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Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Facing the big-league heat

By Jim Caple
Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of Page 2's series on Athleticism and Sports Degree of Difficulty, we assigned several of our writers to experience first-hand the difficulty -- or ease -- of competing with and against elite athletes in a number of sports. In this first installment, Jim Caple digs in against a flame-throwing pitcher at the top level of the Seattle Mariners' farm system. How'd he do? If it takes one to know one, then Jim still doesn't know much.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Hitting against a major-league pitcher is often cited as the single most difficult thing to do in sports, and I believe it. Even Jamie Moyer has a fastball in the low 80s; and at that speed, you have a couple hundredths of a second to see the pitch, determine whether it's a ball or a strike, in or out, up or down, fastball or breaking ball, and whether you should try and pull it or go the opposite way or get the hell out of the way.

The Degree of Difficulty Project
Over the next two weeks, here are some of the highlights you can look forward to on Page 2:

  • Vote for the best male athlete in the world. The 64-athlete bracket has been unveiled.

  • Vote for the best female athlete in the world, starting next week.

  • The grid: Our panel of experts rank 60 sports in 10 different categories of athleticsm, as we ask: Which is the most difficult sport?

  • What is the greatest single feat of athleticism? Check out our top 10 list and tell us who you think belongs.

  • Can Jim Caple hit a major-league fastball? Will Jeff Merron shoot himself trying the modern pentathlon? Can Eric Neel hack it playing water polo -- against women?

  • The athletes speak: Starting Thursday, various athletes are grilled with questions like: Why is your sport most difficult? Who is the best athlete? What is the most difficult thing to do in sports?

  • Who is the greatest all-around athlete of all time? We dare to rank the 10 best.

    We'll be asking for your participation and opinions throughout the project. Hope you enjoy it.
    --Page 2 staff
  • It takes me a couple minutes to decide whether I want paper or plastic.

    So when the Mariners offered to let me bat in a minor-league intrasquad game for Page 2's Ultimate Sports Degree of Difficulty series, I had no illusions about my chances. I've been around enough major-league games to know that they play at a level far beyond mine. From where I sit in the press box to watch a game, hitting a pitch doesn't necessarily look easy, but it certainly looks possible. Stand in the batter's box when a pitcher is throwing heat in the 90-mile-per-hour range, however, and it's a whole lot different. Just as you get a good read on the pitch, it's too late -- it's already passing you by.

    I've played a lot of softball and a little baseball with a townball team in Minnesota; but other than that, I haven't played baseball extensively (or, more accurately, sat on the bench extensively) since I was in high school 25 years ago. So I figured I'd better spend some time in a batting cage before the big day. After a lot of frustrating swings and some painful blisters, I succeeded in hitting a few line drives up the middle.

    Against the 70-mph machine.

    Unfortunately, the pitcher I was to face was Matt Thornton, Seattle's first-round pick in the 1998 draft. He's 6-foot-6, left-handed and throws in the mid-90s. When I mentioned who I was facing, other Mariners shook their heads and laughed. "Oh, man -- he's got some nasty stuff."

    Things begin poorly when the Mariners supply me with a full uniform and then have me walk through the big-league clubhouse after I put it on. That allows everyone -- Bret Boone, Ichiro, Dan Wilson -- to get a good look at me. I couldn't feel any more ridiculous if I was wearing a Hooters costume.

    Surprisingly, I don't hear a lot of negative comments, though I suppose it's hard to speak after your jaw has dropped to the ground.

    Matt Thornton
    Could you hit Matt Thornton's 94-mph fastball?

    It feels good to be in a baseball uniform again, though; and when I get to the field, I pick out a wonderful bat. It's light and it just feels good in my hands. It's such a beautiful bat that I want to carve "Wonderboy" into it. I know I don't stand much of a chance; but as Thornton begins to warm up, I reflect on some hits I had off the hard-throwing college pitchers in my townball and pickup league days. Plus, I had just covered a spring training game in which Garth Brooks batted and grounded out. So anything is possible, though my goal is simply to have a good-looking swing, whether I make contact or not.

    My wife is on hand, telling me I look sexy in the uniform. (I think it's the protective cup.) Several people from the Mariners' front office are there as well, plus a couple dozen fans who've just wandered over to catch a free game. But I zone them all out. When I walk up to the plate, I don't hear anyone. It's just me and Thornton, just me and the pitcher, just me and the ball.

    My plan is to take the first pitch, no matter what. After all, I'm the leadoff hitter; I'm expected to work the count a little bit. Nobody knows this is my game plan, so when I take a 92-mile-per-hour fastball for a ball, the benefit of the doubt has to go to me. For all they know, I'm as disciplined as Barry Bonds. Unfortunately, Thornton throws me a second pitch.

    If I have any wheelhouse at all -- and that's as open to debate as whether there is extraterrestrial life in the galaxy -- the second pitch finds it. A 91-mph fastball, a little low in the strike zone and on the outside part of the plate, just where I like it. Unfortunately, my brain doesn't quite process all this information until I hear the ball popping into the catcher's glove. Strike one.

    "Dammit," I think. "I should have swung at that one."

    OK, I won't make that mistake again. I'm really ready now. I'm determined to swing at the next pitch. I watch Thornton carefully as he winds up and delivers a 93-mph fastball, then begin my swing and get the bat head out in front of the plate just about when the catcher is tossing the ball back to the pitcher. Strike two.

    A 91-mph fastball, a little low in the strike zone and on the outside part of the plate, just where I like it. Unfortunately, my brain doesn't quite process all this information until I hear the ball popping into the catcher's glove. Strike one.

    You know how some at-bats seem to drag on forever during a long game? Not this one. I'm already behind 1-2 in the count and Thornton is winding up to deliver again. OK, I think. You've got to protect the plate, swing at anything close, get that bat out there as fast as you can and ... I don't even come close. The pitch clocks 94 on the radar gun and by the time I complete my swing, they've already thrown the ball around the horn, the next batter is stepping to the plate and my wife is giving a shortstop from Double-A her phone number. I had barely been in the batter's box, and it's already time to go. I didn't see the seams on the baseball or read its spin or see the famous red dot so many batters talk about. Heck, I barely even saw the baseball, period.

    And my knee suddenly hurts.

    I walk away from the plate, adrenaline pumping. I want to get back in there and try my luck again, the same way an easy mark continues to throw bad money after good at a carnival midway milk-bottle toss. But the Mariners' ground rules are clear. I only get one at-bat.

    I ask Roger Jongewaard, Seattle's special assistant to the general manager, whether he considers me a "draft and follow" guy, the sort of player teams draft without the intention of signing anytime soon, just to see whether they improve over the summer. Jongewaard smiles and replies, "You're more like a draft and ignore."

    "I knew you were in trouble when I saw you talking to the coaches while Thornton warmed up. You should have been timing his pitches," Seattle director of player development Frank Mattox says. "And remember, he was throwing you fastballs in the strike zone. You didn't have to worry about him mixing his speeds, throwing curveballs and sliders, working you in and out, coming at you from different arm angles.

    "Plus, he's a lefty. You would have had a lot harder time against a right-hander." In other words, Mattox was telling me that while I totally sucked, I would have been much, much worse had Thornton tried hard.

    But it isn't a complete loss. After all, it took Thornton four pitches, not three, to strike me out. And he struck out the next batter as well, plus six more. Obviously, I wasn't the only one Thornton made look bad. And there's even a kid who comes up to me and asks me to autograph his baseball.

    I seek out Thornton after the game to thank him for being such a good sport, and he tells me he is relieved that he struck me out so easily. He had been a little nervous beforehand -- as far as he was concerned, nothing good could have come of the at-bat. If he struck me out, it was what he was supposed to do. But if I got any wood on the ball at all, his teammates never would have let him hear the end of it.

    "They were joking that I should throw a pitch behind your head or back to the screen," Thornton says. "I figured I'd get ahead 0-2 in the count and then do it. But the first pitch was a ball and I was afraid I was going to walk you, so I just tried to throw strikes."

    When a teammate later asks Thornton how he pitched, he says it went well, that he struck out eight batters. That's good, the teammate says. Then he pauses and squints suspiciously at Thornton. Eight strikeouts? You're not counting the sportswriter are you?

    Of course, Thornton says. I struck him out. It counts.

    So there. I struck out on four pitches. I was late, my swing had a hitch in it, I had my weight all wrong, I hit off my front foot and I didn't come close to even fouling off a pitch. But Thornton considers me worthy enough to count in his personal stats.

    I'll be sure to have my agent use that when I go to arbitration.

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.