The history of baseball in six degrees of pitching separation
between Cy Young and Josh Beckett: Young, who began his career
in 1890, played in the majors with Grover Cleveland Alexander
(1911), who played with Carl Hubbell ('30), who played with
Warren Spahn ('42), who played with Jim Palmer ('65), who played
with Roger Clemens ('84), who played with Beckett (2003), who
introduced himself to the Venn diagram of baseball mythology by
seizing the game's most epic setting--a World Series clincher at
Yankee Stadium--as his personal property. For one night in the
Bronx it was 1890 or any year again, the game controlled by the
next blessed arm. ¬∂ As a butterfly looks almost nothing like a
caterpillar, basketball long ago left its wood-plank flooring
to be played ever higher in the air. Football also went
airborne, with the forward pass making the game unrecognizable
to its formative self. Baseball, however, remains truest to its
fundamental form. Except for the DH, what's left of AstroTurf
and the DayGlo glop they put on ballpark nachos, old Cy himself
would have little reason to watch a game today and ask, "What
in tarnation is that?"
True, the speed and power of the game would amaze Young. When
Boston's Fenway Park opened in 1912, for instance, the year after
Young retired, people wondered if it would be possible to hit a
baseball over the leftfield wall. The thick-handled, heavy bats
of antiquity would be useless against the tall, broad power
pitchers of today.
"When I broke in," says infielder Todd Zeile, who with the
Montreal Expos just completed his 15th season in the majors,
"we'd go over the pitchers before a series, and if a guy threw
88, 89 [mph], you were told, 'You've really got to get the bat
head out against this guy.' And now, if a guy throws 88, 89,
you're told, 'You've got to stay back and wait on this guy.'"
It's still the national pastime as we knew it, only now it's the
national pastime on steroids--alas, sometimes literally. In
November it was announced that between 5% and 7% of players'
urine samples taken this year in so-called "survey testing"
turned up positive for steroids, triggering a mandatory, if
nearly toothless, testing program next season.
December 29, 2003
Moreover, after a perfect storm of a postseason goosed TV
ratings--the accursed Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox each waited
until they were five outs away from the World Series to kill the
suspense--the game's next televised images were of ballplayers
walking into a federal building in San Francisco to testify
before a grand jury looking into a nutritional lab that cooked up
"supplements," the athletes' potent potables.
The chemistry of the game may be altered, but the mathematics
remain reassuringly familiar: 90 feet, 27 outs, nine innings. The
New York Yankees' Clemens won his 300th game, recorded his
4,000th strikeout and left the mound for the last time (or so we
thought, given his subsequent daydream to pitch for the Houston
Astros) after the seventh inning of World Series Game 4. The
Florida Marlins climbed out of their dugout to applaud Clemens.
In the honor line, wearing Clemens's original number 21, stood
Beckett, a fraternal brother in the order of Texas Flamethrowers
(Nolan Ryan, founder).
Ceremony alone, however, was not enough for Beckett, the dude
with the Texas-sized 'tude. As a high school pitcher Beckett once
threw at an opposing player's father. (Beckett did not appreciate
the man's giving away the location of his pitches from the stands
behind the plate.)
"He would overpower high school hitters, and he would love to do
it," says Dan Jennings, the Marlins' vice president of player
personnel. "He didn't want to just dominate. He wanted to
embarrass the kids."
Jack McKeon, the oldest manager in World Series history at 72,
gave the 23-year-old gunslinger the ball for Game 6 on three
"If I had Bobby Gibson out there on three days' rest, would
anybody be asking me how I pitch Bobby Gibson?" McKeon harrumphed
to reporters on the game's eve. "Nobody. That's the way we feel
Sometimes, over the course of a season or even just in October, a
pitcher is so memorably great that he will own that year. Gibson
has 1968. Alexander has 1926. Hershiser, 1988. Morris, 1991. Even
after three famous swings of the bat--Sammy Sosa's cork job,
Barry Bonds's homer off Randy Johnson in his first game after his
father's death and Randall Simon's whack at a racing
sausage--Beckett took 2003. Beckett, 17-17 in his young career,
did so by becoming the least accomplished of three pitchers ever
to eliminate New York by pitching a shutout at Yankee Stadium.
(Johnny Podres, in 1955, and Lew Burdette, in '57, are the only
others.) It was as if Beckett were back in high school trying to
embarrass batters. He allowed them only five hits in the 2-0
"This," teammate Rick Helling said that night, "is the beginning
of the rest of his career."
The very same could have been said about Palmer, nine days from
his 21st birthday, when he beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-0 in
Game 2 of the 1966 World Series. It was also the last game Sandy
Koufax ever pitched.
We had another one of those rare solar eclipses this year.
Clemens watched from the dugout in what he said would be his
final game, as a younger version of himself introduced himself to
posterity. What had changed, really, since Clemens learned at the
elbow of Red Sox teammate Tom Seaver in 1986, or in the 100 years
since Bill Dinneen ended the first World Series with a four-hit
shutout? Not this: Control of the game lies in the hands of the
A month after Beckett arrived, Spahn died. He was 82. Even in
youth the winningest lefthanded pitcher in history had an aged
look about him. With sunken eyes and crooked nose, he had an Old
Testament kind of visage, like a sage. He spoke as if one, too.
"Hitting," the old lefty once said, "is timing. Pitching is
His words, like the excellence of Beckett, are timeless.