Few things in baseball make me more uncomfortable as a television viewer than when a pitcher is making his Major League debut and the camera is trained on his parents. It's not as big a deal when a hitter plays in his first big league game, because if he strikes out, hey, strikeouts happen all the time -- get back out there, rook. But when a pitcher takes the mound, he's alone out there. He can have the best lineup in baseball history behind him, but he can still lose a game all by himself. When a pitcher is being battered around, it's the worst feeling, because there is nowhere to hide. It is grueling to watch. But it is much more grueling to watch his family.
The journey for anyone to the Major Leagues is a long, circuitous one, involving an endless series of compromises, sacrifices and opportunities not taken. It is constant shuttles back and forth to practice, and canceled family vacations for All-Star tournaments, and whole summers evaporated in the name of the single-minded dedication that you need to someday make The Show. No one makes it to the Majors on his own, and it's often the family that has to give up the most. A Major League debut is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication, for the family as well the pitcher himself. It's the moment when you realize that all you gave up was worth it.
Except when it goes so, so wrong.
Last night, Mike Mayers made his Major League debut for the St. Louis Cardinals and took the mound against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday Night Baseball, the most-watched baseball game of the week. Mayers is not one of the Cards' top prospects; he's not listed among St. Louis' Top 30 Prospects by MLB.com. He wasn't even invited to Spring Training by the Cardinals this year. He only started Sunday night's game because the Cardinals had a rainout earlier this week that led to a doubleheader and they needed someone to fill in so that neither Carlos Martinez nor Jaime Garcia had to start on short rest. The plan had been for Tyler Lyons, the Cardinals' swingman, to pitch Sunday night, but St. Louis had a 16-inning game on Friday night, requiring Lyons to pitch 4 2/3 scoreless innings and eliminating him from consideration. Thus, it happened to be Mayers' turn in Triple-A Memphis' rotation, so the Cards added him to the 40-man roster and called him up. The Cardinals did not anticipate he would play a role at any point this season: It was merely happenstance, the luck of the draw. It could have been Jerome Williams, or Deck McGuire, or Arturo Reyes, or anyone in Memphis' rotation. But Mayers' number came up.
This is the dream of any family. Your loved one not only finally achieves his dream -- the circumstances of why he received this spot start are irrelevant; all that matters is that he's there -- and he does so in the most high-profile fashion possible. ESPN. Sunday night. Against the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball's signature franchises. Mayers' start also belied an overcoming-adversity aspect; he had thoracic outlet surgery just last year, a procedure from which many players have struggled to recover. This start was the culmination of all his efforts at a comeback. ESPN showed Mayers' family in the stands as he warmed up in front of a friendly Busch Stadium crowd. This is what it had all been about.
And then this happened:
Mayers promptly went out and had perhaps the worst Major League debut in the history of the sport. That might sound like an oversimplification or hyperbole. But here is what Dodgers hitters did against him.
To watch Mayers' reaction is to see something from a snuff film. It is an act of mercy and grace that ESPN did not cut to his family at that point. I couldn't have taken it.
Mayers faced 14 hitters. Ten of them got on base. Eight of them got a hit. Two of them homered. His final line:
1 1/3 IP, 8 H, 2 BB, 9 ER
The Cardinals ended up scoring six runs and even closed the gap late, but Mayers' nightmare was too deep of a hole to dig out of. His ERA is 60.75. It was a historic performance.
Mike Mayers is the first pitcher in MLB history to give up 9+ ER in less than 2 innings during his debut.- Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) July 25, 2016
"It's the same game: 60 feet, six inches," Mayers said postgame. "I felt like I told myself that over and over. But when you get out there, it's a totally different ballgame."
The saddest thing about this story? Sunday was probably Mayers' first and last start in the Majors. The same confluence of circumstances that led to his unlikely spot start will keep him in the Minors once he's sent down Monday. Even if the Cardinals had a rainout this week and needed a spot starter, it would be Lyons. And even if Lyons had been used like he was next week, after Sunday night, Mayers is the last guy they would turn to.
Even if the Cards had any injuries to their rotation the rest of the season -- Sunday was the first night they used anyone other than their five primary starters -- it would be Lyons to fill in, or even Williams. But down the line, hotshot prospect Alex Reyes, who is in Memphis' rotation with Mayers, is set to join the staff. Lance Lynn will be back next season. If he stays healthy, St. Louis is likely to pick up Garcia's 2017 option. Current injured Minor League starters Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney will be back next year. And so by 2017, the following pitchers will be ahead of Mayers for a spot in the Cardinals' big league rotation:
There are 11 men ahead of Mayers, and maybe even more. The sad reality sets in that this was possibly it. There's a chance, now that he is on the 40-man roster, that the Cardinals will call up Mayers in September when rosters expand and give him an inning just to wash the taste of last night out of his mouth. But it's not likely, particularly because the Cards are in the National League Wild Card hunt and will have to compete every inning they can down the stretch. And so, this very well might have been the only time Mayers ever pitches in a Major League baseball game. That nightmare. On national television. With his family and grandmother hiding their eyes.
Dave Roberts said he felt no pity for Mike Mayers.- Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) July 25, 2016
Not even when they showed his grandma in the stands?
"I love grandmas," Roberts said.
Harry Heitmann was a pitcher for the 1918 Brooklyn Robins who appeared in one Major League game. He faced four batters. All four of them got hits. All four of them scored. Heitmann didn't record a single out. And that was it. After the game, according to Gary Inrig's book "Call to Excellence," Heitmann showered, left the ballpark and joined the Navy. He never pitched again. That was his entire big league career.
Mayers will be sent back to Memphis on Monday and might well never return. Baseball is a cruel, merciless game. It's so cruel sometimes that we don't dare to look. Even if you're family. Especially if you're family.