By Bob Socci
Days 4 thru 6 – Tuesday, May 8-Thursday, May 10: Norfolk Tides at Louisville Bats
Wind is wreaking havoc along Fourth Street. Two city workers in bright yellow shirts, on a beautifully sunny but breezily cool afternoon, are wrestling with a vinyl banner. It’s supposed to be hanging from the post of a streetlamp, but instead flutters uncontrollably. Walking past the two men trying to get a grip on the sign, I read the greeting it bears: “Welcome to Louisville, City of Possibility.”
City of possibility.
That’s exactly why I’m here, and have been the last three days. Later tonight I’ll be watching baseball’s Norfolk Tides and Louisville Bats engage for the eighth and final time in 2012, ending their second series in less than two weeks. When last they met, each won twice. But apart from playing one another, neither has fared very evenly overall with the rest of the International League. The Tides are 13-18, five games from .500, a third-place club in their division. The Bats stand fourth in theirs, due to a dozen more losses than wins. Just yesterday they ended a five-game losing streak, rebounding after Norfolk started its stay here with back-to-back victories.
Collectively, there’s a possibility the Tides will prevail in this series, and thus the season set, or Louisville will once more manage a split. Individually, however, there’s a much different possibility everyone is playing to make reality. For some it’s actually more of a probability. For a few it’s an inevitability. It has little to do with the standings or head-to-head records of these two Triple-A teams.
On this level of the minor leagues, a roster allows for 24 active players. In the case of every last one, there’s somewhere else he’d rather be. Today for the Tides, that somewhere else is Baltimore, where the Orioles host the Texas Rangers. As Norfolk’s parent club, the O’s are one of the spring’s biggest surprises. Recent bottom dwellers in baseball’s toughest division, they currently sit atop the American League East. Still, the Orioles are under stress, particularly their pitching staff. Their week began with a victory in Boston. Nonetheless, achieving it in 17 innings took a toll. More taxing were the following two nights versus Texas, and the prospect of two more games yet to come against the Rangers. Two-time defending pennant winner, Texas scored 14 runs Monday in Baltimore. On Tuesday, Josh Hamilton staged a one-man slugfest by hitting four — four — home runs. Under siege, the Orioles made several players moves the last 72 hours.
There’s a possibility of more to come. And so for every Tide, particularly the pitchers, there’s a possibility the next call could be for you. Already on this trip to Durham and now Louisville, big-league summons have been served to pitchers Jason Berken, Stu Pomeranz, Zach Phillips and Dana Eveland, as well as infielder Steve Tolleson. Unfortunately for Berken, his stay was short. Up by Monday, he is back down on Thursday.
Like any other Triple-A club, the Tides are an eclectic group. They are American, Latino, Canadian and Australian. They are pretty old — at least by pro baseball standards — and extremely young — by any measure. Among them are seven-, even eight-figure earners, as well as those whose paychecks include fewer digits to the left of the decimal point. Two nights ago Norfolk’s starting pitcher was Joel Pineiro, a veteran of 12 major league seasons, featuring more than a hundred wins.
According to the website baseball-reference.com, he’s been paid in excess of $48 million for use of his right arm. Last year alone Pineiro made a reported $8 million as an Angel, which computes to $1,142,857.14 for each of his seven victories. In contrast, last night’s starter Steve Johnson is an eighth-year pro, a one-time 15th-round draft choice in his second organization. He didn’t get to Double-A until his fifth season, Triple-A until his sixth. In his first go-around in the International League, Johnson closed 2011 with a 2-7 record and 5.56 ERA.
And yet age, experience and income aside, they take the ball looking to seize the same opportunity. They pitch for the same possibility. Pineiro need only call upon his own past to know it’s so. There’s a reason four big-league teams rewarded him with such riches, for so many seasons. As for Johnson, the only example he needs is the man who raised him.
David Wayne Johnson was, is a ‘Bawlmer’ guy. Born in Charm City, he pitched professionally for the first time as a 22-year-old Pirates farmhand. It took until his sixth season to reach Pittsburgh, for all of five games and little more than six innings. Signed that winter by Houston, Johnson was traded to his hometown team on the last day of March, 1989. Sometime in between, he helped make ends meet by working as a truck driver. Those Orioles were the game’s laughingstock, a year removed from the infamy of an 0-21 start to a 107-loss finish. But through the spring and into the summer of ’89, while Johnson toiled in Rochester, baseball in Baltimore went through a renaissance. In August Johnson joined the Oriole upstarts, and beat the likes of Minnesota, Boston and Milwaukee. Then, as a last-minute replacement for an injured Pete Harnisch, Johnson opposed Toronto in a final-weekend showdown for first place. He left ahead, 3-1, in the 8th inning, only to see the Blue Jays rally to the divisional title.
As disappointing as the outcome was, Dave Johnson retains a warm spot in the hearts of longtime Oriole fans. He also remains a presence, in their ears and before their eyes commentating on radio and television. Meanwhile, his son Steve strives to become a second-generation Oriole, with the Tides in Louisville.
The starts by Peneiro and Johnson, like their careers to date, unfold differently. The 33-year-old Pineiro quickly gets into a groove. In his second game since being released by Philadelphia out of spring training and signing with the O’s, he retires 18 of the first 21 Bats. Entering the 7th inning, Norfolk has five runs; Louisville has two singles. But with one out, five straight hits force Pineiro from the mound. The Bats pare the difference to one, before the Tides rebut in the 8th with six runs of their own. The final is 11-4, and the decision belongs to Peneiro.
Johnson, 24, follows to the mound with a mere 2.60 ERA, allowing a meager .206 opponents’ batting average. With a 1-0 lead, trouble arrives in various forms. First, a blast ties it. Later, after a walk and hit batsman, Johnson’s own throwing error off a bunt puts him behind. A sac fly makes it, 3-1, after two innings. Another base on balls and another hit batter lead to another three-run inning, this time in the bottom of the 4th. The key play involves a misjudged, wind-aided fly ball resulting in an RBI double. But thereafter, Johnson silences Louisville’s bats. He sets down the last 10 hitters he opposes. Not enough to avoid a 6-5 loss, nevertheless Johnson has an outing to build on. In five more days, he will return in his role, armed with the power of possibility.
The wind dies down as the Tides conclude their stay in Louisville. Blowing off the Ohio River, from the North at eight miles per hour, it’s enough to cool the temperature to 71 degrees. But not nearly enough to impact the game the way it affected earlier efforts to hang a welcome sign. Norfolk pitcher Brad Bergesen bids goodbye to Possibility City by hanging zeros; five of them in a 54-pitch, 38-strike spot start. He is backed by 10 hits, including five from lineup bookends Xavier Avery and Blake Davis. Avery’s three hits as leadoff man include a two-run homer and a double. Davis, batting ninth, triples twice. Three relievers handle the final four innings. The Tides take the series finale, 4-1, in 2 hours and 32 minutes.
It’s exactly as ordered on a get-away night; a fast-moving game sending Norfolk on its way. Only, there’s a problem. On this night, pitchers work at a much different pace than the bus driver chauffeuring the team to Indianapolis. A 120-minute, late-night commute on a lightly traveled Interstate is taking much longer than two hours. As Indy’s skyline comes into view, there are 20 rows or more of backseat drivers. Quips start in the back of the bus, working their way to the front.
The culture of baseball rarely cuts anyone slack, and a good laugh is too hard to pass up. One needs thick skin to survive in a clubhouse. Ballplayers always have, and always will, give each other grief. In a good-natured way, of course. And generally, they’re no different when it comes to others on the team periphery. Almost unfailingly, there’s one or two players whose wit is especially sharp. Again, these Tides are like the rest.
Laughing in my seat, four rows behind him, I feel a bit for the driver too. Thank God, I think, at least we’re not lost. To his credit, the busie handles the colorful commentary as well he handles the wheel. From where I sit he shows no signs of any weight piling on his shoulders. Or enough, anyway, to force him to press a little harder on the pedal.
Safe and sound, we eventually pull up to our hotel in the early minutes of tomorrow morning. Nineteen hours from now the Tides play the first game on the last leg of this baseball journey.
No longer in Louisville, Indianapolis is now their city of possibility.