Breaking balls

For four innings, everything was perfect.
After a while, you could hear grown men hold their breath each time the ball left the pitcher's hand; you could feel the cheers every time an opposing batter struck out or a fly ball was snared in midflight or a ground ball bounced into an infielder's open glove.

Twelve up, twelve down in just 37 pitches with 15 outs to go--it all seemed so easy, so effortless for John Burkett and the Texas Rangers as Opening Day began on a cloudless, 65-degree Tuesday afternoon that seemed tailor-made for storybook beginnings to fairy-tale seasons. Before the game began, before the Rangers and Chicago White Sox took the field at the Ballpark in Arlington, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan told a dozen reporters about days like this--"days full of promise," he would say, his utterances as grand and mythic as his accomplishments on the mound not so long ago.

But suddenly and without warning, perfect promises turned into veiled threats. The Rangers led off the first three innings by putting a runner on base, and each time they left him stranded there; the team would go zip-for-seven with runners on base during the first four frames. It felt like old times on Opening Day. Rangers fans--the most optimistic, and perhaps most misguided, in the world--have seen this before, so often they know the ending without skipping ahead.

The fifth inning began with the first White Sox hit of the day, a leadoff single by Albert Belle. Then Robin Ventura sent a 2-0 fastball over the center-field wall; the ball landed 404 feet away from home plate. In a matter of a few minutes, Burkett loaded the bases for Mike Cameron, who smacked a fastball through the left side of the infield and scored two more runs. Then came a Frank Thomas double and another Albert Belle single. By the time reliever Eric Gunderson entered the game to record the final out, the score was White Sox 7, Rangers 0.

(One of the little-known facts about the breakdown: Moments before the White Sox began bludgeoning the Rangers to death with Louisville lumber, Governor George W. Bush entered the press box to take some friendly questions. "Keep it down to a dull roar," he cautioned with a smile. Someone shouted out "Bush in 2000!" and the Guv turned and grinned. Dallas Morning News columnist Randy Galloway asked Bush, one of the partners selling the team to Tom Hicks, whether "this brings back any memories." Bush smiled: "It does make me nostalgic, but it doesn't mean I'm not gonna cash the check."

(When Bush turned around to see that the Sox had scored seven while he was schmoozing, he wheeled back around to Galloway and playfully put his hands around the writer's neck. "More pitching," Bush told him and the handful of veteran scribes looking on. "More pitching." That's why he's gonna be president--Junior Bush is a very smart man.)

And that's how the Rangers opened the 162-game season--with a 9-2 loss before the second-largest opening-day crowd in Rangers history, in front of almost 46,000 fans who couldn't wait for the chill of winter to give way to the warm confidence of spring. Those who would complain baseball is too slow, too humdrum, do not understand the game. Perhaps they like their thrills quick and cheap, preferring the brutality of football and hockey or the speed of basketball; perhaps they think of baseball as a sideshow to a warm evening spent drinking beer and eating hot dogs.

Those who know better will tell you that baseball is the most exciting sport of them all: In no time at all, a zip-zip game can turn into a rout, the momentum shifting so quickly and inexplicably that you can feel your stomach creep into your throat. Opening Day was such a game--you couldn't tell if it was murder or suicide.

"That's baseball," shrugged first baseman Will Clark after the first loss of many to come this season, nursing the first Coors Light of the afternoon. Clark recorded two hits for the day, which means he has hit safely in 12 consecutive opening-day games. "You can have the game well in hand one second, and the next second, it's blown out of proportion. It was just one of those games today. John was in complete control up until that one inning, and a few balls over the plate, they took advantage of 'em. It can change quickly. There are a lot of things that happen in a ball game that can sway whether you win or lose. What winds up happening is that baseball, for as big as this ballpark is, can be a game of inches."

After the game, the locker room was morgue-silent; even the reporters and cameramen spoke in hushed whispers as they waited for the players to file out of the showers. Relief pitcher Tim Crabtree, who gave up a run in the White Sox ninth, sat in front of his locker wearing a T-shirt and shorts, stretching his legs and staring straight ahead, speaking to no one.

There are few things more painful for a writer than having to ask a pitcher how he let a game get away from him--it's not as though he meant to fail. But when Burkett finished dressing, he was startlingly good-humored about the loss. He smiled as he spoke about falling behind batters all day long, about the balls that didn't break.

"I won't offer any excuses," he said through a thin, friendly smile. "I just lost it in the fifth inning, that's all. I just take every inning as it comes. It doesn't surprise me or disappoint me. I just pitch till Johnny comes and takes the ball away. I mean, if I went out there and pitched a perfect game, it wouldn't matter. It's just one game."

Which is something fans often tend to forget at the beginning of the season, when they look for any hint of where their team might go as April turns to May turns to hopes of pennants and World Series. Keep in mind that during one week in the summer of 1977, four teams, including the Rangers, led the AL West during a single week. Baseball is the most unpredictable sport there is, where heroes and goats look exactly alike.

"In baseball, you see a lot of surprises," said Juan Gonzalez with good-humored understatement. "Baseball is baseball." He smiled as though the answer was so obvious, and he's right: Baseball isn't, well, football.

"When the momentum changes, you can see it," shrugged second baseman Mark McLemore. "It's not one of those subtle things. It happens. One team just starts scoring runs. The momentum changes. You can't pinpoint this or pinpoint that most of the time. Sometimes you can, but when the momentum changes, you can't. You leave a pitch out over the plate, a guy hits it, and it gets contagious. But just like it changes for them, it can change for you. You can't let it get you down. If you do, you might as well keep walking off the field, go in the clubhouse, and go on home."

The loss on Opening Day means, of course, absolutely nothing. Today's loss all too often gives way to tomorrow's blowout victory, which all too often leads to the next day's one-run defeat. Opening Day may well inspire sanguine poetry from grown men normally given to grunts, but Clark put it in perspective when he offered this blunt assessment: "Opening Day is the biggest hype anyone has ever seen."

Indeed, just 54 hours later on the very same field against the very same team, the Rangers absolutely humiliated the White Sox by the final score of 20-4. Five Rangers hit home runs: shortstop Kevin Elster, designated hitters Mike Simms and Lee Stevens, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and right fielder Juan Gonzalez, whose thrilling seventh-inning grand slam put the game forever out of reach for the White Sox. The Rangers set a team record by recording 23 hits; they also committed two errors, but who remembers on nights like this? Certainly not White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, who looked as though he might begin crying at any moment as he sat in the dugout and watched the Rangers dance on his team's grave.

Given the Rangers' performance in the first two games--a devastating defeat one minute, a giddy win the next--you can't but help feel this will be another roller-coaster season for a franchise that has won only a single division title in the 27 years since the Washington Senators moved to Arlington. One day, the Rangers strand their roster out on the base path, failing to score easy runs; the next, they're jogging from home plate to home plate as though in a relay race.

Elster and McLemore turned the routine plays with consistent style to open the season; two nights later, McLemore's kicked-ball error, and another by third baseman Fernando Tatis, allowed two unearned runs in the third inning. This is a team that will break your heart if you let it, one good enough to be great but mediocre enough to rot in the August sun. Better to resign yourself to the third-place inevitable and then let them pleasantly surprise you as they did in 1996, when they won the American League West with a patchwork roster of would-be washouts and injured superstars. (At press time, the Rangers were 3-3, including Rick Helling's terrific 5-0 shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday and a 9-2 embarrassment the following day.)

Burkett's brilliant/awful performance on Opening Day and Aaron Sele's give-and-take-and-give-again showing two nights later (he threw 104 pitches against the Sox and couldn't even get through the sixth inning, though he gave up only two unearned runs) underscored how tenuous manager Johnny Oates' starting rotation really is. If he truly thinks he's got five guys on his roster who can go 15 games, as he keeps insisting, Oates is either eternally optimistic or dangerously delusional.

It seems somehow appropriate that the best outing by a Rangers pitcher during the season's first two games came courtesy of right-handed pitcher Roger Pavlik--a 15-win, All-Star Game starter just two years ago, relegated to the bullpen by Oates just two weeks ago--who came into the game for Sele, allowed two inherited runners to score, then threw a mere 13 pitches to retire the Holy Trinity of Thomas, Belle, and Ventura.

There's often nothing more dangerous than an athlete with something to prove, and that night, the 30-year-old Pavlik--who won only three games last season and sat out most of 1997 after undergoing surgery to remove a spur and bone chips from his right elbow--came in and hurled the ball as though he had revenge in his heart and a knife in his hand.

"Pitching is pitching," Pavlik offered after the game, as though that explains everything. And sometimes, it does. Like the man said, baseball is baseball, and thank God for that.


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