Sunday, March 28, 2010

Artists on the Mound

Well, it’s been a spell. Hated to have left you hanging, but the New York Game had graduate school mid-terms, and also works full-time, has one of those “Let’s go out and do things” girlfriends, had to do his taxes, and the laundry never stops, does it?

But, thank God, spring is here and the great game is but days away. Like many of you (many? ok, the three of you who read this blog) I’ve been getting my winter baseball fix through MLB Network. On their ranking show Prime 9, they recently counted down the top pitching deliveries of all time.

Which got me thinking about my favorite deliveries, and the pitchers who, through their creativity and style, transcended the act of pitching into an art. The Picassos and Vermeers of the diamond: Let’s get to it.

Satchel Paige

Perhaps the greatest pitcher ever, Ol’ Satch modified the full classic delivery with an extra-high leg kick and varied hesitation moves designed to disrupt timing. He combined pinpoint control with a parade of imaginatively-named pitches, as described in this clip from Ken Burns’ definitive documentary:

Luis Tiant

A rocking, rolling, twisting, turn-away-and-gaze-at-the-blue-sky-of-summer delivery that baffled hitters, delighted the Fenway faithful, and was surely an inspiration to a young Fernando Valenzuela. One of two Cubans on my list, I would have loved to see the Yankees do battle against El Tiante in the wild Bronx is Burning era.

Mike Mussina

Perhaps he lacks the flair for this list, but the Thinking Man’s Moose is no doubt an artist in his own right. Pitching his entire career in the AL East in during the steroid era, Moose disassembled lineups stacked with men twice his size with an assortment of curveballs, knuckle-curves, changes, and high-riding fastballs. He could throw any pitch at any time, for a strike or intentionally out of the zone. I’ll never forget his dominating performance at Fenway Park in 2001, when he came within one strike of a perfect game. It was the second best pitching performance I’d ever seen, with the first being Pedro’s 17-strikeout one-hitter against the Yankees that I attended in 1999. He went out in style, with the first 20-win season of his career in 2008. See you in the Hall, Moose.

El Duque

My personal favorite: Orlando El Duque Hernandez, who joined the Yankees mid-season in 1998 after defecting from Cuba at the tender age of 29, or 39, or 53, depending on your sourcing. Not only did have one of the most distinctive of deliveries, with his knee-to-your-face leg kick, he could throw nearly any pitch, including an impossibly Frisbee-like slider and an old-school super slow eephus. It’s a shame New York only had him for the latter half of his career, but what we saw was indelibly memorable.

This classic Adidas commercial captured the cult status he acquired almost immediately, positing that fellow artist David Cone has grown jealous at the attention focused on the duke:

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