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The Joys of the Unathletic Pitcher

May 26, 2011

More awkward old guys, please.

One of the great things about going back and watching the movie Major League is how aberrant junkballing pitcher Eddie Harris (played by awesome character actor Chelcie Ross) seems in 2011. An old, unathletic guy on the mound, looking like, really, just an everyman putting everything into a toss that may or may not make it to the plate. Mostly, it’s knuckleballers like Charlie Hough (left) and Phil Niekro, when you think about a shapeless guy on the mound heaving it towards far more athletic-looking batters.

*When Charlie Hough retired from the game in 1994 at the age of 46, he was 26th in career strikeouts with 2,362. He’s now 41st., passed by the likes of Clemens, Johnson, Pedro, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Schilling, etc, and, the latest, Javier Vazquez last September. Charlie Hough. That has to be the strangest name on the current top 50 K leaders. He was only in the top 10 in strikeouts four out of his, um, 25 seasons. He was only in the top 10 for Ks/9 IP once. Hough is sandwiched between Sandy Koufax and Robin Roberts. According to Baseball-Reference, Hough’s Career Pitcher WAR is 37.5, or 156th all-time. Of the top 50 career strikeout leaders, Hough is second-to-last. Only Vazquez is behind him, and Vazquez will probably pass him this year. Hough was an All-Star once. He got four votes in the 2000 Hall of Fame ballot. I wish I could watch him pitch now. Watching Tim Wakefield isn’t the same. Sure, he’s a late-40s knuckleballer, but Niekro and Hough – they looked legitimately like grandparents.

Which brings me back to my point. Watching the faux Indians’ Eddie Harris laboring on the mound in Major League was kind of thrilling because he was clearly no ballplayer. And Niekro and Hough? Man, that looked like they were just having a day of catch in the park with their nurse. No Greek God physiques. Not even close. Man, they were a couple of pitches away from sipping lukewarm soup on a recliner in front of Matlock.

Mike O'Connor gawkily delivers

So watching a Mets game the other day, I had the pleasure of seeing Mike O’Connor come in. O’Connor’s a young guy. And he’s in shape. But man, he labors on the mound. His pitching motion is kind of like watching a prep school kid throw as hard as he can. But he’s fun to watch because of that, because I feel like I’m rooting for a normal guy against the Haywoods and the Pujolses, people whose physiques I can’t possibly fathom. Like Ted Lilly, who’s been quite a fine pitcher, but just doesn’t look like he’s a tremendous athlete. Maybe he is, but he doesn’t look like it up on the mound, struggling to put his all into a fastball. There’s something kind of thrilling in seeing that. But there isn’t enough of it. I’m pretty sure I could beat C.C. Sabathia or Bartolo Colon in a footrace, even handicapping them a foot, but they look really powerful on the mound. Seeing guys play the sport that makes you wonder how they’re getting the results they do – like Johnny Damon or Hunter Pence throwing a ball from the outfield – is pretty great. I just wish there were more weird grandpas on the mound.

Watching pre-1990 games on ESPN Classic or the MLB Network is quite satisfying for this itch. Seeing how strangely normal and everymanish some of the players were. It could be the mustaches, the garish uniforms, and the hairstyles, but very few of the players look like they could hit a ball 450 feet or throw 95 miles per hour. And it’s easy to see yourself as one of them. Because isn’t that one of the great things about baseball? That somebody who looks like Charlie Hough can indeed strike out somebody like Frank Thomas?

Not classically beautiful

*By the way, as I watched the Reds-Phillies game deep into Wednesday night, I was reminded that Ramon Hernandez has some pockmarks. This struck me, because generally, for one reason or another, baseball players have become fairly telegenic. And there were some certainly handsome guys playing – Joey Votto, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs. At least, I think they’re attractive. Their features are not disorientingly weird or out of place, like Luis Sojo trying to fill out a Yankees uniform in 2001, but coming off as a misshapen gargoyle. God, especially in the corporate Yankees uniform, which ever since 1995, has a completely new meaning in it. You couldn’t – well, you wouldn’t be allowed to – imagine Pete Vuckovich’s Haywood in a Yankee uniform now. Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi had to clean it up and embrace the corporation.

From → History, Stats

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