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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

20 K


I was there. Just four days before, I had been to Wrigley to see the Cubs beat the Cardinals in extra innings . . . extra foggy innings. Oh, and then right after I got engaged. The following days provided a strange blend of crazy emotions and dusty, strenuous, sledge-hammer-swinging work. So I kind of had a headache. And a backache. And a holy-crapache. So I left work early on Wednesday and caught the 1:20 at Clark and Addison.

I knew Kerry Wood was pitching. I had watched on TV and knew he had nasty stuff. But I didn't know the festival of feats that awaited me.

There were about 15,000 people there. The bleacher ticket cost $6. I sat down in left center about an hour before game time. Warm. Bit breezy. Overcast. Awesome.

The first pitch from Kerry was a ball. And I wasn't the only one not quite prepared for the nastiness of his stuffiness. Sandy Martinez, the catcher, wasn't either. The high fastball buzzed right by his glove and hit the umpire in the face mask. That pitch caught everyone's attention, and from that point on, Kerry served up a feast of jaw-dropping strikes. The Astros put eight balls into play. Eight. Most of the time they just took turns watching and whiffing.

I have to say, I'm not one of those guys who can tell the speed and the type of pitch just by watching from the stands. Usually they all look like fastballs to me. But this was different. He basically threw three different pitches that day, and I could distinctly recognize each one, every time:

1. Fastball. He was throwing this about 98 mph the whole game. One of them hit Craig Biggio. Another hit the ump. A few of them got fouled off, and others turned into ground ball outs. The one hit the Astros got that day could have been called an error on Kevin Orie. It was a slow ground ball from Ricky Guttierrez that the third baseman just plain missed. The rest of Wood's fastballs were hitting the catcher's mitt so hard, they made a crack so loud, I thought they were making contact with Louisville Slugger. Then Martinez would spring up from his crouch and fire the ball back to Wood or sling it on down to Orie. Even from across the green expanse of the Friendly Confines, I could see these fastballs were blazing. You could practically hear the whizz of disgruntled air sputtering off the ball and smell the smoking leather rising off the catcher's mitt. Nasty.

2. Slider. All of Kerry's sliders looked like fastballs when they left his hand. The Astros were afraid. They were grown men, but I could see their little boy fear in their trembling little eyes all the way from the cheap seats. So when this pitch shot out from Kerry's shotgun of an arm headed straight toward their heads, they were understandably distressed. I could see them flinch. Then the ball would suddenly change trajectory from the batter's skull and swoop harmlessly over the center of the plate. The batters were physiologically incapable of swinging at these pitches.

But it got worse. When he threw the slider so that it looked like a fastball strike, the batter's eyes would grow wide - I could see this from left center, I kid you not. They would uncoil their mightiest swings as this juicy looking meatball of a pitch swept drastically into the far reaches of the left-hand batter's box. Again, I could see aerodynamics take effect as the world of physics changed its mind on where the ball should fly. All academics aside, the ball would wind up as far as three feet away from the end of the bat as the hapless hitters felt their butts head right as their torsos toppled to the left. Miss Jackson. Yeah, nasty.

3. Curve. He didn't throw this one much. When he did, I'm telling you, I could see the knees buckle. I could see the shoulders slouch. I could see the little speech bubble appear over their heads and fill with pound signs and ampersands and exclamation points and percentages. Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen sweeping out the garbage truck in Men at Work. Nastyyyyyy!

I remember who was around me. A guy in a Biggio jersey with his wife . . . also in a Biggio jersey, sitting right in front of me. A guy to the right of me who was using a newspaper for an umbrella as the clouds started spitting on us. Two guys who finally revealed their true allegiance when they broke out their St. Louis Cardinal panchos. I said it before, the place wasn't packed. But it was loud. With every pitch it got louder. When there were two strikes on a hitter, the crescendo was deafening . . . and of course that seemed quiet compared to the explosions after each strikeout. Somewhere around the fifth inning, we were no longer a bunch of fans. We were friends. We were family. We were ecstatic.

And Cubs' turns at bat couldn't end fast enough. We didn't want to see them hit. We didn't want to see anyone hit. We wanted to see Kerry pitch and watch the Astros look like idiots.

And they did. The ninth inning was electric . . . I felt what literally seemed like static electricity dancing across my skin. First hitter was a pinch hitter . . . maybe Daryl Ward. He struck out. We went nuts. One of my buddies (whom I had never met) yelled out something about a National League record. Then Craig Biggio grounded out and we all booed. Jerk didn't have the decency to swing and miss. Then came Derek Bell. He watched a strike. Then he fouled off a pitch. Then Kerry threw a slider. Bell swung pathetically and didn't come within a yard of it. The place. Went. Nuts. High fives all around. Hugs. Strangers were hugging! I didn't hug anybody. But I gave plenty of high fives, yelled like crazy, and eventually filed out politely into the euphoric streets of Wrigleyville.

The game flew by. Seriously, it went so fast that when I got back on the El after the game, I only got charged for a transfer. Kerry had taken less than two hours to strike out a major league record 20 men. When I got home to my apartment (in Chicago at the time), I immediately turned on the TV to watch the news. The phone rang. It was my mom.

"Did you see the game?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said calmly . . . "FROM THE BLEACHERS!"

The whole thing was like an early birthday/timely engagement present from God. Just plain freaking awesome. And now it's been ten years (two of which I just spent writing this). Thanks, Kerry. Thanks, God. Thanks, Heather. That was awesome.

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