His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at
(“The Pitcher,” Robert Francis)
John Farrell understands that pitching is the art of learning from failure. He was not a great pitcher himself, and he has nurtured a host of Red Sox pitchers through failure, among them Cliff Bucholz, Felix Dubront, John Lackey, and most recently John Lester.
Pitchers and quarterbacks are unique for throwing to miss the target. If you put the ball right into the strike zone or right into the receiver’s hands you risk a home run or an interception. Instead you throw to the batter’s weakness or the receiver’s strength, and the difference, as a poet once said of his craft, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
It was utterly painful to watch John Lester struggle with the strike zone on Friday night at Comerica Park. The man has won nineteen games in a season and thrown a no-hitter. As recently as this season he has flirted with a hitless outing, where his curves and cutters were biting the corners and baffling big league all-stars. He started Opening Day in 2012 and 2013, the projected ace of the pitching staff.
Lester was missing badly Friday night, turning Jerrod Saltalamacchia into a goalie blocking shots low outside, low inside. Some pitches were just off the plate and his eyes pleaded with the umpire to see them into the strike zone.
After Miguel Cabrera launched a three-run homer into the Tiger bullpen, I yelled at John Farrell on my television screen, “Now will you take him out?” It was 6-5, the Sox leading by one fragile run. But Farrell waited with the infuriating patience that baseball managers uniquely display. He waited while Lester walked the hapless rookie Garcia in the fifth and Pena, the ninth batter in the order in the sixth, then struck out Omar Infante.
Now he comes out and takes the ball from Lester with a pat on the back. The former journeyman with the Cleveland Indians sends his ace to the showers on a strikeout. Only a pitcher would understand what that meant to John Lester. He left on a high note after five innings of very low notes, many of them in the dirt.
In the meantime I’m gasping, “At last!” At least I wouldn’t have to witness the so-called ace squandering the rest of his five-run lead. Some shred of humanity in my cold fan’s heart is saying, “Yeah, but did you see the hell that guy went through for five and two-thirds innings? The man was practically on the cross.”
Remarkably it is the humanity of a baseball manager that makes him great, not his ruthlessness. Leave it to the basketball coaches to scream and throw balls at their players, the baseball manager has to reason with a pitcher and pat him on the rump when he takes him out of the game. And he keeps sending him out to pitch every five days, even though his cutter is biting the dust and his curve ball is missing the corners.
As baseball scribes declare, the game is a game of failure. You get a hit every three chances at the plate, you’re an all-star, every four times, you’re on the bench, every five times, you’re back in the minors. Your fastball catches the clean-up hitter napping, you’re a crafty hurler; it catches the sweet spot on the ninth hitter’s bat, you’re a chump who’s lost his control.
A little like life, isn’t it? A game of failures, where the strong accept and learn from them, and the weak are defeated by them. And our mentors and managers are there, patiently enduring our failures and patting us on the back for the smallest success.