It may be the year of the home run in the major leagues, but in the Midwest League it's the year of the pitcher--and in Kane County of Josh Beckett in particular. Beckett was the first pitcher chosen in last year's draft--he earned the honor as a hard-throwing Texan in the long and glorious tradition of Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Kerry Wood--and he was assigned by the Florida Marlins to the Cougars in the Class A Midwest League for his rookie season of professional baseball. Given the dearth of pitching and the way balls have been flying out of big-league parks, talented young pitchers are the sport's most precious commodity. Beckett opened the season with a trip to the disabled list to nurse a tender shoulder, but since returning in late May he has been everything advertised. In his first 11 games, 10 of them as a starter, he won only two and lost three, a record no doubt held down because a cautious management has kept him on a low pitch count and removed him early. His other statistics were suitably impressive: a 1.70 earned run average, only 30 hits allowed in 47-plus innings for an opposing batting average of .185, and 49 strikeouts against 13 walks--a ratio of almost four to one.
Beckett has suffered from minuscule run support. The Cougars this season have a wealth of pitching phenoms but few hitting prospects, and facing pitchers usually psyched up at going against the latest ballyhooed Texas flamethrower, they've been shut out four times. It's been that sort of season across the Midwest League this year: a .262 team batting average led the circuit as of late last week, and in spite of an anemic .232 team average, second-worst in the 14-team league, the Cougars went into Beckett's latest start last Saturday night at Geneva's bucolic Elfstrom Stadium with a respectable 53-51 record they owed to their pitching. So I headed out to the far western suburbs for a look at Beckett before he moved up to the next level.
If only it had been so simple. With my four-year-old daughter scheduled to begin a week's stay with her grandparents downstate, I thought that Saturday's six o'clock game, finished off with scheduled fireworks (a fan favorite that Kane County has aped from the White Sox), would make a perfect start to the trip. Then I'd head south with the girl asleep on the backseat. With the sky overcast and the weather humid but otherwise mild, I packed up the dog too--why not? We could walk him while watching the fireworks and beat the traffic.
As I pulled into the stadium lot about two hours before game time, a parking attendant immediately informed me that if I tried to leave the dog in the car, windows cracked or not, dog saturated with water or not, Kane County Forest Preserve police, who had jurisdiction over the lot, would break into the car and impound the dog and I would have to pay a serious fine to get him back. (Why is it Republicans are always against big government except in the tiniest matters?) Where else could I park? The attendant didn't have a clue. Yet I was determined to see Beckett, so I drove to a little housing area across the main drag outside the stadium. I stopped when I saw someone, got out like an old relation pulling up, and explained my predicament to a woman in the most sympathetic manner possible, asking if I could park my car and dog in their ample driveway. The woman went to get her husband. Both were iffy and suspicious at first, but then agreed. Though I introduced myself they didn't, and I didn't press them. They also declined any money for the favor, quite in contrast with the Wrigleyville "neighbors" who offer "easy-out" parking. They did, however, introduce their dog, a shaggy German shepherd-collie mix named Baby. So my daughter and I took our dog for a pregame walk, and by the time we got back the couple had actually brought out a bowl of water and said that I should just tie the dog to the nearest tree. Would that be safe, to leave a dog where anybody could drive up and lay claim to him? (He's a sweet guy who would run off with a total stranger if a bit of hamburger were involved in the transaction.) They were going out themselves, they said, but didn't seem to think it any risk. So we left the dog there in the yard and marched back to the stadium--but not without a little scolding from the cop standing guard at the traffic light who told us this was not a pedestrian crossing. Kerouac once wrote that the woods are full of wardens; I bet the Republican western suburbs have a special undercover unit just to keep kids from choking on Popsicle sticks.
With the dog now back there for someone to steal like a bike--why had I trusted those people, total strangers?--Beckett was going to have to be pretty impressive to keep me from constantly checking my watch. Fortunately, he didn't disappoint. The seats were gone--the attendance would be 12,013--so we bought lawn tickets and sat ourselves down along the right-field line next to the home bull pen, every bit as close to the mound as I've stood at Wrigley Field to watch Wood warm up. Beckett came out about 20 minutes before game time. A long, lean, broad-shouldered 20-year-old with buzz-cut hair and a hint of baby fat in his cheeks, he jogged slowly out to center field and stretched against the fence, then sat down by himself to go through the rest of his stretching regimen. That accomplished, he ambled back in and began throwing to his catcher. Everything he did was methodical and slow. Several minutes of lobbing the ball went by before he began to back up to stretch his arm with a game of long toss. Even then he threw easily, not with the long, straight pegs of Wood. When he finally took the mound he threw casually, spinning off a few curves now and then, but he didn't display the awesome stuff Wood used to have, the sizzling fastball and hissing curve. That's what's been missing during Wood's recovery from Tommy John surgery. Wood is still a very good pitcher but not an awe-inspiring one, and Beckett struck me as the same. Fans watching him warm up didn't utter the oohs, aahs, and gasps that fans still do at Wrigley when Wood warms up. In fact, they stopped monitoring him entirely when three parachutists dropped in on the field. Such are the distractions of minor league baseball.
It's a unique sporting experience--great talent mixed with mind-numbing mistakes, beautiful baseball interrupted by the silliest promotional shenanigans--and it never fails to entrance me. During batting practice--as my daughter entertained herself by rolling down and then back up the incline in the lawn seating section--Kevin West, the right fielder for the visiting Quad City River Bandits of the Minnesota Twins' system, lofted a ball to some fans in the picnic area beyond the fence. Unfortunately, where big leaguers make it every time, West's toss landed on the warning track well shy of the target. He had to bashfully go over, pick it up, and underhand it to the fans. Later, there was the rapid-fire synchronization of the Cougars' infield practice--halted when second baseman Kevin Hooper booted what was supposed to be a double-play grounder. A Kane County coach trying to hit pop flies kept spinning them backward into the screen behind home plate, then hit one too well into right field--where Hooper redeemed himself by running it down with an almost blind over-the-shoulder catch.
When Beckett took the mound for the game proper, I could see that he might have been saving himself for when it mattered--a sign of maturity quite in keeping with the rest of his composed demeanor. He's not quite as big as Wood, but he throws just as effortlessly, with the same pointed-toe, bent-knee kick, and perhaps with a sounder sense of the fundamentals--he has a longer, more graceful stride. Beckett throws a fastball in the mid-90s and mixes it with a decent slider and an excellent overhand curve, which like Wood's breaks straight down--the old "yellow hammer," as it's descriptively referred to in Jim Bouton's Ball Four. He struck out two batters in the first inning, the second called on one of those nasty curves, and struck out the side in the second, two of them on curves, one swinging and one called. Wood, when he first came up, seemed barely in control of his immense talents; Beckett, by contrast, seemed to be driving a car of his own design and construction while hanging his elbow out the window. His first time through the order, he threw first-pitch strikes to seven of the nine Quad City hitters and went to three balls on only one. He looked ready for the big leagues.
The Cougars even gave him a first-inning lead. Leadoff hitter Chip Ambres singled, went to third on a smoothly executed hit-and-run by Hooper, and came home on a groundout by Scott Goodman. Hooper had gone to second on his single when the River Bandits made a play on Ambres at third, and he advanced to third himself on Goodman's groundout. But then he committed a base-running boner. Matt Padgett grounded sharply down the third-base line, where Quad City third baseman Matt Scanlon dove, grabbed the ball, tagged Hooper lunging back to the bag, and threw to first for the rarely seen 5-3 double play without a force-out. Go to a Class A baseball game and you're almost sure to see something you've never seen before.
The second time through the order, Beckett fell victim to one of the most familiar pitching pitfalls--the inability to change speeds, something he'll have to master if he's to make the majors. The River Bandits were waiting to pounce on his first-pitch fastballs. Kelly Gulledge hit the first pitch of the fourth inning to center for a double. Scanlon followed by grounding a 1-0 pitch up the middle. Kane County shortstop Luis Ugueto went to the other side of second to spear it, then threw the ball away, allowing Gulledge to score and Scanlon to take second. Eric Sandberg hit the next pitch up the middle, and Scanlon scored to put Quad City ahead, 2-1. Beckett struggled through the next two innings, while the Cougars seemed hog-tied against Henry Bonilla, a less impressive pitching prospect who nevertheless kept the hitters baffled with his herky-jerky motion, short stride, and three-quarters delivery. Whenever the Cougars got the leadoff man on, which wasn't often, manager Russ Morman--yes, the old White Sox player--chose the one-run strategy and signaled for a bunt. It was like watching the 60s Los Angeles Dodgers play, or the infamous 1906 White Sox, the "hitless wonders" of the dead-ball era.
Still, the strategy did help move the game along briskly, which was greatly appreciated, as every few minutes I found myself checking my watch and thinking of the dog, who might already be munching a hot dog in the back of some pickup truck headed to Indiana as part of an interstate dog-theft ring. When Beckett left at the start of the seventh we got up and left as well, and I put my daughter on my shoulders to speed us along, crossing the main drag without a hassle this time as the cops must have been on break. We turned the corner down the lane and there the dog was, placid as ever, still under his tree, while the man of the house had returned and was now working in his garden, which was larger by acreage than even his driveway. I gave him a souvenir ball as a token of thanks, and he responded by giving me a huge zucchini and a lovely jalapeno pepper, which he advised me to save for later when I had a beer. We shook hands and said good-bye, though he never did tell me his name. Probably just as well. I wouldn't want him set upon by readers with dogs they hoped to shield from the cops of the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
All the worry was for nothing, and it made me feel like a suspicious city slicker and true heel, especially when I heard that the Cougars had rallied in the eighth to push across two runs--on a bases-loaded walk and a run-scoring groundout, no less--to claim a 3-2 victory behind a ferocious five-hit attack. Call them the new hitless wonders.