Of the wide band of human emotions, grief is the most elusive, the most chimerical, as distinctive to each person as a fingerprint, as impossible to pin down as rain. In college I had a friend who died suddenly and for months afterward her mother, whom I did not know before the tragedy, emailed me daily, asking about my life, classes, the campus happenings. At first we spoke of her daughter, my friend, like she was on a study abroad trip somewhere distant and wondrous; after a while we did not speak of her at all, and then one day, shortly before graduation, she stopped responding to my emails. It never hurt my feelings; I instinctively recognized that she needed me to be a portal through which to view her daughter’s life as it might have been, to put me in her place for those few agonizing months, to read my letters back from school and imagine they were coming from her daughter. Sometimes individual griefs can line up like this, a sympathetic magic; other griefs are wilder, untamed, slashing through the forests of a person’s life and burning anything in reach. The process is individual, non-linear, and entirely unpredictable.
One thing that is often common in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is a desperate attempt at meaning-making, a frantic accounting to make the karmic books balance. These meaning-making attempts help fend off for as long as possible what Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, calls “the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
For many people – the religious, spiritual, or other – searching for signs can be part of that process. On the Angels’ first home game back after the tragic, unexpected loss of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, the team pitched a combined no-hitter against the lowly Seattle Mariners. Soon after, tweets like this started to pop up:
The story will give you chills.
• Tyler Skaggs’ mother throws first pitch
(Angels throw no-hitter)
• Trout hits HR exactly 454 ft
(Skaggs wore No. 45)
• Franchise’s 11th no-hitter
(Skaggs wore No. 11 in HS)
• Score 7 runs in 1st, 13 runs total
(Skaggs birthday is 7/13) pic.twitter.com/d5tb0yH5hD
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) July 13, 2019
This is not meant to chastise those who find these numbers compelling, or as proof of some divine intervention on a night that was charged with meaning for so many people, players and fans alike. Still, some perspective: Mike Trout’s home runs regularly travel 420 feet, 20th-best in baseball; that he hit one 450 feet off Mike Leake, whose 43.1% hard-hit rate is bottom 9% in the league, is not so surprising. The Mariners are in a rebuild and are so far down in the AL West Elon Musk is planning a high-speed transportation line to get there; that they would get no-hit at some point this season, especially as a combined no-hitter, doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.
Of course, what’s significant is that they got no-hit on this night, a night that meant so much to the Angels and their fans because they needed it to, because telling ourselves a story about a tragedy is a way to round off the corners of it and smooth that grief into a pebble rolled in the hand rather than a stone in the shoe. Sometimes, you send emails off into space, and just hope to hear back.
I grew up in a place where people worked hard. Most of the working men were coal miners, including my father and two of my uncles. The dads of almost all of my friends were coal miners.
In case there were any doubts about how dangerous mining was, when I was five years old the Wilberg Mine fire hit right around Christmas, 1984. It killed 27 miners who weren’t all that different from my father or uncles. It’s the first news story I remember being aware of as a kid.
The cadence of disaster at the mines was continuous, but not always predictable. There were the individual accidents that killed or maimed my friends’ fathers growing up, and then there were catastrophes. In 2007, the Crandall Canyon mine collapse killed nine workers and Central Utah grieved.
I was working two hours away when the news hit. I gasped with panic as my boss told me to go home and be with my family. I stayed at work, since all I could think was, “Go where?” My uncle worked in that mine and was part of the rescue crew. My father had left that same mining company to work for the Mine Safety and Health Administration as a trainer and was at the mine to work with the families. My mother was a registered nurse managing the emergency room of the hospital that would care for the injured. (The only hospital within 150 miles of the collapse.) I had nowhere to go. My family was working to do everything they could in the face of a community tragedy. If I went home I’d just be in the way of the work they needed to do.
Price, Utah is not a place that is unfamiliar with disasters.
All of this made the town simultaneously being taken hold of by opioids more shocking, even if in retrospect it was predictable.
It’s a town with no shortage of pain. While most of the writing on the opioid epidemic seems to focus on West Virginia, or Kentucky, Carbon County, Utah has a lot in common with those places. I remember the first rumors of people who were addicted to pills. I remember the shocking overdoses of people I knew growing up.
These days I often feel like I live a world away from my hometown. Chicago, Ill. is about as far from Price, Utah as any place in the United States. But when the news came out that baseball had lost Tyler Skaggs to opioids, I couldn’t stop thinking about home. These drugs ravaged my home town in ways that were as devastating as any mine disaster. And here they were again, in America’s pastime. I found myself wondering if coal miners and baseball players have more than we can possibly imagine in common.
We’re more than a week into the 2019 baseball season and Trevor Rosenthal has yet to record an out, leaving him with an ERA of literal infinity. His job has an astonishingly simple description – get outs – though like most things that can be described simply, it’s of course infinitely more complex than that. Still, Rosenthal has failed his job’s most basic aspect: He hasn’t gotten anyone out and has the dubious distinction of being the biggest problem in a bullpen that has, both historically and presently, been a nexus of fiascos.
I don’t know Rosenthal, and I can’t speak to his emotional state. He’s repeatedly said that he’s fine, at least mechanically, though having an ERA that’s so high it’s the place at the end of the number-line is liable to bother even the most mentally resilient. And of course, each lack of out isn’t done in isolation. Regardless of mechanics, every un-retired batter probably produces the next, as the thing that he has done for the entirety of his adult life – throwing a baseball in such a way that batters don’t hit that baseball – skids away from him as we all watch.
It’s taken me both a few hours and several months to write this. I don’t have writer’s block; I just haven’t been able to write anything. Is it the writing ‘yips?’ Maybe. Maybe I just don’t want to put a name to something, to give it that much power over me. But I can say that there is a spike of anxiety every time I open a new document, the blank of it staring at me like thousands of spectators, waiting, expectant.
If I had to describe anxiety, it’d be like this – a tumultuous oil slick somewhere in my chest, a storm-cloud that won’t let me sleep. Increasingly, like I’m alone, surrounded by people watching me fail, 60 feet from anyone who can provide assistance.
I’ve never thrown a baseball in a professional setting – but I’m old enough and far enough along in my career to have a few bankable skills, writing among them. I’m not sure what I’d do if I woke up tomorrow and found that the well of words I draw from was sealed shut. And there’s always that fear – that the thing that you go to, that thing that lets you do what you do, will evaporate, leaving you desiccated. Every time I begin something and don’t finish, there’s that fear – what if the last thing I wrote is the last thing I’ll ever write? What if the last out that you record is a swinging strikeout of Nick Markakis in August of 2017?
Maybe it takes faith – not the big ‘F’ kind, but the smaller kind, that sits against your ribs and crowds out everything else, at least temporarily. The kind that says, even though you’re struggling, this too will pass. That the next words you write will be some kind of decent. That the next pitch will invite a called third strike from a generous umpire. That there will be a next time, and a next.
Willians Astudillo stares out at the mound. Many would say he is waiting for the pitch, but that’s not really true. It implies some agency on the part of the pitch. Now the pitch waits for Willians Astudillo.
Almost three months have passed since Astudillo last struck out. It was a bad call, a pitch at least a couple of inches below the strike zone and a little outside. A close call, perhaps, but Astudillo didn’t swing at it, and everyone knows what that means. That umpire isn’t in the major leagues any more.
Astudillo would have broken DiMaggio‘s record too, if not for the fact that teams had walked him in every plate appearance on more than one occasion. No matter; such things are no longer important. People keep asking him about if he can become the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams, or whether the Twins will win the World Series. Fortunately, they assume his surprisingly controlled replies are humility and not disinterest.
At first he just thought that the feeling was being ‘in the zone’. He’d heard plenty of athletes talk about it. He always knew when he could hit a pitch and when to let it go. Once he was in the majors, he realized that it was something more, that he possessed something no one else had. Maybe he’d always known that wasn’t just ‘the zone’. There was something untapped, lurking in the recesses of his mind, that he had not yet reached.
He was getting close, though. Each day, the ball seems to slow a little bit more. The seams are clearer, the spin is easier to pick up, whether to swing is barely a decision.
So Astudillo stares at the ball in the pitcher’s hand. The bases are loaded – he thinks – and the scores are tied; it is unimportant beyond the fact that they believe they have to pitch to him. If they knew they would never pitch to him, but no-one knows.
The pitcher finally releases the ball to meet its fate. A curveball? The type of pitch no longer matters. Astudillo concentrates on the ball, only the ball, arcing inexorably across his field of vision and spinning slower and slower, until it’s not clear that it is spinning at all.
It isn’t spinning at all.
For several moments, he does nothing. Keeping his eyes on the ball, he’s only vaguely aware that nothing is moving around him. Astudillo lays down the bat. He can see the path of the pitch, not just the path it has taken but the path it will travel. There is a disturbance, a column, a tunnel of its past and future existence. A tunnel that ends at the plate, where it would have been met, as always, by Astudillo’s bat.
Astudillo moves round to the end of the tunnel, crouching so he can see inside. There is a shimmering in the air, like a waterfall had appeared in front of the mound. He reaches out and with one finger, breaks the surface. All becomes clear.
Sometimes there are fake Aristides Aquino facts, and other times there are extremely real ones:
Sip this one lightly. In this moment, you can suddenly reminisce about Adam Dunn and how you’d wonder if he’s content with the current three true outcome panopticon he helped create. You think back to the Big Red Machine, with Bench and Foster hammering crooked numbers onto the scoreboard. You remember Greg Vaughn was briefly a thing.
You go — wait, Jeff Jones?
Bizarrely great minor league seasons are baseball’s blind bags. They’re easy to find but good ones are happened upon, especially when they predate the NES. Jones’ 1982 season with the Single-A Cedar Rapids Kernels is definitely one of them: 42 home runs, 91 walks, a 1.088 OPS and 22 stolen bases thrown in for funsies. Context, of course, matters: he was 24 and playing in Single-A for the third year, basically mentoring 19-year-old Paul O’Neill and 20-year-old Eric Davis.
Cedar Rapids was a stone’s throw from where Jones played college at the University of Iowa, so this was very much a homecoming. As he told it later, he finally relaxed once he realized he probably was no longer a Reds prospect. Because of course this is how baseball goes, he ultimately became the Reds right fielder on Opening Day of 1983. His MLB career (unbeknownst to him) ended later that April in a demotion.
There are several takeaways here. Perhaps it’s that every minor league stat line has an interesting story behind it if you bother to look it up. Maybe it’s that you should be yourself. But I think the real takeaway here is that this Jeff Jones is different than the Jeff Jones that pitched for the Oakland A’s during the same early ‘80s and later became the Detroit Tigers pitching coach during their winning years. The real lesson here is that there are an infinite number of universes each with an infinite number of Jeff Jones and we’re never going to keep them all straight.
None of this has much to do with Aristides Aquino, who came out of nowhere to tie Jones’ mark tonight, and whose name is also alliterative. We’ll consider him part of the multiverse.
Joe: Wow, what an incredible Home Run Derby. Here comes the grounds crew to clear the field of the bats, balls, and bases, making way for the standing desks.
Tom: So people want to watch this, Joe? This is what the fans want?
Joe: Here they come, sauntering from the dugout, squinting into the afternoon sun: thirty of the best and brightest, one nominee from each team. Some come from Research & Development, others Analytics, still others from Research & Development Analytics. But regardless of their background, they all share that same passion for data-based decision making.
Tom: They’re wearing chinos, Joe.
Joe: As a reminder to viewers, each team is given a randomized list of 1000 fictional players with detailed, life-like profiles. They have ten minutes to evaluate and sort them into a 40 man roster. That roster will then compete in a simulated full season, with the winner of the World Series taking home the glory of Best Front Office and extra space towards their team’s salary cap.
Tom: You think this is their first time on a baseball field?
Joe: They are logging into their portals now. A hush has fallen over the fifty thousand fans here in Toronto. The clack of keys echoes through the stadium.
Tom: Hey Joe, can you tell us about what’s going on in the bullpen?
Joe: You mean AstroBot? I—yes. The human-computer hybrid designed with Trevor Bauer’s face, a computer’s brain, and Justin Verlander’s personality. They’ve put him in the bullpen, behind the fence. Last year he—and there’s the ding! We’re off. Look at those fingers fly.
Tom: What’s happening, I just see clicking.
Joe: Wow. On the big screen we can see Blue Jays’ Alison Moore just pulled up a data set of some proprietary bat-speed/swing plane metric. Look at that, she has nine Excel sheets open. Risky move. May cost her if she can’t synthesize that data fast enough.
Tom: The fans seem to be criticizing her height here, Joe.
Joe: I believe they’re chanting “Sort,” Tom.
Tom: Ah. OK, so walk me through the Orioles’ Fallon Jons strategy. It seems to be unique.
Joe: Definitely unique. We saw this last year as well. For the hitters, Fallon is sorting by bicep circumference. The pitchers he is sorting by star sign, effectively eliminating Libras all together.
Tom: I’m seeing a lot of snake references. Are snakes allowed on the field, Joe?
Joe: That’s Python, Tom. Don’t worry, there are some R’s out there too.
Tom: Righties, of course. The Rays and Mariners just swapped rosters, is that legal?
Joe: I think the Dodgers’ Antione Jordan has set up a deep neural network. Yes, and it appears he’s trying to decide what decay rate to fix for his ReLU. If he wants—
Tom: Sorry to interrupt but a pigeon just landed on the Mets’ keyboard and is pecking at the keys!
Joe: The Mets executives are yelling at their player not to interfere. Two years in a row. Amazing.
Tom: Wait. Joe. Where’s AstroBot?
Joe: What? Oh, God. It appears AstroBot has broken through the gate. He’s sprinting right at the Dodgers’ desk. No. No! He’s destroying the computers, desks are flying, people are fleeing for the exits.
Tom: Look at the spin rate on those desks.
Joe: Give it the prize! Give it what it wants! Give it [feed cut]
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now