but the kind of casual female fan who's more interested in wearing the jersey and cheering frantically than in actually understanding the finer points of the game itself. In her old age the ballpark experience was more about the crowd than the game. When Jason Frasor came on in the seventh to give up the Carlos Pena homer that lost not only the no-no but also the game, I left the park feeling not only that I'd been cheated of history, but that my grandmother had missed out entirely on the momentousness of the occasion.

Later, of course, there was the McGowan game. And then - of course - the Morrow game last year.
For each of those games, I was counting outs from pretty early in the ballgame, keenly aware of what was at stake. When I think back now, I'm struck more than anything by how many close calls there have been. Romero against the White Sox into the eighth. Several other Marcum games from 2007 and 2008. Brett Cecil perfect into the 7th last year.

What strikes me as odd is, given how many times I've watched my pitcher carry a game deep, how rarely I can remember the Jays being on the other side the same kind of pitching gem. Though I'm sure there have been plenty of six-inning no-nos I've simply forgotten about because it wasn't my guy on the mound, I don't think I've seen the same kind of ninth-inning drama as the Morrow/Halladay/McGowan games in other parks. And I certainly can't remember ever being at the Dome for a ninth-inning ovation for the opposition pitcher like we saw on TV on Saturday afternoon.

I can pinpoint exactly the moment when I transitioned from waiting for the game to be broken up to expecting - even hoping for - the no-hitter: E5's eighth inning at bat. The perfecto had just been broken up after JPA's epic battle, and I can't count how many times I've seen a pitcher walk a guy and then immediately surrender the hit, usually around the 6th or 7th inning. But when Edwin pounded a ball into the ground for an easy double play, suddenly Verlander was three outs away, with three AAA hitters on the docket for the bottom of the ninth. And a strange thing happened - my blood began to tingle.

Did I feel guilty? Absolutely. Would I have screamed out in frustration if Rajai Davis got a hit the same way I did when Jeff Baker singled off Dustin McGowan? No. I would have been enervated and relieved. But even within that relief there would have been disappointment. That slight hangover. The sense that I'd been brought to the brink and left standing, blue-balled by the baseball gods.

Like my grandmother, the girl on my couch didn't seem to understand what was so special about the baseball game. She was an athlete, but one of the ball-and-net variety, and although she seemed to be trying to invest herself in the game, I soon realized that she didn't actually understand it. Have you ever tried to explain baseball to someone who doesn't understand it? It's a complex game theoretically, much moreso than basketball/hockey/football. You have to try and equate outs with minutes, runs with goals, hits and walks with - I don't know - rushes? And although I think she may have come out of the afternoon with a rudimentary understanding of the game, I'm fairly certain the momentousness of the no-hitter was lost on her.

And in a way, maybe it was a little lost on me, too - or, at the very least, bittersweet. A game, for once, where I wasn't paying attention to the historic potential, at least not until very late. Wasn't counting outs, just registering a general lack of success for the home team. This bittersweetness somewhat echoes the disappointment that has marked my no-hitter experience in general. All the games broken up. The fact that my first came against my team. Halladay's perfect game last year - a game I couldn't watch, for the wrong team, and after over a decade of waiting anxiously for the promise of the Higginson game to be realized, even as he transformed himself into the best pitcher in baseball without needing that no-hitter. And even Saturday's game is coloured by the fact that Verlander threw his gem without having to face Jose Bautista. As a Jays fan, but also as a baseball fan, I wanted to see Bautista pinch-hit in the 9th. It would have provided symmetry, I guess: if Verlander had been beaten by Bautista as Halladay had been beaten by Higginson - and remember, it was the Tigers on that 1998 afternoon - it would have felt like due justice. Likewise, if Verlander had beaten Bautista, it would have been all the more impressive.

But alas, it was not to be. After five years, Verlander has his second no-hitter; after twenty, I have my first. And so, too, does the strange girl on the couch.

1 comment:

  1. farrell's decision not to pinch hit bautista in the 9th bewilders me