If you are a baseball fan you know that the game has lost some of its subtlety in recent years. Today’s baseball is largely about power – namely, power pitching, and power hitting. Pitchers routinely throw fastballs in the high 90s, and to see 97 miles an hour on the old radar gun has become routine. And hitters? Juiced/changed ball or not, home runs are on a record pace this season. In a game in June between Arizona and Philadelphia 13 home runs were hit. 13!! In one game! Baseball today has in large part become a question of whether power hitters can make contact with near 100 mph fastballs. When they do, the baseball leaves the ball park.
And yet. A few weeks ago my brother and I were at Citi Field watching our beloved Mets play the San Diego Padres. The Padres had a young power pitcher on the mound, and the stadium pitch tracker regularly reported pitches in the high 90s, many of them 96 mph plus. The Mets pitcher was Jason Vargas, a 36 year old journeyman left hander (since traded to the Phillies) who has played for 6 different teams in the course of his career. At 36 Vargas’ arm doesn’t have the ‘juice’ it once did. His fastballs were reaching the plate at a tepid 88 mph. His curve ball registered in the low to mid 70s. And yet somehow, inning after inning, Vargas retired the Padres lineup. When he left the mound in the 6th he had given up exactly zero runs, while the Padres flamethrower had given up 5.
There was one particular pitch by Vargas that caught my eye. After he released the ball and it settled firmly into the catcher’s mitt, I checked the pitch tracker. ‘Knuckle curve’ was the pitch type reported by the tracker graphic. Oh, and miles per hour? 67.
The knuckle curve is a rarely thrown pitch, a weird hybrid of a curve ball and a knuckle ball, that somehow manages to both curve and float. Few pitchers have it in their arsenal, and only a crafty and grizzled veteran like a Jason Vargas will throw one in a game. In most circumstances a 67 mph pitch looks to a major league hitter like the moon floating towards him, large, bright, easy to see and to strike. But a knuckle curve is a pitch of subtlety, not power. In its almost leisurely journey to home plate it floats a bit, curves a bit, looks so tempting, so slow, but then at the very moment when you swing it somehow isn’t where you thought it would be. To paraphrase the venerable Wee Will Keeler, the knuckle curve is thrown where they ain’t.
You see, that is precisely how Vargas pitched those 6 shutout innings. Rarely if ever hitting even 90 on the radar gun, he painted the corners. He ‘located’ his pitches. He threw up in the zone when the hitter thought it was going to be low. He threw on the inside corner when they expected the outside of the plate, he threw his 88 mph fastball when they were looking for the curve ball. And he threw the knuckle curve when they were looking for anything but that.
It happens to the best of us. As we age our bodies just can’t work the way they used to. Forget about 95 mile per hour fastballs. We can’t play tennis the same way. Or hit the golf ball as far. Or do quite as much yard work. Or even walk the same distance with ease. Or drive at night with the same confidence. We reach for the reading glasses to glance at the menu, we spend a few moments stretching before we get out of bed. And that only takes care of some of the aches and pains. Even our minds aren’t quite as quick as they used to be. What we never forgot we sometimes don’t remember, at least not in that instantaneous way we once did.
The question is, have we learned to ‘paint the corners’ over the years? Have we added a knuckle curve or two to our arsenal? Do we appreciate life’s subtitles, the quiet moments, the long standing friendships, the small accomplishments, the moments shared with those we love? There are spaces in life that you only learn to fill as the years go by. They can’t be charged through, or overcome with blunt force of will. As the years pass there is an accumulated wisdom that settles in, a patient understanding of what something’s true value is, of what matters most, and of what, in the end, barely matters at all. When those lessons are learned, it is easier to relinquish that 95 mph fastball. And you begin to understand, as time goes by, how sweet that knuckle curve truly can be when it is throw in just exactly the right way.