TOP OF THE FIRST: DODGERS 2 (0) – 0 GIANTS
The end of an era. Sammy Sosa called out for his corked bats. George Brett tossed for pine tar. And now Johnny Cueto, long-time master of the shimmy, baseball deception’s stylish king of the hill—shoulder-shaking, pelvis-wobbling, neck-bobbling trickery stopped in its tracks with the rules finally catching up to him—“You’ve had enough,” the umpires said, “no more shimmies, no more fun.”
He’s on the mound in San Francisco, with Dodger runners on second and third, no outs, and his body twisting up into his windup as Justin Turner readies for the pitch. Full count.
And from out of nowhere we get Dancing With the Stars, live at AT&T Park, Johnny Cueto onstage as a solo act. One shoulder to the left, the other to the right, his dancing shoes on, music in his head, and a sudden wiggle that’s got eyebrows around the whole ballpark rising in impressed surprise: Is that guy… what exactly is he doing out there?
— 120 Sports (@120Sports) September 25, 2015
Cueto’s got no shortage of material in the style department: the league-leader in dreadlock flair (John Jaso a close second), a black skullcap under his hat, and a thick wad of bubble gum poking out like a mouth guard between pitches. By the numbers he’ll be an easy All-Star pick. Rolling at the helm of a first-place team, a 9-1 record in the early goings.
And so, to cap it all off, he goes for it. The cream of a full crop of artful windups used in almost every start (see Baseball Prospectus): The Quick Pitch, the Quick Pitch Subset, the Delayed Quick Pitch, the “Something,” The Twist, The Twist Subset, The Delayed Twist, The Hybrid Twist, The Twist and Pause, and The Shimmy.
He whips out a few of the others to the first two batters, then goes for the magnum opus against Turner. Luis Tiant back from retirement. The full shimmy. Pausing, rocking back and forth, and delivering home a fastball. Turner fouls it off, the first-base ump raises his arm and interrupts. Cueto throws his arms up, smiling in disbelief, saying “What? What?? What’d I do?”
Balk. The ump waves Chase Utley to jog home. 1-0 Dodgers. Bruce Bochy comes out to argue, Cueto bites his tongue, and the TV guys replay the replay until they’re all out of laughs, maybe the best entertainment they could ask for in a ten-second baseball sequence.
The crowd gets a little rowdy, with home fans booing on the big-screen replay and Dodgers fans beaming, eyes lit up like they’ve struck some rare baseball jackpot. A rogue crowd mic picks up a pair in orange and black, screaming out onto the field: “You blew it, blue!! You’re terrible, blue!!”
So with that, the Dodgers take an early lead, the ballpark still filling up not yet ten minutes into the game, and Johnny Cueto wonders if the jig is up on a shimmy-dependent career of pitching dominance. Like the star pitcher in Hardball, listening to “Big Poppa” before every pitch, his headphones confiscated by the league and the great Kekambas sinking down in the little-league standings.
Although, according to Baseball Prospectus, Cueto may not need the windup variety all that much, with unclear success each time he mixes it up:
“Cueto is good for a lot of reasons, and it’s still not clear that his varied deliveries have much to do with his success…Then again, even if all of the deliveries are just for show, a sort of placebo effect that makes Cueto feel like he’s doing something when he really isn’t, it’s working.”
But if it’s all over for Cueto, the sun setting on a long trend of wiggle antics on the mound, he’s already in the pantheon of greats. The Shimmy Hall of Fame—up there with the greats from the Jazz Age and onward, continuing a legacy of shimmy as rule-breaker, from umpire to court judge. March 3, 1920—from the New York Times:
Cueto, by now, has got a sure place in the unwritten history books, carrying the torch of a hundred-year-old gem of sport and dance. From the nightclubs of 1920s Chicago, to the cultural appropriation (and probably stolen) revisions of Bee Palmer and Gilda Gray, to a series of ’60s recordings with the shimmy at the forefront.
First written by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron, in 1919, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”—recorded by The Olympics:
And “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop,” by Little Anthony & The Imperials (1960):
I can’t quite think of something else like it, outside of Tiant’s corkscrew windup. A goofy submarine delivery? An awkward batting stance? If baseball fiction counts, you’ve got the batting maneuver from Jack Parkman in Major League 2, and the broadcast from Bob Uecker in the booth:
“Parkman doing his little shimmy. It drives the women here in Cleveland crazy!”
I think Cueto’s the king here. An undefeated title belt. No challengers stepping up, with only the umpiring crews left to evade.
In terms of technique, pro soccer might have the only direct comparison, with a recent plague led by Neymar Jr.—the wily, stutter-step routine in the run-up for penalty kicks. A full-body sleight of hand, a just-legal piece of trickery used to similar effect. And a nightmare for keepers, caught flat-footed, heels stuck to the ground, the ball slotted hard into the corner for an easy goal given up.
In football… false-start baiting at the line? In hockey? Tennis?
So Cueto might have a monopoly on the move. A trailblazer. A leader. Paving the way for a new generation of baseball youth, shimmy-savvy little-leaguers inspired to take up the cause.
He does have a few followers already in the world of basketball, or at least one—with the free-throw antics of Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson:
And the only place to have him beat might be the NBA, if dead-ball and post-game situations can be counted. Antoine Walker to Marc Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal to Steph Curry, strutting down the court with maybe the greatest of American dance traditions brought to stadiums near you.
So with shimmy universe enjoying its day in the sun, Johnny Cueto reviving old memes to perfection, what comes next?
Harlem Shake on the mound? Square Dance after a walk-off? A gangly, awkward ballet pirouette from Jacob deGrom?
Back at AT&T Park, Cueto buckles down after the balk call, shimmy on hold for at least one evening. Adrian Gonzalez comes up next. Single to right-field, another Dodger run scored. And a 2-0 lead for L.A. in the first inning, with not ten minutes gone by in the game, and the season series looking to be evened up. But then, a quick two groundouts from Pederson and Grandal. Cueto out of the first inning. And seven straight innings of no-run ball. A 2-2 game going into the ninth. Post-shimmy Cueto heading to the dugout with yet another gem of a game on the books.
And then, Justin Turner came back up, in the top-half of the ninth, redbeard viking of the MLB. Cueto on the bench and Santiago Casilla looking to back him up.
Home run into the first row above the left-field wall. Dodgers up 3-2. The eventual winner. The season series tied at 4-4. A single shimmy, back in the first inning, the difference in the game.
And so: for me, for you, for a whole sea of shimmy admirers, and our one lone hero in Johnny Cueto, is this it?? It can’t be. It won’t be. We want the shimmy. We need the shimmy.
As many miscalled balks as it takes. It’ll be back.