July 2, 1963: Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn and San Francisco’s Juan Marichal both pitch into the 16th inning in an epic duel that ends only after Willie Mays hits a walk-off home run against Spahn to give the Giants a 1-0 victory. Marichal throws 227 pitches; Spahn 201. Their exploits at Candlestick Park have come to be told in baseball circles with the wonderment of a bedtime story. “Amazing,” said commissioner Bud Selig, then a 28-year-old Braves fan. “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched,” wrote Jim Kaplan in a book of the same name that he authored about that night.
July 1977: I’m 16 and it’s the final day of the Mickey Mantle League Ohio state tournament in Toledo. The champion and runner-up advance to the national regional tournament. My team faces the possibility of playing three times that day. Win twice and we finish no worse than second. Lose at any point and we go home. I pitch the first game. We win in five innings. It’s a different world. I also start and pitch the first five innings of the second game. We win that one, too. Two games in one day. Am I different at the end of the day than I was at the beginning? It feels that way, though at 16 it would be difficult to explain.
May 13, 2014: Rochester (Washington) High School pitcher Dylan Fosnacht throws 194 pitches while working into the 15th inning of a scoreless state tournament game. This being 2014 and a time when even a major league pitcher rarely throws 100 pitches for fear of injury, his pitch count goes viral on social media, followed soon after by vilification of his coach for leaving him in. Even old-timer Tommy John, after whom the now-common elbow ligament replacement surgery is named, says that “the guy should lose his job.” A Facebook friend expresses similar outrage and elicits comments from friends who apparently have come to unthinkingly accept pitch counts and inning limits and anything else they hear espoused from talking heads on ESPN as learned gospel.
Where, I wonder, is the reverence and awe for the fact that a high school kid had the wherewithal to throw 14-plus innings, didn’t allow a run and struck out 17? I must’ve missed that story.
Have we gotten so deep into political correctness and rules for what our kids can do and for how long and for how it might affect them years from now that we have lost the ability to marvel at the moment? Have we lost sight of the fact that this story is an example of how sports served one of its purposes?
The backlash to the Fosnacht story seems to stem from the following assumption: The unthinking coach had no regard for his pitcher’s future or his career. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young winner, tweeted: “You’re a beast … but let’s be a little smarter brotha!!” Others, like John, more blatantly called for the coach’s firing.
It’s an assumption that never ceases to strike me as sadly presumptuous. Not everyone who plays sports has a career and a seven-figure paycheck hanging on every pitch, shot, hit or tackle. Tens of thousands of boys play high school baseball every year. According to HSbaseballweb.com, only three in 50 go on to play in college. Only about 1 in 200 get drafted (0.5 percent). And only about 5 or 6 percent of that 0.5 percent will put on a major league uniform for even one day.
Fosnacht doesn’t expect to be one of them. He is not a prospect. He’s not even one of Rochester’s regular pitchers and likely won’t play again after high school. He is an infielder who just happened to get the ball that afternoon — facts downplayed in print stories and ignored altogether in social-media rants. As was this tweet from Fosnacht: “I personally loved every minute of it and it was a great memory to have.”
It is an extraordinary memory, really. When he made pitch No. 1, he couldn’t have expected there would be 193 more, no more than Spahn and Marichal could have anticipated throwing 428 incredible pitches 60 years before. But sports is about dealing with unexpected tests. They are about how a person reacts. They are about facing down moments. They are about growing and stretching and going places you’ve never gone before or even believed you could.
And they are, on those special days, about doing the extraordinary.
About pitching 16 innings in a 0-0 game.
About starting two games in one day with a season on the line.
About throwing 194 pitches.
About finding out if the impossible is possible.
Fosnacht found out. But misguided outrage and indignation overshadowed the feat where 60 years before it had been regarded with awe. One-hundred-and-ninety-four pitches offended the new-found compulsion among us to regulate and legislate and micromanage in the name of tomorrow.
Pitch counts and pitching programs have their place if you’re looking to protect a Gerrit Cole, and even then they don’t always work, as the 30-plus major league pitchers who have already had Tommy John surgery this year will attest.
But should that template apply to every kid who picks up a baseball? Should a Little League manager look at his 12-year-old right-hander the same way Clint Hurdle looks at Cole? No. But too many seem to. Worse, too many watching from the stands do, too, as was revealed throughout the Twitterverse.
Fosnacht’s reply to the national debate: “People need to chill.”
Epilogue: After his memorable duel with Marichal, Spahn, by then 42 and already the winningest left-hander in history, pitched nine more complete games in his next 10 starts. He won nine of them. Marichal went on to finish 25-8 in 1963 and pitched 12 more years in the major leagues. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
I pitched two more years in high school and then three at Kent State. I never became one of the 0.5 percent. I never thought it was because I pitched two games on a Sunday in Toledo, Ohio. The game of baseball simply told me I wasn’t good enough.
As for Fosnacht? His team plays Coupeville in the Sweet 16 of the Washington State High School Class 1A tournament today. He might pitch. He might not. He might have a few more games left. He might be done for good. But he will always have that memory of the day he got a glimpse of what it was to be Warren Spahn on July 2, 1963, of what it was to know he’d stared down the unexpected and of what it was to do the extraordinary.
One can only wonder how many such memories have been lost for the sake of a tomorrow that statistics tell us will likely never come.
Steve Ziants is a page designer and copy editor for the Post-Gazette and the author of “100 Things Pirates Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” (firstname.lastname@example.org).