Albert Pujols stood at the plate; his tree-trunk legs planted firmly in the deep brown of the box. His stance was wide, his legs spread and flexed, and his head was completely still. He waved his bat head through the zone, once, twice, then a third time, and settled with his hands held close to his chest. As he settled, the emotion visibly fell from his face.
On the mound, a tall, 6'4" power pitcher with a lean frame that whipped the ball toward home stood glowering under his hat. His whole demeanor said, "To hell with this," as if he didn't care who batted, who was on base, or who might follow Pujols.
The pitch soared into the night, arching majestically beyond the lights into the city sky, and who knows? Perhaps it never did come down. Pujols circled the bases and sent the series back to St. Louis and destroyed the career and the myth of invulnerability that hung about Brad Lidge.
The Astros recovered to win the pennant, but in the World Series, Lidge again delivered an infamous moment, a home run to Scott Podsednik, of all people. His career appeared in jeopardy. How could someone recover from this? Who would give him leveraged innings?
Wednesday night in Tampa Bay, the city of St. Petersburg saw the resurrection of Brad Lidge. He worked a perfect ninth, retiring Pena, Longoria, and Crawford in order. It was a display of dominance.
But this is not the same Brad Lidge. This Brad Lidge pitches backwards; he throws half a dozen sliders before letting go his fastball. What happened to the man?
Character. Clutch. Heart.
People will tell you these don't exist. It's fashionable these days. They sneer derisively: overrated! Doesn't exist!
I say to you, only these exist.
It takes character to stand on a major-league field. When 50,000 people watch you with their own two eyes and millions more follow on television the biggest failure of your life, when that failure is blared across the airwaves and dissected, not for months, but years, and you come back to face them down, that, I say, is character.
Sabermetrics are tools of prognostication. They predict, with admirable accuracy, what is likely to take place.
But they don't describe what it is.
Samermetricians study what may be. Once a thing has happened, they are of no use. The Phillies won tonight. That is the end.
It's like the polls. On Nov. 4, Americans will vote to determine the course the next four years will take. Obama leads the polls.
But on Nov. 5, it will not matter that Nate Silver gave him a 92 percent chance of winning. He will have won or lost. The predictions will be of no use.
B.J. Upton was terrible tonight. Upton is young, lean, and lithe. He does not have the typical slugger’s body. He is all elbows and knees and has not yet grown into himself. He is like Soriano, or a young Henry Aaron; he whips the bat through the zone with quick, strong wrists.
He had seven home runs through the first 11 games.
Tonight he looked foolish.
Upton tightened up. You could see, clear as anything on the TV, how tightly he gripped the bat. Alex Rodriguez does this. He is relaxed when no one's watching, and on a national stage, his hands clench about his bat; his knuckles turn white beneath his batting gloves.
You cannot swing unless you are relaxed.
This is clutch: to perform at your own level, regardless of circumstance. The best players stay calm under pressure.
Upton must learn this.
He started his swings with his hands all tight, and his swing hitched, looping sadly like a floating breaking ball and was equally ineffectual. Two double plays and a strikeout resulted; let's hope he relaxes for Game Two.
In times of adversity, we learn something about the man. About character.
I know baseball and politics don't mix. I am to write of one or the other. But what is baseball if not a venue for introspection?
It is election season, after all.
This election has offered more than the usual amount of adversity for John McCain. He has responded with a veritable tantrum, stomping around the political mound, throwing the rosin bag, and risking ejection at the hands of the international community.
His yellow journalism is inspiring, showing a sort of creativity not seen since the Civil War. He has vacillated and waffled, and responded not with thoughtful, calm solutions to the financial crisis but with reactive, half-cocked plans for tax cuts that will exacerbate the deficit.
He tightened on the bat.
John McCain is a hero. We owe him an unpayable debt.
But his temperament is singularly unsuited for the presidency. He has shown himself throughout his career to be reactive and rash, unthinking with his words, and absolute and hard-headed when he digs his feet in.
Perhaps when we go back to the 162-game grind, he will continue putting up numbers, but under the lights of the postseason stage, he has faltered.
He is not clutch.
I am no Democrat. I am a fiscal and social conservative, and the only issue I take a liberal stance on is the environment. Any issue that can be addressed locally should be addressed locally and not at the federal level. But even I, Jeffersonian that I am, cannot endorse this American hero.
Send him back to the Senate, I say. Let him work for America, as he has done for a lifetime, prolifically, but let him do it out of the public eye, where his brokering and deal-making are strengths and his rashness and impetuousness will not be a liability.
We are baseball fans. Baseball is a metaphor for our lives; it is a microcosm of the sphere in which we live. We must take our lessons from it.
We love this game, at least in part because of what we learn from it. For many of us, it was the first thing we could share as equals with our fathers and brothers. For many of us, it will be the first thing we share with our children that they can confront as adults. On this field, we learn life lessons, lessons about character, integrity, heart, and honor.
When you go to the polls this year, think of Game One. Think of Brad Lidge, who learned from his failures, and think of B.J. Upton, who has shown us no indication that he can. Think of McCain, and how he's responded in political duress.
Baseball is a political space. It's time we started thinking of it as such.