Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Didn't We Almost Have it All?

Baseball players tip their caps an awful lot. After dramatic home runs, emotional homecomings following a free-agent departure, at retirement ceremonies, at All-Star games, as an acknowledgement to those who've shelled out a lot of money (and a lot of their own emotional sanity) following one of the most mercurial games man has ever known. Pitchers tend to doff the cap the least, usually after an outstanding game that they can't quite finish, departing a potential shut-out in the 8th or 9th, saluting the fans and saying, "I almost took it all the way that time."

So there's never a bad side to a friendly tip of the cap, right? Tough to explain that to the legions of Sox fans who watched or tuned in to this sight with two out in the 8th inning of Monday's White Sox-Orioles contest...

Mark Buehrle made what was potentially his final start in a White Sox uniform on Monday night, and it was classic Buehrle - working fast, mixing speeds, baffling hitters with his 90-mph fastball, a good change, a nasty cutter, and pitching instincts that just cannot be taught. Not bad for a kid who got cut twice from his high school baseball team, only stuck with the sport because his dad made him, went to community college, got picked in what is universally regarded as the throwaway, career-minor-leaguer-if-you're-lucky portion of the MLB Draft (38th round), and was never in his quick rise through the Sox farm system regarded with anywhere near the reverence of a long-line of eventual busts in the White Sox organization...Kip Wells, Aaron Myette, Royce Ring, Jason Stumm, Josh Fogg, Matt Ginter, Kris Honel, Brandon McCarthy, Heath Phillips, Sean Tracey. Those guys were supposed to make it. Some of them have go on to lead the National League in losses, others to unspectacular careers in a variety of bullpens, and at least one of them has a permanent place in history as "the kid who Ozzie made cry". The point is you don't come as far as Buehrle has without being something special, owning something raw, something instinctual, something that all the "can-'t miss" kids are missing.

102 victories, a sparkling 3.79 career ERA that includes two horrendous half-seasons (one from April-June of 2003, the other from July-September of 2006), a no-hitter, a World Series ring to go with the odd accomplishment of starting one World Series game and saving the next, and a host of memories in between.


The White Sox can look all they want, but after seeing him pitch this year I think I know - they're not going to find another Buehrle for a long, long time. You can replace somebody like Jose Contreras, or somebody like Jermaine Dye. But for all the maxims about how "anybody can be replaced", how "there is no player who, if the price is right, can't be traded"...you can't tell me the Sox have any combination of pitchers ready to come in and duplicate what Buehrle's been giving you for the past seven seasons. Not with a straight face, anyway.

So now it all comes down to this, Mark and Kenny, alone in a sea of people, all watching to see who blinks first. There's a sort of tragic beauty to all of this, and not only because after Mark exited to a hero's ovation with a 6-2 lead did the Sox ticking-bomb bullpen turn it into a 7-6 loss that only further staked the Sox into "the land from which there is no hope of a dramatic second half surge". It was obvious to everyone that Buehrle could very well be on his way out, off to chase another championship in the fall and then even more with the security of a five or six year deal for 75-90 million from somewhere like St. Louis or New York or Los Angeles. The crowd knew it. And as he signified with a deliberate raise and salute of the cap, Buehrle knew it too.

Kind of reminds you of the cliffhanger ending to the "The Butter Battle Book" by Dr. Suess...

"Be careful Grandpa,
Be careful! Oh gee!
Who will drop it, will you or will he?"

We'll see. We will see.



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