Everyone was smiling on Tuesday night when the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting pitcher Roy Oswalt ran out to play left field against the Houston Astros.
Well, perhaps not Ryan Howard. The Phillies’ first baseman was still seething after being ejected from the game in the bottom of the fourteenth inning: the very act that left manager Charlie Manuel in the unenviable position of choosing between Oswalt and Joe Blanton as the only two available options to replace the slugger.
And Manuel himself probably wasn’t grinning much either. Having dealt with injuries to several key players in recent months, the last thing he wanted to do was send his number two starter into the outfield and risk him getting injured. However, Blanton has a classic pitcher’s build (‘built for comfort, not for speed’) and really wasn’t an option to start chasing down flyballs, even if he does have a World Series home run to boost his hitting credentials.
So it was Oswalt who had to pick up a glove and man left field, smiling broadly with the Citizens Bank Park crowd cheering his name. It was a surreal scene, made all the more so by the strange coincidence of it happening against Oswalt’s former team.
It’s the way in most sports that many players relish the chance of taking on the role of one of their colleagues. Maybe it’s a way to relieve stress from the daily grind? Maybe it’s because they believe the opposite role to their own is easier than their teammates make it look? Maybe it’s a case of the same feeling of wonder that us fans all go through: ‘what does it feel like to hit a game-winning home run, or a last minute winner?’
Whatever the cause, go to a football training ground and more often than not you’ll find goalkeepers playing as strikers in the five-a-side games, while Wayne Rooney is far from the only attacker known for being a demon goalkeeper (in his own mind at least). And it’s the same in baseball. Position players will try out their knuckleballs in the outfield, pitchers convince themselves that they could easily hit long balls if only given a proper chance.
Every now and then, the player gets a chance to live up to their own billing and those moments are always treasured by fans. We burst into cheers as a goalkeeper heads for the opposition’s penalty box for a late corner, or offer a standing ovation for every routine save made by a position player suddenly left wearing the goalkeeper’s gloves after the normal Number One gets sent off with no substitutes remaining. We laugh along as batters hit harmless flyballs off a position player’s tame offerings near the end of a blow-out loss (Bill Hall and Nick Swisher being two of the most recent to take the mound temporarily).
What is it that makes these moments so special?
It’s because we’re no longer watching a professional who has dedicated years to honing his skills, we’re watching a talented athlete trying his best in an unfamiliar position. This typically comes in a state of emergency, and a gung-ho spirit consumes everybody as we enjoy the moment and try to encourage the player into a miraculous performance.
It’s a little different when it comes to a National League pitcher being a substitute position player. They have to field their position and also take their hacks at the plate in their normal line of duty, so the skills are far from alien to them. Oswalt himself was quick to point this out after the game.
The Astros’ first batter in the fifteenth inning, Jason Castro, hit a flyball to left field (you would expect no less from the baseball gods) and while a commentator on the Phillies’ TV broadcast could be heard to gasp “oh no!” as soon as he saw it heading in Oswalt’s direction, the pitcher turned left fielder made the catch with ease. The crowd went wild and Oswalt was seen smiling at it all, but he played the moment down later on. “Everybody made a big deal about a fly ball. We catch 50, 60 of them a day during BP [batting practice], maybe every day for 162 games. For 10 years that’s a lot of fly balls”, said Oswalt.
His comments were accurate, but perhaps he was deliberately trying to play down his excitement. In fact, he let slip his true feelings when explaining to reporters what he said when centre fielder Shane Victorino asked if he wanted him to take any plays involving a throw to the plate. “I said, ‘No.’ That’s what I’ve been wanting to do forever is throw somebody out at the plate’”.
He might have 146 Major League wins and 1,628 strikeouts to his name, yet gunning down a runner still remains an unfulfilled dream.
As does hitting a game-winning home run. He had the chance, with the Phillies down 4-2 in the sixteenth inning, two runners on and two out. ‘Let’s go Oswalt’ chants filled the air, but he could only ground out to the third baseman to end the game.
Still, we all had something to smile about along the way.