SURPRISE, Ariz.—How often have you heard a winning pitcher or quarterback thanking and praising God? How often have you seen losers doing the same? Cynical reporters, echoing Satan’s challenge to God in chapter one of the book of Job, complain that reverence follows positive results: “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
Three years ago Daniel Bard, 25, was a top Boston Red Sox pitcher, and Armando Galarraga, 29, was famous for having retired 26 consecutive hitters on June 2, 2010, only to have an umpire’s bad call with two outs in the ninth inning steal from him the last out. The Tigers pitcher would have had a perfect game (no hits, no walks, no hit batsmen, no errors), a feat so rare that only 21 major league pitchers in the past 113 years have achieved it.
Since then both pitchers have been literally at sixes and sevens. Bard posted a pathetic 6.22 ERA in 2012: Boston sent him to the minors, but his ERA there was a gruesome 7.01, and last year he faced 13 hitters in the Puerto Rican winter league but got only one out, walking nine and groaning as his pitches hit three more. Then medical consultations led Bard to believe he had been pitching without a fully functional nerve in his arm, so he had minor surgery on Jan. 2 and is ready for a comeback attempt.
Meanwhile, Galarraga was also giving up six or seven runs per game. When the Detroit pitcher lost his perfecto, former hurler Don Larsen (who in 1956 threw the only perfect game in World Series history) said, “I feel sorry for the umpire, and I just feel real badly for the kid. He’s probably wondering right now whose side God is on.” That did not appear to be the case initially, when Galarraga received great praise for his forgiving attitude toward the umpire, but since then Detroit and five other major league organizations—Arizona, Baltimore, Houston, Cincinnati, and Colorado—have all given up on him.
These hardships are clearly not even close to Job’s experience of having all his children killed, his property destroyed, and his body ravaged, but it’s hard to lose a career. Since both pitchers profess belief in God, I wondered how they viewed their recent hard experience. The Texas Rangers organization has given both pitchers a last chance, not with the major league team but on the team’s minor league spring training fields in Surprise, Ariz., and that’s where on March 5 I caught up with the two.
BARD SPOKE OF WHAT HE HAD LEARNED: “Everything happens for a purpose. I used to say that and associate the purpose with good things. Now I see it in everything.” What was the purpose of his travails? Bard: “I needed to grow as a person, as a husband. It’s been a hard couple of years, but I thank God for them. If I had stayed in Boston, receiving cheers … It’s easy to let things go to your head. … If it hadn’t been for these problems, I wouldn’t have met people who really helped me.”
Bard said he had received hundreds of letters with advice about how to return to pitching excellence. He’s glad for his discovery of a physical element to his troubles, because many fans had suggested it was all in his head. Baseball success demands a fine edge, and some players just succumb to Steve Blass Disease, named after an All-Star pitcher in 1972 who inexplicably lost his control in 1973, walking 84 batters in 88 innings, and by 1975 was a sales representative for a ring company.
Many once-successful players without faith in God have been unable to cope with pressure and failure. White Sox center fielder Johnny Mostil in 1927 and Cleveland first baseman Tony Horton in 1970 slit their wrists in unsuccessful suicide attempts. Cincinnati catcher Willard Hershberger slumped in 1940, slit his throat, and died. (Cincinnati went on to win the World Series that year, and Reds players sent a portion of their championship dollars to Hershberger’s family.) Braves manager Chick Stahl in 1907 and ex-Angels pitcher Donnie Moore in 1989 also had baseball-related suicides. Players like Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall in 1952 and Mets pitcher Pete Harnisch in 1997 had to stop playing for a time.
Beliefs make a huge difference. Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner faced fan cruelty in 1986 after a ball going through his legs led to World Series defeat: Several days later one sportscaster jibed, “Buckner tried to commit suicide today. He jumped in front of the train, but it went through his legs.” Yet Buckner’s Christian faith sustained him: He went into real estate in Idaho, named a subdivision Fenway Park, and received a four-minute standing ovation when he threw out the first pitch on Opening Day at the real Fenway Park in 2008. Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca once asked a clergyman why he had to be the one in 1951 to throw a pitch to Bobby Thomson that cost the Dodgers the pennant: The response was, “Because God knows your faith is strong enough to handle it.”
I WATCHED GALARRAGA, now 32, go through the same drills he had gone through many years before as a young minor leaguer. With 29 other pitchers, most of them fresh-faced, in three groups of 10, he practiced running from the pitching mound to first base on balls hit to his left. A coach taught the pitchers to remind themselves what to do by saying,“Get the bag, get the bag.” The coach told them what to do when they reached first base: “Foot on the bag, square your shoulders.”
Ironically, the play that should have been the last out in Galarraga’s perfect game was on a ball hit to his left: He raced to first base, caught in classic form the throw to him, and threw up his arms in jubilation—only to smile wryly when the umpire signaled “safe.” Galarraga signed his first professional baseball contract in 1998. Now his uniform number is 92 and he practices alongside Kela 73, Pucetas 80, and others. Major leaguers get lower numbers.
Then came drills on how to field bunts: Galarraga did everything perfectly, but Pucetas slipped and lay on his back spread-eagled, laughing. Later in the morning the minor leaguers sat on benches as coaches handed them pencils and test forms with questions about fundamentals taught over the previous four days. One of the players laughed and asked the coach, “Anybody bring you an apple today? Some Copenhagen [dipping tobacco]?” Galarraga, not laughing, started right in and took the whole 30 minutes allowed, answering each question carefully.
When he was done, I asked him if it was hard now being No. 92. He replied, “I still have a uniform.” I mentioned Larson’s comment about whose side God was on, and Galarraga responded carefully, “God gave me a body and a mind. It’s my job to keep them in shape. … I put in the effort. I can’t control the results.”
We walked a little way back to the clubhouse. My last question was, “Where do you think you’ll be later in the season?” Galarraga responded, “In the big leagues.”
Baseball practices and games have an egalitarian structure. Veteran pitchers in spring training also get reminders about fielding bunts. Before games each hitter gets the same number of swings in batting practice, and almost everyone picks up baseballs when it’s time to leave the field. (The only batter I’ve ever seen who just kicked balls instead of bending down was Barry Bonds.) During games all nine hitters await their turn to bat: Baseball is not like basketball where stars shoot more, or football where only a few touch the ball.
Egalitarianism ceases, though, when it comes to salaries, in baseball as in business. The liberal New Republic calls inequality “the generational challenge of our times,” and complains that big business CEOs get 354 times the wages that ordinary workers receive. But baseball is even more stratified: First-year minor leaguers get $1,100 per month for the five-month season, and most AAA players—that’s the top rung for minor leaguers—don’t earn more than $20,000. More than 20 major leaguers, though, have annual salaries of $20 million or more: $20 million is 3,636 times the pay for novices and 1,000 times a typical AAA wage.
If a 354-to-1 disparity is awful, how about the much larger baseball differential? Susan Olasky interviewed a dozen spring training fans (listen to her podcast on The World and Everything in It) and found little resentment about baseball salaries, as long as the millionaires perform well: Fans want their teams to win, and if it takes highly paid players, fans want more of them. Many say hitting a curve ball is the hardest thing in sports; I’ve seen that running a successful business is the hardest thing in an economy. Highly paid CEOs who can bring us innovative products and expand opportunity are worth big salaries.
Baseball oligarchs would be wise to provide nutritious meals to minor leaguers, because players otherwise consume too much fat and sugar in the guise of daily peanut butter and jelly. At the top end, it’s fine to pay well business or baseball performers who help their teams to flourish—and to avoid paying big bucks to players or CEOs who regularly strike out. —M.O.