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October 10, 2012

Sobsequy

The Shot Before the Shot

by Adam Sobsey

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I named this story “The Shot before the Shot” when I sent it to my editors, although I don’t know if that’s the title under which you’re now reading it. [It is! Ed.] As you may already know, it isn’t my job, or even my right, to entitle what I write. Titles are the domain of editors, not writers. I may call the thing a changeup, but if the editors think the sound of “Gyroball” will sell it better, then “Gyroball” it is.

As a general rule, though, if I do have a suggested title for a piece of writing I submit, most editors I’ve worked with, here at BP and elsewhere, will use it as long as it’s reasonably punchy and apposite. Editors are busy, busy people, happy not to have to be the heir of entitlement.

Honestly, I think “The Shot before the Shot” is only about a 50 title. I had to discard the (punchy, apposite) one I originally had for this piece, “Freese Frame,” because

A) It’s dorky.
B) It has appeared elsewhere.
C) It’s really dorky.

“Freese Frame” is the kind of headline you’d choose for a story about David Freese if you had just written a story about David Freese and you had a midnight deadline and it was 11:56:56 p.m.

It’s a shame, not being able to use “Freese Frame,” because this story really should be called “Freese Frame.” The story is built around an image of David Freese in last year’s World Series as he approaches home plate after rounding the bases following his Game Six, extra-inning, walkoff homer to force a decisive seventh game between the Cardinals and Rangers.

But maybe, on the other hand, there’s an organic reason not to use “Freese Frame,” and not just because it’s tragically dorky. The reason is that I can’t actually find the image I have in mind.

Oh, there are plenty of photos of Freese as he nears the plate, which is crowded with teammates. There’s the one with the big, wide, hell-yeah smile, which is almost the same (but not quite) as another one where he’s grabbing the batting helmet atop his head, which is followed sequentially by the one where he’s spiking it between his legs (multiple angles on that one). And there’s another where he prepares to leap over the limbo-stick arms held out by two teammates at knee level before home plate.

There are lots and lots of photos of this, the signature moment of the 2011 World Series, but there is not a photo of the exact moment I have in mind. You can see it, briefly, in this video at the 2:41 mark and again at 3:05. It isn’t the one captured in still images because it is really the proem, the lead-up, of the big-smile-plus-helmet-spike moment, and it doesn’t have the same sense of celebratory release.

In the Shot before the Shot, Freese closes his mouth tightly for a split second, almost as though about to blow a bubble he’s been working up to for hours, or maybe years, on end; as though the pressure of perhaps a decade of struggle and buildup are about to come bursting out of him. Just prior to this moment, Freese slowed down his trot for a few steps, ratcheting up the suspense before crashing into the red mob at the plate. The whole Shot before the Shot is about the gathering and concentration of a furious force and massive amount of energy before its violent release—that action is, come to think of it, more or less what every single pitch and swing is. Long, long toil and labor and practice brought to harness and then unleashed, hundreds of times per game.

In the playoffs, though, it’s all different. The last couple of days have seen at least three reactions at BP to the meaning and madness of the postseason. Will Woods celebrated the new, “chaotic, frenetic” single-elimination Wild Card game because it was “a fair test of each man’s mettle… marked by a palpable sense that players lacked control of the moment, that anything could happen at any time,” and that “after six months of same-old, same-old,  it’s a shock to the system when every play is supercharged.” Guest columnist Brent S. Gambill took the opposing view that the “contrived one-game playoff… make[s] no sense,” and more broadly argued that, with its introduction into the postseason, “a flawed system was made even more flawed.”

And for Jason Parks, the thudding, whimper-not-a-bang end to the Rangers’ once-dominant season inspired something close to a eulogy for Josh Hamilton, whose inconsistencies and lapses stood out the most as the Rangers went to their strange and surprising demise. Parks’ thoughts could have come only at the end of the season—just as Freese’s tightly furled approach to the plate, the closed O of his mouth, could happen only in the playoffs.

I, like Gambill, am kind of a regular-season chauvinist—it’s baseball’s deep and deliberate dailiness that resonates the most with me—and as a mostly nonpartisan spectator, I have struggled to embrace the heart-on-sleeve, fanatical mode of the postseason. It sometimes seems to me like October is baseball for football fans: boners and big plays, bombs and Bartmans and Buckners all have that singular ring, as though nothing that happened around them mattered. I’ve always found football to be so constructed. Maybe that’s just me. After the Braves lost to the Cardinals, I appreciated Chipper Jones calmly saying that the controversial infield fly call didn’t cost Atlanta the game. It was the three errors—the biggest, Jones confessed, by Jones himself. That was the kind of quiet, grim insistence that could come only from a baseball player, I thought.

All that aside, Woods makes a compelling case for the value and delight of the new one-game wild card’s Freaky Friday. Certainly no regular-season botched sacrifice (or was it a sacrifice?) would generate the same intense scrutiny that Andrelton Simmons’ did. In fact, Simmons gets to be (in)famous for many, many years, since he was also the player who hit the {infield fly} of doom that managed to spark outrage and object-hurling from even Atlanta Braves’ fans. Thus the name “Andrelton” has entered the lexicon in some dark yet chintzy way, like “Kardashian.” (Just as Andrelton needed the playoffs, Kardashian needed O. J.—extraordinary circumstances—to find purchase.)

The Simmons moment(s), though, is/are moments of failure and foible: they are examples, as Woods, writes, of “players in big situations, with their hearts in the right place, who are trying to do too much.” In Freese’s case last year, however, there was no such thing as too much given the bigness of the situation—or rather, situations. Freese had, of course, already saved the Cardinals earlier in that same game with his two-out, two-strike triple in the ninth inning of what his teammate Lance Berkman would later call “the greatest game I’ve ever played in.” The game was indeed so great that Berkman’s own  two-out, two-strike RBI hit in the following inning, which was just about as dramatic, dwells in the annals as a mere footnote to Freese’s boldfaced heroics.

Yet there is foible, too, in Freese’s triple. Nelson Cruz, who had been hitting postseason homers as frequently and offhandedly as a man swatting mosquitoes in a swamp, won’t be remembered for any of them. He’ll be remembered instead for failing to catch Freese’s ninth-inning opposite-field drive, and by extension (or lack thereof) for his long-balky hamstring that Atropos finally came along to cut. Cruz’s fate was not, in the end, to help the Rangers win their first World Series title but to help them lose it. In the playoffs, it often seems, each moment of greatness has an equal-and-opposite force in tragic error. Let’s not forget that Freese himself had botched two plays earlier in the game, one of them an easy popup that he simply dropped at third base. His triple and homer re-spun his fate.

On the subject of the Greeks, of homers and Homers, they gave us a succinct word for this sort of thing: peripeteia, defined as “a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation, especially in a literary work.” (A great playoff game is a literary work.) And it isn’t only a reversal of immediately obtaining circumstances—down two in the ninth inning, for example—that the playoffs make possible and the staid, humid regular season cannot.

Playoff actions can reverse much longer narratives. Freese’s ninth- and 11th-inning heroics helped him triumph over a ragged, quite goatish history of DWIs and the resisting-arrest and probation-violation to which they led. There was also a trail of injuries left behind, as well as the final healing of a different break: Freese had actually quit baseball for a year after high school in 2001. And his Game Six performance—capped, of course, by the Cards’ necessary winning of Game Seven to seal his legacy—also made for a local-boy-(finally)-makes-good angle. The kid had been traded to his hometown team in 2007 from San Diego for All-Star fixture Jim Edmonds: a heavy weight to bear, and it took Freese four years to do it.

Only the playoffs make these peripeteias possible. Only the playoffs make it possible for David Freese to go from this to this.

But he can get there only via the moment before it, which contains all the weight and all the waiting. The Shot before the Shot. The torque-slow steps and the closing of the mouth before the roar breaks it open.

Who will it be this year?

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

Related Content:  Playoffs,  David Freese

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