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June 20, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Clayton Kershaw and the Fan In Black

by Sam Miller


If you’re doing power rankings of the people who had the coolest night on Wednesday, you’d go something like

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. A.J. Ellis
  3. Vin Scully
  4. The guy who got to watch the game from this view:

That’s more or less what baseball looked like from the front row seat directly behind home plate. But, and here’s where the dramatic tension of this story comes in: People who buy baseball tickets don’t always go to the game. And the ones who do don’t always watch all that many pitches.

I first noticed the guy who was sitting directly behind home plate when I was looking for a specific pitch thrown to Kyle Parker in the third inning and noticed, instead, the dude in a black jacket staring down at the phone.

I watched him the next pitch, and he was staring at his phone again. And the next, phone again. I'm getting progressively madder. This guy had the best seat in the stadium for what was quite possibly the greatest pitching performance ever. Did he actually see any of it?

As it turns out, he did. And as it turns out, his experience Wednesday night can probably tell us quite a bit about how to experience a no-hitter. I swear to you I will keep this brief.

First inning.
Our guy hasn’t arrived yet. Not many people have, and for this Dodgers fans are often mocked. I used to mock them, but then I started going to games late, too. When we play historian, we all love to go back to the very beginning, to show how the seeds of revolution were planted and to play up the seemingly inevitable bloom. And, sure. You go back and look at Clayton Kershaw’s first inning, the inning Man In Black missed entirely, and you’re immediately impressed by Kershaw’s stuff. But trying to find the seeds only works when you’re looking back. You try the looking-at-seeds approach from the beginning and you'll be overwhelmed. The world is nothing but near-infinite possibilities, some of them springing to importance, most of them becoming nothing. Same with baseball.

That said: This dude has the best seat in Dodger Stadium and he missed 11 percent of the greatest pitching performance Dodger Stadium has ever seen. That’s at least a partial LOL.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 12 12 0 0 0
Total 12 12 0 0 0

Second inning.
He arrives. He introduces his friend, the dude, to his friend, the lady. He eats something in a green package, a snack like popcorn or peanuts or pistachios. He gets a hug from the lady. He misses practically every pitch while he’s talking to her. He misses the first great curveball of the night, a curveball that makes Vin Scully laugh out loud. He immediately realizes he missed something he wishes he had seen.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 17 0 1 6 10
Total 29 12 1 6 10

Third inning.
The phone inning. He’s got business to do, maybe. He misses a large block of pitches. He’s looking away for Kershaw’s fourth strikeout of the night; hasn’t seen a strike three yet. He does get to see the fifth, a punchout of D.J. LeMahieu.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 17 0 7 3 7
Total 46 12 8 9 17

Fourth Inning.
He's out of his seat again. Kershaw strikes out his sixth batter and retires Troy Tulowitzki for the second time tonight. Hardly anybody in this section is present and watching:

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 8 8 0 0 0
Total 54 20 8 9 17

Fifth Inning.
He has been replaced. First by two ladies who have snuck down to wave at the camera,

which they do for three pitches. They miss the other two pitches looking at their phone. Then the ladies leave, and they are replaced by a sneaky boy who himself waves at the camera,

and otherwise looks around with the shifty paranoia of a kid who knows he’s about to get yanked off-stage. The Man in Black returns, kicks the kid out, and watches one of the three remaining pitches in the inning. Fifty-five percent of the game is complete, and he has seen one of Kershaw’s seven strikeouts.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 11 8 0 2 1
Total 65 28 8 11 18

Sixth Inning.
And older man shows up and starts showing our guy some papers. (At first it seems that the older guy is just now showing up to Kershaw’s no-hitter in the sixth inning, extreme even by Los Angeles standards, but he actually was originally sitting about 10 seats down the row. He goes back to that seat after this inning. In fact, this seat appears to simply be empty, unused, while there are children starving in China.) Our guy looks at the papers and talks to the older man but is much more intent on watching the game, too. The older man mostly ignores the game, and the Man in Black’s Friend in Blue mostly looks at his phone,

but the Man in Black watches almost every pitch despite the distractions.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 12 0 0 2 10
Total 77 28 8 13 28

Seventh Inning.
If the sixth inning is when history is sliding over the hump and becoming a real possibility, the seventh is when the news cycle begins, when the world turns its eyes toward what is happening and starts ignoring everything else. I once looked at Diamondbacks fans sitting behind home plate to see how many pitches in a row anybody could possibly watch. The answer, under ordinary circumstances, was eight. But here the Man In Black watches all 15 pitches in the inning. When a waitress starts to get in his way, he adjusts to make sure he can see the pitch. This won’t strike you as interesting, perhaps, but even under these circumstances it is easy to get distracted. I count 18 people in this frame who aren’t watching this pitch in the seventh inning:

As the seventh inning concludes with a strikeout, the Man in Black does something he hasn’t done all game: He stands up—shoots up, really—and applauds.

A fan standing and applauding doesn’t normally stand out, but when you realize how much of a game is spent sitting, staring, sometimes applauding politely, often looking away, gradually falling into disrepair, the sudden burst of action is startling. The final out of the seventh inning is when this no-hitter is really, really real.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 15 0 0 0 15
Total 92 28 8 13 43

Eighth Inning.
He continues to watch every pitch. He’s eight for eight this inning. He has now watched 23 consecutive pitches, in a baseball game. I’m actually a little bit tired thinking about this. He has now, for the first time all game, seen more than half of the pitches that Kershaw has thrown.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 8 0 0 0 8
Total 100 28 8 13 51

Ninth Inning.
He’s briefly distracted by some guys posing for a picture in front of him, but otherwise he watches every pitch. He’s one of the last in his section to stand, but for the final batter he does:

Of the 60 or so people in that frame, two failed to see the first pitch to the final batter: The man sitting in the front row center, and the guy in the hat standing three rows behind him and looking off toward the right field line. For the final pitch, with two strikes on the batter, all 60 are watching. It takes a two-strike count to the final batter in a no-hit masterpiece to do it, but we finally achieved 100 percent engagement in a baseball game.

Pitches Absent Phone Otherwise Missed Saw
Inning 6 0 0 1 5
Total 106 28 8 14 56

On the one hand, you could say that it’s a shame to have seen only 56 pitches of this masterpiece*. But Man in Black had a pretty rich experience, overall. He got to talk to a girl. He got to hang out with a friend. He did a little business. He ate. He got to unwittingly share his seat with a couple different strangers who will never forget that they got to sneak down and wave to their friends in the middle of The Kershaw Game. (When Man in Black watches this game on ESPN Classic some years from now, he will be amused to learn that his seat was used for such undignified purposes.)

He missed the first inning, sure, but we don’t know why he was late. Maybe shopping for a thank you card for his kid’s preschool teacher, or helping his boss out of a jam, or tailgating under a cotton candy sky.

And then, long before it was too late, he got to switch over and immerse himself in this pitching performance. He got to see Kershaw’s curveball take a starring role late. He got to let his body and brain transition from hope to optimism to expectation to celebration. This is probably the best way to experience a no-hitter, following a sort of color-coded alert system that calls for different levels of awareness and only gradual behavioral changes. You don’t want to be distracted by life when a no-hitter is being thrown, but you also don’t want to be distracted by every non-no-hitter when a life is being lived.

I started out watching this guy check his phone and thinking, what a waste. But now that I’ve watched him watch Kershaw, I think he did it just right. Nice job, guy.

*Kershaw actually threw 107 pitches. The Man In Black's attention couldn't be determined on one of them, though. Thanks to Nick Bacarella for his help on this.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Dodgers,  Clayton Kershaw,  No-hitter

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