Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The Three Pitchers

Fielding is an important part of the game, but contests are normally decided by whether the pitchers are able to get the better of the batters or vice versa.  The men on the mound have had the upper hand in the news stakes this week, with Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine and Carlos Zambrano hitting the headlines for different reasons. 

Johnson’s slider sticks in my memory 

Randy Johnson reached the outstanding milestone of 300 career wins on Thursday with a victory over the Washington Nationals.  The Big Unit has been pitching in the Majors since 1988, ten years before I first became hooked on the game.
 
My most vivid early memory of watching MLB on TV involved Johnson.  I was new to the sport in 1998 and my knowledge of the game was slowly acquired by watching events unfold via Five’s coverage and, a little later, enhanced by a book called ‘Play the Game: Baseball & Softball’ that I happened to find in a shop one day. (Yes kids, there was a time in the recent past when we couldn’t just Google everything we didn’t know about)
 
One of the many things that I didn’t fully understand at first was the different types of pitches that were used.  A ‘fastball’ was simple enough and I could see how a curveball curved, but I was left confused by one pitch that the announcers were constantly referring to in one particular game.

That pitch was a slider and it was being thrown by Randy Johnson. 

Johnson’s milestone encouraged me to look through the records at Baseball-Reference.com to see if I could find the game that I had witnessed.  I started watching baseball on Five from approximately the end of May 1998 and there would have been a game most Sundays and Wednesdays.  My memory also says that Johnson was pitching for the Mariners at the time and, if true, that would mean the game took place prior to 31 July, when the Big Unit was traded to the Astros in a deadline deal. 

Those reference points leave me with four possible games:

Wednesday 24 May – the Mariners beat the Devil Rays 3-1 with Johnson striking out fifteen batters while throwing a complete game.  All those strikeouts would have caught my imagination, but would the Rays-Mariners have been on Five?  I’m guessing probably not.

Wednesday 24 June – the Mariners beat the Padres 2-1 with Johnson again going the distance and striking out twelve batters. This is a definite possibility as San Diego topped the NL West at that point, on their way to the World Series, so it could have been the game picked by the broadcasters that night.

Sunday 5 July – the Mariners were beaten 8-4 by the Rangers. Johnson got smashed for eight runs, but did pitch a complete game and struck out twelve batters.  As a battle from the AL West, this one could have made it on to national TV.

Wednesday 22 July – the Mariners lost 7-5 to the Devil Rays and Johnson struck out just five batters. The fact that Johnson’s performance stuck in my memory suggests that he was in dominating form, which makes it unlikely to be this game.

That leaves me with two possible answers: 24 June or 5 July.  If the latter was an ESPN Sunday Night game then it would definitely be the one I’m looking for, but I haven’t been able to confirm that.  Maybe someone out there can solve the mystery, even if that means letting me know that none of the above games would have been on Five and I’ve got to go back to the records.

Whichever game it actually was, Johnson made a big impression on this inquisitive newcomer.  This was partly because of his appearance (unfeasibly tall, classic ‘mullet’ hairstyle) and name (‘Randy’ is about as  ‘American’ a name as you can get), but it was mainly due to his slider. My knowledge of the game was in its infancy back then, yet it was this pitch that first made me realize just how difficult it is to be a Major League hitter.

And also that Randy Johnson is a pretty good pitcher.

Braves bid goodbye to Glavine

While Johnson was celebrating his feat in typically understated fashion, the pitcher he followed to that mark was experiencing a less enjoyable part of the game.  Tom Glavine thought he was working his way back into the Braves’ rotation.  Instead, GM Frank Wren decided that he needed to move the team in a different direction.  Glavine was kicked to the curb and the proud pitcher could not hide his displeasure at the way the situation had been handled.

“I just feel that I was somewhat betrayed and that people weren’t totally honest with me about what was going on,” Glavine said. “I don’t think they were honest with me about what the decision came down to. Those of you who know me, that’s not my personality. I’m very honest, very upfront and a very candid person. I like being treated that way and when I’m not, it bothers me.”

Wren had already angered many fans in Atlanta for allowing John Smoltz to depart to Boston over the offseason.  Smoltz expressed similar feelings to Glavine of disappointment at his treatment by the GM, suggesting that he was left with no choice but to leave despite wanting to stay with the Braves.  Supposedly treating fan favourites in this way will not make a GM popular.

However, it isn’t a GM’s job to seek popularity; sentiment shouldn’t be a factor in roster decisions.  A GM’s job is to put the strongest team together and if that means releasing a legend, or deciding that money could be better spent elsewhere, then they have to trust their judgement and deal with the inevitably emotional reaction from the player and the fans. 
 
From the outside it appears that both situations could have been handled better by Wren, a thought given extra credence on Friday when Braves president John Schuerholz apologized for what had happened.  While opinions may differ on whether the Braves made the right decision on Smoltz and Glavine, everyone would have preferred both players’ careers with the Braves to have ended in a happier and more dignified way.

Zambrano sets out his schedule

In contrast to Glavine’s situation, Carlos Zambrano appears determined to see his career end on his own terms.  He earned his 100th career win on Friday night and topped off the game by hitting his eighteenth career home run. However the celebrations soon received a jolt when Big Z claimed that he will retire at the end of his current contract.  This would be either the end of the 2012 or the 2013 season, depending on whether he picked up the option year contained in the deal signed in August 2007.
 
If Zambrano stays true to his word, and he’s fully entitled to change his mind, then baseball fans will only be able to enjoy watching him pitch for another five years at the most.  Opposing hitters and Gatorade dispensers around the Majors will be happy about that.

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