More songs have been written about baseball than any other sport, which isn’t surprising considering it’s America’s national pastime. Warren Zevon might’ve been most known for “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” but for my dollar, Zevon’s best song was “Bill Lee,” which was dedicated to baseball’s counterculture icon. But Zevon wasn’t the only popular recording artist to get in on the action. Count Basie & His Orchestra penned a tune about Jackie Robinson, and the Treniers had “Say Hey Willie,” which not only honored Mays, but featured him on the track.
In a tragic twist, though, no songs have ever been written about Ray Chapman, who was a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians. Chapman was hit in the head with a fastball thrown by Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays and died 12 hours later. To this day, Chapman remains the only MLB player to have died from an injury received during a game.
Members of the animal kingdom, have not been so lucky. There’s no telling how many gnats have died after flying into the path of the steroid-enhanced swings of Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Fortunately, given the miniscule size of the creatures, no gnats’ deaths have ever been recorded on film.
The same cannot be said for members of the avian family, however. On March 24, 2001, a bird named Sal earned a tough headline, when he had the misfortune of flying into the path of a 100-mph fastball delivered by none other than Arizona’s Randy Johnson. It impacted ‘ol Sal and sent a poof of white feathers floating into the air and Sal hurtling into the left-handed batter’s box.
Don’t feel bad for ‘ol Sal, though. He died a baller’s death, and is now in heaven dodging pitches from Satchel Paige, Sandy Koufax and Bob Feller, using his newfound heavenly powers to exact his karmic revenge against those responsible for his death. Johnson, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky as the incident earned him a permanent spot in the crosshairs of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
I’ve never been a fan of PETA. Their actions are a bit too gestapo for me. The good Lord blessed us with a pair of incisors solely built for tearing through ballpark hot dogs, and I make good use of his creation. There’s nothing more American than eating a gut-busting, colon cancer inducing hot dog, while watching nine men from the Dominican Republic play America’s game. In the words of Bobby Brown, “That’s my prerogative,” and you don’t need to throw pig’s blood on me over my enjoyment of the summer ritual.
But, alas, I have gotten off-topic, and it’s time to get back to the points at hand; ‘ol Sal’s death and the interpretations of American phrases.
There’s an old adage that goes, “You can’t kill two birds with one stone,” meaning you can’t solve two problems at the same time. However, in the loosest sense of the phrase, Johnson accomplished just that. Now hang with me for a second. This might get confusing, so let’s work this out together.
Johnson’s sole purpose on the field was to throw an un-hittable fastball, which he did. In the process, he killed a bird getting in the way of him doing his job. And in the end, he did it with the same fastball he threw at 100-mph, so yeah, I guess you could say the Big Unit killed two birds with one stone. Sorry, PETA.
In honor of the Big Units’ feat, and in memoriam of Sal, I have put together a list of Major League pitchers, both current and retired, that could kill two birds with one stone.
Gibson was renowned for his fastball and high-slide piece, but it was his reserve slider that caused the most ruckus. It started inside on same-handed hitters and then bent out over the plate. The combination of velocity and break of Gibson’s slider made hitters pray for an easy death and was enough to take out two turtle doves on their way to a pear tree.
Carlton’s slider looked like a cutter coming out of his hands, but then took an ungodly break and drop that made hitters fall to their knees in despair. The pitch was so devastating, that Carlton didn’t even need a catcher on most nights, just someone to go and retrieve the ball from the backstop after the hitter swung and missed.
Lyle learned how to throw a slider at the encouragement of Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who once told him the slider was the one pitch he couldn’t hit when it was thrown right.
He was so effective, the Yankees’ PR Department used to play “Pomp and Circumstance” when Lyle came out of the bullpen, signifying the end of the game — or a pair of birds’ lives — just as the song signals the end of academic studies through graduation.
Maddux didn’t have the same type of explosive slider that Crash Davis described in Bull Durham, but it was still a thing of nightmares for major league hitters. Maddux’s slide-piece left his hand looking like a fastball, but then took a hard bite down and away from the hitter at the last possible minute.
He also had the ability to make his breaking pitch go in the opposite direction, which allowed him to not only get into a guy’s kitchen, but also sit down, have a cup of coffee and Danish and flirt with his wife.
Kershaw’s slider doesn’t have the same drop as Carlton, Gibson, or Lyle’s slider, but when compared to his fastball it drops a ton. Batters read fastball, but then get six to seven inches of drop instead. He jams up righties with his slide-piece and runs the pitch off the plate away to fellow lefties. While Kershaw’s curve or fastball might be more dangerous to birds, any avian needs to think twice about flying onto the field when Kershaw is on the mound.
Not only can Thor throw a 100-mph fastball, he can also throw a slider that comes in somewhere between 92 and 95 mph. The movement on the pitch resembles a fastball as it roars to the plate, but then takes an ungodly drop, leaving the hitter looking silly.
Rivera’s cutter has sent a thousand bats to their deaths, won championships and earned him the reputation as one of baseball’s greatest closers.
The front-door cutter was Rivera’s most dangerous pitch, especially against right-handed batters. It would start off looking like an inside fastball, but would then run out on the outside of the plate, freezing hitters in their shoes.
While the velocity on Rivera’s cutter dipped by the time his career ended, the horizontal movement remained the same. From 2009-2013, Rivera’s cutter averaged over two inches of horizontal sweep, which wasn’t too bad for a guy pushing 40.
While some have already started to make comparisons to Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage, calling Jansen the best relief pitcher ever is a bit premature, even though Jansen’s cut-piece gives him the potential to be just as good.
As great as Rivera’s cutter was it only averaged in the low-90s, while Jansen’s cutter has been clocked at 98 mph, making him a danger to both hitters and birds. While not as perfect as a relationship as cookies and milk, the horizontal movement on any pitch is associated with speed and if Jansen’s arm doesn’t tire, he’s certainty on the way to having one of the most dominating cutters in baseball.
Having the type of break Darvish has on a 90-mph fastball is just unfair. Not too many pitchers can get the type of right-to-left movement on their cutter than Darvish, with only James Shields and Adam Wainwright coming close.
After having to deal with Darvish’s four-seamer and sinker, a hitter expects a fastball with a hard break to the right. However, Darvish has the ability to make the pitch move to the left and it makes him damn near impossible for hitters or birds to deal with.
As mentioned above, the key to gaining a ton of movement on the cutter is to throw the pitch as hard as possible. Given this, it would appear that Wainwright’s cutter, one of the slowest in baseball, wouldn’t have the nasty break it has.
However, Wainwright makes his cut-piece move in the opposite direction of his other fastballs. It resembles a slider that never drops, and is the perfect complement for his sinker and four-seamer.
In the end, the slice on Wainwright’s cutter is enough to send a poof of white feathers flying into the air and any bird careening into the opposite batter’s box.