Baseball, Art out of Time: Under the Circumstances

There’s a warm static over the ballpark on Chicago’s south side. Typically by this time in late July, the weather is overbearing. Today, however, is unlike most days before it. An unseasonably cool stretch had this game begin in weather echoing late spring, and the giddiness that annually comes with that was palpable as well. Through eight innings, the Tampa Bay Rays have brought twenty-four men to the plate. None have reached base. Mark Buehrle, the White Sox’ quick-working ace is inching closer to one of the rarest feats in professional sports- the perfect game. Manager Ozzie Guillen, a White Sox folk hero in his own right, has made a defensive substitution to start the final frame. He is pulling Carlos Quentin from left field, sliding centerfielder Scott Podsednik into his place, and bringing DeWayne Wise into the game to play center. The move is to shore up the defense for two-thirds of his outfield ahead of three consecutive right-handed hitters to end the game. The first of these, Gabe Kapler, fouls a few pitches away, takes a ball high out of the zone, and stays alive. The next pitch will be remembered forever in the Windy City.

Often in life, it feels as though we are being drawn to a particular moment, one that will test the strength of our refined human condition- our knowledge, instincts, talent, and courage. These moments feel like a summation of all days before, knowing full well that given the outcome, our days ahead will be forever changed.

In 1997, Chapin High School, namesake of the small town in South Carolina, saw their multi-sport star drafted in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Reds. For a town of fewer than 600 people, it was a major event. DeWayne Wise played basketball, baseball, and football, where he was a star wide receiver. Middling around in the Reds’ farm system was where Wise’s baseball story truly begins. He stayed in single-A for the 1998 and 1999 seasons with a batting average hovering around .240 and dreadful slugging figures.

Two years later, Baseball Prospectus would refer to him as “Three-sport star in high school who chose the wrong one to pursue.” Yet he continued to push through the swamp of minor league baseball. Wise was moved to the Toronto farm system before finally spending a few weeks in the Majors in 2000. He was given opportunities to succeed but the production at the plate was always what prevented him from maintaining a place on an MLB roster.

From to Toronto to the Atlanta system, up and down in the minors, to Detroit’s triple-A team in Toledo, back to Cincinnati. He kept receiving contract offers because his athleticism was just too good to pass up, and teams considered that maybe they could be the ones to fix his swing and at least make him a proper bottom of the lineup hitter. In the middle of spring training 2008, Wise signed with the White Sox, his fourth one-year contract in as many years.

Ozzie Guillen used him primarily as a defensive sub, but would give him starts in the outfield in order to give his starters rest days during the grueling 162-game season. That season would be Wise’s best at the plate, hitting .248 over 143 at bats. It was enough of an improvement for the Sox to see fit to bring him back the following year. Despite the statistical analysis of his defense showing him to be a below-average defender, the truth of the matter was that he could read fly balls well, particularly in deep center field. Perhaps it was his years as a journeyman outfielder, maybe it was his football instincts activating. Either way, Wise was there on the South Side of Chicago that cool July afternoon because of his glove.

Mark Buehrle had nothing left to prove that day. He had been one of the key figures in ending the White Sox’ 88-year championship drought in 2005. He had a no-hitter, and was well respected as one of the better pitchers of his generation. The Sox, never appealing to the glamor franchise wiles of their crosstown companions, always fostered the idea that they were Chicago’s blue collar team, despite the irony of the Cubs actually having blue collars. This fed into the careers of players like Buehrle, first baseman Paul Konerko, and the Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. Being the “other” team in Chicago was a badge of honor. And hell, they were raising the World Series trophy and the Cubs were nearing a century since they had done it. By 2009, the confetti had all settled, but the players who remained on the team were glorified in franchise lore.

Buehrle had worked quickly, as per his prerogative being the team’s ace. The Rays were in a trance, unable to find so much as a chance at causing a defensive mistake. Gabe Kapler, facing a 2-2 count, decided to give just laying into the ball a shot, and who knows, something might come of it and fend off the pain of being on the losing end of the 18th perfect game in history.

The pitch, characteristically in the low-eighties, hovered and hung over the plate. The pitcher had missed the mark just enough that Kapler could strike it. As if it were resting on a tee, he put the full force of the chain reaction in his body into the swing, launching the ball so high and deep that the tone in local play-by-play man’s call was dreadful and somber. Ken Harrelson, the voice and once-GM of the White Sox, could feel the perfect game soaring off with the fly ball. It looked destined to clear the fence in deep left-center.

Wise was moving from the crack of the bat.

He couldn’t run top speed, he’d lose momentum at the wall once he stopped. He had to be perfect.

His legs shuffled in an elegant stride, looking for the precise angle at which to meet the ball. He had done it countless times over the years, up and down and up and down and up and down the minor league chain. He was thirty-one, in the prime years of his career and his athleticism. Every catch and every play had acted as a rock tumbler to his skillset, polishing and refining and smoothing out the edges.

Every play he had ever made had led to this exact moment. It was him and a fly ball. It was his knowledge, instincts, talent, and courage that could save the perfect game.

His cleats strike the warning track dirt, a feel and sound alerting him of the coming wall. He maintained his vision locked on the baseball as it descended. He knew where it would land, and that it would clear the wall if he couldn’t stop it. The perfect game and the shutout were on the line. A home run could lead to a rally, and the game itself could be in limbo.

Larry DeWayne Wise jumped and met the wall. Being left-handed means he can face the ball rather than having to backhand the catch. His forearm extends over the top, sending his gloved right hand back. The ball slams into the webbing of his glove like a meteor falling from heaven.

The collision with the wall causes Wise to lose his balance, and he can see the ball about to slip out of the top of his glove. He reaches with his left hand to secure it. It falls. Time stands still. In real time, it happens too quickly for even the crowd to react in horror.

Athletes are machines of superhuman cognition. They can slow time and feed on the adrenaline to see everything in a way many of us can’t perceive. The crowd has erupted in recognition of the amazing catch, but for Wise, the ball is hanging in purgatory. His left hand swings over, too quickly for even him to have decided upon it. The raw instincts of a Major League outfielder know there is no room to spare.

Wise grasps the ball tightly. The catch is secure. He bounces to his feet and points. The stadium is shaking to the point that it is visible on the television camera. Every great pitching performance has one great defensive play that defines the game. On July 23, 2009, it was this moment.

DeWayne Wise, a man whose bat kept him from Major League stability, whose tenacity and drive had kept him always fighting for the next chance, had made one of the most important catches in the history of the game. Harrelson’s initial fears had been allayed by the supreme, transcendent defensive effort. Once he gathered himself, he made a declaration no one could deny. Even given his natural bend toward fantastic hyperbole, Harrelson’s words echoed true.

“Under the circumstances, one of the greatest catches I have ever seen in fifty years in this game.”

The next two outs came with much less drama. When the twenty-seventh out was recorded, the team mobbed Buehrle. The pitcher, in his moment of unprecedented glory, looked for his centerfielder. If this was the zenith of his career as a pitcher, if he would always be remembered as one of the few to accomplish a perfect game, it was because of the catch.

Wise had been moving all of his life toward that moment in a juggernaut steamroller of destiny and perseverance. He will never be remembered as the three sport star who chose the wrong one to pursue. Now, he will forever be linked with White Sox history. It was a Herculean effort that came and went in a matter of seconds. It was the essence of what can happen when a man is given a chance to prevail and uses everything he has become to succeed.

It was art.

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