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It was somewhere between his seventh and eighth time lining up along third base that Domingo Alvarez contemplated what he was doing out there.  His coaches stood 25, 50 and 100 meters perpendicular to the line he and his winded teammates occupied, stopwatches bulging from shirt pockets, great hunks of tobacco from cheeks.  The purpose of the given drill was to sprint to the 25 meter line designated by the first timekeeper, touch the ground with their hand, about face and return to the starting position along third, touching again with the hand.  This is to be followed as quickly as possible by return trips to the 50 and 100 meter markers, culminating in a full sprint of 100 meters back to the line at third, the three distinct down-and-backs constituting one complete cycle.

Sprinting 350 meters is a fairly Herculean task.  Track and Field personalities will often, when considering the most difficult events for a runner, slot the 400M, one revolution of the track, behind the 400M hurdles and the 2 mile in terms of capacity for sheer exhaustion.  The race is a pure sprint, though with the mercifully short conclusion of the 100M quadrupled, managing to seem impossibly longer as each successive step becomes heavier and less rapid.  Having performed the near equivalent of six 400M cycles, all with predictably diminishing returns, morale along the dirt began to flag.  With his abdomen pulsing at alarmingly irregular intervals and quick pulls of air into stinging lungs providing little relief, Domingo Alvarez considered what in the hell was going on.

They had lost, 2-0.  Their opponent, Sacramento, has an unbelievable team.  Numbers one through six have been all-stars in various minor league levels, with at least four anticipating call-ups to the majors in the ensuing season.  Fletcher Rothchild, Albuquerque’s dependable though by no means elite starter navigated the lineup with startlingly clinical ease.  A former hard thrower who’s diminished velocity has almost certainly relegated him to one or another location in the unpromising stratification of the minors for his career’s duration, Rothchild nevertheless commanded immense respect amongst his teammates and opposition.

This acknowledgement turned out to be the result of a fierce competition one wouldn’t ordinarily expect out of a soft thrower, but is made all the more understandable when considering the uphill battle they face each game.  Though it is common to associate velocity with tenacity, the supposed fire burning within a hard thrower is more the outward manifestation of their effort.  A grunt or a bellow following the whip of the arm mostly suggests the taxing physical aspect of tossing an object with such force, not an indication of any sort of drive beyond those of lesser arms.  As guys with big arms play, and if they remain ascending the ranks, play successfully, a comfort zone is often erected to surround their genetic gift in the steadily crystallizing realization that a pitch need only be partially rather than completely executed to achieve an out.  There is an inherent safety net by way of this enhanced appendage that allows the pitcher, if he so chooses, to insert a degree of nonchalance to his art.  If this aversion to detail evolves from generally isolated instances (for even the most mentally honed players will suffer the occasional human drift in thought) into habit, it almost certainly guarantees a decline in mental toughness.  The soft thrower is commonly addressed with such euphemistic adjectives as “crafty”, “tricky”, “deceptive” or overall referred to not as a thrower or a pitcher but as a “gamer”, someone who, despite their glaring lack of imposing physical tools, will nonetheless prove a very real obstacle.  This obstinate quality is often explained, on a scale inverse to that of the freedom afforded fire ballers, to be the result of a unique mental edge, some template in their preparation which acknowledges the physical gap between themselves and their more blessed peers and fords that passage with unyielding professionalism.  Allowing for the inescapable march of time and fatigue, these men remain relevant (to the degrees they remain relevant) by understanding the game.

If hard throwers populate one of three player categories which successfully pitch in professional baseball, namely “The Throwers”, then “The Veterans” are the ones who stick around with a combination, shifting for each particular practitioner, of guile, stamina, statistical assumptions, and, though slightly dramatic, bravery.*  *(If confidence can be considered an ability of one to enter a situation which has the possibility of ending horribly without concern, then it should follow that simply taking the mound, when there is a chance of each at bat ending with a high-five as the hitter is congratulated by the third base coach, requires something that resembles courage.)  The third group, one that deftly combines the innate ability of Throwers with the essential, survivable knowledge of the Veterans, is “The Pitchers”.  These are the guys who can strike out each hitter in a lineup with just a fastball but will save their bullets for late-inning jams.  These men have two to three effective secondary pitches behind that searing fastball but will not introduce at least two of them until the second time through the lineup.  Most pitchers occupy one of those titles, if at all, for only a brief portion of their careers.  Sometimes Throwers never make the adjustments to become Pitchers and fizzle out, failing to last long enough to become a Veteran.  A live arm might fade earlier than usual and through perseverance the pitcher resurrects the career – failing to achieve the nominal title of “Pitcher”, but doubtlessly having endured enough soul-searching and tinkering to, even at youthful age, achieve the tag of “Veteran”.

Fletcher Rothchild took the textbook path of progression.  Beginning as a terrifyingly wild sidearmer, with mounting frustration and the saintly patience of pitching Coach Hal Evans, the duo massaged that unwieldy delivery into a hellacious fastball/slider tandem, signaling his arrival into the Pitcher brotherhood.  Sapped of force by occasionally acute elbow trouble from that unorthodox delivery as well as the cumulative effect of a season’s worth of overall attrition, these days he is, unequivocally, a Veteran.

And so it was with the incorruptible fervor of a Veteran that Rothchild went after Sacramento that afternoon.  The game began on an inauspicious note for Fletcher and Albuquerque.  The first pitch offered to Glen Foster, Sacramento’s center fielder and leadoff hitter, is scalded back up the middle to meet Rothchild on the upper right (pitching) arm.  Maintaining awareness, Rothchild shuffles down the mound after the de-fanged baseball, its impact almost entirely absorbed by the fleshy patch beneath Rothchild’s shoulder, scoops it up bare-handed and lobs over to first.  As the ball makes its way around the infield, the manager, Marty Lomax, and trainer, Flip Hawkins, come jogging out from the bench to investigate the potential damage.

“How you feelin’ there, Fletch?”

“It’ll swell tomorrow but I’m good to go.”

Lomax and Hawkins exchange looks and slight nods before Lomax pats Rothchild on the back and the coaching pair shuffles back towards the dugout.  A combined 93 years of professional baseball transforms such discussions of serious bodily harm into entirely non-verbal exchanges.  Concern, frustration, honesty – some of the most significant mile markers on the emotional spectrum are conveyed and registered in gestures undetectable beyond the inner-most seating rows offering intimate proximity.  Rothchild need only tilt his head ever so slightly, as he does here, and let his right arm, still holding the ball, protecting, drift behind his back and out of view of the manger, to effectively plead his case.  Lomax understood implicitly.  And when he got the affirmative side-to-side headshake from Rothchild, a baseball equivalent of the counter-intuitive thumbs system employed in the Coliseum, he was comfortable leaving his man in.

The first pitch following a few granted warm-up tosses is up tight to Sacramento’s second basemen, Alberts, who backs out of the box to check the dugout signs.  No one chirps from Sacramento’s dugout.  A degree of wildness is expected after taking one near the shoulder, and considering the velocity of the offering wouldn’t have gotten him pulled over on 78% of U.S. highways, ill-intent was pretty much dismissed entirely.  Beyond that, if Alberts had the ability to diagnose pitches and redirect them with speed and accuracy at will, his presence in this level of baseball would be pointless.

The second pitch is a carbon copy of the first in location, though slightly faster.  Alberts again consults his dugout, wondering how to handle the favorable 2-0 count against a guy who may be developing control issues, though cultivating the budding counter-argument that these might be intentional.  ‘The next one will tell me’, he thinks.  ‘I’m looking up and in all the way, and if he dots the outside corner or drops in a breaking ball, then he’s fine.’  His ability to do that, however, betrays Rothchild’s actual control, meaning the two pitches prior were intentionally up and in.  ‘Is this gamesmanship?’ Alberts thinks.  ‘Rothy’s been around forever, seen all these things…this could actually be on purpose.’  As he digs back in with the green light from the bench, he decides to wait.  Rothchild doesn’t throw close to what he used to, and I’m ready to duck or back out if need be.  And even then, it’ll be 3-0, and he’ll either get warned or they’ll get someone going in the bullpen, which would make this one a rout given Albuquerque’s infamous relief struggles.

The third pitch is a slow barreling curve, letter high and middle of the plate, 2-1.  ‘All right, he’s doing his thing.  Doesn’t want to go 3-1, this should be hittable.’

The fourth pitch knocks Alberts on his back, as up as the first two but at least a foot more inside.

‘God damnit!’  Alberts rolls onto his knees and begins to gather his effects: helmet, bat, composure.

‘How ’bout a warning there, Jim!?’  Sacramento manager Otis Merriworth hollers towards home plate.  Assistant coaches coax recently mobile players back into seats on the bench – too early for this nonsense.

‘I’ve got it, O’ replies umpire Jeff Hicks.  Albuquerque catcher Williams ambles out to chat with his seasoned counterpart, with Hicks along in hot pursuit.  ‘How we doing, Rothy?’ asks Williams, quickly and quietly before they’re interrupted.  But Rothchild just smiles out the left side of his mouth a bit, taps the shoulder with his glove and winks at Williams.

‘What’s up here, Roth, we alright?’ says Hicks.

‘Oh the wing’s fine, thank you for asking.’

‘I meant what’s with the tight stuff?  If you’re not in control I’m gonna have to make a decision here.  Show me something.’

‘We’re good’, interjects Williams.  ‘Just talking some shop.’

‘Well let’s hurry it up.’

The pair head back behind the plate.  Hicks re-establishes the count at 3-1.

‘Come on’, Alberts mutters to himself, anxious for retribution.  Williams gives a glance upwards to find Alberts wringing the life out of his bat’s handle, chalk and sweat blending as a paste at the base of his wrists.  He then gives a glance out to Rothchild to come to a decision.  The tap of the glove lets Williams drop down two fingers and smile, settling into his crouch.

Rothchild nods at the sign, comes set and explodes towards home with a ferocious whip of the arm.  Alberts’ pupils dilate to an obscene degree and he lets loose a bruising, full-bodied hack which, just as it passes the plate’s halfway mark and his senses detect not the hastened end over end fastball rotation but the awkward, heavy, drifting spin of the curve, he desperately attempts to keep in the zone as long as possible.

He does, ultimately – though not fortuitously.  When his partial contact results in a benign foul behind the plate, Williams loses his mark, casually corrals the ball and hurls it over the third to begin the throw-around.  Alberts paces back towards the dugout with purpose, some combination of frustration, disappointment and confusion.

“Beat the hell outta that one,” offers Williams, mask back on and resuming his crouch.

“What’s that?” responds Alberts.

Hicks extinguishes the would-be kerfuffle.  “Back to the dugout – none of that.  Too hot and too early.”

But the seed was planted.  Whatever mixed bag of emotions was competing for dominance within Alberts following his at-bat all at once gave way to a bubbling incensement he knew he’d have to suppress for at least eight more batters.

He decided to use this time advantageously, keeping track of Rothchild’s tendencies, such as they were applicable to his at bat (left handed hitters and more traditional power hitters had approaches and plate disciplines incompatible with Alberts’ and provided little to no information on how his next at bat might play out).  What Alberts made sure to key in on, then, was how Rothchild handled Clifton “Spanks” Dillon, Sacramento’s 9th hitter.  Spanks had more or less the same skill set as Alberts, albeit with an avg. / obp below his of 30 and 60 points, respectively.  Spanks was in that all-too crucial part of his development where, if strides aren’t taken in rapid succession, he’d soon be acquainted with what folks in the organization had taken to calling the “10th spot” in the batting order – irrevocable banishment.  Spanks, armed with this knowledge, was going to approach each of his potentially dwindling number of at-bats with a tenacity Rothchild might not be prepared for.  At the very least, by the time Spanks had either reached and eclipsed first or returned to the dugout, Rothchild will have had to pitch to the same type of hitter utilizing two different approaches in the span of only three innings.  This, Alberts reasoned, was plenty helpful for his next trip up.

Just as the serenity of this realization settled into Alberts’ stiffened shoulders, Spanks made an abrupt – even for him – return.

“This some bullshit!”

Stomping down the long, slim cement steps it’s hard to suppress a smile when faced with the incongruity of a muscular, athletic, all-around universally intimidating specimen venting frustration and having the soundtrack to this outburst be the delicate plastic-on-concrete “click, clack” interspersed between obscenities.  Fortunately, the dugout half-emptied to return to the field, Spanks’ out being the ninth consecutive registered by Rothchild.  Alberts didn’t have to concern himself with keeping a straight face, having been studying intently in the hole on the top step.

What he was able to learn from Spanks’ outing proved almost completely useless.  Spanks decided upon a first pitch no matter what approach, but immediately and quite unfortunately found himself in the unenviable scenario of needing to make contact (a not insignificant prospect for a .220 minor league hitter) or losing an eye.  Whether Rothchild had designs on Spanks’ plan, if the arm was beginning to swell from the shot in the 1st or if he’s just a little unhinged, that first pitch veered in towards the batter’s box with an industrial, locomotive directness which registered a fear in Sacramento’s #9 hitter so elemental it lingered, in some capacity, for the remainder of his career.  It was as if he was reminded, like a dog owner taken aback by a rare display of ferocity, his profession involves a considerable amount of very real danger.  Success in baseball demands familiarity with its most violent axiom, an agreed upon contract between the pitcher with impeccable control who is not motivated by malicious factors and those whom he faces.  Players arrive at their comfort levels early on, either in high school or the lower ranks of their respective organizations.  This status quo is shaken every once in a while when a pitch comes sailing in with the kind of unequivocal intent that Rothchild’s did to Spanks.  The player is wrestled free of their comfortable ignorance to harm as the game reestablishes its propensity for chaos and each player has to pick up the pieces in whatever way they can.

To his credit Spanks managed to defend himself from the single pitch, but he became yet another victim of Rothchild’s infuriating efficiency that day, another zero in what seemed destined to become a decidedly binary box score, if only Sacramento could manage a hit.  Alberts would have to spend his next half-inning in the field with no more information than the last two.

Holding up their end of the apparently implicit ineptitude bargain, Albuquerque’s turns at the plate prove equally worthless.  Whether tired, clueless or slumping, there appeared no remedy for such a meager offensive performance against Shaughnessy, Sacramento’s pitcher that day.  Colm Shaughnessy, a somewhat tall right-hander, had thin, angular legs, which met his waist and then, curiously, gave way to a bulbous, barrel chested torso sporting arms dangling and defined enough to row across the Atlantic.  The spatial incongruity of top and bottom made him look cartoonish on the mound, like a uniformed placard that, appropriately, was an absolute strike-throwing machine.  Colm wasn’t utilizing any type of possibly malicious tactic the way Rothchild seemed to be, he was just dominating.

A year earlier in the Rule 4 Draft, held in the crowded, beige-lit conference room of a downtown Minneapolis Radisson, every team in the majors had “Shaughnessy” at the top, corner, or some otherwise marked and easily accessible segment of their draft sheets.  Regardless of the specific needs of any given team, the undeniable talent this kid possessed made his acquisition and cultivation an impossible-to-ignore circumstance.  Only twenty percent of the teams in attendance had any real shot of picking the kid.  That many had a chance since there were certainly a few other considerable talents demanded recognition, particularly to clubs who considered themselves adequately stocked with pitching prospects.  That few because the kid’s agent, predictably and alarmingly (as far as potential suitors were concerned) knew exactly how special this right arm was.  A pick, even of a no-doubter like Shaughnessy, carried with it significant concern over signability.

If a selection wasn’t paired with at minimum a six-figure signing bonus in a matter of days, the high school kid could always take one of the myriad scholarships he’d been offered and three years later some other club could snatch him up.  It was a combination of organizational need and liquidity, then, that was going to sign Colm Shaughnessy.  Thankfully for them, that year the Oakland A’s had jettisoned a few of their more stultifying contracts and were in a position to unload, if necessary, the requisite ransom.  Shaughnessy would have accepted a contract for a fraction of what his camp was advertising, though vocalizing this viewpoint was discouraged.

Thus far the move has paid immediate and promising dividends, with Shaughnessy anchoring Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate and putting up impressive slash statistics in the overwhelmingly offensive-geared Pacific Coast League.  His 12-1 record ranks first in the Pacific Coast League at this point in the summer in wins and win percentage, while his 12 wins and 14 quality starts are each in the top 3 in all the Triple-A levels.

In addition to the individual success he has garnered for himself, the nearly unblemished record has undoubtedly been aided by Sacramento’s brutal, war-of-attrition offense.  The team thus far in the year has managed to be in the top 5 of Triple-A teams in on base percentage, batting average, runs, extra base hits, walks, hit by pitches and batter strikeouts.  It’s a lineup opposing managers agonize about facing, while opposing pitchers often times mentally allow for the likelihood of a horrendous afternoon.  For some this means not abstaining the night prior when out with the team, for others it simply lessens the pre-game intensity and shortens rituals.

Which is why it was odd to see Fletcher Rothchild studying the lineup card and whatever scouting reports were available well before pre-game stretching was set to commence.  A couple of the younger outfielders joked he was reading himself his last rites.  In any event, this shot passed harmlessly overhead.  Rothchild kept shuffling papers, scribbling here and there into margins.  What looked like it could have been the early manifestations of veteran madness was apparently the groundwork for a successful, if idiosyncratic, plan of attack. By the seventh inning it was a scoreless affair and Sacramento was beginning to get frustrated – just as Albuquerque started to believe.

Alberts adopts a crouch in the on deck circle, cradling his bat between the knees, helmet tilted down at the ground, contemplative.  In the 4th, still incensed by their earlier meeting, he went to the plate with a see-it, hit-it attitude that Fletcher immediately exploited.  In complete pull mode, Alberts made a thoroughly athletic play simply making contact with a tauntingly lifeless changeup arriving at the plate’s outside corner.    A squib shot up the first base line hooked far enough towards the mound that with minimal effort allowed Williams to jog out from behind home, bare hand and with a slight pivot to Alberts’ left deliver a clean out to first.  Two outs, then.  First at the expense of an unpredictable pitch sequence, then by his own unchecked aggression.  Alberts ground the head of the bat into the barren dirt at his feet, perhaps some oil lay beneath.  If at bats 1 and 2 are the outliers in terms of discipline, he reasons somewhere in between is the Bombe to this particular Enigma.

I can eliminate first pitch fastball; he’d be too hesitant after the first pitch swing in the 4th.  I can eliminate a curve as well if he’s thinking the same thing about a fastball and assuming I’ve arrived at that thought as well.  A changeup is a certain possibility given the result from the 4th, but he can seldom throw that for strikes and at this stage in the game he can’t want to fall behind hitters.  Alberts, while never a pure guess hitter has also been concerned with going to the plate entertaining too many options.  In college and the minors his coaches and mentors had often professed this mythical Zen-like consciousness hitters are supposed to achieve, some kind of organic harmony between analysis and feel.  Never an overt convert, some of the teachings did make a good deal of sense, especially to someone as prone to overthought as himself.

Visualization exercises were often employed where one would see the path of the type of pitch they expect, and that would undoubtedly aid when that pitch was thrown.  Alberts found that this approach was phenomenally successful.  If he imagined a beautiful parabolic curve, for instance, and then had the good fortune to be thrown one, more often than not the result was a follow-through of such physiological bliss the credit, in his mind, rightfully had to be ascribed to something not of this earth.  For those times the visualized isn’t thrown, however, this tactic has the habit of leaving hitters out to dry.  What feels so inescapably destined when successful becomes positively conspiratorial when flipped on its head.  What ended up working best for him was a kind of Russian roulette, having one to two pitches in mind and assigning likelihood to each delivery from the pitcher with the unbiased objectivity of the spin of the chamber.

Glen Foster stares down a called strike three, remains in the box for a beat with a head shake then retreats to the dugout to nurse the afternoon’s inefficacy.  Alberts lifts his head and rises from the crouch, fastball and curve ping-ponging through his head like possessed electrons until he calls upon an empirical means of selection.

“Fuck it.”

Rothchild looks in to Williams, nods and comes set.  He doesn’t leer at Alberts in any capacity; he just as easily could have been a pinch hitter.  It wasn’t like Rothchild to harbor animosity or nurse grudges – a brawl or a feud has never advanced his career and didn’t seem likely to.  He remembers hitters in ways which benefit his performance. First pitch fastball hitter, first pitch taking all the way, pure pull…these consolidate and weave together over the years, but are never animated to become anything beyond reference points.  Whether a player liked him or didn’t was of little consequence, they are obstacles which can be solved.  And he had done his homework on Sacramento.  Alberts saw a looping curve tumble out of Rothchild’s hand and ease its way down towards the middle of plate, being thrown for a strike.  As his arms tightened and the barrel met the pitch and redirected it, this barely registered in vibrations through his torso.  He was delighted to find this lack of response was not the outcome of the failure-free visualization tactic but, much like Rosemary’s epiphany, “this is actually happening.”  Alberts met the ball on the lower inside part of the plate and fluidly extended his arms as his hips shifted through the zone.  The textbook swing was accompanied by a heavy and brief thud, an elemental thud so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick the outcome, unmistakable, induced a unanimous, Pavlovian groan from the home crowd.  As the ball cleared the left field wall in approximately 5 seconds the day’s work for Rothchild had been undone that quickly.  Unceremonious and deflating, Lomax trotted out to take the pulse of his veteran and grant a few more tosses to Stults who, what with Rothchild’s elevated pitch count, had begun warming in the sixth.

“That’s just some shit luck there, Fletch.”

“I’m finishing this fucker.”

“We got Stultsy all ready to go, hasn’t pitched since last Wednesday.”

“Marty, I’m not asking.”

“This was a beaut until that Limey got lucky.  Hell, still is.  Take the final few off, you earned it.”

“I didn’t earn shit.  You pay me to pitch, let me pitch.”

An awkward tension had developed on the mound and the longer Lomax stayed out there, and the more infielders formed along the perimeter, he felt his argument weaken.

“Fair enough.  Have at ’em, kid.”

Rothchild didn’t bother responding.  He didn’t need to extend a glove asking for the ball from Lomax, either, as he’d never relinquished it.

Lomax returned to the dugout a bit embarrassed, begrudgingly fine with letting his guy stay in.  “What was that about?” asks Hawkins.

“Fletch is feeling his oats today.  Good for him.”

Lomax’ last line was said with enough bitter bemusement that, when coupled with the two coaches’ exchanging a devilish look, it inspires the same groan from the bench as Alberts’ dinger did the crowd.

Rothchild, whether incensed at the homerun, the quick hook Lomax was ready to use on him, or the frustration of riding out his career’s end in parks with chain link outfield fences and between-innings mascot competitions, experienced a decided bump in velocity for his remaining batters.

A walk and a hit batsmen were sprinkled in amongst four strikeouts and a short-hop back to Rothchild for an inning ending double play.  Alberts clunked his bat in the on deck circle and watched the donut rattle down the length of the handle, wobble for a moment then settle into the ground like a dropped quarter.  When he looked up he expected to meet Rothchild’s gaze on the way to the dugout but the man was already settled on the bench, jacket over his right side.  The look puzzled Alberts as well as Albuquerque’s personnel – it suggested the possibility of the game continuing, an unlikely proposition given Sacramento’s dominating bullpen, as well as the fact he had nine innings pitched already.

Ultimately it didn’t make a difference, the home team amassed a paltry comeback attempt, stymied for good by an inexplicable caught stealing at second down two runs.  As Jackson got up at second, wiped himself off and trotted back to the dugout, head hung in shame, Albuquerque’s dugout started to stir and gather effects.  Rothchild took off the right side of his jacket and stood up, hands on hips, tilting his head left then right.

“Hell of an effort, Roth.  That homerun was some bullshit.”

“No it wasn’t, but thanks.”

“Don’t forget your jacket.”

Rothchild exhaled through his nose and took two steps towards the dugout stairs.  “We’re not going anywhere” he said, continuing his climb out onto the field.

“What the hell?!  Why’s the door locked?”

Confusion and frustration at the door to the clubhouse.

“Coach Hawkins is walking out to third base, if you would all be so kind as to join him.”

“What’s up, skip?”

“What’s up is I asked you to go meet your coach in the field.  Will you do that?”

A few worried glances ricochet among the men before they take to the field not without a fair amount of trepidation.  When they start to arrive along the fence at third, Rothchild, who had been chatting up Hawkins, disengages and approaches the white line in left with the rest of his team.

“Mr. Hawkins, could you please take Coaches Anderson and Miles with you and each stand next to one of the cones I’ve set up.”