It occurs to me that there are not quite as many Major League Baseball fans as once there were in our once proud nation. Some say that the game has lost its luster in the relative offensive doldrums that have followed the otherwise ridiculous steroid-era, where 40 HRs in a season was commonplace and any rube with a television could tune in and “oooh” and “ahh” at the superhuman feats of strength on zoo-like display daily.
What we have figured out subsequent to the steroid-era is that those superhuman feats were in fact….superhuman. As in, those people were doing things human beings were not actually supposed to be doing, because they were doing things that human beings in a professional athletic setting are LITERALLY not supposed to be doing i.e. shooting human growth hormone into each other’s asses like it was going out of style.
In many ways, this is something to lament. The game of baseball was at the core of my upbringing. My relationship with my father growing up was largely predicated upon going to baseball games, watching games on TV, and otherwise talking about what was happening in the offseason when baseball was away for a few months. Say what you will about whether or not this was a healthy way to bond with one’s father- but it worked for us, and continues to do so.
Baseball has a certain mystique to it that many in our generation fail to appreciate- and I think this lack of nuanced understanding is as much a symptom of the plain, unexamined brutishness of the steroid-era as it is a product of the growing popularity of the NFL/NBA. I think most ardent baseball fans can readily relate to this. Most friends I have had are more or less completely uninterested in baseball, readily offering up the lazy adjective “boring” when defending their lack of aforementioned interest. Aside from being completely fucking un-American, this sort of critique of the game is less a critique of the sport itself and more a revelation of a lack of understanding for its most important aspect: pitching.
Good pitching is a fine wine- it is meant to be enjoyed casually, slowly, with that certain air of sophistication that comes with the appreciation of something fine. There is an intentionality to pitching that makes the truly great pitchers seem more akin to artists than athletes; completely in control, the great ones take a sport like baseball and transform it into an overt testament to the skill of the individual.
Power hitting, conversely, is a group of people butt-chugging box-wine in a public place as blacked-out onlookers cheer on in guttural, animalistic tones, spittle and dip-spit flying from their mouths as they exhort their compatriots to greater acts of depravity. Every white shirt within a mile is stained pink and there isn’t a woman in sight. Sometimes, bikes are involved.
Breathe the free air again my friend
The one requires effort and understanding from the audience. A truly great pitching performance is boring to those without the patience to sit back in a recumbent pose and appreciate that the dominant suppression of offense can be every bit as impressive and enjoyable as the satisfaction one sees when runs are put on the board. The other solicits the edge-of-your-seat excitement that people have come to expect from sports, to the extent that exhibitions of skill have become instead exhibitions of physical freak-shows.
Casual fans of baseball have seen so much of the freak-show, that their pallets have been dulled to the appreciation of some of the finer aspects of the game. Headlines have reported that offense has been suppressed league-wide and the articles subsumed under these headlines have then connoted that this is somehow a symptom of an ill, rather than the result of some brilliant young pitchers who have come to the Major Leagues wise beyond their years, having labored ceaselessly to become artisans rather than mere laborers, pitchers rather than mere “throwers.”
Tonight we get the opportunity to watch a true professional pitcher at work in Hisashi Iwakuma. For those who like pitching, Iwakuma is a joy to watch.
Despite a relatively flat, hittable fastball, Iwakuma hits his spots and then wipes hitters out with a splitter that is one of the best pitches in baseball. For those familiar with the Mariners, Felix Hernandez’ changeup is a reasonable analogue.
Iwakuma’s split is anywhere from 84-88MPH with great late bite. It is the pitch that allows his entire repertoire to function. Fans of the Yankees have recently had the opportunity to watch Masahiro Tanaka obliterate hitters over in the AL East with a similar pitch. The Split is presently en vogue in Major League Baseball and it is hard to deny its effectiveness. To the batter’s eye, the pitch shows similar rotation to the fastball until it dives sharply downward with some additional arm-side run. In Iwakuma’s case, the pitch dives away from lefties and down towards the back foot of righties.
The pitch has limited platoon splits, and even the threat of it causes hitters to let fastballs in the zone by for easy strikes early in counts. By mixing the pitches with professionalism and deception, guys like Iwakuma can make opposing lineups extremely uncomfortable, forcing some bad swings and misses as well as freezing more immature hitters with otherwise hittable fastballs.
So, if you have a friend who thinks baseball is boring- have them watch a game where Iwakuma is pitching and force them to look up from their fucking smart phones while he is on the mound. It is impossible to make someone love the game if they grew up completely uninterested by it, but at the very least it should be possible for them to appreciate a professional who has honed his craft to be the best at what he does. This isn’t weight-room bullshit. This is smart pitching by a normal, kind of skinny guy from Japan who has made millions of dollars through tireless effort honing his craft.
If that isn’t worth watching, there is always Franzia.