categories: Cocktail Hour
I feel good about Dallas Braden pitching only the 19th perfect game this week (especially because he hates A-Rod.) By coincidence I have been thinking recently about another astounding baseball feat, one that I consider even more impressive–more perfect–than Braden’s. I am referring, of course, to the day that Dock Ellis threw his no-hitter on acid.
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What started me thinking about good old Dock again? Oddly, it was skiing, or, more specifically, Bode Miller’s performance at the Winter Olympics. One of the oft-repeated (and increasingly irritating) story lines of those Olympics was that this was Miller’s moment of redemption, after an erratic career and the disaster of the Torino Olympics, where he famously drank too much beer and didn’t win a medal. Ya, ya, okay, everybody gets redeemed. But there are some fans, myself included, who see in Miller’s beer swilling, if not his most glorious moment, a part of his appeal. That appeal centers on the fact that he is a throwback to a time before the corporate, overly muscular, perfectly-trained Michael Jordan athletic model to an earlier, long-haired disheveled model. This is the Kenny Stabler winning-a-Super-Bowl-while-hungover model. This is the pre-machine athlete, and some of us see it again when we watch Miller, hands on knees and sucking in air after a run, admitting he is “way out of shape.”
I will now go high-brow and say that part of this appeal is almost Thoreauvian. True, it’s sometimes hard to tell if Miller is really Thoreau-on-skis or just a mumble-headed kid imprinted with his Dad’s hippie philosophy, muttering about wanting to “just go fast.” But at least he is groping toward something that most athletes don’t seem even capable of groping toward, at least he’s thinking, however primitively, that there is something other than winning. “The life that men praise and call successful is but one kind,” said Thoreau. Certainly, the most successful American skier of all time has been praised and called successful plenty. But is the strain of nonconformity, of claiming not to care during the dark times, for real?
Thinking about Miller led me back to thinking about Dock Ellis. Of course Ellis himself was hardly a philosopher-king, and it is proper in these times, to tssk-tssk and wag our finger at his drug use. But let’s put aside morality for a moment, and try to imagine what it felt like and looked like to pitch while tripping. See it as a painter would, the ball swirling toward the plate through Van Gogh whorls, trailing molten flames before it was sucked into and extinguished by the catcher’s mitt. Feel the ball itself, always changing, first the size of a grapefruit—how to throw this thing?—and then golf-ball small. And if the ball fluctuated so did his moods. There were moments of panic–diving for line drives that weren’t—but also moments when he was filled with a pure animal confidence. A pulsing animal rightness. He could smell the corner of the plate if he tried. It was funny almost. How could they hope to hit his fireballs with their little matchsticks?
The day was drizzly, heavy, and he occasionally licked moisture off his own face, or, sitting in the dugout, watched water drop from the roof in small silver worlds. At times he was silent, at others gregarious. He ignored the taboo against talking to others while throwing a no-hitter. “I’m throwing a no-no,” he began telling anyone who was near by the fourth inning. What did superstition matter to him? His fastball was flying off his fingers, coming in low and hard. Even his wildness—he walked eight batters–seemed to cut down on the likelihood of anyone actually hitting the ball. “I had ‘em ducking and diving and hitting off the end of their bats,” he is quoted as saying in Hall’s book. He got in jams but that was when it got most exciting, when it most engaged him. He stared into the batters eyes, knew that batter to be a lesser animal. The ball left his hand and moved and juked as if by its own volition—the ball didn’t want to be hit either—and after a spasm of flailing the inning was over.
There were two close calls. He felt a sense of surprise, shock even, when the pinch hitter in the seventh ripped the ball—it tore past him in a blaze. The no-no was over, obviously, but then Bill Mazeroski–ancient, creaky Bill—found wings. There he was leaving his feet, flying—flying!—toward the ball. And so Mazeroski became the hero, not just of the 1960 World Series, but of the Great Acid Game, a game that would live on as a different kind of lore, a legend for a different kind of tribe (my tribe). The other was a shoestring catch in the outfield by Matty Alou, but he wasn’t as worried about that one. After the Mazeroski catch he knew it was meant to be and something about the moisture–the elements, the fat molecules of wet air–conspired to hold the ball up, to slow it down long enough for Alou to get under it. On the last out he felt the opposite of nervous. He was a strong animal again, some kind of big cat, a cheetah or leopard maybe, and his arm stretched out long and strong. The last pitch was a strike that he followed through the air all the way into the catcher’s mitt.
P.S. I am not the only one to be inspired by Dock’s feat. Donald Hall (author of maybe the best all-time book about the writing life, Life Work)wrote a book about the pitcher called Dock Ellis and the Country of Baseball.
And finally I just discovered this very funny short film called Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No by James Blagden.
(Does anyone know who did the above art work? I can’t find a name anywhere.)