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The Baseball Chronicle


The Rocket: A Tall Tale

By John Bartleby

His best friend suggested leaking a sex tape onto the Internet. Preferably with a girl that any Section 2257 Custodian of Records in Van Nuys, California could vouch for; he didn’t want an R. Kelly scandal, after all. But that wouldn’t fly well with his sponsors. And his agent, who had conscientiously done the math on such a scenario, would kill him: 10 percent of the licensing fees on the video came nowhere close to 10 percent of Mike’s endorsement deals, both present and future. The cost-benefit calculus just didn’t support such a move.

His mom suggested shaving the moustache—it reminded too many people of Tom Selleck, and rumors had been swirling about Tom for years. It also evoked unfortunate associations with a hairy Magnum P.I. prancing about Hawaii in his tight early-80s shorts, gun prominently slipped into his backside waistband, palling around with his sexually ambiguous buddies TC, Rick and potential NAMBLA member Higgins. But Mike liked his moustache.

His publicist just told him not to respond and the rumors would go away. But they didn’t. Naturally, his agent had the most pragmatic and manipulative idea: Just get snapped by the right photographers spelunking through Manhattan’s hottest nightspots with a few choice models on his arms and a few well-placed celebrity gossip tidbits in Page Six would result, squelching the unfortunate whispers. The problem was he couldn’t stand models—either female or male. Besides, the whole idea just seemed too contrived.

He wasn’t sure why the rumors bothered him so much, but they did and that was all that mattered. So he decided on the most honorable and straight-forward approach (at least in the mass-media era): He’d hold a press conference. His publicist reserved a room at the Four Seasons, New York City’s sports and society page writers were called, all of the major networks showed up with cameras in tow, and things went ahead as planned. Mike issued his denial to the non-news and headlines were made.

At the end of the press conference, however, the other issue inevitably reared its ugly head: “Hey Mike,” a Page Six reporter asked, “What about your interleague series next month? Are you looking forward to facing the Rocket again?”

If it wasn’t his sex life they wanted to talk about, it was the two incidents. The first incident in mid-July of 2000 was bad enough—a hundred mile per hour heater straight to the head, the clunk of his batting helmet, the moments lying unconscious in the dirt by home plate. A month earlier, Mike had hit a grand slam off the Rocket, his third home run in just eleven at-bats against him. The beanball had a clear message: There was no doubt in Mike’s mind that the Rocket had placed the pitch exactly where he had wanted.

It was lucky that Mike walked away alive; even luckier that he was still able to play. It’s a mental game, they say, and the mental comeback was certainly more difficult than the physical. Fear drives the sport. Every few years, a player randomly catches a case of Steve Blass disease and suddenly can’t throw a ball with any precision, despite an absence of any physical ailment. Positions players afflicted with the problem—including such All-Stars as Chuck Knobloch, Steve Sax and Dale Murphy—just slide over to the outfield. Pitchers, however, usually end up on the disabled list for unknown psychological ailments and they rarely make it back into the game. Once the fear is in your head, it’s tough to beat. And it’s the same way coming back from a traumatic beaning: You’ve got to be able to bear down to take the inside advantage away from the pitcher. But after you’ve been rendered unconscious by one that “got away,” it’s a lot harder to crouch over home plate. Just ask Tony Conigliaro. Thankfully, Mike made a successful comeback and returned to form within a few weeks.

The second incident was more bizarre. In the second game of the 2000 World Series, Mike shattered his bat on a 1-2 pitch. As Mike ran to first, Rocket grabbed one of the shards of the bat that had landed near the mound and hurled it frenetically towards Mike, almost impaling him. The Rocket said he mistook it for the ball. His teammates claimed it was the Rocket’s adrenaline getting the best of him—this was a guy who showed up commando-style at a 1990 American League Championship elimination game with full eye black and then promptly got tossed for arguing with an umpire in the second inning. But Mike saw vicious intent in the act.

Despite his continued anger about the incidents, Mike had grown weary of addressing the endless stream of questions. So he simply said that the incident was gone but not forgotten and left it at that.

A month later, his teammate made a pathetic attempt to get even, but it just wound up embarrassing everyone. In the third inning, the Rocket took the plate against Mike’s team for the first time since the two incidents. The first pitch was supposed to send a message, sailing wide and behind Rocket’s rear end, thudding against the wall padding 30 feet behind home plate. But the Rocket just chuckled at the meager and misplaced 84-mph fastball, the umpire issued the requisite warnings, and no further action was taken.

Success, they say, is the best form of revenge. But when Mike hit a home run off the Rocket later in the game, it just didn’t feel very satisfying. Maybe, thought Mike, too much time had passed since the incidents.

At the end of the 2003 season, the Rocket retired to Houston and it seemed that the questions would finally go away. But Rocket’s hometown team, the Astros, lured him back to the game. Rocket responded to playing in front of his family and friends with a sterling 10-3 record and 2.62 ERA over the first half of the season. Nearly 42, he was a leading candidate for his unprecedented seventh Cy Young award. As a result of both his first-half performance and the fact that the All-Star game was being held in Houston, the Rocket was the clear pick to start the midsummer-night classic on the mound for the National League. Meanwhile, the fans had elected Mike to start the game as Rocket’s receiver. With the pitcher-catcher battery selected, the buzz began and the questions resurfaced.

The media, of course, asked about his relationship with the Rocket. As Mike quipped to the media, “We won’t be playing golf after the game.” And they truly didn’t have much in common. They were both Republicans and believed in lower taxes, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Much to his dismay, Mike also had to field lingering questions about the subject of his press conference. He began to regret his decision to hold the conference in the first place—two years had passed and the whispers still floated unabated. He should have listened to his agent, he thought to himself: Subtly plant the seed and then let others do the work for you.

And that’s when the idea hit him. Success was the second-best form of revenge. Putting your enemy in a position where he inevitably fails was the best.

Ballplayers as a lot don’t find themselves reading much. But one of Mike’s role models, Moe Berg—All-Star catcher extraordinaire and World War II spy—was a prominent man of arts and letters. And, unlike his peers, Mike had never been assured of a career in the big leagues; he had always needed a backup plan in case the ballplayer gig didn’t work out. So Mike was a reader. And he couldn’t help but remember a story he had once read about a straight-laced guy in middle management with a nagging problem—a recently hired consultant for his company with the ear of the higher-ups was on the brink of downsizing him and his department. A man of remarkable restraint and mild temperament, our middle manager drank only milk, never swore, never raised his voice, never indulged in any vice such as smoking, and scheduled his life with metronomic precision and monotony. In a world of constant flux, our middle manager was the one thing his colleagues could count on.

So one evening, our middle manager showed up at the consultant’s house unannounced. He was inebriated, raunchy and boorish. He proceeded to smoke a cigarette, put back a drink or two and hurl several ribald comments her way with reckless abandon before waltzing out the door. The next day, he arrived at work and learned that the consultant had been terminated. As it turns out, she came to work frazzled, ranting furiously about some hallucination she had involving our mild-mannered middle-manager drinking, smoking and raising hell. The higher-ups were immediately convinced that she’d gone mad.

The crowd was boisterous, screaming wildly for their hometown hero on the mound. Rocket acknowledged the crowd with a tip on his hat prior to the first pitch. Ichiro led off the inning. And he managed to slap a double to right field. Next, Pudge came to bat. The first pitch was a ball, the second fouled back. Just before the third pitch was hurled Pudge’s way, Mike pounded his fist into his glove three times and then tapped his right knee—an outside fastball. Kenny, his old buddy in the opposing dugout, gave the signal to the third-base coach, who then relayed it to Pudge to watch for dead-red. Pudge’s bat made solid contact with the screaming fastball and he pulled the ball the opposite way for a run-scoring triple.

Vladimir, free-swinger that he was, grounded out on the next pitch. Next up was Manny, who took the first pitch for a called strike. Piazza pounded his glove three times and then hit his right knee. Manny’s eyes lit up when he saw the pitch, but he was overanxious. Contact came a split second too late, and he fouled the pitch back. No matter, thought Mike, who pounded his glove three times and then tapped his left knee. Sitting pretty on the catbird seat, Manny grooved the inside fastball into deep left field, out of the park. Two more runs scored. It was now three to zero. And the Rocket, in an uncharacteristic move, seemed to be grinning. He then took a walk off the mound in an effort to regroup. The crowd had grown quiet.

As the Rocket wandered towards first base, Mike glanced at his legs striding. Mike dreamt of having legs like the Rocket’s. They had taken the pressure off Rocket’s arm and added to his late-career durability. Mike could feel the weakness in his own legs, the cumulative effect of years of squatting down behind home plate. He had lingered too long in the catcher’s position and he’d never stick around the league into his early 40s. At best, he had only a couple of more good years left.

Mike then turned his attention back to the matter at hand. Alex stood in the batter’s box. Mike wasn’t about to give any help to the league’s best-paid player. So he let Alex handle Rocket on his own, and Alex struck out. Two outs, Jason up. If Rocket were going to have a bad inning, it was up to Jason.

Jason took the first pitch for a ball.

“You responsible for this, Mike?”

Mike didn’t respond. Instead, he simply pounded his glove three times and swiped his glove against the dirt just south of home plate—splitter in the dirt. Jason got the sign, but stubbornly insisted on swinging. Strike one.

“That’s fuckin’ hilarious,” Jason muttered, shaking his head in amusement.

A torrent of foul balls followed and then Jason grounded weakly to the second baseman, who bobbled the ball. A bit of luck never hurt. The error continued the inning.

Derek, who was next up, happily went along with the program.

“Guess Alex didn’t get any help, huh?” he joked with Mike.

Mike smirked. Derek then lined a single to right. Alfonso followed Derek and he sat confidently on the first pitch, ripping it to deep left field for a three-run shot. Six to zero. A hush again filled the stadium.

Up next: the pitcher. Mike could have placed the ball on a tee for the pitcher and it wouldn’t have helped. So Mike let the forces of fate and chance take control of the game, and the pitcher struck out quietly.

But by the time three outs were recorded, the damage had been done. Rocket had lost home field advantage for the National League in the World Series, he had humiliated himself in front of his hometown, and he had turned in one of the most disastrous pitching performances in All-Star game history. In fact, on baseball’s biggest stage, Rocket had pitched the single worst inning of his career. As he headed towards the dugout shaking his head, Rocket kicked the third base line, flouting all superstition.

“Hard luck, Rocket,” Mike muttered under his breath.

And you can look that up.

—July 27, 2009

About the author

John Bartleby” is an attorney and author based in Newport Beach, California. Although he never played Little League, he is a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan. Out of allegiance to his team, he will not consider John Smoltz’s apocryphal ironing incident for the subject matter of his next story.