A couple of weeks ago, Jeff Sullivan wrote an article about the different types of baseball dorks there are. He identified the three main dorks as “hitter dork, pitcher dork, and defender dork.” He even included a nifty little poll at the end of the article, which you should vote on and see the results.
It got me to questioning my own true dork nature.
I know that, during the mid-to-late 90s I was a hitter dork. Sure, there were plenty of amazing pitchers to dork out about in the so-called Steroid Era. Just think of Greg Maddux or a budding young hurler named Pedro Martinez. Geez, Maddux’s rotation mates were pretty awesome, too; John Smoltz and Tom Glavine were craftsmen in their own right. Randy Johnson became ‘The Big Unit’ in a Grunge-soaked Pacific Northwest. And, though I loathe him as a New York Yankees stalwart, Roger Clemens was impressive, if not outright dominant the entire decade.
Wait, wasn’t I saying I was a hitter dork during the 90s?
Yes. Yes, I certainly was. Can you really blame me? I mean, I have valid excuses. For one, I was new to being a baseball fan, so offense — DINGERS! — was a big attraction. And boy were there a lot of dingers in the 90s. In Seattle, the home runs were literally raining over the outfield fences. The Seattle Mariners hit 245 bombs as a team in 1996 — the year Alex Rodriguez arrived on the scene — and smacked another 264 the very next year, in 1997. You get the point; homers were aplenty and, living in Seattle, I got used to the excitement they created.
Somewhere around my 21st birthday, my mom took me to a game. Our original tickets were in the outfield or those infamous nosebleed seats the Kingdome so graciously afforded to more frugal fans. But I had a friend that worked in the ticket office and she caught wind we were coming and switched our tickets, conspiring with my mom. We ended up sitting in the third row, directly behind home plate.
That afternoon, April 21, 1996, I believe, Ken Griffey Jr. smacked two majestic home runs. Both of them came off of the Toronto Blue Jays’ starter, Erik Hanson. They were career homers number 196 and 197 — the seventh and eighth of the young season — and the hitter dork in me was elated.
Something else happened that day, though, a seed was planted, which would only germinate after a long hibernation period. That was the seed of my pitcher dork self. I remember being mesmerized by watching pitches come to home plate. That day’s starter for the M’s was none other than Randy Johnson.
His vicious fastball and slider zipped into (and out of) the strike zone. It seemed like I was close enough to see the rotation of the seams. The close proximity to home plate certainly afforded me the ability to witness the movement on his pitches. And possibly most important was the sensual gratification of hearing that crisp “pop” of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt.
For the rest of the 90s and even into the early 2000s, I remained entranced by offense, particularly the home run. The great home run chase of 1998, where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa played Hungry Hungry Hippos in the batter’s box to obliterate Roger Maris‘s 37-year-old record entertained all sorts of baseball dorks. It’s widely viewed as a Pied Piper to fans who were disenchanted with baseball after the 1994 Strike, calling them back to the sport they nearly swore off for good.
It happened again in 2001. The hometown Mariners steamrolled everybody, and I mean everybody — except that one Sunday afternoon game against the Cleveland Indians — on their way to a record 116 regular season wins. They pummeled their opponents that season to the tune of a +300 Run Differential.
And then there was Barry Bonds.
Bonds’s 2001 stat line fills up his Baseball Reference page with more bold than a 19th Century typesetter could afford to dispense. Oh yeah, he also stomped all over McGwire’s 3-year-old record with 73 homers (the same as the number of victories the Golden State Warriors will total by season’s end). Regardless of how any of us look back on this muscle-bound, homer-happy era in baseball, we cannot allow historical revisionism to muddle our collective memory that baseball enjoyed a rejuvenation.
The very next season, my pitcher dork seed finally sprouted and stretched for the sun.
It was a Friday in June; June 7, 2002, to be exact. Baseball Reference doesn’t list the start time, but if memory serves me, it was an afternoon game. The Chicago Cubs were in town for an interleague series.
Initially, I was attracted to seeing Sammy Sosa come to the plate, possibly to hit one over those distant Safeco Field fences. He didn’t disappoint. In the sixth inning, Sosa took a Joel Pineiro offering to left for his 21st homer of the season. From my vantage point behind the first base dugout (I splurged for tickets to that game), I watched in awe as the ball arced out and over the fence and into the bullpens.
Yet, because I was once again sitting so close to the action, Sosa’s homer wasn’t what touched my sense of wonder most deeply that afternoon. That distinction belonged to Mark Prior and his Herculean calves — I love the socks! Get rid of the long pants.
I wasn’t sitting as close or as straight on as that day in 1996, but I was treated to one of the finest pitching performances I had seen live up to that point.
In seven scoreless innings, Prior struck out 11 Mariners’ hitters, walking only one (Mike Cameron!). He threw 69.4 percent of his 124 pitches for strikes; 20 swinging strikes and 23 strikes looking. Seattle hitters were stifled by his repertoire. But it isn’t just about the numbers.
Again, it was about being mystified by the craft of pitching. I learned a lot about how a pitcher sets up a hitter by combining an overpowering fastball with his off-speed and breaking pitches. It illuminated all the chess analogies to baseball that I never understood before — think three moves in advance, for example. Sure, those parallels apply to pretty much any part of the game, but my ‘a-ha!’ moment came from pitching.
It was transformative. I showed up to the park to eat a Polish sausage and watch Sosa and Bret Boone crush baseballs and left wishing I’d learned to throw a curveball as a kid.
Ever since that fateful Friday afternoon, my pitcher dork has been in full force.
To return to Sullivan, he said, “Much of the beauty I see in the game is thrown, and not hit, and I’d much rather watch a no-hitter than a slugfest.” I reversed dork course all in the course of one game. Sure, offense is still fun for me, but pitching is what truly ignites my ‘brilliant yellow’ aura.
This is exactly why I’ve already made sure to procure tickets to next Sunday’s game at Safeco. I don’t get to go to the home opener, but I’ll be treated to Felix Hernandez‘s first home start of the 2016 season.
Happy Opening Day!