Beginnings and Ends

Earlier this week, a centerfielder named Jay Bruce made his highly awaited and eagerly anticipated Major League debut for the Cincinnati Reds.  This hot prospect – the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft, the 2007 Minor League Player of the Year – took his spot in the left-handed side of the batter’s box in the bottom of the second inning, settled in with his feet planted, body and hands swaying rhythmically in anticipation, waited for the cheers cascading from a standing ovation to flutter away, and proceeded to patiently allow four balls to cross the plate.  Bruce’s four-pitch walk didn’t measure up to the harbinger-of-greatness-to-come that Ken Griffey, Jr. produced in his first at-bat in the bigs (a double to center against Dave Stewart), nor did it contain the immediate, exclamation-pointed thunder of Jeremy Hermida’s initial introduction to the Majors (a pinch-hit grand slam in his first at-bat); instead, Bruce’s first plate appearance (which isn’t even recorded as an official at-bat) served as an introductory, tentative note in a forceful opus that built each successive foray into the batter’s box on this first night.  Each was prefaced with a standing ovation from the hometown crowd and punctuated with another productive conclusion of hit or walk.  Jay Bruce finished the night with an unblemished record:  five plate appearances, three hits, two walks, two runs scored, two runs driven in, one successful stolen bases attempt, and one triumphant shaving-cream pie in the face.  

Of course, no one knows where this will all lead.  Bruce’s bold hello to the rest of the Majors could be the apex.  On the final day of the 1963 season, an 18-year-old named John Paciorek made his Major League debut for the Houston Astros against the New York Mets in a battle between the two worst teams in the National League.  Paciorek went 3-3, drew two walks, scored four runs, and drove in three.  And he never played another Major League game.  Or Bruce’s magical first night in the Majors could eventually stand out in a career most notable for that first flash.  In 1977, Mitchell Page finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting – he slugged over .500, stole more than 40 bases, and put up the fourth-best OPS in the league.  Page would play seven more seasons in the Majors, but never again reached the heights attained as a 25-year old rookie.  Or perhaps (and this is, of course, the hope that anyone watching Bruce in his first game holds onto, quietly, smilingly), Jay Bruce’s perfect night at the plate in his very first Major League game will someday be viewed as the starting gun that announced the beginning of a very special, iconic, once-in-a-generation career.  The beginning.  The lightning flash of the rookie season resonates like few experiences in the game – for over the extended debut season, we are allowed to give full leash to our hopes of witnessing and participating along every step of a Hall of Fame career.  

Tom Seaver and Herb Score.  Dwight Gooden and Bob Feller.  Cesar Cedeno, Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey and Vada Pinson.  Mark Fidrych.  Al Kaline.  Eric Davis and Will Clark.  Fernando Valenzuela.  Jim Bouton, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Black, and Tony Conigliaro.  All cannonballed into the Majors, producing a splash that delighted the amassed audience.  Each created – through outward expressions made up of equal parts talent, youth, and exuberance – the sense of excitement, awe, and hopefulness that attaches itself to any rookie sensation.  And then?  Some fizzled, leading us to wonder, “what if?”  Others continued to build upon that early explosion, using that first step as the building block on a glorious ascent toward baseball’s Olympus.  And many others hung around, grinding our admirable careers, flashing here and there, evoking (but never fully realizing) the brilliance of the beginning.    

Of course, not all stories announce their start with a meteoric, blinding flash that remains imprinted on our collective baseball consciousness.  Sometimes, a career will meander here and there, picking up themes and adding to the totality, until a final moment serves as the refiner’s fire, out of which a true and definitive shape stands before us.  

On June 2, 1998, at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Dennis Martinez took the hill for the Atlanta Braves.  Martinez stood on the mound that day, the winner of 242 Major League games, a 43-year-old pitcher in this third decade, and stared straight into the last vestiges of a career that witnessed glory (a perfect game in 1991) and disappointment (two poor performances in the 1979 World Series that found he and his team on the losing end).  He had led the AL in wins in 1981, won an ERA title in 1991, and pitched in four All-Star games.  Perhaps most importantly, Martinez stood on the mound on June 2 one victory shy of tying Juan Marichal for the most all-time wins by a Latin-American pitcher.  In his start five days earlier, Martinez had left the game with a 4-1 lead, only to see the Braves’ bullpen blow the lead and the game and shorten El Presidente’s window for tying the Dominican Dandy.  The Braves and Brewers were wearing the uniforms of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves this particular game, and when Martinez, wearing a blousy #32 on his back, double-pumped his first windup (in a pitching motion more in line with 1958 instead of 1998), his quest to match Marichal began.  I remember watching this game live, hoping for Martinez to get through five innings with a lead, hoping to see this aging pitcher fight off the realities of the years and the wear on the arm, hoping that I would get to share in the magic that springs from the meshing of the past and present.  A walk and two singles against Martinez in the first did not improve my hope, but when the second single (by Dave Nilsson) hit a Brewers runner for the last out of the inning, some of that optimism returned.   

By the time the ninth inning rolled around, Martinez was still on the mound.  Incredibly, he had allowed ten hits but no runs in the first eight frames.  And with the Braves holding a 9-0 lead, Martinez could afford to try and get the final three outs of an improbable shutout.  Following form, Martinez allowed two more hits in the ninth, but still was shutting out the Brewers.  Martinez (from Nicaragua) took the sign from Javy Lopez (from Puerto Rico), and made his pitch.  With 26 outs in the book, pinch-hitter Bobby Hughes chopped the ball over the mound, and was declared out when shortstop Ozzie Guillen (from Venezuela) ranged behind second base, cradled the ball in, and threw on the run to Andres Galarraga (also from Venezuela) at first.  Martinez’s 12-hit shutout (the first in 24 years, and one of only five thrown since 1956) had tied him with Marichal, and as Martinez celebrated with Lopez, Guillen, Galarraga and the rest of his teammates, his career seemed complete.  El Presidente would never make another start in the Majors, but he would pass Marichal on the all-time wins list on September 25, when he pitched one-and-a-third scoreless innings in relief.  Martinez – whose story had begun in 1976 as a 21-year old earning the win in relief in his first Major League appearance – had concluded a 23-year career back where had begun – in the bullpen, pitching in September.

Beauty resides in every story told by a ballplayer, and all stories remain unique.  The sum totals of hits, strikeouts, home runs, wins, and errors read like braille on an always-evolving text, directing and imploring us to read between the lines to truly celebrate and acknowledge.  But no matter what the middle will tell us, there is always a beginning and an end.  Each reflects on the other, lending poignancy to the entire story.  Bobo Holloman pitched a no-hitter in his first Major League start and finished his o
ne-year career with a 3-7 record.  In his first Major League at-bat, Will Clark hit a home run off Nolan Ryan.  In his last 59 games (14 years later), Clark hit .345, slugged .650 with 32 extra-base hits, and drove in 47 runs – all after being acquired by the Cardinals for the pennant race.  At the beginning, Ted Williams was a beanpole, the brash and antagonistic kid who compiled an historic rookie season that still dazzles.  In the middle, he was the man who hit .406, and the man who won the 1941 All-Star game, and then the man who hit .388 at the age of 38.  At the end, he hit a home run at Fenway Park in his final at-bat and then disappeared into the dugout.  

Beginnings and ends.  We have no idea of the finality that awaits Jay Bruce, nor can we imagine when that end may occur.  But his beginning on May 27, 2008 will always reverberate and ring with the excitement and intimation of what may follow.

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