Out on the Monster scoreboard, all but the last slot below the "9" is filled. "God Bless America", "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Sweet Caroline" have been sung. Hot dogs, peanuts and Coke (all mind-blowingly overpriced) have been consumed. Families with young children are heading for the exits to beat the traffic. The Sox sit comfortably on a three-run lead courtesy of Papi (RBI) and Manny (yard) back in the fifth and sixth, respectively. Things are as they should be.
Save for one thing: a lanky figure, No. 30, is popping back out of the dugout. He's heading for the mound.
So odd is this sight that he gets all the way to the rosin bag before the crowd is on its feet--that's how long it takes them before they realize just what their $45 or more has bought them this afternoon. The chance to witness that exceedingly rare bird in today's game--a complete-game effort by the starting pitcher.
According to the Baseball Almanac, last year, the leaders of the American League in complete games--Mark Mulder for Oakland, Sidney Ponson for Baltimore, and Jake Westbrook for Cleveland--all had five complete games to their name. Compare that with just twenty years ago: in 1985, Bert Blyleven had 24 complete games under his belt for two different teams. And forget about the early days; 100 years ago the mark for complete games was set at 35. Scroll down Baseball Almanac's page, in fact, and you can watch the numbers decline with each passing year. Meanwhile, though some active pitchers' names appear more often than not in the statistics, today's starter made seeing a complete game effort that much less likely--in 203 starts, Matt Clement has pitched nine innings only five times.
According to Kerry Liebowitz in his piece "A Vanishing Art: Why Complete Games are Going the Way of the Dodo" (link):
more pitchers per batter, more batters per game, more runners on base, more runs scored, more "pressure pitches" thrown as a percentage of the total number of pitches tossed... We have indirect evidence that today's pitchers are throwing more pitches per batter, per inning, than in the past. We have clear evidence that they are throwing more pitches in run-scoring situations. A plethora of subtle changes in baseball over the past 30 years or so have conspired to make pitchers work harder. Strike zones are smaller, ballparks are smaller (shorter fences, less foul ground), baseballs may be "juiced." It's harder to get batters out than it was 30 years ago, despite the introduction of a number of new, difficult to hit pitches; it's harder to get batters out because it's harder to throw strikes, because foul balls are less likely to be caught, because balls are both traveling further and have less distance to travel to produce instant runs. All of these factors have conspired to put more pressure on pitchers generally and that obviously includes starting pitchers.
Moreover, Liebowitz concludes, "the influence of the ingrained notion of using the bullpen, which certainly was well-cemented by the early 1960s--(has) taken over."
Indeed, though Clement, who was perfect through all but two innings, certainly appeared to have the game well in hand, Embree and Foulke warmed lazily in the bullpen throughout the ninth.
Whether or not you lament the decline in innings pitched by major league starters, today, any rarity in baseball--be it a perfect game, a no-no, a shutout, a complete game, a walkoff, a grand slam, a record-breaker--infuses a ballpark with awe-inspiring energy, as tens of thousands clamber to their feet to root on the event, as palms are soon stinging with the applause, as kids point to the field and gaze up at their fathers with questions and wonder, chattering a mile a minute.
What might have been a ho-hum feat by the traditional (or not-so-traditional) closer becomes a pitch-by-pitch celebration between player and audience. Just the fact that he's out there, anymore, is a matter worth congratulation. Now if he can just get another out...
A flyout to Johnny Damon. One away. It's then that I notice the kid.
He's maybe two, three years old. He's balanced on his father's hip, and the light catches his smooth cheek in the shadows of the grandstand roof. He and Dad are dressed exactly alike: red Sox warmup jackets, navy blue hats, jeans, sneakers. Both stare intently at the field, and you can see something there, feel it in the air, looking at them--something passing from father to child, but also something passing from child to father. You can see the way the child comes from his father, resembling him in looks, imitating him in posture--and yet how he'll carry what he sees beyond where his father will go. These two, Dad and boy, are a slice of Forever.
Adam LaRoche slaps a bouncer sharply to first, but the unlikely Kevin Youkilis makes a diving stop. Two down now, Dad's jiggling the boy with excitement, the boy reaches out and gently feathers his tiny fingers across Dad's cheek. Dad and boy regard each other for a small moment.
Andruw Jones hits a slow roller to second. The geometry plays out; the distant figure of Varitek runs out to hug Clement on the mound as "Love that Dirty Water" and Dad is dancing with the boy to its bouncing beat, and the boy's eyes are raised to the ceiling, the roof, the sky beyond, giggling and bouncing along.
That's the gift of a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark when a guy goes out there and records his own 27 outs, thanks very much. A rarity, like a complete game, says wake up. It says, take notice, look around you, Something's Happening. It says, dance with your son, right now, this minute. Don't wait.
It says, someday years down the line, remember? Remember the time...?