Baseball Ink

Baseball The Way It Was Meant To Be

Machine Gun Manny

by Dave Boeckhout

He turns and watches the ball exit the park. It is a moment internalized, reticent and reclusive. Its wicked surprise launches optimism and expectancy into the obscurity of the night, confidence and ego riding along with it. The knock of good-wood, of the batter getting all of it reverberates like a rifle report, echoing through the air, through the stands; through his skull. Seconds are lengthened. They try him, balancing somewhere between smear and mockery. And the ball lands, mercifully—ricochets across lengths of steel bleachers, a solitary fan chasing down the souvenir. And he holds his hat by the cap, scratching at his forehead. Looking in, he seeks a replacement from the umpire. It is all he can do, all he is left with—aside from a silent inner cursing. He's been here before, knows the routine. Most of the time you simply move on, like a professional, stitch together the unfortunate and avoid a late-inning hemorrhage. For there are very few times in a career when a pitch is so pivotal that a series, a season, rides its expectation to the plate. He's been there, too. Like a tour of duty, he's been there and back.

He peers in, shakes off a breaking ball, wanting, still, to bring it hard; wanting to challenge these guys. Deep breaths fail to alleviate the ride his last fastball took. Hung it in the wheelhouse, he criticizing, silently. Rebound, Manny—cap-bill in, he'll never catch up to it—let's set this guy, "fish in a barrel." Another deep breath. He delivers. It is telegraphed, no motion, somewhat sluggish and right down the heart of the plate. It is laced into the gap for extra bases. A double. Cut off at short. He stabs at the ball's return, angrily. He kicks dirt. Rosin bag. The pitching coach ambles to the mound. You're hanging 'em, Manny—you're looking labored—how's that elbow? That ain't it—ain't it. Well, you're gonna have to go away before you bust 'em—set 'em up, in, out, then throw sinkers. I know, I know—been hanging everything—I'm trying too hard, that's all. Well it's the eighth, Manny—we're looking at this thing getting away—now make 'em chase it, you're not going to overpower these guys. The meeting is broken up—coach to dugout, umpire and catcher to plate. Alone again. Digging at dirt. He works the ball—thinks about that one pivotal pitch. Years have failed to let it go. It is a weight. It haunts him.

All right, he thinks, let him call 'em—just place it. In the stretch. Aggressiveness at second. He looks out, seems distracted—and not by the runner. And it all flashes through his head, working over his focus; transporting him. It is late October, three years and ten months ago. He shakes the recollection loose, has to step off. He works the ball. Rosin bag. Boos call out—jeering; the uncivil scorn of the opponents' faithful. He steps back in, looks in. Two fingers, one, three, then one circling. He sets, casts a look towards second; a second look. He delivers, overcompensates, a curve traveling about 58 feet before bouncing over the catcher's glove and skittering to the backstop. He wipes off sweat, calls for the ball, looks over at the runner now on third. It flashes through his mind. He tries to push it from his mind. He moves dirt, looks in. Fastball inside—keep it up. He delivers. It is lazy, no pop, not the dreaded 100 mph rocket of old... "Machine Gun" Manny Martin, the name alone used to strike guys out. A commentator for Game of the Week once said, "Martin strikes guys out in the on-deck circle—has them convinced before the first pitch"... But that was 1995—it is nearing the end of the 2000 season. This is his second tour of Double AA after coming off the DL—and his fastball is roped into right. Another run in. A four run eighth. The score is now 6 - 2. The coach calls time and makes his way to the mound. We're gonna have ourselves a look at that elbow, Manny—go have that thing iced down. He hands over the ball and heads for the dugout. On such a night, in such a setting, it is the longest walk one can make—exempting a walk to the gallows—each step proving a challenge greater than the last. Your will drains through the soles of your cleats - tunnel-vision—the taunting, mocking crowd being filtered into one low drone. And it all flashes through his head. October 22nd, 1996—the longest walk he'd ever taken in his life.

He can still recall the silence of 50,000 fans as he'd walked to the dugout on that night, how malevolently shrill the silence had seemed. He remembers wishing for someone to yell; yell at him if nothing else. But it was silent, as if 50,000 voices had fallen suddenly mute, stolen away, shocked into a monasterial, noiseless vow. He remembers how he'd seemed cut off at the knees, recalls how walking had been taken over as by instinct, as if a defense mechanism spiriting him away. He'd felt numb. He, to this day, can't recall walking up the tunnel. It was the 6th game of the World Series, 1996. It was the ninth inning. A world championship was three outs away and the team had been dominant, seemingly destined. They'd won game 1 at home in convincing fashion, 8 - 2, had lost an 11 inning, 4-hour marathon in Game 2, 4 - 3, and had lost a classic duel in Game 3, 1 - 0. And though the first pitch of Game 4 viewed the momentum in their opponent's dugout, such home-field optimism was soon put to rest. Games 4 and 5 were blow-outs; on-the-road no less—11 - 2 and 10 - 1 respectively. Even their starter had tripled in Game 5. And so, coming home for Game 6 seemed a lock. And going into the top of the ninth on the night of October 22nd, his team leading 5 - 1, few but the cynical or clairvoyant had any reason to doubt victory as imminent; but a few dream-drunken minutes away. He has to take a deep breath in recalling that night. Years later, it still does no good.

His first and second pitch that night had been typical—fastball inside corner, 96 mph—fastball right down the middle, 98 mph. 1996 was the third year in a row that he'd led the league in saves, a mark of 40 making it the second year in a row that he'd led the majors. When he was on, he was un-hitable—a 100-mph fastball, a splitter which corkscrewed hitters into the ground and a classic 12 o'clock - 6 o'clock overhand breaking ball; three major league pitches from a role which only requires two. He was the most dominant closer the 1990s had yet produced. Rarely was he not on. And that late October night gave no indication of anything out of the ordinary. He had an 0 - 2 count against a number eight hitter. An announcer had said, "Martin could tell the batter what's coming and it probably won't alter the outcome"—vintage Martin. He threw the splitter, a check swing, the anticipant crowd swooning with a great release that quickly recharged, building, again, into a chanting roar. He worked the back of the mound, wiping sweat; the rosin bag. He stepped up, moved dirt; his deliberate nature not one to be rushed. He peered in, agreed, delivered—and it hung there. His follow-through he recalls as in slow-motion, a breaking ball that stayed up, lacked rotation. It was laced into right. It had stunned him. That pitch sequence—fastball, fastball, splitter, curve—he'd nicknamed "fish in a barrel." But it'd failed to deliver its dread, the curve lacking rotation, almost half-assed like a batting practice pitch. Still, if he could shut them down, the hit would only be a statistic. He stepped in and went back to work. The crowd, as if sensing their role, stepped things up a notch; the electric air throwing sparks. He threw a ball, high and outside. He threw a second ball, low. The third pitch was laced into the left field seats, foul. "I haven't seen a hitter turn on Martin like that in years," an announcer had proclaimed. It seems prophetic now. He would walk the batter. The next batter singled up the middle. A run came in, 5 - 2 . And Manny Martin had strode the back of the mound as if a boxer in his corner after a dispiriting round, as if searching for a reason behind this nonsense. He looked in to home plate, as if grasping a realization, a situation larger than a potential top of the ninth-inning rally in the most important outing of his life; something all-consuming, something that was to change everything. And he stood there, the crowd swelling, somewhat uneasy, but willing to rely on that which they'd come to expect. And he walked the next batter. And the announcers were lost in their attempts to describe it. And a meeting between pitching coach and catcher at the mound seem labored, confused. The crowd was dumbfounded, the players, the millions watching. The bases were loaded. And he threw the next pitch to the backstop. Another run scored. It was 5 - 3, the runners advancing. And the next pitch was another wild ball corralled by his catcher. He'd taken off his cap, had wiped sweat. It was a cold night, but he was sweating; cold-sweating...

And he'd taken a moment before stepping back in. He set into the stretch, looked over to third and had delivered—And it was right down the middle. A strike called, 98 mph. The crowd was infused, an optimism heady enough to spark reality's smoldering fuse. Surely their energy, their revitalized chanting and yelling and praying would be enough—And he had felt it, could see through the ruse, the absurdity that had plated two runners and put two more aboard. He moved dirt. Rosin bag. He stepped in and delivered. Strike two, 100 mph. The stadium erupted, an immense pressure, one that'd been building for several minutes finally gaining its release. He blew into balled fist, the October air cool and crisp and resolute. This was the World Series, his first—the franchise's first in twenty-one years. He'd closed out Game 1, had given scoreless service in Game 2, and had pitched a scoreless eighth in Game 3. He was set, the city set to explode with the first step towards their first world championship in forty-eight years. And he'd thrown down the rosin bag and had stepped in—"Machine Gun" Martin. He had wound up and delivered...

And it had hung there... And that pitch has hung suspended in his memory like a pinata for almost four years now.

The team just never seemed to recover from that night, from the deflating three-run, 400-foot blast that gave away their victory and a championship. 6 - 5 was the final. They lost Game 7 the following night 6 - 2, the opposing team wild in celebration of an impossible, improbable comeback. They looked like a writhing string of obscenities scrawled across the field, beset by cameramen, boom mikes, police, officials rounding this remote gala as the fans, removed and mute and automatic, filed, as in an Orwellian-cadence, from the stadium confines. It was a bad dream, but there was no waking up. And Manny had sat in the bullpen dugout that night, had sat there well past midnight. He'd remembered back to when he was twelve, was a tight-end on his pony league team, and how he'd dropped a pass in the end-zone with ten seconds to go in a playoff game. His team had lost as a result. And he remembered how he'd cried that night. And then he remembered how he'd awoken the next morning and had made a pact with himself never to cry again. And there he was, sitting in that dugout well into the early morning. He'd sat there until someone had asked him to leave—tearless, blank eyes staring into an abyss of disbelief, a reality cut of bad fiction; a bad, bad joke...

And Manny is walking up the tunnel and is needing to ice down his throbbing elbow. He thinks back to that pivotal pitch. It is almost four years past now, but it might as well have been the last pitch he'd thrown. He remembers the stunned silence, recalls the silent hate of 50,000 souls. He remembers thinking what a terrible thing it is to be hated by so many. He remembers handing the ball to his manager, it followed by the longest walk he'd ever taken. It seemed to never end, each step producing four more; as if a conveyor belt moving faster than his gait. If he's ever had an out-of-body experience it was on that night, on that walk, watching the devastation manifest itself inside a will being broken further by every step, watching himself trudge into a pit of disbelief from which he has yet to emerge...

It has been a very silent number of years for "Machine Gun" Manny Martin. One would wonder if the final sound he ever heard was generated by a game-winning blast on a cold October night 3 years and 10 months ago. One has to wonder.