Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fancy seeing you here!

Well, my Chicago Cubs started the baseball day with an ugly scene this afternoon, but who ever thought we could count on Edwin Jackson and the Arizona Diamondbacks to close it with such flourish?

Working in the baseball business, at least from the standpoint that my job entails, it's become somewhat of a Pavlovian response to dread the possibility of a no-hitter or perfect game unfolding on your watch ... mainly b/c we're apparently all lazy asses and don't want to do a little extra work. But in the seven years I've been in the biz -- and despite numerous close calls that had my sorry ass cheering, sometimes silently, sometimes not, each time one was broken up -- I had yet to be assigned to a game that ultimately turned into a no-hitter.

Edwin Jackson celebrates his no-hitter. (AP)
Until tonight.

And even though Mr. Jackson hadn't allowed a hit through five innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, he had given up seven walks, so I have to admit, a no-hitter wasn't really on my radar.

But as the game went on, and the Rays continued to put up zeroes in the "H" column, I became more intrigued than panicked to see if this guy could finish this thing out. He did ... throwing a whopping 149 pitches -- the most ever thrown in a no-hitter -- and walking eight batters, hitting one and allowing one to reach on an error.

That's called doing it the hard way.

But what intrigued me the most about this particular gritty no-no -- the fourth one this season, for that matter -- was that I had some interaction on a personal level with Jackson in the past. In my very limited capacity as a professional writer, I filled in one day in 2007 to cover the Rays, who were playing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.

The starting pitcher for those Rays that day, the very same team that was held hitless tonight? Edwin Jackson.

Edwin Jackson reacts after giving
up three straight homers. (AP)
What I remember about that afternoon was a young, inexperienced pitcher, who held the Sox scoreless and scattered five singles over six impressive innings, cruising toward a sure victory. That is, until the seventh inning, when -- Bing-Bang-Boom! -- Jackson served up three consecutive homers that chased him from the game and led to an agonizing defeat.

Afterward, going down to the clubhouse to get quotes for the game story was like walking on eggshells. I, along with a couple other reporters, talked to Rays manager Joe Maddon in his office right away, and fairly extensively, to get his thoughts, and then moved out to the clubhouse common area to talk to the players.

Obviously, a quote had to come from Jackson, who was quietly dressing in front of his locker with his back turned. The three of us tried to stay back a bit, giving him space and waiting until he was ready, which really had to have been a funny scene. Neither of us really said anything to each other, but kind of shared a couple of glances and half smiles, revealing the awkwardness of the situation ... looking around and acting as if we weren't waiting specifically for him to be finished, making small talk with other forlorn players milling about, and mainly not wanting to have to make the guy talk about what happened, but needing to get the quote nonetheless.

Eventually, Jackson appeared ready, finished putting some things in his locker, slipped a chain over his head, took a deep breath and slowly turned around to face the music. As he was doing this, the three of us slowly had inched our way nonchalantly toward his locker, so that we were standing there when he turned around.

Now, following this type of loss, any pitcher has every right to be surly and defensive and short with his answers. But Jackson faced each of us directly, looked us in the eye, and answered every question we asked. We kept it brief and tactful and after we got what we needed, I shook his hand, wished him "best of luck, man" and walked up to finish the story.

And what a long trip it's been for Jackson since that day. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers and then to the D-backs, battling injuries and inconsistency, but always having that brute strength and determination that seemed to offset some of his shortcomings.

Tonight, he threw a no-hitter against his former team, and it's cool to look back on that game, and remember how depressed he felt, not knowing what was going to be in store for him three seasons down the line.

Equally cool, is Maddon -- one of my favorite managers in the game -- who had Jackson's back during that tough game in 2007, reflecting on his former player who got the best of him tonight: "He's a horse and a great athlete," Maddon said. "He's a great kid and he deserved to do that tonight. Hat's off to him, he's a wonderful man."

So here's to Edwin Jackson! Congratulations on joining the prestigious no-hit club ... it wasn't the prettiest thing you'll ever see, but nobody can take it away from you.

And, maybe to a lesser and more selfish extent, it certainly washed the sour taste out of my mouth from today's forgettable opening act.

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