I first employed my arm in the service of baseball at age five.
That athletic rain dance otherwise known as pitching mechanics didn’t come until later—around years eight, nine and 10—but they stayed with me as a work in progress until my late 20s. In high school, with manhood on the horizon, physical strength came to center stage. I found muscles I never realized I had, mostly because of Hell Week at the start of each baseball training season. In college, the focus was on powerful quads and hamstrings, with squats and deadlifts coming into vogue. Travel teams brought more mechanical issues, fall leagues pushed cardio, and pro ball gave way to a never-ending string of arm injury prevention exercises.
Twenty-one years of training to be the best. Twenty-one years of sore muscles and pushing past limitations. Twenty-one years of running sprints and distance and lifting and balancing and working twitch fibers and break muscles and eating protein shakes and pre-workout powders and otherwise mastering my body. Twenty-one years…And by the time I made to a big league mound as an actual big leaguer, it didn’t help me one bit.
A million foul pole-to-foul pole sprints and 20-minute flush runs—useless. I wasn’t a marathoner, but I shouldn’t have felt like I was having a heart attack after a light jog from the dugout to the mound. I can remember standing on that brown patch of agony, staring into the biggest crowd I’d ever been in front of, my heart beating out of my chest, damn near succumbing to vertigo, wondering, Is this it? Will this be the highest point in my life? Was it really happening? Yes, yes it was really happening. Am I going to have a heart attack at the highest point of my life?
Then, just when it clicks into to place that everything you’d ever done to get yourself there actually worked—just before you’re about to crack a smile and enjoy the moment—the bottom drops out. A great vacuum forms. In it, one single question: How do I get any of these guys out when I can’t remember how to pitch?
My first time on a big-league mound was like staring into the face of God. No, seriously. All those years dreaming of the existence of a thing. Breaking myself in service to it with nothing to go on but faith that if I wanted it badly enough, I’d make it to the promised land. Making deals with unseen, unknowable results. Karma and superstition and averages. Looking for meaning everywhere, anywhere. Weathering the bad and trying to stay humble during the good. And then like a mountain just materialized in your driveway, there it was, staring back at me, acknowledging that I—small, pathetic, insignificant me—existed.
I met God in San Francisco. Late August. A day game. Sunny, breezy, with sea salt in the air coming in off the bay. The stadium was so big, so damn big, like a temple of baseball. A great cathedral to the game. The grass wasn’t cut, it was burnished, polished, manicured—you could line the floors of a hospital with it. Orange everywhere—Giants orange. Giant video boards. Giant Buildings. Bochy’s giant head, that fleshy meteor, casting its eclipsing shadow across it all.
Being a writer—a keen observer, I was once called—is great until you realize you can’t turn off the mechanism that soaks up details. Turn off, turn off, turn off. If only I could have been that arrogant, oblivious athlete loved by coaches and hated by the media. Then I would have just acted like it was all there for me. Of course it was, I deserved it. Then I could shield myself with ego and focus on killing the enemy. Instead, the court reporter in my head just kept striking the keys, my eyes kept darting from site to site. I was a dog loose on the field, with too many scents and not enough nose.
My first series of warm-up pitches as a real big leaguer was nothing more than me desperately trying to keep the ball from hitting the backstop. My body didn’t work right. I couldn’t pull out of the dive my brain was on. There are cameras…so many cameras…every one is going to see me…oh God. EVERYONE IS GOING TO SEE ME! Meanwhile, my fastball skids off the top of the plate. I get it back. I massage it in my hands unconsciously. I lick my fingers, I—wait, you just licked your fingers. On the mound. Did the umpires see that? There are so many umpires! Stop licking your fingers in front of all these umpires. Turns out, it didn’t matter. My mouth was dry. My tongue like sandpaper brushing over leather lips.
My hands felt numb. The ball might as well have been seamless. The rubber was slippery. The mound was too firm. I was lost. I didn’t know this place. I paced the mound like a senior in an old folks’ home. I adjusted my shoes, took deep breaths, yanked on my hat, smacked my dry tongue over rough lips, another deep breath, mmm…hot dogs. How many hot dog vendors are in this place? Jesus Christ, do people really need that many concession stands? America is so fat. WHY THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT THIS NOW!?! More pacing.
Nothing I could do would settle me down. There was no point of reference for me to anchor myself with. Usually, a pitcher can find his bearing in his familiar rhythm of winding down the mound, but I couldn’t. Muscles didn’t fire correctly. I felt like was just tumbling down it, falling out of a tree and pitching. You’re going to hit someone. You’re going to hit someone and the fans will boo and the guy you hit will think it was intentional and then YOU’ll get hit. Well, at least you’re facing Zito…
Then the game started. Even now I look back knowing that it all happened, but I’m unable to explain precisely how it happened without a box score to prove it. I know that I walked Dave Roberts on five pitches. It wasn’t even close, though I distinctly remember that diabolical genius getting a strike called on him and stepping out of the box, shocked that it got called, needing a breather like I was pitching too fast for him. Get in the box, Roberts! It was one pitch, chest high, called a strike out of mercy from the umpire. If you’d have swung at that he’d have hit you with a tack hammer. He gets back in, digs in, looks past me like I’m not even there, and I walk him. Just like I knew I would.
Out comes my catcher, Josh Bard, to chat with me. I think that may have been the moment when I settled down. It wasn’t because Bard had something useful to say, not by a long shot. Most catchers don’t say anything useful. They just come out and say the obvious, which in that case pissed me off. “Throw strikes,” he tells me. Yeah, no kidding. Because I’m trying to throw balls and walk guys and ruin my big league debut. It’s my master plan to ruin my career in record time.
I know my catcher, Bard, didn’t plan that. He wasn’t the type to play a bit role like that and he didn’t know me—no one on the team did, really—so his trite little intermission served to focus me on one target. Getting mad may not be “the answer,” but it sure helped narrow down my options, and in that scenario was just what was needed. So, thanks for being Captain Obvious, Bard.
To which I would fully expect Bard to retort, Yeah, and even when you did get focused, you still pitched like crap.
Indeed, I did, sir. Indeed, I did. But that wasn’t because I didn’t have my head screwed on correctly. That’s because, after 21 years of mastering my body, my body wasn’t all that great. Which, when you think about it, just makes the fact that I made it to the big leagues that much more remarkable.
When I came off the mound after the first inning, I felt like I’d swum the ocean. It was the most harrowing inning of my life. It’s hard to pitch when your head is spinning, you’re irrationally angry and seeping with mass media paranoia. Holy cow, I have to go back out. “Come on, boys, let’s score some runs!” I shout aloud, because unless you do, knowing what I know about your starting pitcher, we’ve got no chance here. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. You did it, Dirk, you did it. You ARE a professional baseball player. You did it.
But…I have to GO BACK OUT THERE!
God, what a rush. I needed oxygen and a massage after that first inning, but all I got was a pat on the ass and cup of Gatorade. Welcome to the big leagues.
Looking back at it all now, six years later, I don’t have anything else with which to compare it. I spent my whole life trying to become a big leaguer. So much time chasing…I never thought of what would happen after I became it. The odds were so long that I’d make it at all. Wow.
It was the end of one dream and the awkward, messy, birth of another. There is no training for that—there is only surviving it. And I did, which isn’t all that brag-worthy, but it’s all I’ve got.
I will say this—it was definitely once in a lifetime, and, honestly, I’m glad it was.