The French call it “joie de vivre” which, loosely translated, means to delight in the unexpected pleasures in life, or literally, the joy of living. Yesterday afternoon, I called it a Justin Verlander curveball.
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After I graduated from college, I became friends with a guy who played center on the University of California basketball team in the mid-1980s. One of the nicest men you’ll ever meet in your life, David Butler was also a tremendous story teller, precisely because he didn’t seem to realize how great a story teller he was. He had the unhurried delivery of a guy who grew up in a beach community, a knack for including the perfect details and yet the humility needed to often make himself the foil.
One of my favorite stories of his took place in a California gym during one of the summers he played at Cal. Playing with him that day was his Cal teammate, point guard Kevin Johnson. Johnson would go on to several All-Star seasons in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, and today he is the mayor of Sacramento, California, but at the time he and David were simply college teammates playing in a pick-up game.
As David tells it there were two teams running a full court game with another half-dozen or so sitting courtside that had “next.” In the middle of the game, Johnson drove the lane as all five members of the other team converged on the basket. Johnson leapt toward the rim and, according to David, just kept rising until he threw down a thunderous dunk through all of the traffic. Effectively, David explained, he had just dunked on all five guys at the same time.
Just about a decade later the 6’1” Johnson would drive baseline in the NBA playoffs and dunk over the Houston Rockets center, 7’0” Hakeem Olajuwon, in a play so memorable it regularly appears on video montages of the greatest NBA dunks of all time. David Butler says the one during the summer pick-up game was better. Watching a highlight of the dunk over Olajuwon with a bunch of us during a televised Suns game in 1997, David nonchalantly said, “That’s not even his greatest dunk. Did I ever tell you guys about the time KJ cleared out an entire gym with a dunk?” That was a typical lead-in for what we knew was going to be a great story so we urged him to go on. (Did I mention David had an unhurried delivery? This story was more than ten years old when he relayed it to us.)
“So after he dunks on the entire team, pandemonium broke out. On the court, we started going crazy, falling over each other and whooping it up. All the guys on the side of the gym waiting for next though, they were even better. They just started shouting “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” and then they picked up their gym bags and ran out of the gym, still screaming.”
We asked him, what do you mean, ran out of the gym?
“I mean exactly that. While the ball was still bouncing on the ground, they grabbed their stuff and ran out like there was nothing more to see here.”
“What did you guys do?”
“We grabbed out bags and ran out of the gym too. Seemed like a good idea. Didn’t matter what the score was, that game was over.”
And then, in typical fashion David wondered aloud, “I wonder how long those other guys stayed in the gym?”
(Later, my friend Matt and I agreed we learned the KJ story way too late in life because we could have had a lot of fun using that exit strategy in a variety of situations. Solve for x correctly in Algebra class? Pick up your books and run out of the classroom. Beat your friend in a game of Name That Tune while driving in a car? Leave the keys in the ignition, jump out, and run down the block while your defeated passenger sits befuddled.)
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In the top of the fifth inning of yesterday’s Game 5 of the ALCS, Justin Verlander, and by extension the Detroit Tigers were in trouble. His team facing elimination if they lost this game, Verlander had just allowed three straight batters to reach base on a walk and two hits. The second hit, by Josh Hamilton, plated Ian Kinsler who had started the rally with a walk. This tied the game at two and Texas had runners on first and third base with just one out. On top of it all, for Detroit, the situation was even worse than it looked on the surface because the Tigers were without their two best relievers (due to their usage the prior three days) and Verlander was already approaching 100 pitches. It’s not overstating it to say, Detroit’s season hinged on getting the next batter out without allowing a run.
Up to the plate for Texas came Michael Young. Young is a 7-time All Star, a former batting champ, and a lifetime .304 hitter. In the context of this day and age of baseball sluggers, he doesn’t strike out much. Michael Young is a dangerous hitter, especially if your season hangs in the balance. Young got ahead in the count 1-0 and then 2-1 as Verlander couldn’t quite spot his nearly 100-mph fastball. Verlander got a second strike to bring the count even to 2-2 on yet another fastball.
With the count 2-2, and the Tigers season perhaps pivoting on the next pitch, Verlander threw the prettiest pitch I think I’ve ever seen. It was a curve ball so devastating it didn’t just buckle Young’s knees, it buckled his entire body. His knees, his torso and his head all jerked, temporarily freezing Young as the ball crossed the outside of the plate for strike three. I’ve never seen a batter do a full body twitch on a curve ball that crossed over the outside of the plate. And this was Michael Young, an All-Star hitter who hit .338 in 2011.
That wasn’t a pitch; that was watching Van Gogh paint.
I know there are a lot of you who read my stuff who aren’t really baseball fans. I know this because I hear from a number of you. “I’m not a baseball guy but . . .” begins a lot of e-mails, and I get that. There are a lot of reasons to love other sports more and baseball has its drawbacks. But I sure wish I’d been in a bar with some non-baseball friends during the fifth inning of the ALCS yesterday. You didn’t have to care about statistics, you didn’t have to be a baseball guy, and you didn’t even have to be rooting for one team or the other. When Justin Verlander struck out Michael Young you only had to be a sports fan to do the same thing I did. Put your hand over your mouth, make some unintelligible sound, and then look for someone else to lean all over as you pointed at the screen.
If somehow we’d have been lucky enough to have David Butler with us, in honor of KJ, we would have certainly picked up our beers and run out of the bar.