In One Night, Two Pitchers Hit Baseball Milestones

Major League Baseball had two major developments Tuesday. Pitcher Tim Wakefield revived the Boston Red Sox with his 200th victory, and the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera recorded the 600th save of his career. NPR's Mike Pesca discusses the two pitchers and their successes.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Two milestones last night, in Major League baseball in Boston. Tim Wakefield notched his 200th victory to revive the reeling Red Sox. Then, in Seattle, Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees recorded the 600th save of his career, very different players who rely almost entirely on one pitch - Wakefield on the elusive knuckleball, Rivera on his celebrated cutter. Batters almost always know what's coming. For the most part, they can't hit it.

Has there been anyone else as successful in a position that usually demands versatility? Give us a call with your one-trick ponies: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca joins us now from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you back, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hi.

CONAN: And the careers of these two pitchers are as different as the pitches they throw.

PESCA: Yeah. Tim Wakefield was a very good pitcher in the beginning of his career. And then for the last - for five of the last seven years, statistics show he's been slightly above average. This year and last year, he's quite been - he's quite markedly been a below-average pitcher. But along the way, he's picked up 200 wins, which used to not be that much of a milestone. But in modern baseball, it is. In fact, it makes him among all active pitchers, the only one with 200 or more wins, and he got his 200th last night. And the reason for that is that pitchers are - and he does it with a knuckleball. And the reason why wins are in such short supply is the bullpen has become more prominent in baseball.

And if you want to talk about prominent bullpens, Mariano Rivera is the closer par excellence. He is two things: dominant and resilient. He has never had a bad year. He has played for 17 seasons - 16 full seasons. And he is the anchor of a Yankee team that has been the best team in baseball over his career. And every Yanker - Yankee player will tell you, without Mariano Rivera as that threat to come in at the end of the game with his one pitch, the cutter, they would not have won all those World Series.

CONAN: And along the way, the epitome of class and professionalism, never shows up another ball player, comes in calmly to do his work and, just as calmly, executes his pitch, which bores in on left-handed hitters, bores away from right-handed hitters. They know it's coming. They can't hit it.

PESCA: Right. But they're the only ones who's bored because the stadium is usually rocking when Mariano is there. And you want to talk about respect. David Ortiz, who should be Mariano's biggest rival, says, I respect him like my father. And if you want to talk about pitchers, they can't believe the guy because, in a way, he's totally unlike other pitchers. Not just that he's better, but that he only uses one pitch. And when we say only, he - his save against Seattle, I have it right here. I have the pitch log. He had 15 pitches in that save the other night, and 12 of them were cutters. The other three were four-seam fastballs.

Now what a cutter is. Imagine you're inside the head of Mariano. You're looking for his eyes, and he's a right-hander. He throws it, and it's fast. It's not as fast as the fastest fastballs in the game. It's about 93 miles an hour. But at the end, it moves sharply to the left. In days of your baseball, Juan Marichal was said to throw a hard slider, and they used to call it a hard slider. But Mariano kind of invented this pitch or had it invented.

He thinks he was just touched by God because the ball started happening one day after he was already happening - the movement started happening one day after he was already in the Major Leagues. He was the first right-hander to really throw this pitch. It's since become a very popular pitch, and high school kids and college players are all trying to acquire a cutter. No one is acquiring it as good as Mariano has it.

But the kind of question is, you know, the glory of baseball. And the interesting thing about pitchers is the mental game. What pitch do you throw? Where do you place it? When do you go to the curve? When do you try to pull the hitter? Mariano has none of that. So, in a way, you could say what he does is blunt force, and it's less interesting. But it's kind of more interesting in the way you could say that, yeah, Stradivarius only did one thing. He made a bunch of violins, never made a tuba. But so what? He's such a craftsman that it's an amazing thing to behold.

CONAN: And I hope that when he's elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, which he will be, the plaque has his nickname - not The Sandman, which is the tune they play when he comes in - but the other nickname that is sometimes applied to him, The Hammer of God.

PESCA: Because he is a Godly man who always credits God for all his skills. Something has kept him healthy all these years because great pitchers come and go and the arm tires. Tim Wakefield is in his early 40s, and one of the reasons is that the knuckleball is far less taxing on the arm. And I think - and this has been less explored than the knuckleball phenomenon in keeping pitchers healthy, but I think the fact that Mariano never turns his wrist when throwing the cutter - so he's only throwing fastballs and cutters, and he doesn't have much wrist motion. That's got to be one of the things that kept - that has kept him healthy so as off-season conditioning. Luck plays a big factor. Mariano will tell you God plays a big factor.

CONAN: We want to hear from listeners about one-trick pony's people and otherwise - positions that otherwise demand versatility who get by, indeed, excel with one particular aspect of those skills: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Steve, and Steve's with us from New Mexico.

STEVE: Hey, good morning. We're on the road, driving to New Mexico. And, you know, Trevor Hoffman, who's the all-time saves leader, his one pitch that got him out of most of everything was the changeup. You know, the key to it was having that same motion, you know, to not expect if you were getting the fastball, which diminished, you know, in his later years. But that changeup, that one pitch got him that - saves, you know, most saves of all time.

CONAN: Six hundred one saves. And he is, indeed, the all-time saves leader, at least until tonight, maybe, when Mariano Rivera may tie him. But, Mike Pesca, you have to throw the occasional fastball to set up the changeup.

PESCA: Right. That's the whole deal with the changeup. The changeup, for those not versed in it, is a pitch that looks exactly like the fastball but then comes in at a different speed. And Hoffman was great at actually differing his speeds. So people think that for a pitcher to be good or to have - to be a good fastball pitcher, all he has to do is bring speed, and that's actually a misunderstanding. What you have to do is bring a little bit of speed but be able to take just enough off it at times so that the hitter can't time the pitch.

And when we say that Hoffman's changeup was among the most devastating pitches in baseball history, it was. But, of course, you had to throw the fastball. In the beginning of Hoffman's career, he could get 95 miles an hour on the gun. Then he began to lose his fastball - best thing that ever happened to Trevor Hoffman, because that's when he really started to learn that changeup.

But when we talk about best pitches in baseball history, you know, Sandy Koufax's curve or Steve Carlton's curve or Dwight Gooden's curve, these are all because you have the other pitch or in some cases, two or three other pitches, to make a curve ball stand out so much and so difficult to hit. It's the contrast between the pitches, whereas Mariano Rivera, there's no contrast. It's just one pitch. It's in a little bit of a different category. But you're right, Hoffman's changeup was an extraordinary pitch.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Steve. Drive carefully. We got two nominees - two email writers: John in Salt Lake City and this is from Don, both of whom nominate Elroy Face back in the old Pirates days, who threw pretty much the forkball and the forkball and the forkball.

PESCA: Right. Now, he was a one-trick pony, but he was not nearly as good and he was - never came to whiff the Hall of Fame. Another guy who is a Hall of Famer, you know, Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball. He was a combination of Wakefield and Mariano, because he was a relief pitcher for most of his career but he threw a knuckleball. So he also had a very long career just like Tim Wakefield and Mariano.

CONAN: The forkball - another way to throw a changeup by wedging the ball back in your fingers and then throwing with the same motion as the fastball, but it dives down right there at the end and a little bit change of speed as well. Let's see if we can go next to Dave, and Dave with us from Buffalo.

DAVE: Hi, Neal. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAVE: I'm a guitar player. And, obviously, when the first Van Halen album came out in 1979, we were all blown away by Eddie Van Halen's right hand technique, which is threading the notes with both his left and his right hand. And other players had done that previous, and many players have done that since. But to most of your listeners, they're all going to be obscure instrumentalist. And while Eddie is, you know, a great personality and a superb musician, he pretty much has done the whole - the same thing the whole time.

PESCA: Which is why I don't know why there's no reliever that doesn't enter into "Eruption," which is Eddie Van Halen's signature solo. Or some - how about Yngwie Malmsteen? We could talk guitarists if you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVE: Oh, absolutely. He's great. That's another one. Yngwie Malmsteen is - what's his name, Rob Johnson down from Texas? They're primarily instrumentalists, and they just haven't got the mainstream, you know, the mainstream success that Eddie had.

PESCA: I think we just compared cutters to shredders.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Reese, and Reese with us from Laramie, Wyoming.

REESE: Thanks, Neal. Appreciate it. I'd like to suggest David Beckham. Not many guys you don't pitch like Ryan, you don't dunk like Jordan, but you bend it like Beckham.

CONAN: You bend it like - he owns that phrase, in part, because of that movie, but Mike Pesca, the bend it was referring to his skill at what's called in soccer, set pieces, where it's a free kick and he can bend the ball around the wall of defenders and pass the goalie's hands. He was also a highly skilled player in the midfield.

PESCA: Right. And so the cross-sport comparison is kind of difficult when it comes to basketball or soccer or a sport where all the players play offense and defense and the sport flows. Sure, in basketball, there are three point specialists, shot-blocking specialists, like Manute Bol and Mark Eaton, but don't guys don't ever get seen of as great all-around players. They're not in the Hall of Fame in the NBA. But, of course, Mariano will be in the Hall of Fame.

Baseball is one of the few sports where a specialist can be one of the best. And I was thinking, is it true in football? I mean, Ray Guy is a great punter, and some say he should be in the Hall of Fame, but he isn't. I believe Garo Yepremian, as a kicker, is in the Hall of Fame, and that's really a specialist. Long snappers will never make the Hall of Fame.

CONAN: (Unintelligible) a position that's not expected to do more than one thing to begin with.

PESCA: One right.

CONAN: Garo Yepremian once tried to throw the ball. We saw what happened there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PESCA: He does say that is the most famous play, when he bobbled that Super Bowl throw. But you know what? I was thinking about this. I think, in a way, Randy Moss, the great receiver who's - this is his first year out of football. He might stay retired. He didn't do much more than what they call go routes or fly patterns. Sure, he could run a crossing route - but basically, Randy Moss went long and came down with the ball. And he has the best statistics of receivers this side of Jerry Rice, and he's got to make the Hall of Fame. So maybe you can make the case that Randy Moss is a sort of one-trick pony who came to dominate his position in sport.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. We're talking with Mike Pesca, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Chuck, and Chuck's with us from Berkeley in California.

CHUCK: Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHUCK: Funny that it was follow-up with the basketball in the Hall of Fame analogy. I was thinking of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the sky hook. He's actually in the Hall of Fame, and he's - he was all-around player, but nobody could stop that shot from left side or the right side. Nobody can stop it, and they knew it was coming.

CONAN: And Kareem, of course, in the Hall of Fame for more than just that, Mike Pesca.

CHUCK: Absolutely. The rebounds too...

PESCA: Right. Right. So if the question is who has an unstoppable - who could repeat an unstoppable, bold, physical feat, Kareem and Mariano are very similar in that, that everyone knew the sky hook was coming, and there was nothing you could do about it. At their height, you know, certain boxers maybe can fit in that category. But, of course, Kareem was an all-around player and could pass and could rebound and was the points leader, so, yeah, a great player beyond the sky hook.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much for the nomination. We appreciate it.

PESCA: The other thing about Kareem is that no one wanted to replicate the sky hook or really try to, because it looked dorky, whereas Mariano has - there's a legion of people who want to do the cutter, and everyone's trying to pick it up and no one's nearly as good as him. But he kind of introduced and revolutionized baseball with his mastery of this one pitch.

CONAN: And tomorrow, to ensure that you don't think that Mike Pesca is just a sports correspondent, we're going to have him analyze the great debt crisis.

PESCA: Very good.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, thanks very much for your time today.

PESCA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Mike Pesca is NPR's sports correspondent. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

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