Baseball, Art Out of Time: At Full Capacity

“So that’ll bring up Rizzo,” a voice offscreen says as the first baseman takes the first pitch. Anthony Rizzo needs no introduction. He is the face of the Chicago Cubs and its un-charged captain. “And now he drills one deep to right field, there it goes, see ya,” the faceless voice declares. “And it gives the Yankees a one-nothing lead.” It’s July 30th, 2021. By this point in the day, MLB’s trade deadline, the Cubs’ championship core of Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant has been dismantled. The weeks before had felt like hospice for the should-have-been dynasty. The greatest era of Cubs baseball anyone can remember was over. Forty-nine days earlier, that core combined for one hit in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. It was deemed ‘Opening Day 2.0’ because Wrigley Field was able to host a full stadium. His helmet still bright blue, his team down 5-4, the captain of the Chicago Cubs stepped into the box against righty Daniel Ponce de Leon.

Friederich Nietzsche argued that time is a flat circle, believing that things will occur and reoccur forever in some vein. What if instead of a disc, time was instead a column containing all events that were, are, and will be… simultaneously. Our minds can’t quite experience it all at once and that’s likely for the best. What he have for now is the main vehicles of time- memory and anticipation.

There was a certain feeling in this at bat; a palpable magic to it as the pitches mounted. It was different than just wishing for a result. Its the ‘air of inevitability’ that gets tossed around so much in sports. Of course, nearly every time it is used, it’s in hindsight as means to justify just how obvious an outcome was.

The umpire grunts out a strike call. Rizzo takes on the first pitch, a four-seam fastball that grazes the upper-right edge of the strike zone around 93 miles per hour. The second pitch is off-speed. He fouls it off. Quickly, Ponce de Leon is up 0-2 in the count. The problem for the St. Louis pitcher now is just how much Anthony Rizzo hates striking out.

Once he is that far in the hole, Rizzo moves his hands up the bat. He chokes up just a few finger-widths, but enough to increase his control on the end of the bat. In a game against the Diamondbacks in late 2018, Rizzo’s signature approach led to a 17-pitch at bat. Even though it ended with a lineout to the shortstop, the sequence wore down the opposing pitcher. Two pitches later, Javy Baez hit a two-run homer, a lead the Cubs wouldn’t relinquish. The battle then has its hands on the battle against Ponce de Leon like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Baseball coaches always say to “stay present,” but the truth is in the past and future- where you’ve been and what you intend to do.

The third pitch was a no-brainer. Ponce de Leon lost control of a 94 m.p.h. fastball that barely stayed within the reach of catcher Yadier Molina. The count reached 1-2, and the theoretical chess match truly began in earnest.

I remember the day Anthony Rizzo was called up to the Cubs. I had moved to Chicago with some friends and it was the same day I was to start my new job in the city. I knew the team had received him from San Diego when they traded away Andrew Cashner, what I thought was a steep price back in January. Jed Hoyer, as GM of the Padres, had acquired him from Boston as a piece that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox. He had been drafted there by Theo Epstein. Anthony Rizzo was their guy, catching the eye of then-Boston head of scouting Jason McLeod as early as 2007. He had been the centerpiece of everything the eventual Cubs’ front office was building.

The Cubs, of course, lost 101 games that summer. They lost 96 the next year. Then 89 more in 2014. It was a gradual improvement, but the climax of any kind of turn in destiny was still far beyond the field of vision. The team celebrated 100 years of Wrigley Field, a season-long series of throwback uniforms and gimmicks. It was fun, for all of the losses. The Cubs and Diamondbacks even cosplayed as the Chicago Federals (Whales) and Kansas City Packers. In that game, Chicago was up 5-2 in the ninth. They lost 7-5 as I stood with my friend Jordan in the upper-deck on the first base side, overwhelmed into stunned silence. Rizzo is there, too. He’s losing. He’s losing all of those games and soaking up the feeling of each win, no matter how few of them came.

Pitch four is high as well, but within range for Rizzo to reach and knock away. The next offering is the same pitch, a 95 m.p.h. fastball above the zone, but this time it jams the batter and he barely fights it off. Rizzo adjusts his gloves and takes a long trip out of the box before restarting his rituals and resuming the at-bat.

Ponce de Leon changes speed and gives him 88 m.p.h. low and outside, typically a kill zone for hitters down in a count. Rizzo, a ten-year veteran, knows this and fights it off. It’s the oldest trick in the book because it works. Pitchers go back to that spot because its easier to deceive a hitter with a breaking ball.

The Cardinal right hander does just that, delivering a low, outside curveball that hangs just a little before being sent off toward the crowd sharply to the side.

He goes to the well again, this time the curve is high and outside. Foul. It’s time to go back to the heater.

The crowd is starting to swell as the at-bat reaches its ninth pitch. Ponce de Leon grunts as he delivers a 96 m.p.h. fastball high. Rizzo’s hands are ever so slightly higher than they were just a few pitches back. His reaction time is increased and it pays off as he fouls another pitch away.

The sequence is about to reach its tenth pitch.

By the end of the 2015 regular season, the Cubs had arrived. A 97-win season was a surprise, as many believed the team had arrived at success earlier than expected. This was proven true when, upon appearing in their first National League Championship Series in 12 years, the Cubs scored 8 runs on 21 hits. The Mets won the series, four games to none. Sure, Chicago had ended the Pirates’ run of moderate success by winning the Wild Card game. And of course it was nice to vanquish the Cardinals, but that was where it all fell apart. The Mets were better in every aspect of the game. Anthony Rizzo had three hits in the series. He’s there now, unpacking his frustrations and taking responsibility for the moment.

The crowd swells as the pitcher and batter retake their stances. The duel is captivating despite its stillness.

Ponce de Leon sails a 96-miles per hour heater up and outside. Rizzo keeps his bat behind him. He takes a step out of the box, The pattern is repeated. Crowd swell. Stillness. The pitch.

Its in the strike zone, and off speed, but not enough so to disarm the Cub captain. He fouls it hard off to the third base side.

By now, Rizzo has seen all of Ponce de Leon’s tricks. The only advantage the pitcher can have is complacency. The twelfth pitch is fouled off, and the crowd has escalated to a constant low roar. The thirteenth follows suit.

There is chanting in the stands, a muddy mixure of “LETS GO CUBBIES (clap clap clapclapclap)” and “LETS GO RIZZO (clap clap clapclapclap)”. The tension and the magnitude of the moment has grown with each pitch, and every foul ball cranks the gear one notch tighter.

Rizzo steps back out of the box and shakes his head. Ponce de Leon steps off of the pitching rubber, lightly tosses the rosin bag to dry his hands.

Everyone in Wrigley Field is standing. Yadier Molina is taking his time to get into position, likely to try and throw off Rizzo’s rhythm. Daniel Ponce de Leon sets for the fourteenth pitch of the at bat. At full capacity, the Cub faithful are just as much in the batter’s box as their first baseman.

Anthony Rizzo, a legend in Chicago, will have a statue outside of Wrigley Field. He will be remembered for all time as one of the most important, greatest, and most beloved Cubs in the franchise’s history, and there is only one pose that will be considered when the statue is made.

It is so late on November 2nd that it’s now November 3rd. The year is 2016, and its the bottom of the tenth inning. After taking a lead in the top half of the inning, the Cubs surrendered a run in the home half. Mike Montgomery is pitching what’s called a golden ball– one pitch that can decided the World Series in one direction or the other. Anthony Rizzo is shading off of first in case of a hard hit ball to the opposite field.

Michael Martinez chops Montgomery’s pitch to the third base side. Rizzo jogs to first base.

101 losses are with him. 3 for 14 is with him.

“…this is gonna be a tough play, Bryant… THE CUBS…”

Bryant falls as he throws, sending the baseball high. Very high. Rizzo reaches up.

Immortality. The glove that caught the ball to end the curse had caught the ball to end the drought.

It’s happened a million times. It happened just now as your brain pictured it. The weight of that moment brought you there again. For some, if you’re like me, it will always be happening. And that’s how we had to live through the years that followed.

The decline of the Cubs was slow, and at times there was just enough hope that another trip up the mountain felt possible. It just kept trending downward.

And then 2020 came. We needed baseball, eventually we got baseball, but we couldn’t be there. Then the vaccine rolled out. We started to understand things a little more. Whether having full-capacity games was the ethically right thing is not what this moment was about. Instead, it was about hope and joy and happiness. Wrigley Field was full on June 11th, and it was shaking as the duel entered its fourteenth pitch.

Ponce de Leon tries to push a 96-miles per hour pitch up and inside on Rizzo. He refuses to sit on it. That would have knocked it foul to the opposite side. This time, he gets ahead of the pitch and swings open his hips. His swing is compact but powerful. The glory of winning it all is with him. The pain of not sustaining it is too. He is the summation of an entire era of Cubs baseball.

The sound of the ball off the bat barely has time to feature before it is overtaken by thousands upon thousands of yells in anticipation. Rizzo stumbles toward the plate with the momentum of his full-body swing. The ball is lofted to deep right field. The crowd is so loud the voice of Cubs play-by-play man Jon Sciambi is distorted.

The ball clears the fence, and the moment hits its zenith. Rizzo is yelling. He feigns a smile, as if he himself can’t believe what just happened. After fourteen pitches in a classic war of attrition, the Cubs’ de facto captain had hit a home run. He had done it to tie the game against the rival. He had done it in front of a sold out crowd, the first time that could happen in over a year. He had fed off of the emotion that the stadium had given him.

As he rounded the bases, he continued to yell in celebration. Baseball has that ability to be so surreal yet somehow feel wholly inevitable and normal. There is no consequence greater than the one earned in embracing the moment.

It didn’t matter that the home run only tied the game. It didn’t matter if the team lost. It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t be in the same shade of blue in the coming months.

It was one man becoming everything he had grown to be and everything he meant to a fanbase.

It was passion and tension and the beauty of humanity that we had longed for in that hour.

It was art.

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