Consider the catcher, buried deep into his haunches, weighted by plastic, steel, leather and lactic acid. The game bobs along in flicks and swoops, some light and fast-twitch brushstrokes.
The catcher squats. Stands. Squats. Stands. Squats. Mostly squats.
That’s the job. Until it’s not.
Then it’s Wednesday afternoon in Colorado, there’s a baseball at the backstop (not his fault), there’s an irate man on his way to the pitcher’s mound (probably not his fault), there’s gear – a bat, a helmet, a flying fielder’s glove, spittle – littered between here and there.
That’s when the job changes. In that fraction of a second. In that spark turning calm to chaos.
Run, catcher, run.
A.J. Ellis is 37 years old. He goes 6-foot-2, 225-ish. A catcher in high school. In college. For, like, 10,000 professional innings. He has small children. More squatting. Spring training. Bullpen sessions. So much more squatting. A.J. Ellis may have been built for speed once. Then someone handed him a mitt. He probably wasn’t even 10.
He is a professional catcher. He is a loyal teammate. He is a caring human being.
And when Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado started out after San Diego pitcher Luis Perdomo on Wednesday afternoon, 60 feet between here and there, the man in the distance, center cut, sitting heavy into his soles, was the catcher. Was A.J. Ellis.
Consider the catcher, whose job it is to save his pitcher from getting his ass whipped.
He set up near Arenado’s knees. Ellis’ left knee, the one nearest Arenado, was in the dirt, his leg behind him, his left foot near the plate umpire’s left foot. His right knee was flexed near his chest. Arenado raised his bat. A subtle wind fluttered Perdomo’s jersey. The fastball clocked 97. Arenado raised his front foot, drew back his hands. The ball skirted the small of his back. Arenado arched as it did. The ball short-hopped the backstop with a bang.
By then, Arenado was leaning toward the mound, his shoulders squaring toward Perdomo, toward rage, his bat still in his left hand. Behind him, Ellis began to raise from his squat, both his Padres and Arenado’s Rockies jittery from a series that had players hit by pitches and narrowly missed.
Arenado flung his bat behind him, left it in the batter’s box. As Arenado’s first foot cleared the box, Ellis already was up, his mask already cast aside. He was a full stride behind Arenado, among the most athletic players in the game and a decade younger than the man who would pursue him.
Consider the catcher, granting a head start of 10 years. And a step.
Ellis, his mask gone, his mitt shucked from his left hand, cleared the plate as Arenado reached the grass. Still at least a stride behind. Arenado’s helmet bounced across Ellis’ path. For a moment, the mitt and the helmet hovered together in the air, a couple feet apart. The mitt landed first. The helmet. Like that, Ellis, burdened by a chest protector, shin guards, a helmet, a cup designed to withstand a jackhammer, was two strides behind. Then, three. Arenado reached halfway.
Then, an apparent break for Ellis. Perdomo, a right-hander, went back into his pitching delivery. (Ignore for a moment the cowardice required to throw an object at another human from 60 feet. Ignore the cowardice required to then throw another object, this time from half that distance.) As Arenado approached, Perdomo had fired his glove. Perfect mechanics. Rotten release point. He missed over Arenado’s left shoulder. Then Ellis’ left shoulder. But Arenado had flinched. Ellis gained a stride. All Perdomo had to do when Arenado reached the mound was to hold his own for a second. Maybe less.
Consider the catcher, gaining.
Perdomo slid left, away from Arenado’s cocked right hand. Backpedaled toward third. Arenado pursued. Down the mound, regaining speed. Ellis zigged to his left, banked hard, lunged with his left hand, grazed Arenado’s left shoulder, closed his fingers where jersey should have been, wound up with a fistful of air. To his right, a flash of another jersey. Others were arriving. He held up his hands instinctively. Defensively. A teammate.
Arrenado, still on the run, having regained a step on the turn, punched wildly at Perdomo. He missed, his momentum carrying him into a mass of Padres, then out the other side, Perdomo behind him now. Ellis still coming. He turned, spun back to where he’d left the pitcher, and ran straight into Ellis. They slid past each other, pushed by their own momentum, jostled by teammates and foes, still flailing, still enraged, but swept away then in the tumult of flesh and bad intentions, separated by bodies.
Ellis captured by Ian Desmond by the back of his pants. Arenado stonewalled by Mark McGwire. Their faces blotched with pink and red, the trials of exertion and emotion and whatever else comes in a mob.
Eight-and-a-half seconds, in all.
It will be viewed on balance as Padres vs. Rockies. As a Perdomo thing. As an Arenado thing. As a baseball thing, for better or worse. Who held the higher moral ground. Who had it coming.
There is more to it, however. So much more.
For one, consider the catcher.
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