This week, we asked performing arts critic John Fleming and pop music critic Sean Daly, both serious baseball fans, to write online appreciations — or critiques — of the American League Division Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. You can see their exchanges by going to tampabay.com and searching on "They call it The Show."
After the Rays' shutout loss on Thursday, Fleming was inspired to write about the artistic grace of pitchers. Here is his dispatch.
The pitching motion is the American form of dance for men. Such are the random thoughts that kept me fitfully interested, watching on TV at home Thursday, in another disappointing performance by the Rays. I had started formulating this theory the day before, inspired by Cliff Lee's effortless, rocking-chair motion in setting down the Rays. Thursday's masterful outing by the other Texas lefty, C.J. Wilson — who, with his boyish good looks and shaggy hair, could pass for a principal with a ballet company — reinforced the idea.
The American male, of course, is famously antidance — Exhibit A was a commercial several years ago in which the worst possible thing a beer-drinking sports fan could be asked to do by his wife was to go to a ballet — and many dance companies would kill for a few good men. Where are all the guys who can do turns, spins, pirouettes and leaps with ease and grace? They're on the pitching mound.
The delivery of a great pitcher is a thing of beauty, and every one of them is different, just as every great dancer moves in his own way. Many a boyhood has been misspent perfecting a stylish pitching motion, instead of going to dance class. I guarantee you that Wilson has had that funky little twist of the wrist at the end of his delivery since he was playing Wiffle ball in the back yard. For the most part, his motion is efficient and functional — no windup, just a short step back before bringing the ball to the plate — and that is typical of our no-nonsense times. One of his heroes was Greg Maddux, who epitomized the no muss, no fuss delivery.
Then there was James Shields, who has a pretty classic motion himself, except when he was stumbling on the mound and bouncing the ball behind Michael Young or managing to hit the mighty Matt Treanor (.211 batting average) twice. The Rays starter even had TBS announcer Buck Martinez sounding a bit like a dance critic when he cautioned that Shields had to be careful not to "spin off toward the first baseline'' or his technique would suffer. Shields does have one distinctive movement in the deep crouch that he goes into during his stretch with runners on base (in other words, most of the time). Give this man a ballerina to lift!
Every pitcher has an idiosyncrasy — Dan Wheeler kneading the ball in his glove, Darren Oliver's bravura leg kick — but many of today's motions have an assembly line quality, as if everyone went to the same pitching academy. They're a far cry from the flamboyant hurlers of the past. Roger Angell, in his great baseball stories for the New Yorker, wrote like a lake poet about Luis Tiant's baroque mannerisms on the mound. As a kid, I had a special fondness for the eccentric delivery of the Cuban curveballer Camilo Pascual.
Much the same is true in dance, by the way, as national ballet traditions — Russian, say, or Danish or French — have given way to a more homogenized international style. Think of Mikhail Baryshnikov as the last of an individualistic generation of dancers, ballet's version of, oh, Sandy Koufax or Tom Seaver.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.