Game 60 // Fourth Inning, Houston // The Thin Yellow Line

Sketch by Henry Gustavson


BOTTOM OF THE FOURTH: ASTROS 5 (1) – 2 MARINERS

 

Taijuan Walker’s on the mound for Seattle against the Astros, wearing striped socks, high stirrups and carrying 2016’s trophy for Best Given Name That Is (or Sounds Like) a Country. In the pantheon, you’ve got the retired Chili Davis, former long-time holder of the title, and the several Jordans and Chads of current and past MLB rosters. And beyond those? You can scroll, for as many hours as you can bear, through Baseball Reference’s database and find the real heroes of the category—the overlooked, nation-named afterthoughts now enshrined in stat sheets and pixels.

Israel Sanchez, Israel Alcantara. “Turkey” Ewell Gross and “Turkey” Cecil Tyson (who, I should add, is now on his second Big Inning appearance, after a cataloguing of the all-time best major-league Cecils).

And as for surnames—where the clear winner, if it existed, would have to be a So-and-so Suriname—you’ve got Frank Brazill of the 1921-22 Philadelphia Athletics, Ossie France of the 1890 Chicago Colts, and… my eyes are burning with the digital scrutiny of page after page of baseball obscurity.

Many others are close: Warren Spain? Fernando Venezuela? Mike Cameroon? Ruben Sierra Leone?

And so, with the 2016 Seattle Mariners, we get Taijuan Walker, dealing on the mound against Houston, and all I can think of is his real world equivalent… “Taiwan walker”. A walker, that is, that’s… native to Taiwan. Enter Chang Wei-Lin, 10,000-meter racewalk competitor, proudly having represented Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) in the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympic Games.

 

  

 

Back to the game: a sleepy Minute Maid Park comes back from the mid-inning break to Jose Altuve at the bat, as Walker readies with the away team up one. The retractable roof is retracted, and the TV broadcast crew, just back from the commercial break, har-hars at themselves for still forgetting the basics of Twitter usage.

“We know hash, like… the meal that you’d have,” says one of them, chuckling, “but we don’t know that, a hash tag.”

On the field, Altuve beats out an infield ground-ball, with Ketel Marte fielding it and a double clutch, a just-late throw to Dae-Ho Lee. None out, one on.

Carlos Correa steps up to bat, as the TV camera cuts to a three-piece gang of chicken-finger-devouring children in the half-filled bleacher seats.

Altuve steals second. Throws up the Safe! sign, immediately matched by the umpire, mirror images flaring their arms out, and Altuve pops up with his palms open, out in front of his chest with the ump in hypnotic persuasion. Safe!

 

 

Robinson Cano pats Altuve the back, jogs back to his spot at second. Carlos Correa strikes out. And up comes Colby Rasmus, honorary caveman emeritus of the major leagues, a drooping, never-dry mop of hair hanging down onto both shoulders. And a pitch from Walker, a quick path homeward, a ripping swing from Rasmus—the ball shot on a high arcing take-off over the field to right-center.

First pitch. The swing unfurled like a golf hack cutting through the air, the ball disintegrated, then reformed by teleportation into the outfield bleachers. Home run. A no-doubter, soaring over the bullpen. And the fireworks pop, the soundtrack to a four-base trot as the caveman makes his rounds toward home. The chicken-finger fanatics each throw one arm in the air, the others tangled in a lap-top swamp of fries and ketchup.

 

 

Astros lead, 3-2. Luis Valbuena up to continue the rally. Near-quiet returns to the park, and Valbuena works a walk off a full-count.

Carlos Gomez comes up, works a full count himself, twists and flails into jammed contact, and pops out to left. Two outs.

The camera cuts again to the broadcast team, up in the booth, the debate on hashtagology still raging, and I’m hearing both “meme” and “dumb and dumber” in the same sentence, old-man humor ruling the day.

And then, a moment after A.J. Reed steps to the plate, just after the outside bit of the plate greets an arriving fastball, a shouting burst into the microphone:

“Look out, power seekers!! The Astros may have landed another big fish!—A.J. Reed unloads!!!”

He smacks a deep opposite-field hit in the air, soaring to left-center, and it knocks off the brick wall in the uncertain territory of the zig-zagging yellow line marking the border between home-run and in-play. The “Brad Ausmus line,” they’re calling it in the booth, going back to the heroics of the ’05 NLDS.

 

 

The umps check the replay, the broadcast zooms in, slow-motions, and all focus dials in on the hands of a single fan, leaning over the balcony railing beneath one of the left-field arches, reaching for the catch beside the Phillips 66 novelty gas pump.

And the ball pings off his hands, or seems to, and sinking down toward the wall—right at the vertical portion of the thin yellow line. What are the odds?

Fenway Park has “the triangle,” AT&T Park has an angled triangle of its own, and Chase Field has two vertical home-run lines beneath the center-field balcony. Then Minute Maid Park, and its trio of novelties: the center-field hill, the choo-choo train high above the left-field wall, and the zig-zag Tetris piece of an outfield barrier line—the difference between home run and double just one foot left or right.

The rule, according to MLB’s “Universal Ground Rules,” is that All yellow lines are in play. But also, each ballpark sets its own ground rules. The umpires deliberate, headsets on. The TV crew replays it, and the stadium awaits the call with the PA system on point—“Tell Me Something Good.” Chaka Khan.

Two minutes go by. The contact off the fan’s hands still in debate, interference or fair game. Then, the ump takes off his headset. Walks back toward home. Spins his wrist in a circle.

Home run.

And the fan in question does the same, a gesture spreading around the ballpark, A.J. Reed trotting on home with a 5-2 lead and relieved stadium of fans happy on all sides.

 

 

The Astros weathered the quirks of an early-season start gone awry, battled into the quirks of a sudden hot streak, tapped into the rare quirk of a ballpark dividing line, and came out standing, above .500 at the halfway mark.

Somewhere in a ballpark or hotel on the road, there’s Brad Ausmus, checking the highlights, the TV on, remembering his moment, hearing and rewinding a line about the line, his line, a line tilted up like a yellow ladder of luck, Astros climbing their way back up.

 

Previously:

1st Inning, Houston: Lift-Off Astros

5th Inning, Houston: Colby to the Rescue

8th Inning, Toronto: Blue Jay Way

Comments