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August 8, 2012

Sobsequy

Mr. Mike Ekstrom, Baseball Scofflaw

by Adam Sobsey

July 14, top 8th, Coors Field, Pitcher’s mound.

0:00 Wow, it’s nice to be back up. I didn’t think it would feel like that big a deal. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been here before. But—just, wow! What’s it been, two years? Last season definitely does not count. Freaking Rays fly me all the way across the freaking country from Durham so I can pitch one freaking inning in Seattle, then send me right back the next day. Ridiculous. Then they do the same thing with Buente and Delaney. I mean, it was cool to be near home because Portland is so close to Safeco, but really? Two full days of travel just so I can come into an 8-1 game in the ninth and throw 12pitches?

0:22 Not that I’m complaining. It was worth it for the clubhouse food alone. Looks like Rosario wants me to throw a warm-up pitch. What’s the rush, guapo? I only have two pitches. Do you not know that? What’s his first name? Wilin? What kind of a name is that? Is it supposed to be Wilkin but someone got confused? Like Wilkin Castillo, Wilkin Ramirez? Anyway, what kind of a name is Wilkin, for that matter? They don’t even have the letter W in Spanish. Okay, fine, here you go, Wilin. Oh, wait, rosin bag. Wow, even the rosin bags are nicer up here. Forgot. [FASTBALL]

0:34 There. Personally, I think this warm-up-on-the-mound tradition is kind of dumb. Maybe one or two humps just to get on the same page with the catcher, but any reliever who can’t get loose in the pen is weak. It’s really not that hard. If you’re a starter, okay, I get it, maybe you need extra time, but starters are all prima donnas anyway. I’m so glad I got moved to the bullpen in the minors. At least you don’t sit around for four days doing Sudoku and pretending to run poles. Whose idea was it that pitchers should run poles? Total waste of time. If you’re trying to get your limbs loose, it’s better to play pickup Ultimate or something. Or like, do yoga. So many of these things they make you do in baseball are plainly pointless. Another reason it’s good to be in the bullpen: no one really notices you. You’re like a… what? A jar of peppercorns or something. Grind. Replace.

0:54 Man, I had forgotten how nice it is up here. I can’t believe I’m back up in the majors! Hell, I don’t think anyone can. I remember when I told everyone I was transferring out of Oregon State and they all said I was crazy. They were all, you’re going where? You guys are gonna probably win the College World Series next year! And what the hell is Point Loma Nazarene? And I was like, Just because it’s an NAIA school you think I’m blowing it? I had family down there—it’s in San Diego, by the way, geniuses—and I figured I’d just pitch till I graduated and then get on with my life. I could barely throw 89 then. [FASTBALL]

1:12 I touch 93 now, Beavers. Frankly, I think it was ’cause I was pitching in San Diego that the Padres drafted me. As far as I’m concerned, it was the best decision I ever made, and honestly it was a no-brainer. Coach Casey had just landed Dallas Buck, Kevin Gunderson, and Jonah Nickerson. He tried to blow a lot of sunshine in my face, but I knew full well I was barely going to get any run in ’06. Well, enjoy your CWS trophies, Beavers. Are they made out of aluminum, too? None of those three stud pitchers ever sniffed the majors. They’re not even in organized baseball anymore. And here I am, throwing my eight warm-up pitches at Coors Freaking Field. #Cantpredictbaseball. Put that in your hashtag and smoke it. [FASTBALL]

1:31 I’m feeling really good about my Twitter these days. I bet I’ll get a bunch of new followers after today. Been sitting at 400-plus for a while now. That’s what a callup will do for you, even if you’re more suspect than prospect. Which I know I am; I’m not stupid. Twitter helps make you feel less like yet another Triple-A bullpen-corral type. The fans on Twitter are great, and I think they appreciate that I’m not just out there tweeting the usual Inspirational Quotes (all caps) or retweeting birthday requests, which has got to be the worst use of celebrities (or in my case “celebrities”) on Twitter. Wow, Rosario seems really anxious about me throwing another warm-up pitch. Okay, Wilin, have a slider. [SLIDER]

1:57 Look at what Twitter has done for Hayhurst. The dude is an absolute beast on there, he has like 17,000 followers, and he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues for three years. I mean, it’s nice to be a bestselling author and all, but the funny thing is that when we were teammates in Double-A, it was me everyone thought might be able to write a book. Kind of like how everyone agrees now that John was the avant-garde Beatle, even though it was obviously Paul who at first was the more adventurous and unorthodox thinker. Sgt. Pepper was totally his idea, and John just kind of picked it up and ran with it and co-opted what Paul had originally gotten the Beatles doing in the first place. He was like, ‘We’re gonna wear costumes and use an assumed name and free ourselves from ourselves.’ Same thing Bono and U2 did for Achtung Baby. Twitter kind of lets athletes be someone else. Someone more interesting. When I was in A-ball in Fort Wayne, word got out that I had been editor of my high school newspaper. So people started looking to me for, like, advice and such—not, like, taking me aside and asking me questions or anything like that, but just, a sense of deferral or respect to what I might think about something, if I happened to have an opinion about it. In the immortal words of Dane De la Rosa last year: “Before you do anything you might regret, you should—CHECK wit EK.” And a Twitter handle was born. Hmm, Rosario is starting to look kind of annoyed. Dude, it’s warm-up tosses, what is the BFD? I’m gonna throw him something in the dirt. [SLIDER] (I should throw a couple more sliders. I’m not really getting enough depth on it.)

2:30 Just got a mean look from the ump, not sure why. Did he know I threw that in the dirt on purpose? Why am I getting paranoid? Okay, Mike, calm down, you’re just nervous ’cause you haven’t been to the bigs for a while. Anyway, I think my teammates tend to want my opinion on things because I spend a lot of time just observing the world—especially now that I’m kind of that Triple-A veteran type. I think my Instagrams of things like clouds, and views from airplanes, things like that, kind of sum up my worldview and give me better perspective than most ballplayers have. That isn’t to say that most of them don’t have any. In fact, most players are a lot more intelligent than people want to realize (more intelligent than the dropsical morons interviewing them, that’s for sure). It’s just that media-sponsored athlete culture tends to focus on the few loud dumb idiots or pompous blowhards (or just plain criminals) while the rest of us are either ignored or presumed to be too stupid or dull to talk to. It doesn’t help being a right-handed reliever, it’s kind of like being an offensive lineman. Reporters just walk right past you in the locker room like you’re not even there. You’d think they might like to find some interesting stories. They might like to know that I was a champion slalom skier in high school, and how skiing is actually good preparation for pitching, and how I actually think about that sometimes. But instead they just head straight for the guy who hit the homer. [FASTBALL]

2:58 Wow, Rosario really threw a pill back at me. Two can play at that game, Wilin. [FASTBALL]

3:02 God, what a beautiful night. Let’s just soak it up for a minute. This is the big leagues! [pause] Okay, let’s see, here. Phillies, Phillies. Who is that taking cuts in the on-deck circle for them? I feel like I recognize him, maybe I’ve faced him before? Oh, yeah, I definitely have. What’s his name again? Ruiz, I think. Okay, I’ve got one more warm-up toss. Wow, the ump is really being an asshat about this slider-in-the-dirt thing! He’s just glaring at me like I’m some kind of juvenile delinquent. And Rosario looks like he’s going to charge the mound and even Tracy looks like he’s thinking about coming out of the dugout and getting me. What is wrong with these people? These are warm-up pitches and it is a beautiful. Freaking. Night.

3:16 And I. Am in. The majors! This calls for another slider in the dirt. [SLIDER]

3:19 Dang, Rosario just about took my head off with that peg to second.

***

July 15, top 8th, Coors Field, pitcher’s mound.

0:00 I’m feeling kinda nervous again, but it’s not because I’m in the bigs. I got past that yesterday. I bet it’s because of what just happened. Right before I came in from the pen, Betancourt pulls me aside real quick and he’s like, Careful, Ek, if you don’t hurry up your warm-ups on the mound they’re gonna fine you. And I’m all, Fine me? I thought he was kidding. Fine me for what? And he’s like, You only have two minutes and twenty-five seconds to throw your eight pitches once you take the hill. And I’m like, That rule seriously exists? And he’s all, Yeah, it does—the league made it into a thing a few years ago: part of this package deal to try to speed games up. And I’m like, How long did I take? And he’s like, I don’t know, but it was definitely longer than two minutes and twenty-five seconds. And I’m like, How do they know? Is someone actually timing us? Like, the ump? Like, with a stopwatch? And Betancourt’s all, I don’t know, but someone’s doing it. He says MLB got Joe Garagiola, Jr. to take over for Bob Watson as league wrist-slapper, and he’s a total nazi about it. The guys have a Photoshopped picture of him up on the wall in the bullpen, surrounded by TVs in a little security guard-type surveillance room, totally naked except for a pair of lace panties, eating a Jell-O-and-marshmallow salad through a huge straw in one hand and timing relievers with a big-ass stopwatch in the other. Cigar burning in an ashtray on his gut. I hadn’t realized it was Garagiola. Thought it was Tony Soprano. Anyway, Betancourt says not only is Garagiola a real washerwoman about it, the guys up here also think he has it in for the other NL West teams even though he isn’t with the Diamondbacks anymore. Kind of a pet conspiracy theory of theirs, even though they have no evidence. You get bored in a bullpen. Anyway, that must be why I’m nervous. So maybe I should go ahead and throw a pitch. [FASTBALL]

0:38 Actually, you know what? I bet Betancourt is just messing with me. I could swear I saw a smirk on his face. And if he’s not, so much the better. What a dumb rule. The whole point of baseball is that it has no clock. The pitcher controls the pace. That’s how it’s like skiing. You’ve created this whole plan in your mind about how you’re going to attack the problem, and in both cases you’re elevated on a hill so you can look down on the scenario. You have perspective. You’ve done all kinds of prep, your mind is racing (in the case of skiing, literally racing, like in advance, seeing the flags in your mind as you zip past them), and you have to get yourself mentally ready. And not only that, but you have to do that before every. Single. Pitch. The eight warmups you throw up here are kind of a way of getting yourself ready to get yourself ready, you know what I mean? You can’t put a freaking time limit on me. I wonder how many seconds it’s been? I should probably throw Rosario another pitch. Actually, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to stage a little protest out here. I’m going to let Garagiola know that he cannot control me, and he cannot ebb the flow of the game. Here, let me just saunter over to the rosin bag, admire the beauty of my surroundings for a little minute, and then maybe climb back up the hill and now maybe throw Wilin—oh, wait, that’s Ramon Hernandez—throw Hernandez a little slider here, kind of a slow one, you know, so as not to rush. [SLIDER]

1:06 Okay, good. This is my time, Joe Junior. Seriously, who is he to police anything? Just because his Dad was a ballplayer? That means he deserves some kind of a priori respect? Some of us had to earn our way up here, and most of us are going right back down, pal. Trying to figure out what we’re going to do when we can’t play anymore and have to make a living after baseball. That’s the genius thing about Hayhurst. I mean, maybe at first he was just taking notes for fun, but I bet there was a part of him that was hedging, even down in Double-A. He was like, I may be here now, pitching well now, but I gotta be thinking about providing for my future. I’m not gonna be an All-Star. I might not even stick. I could get hurt. Typical pitcher-think: Here’s this problem below you—like, red flags—so what’s your plan? Take your time, strategize. I think Hayhurst was strategizing without even knowing that that’s what he was doing. Not exactly, anyway. Maybe a book sort of dimly occurred to him at first, but really I bet he was… well, I don’t really know. Like I said, I was always the quiet one, I think people thought I was scheming, so I have no right to speculate on someone else’s plans. But that’s what the best pitchers do: they make plans that they themselves don’t realize they’re making. It’s intuitive ratiocination, something like that. And they have memories they don’t realize they have, like animals do. Let’s see, have I waited long enough to throw another warmup? I guess so. [FASTBALL]

1:39 I could probably write a book, too, like Hayhurst. I think I’d start off by writing about skiing. Standing at the top of the slope, looking down at the flags. Make the comparison to standing on the mound, looking at the batter, the catcher, the count on the ump’s fingers. The heart-pounding moment before you take the plunge. Like jumping out of an airplane. I wonder if the whole book could be structured that way? Not like a traditional Hayhurstian memoir, but instead like a sort of plunge into a… a philosophical treatise from inside the mind of a pitcher. The whole memoir thing is kind of done to death, anyway. I mean, Bullpen Gospels is a good book, but isn’t it basically just a minor-league Ball Four, updated about 40 years? (Also, let’s face it, I’ve pitched in like twice as many big-league games as Hayhurst did.) I think what people could use is a more metaphor-driven investigation into the life of pitching. No, not the life; the… the… weather of pitching. That’s what it is! You’re standing on the mound gauging an environmental circumstance, especially if you’re a reliever. You’re that animal in the wild, tuned to the signals in the air, subfrequency messages, electricity, pheromones. No wonder I’m so obsessed with clouds and lightning and so on. That’s what pitching is, and skiing, too: the quality of the snow, visibility in the sky before you, all that. Of course Garagiola doesn’t understand that: he’s never had to worry about his survival. Right-handed Triple-A relievers, especially fastball-slider guys like me, we are the most preyed-upon animal in baseball, the lowest in the food chain by far. We get sacrificed to the wolves in blowouts, arms shredded from a combination of disregard and overuse. (I remember when Delaney came back to Durham last year after the Rays called him up for one day, just like they did with me, and Maddon made him throw like 60 pitches against Oakland. Man, was Delaney bent.) And we get shunted up and down between Triple-A and the majors like so much chattel. So you have to have that sensitivity to the weather of the moment—you have to have that at all times. You rush me through my tosses, that’s like sending me into a thunderstorm in a t-shirt and shorts. Like sending me into battle without a weapon. Without this weapon. [FASTBALL]

2:16 Ooh, pop. Feeling good today. Helps to go two days in a row, one inning per. That’s what I mean about meteorology. Yesterday’s weather leaves its mark on today’s. And look, isn’t that Ruiz in the on-deck circle again? Just like yesterday. Weird. I feel like I’m in some strange Groundhog Day-type deal, where every time I come out to pitch it’s like the exact same course I have to run. Time is strange in baseball, it simply doesn’t work the same way. I think that’s fundamentally what Garagiola fails to remotely suck up through his big mental straw. And it isn’t just that hoary truism about nonlinearity and such. People who don’t understand the time flux of baseball parrot that in order to sound like they “get it.” But really, baseball is not so much nonlinear, which could describe all kinds of vectors, as it is concentric. Each inning draws a wider circle around the ones before, like the rings of a tree that tell you its age, show its growth, where and the ages of history marked it with catastrophe. Which is what baseball is: a series of little catastrophes in the wide eye of time. Speaking of eyes: [SLIDER]

2:35 Hey, slow down, Ek. These are your two minutes and twenty-five seconds. So, anyway, I think we’ve got three things operating at once here in my book. One is about skiing. Another is about the weather. And another is about time. (And if I’m not mistaken, in Spanish the words for weather and time are the same. Maybe I could do something with that.) There needs to be a section about how, what a pitcher does is literally control the passage of time—just like a reader controls the passage of time by turning the pages of a book at a pace that he or she sets. What the pitcher cannot control is space, and by way of example in my book I think I’ll write about that at-bat against Mitch Jones in 2010, when the ump squeezed me twice and I tried to come in with a 3-1 fastball and Jones hit a total. Freaking. Bomb. (Speaking of not controlling space—I think that ball Jones hit is probably still in flight somewhere. I’ll put in a little joke about that.) Baseball is the only game in which the defense controls the ball. Kind of a stale observation, but probably needs to be made in order to allow readers to see the connection. [SLIDER]

2:55 I wonder how much time has elapsed since I got up here? How many pitches have I thrown? Apparently six, if the ump is to be believed. Different ump, doesn’t seem to care as much as yesterday’s, and why would he? Why would any of them? I’d like to hang out with umps sometime. I think they kind of get what pitchers are trying to do, which is exert the tiniest bit of control in a field of flux, and they just feel sort of bad that they have no choice but to enforce these trashy, small-minded pace-of-game rules. It’s like, I control time, the ump controls space, and we try to meet somewhere in the middle of the continuum. [SLIDER]

3:09 Well, I bet I’ve successfully broken your time barrier again here, Mr. Garagiola. How’s my driving, Joe G. Jr.? Call 1-800-EAT-TIME. Or you can just hit me up at @checkwitEk and I will retweet you throughout the land and later you will make an unflattering appearance in my bestseller. Sound good? Ha ha! Like he or anyone else actually even cares! I’m sure Betancourt was just messing with me, anyway. Kind of a cute little joke, and it worked. I’m in a good mood. Now get in the box, Ruiz, just like yesterday. Think I’m gonna punch you out. Yeah, this slalom is gonna be fun.

3:23 [FASTBALL]

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

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