PlayBook: Fake Tough

By Fraser Lockerbie

Inside the rude and brainless subculture of the starting pitcher.

Very few creatures are more misunderstood or maligned than the starting pitcher. They are a rude and brainless subculture that live under rocks and largely elude society. They appear only in broken intervals, every five or so days and only when the weather is good. They are geeks and stats junkies and bores, aberrations from the primordial ooze. They speak in strange tongues and have hoarse voices and at the end of the week, they collect their enormous paychecks and disappear for another 96 hours to the back nines of America with statuesque blondes and expensive champagne.

They are “fake tough,” cardboard cutouts from a magazine selling the American Dream. They saunter back and forth for the sellout crowds like a show horse on display. They keep up that old cowboy act for maybe two or three hours at a time, the gunslingers from the Midwest throwing smoke and painting corners, painted faces in the press room when it’s all said and done, the sweat still dripping from their brow when they tell the world they gave it their all, it was everything they had. One more pitch might have broken the camel’s back and we wouldn’t want that; we need them again in four or five days and four or five more after that. We’ve needed them before and we’ll need them again, so pay the piper and be glad he played. Who the hell are you to tell him the tune?

If Josh Beckett wants to golf on his off days, that’s his business; if Cole Hamels wants to welcome someone to the Bigs with a fat old fastball to the ribs, why shouldn’t he? He’s a starting pitcher and he’ll do whatever the fuck he likes, thank you very much. Except that Josh Beckett golfed a day after missing his start because of a tight left quad, and Cole Hamels had no good reason to lay a 95-mile-an-hour fastball into the small of a 19-year-old rookie’s back.

“I’m just trying to continue the old baseball,” said Hamels after the game. “Sometimes the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.” Prestigious like what? Tony Conigliaro and Jack Hamilton, Valerio de los Santos and Adam Greenberg? Or old-school like Ty Cobb sharpening his spikes in the dugout and sliding feet-first into second or the shin of an unsuspecting shortstop? Cobb was little more than a dumb criminal who fired guns blindly into the night and was hated so fiercely by everybody who ever knew him that his own teammates once sent a gift basket to a player who beat him out for the batting title. He was hated and loathed and he was old-school so tell us, Cole Hamels, how old-school are you?

Beckett, on the other hand, is a whiny little broken shell of a man who used to be a pitcher, who used to be good. He’s run out of excuses in Boston and can no longer explain why his ERA hovers around 6.00 or why he can’t get an out without giving up a run or why he spends his downtime lapping it up over 18 holes while his team is being outscored by 18 runs.

“I spend my off days the way I want to spend them…My off day is my off day…We get 18 off days a year. I think we deserve a little time to ourselves.”

Baseball players get 18 off days a season, not a year, and starting pitchers get 128 if they average one start every five days. For some cultish reason, golf is as much a part of starting pitching as pitching itself, but if Beckett can’t do the fans in Boston the courtesy of at least pretending to hurt while everyone else hurts, the least he can do is pitch well; if can’t manage to do that anymore, then he could at least be graceful about it. Instead he sat there like a child defying all those who would defame the Great Josh Beckett, starting pitcher who brought a World Series to Boston in the foul year of our Lord, 2007.

What Beckett doesn’t realize is that legends are made, not born, and Boston has a short memory and even shorter patience for a pitcher who can’t pull his weight and doesn’t seem to care. Southies will tie rich kids from Texas to the tracks; being booed in Boston is a quick way to proclaim yourself an enemy of the state. Sports in New England are a religion and the only cardinal unforgivable sin is not caring.

In no other sport would we allow the kind of bad gibberish that spews from the mouths of starting pitchers to stand. We’d string them up and strip them of all recognition and fame. But this is baseball and for some strange reason we see fit to pay people to play every five days. 


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