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Bull City Summer

Baseball begs to be documented

Posted May 10, 2013
Updated May 20, 2013

The season began a little over a month ago, so perhaps Bull City Summer seems, well, a little behind in the count. No matter: being behind in the count only makes you focus better. It makes you pay closer attention, develop a plan, get smarter about what you’re doing up there.

In fact, we only seem behind. Our team of writers and photographers has been at the ballpark – and beyond – from the very first home game of the season: taking pitches, taking pictures. We’ve been documenting unseen. We’re ready to unload, as they say of power hitters. We’ve got a lot of hits in these bats.

Baseball, more than any other sport, begs to be documented. The famous sanctity of its numbers depends on an accountant’s punctilio. “You could look it up,” goes the famous baseball quotation. It’s attributed to the Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel, but he probably took it from the short story of the same title by James Thurber. Not only the title, but the plot of the story as well, gave us an important piece of baseball legend.

“You Could Look It Up” concerns a midget sent up to bat in a ballgame. He’s supposed to take four pitches and draw what would be a bases-loaded, game-tying, ninth-inning walk; but the fourth pitch, a fat one thrown by the frustrated pitcher—“big as a balloon and slower’n any ball ever throwed before in the major leagues”—is too tempting. The midget swings and hits a tapper; he’s thrown out after a wild, riotous play, after which he himself is hurled in the air by his own irate manager, “ketched for the final out of the ball game” by the St. Louis center fielder.

A decade later, maverick St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck (also in the Hall of Fame) ran with Thurber’s idea—life imitating art, palely, as it always does—famously hiring 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to do what Thurber’s little person couldn’t accomplish. Gaedel drew the walk as instructed, and now he’s immortal.

You very likely already knew about Eddie Gaedel, but here’s something about him you probably don’t know: his great-nephew, Kyle Gaedele, is currently a minor-league outfielder in the San Diego Padres system. You could look that up, too. Gaedele is twenty-three years old—and, to address your curiosity (or perhaps soothe your anxiety), 6-foot-3.

Among the many things you’ll learn from Kyle Gaedele’s Baseball Reference player page is that he was originally drafted in 2008, in the thirty-second round, by the Tampa Bay Rays. Followers of the Durham Bulls will know that the Bulls are the Triple-A affiliate of the Rays. Had Gaedele signed with Tampa Bay that year—he was eighteen years old—he might eventually have become a Durham Bull. He might even have been one right now. Instead, he went to college at Valparaiso and improved his draft stock. Gaedele eventually signed, out of the sixth round, with San Diego in 2011.

Gaedele could still become a Bull, of course. Tampa Bay does a goodly amount of business with San Diego—front offices do have their collegial allegiances, despite what seems like the cold faceless character of trading—and the Bulls have more than one former Padre farmhand on their current roster. Two of them were recently involved in a rare play here in Durham—one of numerous oddities and singularities we’ve already witnessed early in the 2013 season.

It has already been an odd and singular season at the ballpark, and we’re only a quarter of the way into it. Bull City Summer picked a good year to document, and not only because it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of the legendary movie, Bull Durham. Before the season even began, the Bulls were juiced up by the anticipated arrival of super-prospect Wil Myers—sort of the hitting version of Bull Durham pitcher Nuke LaLoosh—a player of unusual potential and excitement (see this for more). You can buy from the Bulls a special ticket package in “Wilville,” a seating area out in right field, where Myers plays. (Naturally, he has not really played all that well so far.)

That started us off with a shot of adrenaline. Then, in just the season’s first month, all kinds of remarkable, exciting, bizarre and sometimes tragic things have happened on the diamond. It is often said that what defines baseball is its relentless, repetitive dailiness, but this year, the game’s normally even temper and tempo have been revved and ramped up by cymbals and timpani, by dissonance and decibels and drama—we’re watching something more like opera than like studious, classical variations on the usual themes, at the usual pace.

Bull City Summer is doing some parallel work for the Paris Review, and so far the focus has been on new and different ways of seeing baseball, especially sui generis Triple-A baseball. Our goal is to free it from the amber of sentimentality in which it usually finds itself stuck.

But the thing is—the lesson Bull City Summer is already learning—the thing is that if you keep watching baseball, in new ways or old—as long as you watch closely (as documentarians are trained to do)—it keeps giving you new things to see. It rewards your close attention, regardless of type, with singularities and surprises.

To wit—and to get down to baseball here: In just the first month of the season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, we have seen not one but two baserunners struck by batted balls between first and second base and called out (as the rules dictate)—which I had never seen happen in person before. One of the baserunners was Jason Pridie of the Norfolk Tides, on April 12. The other was the Bulls’ Tim Beckham, on May 6. Pridie played for the Bulls back in 2007—so he’s a closer connection than he might appear.

Another exceedingly rare, automatic-out rules violation we’ve seen this year: The Bulls’ speedy Hak-Ju Lee was zooming around third base in a game on April 10, trying to score from first base on a Jason Bourgeois double. However, he didn’t see his third base coach, Dan Dement, putting up the hold sign at third until he was well past the bag. Dement leaned in toward the base path a bit in order to get himself into Lee’s line of sight. Lee spotted him at the last second and instinctively reached out and half-grabbed (really grazed) Dement to slow himself down. He was called out, by rule. You can’t touch your coach. I had never seen that before, either.

But about those two former Padres and that big play they were involved in—another new thrill for me (and not seen at the DBAP in seven years)—yet another rarity. Vincent Belnome and Cole Figueroa both came to the Rays organization in trades with San Diego: Belnome just last fall, Figueroa in 2010. In a game on April 26, Belnome hit a grand slam to give the Bulls a commanding early lead, and in the sixth inning they were up 5-2. Grand slams are unusual, but not that unusual. I’ve even see a Bull hit two of them in one game.

What came after the grand slam, however, was unusual. Durham reliever Steve Geltz (more on him here) came on in the sixth inning to preserve the three-run lead, but he allowed the first two batters he faced to reach base. The tying run was suddenly coming to the plate with no outs. The next batter was Toledo catcher Bryan Holaday, and the catcher part is important. Catchers are slow. Holaday hit a grounder right at the Bulls’ third baseman: Cole Figueroa. Figueroa stepped on third and—before you could quite wrap your mind around what was about to happen—started a triple play! Figueroa fired to second base, where the second baseman—yep—Vince Belnome—received the throw, pivoted quickly, and relayed to Chris Gimenez at first. Holaday might actually have been safe, but as Figueroa put it after the game, the umpire’s only going to get himself on YouTube by calling Holaday out. Umps want glory, too, and it’s so hard for them to achieve because virtually nothing they do in a baseball game can ever be looked up. When they get attention, it’s almost always for mistakes.

The triple play was electrified the ballpark that night, and there was plenteous postgame clubhouse chatter about it with the media—but then it was forgotten. The best part of the You Tube video comes just past the :30 mark: Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Neil Allen walk along the dugout, virtually oblivious to their excited players, consulting about who will come in to pitch next. They’ve already moved on. That’s baseball. “Manage the game, know what’s going on. Stay two or three steps ahead of schedule.” {{a href="external_link-"10"}}Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said that.{{/a}} The thing about baseball: you play it every day. There is so little time to relive or revel (or regret, as we shall see).

Another example of the season’s red-letter character so far, and of how quickly the red-letter days are discarded: On May 5, the last day of an eight-game road trip, the Bulls threw a combined four-pitcher no-hitter (!) against the Pawtucket Red Sox, up in Rhode Island. It was just the second no-hitter thrown by the Bulls since they became a Triple-A team in 1998. Both of the no-hitters required multiple pitchers, and in both, the team that got no-hit actually scored a run. In fact, Durham nearly lost to Pawtucket last Sunday. The outcome was scarily in doubt up to the final strike. The Bulls won, 2-1, surviving a 400-foot out in deep center field and stranding the tying run on second base.

Bull City Summer wasn’t in Pawtucket on May 5, but the next night the Bulls came home, where our crew was waiting, and hosted the Syracuse Chiefs—who shut them out, 5-0. (That was the night Tim Beckham, running between first and second base, got hit by the batted ball.) It was the first time this season the Bulls failed to score a run in a game. By this time last year, they had already been shut out six times—including being on the wrong end of a multiple-pitcher no-hitter themselves, near the end of a ruinous thirteen-game losing streak that doomed the team before May Day officially arrived. This year’s club is 20-13, keeping pace with the best teams in the league—another good reason to have picked this summer to document.

After the Bulls were shut out by Syracuse on Monday night, manager Charlie Montoyo began his postgame media session with a jocular evasion of the ugly game his team had just lost: “Can we talk about the no-hitter instead?” We all laughed, but the thing is, I thought he was serious: I thought we were going to talk about the no-hitter. I mean, it’s a no-hitter! And it was a tense one. I would have been delighted to hear about it from the winning team’s manager, who had to pull the trigger on three risky pitching changes.

But no, Montoyo really was joking. He immediately started talking about the just-completed 5-0 loss to Syracuse. We did not talk about the no-hitter, not at all, not one word. The Bulls had three players dealing with minor injuries. One of those injuries required an adjustment to the starting pitching rotation on Monday night—a big reason why they lost—and the other two contributed to a catcher playing first base for the first time in his career. (Another injury would cost them the game the following night.)

We talked about all of that. We talked about the weather (bad), and the travel (long). We talked about the comparatively boring but unavoidably fresh baseball game that had just been played. We didn’t talk about the thrilling no-hitter, the last two innings of which my wife and I listened to on the radio until we were almost late for a dinner engagement. The no-hitter was one day old, but it might as well have been a year old. It was ancient history.

What Tom Hanks means when he says “There’s no crying in baseball” is that the sport has no room for the past, which is what crying is about: regret over what has happened, over what you wish you could undo but can’t (spilt milk and all). What’s done is done, but that goes for the good stuff, too. You can’t go back and do again what you wish you could relive. (Try it in real life and see how badly it goes.) Joy, as well as pain, has to be consigned immediately to the books, which are dutifully kept, and where you could look it up forever—emotion recollected in tranquility. Baseball, of course, is the sport that most quickly reverts to a tranquil state. It does that after almost every pitch, no matter what uproar it may result in.

Perhaps the most jarring example of this willful forgetfulness is provided by yet another unusual, never-seen-it-before play that has already happened this season—probably the most important one, from a larger perspective, that will occur for the Bulls in 2013. So we’d better get it down now: Hak-Ju Lee, the speedster who was called out for touching his third base coach, suffered a disastrous, season-ending injury two days later, on April 12, when a bad throw caused him to leap into in harm’s way for a dangerous catch. The baserunner he was trying to put out slid into his knee, tearing ligaments. I wrote about it for Baseball Prospectus recently; that’s a pay site, but I’ll have more on the injury, and Hak-Ju Lee, in my next Paris Review piece.

The main thing about this dreadful, tragic, catastrophic play is that the team has moved on. In fact, they moved on virtually the moment Lee was carried off the field. There’s no crying in baseball. The Show must go on—with a capital S, as in the major leagues, the unseen master ultimately controlling all of the action on a minor-league diamond. But baseball is also a lowercase show: it’s theater, entertainment. (Lee’s understudy came right into the game—Cole Figueroa.) And like theater, it is meant to be perishable. What happens in sports stops being news very, very quickly—maybe that is its greatest asset. We need operatic passions of no consequence, no duration, in order to live, otherwise we would be always on fire, in an eternal calvary of desire and disappointment and remorse igniting new desire—a cycle of suffering, our passions draping us in what T. S. Eliot called “the intolerable shirt of flame.” We are made new not by our passions but by our survival of them. We survive by making documents. That may be what Joan Didion really meant when she wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We use the stories to survive the living. That’s why, when it’s all said and done, you could look it up.

***

Some practical guidance: Just as baseball is an individual sport in the guise of a team sport, Bull City Summer’s progress depends on discrete, often isolated accomplishments. The members of our team all have different concerns and training, work in different mediums and styles and at different rates. You’ll find new content here on a frequent basis. We’ll take turns stepping up to the plate, so to speak, and we’ll produce dramatically different results. What are we aiming for? The games will tell us.

My own work will be of two types: You’ll find regular game reports, notes, that sort of thing—something close to what I’ve been doing the last few years—and you’ll also find a different series of offerings under the heading “Replacement Level.” That phrase comes from sabermetrics (the advanced-stat study of baseball), and it refers, essentially, to Triple-A and its comparative quality. In addition to tracking the daily goings-on at Durham Bulls Athletic Park (and beyond—I’ve already made one trip down to Knights Stadium in Charlotte this year), I want to explore the larger game being played by the Durham Bulls and their opponents: Why aren’t these players in the major leagues, despite being so close to that glory? My “Replacement Level” posts will consider the many sides of that essential, vexing question. Look for that series as a soberer companion to my more regular baseball benders.

It’s been a cool, even cold spring, but today hit eighty degrees and the ants came marching back into our house, as they do at the beginning of summer every year: unmistakable signs. It’s the perfect day to welcome you to Bull City Summer. The season feels like it’s just beginning. Keep visiting us all summer long. Who knows what further singularities await?

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  • 75Tarheel May 10, 2:19 p.m.

    And for sure GO BULLS!!!

  • 75Tarheel May 10, 1:36 p.m.

    I love baseball. I love watching it, coaching it (especially), digesting stats, the smell of baseball; fresh mown grass, hotdogs, FFs, popcorn and everything and anything else associated with baseball. Now that our middle school season is over I have a chance to watch the big leagues and the little leagues, the American Legion and the T-ball. It's just great to around baseball!!

    GO YANKEES!!
    GO BRAVES!!

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