Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Fall and Rise of Melky Mesa

In summer's waning days, there are certain givens. The days are shorter, the nights cooler and major league benches more crowded. On the first day of September, each team is permitted to expand its roster from 25 to 40 players. Mostly, for teams still in pennant races these additional bodies do little but take up space. There is too much at stake to allow precious at bats or innings pitched to be doled out to those on the fringes.

Sometimes however, for better or for worse, these add-ons are thrust into roles of critical importance. This was one of those moments.

From the youngest age playing this game, the fundamentals are just that: catch, throw, run and hit. Among these skills, the one that seems to least separate the haves from the rest of the universe is running. One can be a pretty awful player and still be an exceptional base runner. Even those destined only for mediocrity can accomplish the singularly unspectacular feat of touching each base on the journey ending at home plate. In the hierarchy of complications on the diamond, this is the lowest rung

The Oakland Athletics are perennial overachievers. Today, less than 2 weeks before the end of the regular season, they were locked in a struggle with the Yankees to gain an edge in the standings. Neither team was willing to capitulate and extra innings began to pile up. After having battled intensely the previous day, some  relief pitchers were deemed unable to perform. The result was a 13th inning extravaganza where first Oakland roughed up a Yankee hurler, Freddy Garcia, at the end of his career and out of gas, for 4 runs, and then the Yankees returned the favor in kind.

The rosters were now depleted by defensive and offensive maneuvering. Little remained except to choose among those September call ups for assistance. So, when an old and not so fleet Eric Chavez reached first base to start the bottom of the 14th, a young man by the name of Melky Mesa was appointed his replacement.

Mesa is 25 years old. For the last 7 seasons, he has toiled with only limited success in the minors, out of the spotlight and, by his statistics, seemingly out of consideration for an opportunity to appear on the biggest of stages. This year he called his baseball home Trenton and later Scranton/Wilkes Barre. Yet, on September 10, he was summoned to put on the most famous uniform in all of American sports.

The first time stepping on to a major league field must be an almost out of body experience. When this is magnified by being in Yankee Stadium in the heat of a race for the pennant, overwhelming is likely too timid a word.  Mesa's task was simple. Run. From first base all the way to home, step on the plate and the Yankees would win the game. There was nothing unusual in his 90 foot journey from first to second. It was the next scene that could have made his name live in infamy in Yankee baseball lore.

To get a sense of what is happening in critical moments on the field, it is often instructive to look in the dugout. Having spent a lifetime getting a sense and feel for what it means to see the flight of the ball off the bat, a team often presupposes a result, jumping out to greet a hero even before the play is concluded. And so it was when A-Rod lined a clean single into right center, the Yankee dugout exploded, anticipating that. Mesa, in his first appearance in a major league game, would soon be planting his foot on the plate in victory. Only that is not what happened.

About 10 feet after passing third base, he had a very ugly decision to make. He had to either admit that he had committed the most basic of mistakes and had failed to touch the bag, or make it seem like everything was normal, run home and hope no one noticed his monumental blunder. When he retreated and planted himself back on the base that had just eluded him, he must have wondered whether he had now completed possibly the shortest career in major league history.

Those who had envisioned glory returned to the dugout. They had to have felt compelling sympathy for Mr. Mesa. Even in the middle of this battle, when human frailty is so exposed there is a kind of queasiness and unease that emerges. When the next batter popped up for the second out,  Mesa remained tethered to the base that was now his mortal enemy.

But in this strangest of games, strange things came in bunches. Back in 1986, the New York Mets were down to their final out and destined to lose the World Series. Only a little ground ball, the kind that even the youngest of Little Leaguers routinely handled, wandered through the legs of Bill Buckner and history was forever altered. And so, in a play reminiscent of that fabled faux pas, a seemingly harmless grounder was misplayed by the Oakland first basemen. Mesa, smiling a smile reserved only for those who receive a call that the governor has granted a stay of execution, touched home. It was one small step for Mr. Mesa but one enormously giant leap for his emotional well being.

Afterwards, in the Yankees' locker room, a game ball was handed out for the most outstanding performance of the day.  It was given to Melky Mesa.

No comments: