What Happened, and What We Imagined

I remember where I was when Matt Davidson fouled off a pitch from Jharel Cotton. I was sitting at home on the couch, wondering how this single event might form the basis of an article, an opening into some larger discussion about choices and life. For this reason, July 3, 2017, will always have special meaning to me, sad though that may be.

Some moments are iconic and naturally lend themselves to philosophical musings. In the great television series Sports Night, Robert Guillaume’s character reveals that he attended the game where Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run off Ralph Branca but missed the historical event because he was in the restroom washing his hands.

The truth of his having physically been there but failed to witness something so monumental, so etched in the collective minds of a generation, haunts him. And yet, in a way, it’s perfect. The act of missing, due to some random occurrence, another random occurrence that turns out to be memorable makes for a great story.

Consider Armando Galarraga’s perfect game that wasn’t. First base umpire Jim Joyce blew the call on what should have been Galarraga’s crowing achievement, thus denying the pitcher his chance at baseball immortality. But then, Galarraga didn’t enjoy much big-league success and likely wouldn’t be remembered if not for that incident. Even with a perfect game he is the sort of player who is forgotten five minutes after his final pitch.

Len Barker, a more accomplished hurler who did throw a perfect game, is like that. He retired 30 years ago and who remembers him now? A select few can claim to know he won 19 games in 1980 or was an All-Star in 1981. Maybe a few more recall the perfect game or that he was once traded for Brett Butler.

But mention of Galarraga’s name will continue to evoke outrage, or at least sympathy, on his behalf long after he is gone. He will be remembered as the man whose random occurrence was ruined by another random occurrence. Put it another way: Which is more rare, throwing a perfect game or being denied one by a fallible umpire who incorrectly calls a batter safe on what everyone else recognizes as the final out?

If Joyce makes the correct call, Galarraga joins Barker as just another mediocre pitcher who spun a perfect game. It’s an impressive achievement, but one that is ultimately forgettable. Instead, Galarraga stands alone as the guy who got jobbed. That right there is baseball immortality.

* * *

So Davidson fouls a ball off. It’s the second inning of a game between two very bad teams. Who cares? How likely is this event to have a meaningful impact on anyone? Not likely at all, but maybe it sets into motion some other event, like what happens next.

Alas, Davidson grounds out to third for the second out of the inning. The only thing that makes this encounter memorable for me is that I was paying close attention in the hope that something memorable might happen. Aside from Davidson and Cotton, I may be the only person in the world for whom this foul balls holds significance.

The event has had a meaningful impact on me. And although we have noted that assignation of meaning in this situation is unlikely, it is not impossible, much as Galarraga’s being wrongfully deprived of perfection was unlikely but not impossible.

Actually it’s nothing like that. Galarraga was pitching to big-league hitters, I was sitting on my couch.

The point is that this was a moment, one of countless moments that comprise a life. Some are more memorable than others, and perhaps that is a matter of accident. In this case Cotton threw a fastball up and out of the strike zone, and Davidson fouled it off.

What if the fastball had been lower (or it had been a curveball or a changeup) and Davidson had crushed it for a home run? Would that have been more memorable? Probably not. These are two very bad teams playing out the string in July. It would have made the game 1-0 and been Davidson’s 21st career homer, not the sort of milestone that generally gets much attention.

Is there some other context that might give Davidson’s foul ball meaning? Perhaps it set up some future encounter that mattered. He did knock a double to left field off Cotton in the third inning, which gave the White Sox a 3-2 lead. The White Sox went on to win, 7-2.

Maybe Davidson learned something in the first at-bat that he was able to apply in the second. And the victory did push the White Sox out of a tie for last place in the American League Central Division, so that’s exciting.

If you’re the sort who insists on assigning meaning to every event, you could probably stretch the point here to suggest that Davidson’s foul ball in the second inning directly led to the White Sox crawling out of the cellar. Assembling data points into a seemingly coherent structure is a great way to create the illusion of narrative.

* * *

Randomness naturally extends well beyond the diamond and affects every aspect of our everyday lives. Past generations remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Mine remembers where they were when the space shuttle Challenger exploded or when jumbo jets rammed the World Trade Center.

If you open your mind enough, truly bizarre connections can be made. If Branca strikes out Thomson, does Kennedy live? If Eckersley strikes out Gibson, does the New York skyline remain intact? If Davidson hits Cotton’s fastball fair instead of foul, does some world leader who might otherwise have toiled in obscurity all her life come into power 50 years from now?

In the Cotton/Davidson matchup, we’ve explored only a few of the many possible variables and many possible outcomes. There isn’t enough time or space to cover all of them, from the seemingly plausible to the presumably absurd. A random sample:

 

Variables Outcomes
Where A’s catcher Josh Phegley sets up to receive Cotton’s pitch Davidson lines out to shortstop
Where the A’s defense is positioned behind Cotton Davidson doubles to right-center
How long and how well Cotton slept the night before his start Davidson becomes a United States senator
The color of the shirt worn by a man in the second row behind home plate Humans colonize Mars
Whether a woman in Billings, Montana, checked her stove before going to work that morning Chris Kattan wins an Oscar

 

I know what you’re thinking: This guy is nuts. And you may be right. Then again, the butterfly effect has been observed in nonlinear systems. We like to think of life and the world around us as linear, but is it really? Or do we impose linearity on these complex systems to make everything fit into our tiny brains so we can process large amounts of often conflicting information without going as crazy as I seem to be even as you read these words? (If it makes you feel better, this article isn’t anything like what I envisioned when I set out to write it, for reasons I’ll probably never know.)

The irritating part of all this is that it isn’t easily disprovable. We don’t know which connections are real and which ones are concocted in our minds to make sense of what’s happening around us. We don’t know which among the countless moments that comprise a lifetime ultimately matter. And though we may try to pay attention to them all, many are discarded as a narrative evolves. Those that remain are solidified in support of the narrative.

We forget how the ninth inning began before Thomson hit his famous home run (Al Dark singled off Don Newcombe on an 0-2 pitch). We forget the walk that Mike Davis drew before Gibson limped to home plate. We forget Davidson’s foul ball. And it is the act of forgetting that allows us to remember what’s important, even though we may not recognize its significance at the time, as we continue to create and revise narratives in our mind, perhaps never coming to know the difference between what actually happened and what we only imagined.


Geoff Young writes words, has a complicated relationship with reality, and is likely a figment of his own imagination. He is Crooked Scoreboard’s Baseball Editor and you should follow him on Twitter.

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