It all began at an intersection in Atlanta around two in the morning Wednesday, about the time lounge lizards were staggering out of Buckhead watering holes and the sports world was casting a lascivious wink toward the NFL, an old flame looking better for her absence. The intersection is where the third-base and first-place lines meet -- home plate -- and what happened there must have seemed like an unwelcome reenactment to a Pirates fan, which this year actually means more than both of them.
A Braves baserunner, a Pirates catcher, a throw coming home, a play at the plate in Atlanta -- precisely the tableau that sent Pittsburgh into a 19-year losing streak as quickly as you could say Francisco (Abra) Cabrera. This time it wasn't the 1992 National League championship riding on the call. It was only the longest effort the Pirates ever put into trying to win a baseball game among the 19,734 games in their history.
From the moment umpire Jerry Meals made like Samuel Beckett -- both of them influenced by Joyce, be it James or Jim -- and gave a safe signal straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd, baseball spent an entire day grabbing us by our shirtcollars and demanding our attention.
You know all that time-honored code about baseball being "a marathon" and the "integrity" of the 162-game season and all the room for conversation the slow pace of the game provides? One day, July 27, decided to call rubbish on all that sweet stuff.
This was baseball's version of speed chess. It was baseball's boxed set. It was all of the best stuff crammed into one day, or something like a football recruiting trip to Auburn. If all this good stuff doesn't get your blood flowing, get thee to a defibrulator.
By the end of the day, not only had Meals made himself infamous with such a blown call even the runner, Julio Lugo, was shocked he was called safe, but also Ervin Santana threw a no-hitter, the Mariners ended the longest losing streak in franchise history, the Mets unofficially traded Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals traded a 24-year-old center fielder, Colby Rasmus, while overhauling half their pitching staff, and the White Sox traded their best strikeout pitcher, Edwin Jackson, to add to their bullpen and, oh, yes, save a few bucks.
Making sense of the day was harder than spelling Rzepczynski, or, heck, even figuring out for which team he pitched at the last hour.
You could have heard a summer's worth of talk radio in one drive time shift. The talking points shifted with vertigo-inducing speed, like back in the really old days when a worn phonograph needle jumped every groove and slid clear across the record. It sounded something like this: instantreplay-yearofthepitcherparttwo-1962Mets-tradedeadlinerumors-stairwaytoheaven.
Trying to make sense of it all is a little easier than trying to explain what happened to Meals, whose snap decision was bad enough to add another word to the language. When it comes to impromptu if not improper treatment, right there next to jerryrigs and gerrymanders you can now add jerrymeals. The Pirates got jerrymealsed when the ump, after calling 609 pitches for almost seven hours, saw Pirates catcher Michael McKenry miss a swipe tag on Lugo -- and the Loch Ness Monster.
No one would have worse day than Meals, though White Sox GM Kenny Williams tried. After a three-team deal, Williams, just about fed up with his sorry club, wound up with a setup reliever, Jason Frasor, after having now traded Jackson and Daniel Hudson. But he did save money on his car insurance.
Somehow the Blue Jays, a non-contender, wound up with Rasmus, who has the skills to be a star, though Mark Teahen has replaced Juan Rivera as the mandatory cost of doing business.
Even more shrewdly, Mets GM Sandy Alderson somehow turned Beltran, a guy with a no-trade clause whom he fairly had to trade, into the valuable commodity of a top pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, of the Giants. Consider it the cost of a world championship last year for San Francisco. The Giants have to feed the beast the way it's done in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and another World Series was looking bleaker ever since catcher Buster Posey became Busted Posey in that ugly home plate collision. Full speed ahead for San Francisco; damn the torpedoes as well as the first-round picks.
And then there was Ervin Santana, who had the poor luck to throw the first no-hitter in the history of Progressive (nee Jacobs) Field smack dab in the middle of this baseball-apalooza. It was like the day Rickey Henderson broke the stolen base record, only to have Nolan Ryan decide to throw a no-hitter that night. Or when the glow of a no-no by Dave Stewart was eclipsed by one from Fernando Valenzuela a few hours later. Or the day Vida Blue made his major league debut -- the same day man landed on the moon.
It was the third no-hitter of the season, two of which have been thrown by pitchers from LaRomana, Dominican Republic, a town of about 250,000 people. Francisco Liriano and Ervin Santana not only hail from the same town, but were signed seven days apart in 2000, both made their big league debuts in 2005 and both threw their no-hitters against AL Central teams in 2011.
Just how weird of a day was it? By the end of it, an umpire (Meals) had admitted he blew a call (can't wait for the Meals-McKendry book collaboration), a guy threw a no-hitter without getting a shutout, the Mariners actually won a game for the first time in 21 days and the Pirates got Breamed a second time before the day was done -- another walkoff loss to the Braves, this one in 10 innings.
Sometimes baseball seems like a great big Thanksgiving dinner table, around which everyone and everything seems related. We are comforted by the quick and easy connections. Jerry Meals is Jim Joyce is Don Denkinger. Santana is Liriano. For three weeks the '11 Mariners are the '62 Mets. Mike McKenry is Mike Lavalliere. Colby Ramus is what once was Corey Patterson. And Carlos Beltran is ... well, maybe he's Carlos Beltran of 2004, when he hit eight postseason home runs after his trade to Houston, earning bonus bucks from the Mets as a free agent after such a high-profile success.
Football, when it's on to the next crash or the next point spread, can't do that. True, office supply managers around the country began adjusting their fall orders now that football office pools and fantasy leagues will be cranking up and causing copy machines to groan with exhaustion. Football supports an entire shadow industry, a micro-economic climate.
Baseball, though, supports our sense of wonder, our appreciation of what might happen and our love for framing it against what has come before it. Just when football came back, baseball jumped up and gave it to us good: a full day of wonder.
Okay, few people in Finland probably noticed. They were too busy celebrating National Sleepyhead Day, when the last person to wake up in a house is doused with water, sometimes by being thrown into a body of water. It's been going on for more than a hundred years. It makes perfect sense somehow if you are from Finland, exactly the kind of sense July 27 made in this great country of baseball.