In For Love of the Game, Billy Chapel made famous that necessity for pitchers: clear the mechanism. Drown the noise. Fight the fear.
But what happens when the mechanism breaks?
The wounds left behind will heal. A fractured face will be smooth again. In six to eight weeks, doctors will clear Aroldis Chapman to pitch again, to once again face hitters like Salvador Perez, their weapon a bat, his weapon his fastball.
But none of this means that Aroldis Chapman will recover.
There’s a reason that the mound stands 60 feet, six inches from home plate. If you’ve ever stood on that hill of sand, you know it isn’t a home. It’s a dominion. It’s the throne from which a pitcher asserts his rule over the game –the one man guaranteed to hold the ball on every play. But baseball is a fiery democracy; it does not suffer weak kings. If you fear it, it will eat you.
And now Chapman has reason to fear.
Last Thursday’s simple story is this: Perez caught up with a 99 MPH fastball and the resulting line drive found the flesh of Chapman’s face before he could lift his glove from the follow-through. The facial fractures, the blood, the scary scene –it all compounded into a best-case-scenario. Chapman was lucky to be alive. He’d live to pitch another day.
But the story isn’t that simple.
There already exists a written history on how some pitchers are never the same after a shot up the middle shakes their confidence. Pitchers like Mike Wilson, who could never rid himself of the flinches after a ball hit him so hard one of his teeth landed near second base. His career didn’t last. Pitchers like Bryce Florie who lost part of his eye and all of his steady composure after Ryan Thompson screamed a liner up the middle. It was a matter of weeks before he threw off a mound, but a matter of years before he remembered how to stand on one, fearless.
This is the battle facing Aroldis Chapman. Fear will not subside in six to eight weeks. And though there may not be a sabermetric stat to measure ‘the mechanism,’ I assure you, it exists. When your job is to throw rocks at men with rocket launchers, to stand, unprotected, in a small circle of sand, exposed, there is no room for fear. A flinch is the difference between a fastball in the mitt and a home run in the stands. The fear of falling is the difference between buckling the batter’s knees and buckling beneath the pressure.
One should take heart in the fact that Chapman remains in high spirits. That his smile shines bright enough to obscure both black eyes. That he’s willing to post Instagram photos of his surgical scar. In a game of wins and losses, it’s clear, for now, that this man’s spirit isn’t defeated.
But a hospital room is more sterile than the field of play. On the mound, the dirt, and the doubts, can creep in.
In two weeks, assuming symptoms from his mild concussion subside, Chapman will start throwing again. Soon after, he’ll once again stand on that mound with a body in the batter’s box. Perhaps in less than two months after one of the scariest scenes in baseball’s recent memory, Chapman will enter through a hole in the outfield fence, “Rage Against the Machine” will blast, and once more, the last inning will belong to the Cuban Missile.
But will it ever be the same? That’s the question.
Billy Chapel pitches a perfect game in For Love of the Game because he can eliminate the fear, and the doubt, and the noise. He can clear the mechanism, clear the mind. But a mind is but an extension of the brain, and when a baseball has nearly claimed its life, it doesn’t forget so easily. Chapman won’t forget so easily.
Chapman, perhaps, has faced worse. A Cuban defector, it’s hard to imagine what fears once threatened to paralyze him when he crossed that ocean, when he left his family behind, when he entered a foreign world. He’s been much further than 60 feet, six inches from home with little to protect him.
But he always had the mound. A fastball is a universal language. And now, even on that island of sand, he’s learned that he is vulnerable. And from this, there is no defection, only fear and the challenge to forget it.
It takes longer than six to eight weeks to clear the mechanism.
It requires another shot to the head, to the mind, self-inflicted.
It requires amnesia.