Brought to Nought: Reflections on Eephus

The Cubs were in the midst of a losing streak. Is “streak,” the right word when you’re losing? A streak seems something positive. A fast forward motion in a certain direction, that’s a streak. “Winning streak,” yes. But rather than “losing streak,” I prefer the terms “slide,” “skid,” or “slump,” something that connotes entropy or a loss of inertia, something that intimates, if not outright apocalypse, then at least civilization’s decline. A losing streak is a fat guy in 70s sideburns running naked across the outfield grass, tackled at the warning track and covered with a tarp while we all avert our eyes.

The Cubs were on a losing streak. Nine games. Not the longest of the season. That honor belongs to the Angels of Disneyland who lost 14 consecutive games. Their manager Joe Madden (former World Champion Chicago Cubs manager, may blessings always rain down upon you, Joe!) in a typically atypical managerial move, got a mohawk in order to inspire his team to lighten up and stop pressing, and while Joe was at the barbershop the Angels front office fired him. So the Cubs losing streak was not so bad—they had given up more than 80 runs while scoring fewer than 20, outscored more than four to one, a failure of both hitting and pitching—but it was bad enough. A losing streak is an opportunity for fans to avert their eyes and contemplate something else.

For example, I was thinking about the number 35.1. 

35.1 is the miles per hour of the pitch Frank Schwindel threw to Yankee Kyle “Higgy” Higashioka for a home run. It is the slowest pitch to be homered ever recorded (at least since we started recording pitch speeds, around the time fans started streaking). 35.1 is not fast. Highway patrol would pull you over for driving so slow. But it’s faster than the fastest man in the world. In other words, if Usain Bolt were to sprint past Swindel just as he released the pitch, Bolt [traveling at human land speed record of @28 mph] would find the ball just beyond his finger tips as they crossed home plate. Schwindel’s slow pitch was criticized, mocked really, on national tv by former fake conservative talk show host (the formerly funny) Stephen Colbert: “Now, I’m no baseball player…and neither, apparently, is Frank Schwindel.” Schwindel responded, “I’d like to see him do it” (a variation on the old playground debate retort of “oh yeah!”). Seeing a fan from the stands try, this is, in fact, the appeal of Frank Schwindel. He looks like an average Frank from the stands, and he plays with the unabashed boyish glee of someone the manager just pulled out of the stands to play. As such, Schwindel represents every fan’s dream come true: He is what a fan would be like if a fan ever tried to play baseball and somehow, magically, turned out to be really good at it. 

Schwindel was brought up to replace Anthony Rizzo at first base. Rizzo is now with the Yankees who are in first place in the American League. I remember the moment the trades were happening last season. I was in Philadelphia, having just exited the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians, where I’d looked over a display of all of the different objects folks had choked on and that surgeons had extracted from their throats—pins, buttons, coins, tacks, razor blades—no baseballs. Exiting the museum, I got the message that the Cubs had traded Bryant and Rizzo, then their closer Kimbral. I knew Baez would soon follow. The Cubs had choked early in the season and now the front office was extracting everyone for trade in order to rebuild or retool or, I forget the phrase that Cubs front office used (they didn’t want to name it).

Schwindel was brought in to replace beloved Anthony Rizzo, one of our favorites, one of our heroes, one of the stars who had won the 2016 World Series and will never have to pay for a drink on the Northside of Chicago ever again. And here comes Frank “the Tank.” So clean shaven he doesn’t look like he even needs to shave. His big ears sticking out from under his cap. He is tall and lanky, but broad shouldered. He looks like that kid on the little league team to go first through his growth spurt. And he played like a big kid. Sliding into first for a go-ahead winning run one day. The next day hitting a grand slam. He was a reason to go out to the ballpark. Schwindel holds up two thumbs like Fonzi but makes an expression like “duh!” He gives a big smile, a smile so big it betrays a little bit of irony. He knows that he’s playing a game, but this is a game he loves to play. And he is good at it. Schwindel is easy to cheer for. But he’s not Anthony Rizzo. And he’s probably too old already to be part of the rebuilt team of the future when all the rookie prospects ripen to contend. 

Anyway the Cubs, in the midst of their “streak,” were getting clobbered at Yankee stadium—where in fact they have never won a game!—and fans are wondering about the next trade deadline, and how much longer this retool or rebuild is going to last. Then Frank is asked to pitch. If Schwindel plays like how a fan dreams of playing in the big leagues, then that night at Yankee stadium, the dream became a nightmare. He had proven he could hit and field and run and do very well the different things that major league infielders need do to succeed in the major leagues. Then, the manager (trying to save his bullpen at the end of another blow out) says: Hey, Frank, get up there on the mound for us and close this one out. And, oh yeah, after Higgy’s up, there is Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Anthony Rizzo. Is this a nightmare? Off his first pitch, Higgy takes him deep. Yes, it is a nightmare.

Frank threw an eephus pitch. What is an eephus pitch? I had never heard of an eephus pitch until Frank threw it. It is just the kind of trick pitch that grinning Frank Schwindel would know how to throw. The word comes to baseball lingo via Yiddish from ancient Hebrew: אפס. “Eephus” means zero, zilch, nothing, nada, nought. It’s called this because there is nothing on it. As holy cows and zen masters says, “mu.” The word eephus can be found in the Old Testament, the Torah as Sandy Koufax would say. in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 29:20 to be exact) where the prophet warns that the enemies of the people of Israel will be “brought to nought,” to eephus. The people of Israel had been in Babylonian captivity and on an historical slide or skid or slump. They were rebuilding.

The eephus pitch works—when it works—precisely because it has nothing on it. It goes up at a steep trajectory and the it just falls through the zone, like a loaf of unleavened bread dropped from heaven. It has no giddyup, no pop, no spin, no English, no tail or curve or swerve, not cut, no stuff, no nothing, eephus. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

Higgy confessed later that he had recalled someone long before having told him that when you see something like this, something with nothing on it, like a knuckler, you have to wait on it and wait on it and then wait on it some more and only then see the ball and hit the ball, only then swing. It’s like he is back in little league, before his growth spurt—see the ball and hit the ball. Higgy sent it into the bleachers. Not known for his power, this was only his second homer of the year (although to give him credit, it was also his second homer of the night.)

But just as the Yankees fans start to snigger, then Frank’s bizarre, Biblical eephus pitch gets Judge and then Stanton and even all-time good guy Anthony Rizzo out. He does it on seven pitches. No, not something you see every day. And that’s not nothing. Which only shows that you don’t have to go back to ancient Israel to learn wisdom from suffering—ask Frank Schwindel, a really good ballplayer—losing has its lessons, and a long streak of what might seem like nought may offer its illuminating moments, at least, for those with eyes to see.

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