For baseball fans, the end of September and beginning of October are a fun time. Playoff baseball often consists of tense, high-stakes and exciting games featuring the baseball's best players. It is also a time of mind-numbing cliches, lazy analysis and in, much of the media, an understanding of baseball that too often seems frozen sometime around the last Kansas City Royals World Series victory.
Before last night's Royals-A's games, the analysts on TBS promised a great pitching duel largely because the Royals were starting James Shields. Shields, who as I learned yesterday, is nicknamed "Big Game James." Given that he entered last night's game with a 2-4 win loss record and ERA of 4.98 in the post-season, it probably never occurred to the media that Shields is called "Big Game James" for the same reason bald men used to sometimes have the nickname "Curly" or that fat men are occasionally called "Sim." Shields' mediocre performance last night in which he gave up 4 earned runs in 5+ innings was consistent with his previous post-season record.
The Royals still won the game on the strength of good clutch hitting and rampant base stealing. It took them 12 innings to do it, because their manager, Ned Yost, mishandled his bullpen badly. When a team wins, blunders like Yost's decision to bring Yordano Ventura into the game in the sixth inning with two runners on base, are often overlooked. Nonetheless, using Ventura rather one of his three relief stars to get through the toughest part of the A's lineup was a mistake that almost pushed Yost's team out of the playoffs.
Ventura is a very good young pitcher who was a member of the Royals rotation all year where he posted a very respectable 3.20 ERA and a 14-10 record. Bringing him in to pitch in an unfamiliar situation like on only two days rest seemed especially strange and almost cruel to the young pitcher. The image of Ventura in the dugout after giving up a three run home run to Brendan Moss, and only retiring one of the three batters he faced, was enough to make any fan feel badly for him. The reality that the fault lay with Yost, not Ventura, could not have been very comforting to the latter.
In the postgame show, amidst the chatter about grit and Yost's moves paying off, a strange thing happened. Pedro Martinez, one of the great pitchers of recent history as well as one of the most colorful baseball players of his era, serving as an analyst for TBS, could not contain himself. First, Martinez spelled out exactly why Yost had made a mistake by bringing Ventura in to pitch in that sixth inning. Martinez referred to the decision as a "panic move," adding that Yost "almost gave the game away." Martinez's decision to tell the truth, even at the risk of offending Yost and making the other analysts look bad was refreshing. That is the kind of insight that players can offer when they are honest and speaking from experience and the heart.
What Martinez did next was even more impressive. Martinez looked right into the camera and delivered a message to Ventura in Spanish. The message included telling the younger pitcher that it was not his fault and that he should hold his head high. This was an unusual moment where Martinez seemed more genuinely concerned about Ventura than anything else. He spoke in Spanish, offered no translation and looked very serious.
It was, in the context of network baseball analysis, where it is still considered radical to say that WAR is more important than RBIs or that in the post-season home runs can be more valuable than bunting, defending Ventura at the expense of Yost was an extraordinary gesture of solidarity for Martinez to make.
Martinez's statement was particularly powerful because both pitchers are from the Dominican Republic and share, in addition to a common language, the experience of being Dominican and playing in the US. Ventura is one of many talented young pitchers from his country. Martinez, however, is the greatest Domincan pitcher ever. Martinez, although remembered more for some of the funny things he said when playing, once famously referring to the New York Yankees as "my daddy," has also displayed an understanding of baseball history and his place in it. For example, after wining the 1997 Cy Young Award, Martinez sought to present it to Juan Marichal. Marichal was, before Martinez, the greatest Dominican pitcher ever, but had never won the award itself.
Following a season that was been dominated by MLB relentlessly telling fans that Derek Jeter is class act deserving of their respect, to the point where even Yankee fans were tired of it, Martinez demonstrated that he, like his longtime Yankee rival, is also a class act, willing to stand up for somebody who he thinks was treated badly. That too deserves our respect.