The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

 

An Unexpected Stop for the Ryan Express

Back when the Futility Infielder site was merely a twinkle in my eye, a time when my friends and I were still reveling in our dumb good fortune to climb aboard the Yankee ticketholder bandwagon en route to a 114-win season, an issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly landed in my mailbox. Now, I rarely give the alumni mag much more than a passing glance, but this issue's cover story was right in my wheelhouse. In "How I took the Ryan Express to Brown," research professor Jim Blight entertainingly recounted his late-Sixties career as a minor league pitcher in the Tigers' chain, one that included more than its share of futility -- not to mention a brush with the legendary Nolan Ryan.

Blight's self-deprecating style and skill as a raconteur made for a winning combination, so I circulated the article among friends, who found it as hilarious as I did. One of his best anecdotes still pops up in our conversations. With the alumni magazine having recently digitized its archives, I'm finally able to share Blight's piece with a wider audience, augmenting it with data from Baseball-Reference's recent expansion into older minor-league stats.

After attending Michigan State, the 19-year-old Blight was chosen by the Tigers in the 19th round of the 1966 draft, the 374th overall pick. It was not a round brimming with major-league talent. Ron Cey, who was selected by the Mets to start the round but who wisely chose to attend Washington State before being drafted by the Dodgers two years later, was the only pick from that round to ever reach the bigs. Three future major leaguers were chosen in the prior round, while five, including Dave LaRoche, were chosen in the following one. Such was the crapshoot nature of the amateur draft, which was only in its second year. Hell, that year's overall number one pick, catcher Steve Chillcot, never even made the majors. The Mets chose him while passing on Reggie Jackson, who was snapped up by the Kansas City A's with the second pick, apparently because they were concerned the latter was dating a white woman (actually a Mexican-American, and Jackson's future first wife).

A 6-foot-3, 180-pound righty, Blight didn't draw rave reviews from scouts ("decent heat but not much movement on it, real good overhand curveball, good control..."), and he drew guffaws when he went into duck-and-cover mode while pitching batting practice to Tigers' big-leaguers like Willie Horton during spring training. He soon discovered that his lack of heat and movement made him "the perfect natural batting-practice pitcher. That was not a compliment: "In the jargon of the pros, I threw watermelons. Coming from my hand, the ball looked big and easy to hit." Ouch.

Blight's mediocrity would soon help him carve a spot in the record books:
As one of my catchers indelicately put it, I didn't just suck, I "swilled." ... Even my brushes with baseball immortality were of the "swilling" sort. I am, in fact, represented in the baseball record book for one accomplishment. It happened in 1967, during a game in the Florida State League. I was the starting pitcher for the Lakeland Tigers against the Miami Marlins, which at the time was the Baltimore Orioles farm club. After the manager, "Stubby" Overmire (at five-foot-two, possibly the shortest pitcher in modern Big League history when he pitched for the Tigers in the 1940s), gave me the ball and I took the mound, he did what he always did: he walked down to the left-field foul pole, ducked into our makeshift clubhouse, and lit a cigarette, smoking being prohibited in the dugout. The details of what followed blur in memory, but this much is clear from the record book: the lead-off man for Miami, Moses Hill, hit a solo home run to start the game. The same man, Moses Hill, also hit a grand slam later that inning during his second at bat, bringing in runs seven, eight, nine, and ten. There was still nobody out. The usual crowd of several dozen drunks, whores, and pimps was, on this particular night, joined by a couple dozen prisoners from the local road gang. State troopers brought a group once a week, in chains, clanking into the stadium, and whenever our team fell behind, the prisoners clanked their chains rhythmically. After the grand slam, everyone was screaming, clanking, and getting generally unruly as they shouted for Stubby to come and get me the hell out of the game.

After Moses Hill took me deep for the second time, Stubby at last put out his cigarette and headed to the mound, accompanied by the boos and the clanking. I watched him all the way in, and thought, Jesus, at last he's coming to get me out of here. Stubby reached the mound and, as a former pitcher, he (as usual) picked up the resin bag with his left hand and tossed it down. But this time he just stood at the bottom of the mound and looked up at me with a big grin on his face, which reached roughly to the height of my belt buckle. When I bent down to hand him the ball, he handed it right back, and said, "If you think I'm going to waste another pitcher on this game, you're crazy. Man, you are in for nine. Good luck. I'll be down in the clubhouse suckin' weed." And so he left, to more booing and clanking.

I did eventually get someone out, then someone else, and someone after that. At the end of nine innings, I had given up twenty-two earned runs on thirty-one hits. As far as I know, no pitcher has before or since, in the recorded history of baseball, given up two home runs to the same player in the same inning. The reason is obvious: in every case but mine, the manager removed the incompetent pitcher before such a feat became possible. In their way, my teammates understood the significance of the evening. As they filed into the clubhouse after the game, each, in turn, looked me solemnly in the face and then began to laugh uncontrollably. So did I. So did Stubby. So, I imagine, did Mo Hill. Even the prisoners must have yucked it up as they clanked back to the state prison. I was beginning to see the implications of being a natural batting-practice pitcher. I didn't suck, my catcher said, and I didn't even swill. Tonight, he said, I "chugged." For the remainder of my brief career in the minors, Chug became one of my nicknames.
"If you think I'm going to waste another pitcher on this game, you're crazy," has since become a touchstone of conversation any time my friends and I have seen a pitcher enduring an interminable shellacking, not an infrequent occurrence in this slugfest-heavy age. The irony, in fact, is that in the same month that Blight's article was published, on April 23, The Cardinals' Fernando Tatis bashed two grand slams in the same inning off the Dodgers' Chan Ho Park.

Even moreso than Park, Blight's plight recalls that of Aloysius "Allan" Travers, the poor schlub who was torched for 24 runs, 14 earned, in an eight-inning performance while pitching for the Tigers on May 18, 1912. Travers was one of seven St. Joseph's University players whom the Tigers recruited to fill out their lineup for a game against the Philadelphia A's after Ty Cobb had been suspended (for beating a leather-lunged heckler who'd lost both hands) and his teammates had gone on strike in protest of the decision. For a $50 fee, Travers dutifully took his pounding -- manager Hughie Jennings hadn't recruited any relievers -- and faded into oblivion, never to play in the majors again.

Thanks to the recent addition of pre-1990s minor league stats to Baseball Reference, we can now see Blight's minor league record in its full glory. He went 2-9 with a 4.96 ERA for Lakeland in 1967, striking out just 40 hitters in 78 innings, but if the numbers recounted from his legendary beating are accurate, that would leave a 2.79 ERA in his other outings, not too shabby in a league with a combined 3.61 ERA. Furthermore, he gave up just five homers for the year, so aside from Hill's two, he allowed just three more in his remaining 69 innings. Not that his record was exactly sterling; for his career he went 11-22 with a 4.23 ERA, never making it higher than a five-game stint in the High-A Carolina League and in fact spending most of his three seasons in the Florida State League.

While making the Florida scene, Blight was forced to bat against a 20-year-old, heat-throwing Nolan Ryan, hardly a fair fight for a career .085 hitter. Ryan had gone a combined 17-4 with a 2.36 ERA and 307 strikeouts in 202 innings with two Mets farm teams in 1966, and had even gotten a cup of coffee in the majors, but he was limited to just four appearances in 1967 due to a elbow troubles and a six-month stint in the Army Reserve. While the details Blight recounts (such as facing Ryan in the ninth inning of a meaningless game) don't square with the fact that Ryan's sole official FSL appearance was a four-inning start, there's no doubt that he speaks the truth about his harrowing experience:
...I saw absolutely nothing, other than Ryan's arm coming toward me. I heard a faint whoosh, then a pop behind me that sounded like gunfire, followed by "Steeee-rike one!" from the umpire. My knees started shaking. My palms began to sweat profusely. I will never forgive Nolan for the next pitch. It was a slider or curve or something like that. It started out behind me, or so it seemed, and then broke hard over home plate for strike two. As the ball crossed the plate, I was flat on my back on a pile of dirt, in a needless effort to avoid being hit.
The notoriously contact-shy Blight understandably reached an epiphany at that point, surrendering his major league dreams for a different path, one that led him to settle in as a research professor at Brown's Watson Institute and author a dozen books on U.S. foreign policy, most notably The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, later turned into a documentary directed by Errol Morris. Blight's expertise brought him face to face with the likes of Fidel Castro and North Vietnamese leaders, but quite understandably, nothing ever scared him as much as facing Ryan did.

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Comments:
What a great story! Linked to it on my blog today.
 
Thanks, Rob, much appreciated!
 
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