So, I'm completely and supremely fortunate. I go to most of the Frisco Rough Riders' home games. I watch minor league baseball, in person, about 15 times a month for 5 months out of the year, and that is completely kick ass. But forgive me if some of the games start to run together. You get a shot to see these kids take batting practice, fielding practice, and play live, big-boy baseball everyday, and the days start to meld together a bit. These youngsters are building towards becoming better ball players, and that isn't a switch turned on or off, it's a process. (Right, Jason? A process?) But sometimes, not often, but sometimes, weird shit goes down at the park. I don't mean weird in a derogatory sense, just "unique". Yeah, that's probably a better word for it, unique. Some nights are more...unique...than others. Friday night was certainly unique.
I first notice the absence of Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews during batting practice. He's usually a mainstay of the pregame ritual, gracefully plodding around behind the cage or in the outfield using the choppy gait of a pitching coach, muttering to no one in particular. I don't know Jeff very well, but he's been around the game a long, long time and has always looked at me suspiciously. Which is probably the best way to look at me anyway. And I quickly notice the anti-Andrews making his presence felt. Rangers rehab coordinator Keith Comstock, as it turns out, is filling in for Andrews while he's on vacation. I've known who he is for a while, but given the fact that Keith is usually in Arizona trying to get ulnar collateral ligaments to cooperate again, I haven't spent much time around him. That's a shame because he might be the only guy in the organization who can stand proudly in Don Welke's shadow. That is to say, this is an interesting man. Not short on energy or passion, the 57 year old finished basically jump-throwing a round of BP, by running, alone, along the warning track for several rounds before laying on his back in left field and doing what seemed like endless rounds of crunches. Mind you, all the players had gone into the clubhouse at this point to cool down and begin changing into their uniforms. Keith's playing career was remarkable, not for his achievements, but more for his simple tenacity and refusal to let it die. I encourage you to read this article, but if you're feeling particularly lazy, I'll tell you highlights include him being traded, literally for a bag of baseballs, and being cut from a semi-pro team, and yet he ended up in the bigs. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1136805/index.htm After the game, I introduced myself to Keith and began to discuss his great-grandfather Anthony Comstock, whom I seemed to know more about than he did. Cliffs notes on Old Man Comstock: Had a derogatory term for censorship "comstockery" named for him after none other than George Bernard Shaw denounced his attempts to squash perceived immorality in art and literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald named the protagonist of the novel The Beautiful and Damned after Comstock, and even in 2013 the name represents an ideal, showing up as the moniker of the main antagonist in the video game, BioShock Infinite. All of this comes from Anthony's Wiki page, so it might be total bullshit, regardless, I'm willing to say that Texas' Pitching Rehabilitation Coordinator is more interesting than all the other team's Pitching Rehabilitation Coordinators. So there.
Kevin Pucetas has been a minor league pitcher for 8 years. The 6'4" 225lb 28 year-old righty has been in AAA and AA since 2009. He doesn't have an overpowering fastball or any particular standout secondary offerings. He is what many would call (a term I hate) an "organizational" player. He is a starting pitcher who is very likely to get his team reasonably safely into the 5th inning. Going into Friday, he had 22BB and 44K in 74.1ip and a 4.72ERA. Through 4ip against the Hooks, he had allowed 10 hits and 4 earned runs while walking a batter and striking out 2. Then he said "F-it." That is not what he really said. I have no idea what he really said, but I like to imagine him saying "F-it". I remember hearing something about it earlier this season, but when one is told that a guy "can throw a knuckleball", it's pretty easily dismissed. All professional baseball players can throw a knuckleball. Hell, you and I can throw a knuckleball. But none of us would. Damn sure none of us would against professional hitters...even if they are "just" AA hitters. Hell no. Well, Kevin did. For an entire 1-2-3 inning, he seemed to be throwing nothing but knuckleballs. We sorta freaked out in the press box. "What the hell is that?", "why isn't he throwing fastballs?", "is he hurt?" Just as I was recalling the nonsensical and brief conversation I'd had earlier in the year with a participant I can't even remember, Frisco's play-by-play czar, Alex Vispoli stuck his head out of the radio booth wearing a huge grin. "Did you guys see it? The knuckleballs?" "Is that what those were?" we asked. "Yeah", a still smiling Vispoli said, "we heard he might do it, and why not?" I agree with Alex. I have less than zero idea if he'll ever do it again, or if he actually did get to the "F-it" moment in his career. I intend to ask him in the next day or so(very politely- because he is a very big guy who likes to hunt live animals with a bow and arrow), but until then we'll have to speculate. It was a moment I'll never forget. In a professional game, on a Friday night, with his team trailing 4-3, in front of 10,000 people, a career minor league hurler began throwing knuckleballs...and retired the side in order.
Justin Miller is recovering from Tommy John and not pitching for basically a year and a half. He'd made 10 appearances before Friday, and it was as though this night, his 11th, he was done screwing around. The arm is fine, it doesn't break when he throws, it stays firmly attached to his shoulder, and more importantly, the elbow stays in tact. And Friday, he let loose. Pitching with a swagger and confidence not seen in his first 10 appearances, Justin struck out the side, in order, all swinging, with hard, nasty, sliders that Anthony Comstock would have undoubtedly tried to censor. His fastball was 92-94 with serious late life. And the slider, yowza. After the game Justin told me "It all felt great. I was pitching with a chip on my shoulder this time." Yessir, Justin. And the elbow is still attached? Well, then we're all set here, right? Let's do this.
But for me, watching Justin Miller just felt like watching a player turn another corner, pass a milestone, cross off another goal. The same can be said for left hander, Alexander Claudio and the night of his AA debut. Alex is not an intimidating presence. Listed at 160lbs, that might be the case had he been wearing Wilmer Font's uniform while being weighed. Standing on the far left side of the rubber, the 21 year-old made his Frisco debut and the decision to have him skip Myrtle Beach entirely, seemed well founded. After spending several innings telling anyone who would listen, mostly annoyed and skeptical scouts, about Alex's changeup, he came in and his first pitch induced an inning-ending double play. It was an 86 mph fastball. Boooooo! But then the youngster came out for the 8th inning, and he brought the rarest of rare diamonds to the bump, a plus plus offering. Remember those old batting cage pitching machines with the long, slow cranking arm that would collect a ball before dropping into a pseudo-windup and hurling the ball like a catapult in your general direction? Now imagine one of those, but the arm slings the projectile at you from a 90 degree, side-arm angle. Now imagine you've taken copious amounts of hallucinogenics and the ball seems to stop in mid air, perform a curtsy, and continue toward you at a downward angle that assures you're about to look a fool. That's Claudio's changeup. It is perhaps, my favorite pitch...that I've ever seen. The scouts I had warned, literally laughed. The crowd of 10,562 let out a VERY audible gasp. I got a request from Billy the scoreboard wizard to come work the buttons so he could walk down and see it from behind the plate. I have no idea what will happen to Alex. I can't even tell you if he'll ever pitch above AA. I can tell you about that pitch though, and you're going to need a cigarette when we're done. Here, this won't do it justice, but you'll get a bit of an idea. Just promise me, if given the chance, you'll go see him for yourself:
Alex Claudio 6.21.13 (via Tepid Participation)
Well, let's be honest, this many words should never be devoted to a few moments in a single, Friday night, AA game where the final score was merely 6-5. But that's why we like baseball. It's a subtle science. Little things happen that only a handful of us notice. Friday night some moments were bigger than others, but they all came together to form the fabric of another fun night at the ballpark. Oh, wait. I forgot. The word I'm using is "unique". Yeah, that's what Friday was, unique.
As always, enjoy baseball! Love Ya!