"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Better Than Fiction

Today lefthanded rookie pitcher Dave Gassner became one of those baseball stories that reaffirm your faith in the game and in at least some of the people running it.

Early in spring training I speculated on Gassner's chances of being called up, thinking only of how well he had handled the batters, not about how hard he threw.

See, Gassner's fastball tops out in the upper 80s, and some of his offspeed pitches drop well into the 60s. This is not the hard-throwing young pitcher most clubs are looking for, which goes a long way toward explaining why he only became the "player to be named later" in the Shannon Stewart trade five months after the fact. According to published reports, he heard a whole lot about hard throwers and how the majors were looking for them to the exclusion of all else as he climbed through the minor leagues.

Undeterred, he made himself a pillar of the Rochester rotation last season and embraced the invitation to spring training his efforts won him, displaying the control and guile that served him so well in the minors and allowing only three runs in eleven innings pitched. But the Twins rotation and bullpen were practically engraved in stone before camp even started, and when they went north to start the regular season they left Gassner behind.

On to Rochester one more, then, where he pitched well in his one start before Carlos Silva's meniscus tore. Most people seemed to expect (hard-throwing) top prospect Scott Baker to get the call, despite weak showings in AAA late in 2004 and spring training this year. Many fans seemed shocked and appalled when Gassner got the call instead. Perhaps I'm not au courant with how these things are done, but give me a guy who can change pitches and speeds and spot his fastball and has proven himself as a AAA starter, and I'm happy, "hot prospect" or not.

Gassner made his major-league debut today against division rival Cleveland. The small Wisconsin town where he grew up practically emptied to make the drive down to Ohio and cheer him on. Under the eyes of his big-league teammates, the coaches and officials who had decided to give him this chance, and a hundred or so people who "knew him when", he did not disappoint. Pitching on the heels of fellow lefty Johan "You Never Saw That One" Santana may have given him an advantage, keeping the Cleveland hitters off-balance. Fine control of his four pitches and his pitch speed, with an excellent changeup as a finishing pitch, certainly did.

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

He pitched six innings on only 72 pitches, giving up one earned run on a homer in the second inning. Every time he recorded an out, you could hear his family and friends cheering. He was credited with the win and given the game ball (closer Joe Nathan saved it for him), and after the game his entourage was allowed onto the field to celebrate with him. There were a few tears and a lot of laughter. Gassner looked stunned and faintly worried, as though he were afraid to blink and banish this lovely dream.

Soft-tossing finesse pitcher defies the odds, making it to the major leagues through determination and skill, winning his first game in fine style. It could be a movie, a novel. But this story is better. It's real, and it's Minnesota's. It's baseball, played the right way.

So here's a tip of the cap to Dave Gassner, and another to the Twins. Congratulations.

2 rejoinders:

roger sounded off...

I believe you mispoke about Scott Baker. He had a great 2004 when he was selected as an all star at both Ft. Myers and New Britain, before a late season promotion to Rochester. He also had a great spring, however, did struggle in his opening day start at Rochester. Rather than Baker, was your reference intended as J.D. Durbin?

Third Base Line sounded off...

Sorry, I was referring to his brief AAA stint, the idea being that he needs to prove himself at that level before being at the top of the callup list. I'll edit to make that more clear. :)