Keep in mind that I'm not even beer league material, not with my crooked batting stance – with hands apart like Ty Cobb, body in a crouch like Jeff Bagwell, and power production like So Taguchi's grandmother. I was born to suck at baseball, and it's a legacy I've sadly fulfilled. However, the ability to give and take of this mutual humiliation is so ingrained in the sport that even a lowly gnat like me is able, given enough swings, to find ball with bat and connect for a solid single. And thus, the shame was passed from me to the poor soul on the mound for the other team. Unfortunately, though, it didn't rest with him long, as our catcher promptly fell down (out of surprise, I imagine) on the basepaths between third and home, and was an easy tag out to end the inning.
The game is so difficult to play well, and the better you can play it, the easier it looks from the stands. In this way, major league players seldom get credit for their ability to do something as terrifyingly complex as catching a tailing fly ball, or taking a throw on the infield while racing towards the first base bag. (In my lifetime, we will never see a machine with the ability to make a play on the fly like that, that even the aged Jim Edmonds makes routinely.)
Terrible plays are easy to spot, though, simply by how uncomfortable you look making them. My brain works overtime trying to imagine where a fly ball will land once it comes out of the sundrenched sky, robbing my reflexes of valuable processing power, until my feet have lost track of whose turn it is to take the next step. I stumble forward and the ball plops harmlessly to the wet grass behind me. It's humbling to realize that Chris Duncan – even the iron-gloved John Gall – is hundreds of times better a fielder than I am. I recover quickly though and get an out at second base from a confused baserunner, prompting a question from the opposing team: is there such a thing as an "outfield fly" rule?
I mention all of this as a way of introducing the Colorado Rockies, who for a brief period of time last year looked like they finally had this game of baseball figured out. However, if the opening to the 2007 season is any indication, their respite from humiliation was a brief one.
Mile High Humiliation
The Rockies were born in 1993, one year before the infamous players' strike that took away a World Series and nearly killed baseball, and two years before the powers that be decided that home runs would be the magic beans that would save baseball. Power numbers needed to come up across the board, somehow.
Enter the fine city of Denver, whose population was swelling and who hungered for major-league respectability that being a lowly two-sport town simply didn't bring. As we all know, the air is thin and dry at a mile high, and the baseballs did fly. Colorado's air stands accused of robbing pitches of their movement, and outfielders of room to run before having to turn their heads and watch. This was a novelty for the new fans, who equated home runs with "good play," and filled the stands to overflowing to watch the fireworks and cheer for their team. "Chicks dig the long ball," and so did the fans of the new kids of the league.
The phenomenon caught on across baseball, and players amped themselves up for the new era. Mark McGwire scowled and flexed and Sammy Sosa smiled and hopped, bringing raw power and a marketable face back with each blast. And when one of these monsters came to the plate at Coors, anything less than a towering homer was an epic failure, even to the home crowd.
Pitchers of all styles were reduced to beer-league soft-tossers in that stadium, their psyches and their mechanics going haywire as they tried to somehow coax outs from opposing hitters. Pitchers in baseball are unique in sports in that they literally stand on a higher plane than their competition, but pitchers at Coors are rapidly brought down to earth. Most horrifying to the starter is that there would be no early relief coming. At most, the manager might waddle out to deliver a fateful reminder: he was stuck out there in the damned Colorado air until he had taken his five-inning pound of flesh from this cruel game.
The forlorn pitcher's only solace would be to look into the opposing dugout, into the haggard eyes of the man with ice on his shoulder who would be subject to the same torment in the next half-inning.
The dimensions of the ballpark, made large in attempts to contain the damage, created vaster green spaces for the three beleaguered outfielders to navigate. There were now even more ways to hit ‘em where they ain't, clogging the bases up and making those inevitable home runs even more damaging.
The game simply could not be played without shame; in 847 games spanning nearly 13 years of existence, Coors Field had never hosted a 1-0 game, the epitome of a "classic pitcher's duel."
A Tropical Solution
Attendance dwindled as the Colorado fans felt swindled. Their baseball team wasn't major league after all; they were simply offered up as cannon fodder for the revitalization of the popularity of the game. Scientists were gathered, and they proposed a solution – let's make the baseballs more humid, to bring them back to sea level.
The Humidor was approved and built in 2005, and within months the home team had officially entered the pantheon of "pitcher's duels," beating the Padres 1-0. Last year, even more surprising effects began to be noticed: by midseason, the Rockies' pitching jumped up into the top-5 in ERA, and the team was a fully-fledged division contender.
Young talents and veteran pitchers alike benefitted from the new environment – sophomore lefty Jeff Francis held his ERA below 4.00 until the last month of the season and led the staff in wins, and six-tour man Jason Jennings set career marks in ERA and strikeouts, finally able to miss bats with his stuff. Even with human driftwood in the rotation, in the forms of Byung Hyng Kim and former Pirate Josh Fogg, the Rockies were a dangerous foe. The NL West, who once circled games against Colorado on the schedule, were chastened by this emergence of talent and ability.
But this year, something is wrong. The Rockies are tied for the most runs allowed in the national league, and once again find themselves in the basement of the division at 13-18. The ability of the game to humiliate is on display once again for the poor fans in Colorado.
Francis in particular may want to consider donning the paper bag – he has a 7.66 ERA in 4 starts at home. Jennings is gone, fleeing for the natural humidity down in Houston; in his place the Rockies now feature an interesting young pitcher named Jason Hirsch from the Astro farm system.
The Shame of it All
Our Cardinals may not be battling the elements, but they have endured their share of torment and shame, leading me to wonder if this is not the most miserable defending World Champion the game has ever seen. Our next victory against a team from the NL East or West will be our first. And even with this weekend's series victory – only their fourth in eleven tries this season – the runs are still scarce, and our starting pitchers must be nearly perfect to land in the "W" column.
So when the league's most punchless bats come across its most hittable pitching staff, which side will surrender? Our very resistable force or their extremely movable objects? Without the thin Colorado air under our bats, I hesitate to answer.