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April 1, 2008


Noodling on the news — Catching Z's

On the third planet from the sun, Gwen Knapp wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle,

For the most part, Zito didn’t throw harder than 84 mph all day. He knows his fastball has lost velocity, and doesn’t quite understand why.

Elsewhere, in a parallel universe, the fans roared with displeasure as the Big Z walked out to the pitcher’s mound. Once the standard-bearer of a bright new future, he had begun the season 0-3, after an embarrassing 9-25 the year before. The boos were deafening: their vibrations rattled the bleachers and whipped the pennants around their staffs. A sea gull hovering overhead in the hope of grabbing a crumb or two darted off in alarm.

Z just smiled. After months of experimenting, he’d come up with a new pitch — a really new pitch — and he knew it would work.

When he reached the mound, he stood still for a minute, staring at the batter. The noise from the stands poured over him like a cold shower, alerting every nerve.

Z inhaled deeply. Time to show them what he’d got. At the top of the windup, instead of doing his usual one-legged curl to the chest, he stretched his right leg straight up to the sky. Kicking the moon, like Warren Spahn and the Rockettes.

The crowd gasped. Something strange was happening.

He cocked his arm and sucked in his gut, preparing for the release. It came, with a lunge forward and an arcing of his arm so fast that the movement became a blur. He followed through, letting his fingertips linger for a nanosecond behind the trajectory of the ball.

But the ball hardly moved. It hovered two inches beyond the spot where Z’s fingers had pointed. Then slowly, ever so slowly, it began to float toward the batter’s box. Sixty feet, six inches, is a very long distance when it’s being traveled inch by inch.

The catcher crouched, his mitt poised, waiting. The batter stared intently. Then, as the seconds turned into minutes, he relaxed and his eyes began to wander. By the time the ball reached the strike zone, his eyes had glazed over and he was lost in the world of his own private dreams.

The ball fell softly into the catcher’s mitt.

Strike one!

The stunned crowd came to life and laughter filled the ballpark, followed by cheers. Z hadn’t thrown a strike in his last three trips to the mound. The batter lowered his bat and looked at the home plate umpire, who grinned back at him.

The next pitch clocked in at about 85 miles an hour, sailing right past the still shell-shocked batter.

Strike two!

As Z began the windup for his next throw, the batter visibly upped his concentration. He wasn’t going to get caught napping again. Again Z thrust his right leg to the sky. Again he released the ball and rested his fingers ever-so-gently in its wake. Again the ball hovered over the path to the batter’s box.

Again the batter stared blankly as the ball drifted by him.

Strike three!

The crowd went crazy. Grown men spilled their beer as they leaped to their feet and hugged their neighbors. Kids threw their caps into the air. Even the granny fans lost their composure, whooping and waving their orange sunhats.

This was only the beginning. Z retired the side and went on to pitch a perfect game, his new throwing technique completely baffling all his opponents, who were accustomed to the hyped-up tempo of a supplement-stimulated game.

Drawn by his success, other pitchers followed suit. By the end of the season, six-hour games were common. Stadium vendors and TV advertisers loved the new format. Personal trainers searched frantically for injectable substances that could help players to slow down their reflexes, while coaches turned to yoga and zen. And the seventh-inning stretch began to truly live up to its name, as fans got to their feet, awakened their slumbering muscles, and prepared for another two hours of baseball.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008