Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Certain Kind of Anger: Reflections on Baseball’s Great Late-Season Pitching Heroics

[This is an excerpt from the introduction to my baseball project, which focuses on late-season pitching heroics from the earliest days of the game right up to the present day. Using the same research, I’ve also created the short documentary, “Pitching Diamonds,” which chronicles Cy Young’s September 18, 1897 no-hitter, and which is now available online at my YouTube channel.]

By Patrick J. Walsh

...And then, on some days, there are those rare games in which the time of year intersects with the particular circumstances of the team or the individual to dictate that a given starter must try to will himself to a level of play that is painful to reach and debilitating to maintain, but necessary for the circumstances of the moment...

Sometimes, a certain kind of anger becomes almost a necessity, as a key to unlocking the inner reserves. But it is a particular kind of anger, a productive exasperation with one’s own limitations. It is not the anger of Proverbs, or the wrath of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is in fact more like its juxtaposed virtue in modern Catholicism, which contrasts the deadly sin of anger with the blessed virtue of patience.

Anger is, after all, ugly in all its forms but one: that in which it is employed in the struggle against indignity. In that one instance, in the extreme titanic struggle as the twilight shadows lengthen and the final innings draw near, in the proper hand guided by the right heart, it can be utilized -- transformed, as a beautiful sort of anger whose features are polished with courage, determination, and self-respect.

Conjured by a skilled athlete in response to the sudden arbitrary meanness of circumstance, it is an emotion that is carefully controlled and precisely applied, only in the measure necessary to achieve the objective of the moment, without malice or rancor.

As the days grow shorter, and some games take on a special urgency, there are sometimes those individuals who by the nature of their unique position get the opportunity to achieve a greater sort of victory than the kind reflected on the scoreboard. They win by simply refusing to be bettered, by giving their all to the effort, and by playing smart and tough and angry.

It is a task like those few that arise in any lifetime that provides an opportunity to concentrate the frustrations that come from constantly bumping up against the limitations of endurance and age and circumstance, and transform them into a weapon against the arbitrary whim of fate.

And it is a special gift of baseball: for a given game, late in the season, one particular player is given a chance to overcome all the lost chances of the whole long year that have finally, suddenly conspired to demand so much and yet promise so little. In victory, he emerges with his dignity intact, and the gratitude of those who depend upon him.

There are a multitude of examples of late-season pitching heroics throughout baseball history... Some are stories of great pitchers who helped their teams avoid defeat and live to play another day -- often famously going on to success in the playoffs and the World Series. In other cases, the triumph is more individual in nature. But in all accounts, it is the furious will to win that distinguishes each individual performance, and provides a remarkable example of courage in the face of adversity.

© Patrick J. Walsh

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