April 6, 2017 by Darren Clarke
“How about those shoes on Bastardo man?”
Boston Red Sox play-by-play man Dave O’Brien follows the first pitch of the bottom of the 12th inning in that most baseball of ways, off point, because in baseball, off point often is the point. The camera zooms in on Pittsburgh reliever Antonio Bastardo’s gold and black spikes standing up against and parallel the pitching rubber, adorned with the Nike trademark swoosh, the shoes appearing glossy beneath the Fenway Park lights as if they’d had three coats of lacquer applied to them pre-game. Colour commentator Jerry Remy responds to his broadcast partners observation with, “We’re seeing a lot of guys styling with VERRRY nice shoes!”
Welcome to the first week of the baseball season.
It’s April the 5th, 2017, and the Red Sox are hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s the 12th inning, the score is 0-0. It’s April, it’s cold, cold to the point the first thing I see when I tune into the game is Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercers warm breath condensing into a fog as he blows into his bare hand. I’m simultaneously watching the game and chatting online with a group of friends who for the greater part of the night were more invested in the Toronto Raptors remarkable comeback against the Detroit Pistons. As we chat I keep them posted on the Red Sox game- “Going into the 10th, still 0-0… going into the 11th, still 0-0…”
The bottom of the twelfth arrives and leading off the inning for Boston is Chris Young. Young’s at bat is dominated by talk of shoes before the crack of the bat gives rise to Dave O’Brien’s voice channeling some restrained optimism which quickly dissipates into resignation, “Hiiiiigh fly ball… left center field… backing up on it Marte… and he’s there to make the catch short of the track.” Jerry Remy comments in his wonderful Massachusetts accent, “Sounded good, looked good, it just completely died out there in center field… wrong time of the year.”
Jackie Bradley Jr. is up next. “JBJ,” the former top prospect turned disappointment turned revelation. Last season JBJ proved he could pare a dynamic offensive game with his always sublime defence. Many have travelled far, few have returned with a baseball cradled lovingly in their glove for an out as often as JBJ.
Despite Fransisco Cerevelli’s subtle attempts to levitate Bastardo’s offerings into the strike zone Jackie Bradley Jr. takes a walk on five pitches. The fun begins.
Pablo Sandoval steps to the plate looking positively frozen. The Panda is not in his natural habitat as evidenced by the fact he was wearing a balaclava in the field. Jerry Remy talks about the potential of putting a play on as, “… it doesn’t really matter where the ball is pitched he (Sandoval) can make contact on it… do you send the man at first?” The Pirates are thinking along the same lines as Bastardo throws over to first immediately. The crowd boos. Because they have to.
Sensing action lurking beneath the surface of the game the camera pans to the dugout where John Farrell is running through a series of signs, the camera next finds helmeted third base coach Brian Butterfield similarly running through signs, and finally settles on Sandoval grimacing outside the batters box, still seeming uncomfortable as he leans back, giving ample consideration to the secret messages being sent. After a big cut and miss, Sandoval steps out again, “Sandoval looking down at Brian Butterfield…” Next pitch Sandoval drills one just foul down the third base line. After a ball and a pitch fouled back to the screen- “Bradley with a big lead,” the secret messages manifest in Bradley taking off to try and steal second. A problem immediately presents itself as Bastardo did not throw home but rather to first to pick off Bradley. Dave O’Brien senses this as a turn for the worst for the home team and you can hear it in his voice and his confused relaying of the event, “and he’s running to get it picked (sic)…” Less fatalistic than O’Brien however, Bradley doesn’t hesitate and keeps charging for second base. Pirates first baseman Phil Gosselin takes the good throw from Bastardo and appearing to try and rush a throw around the runner bounces a bad toss well to the left of the second base bag allowing hope to find its’ way back to O’Brien’s voice, “Gosselin down… throws it… and it skips away!”
Instead of having two out, nobody on base, and a 2-2 count on Sandoval, Bastardo has one out, Bradley on second, and a 2-2 count on Sandoval. If Bradley isn’t already already foremost in Bastardo’s head, Bradley now bouncing around off of second base very much places himself there. Bastardo sets, looks over at Bradley, then down to his glove, then back at Bradley, then down to his glove, O’Brien comments, “… Jackie is dancing!” I comment to my friends, “Bastardo looks psyched out.” Standing in the batters box while Bastardo goes deeper and deeper into a state of self doubt, Sandoval finally steps out. The buzz from the Boston crowd, who know a thing or two, rises.
The battle between Bastardo and Sandoval ends with the pitch chart looking like it was made by a trigger happy drunk on a Friday night out at the rifle range and with Sandoval working a walk. Sandy Leon is up next, cause for my friend Bobby Cross, who has begun watching the Red Sox game in the wake of the Raptors win, to comment, “…Sandy Leon… The biggest fluke in years. A flash in the pan…”
Through ten seasons in the minors Sandy Leon had most definitively established this- He wasn’t a very good minor league hitter, in fact, he was for all appearances a bad minor league hitter. Despite this Leon hit .310 last year in a substantial amount of at bats (283). This apparent inconsistency in how the world should work versus how it ends up working is cause for the kind of aggressive, informed, skepticism, illustrated by my friend Bobby Cross.
Before Leon’s at bat begins the Pirates fantastic pitching coach, Ray Searage, and the entire Pirates infield gathers on the mound with Antonio Bastardo. It’s a long conversation on the mound that the Red Sox feed dedicates to showing Sandy Leon’s well manicured beard.
The meeting didn’t appear to help Bastardo who continued his unhealthy obsession with Jackie Bradley who was, in the words of my friend Jesse Sequin, “… doing his best Willie Mays Hays impression,” leading off second. Prior to his first pitch to Leon, Bastardo calmly steps off the mound and throws to second base. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Pirate located on second base to receive Bastardo’s throw, causing Josh Harrison to dive behind the bag to block the ball from going into the outfield. Jerry Remy comments, “I don’t know if Bastardo thought there was a pickoff play on or what… but I mean, nobody was covering second base… that ball almost ended up in center field…”
The first pitch to Leon is a 91-mph fastball in the far upper corner of the strike zone that Leon takes a big meaty cut at. The count is 0-1 as Bastardo continues to spend centuries in stillness between pitches. Nobody is seated in the Fenway crowd, all appearing to be in unison bouncing from one foot to another, hands stuffed in jacket pockets, trying to keep themselves warm. The statue of Antonio Bastardo stays completely still until Leon finally steps out of the batters box.
The second of pitch of the at bat appears to be heading for the low and outside border of the strike zone, but Fransisco Cerevelli does not get the chance to massage its’ location as Sandy Leon steps into the pitch with all the authority and certainty of the accompanying Dave O’Brien home run call, “HIIIIII-GH!!! DEEP DRIVE! LEFT FIELD! WAY BACK IT GOES- BACK-BACK-BACK— GONE!!!!!!!”
3-0 Red Sox over the Pirates. 1-0 Sandy Leon over Bobby Cross.
The Red Sox broadcast gives the Player of the Night to Sandy Leon, but Jesse Sequin gave it to somebody else, “I’m putting the win on JBJ… Got Bastardo so rattled he gave Leon a meatball…”
“How about those shoes…”