Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of May Baseball

Cy Williams hit a whopping 44 RBI in May of 1923 for the Philadelphia Athletics 

In my years of watching baseball, I've tended to divide the seasons into thirds.  April and May are when hope springs eternal, and fans can get a little too excited by their team if they happen to be overachieving.  June and July are the proving ground, usually the moment when the real contenders start to separate themselves from the pack.  August and September, after the trade deadline, are when the pennant races get real in the tight divisions, or when the leading teams put themselves into a dominant position.

May is a dangerous time for fans of mediocre or struggling baseball teams.  If your team is good in April, you might not get drawn in or your hopes too high, but if the team still keeps wining in May, it is hard, if not impossible, to start believing.  Of course, there’s a reason that “swoon” rhymes with “June.”  Many a baseball fan has raised their expectations in May, only to have them melt away in the harsh summer sun.  The Mets, for example, are still in first place after their 11 game wining streak at the end of April, but the team has faltered, and the dreaded Nationals are quickly gaining ground.  Part of me thinks I need to enjoy the Mets as much as a I can now, since I doubt they'll still be in first place after Memorial Day.

When it comes to my other favorite team, the White Sox, I am having the opposite problem.  They spent the off season acquiring a lot of first rate players to compliment the likes of Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, and so far the team has been a mess of hot garbage.  When you expect your team to do well, and they still suck at the end of May, it's easy to give up hope on the season.  I'm much more likely to watch a Mets game than a Sox game at this stage of the season for that very reason.

At any rate, May is when you begin the feel that the games really COUNT, with April being a kind of mulligan for a team that does poorly, and a lucky break for a winning team.  This is why I am having a harder and harder time exulting in the Mets' April winning streak.  The team now seems poised to settle back into a more competent mediocrity than they have shown in recent years, but nothing more.

But baseball starts feeling real in more pleasurable ways.  Going to April games sometimes means braving a cold snap, while a May day game with spring in full swing might be the optimal time for baseball.  The weather gives pleasure even outside the stadium.  Last night I was driving around running errands with the game on the radio, feeling the cool of the air through my open windows.  It certainly won't be like that in July.

While we're a long way off from October, May has brought some great baseball moments.  Here are a few:

May 6, 1998: Kerry Wood strikes out 20 in a game

Wood was an unknown rookie when he tied the single game record for strikeouts in one of the greatest pitching performances of all time.  It is sad that Wood never reached his full potential due to injury, but he can always look back to this game.

May 25, 1935: Babe Ruth Hits His Last Three Home Runs

The great Yankee slugger finished out his career in the National League with the Boston Braves, eventually calling it quits in early June, 1935.  Before he did that, Ruth had one last moment of glory, hitting three homers in one game, the last ones he'd ever hit.

May 25, 1959: Harvey Haddix Pitches 12 Perfect Innings And Loses

No other pitcher has managed to go twelve innings in a game without letting a man on base, but Haddix's Pirates couldn't score a run to beat the Braves.  Finally, in the unlucky 13th, Haddix succumbed and lost the game in what might be the biggest hard luck story in baseball history.

May 1, 1974: Dock Ellis Goes After The Reds

Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis has become a kind of folk hero for having pitched a no hitter while high on LSD.  So much attention is paid to that moment, that people forget that he also did another highly erratic act.  During a game in May of 1974, he decided to hit each and every Cincinnati Reds batter in an attempt to show the rival team who was boss.  This decision ended up getting him pulled from the game early.

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