Sketch by Henry Gustavson
BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: YANKEES 5 – 4 INDIANS
There’s an occasional sense watching baseball, that what you’re seeing steps into another category altogether, into the absurd, the cartoonish—where sport falls behind spectacle, the score and standings go blurred out and silent, for a moment, and you’re left only with an image.
Prince Fielder belly-flopping onto the Fenway Park dirt, a beached fish some 20,000 leagues short of third base.
Rougned Odor landing a right hook into the embarrassed, quick-swelling cheek of Jose Bautista. A mob of teammates running for aid, cheers echoing from all sides of the Arlington crowd.
Gregory Polanco, coming in for a fly-ball catch to keep a tie game alive, a stumble, a full-body collapse, a gremlin in the legs warping posture and balance into a tangled, hilarious jumble. A game-ending error.
And tonight in Cleveland, with the game on the line and a ground ball to first base, the gods of the baseball snapshot returned, with the figures of batter and pitcher, runner and fielder flipped into their extremes, stretching muscles and play-by-play into a glitchy dance recital of freeze-frame glory.
The paintings, the sculptures, the vision of Edgar Degas–revived and migrated from the museum floors of Paris, finding a home on the first-base line at Progressive Field. Cleveland, Ohio. Home of the baseball ballet.
The inning began with Mike Napoli up for the Indians, down one with Aroldis Chapman on the mound, throwing 99 on the speed gun. A of big, first-pitch whiff with his knees sinking to the dirt on his follow-through, and another whiff, a fastball down the middle, lost like a T-baller at a batting cages machine.
There’s a guy, a super-fan in a white button-up shirt and Indians cap, beating a drum somewhere up in the stands.
The Jake Progressive Field is packed. It’s that empty space between NBA Finals and NFL training camp, the Tribe all that’s on, and a rare first place locked down in the AL Central. Somehow, Napoli draws a walk.
There’s a repeating Clap clap clap clap clap going on in the park, following the beat of the drum, alternating mallets pounding team pride out into the night air.
Jose Ramirez rips a foul ball off the mask of Brian McCann.
Chapman winds up like a scorpion, raising up then unfurling, striking, whipping homeward with another pitch. A slider gets him for the third strike. No chance. One out. Ramirez recoils on the replay, as if the whiff alone might break a rib or two.
Juan Uribe comes up next, continuing the Festival of Whiffs, down 0-2 on two quick fastballs. He fouls off a handful. And then, like a miracle, rips a line-drive single to left, on a slider he had to have guessed on.
Girardi and Rothschild sway back and forth in the dugout, a decision looming. Two men on and a one-run lead, the team hovering around .500 on the year.
The claps continue.
Rajai Davis flies out on a liner to left field. Chapman’s got two outs, but 25 pitches on the inning, a series of long at-bats in a row.
The claps pick up, the fans’ last stand. Tyler Naquin comes up to bat, top rookie in the American League. A hit here would be a season highlight, the intro chapter to the look-back video reel for a great career, many years from now.
McCann pops up from behind the plate and jogs out for a mound meeting with Chapman, Didi Gregorius joining to talk signs with a man on second.
And out of his back pocket, unless I’m seeing things, McCann takes out a piece of fabric–a leotard, a tutu, a pair of leather shoes, and Chapman suits up, puts one leg through and then the other, adjusts the fit, stretching on a full new outfit until the pinstripes are an undershirt, poking through on the fringes. At least I think I’m seeing that. Chapman examines himself in the mirror, hand on the bar, feet in fifth position as he sets up and takes the sign from McCann.
A pitch to Naquin. Tutu fluttering in the wind.
He delivers home, and Naquin lines a hard ground ball to first. Teixiera dives for it. He traps it, glove on it, but it pops out, trickles past him, deflected onto the dirt with a scramble to keep it in reach. Naquin sprints to first, the crowd goes nuts. And Starlin Castro, as the last minute, like a flash over from second base, charges in and snags it, running straight on with a quick pick-up and half throw, the forward flick of a cat’s paw. Chapman stamps his back foot snug on the bag, stretches for the catch, and slides into the splits, arms spread into a still posture of baseball grace.
Bases loaded! shouts the TV crew. The crowd is beaming. Chapman’s unsure of what’s happened, who’s safe, who’s out, easing out of the splits with his hamstrings just barely intact. Dusting off the leotard, brushing off his shoes. Almost as impressive as a professional baseball pitch-acrobat:
Girardi challenges and the umpires don headsets for the review. The fans and players gaze up at the video screen. It’s Chapman, blown up giant-sized, slowed down, and it’s beautiful.
Ozzie Smith in a backflip. Mike Trout soaring up over the outfield wall. Sammy Sosa two-hopping his way to first, after a deep home run.
Castro takes a look at it, sees that they got him, the throw was in time, smiling, slapping hands with Chapman, mouth open, We got it, boss!
All eyes turn to the umpire crew. Still on review with New York on the phone. Then the head ump makes a fist. Naquin out. Inning over. Yankees win.
Girardi’s relieved. Shaking hands with all in the dugout, no high-fives. The home fans sulk their way toward the exits. And the Yankees celebrate, a game under .500 with hopes to get even before the break.
And so, they get a win, with ballet beauty, coming out just a few times a year.
A walkoff Grand Jeté, first of its kind.
See more of Henry’s artwork here: gustavgustav.com