.45 CALEBER: Pitching Returns to America's Game
As an adolescent I heard tales of the day when a great army of pitchers would return to claim the throne that is rightfully theirs, destroying the evil clan of sluggers that has stamped out the old balance of power and caused a dark cloud to be drawn over the National Pastime.
For a long time, I felt that the prophecy would never be fulfilled, that the ancient tales of the coming of the true kings to establish a lasting peace in the baseball world was naught but fantasy. For my fellow undergraduates at Harvard and I have known nothing but repression and fear throughout our formative years. We have been living in the “Time of Bonds,” an era when pitchers cannot openly practice their craft for fear of reprisals from the tyrannical despotism of bat-borne power. It is a power wielded by those hitters who, like the gluttonous suitors of Penelope who prospered in the absence of Odysseus, have grown fat off of poor pitching and enlarged muscles.
Like many of my fellow baseball fans, I sought to preserve the legacy and tradition of pitching for the future, refusing to let events like the Glorious Uprising of 1968 fade into oblivion. The names of past heroes—Mathewson, Grove, Gibson, Koufax, Seaver, among many others—were invoked in the darkest hours, when the onslaught of home runs, the rapidly inflating offensive records, and the skyrocketing ERAs grew too much to bear.
I tried to celebrate the last of the upper-echelon hurlers, even as their ranks thinned year by year and the masses around me drank the Kool-Aid and succumbed to the seduction of the home run. But ultimately, it proved fruitless to resist the well-laid plans of the ash-wielding tyrants. Their largest offensive—launched in that fateful summer of ’98—proved too strong for any resistance, and the entire nation became entranced by the hypnotic potion of ball after ball flying out of the shrunken cathedrals. By the time the final campaign concluded in 2001, reaching a plateau of terror (the number 73 still triggers nightmares) unheard of in modern history, the bloody coup was already completed. Hitters and their home runs had sole control over the realm, and nobody dared believe that any group would arise to free baseball from the stranglehold of the sluggers.
But there is reason to hope. Looking back upon the long history of the holy war between hitters and pitchers, it is clear that the game undergoes cyclical periods of war and peace, as the eternal battle between darkness and light plays out on its cosmological scale. The deadball era gave way to the explosion of offense in the 1920s and ’30s, an expansion that continued through the postwar years until it was checked by the resurrection of dominant pitching in the ’60s and ’70s. The uneasy truce of the ’80s was shattered in the early ’90s, when the greatest period of home run tyranny began. How can one tell that the tide is now turning, that the precession of the baseball equinoxes has reached another critical point of transition?
Look closely at the early returns from the front and you will notice a subtle shift in the battle lines, a stirring of revolution. Shutouts, those most powerful indicators of the triumph of pitching, have sprung up all across the land. In recent seasons it has taken a long line of reinforcements—the so-called middle relievers—to aid the beleaguered starting pitcher in his fight against the oppressive hitters. So far this season, however, starters are staying in the fight much longer, determined to finish off the battles that they begin. A new caste of young warriors has arisen to take up the mantle of Palmer and Carlton, sworn to driving out the evils of the current regime and driving down the level of offense.
An army of liberation has risen in the East. Leading this renewed charge against the establishment is Florida pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who has already thrown two shutouts, and started the year with a streak of 24 scoreless innings. Willis’ National League allies have added four more shutouts in the early going, and the number of pitchers who have thrown complete games, single-handedly defeating their foes, has been surprising high.
You may laugh at my naïve optimism, pointing to the prevalence of steroids and weight training as evidence that the offensive beast is still tightening its iron grip on pitching. But when Aaron Heilman of New York, a pitcher who entered the season with a career ERA of 6.36, threw a one-hit shutout last Friday night, I knew that the great wheel of the baseball ages had already begun to turn.
For I have seen the sign, and the days of totalitarian offense are nearing an end.
—Staff writer Caleb Peiffer can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.