Friday, April 1, 2011

Blaine Stryker

Even his name seemed perfect: Blaine Stryker. In 2001, as a 10 year old, he had struck out all 18 batters he faced in a Little League game. At age 11, they had banned him from the league because they said he posed a danger to all the other children. He threw so hard, they reasoned, that if one of his pitches lost its precision, and headed for the little child in the batter's box, untold disaster could result. But none of his pitches were ever anything but perfect.

He always loved the game and everything about it. He always wanted new baseball worlds to conquer. And he conquered every new baseball world he entered. By the time he was 17 and heading into his senior year in high school, the frenzy was nationwide. His picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, where he was compared to the legendary Sidd Finch, the creation of the mind of George Plimpton. He could throw harder, and with more precision, than the young phenoms who would burst upon major league baseball before him, Aroldis Chapman and Stephen Strasburg. And all he ever wanted to do was to pitch for the New York Yankees.

He told anyone and everyone that he would finish up his high school career and then only sign with one team, his team. No one else should attempt to draft him for they would be wasting their pick. Riches meant nothing. The Yankees everything.

Brian Cashman, the Yankee general manager, had been following the exploits of Stryker since that first perfect, perfect game in 2001. He had sent his top scouts to watch his progress from the time Stryker turned 11. Like anyone else who was watching, Cashman had determined that what the tapes were revealing was almost beyond comprehension. In 2010, when "The Freak" led the San Francisco Giants to a World Series victory, Cashman thought to himself that the real freak was about to burst upon the baseball world in ways unimaginable.

In the leadup to the 2009 draft, Stryker stood his ground. In all capital letters, on the front lawn of his parent's house, with the picket fence and 2 cars in the garage, was a sign that read "Do not draft me unless your team is named the New York Yankees". 3 teams gave thought to trying to buy the name from the team in the Bronx.

One day before the draft was to occur, the Yankees traded their 7 most highly rated players in their minor league system, and their draft rights in rounds 1 through 5 of the 2009 draft, for the rights to the number 1 pick. The team that had spent the last generation cultivating and maintaining players from their farm system, now abandoned that concept. Over a 13 year span there had been 5 World Series Championships, in large part due to Jeter, Rivera, Posada, Pettite and Williams. All but Pettite, who had a brief absence to follow Roger Clemens to Houston, were Yankee lifers. Now that entire philosophy was gone, and in its place all eggs had been gathered in one basket.

The following day, when Bud Selig said "With the first pick, the New York Yankees select Blaine Stryker", the calls for a criminal investigation began. This was the culmination of everything that everyone who hated about the Yankees hated the most.

24 hours after, with a signing bonus of $60 million, and a guarantee of another $110 million over 5 years, Blaine Stryker put on his uniform with the interlocking NY logo on the front. The Yankees insisted that he wear number 6 because only this, and number 9 would remain as unretired Yankee single digit numbers once Derek Jeter finished his playing days. And so, Stryker now wore the same uniform number as the Mick before his switch to 7 after the 1951 season ( "Seven" as George Costanza would hope to have named his first child). By the end of 2011, "Six" would turn out to be the most popular name for babies born in America from September to December of that year.

In the Yankee tradition, Stryker was sent down to minors for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. He was as dominant at every step of this phase of his career as he had been as that 10 year old boy. His record was a combined 24 wins and 1 loss over these 2 years.

Entering the 2011 season, the Yankees could wait no longer. Their off season hopes of obtaining Cliff Lee to share the top of the rotation with CC Sabathia were shattered when Lee spurned their offer and joined the Phillies. Andy Pettite could not be coaxed into playing one more year. Behind Sabathia there was little comfort. AJ Burnett had lost all movement on his fastball in 2010 and threw a succession of 59 foot curveballs. Phil Hughes had started the 2010 season in spectacular fashion and ended it in mediocrity. Ivan Nova had shown moments of greatness in his late season 2010 callup, but he was far from a sure thing. And then, there was the fifth spot in the rotation. Retreads, once good or very good, but now much less than that, were tried, but was this really the best the Yankees had to offer? And thus the world according to Stryker began.

The Yankees announced that there would be strict pitch and inning counts for the pitcher who would soon be known as " The Arm". "This", Cashman announced, "was immutable".By the end of the 2011 season, only Sabathia would throw more innings and pitches than Stryker.

His first pitch in a major league game came on April 4, 2011 before a standing room only crowd on a cold, misty evening at Yankee Stadium. When the scoreboard read "Fastball" and the MPH said "107", the stadium erupted as if the 28th World Series championship had just been won.

Stryker seemed to invigorate the entire team behind him. With a squad that was showing its age in many positions, the fear was that 2011 might be a disaster, or at least a disaster in Yankee terms. Boston had gotten Crawford, their rotation was still strong. Tampa seemed to be able to regenerate from within. Baltimore, and the old Yankee manager at their helm, Buck Showalter, gave signs that they would be tough, and Toronto was still a team with talent. If all went wrong, it could go very wrong for the Yanks.

But Stryker would have none of that. Through his first 8 starts, he amassed 7 wins and no losses. In 48 innings in those starts, he had 67 strikeouts 4 walks. His ERA was .93. He was pitching better than Bob Gibson had in his fabled year when his ERA was an incomprehensible 1.12. The team was scoring an average of 7 runs per game for Stryker. Each player seemed to have a bounce in his step, and the team began the year with 33 wins and 7 losses. And then it got better.

The last time a rookie had made even remotely as big an impact had been when Fernando Valenzuela joined the Dodgers . His herky- jerky motion, twisting and turning, and the movement on his pitches, brought him to stardom almost from day one. But nothing like this. And certainly nothing like start number 9.

That night, against a Minnesota Twins team that featured the astounding Joe Mauer, the first pitch Stryker threw registered at 111 miles per hour. The 71st pitch he threw, in the seventh inning, registered at 111 miles per hour. The pitch count, set at 80, was passed with one out in the eighth. No Twin had reached base, and 16 of them had been set down on strikes. This was not an evening to remove Stryker from the game, not unless you wanted over 50,000 fans streaming onto the field ready to attack Joe Girardi.

Pitch 94 was a split fingered fastball thrown at 100 miles per hour. The 27th Twin to come to the plate swung feebly and then it was over. 19 strikeouts, no runners to reach base. A perfect game. The most perfect of perfect games ever thrown in the history of Major League baseball.

Every stadium that Stryker pitched in for the rest of the season was sold out. When the dog days of August ended, he had accumulated 18 wins, and had no losses. His ERA remained less than 1 run per 9 innings. Behind him, Chamberlain, Soriano and Rivera cleaned up with almost Stryker like precision. In the games that Stryker pitched, the team ERA was 1.1 runs per game. And then it got better.

Through the month of September, with many teams out of the race, and minor league call-ups in late season auditions, the level of competition for Stryker diminished. And what was unbelievable was now even more so. The once unassailable mark of 59 consecutive scoreless innings by a pitcher, set by Orel Hershiser vanished as Stryker's total reached 71, before a rare walk and a broken bat double would end the streak. By the last day of the season, Stryker's ERA was .84. The team finished the regular season with a new Yankee record of 117 wins. And Stryker was 24 and 0. The perfect season. And then it got better.

The Yankees first round playoff opponents, the Oakland A's proved no match for the juggernaut. Stryker's turn in the rotation had been adjusted so that he could start the first game of that series. His line read like fantasy: 8 innings, no walks, 16 strikeouts, 2 hits, no runs. Sabathia and Hughes (now the 3rd in line) would also pitch shutouts. Thus, for the first time in baseball lore, a team held another scoreless in an entire playoff series.

The Red Sox were the next victims. After 4 humiliating losses, in which the combined score of the games was 23 to 4, Red Sox manager Terry Francona stated that "only once in a lifetime will we ever witness something like what is now before us. I am humbled and awed. I salute the greatest team to ever play this game, and the greatest pitcher ever to put on a uniform". Stryker had shut out the Red Sox on one hit in the first game of the series.

And then there was the Giants, trying to repeat as World Champions. "The Freak" had again been spectacular for them, going 21 and 6 with an ERA of 2.18. But "The Freak" was only human. In what would be his final appearance of the 2011 season, "The Arm" matched zeroes with "The Freak" for 7 innings. Then, in the eighth, Gardner led off with a bunt single, stole second and on an errant throw from the catcher went to third. After Jeter flied out to short center, A-Rod (who had been moved to third in the lineup in mid-year) laced a single to center. 1 run would be all Stryker needed.

In the ninth inning, with no pitch clocked at less than 108 mile per hour, the heat was unleashed for one final curtain call. 9 pitches, 9 swinging strikes, 3 outs and a Game One win. 3 victories later, the Yankees completed a sweep of the post-season, the first time this had ever been accomplished. Stryker's line for the post season showed an ERA of 0. Against the best, he was better.

It was the perfect end to the perfect season. Stryker had won 27 times and not suffered a single loss. With the 28th World Series trophy safely in their clutches, the team celebrated and New York city erupted. 4 million people lined the streets to greet the best that had ever been.

And so, on April 1, 2011 was a championship season and a pitcher the world has never seen, and never will, born.