Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Behind in the Count

In Baseball, Best of CDH, Long form on August 8, 2011 at 11:03 am

It should have been routine by now. Get up. Stretch out. Warm up. Jog out. Every day since he was seven years old. Thousands of starts over the course of 23 years — East Lansing, Vancouver, Oakland, St. Louis — but here he was, back in South Holland.

For the other 24 guys on the roster, it was game 92. It was a chance to gain some ground on the first place Chicago Cubs. It was a chance to build off of the previous night’s victory and finish strong heading into the All Star Break. It was a chance to steal a series win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

For Mark Mulder, it was the first day of Little League all over again. It was a too-tall kid in brand new cleats basking in the attention of his proud parents. It was the eldest son suppressing the urge to throw up in order to set a good example for his two younger brothers. Get. Up. Stretch out. Warm up. Jog out.

It definitely should have been routine by now. But could you really call anything routine if you had woken up that day not knowing if you’d be able to raise your left arm above your head, to even dress yourself?

Truthfully, nothing about the last two years had been routine. There was nothing routine about two rotator cuff surgeries, about strong minor league rehab starts and disastrous major league appearances, about wondering in the back of your mind whether your next pitch would be your last.

Hank Aaron said, “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” Aaron wasn’t the first person to have some variation of “try, try again” attributed to him, and he certainly won’t be the last. For a game like baseball, with its marathon of a season and set of rules that allow for every game to last deep into the night, that feeling — instinct, really — to “try, try again” is only fitting. But what do we do when trying again doesn’t work? When, despite our best efforts, the bat slices through the air and the slump continues? What happens when the ability, the talent that took us to the highest levels of success, fails us, and all that remains is the desire to return?

There is an old baseball adage that says, “So-and-so looks like a ballplayer.” Like most adages, it is often flaunted as some piece of deep wisdom unobtainable to the casual observer. And, like most adages, it is essentially meaningless — a banal attempt to explain what separates the casual observer from the supremely gifted. But if this particular adage could choose one example upon which to base its authority, Mark Mulder would be it.

His summers playing Little League ball in South Holland, Illinois, just south of Chicago, made you think, “This kid could be really good.” By the time he was a junior in high school, the thought had changed: “How good could this kid really be?”

It was a tempting thought. For an 18-year-old kid with a 6’6” frame, handsome face and a left arm that could make the ball dance around the strike zone, it was only a matter of time before he dominated the majors. The Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 55th round of the 1995 MLB draft, but they were worried about his maturity — both physical and emotional. Mark declined the Tigers’ offer and chose to attend college instead, enrolling at Michigan State University.

Three years later, he was ready. He had gained 30 pounds of muscle, filling out his tall frame. He made the Big Ten all-star team twice. He had excelled in the Cape Cod League. He looked like a ballplayer.

He did not have to wait long for his chance. The Oakland Athletics drafted him second overall in the 1998 draft. Billy Beane was making a name for himself by finding diamonds in the rough. But at the age of 21, Mark Mulder was already cut and polished.

“He’s one of those guys who drives you crazy, because there’s nothing he’s not good at. He’s tall, good-looking, a great pitcher, whips everyone on the golf course and has all kinds of women chasing after him. Makes you sick, doesn’t it?”

Tim Hudson was right. It did make you sick. No one was meant to be this good. Two seasons in the minor leagues, both at AAA, was all he had needed. After delivering a 21-8 record and a second place finish in the Cy Young award voting in 2001, Mark was one of the top left handed pitchers in baseball.

If Mark made you sick, his teammates were just unfair. Oakland had struck gold in three straight drafts, signing Tim Hudson out of Auburn, Mark and Barry Zito of USC. From 2000 to 2003, at least one of the newly christened “Big Three” would finish in the top ten in the Cy Young voting. The World Series had to be next. For five seasons, the Athletics had the best rotation in baseball.

Baseball is a game of numbers. No one knew that better than Billy Beane. For seven seasons he played the numbers and won, leading the Athletics to the postseason four times. But each time, the Athletics lost in the first round. You couldn’t really blame Mark. He pitched well — damned well — in each of his postseason starts. It wasn’t his fault when the team didn’t score any runs.

You also couldn’t blame Billy Beane for what happened next. Faced with a farm system gone dry and three superstar pitchers approaching free agency, Beane had to make a deal. In the 2004 offseason, Mark was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals for a relief pitcher and two prospects. The World Series and Cy Young awards hadn’t materialized in Oakland, but they might in St. Louis.

Coming off of a 105-win campaign and crushing sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series, the Cardinals looked to be strong contenders for a return to the Fall Classic in 2005. All they needed was that one additional piece. Mark Mulder was it.

It came together in one game. It only took 101 pitches for him to finish his masterpiece. That’s what it was. A masterpiece. What else could you call it? It already looked like a pitcher’s duel: Roger Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young award winner, perhaps the best pitcher of his era, versus one of the rising stars in baseball. A duel.

When the aces of two teams face off, you expect outstanding efforts — scorekeepers use the demure phrase “quality start,” seven innings pitched while giving up three runs or less. Clemens earned his, exiting the game after seven innings without surrendering a run. Chad Qualls replaced Clemens. Mulder stayed in.

After nine innings, the score remained 0-0. Mulder had pitched nine innings, but the Cardinals had been miserable at the plate. It was a shame — he had pitched a shutout, but the scorecard would have the same ND that Clemens received, that any journeyman pitcher would receive after a solid day’s work.

He came out for the 10th inning. Three more outs, and he had barely broken 100 pitches. It looked like he would pitch all afternoon if he had to. Three batters later, the game was over. Mulder’s line: W 10 IP/5 H/0 ER.

It would be nice for the story to end there. The young pitcher with seemingly limitless potential pitches the best game of his life versus a living legend and wins. But baseball doesn’t end with one game. It goes on through the summer, one game after the next, until the final out on a chilly night in October. Over the course of a season, one game loses its importance. But occasionally, one game is all that matters.

St. Louis didn’t make it to the World Series in 2005, but they did come close. A few tweaks to the roster, and 2006 could be the year for the Cardinals. The Cardinals started the season out strong, and Mark pitched well, leading the team to first place in the NL central. A return to the postseason looked certain.

A few minor aches and pains in May became rotator cuff problems by June, and Mark was placed on the disabled list. After a lengthy rehab, he rejoined the team in August, but another poor start ended his season. The Cardinals made the World Series that year and defeated the Detroit Tigers. Mark watched as his teammates stormed the field after the final out. He was a world champion, but he was not a player.

He started 2007 on the DL and did not appear until September. A disastrous September stint with the team led to another surgery and another lost season. After months of rehab, Mark returned to the roster in June, just in time for the stretch run in the 2008 season.

It had once been so easy. Get up. Stretch out. Warm up. Jog out. Maybe that was it. It had been too easy. He had taken it for granted. But this time it would be different. His first major league start in over a year, and he was going to appreciate it. Savor every out, every pitch. The sound the ball made when it hit the catcher’s mitt, the smell of the grass, even the pressure — this time, it was going to mean something more.

It started out routine enough. A strikeout of Jimmy Rollins, the reigning MVP — was there a better way to return to the majors? It was just like South Holland, just like East Lansing, just like Oakland. Get up. Stretch out. Warm up. Jog out.

If you had been given the chance to talk to Mark after that strikeout and ask him how long he felt he had left as a baseball player, it is doubtful that he would have said eight pitches. That’s not how a baseball career is supposed to end. Baseball is a game of numbers, but it is also a game of records — meticulously kept records. It is a game of first at-bats and last at bats, of games played and innings pitched. The scorecard that night had recorded the end of an at-bat. Mark had recorded the end of a career.

Which takes us back to Hank Aaron. Aaron knew that if he kept trying, eventually he’d break his slump. It’s hard to question the wisdom of a man who hit 755 home runs. But truthfully, we know that his experience cannot always be the case. Sometimes, although we swing the bat until our bodies give out, the slumps continue, and all that remains are the memories of when the bat used to hit the ball with explosive power and the greatest of ease. And the ball would sail off silently into the night. And although we know that all of our swinging will never recreate those memories, we keep at it. Just one more pitch. One more swing.

So we get up. Stretch out. Warm up. Jog out.

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