The list of “athletic things I cannot do” is long enough to fill at least two floors of the New York Public Library, but the ability to move on after getting crushed probably would be at the top. I have no idea how the great athletes do this. You will hear people talk about how cornerbacks must have short memories, how great shooters have this ability to forget their misses, how the best golfers always think about the next shot and never the last shot.
“There’s nothing you can do about that last shot,” Tom Watson always says. “It’s gone.”
And I wonder: How? It’s not GONE. It’s there in the sand trap, or in the water, or in the woods. How do you make the anger, the regret, the disappointment disappear? When I play a tennis match, I find that I still think about this time I lost to someone named Manesh 30 YEARS AGO.
Tuesday night, Minnesota’s Glen Perkins faced the New York Yankees in the ninth inning. The Twins had a two-run lead. The game meant nothing beyond pride to the Twins, and it meant a whole lot to the Yankees, and with two outs Perkins gave up a long home run Andruw Jones. I moved closer to the television and watched Perkins face the next batters. I wanted to see how he would respond to allowing that homer. I wanted to see how athletes move on.
The answer, at least in this case, has something to do with shoes.
* * *
Glen Perkins is having a terrific year again. People outside of Minnesota might not be aware of it because the Twins are terrible again, but last year Perkins emerged as one of the better relievers in the league. He struck out 65 in 61 2/3 innings, he posted a 2.48 ERA, the league slugged just .333 against him. This year, he has been even better -- a 73-16 strikeout-to-walk, the American League is hitting .227 against him, he has moved into the closer role and has saved 15.
It’s pretty good stuff for a guy who was sent back to the minor leagues just two years ago (and had a 5.81 ERA in Class AAA). And it’s wonderful for Glen Perkins, who is from Minnesota, a hometown kid, and is just an all-time great guy. He’s someone who thinks a lot about baseball. He’s sabermetrically inclined -- he loves breaking down the game to its numbers --and he’s also someone who thinks a lot about how players react emotionally. I asked him how he likes being a closer, and he gave a great answer. He said that, on the one hand, he believes that the best relievers should be used in highest-leverage situations, whatever inning that happens to be. If the bases are loaded in the sixth, that might be the most important batter of the game, and the best reliever should be out there.
On the other hand, he has come to find that there’s something about the closer that teammates respond to.
“I’ve come to see what it’s like to be in that role,” he says. “You really give everybody confidence-- the coaching staff, the players, the guys in the bullpen - if they know that if you can get a lead in the ninth inning, you will win the game. It does a lot for the guys. Last year, I was in the seventh inning, eighth inning, getting out of jams, and that was really exciting and that’s obviously really important. But the, if you aren’t in the game, if you aren’t on the team, you don’t see what closers mean to teammates. You do need to get outs in the seventh and eighth. But you need to get them in the ninth too.”
* * *
Minnesota led the Yankees 5-3 going into the ninth inning Tuesday night. Perkins had gone through his warmup routine, same as always. He threw two two-seam fastballs to the arm-side (inside to left-handed hitters), and two four-seam fastballs to the opposite side. Then he threw two two-seam fastballs to the opposite side, and two-four seams fastballs to the arm side. Then he threw a slider to one side of the plate, a slider to the other side of the plate, and two more two-seam fastballs. Then he did it all again, only this time at full velocity. Twenty-four pitches.
“I can usually bang out the whole routine in one batter,” he says. “It doesn’t take long.”
When he finished, and it was time, he ran to the mound. He would not remember how well he pitched in the bullpen. Such things don’t matter. Sometimes, he feels terrible in the pen and then pitches great. And vice versa. “When you get out there on the mound, with the adrenaline rush, with the crowd, everything changes,” he says. “It’s nothing like the bullpen. When I pitch, I use the hitter a lot. How’s he responding to the pitches? Is he late on the fastball? Is he looking at the slider? So it’s not at all like pitching in the bullpen.”
Once Perkins got to the mound, he looked over and saw that Curtis Granderson would be leading off. This is how Perkins likes to find out who is coming up. He doesn’t look at the scoreboard. He doesn’t want to know who he is going to the face until he gets out there. He threw his seven warmup pitches -- pitchers get eight warmups, but Perkins has found he prefers lucky seven -- and prepared to face Curtis Granderson.
* * *
“What was my first thought?” Perkins asks. “I guess it was that he’s got 40 home runs. … I mean, I knew exactly what the Yankees wanted to do. They’re down two, so they want to hit three solo home runs to win the game. That’s the way their team plays. I figured everyone would come to the plate looking to hit one out.
“With Granderson, he’s hit 40 home runs, and I’d bet that just about all 40 were pulled. So I’m thinking, he’s not going to get a pitch that he can pull. It’s fastballs away. But then, I’m not sure he will go chasing fastballs. So I think maybe I need to get in on him a little bit. Most of all, I want to get two strikes on him and then try to get him to hit a breaking ball the other way … or get it so he swings and misses.”
Perkins’ first pitch, a 95-mph two-seam fastball away, misses. “I know he’s not going to just take the first pitch,” Perkins says. “I can’t just get ahead with a first-pitch fastball. I threw a pretty good pitch, he laid off.”
Granderson then took a slider for a strike, and fouled off a 96-mph fastball for strike two. Perkins had his set-up. “I wanted to throw him a good slider, hopefully get him to chase.”
Perkins threw the slider and Granderson grounded out to shortstop for the first out. But Perkins was not happy with the pitch. “I got a little more of the plate than I liked with it,” he says. “I thought he got good wood on it. The ball sounded good coming off the bat. Maybe when you have 40 home runs, everything sounds loud off the bat. Anyway, Pedro [Florimon, the shortstop] made the play. I wouldn’t say I got lucky; Pedro didn’t have to make a great play. But I think I caught too much of the plate.”
* * *
Russell Martin was next … he had already homered in the game. He is also hitting .206. “He swings as hard as he can on every pitch,” Perkins says. “He doesn’t really have a two-strike approach. He’s like a lot of guys in their lineup -- they’re down two, and they want to hit home runs.”
First pitch, Perkins threw a 95-mph fastball, and Martin swung through it -- just barely got a piece of it. Perkins noticed how Martin was on the fastball, and so he threw a slider that buckled Martin and was called for a strike. “It was right down the middle,” Perkins said. “My thought was, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to throw another fastball by him. But I figured if I could throw a slider in the strike zone, he probably would take it. It worked out.”
Ahead 0-2, Perkins threw the nastiest slider he had -- “it was a really good slider, had good depth on it” -- and Martin swung over it for strike three. “He did exactly what I was hoping,” Perkins said. “My philosophy is, whoever comes up, I want to strike him out. And the best way to do it is on three pitches.”
* * *
Raul Ibanez was schedule to hit next, but Perkins did not expect to see him because of the lefty-lefty matchup. The Yankees sent up Andruw Jones to pinch-hit. Perkins’ reaction? “I forgot that Andruw Jones was on their team.”
They had faced each other four times before -- Jones was 0-for-3 with a walk -- but Perkins did not think about that. He was not even sure he remembered the previous at-bats. He really does believe that it’s good to do a lot of thinking OFF the field, but once you get on the field you should let instinct and athleticism take over. “I have a pretty blank head out there, which in a lot of ways can be good,” he says. “In Cleveland (one week earlier), I just decided to throw a change-up to Carlos Santana. No plan. No nothing. It was like, ‘I think I want to throw change-up here.’ I just wanted to do it. And he hit a home run. Of course, he did. It’s better to just throw.”
Perkins and Jones battled for five pitches. The last -- on a 2-2 count -- was a slider that slipped out of Perkins’ hand. Normally, when Perkins makes a mistake on a slider, he throws it into the ground (“I’ve hit a couple of guys on the foot this year,” he says). But this one came out like a balloon. It was up, and it stayed up. When Perkins saw it on replay, Perkins found himself surprised that even a high-ball hitter like Jones would swing at it. But he did. And one thing Andruw Jones knows how to do is deposit high, floating sliders. It was the 434th homer of his career. The Yankees were within one run.
* * *
Now, we get to the heart of the matter: How do you respond to that? How do you put that home run out of your mind, get the nerves and bleak feelings out, put any sense of defeatism away?
“Well, there are a couple of things,” Perkins says. “One, if I had executed the pitch I wanted, in the location I wanted, and he had hit a home run, it might have been a little harder to put behind me. Let’s be honest, when that happens, you might get a little self doubt, you might start wondering, ‘Am I tipping pitches? Are they picking something up on me? Is my stuff not good enough tonight?’
“But in this case, the ball fell out of my hand. He hit it hard, no question, but to me that’s just one of those things.”
The second thing, though, is even better. One of the great scenes in “Bull Durham,” is when the pitching coach comes out to the mound to ask what’s going on, and they tell him how they don’t know what to get a teammate for a wedding present (“Candlesticks always make a nice gift, and, uh, maybe you can find out where she’s registered and maybe a place setting or a silverware pattern. OK, let’s get two!”). I always loved that not only because it’s brilliantly funny but because I suspect games really are like that. Everyone in the crowd, in the press box, in the announcers’ booth thinks that there’s something serious or penetrating being said or thought when, in reality, the people on the field are thinking the same goofy thoughts you or I might think.
So, while I’m watching Perkins get ready and trying to come up with what sort of deep philosophical thoughts Perkins must be thinking, in this moment, something very different was happening.
See, Perkins thought Derek Jeter was coming up next. He prepared in his mind how to face Jeter … perhaps the one guy in the lineup who would NOT go up to the plate looking to hit one out. And as the batter approached, Perkins’s head was down and he found himself looking at the batters’ shoes. And he saw how they were black with a white toe, and it struck him, “Wow, Derek Jeter is wearing some incredibly ugly cleats tonight.
“And then I thought, wait a minute, Derek Jeter never wears cleats like that. And I looked up and said, ‘Oh, that’s not Jeter. I saw that it was Nix … I’m not even sure which one (Editor’s note: It was Jayson). And that relaxed me. It was really weird, that little thought just made me forget about what happened. I mean, I think Nix is a pretty good hitter. But I like my chances against him.”
Perkins threw Nix five straight fastballs -- every one of them 95 mph. At one point, Twins catcher Joe Mauer called for a slider, and Perkins shook him off. “I don’t think I pitch in a pattern,” Perkins says. “I’m a fastball, slider guy, and I think I’ll throw either of those pitches at any time. … In this case, I really wanted to speed up his bat. I thought I might get one by him, but he fouled a couple off in a row, he was late, late.
“And then, I thought it was time to throw the slider. The worst thing that can happen to hitters, I think, is having the fastball go by you. That’s never very manly. You don’t want to be shown up that way. So, after he fouled off a couple of pitches, I thought he had to be looking fastball. And that’s when I threw the slider.
It was the first slider he had thrown since the hanger Jones had crushed. But Perkins says he absolutely was not thinking about that. “I guess I could have thought something like, ‘Oh, hey, better grip the ball better make sure it doesn’t slip out,” he says. “But I really wasn’t. I just threw the slider. The home run was gone. I threw it, and he missed it by a pretty good bit.”
Yes, that was strike three, and the Twins beat the Yankees. It didn’t matter much for the Twins -- it was only their 65th victory of the season, they’re battling with Cleveland to get out of the cellar of the American League Central. But on the other hand, every victory matters, especially late in the season, and especially against the Yankees.
“It’s sort of like when we swept Detroit in that doubleheader,” Perkins says. “It’s like we got to ruin their day. That feels good. I guess it sounds weird to say that it feels good to make someone else miserable. But that’s where we are. We’re spoilers. It’s nice to have someone else’s day ruined.”