Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Deceits of Tori Hunter

I saw my favorite play of the year and maybe of all time here at Comerica Park last night. Lies and the lying liars who tell them…

Here’s the setup: runner on first (Boston’s Mike Napoli) and less than two out; fly ball, medium depth to right. Detroit right fielder Tori Hunter settles in underneath it and is prepared to make the catch when all of a sudden he holds both of his hands out palms up and begins wildly shaking his head side-to-side, searching desperately. Hunter’s lost the ball in the lights or against the sky and he is trying to find it and he cannot. 

Napoli has done exactly that which he is coached to do. He has proceeded as far towards second as he can while still being able to return safe to first after the catch. But when he sees Hunter has lost the ball, he takes another half-step towards second. Just a half of a step--and now he’s dead.

Hunter hasn’t lost the ball at all. At the last instant he reaches out, catches it and in the one-motion move common to a Big League outfielder, fires a strike to first. Napoli is out by an eyelash.

I’m watching this and I say, “Oh, my God! He did that on purpose!”

I was telling my daughter about it over breakfast this morning, complete with the same “I lost it” pantomime, and she’s all, like, “You can do that?” “Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s part of the game; always has been. They do this sort of thing all the time. They lie to your face. They openly attempt to deceive. They’ll pretend they have the ball in their glove even if they don’t if they think it will make a runner think twice about going for an extra base. I remember a couple of years ago and A-Rod was on third in Seattle or someplace and there’s a pop fly to the left side of the infield and he starts yelling, ‘I got it, I got it!’ The Seattle shortstop backs off thinking he’s hearing his teammate call for the catch when it’s really his opponent A-Rod who’s doing the yelling and now there’s nobody in position to make the catch and the ball falls free for a hit. The Mariners are steamed. They accuse A-Rod of cheating. I said, ‘No, it’s not: Part of the game.”

“Well,” Laura said. “Tori Hunter is my new favorite Tiger!”

I asked Tori about the play this afternoon before the game and he said it’s the sixth or seventh time in his career he’s pulled it off. This one however was, he said, the sweetest because the guy he victimized, Napoli, was his teammate in Los Angeles for three years and should have known better as he’s seen Hunter pull this exact trick before and he’s seen it with his own eyes. Hunter got a hit later in the game and when he got to first, Napoli, the Boston first baseman said, “I’m not talking to you!

Hunter said this was the first time the play has worked in an outdoor stadium. He used to do it “all the time” when he played for the Twins at the Metrodome because outfielders would lose the ball all the time against the notoriously bad background of the Teflon roof there—so when he pulled the fake there it was plausible to his victims he’d lost the ball. He said he waited to try it here last night until twilight because it’s plausible that an outfielder will lose a fly ball in the gloaming—other than having the sun in your eyes, it’s the most likely time for a player to lose the ball against the sky.

You could tell Tori really enjoyed getting Napoli’s goat last night. His smile was wide (you could see it from up here) after the umpire called Napoli out. Tori always has a good time out there. Ask him if he don’t. I did. As he sees it, it’s like playing basketball against your brother. You are going to shove and you are going to elbow and you are going to do whatever you can to win, but you are still having fun. It made me think of something, and I said it to him: I have never in all the years seen a ballplayer smile on the field as often as Tori Hunter.

In the game here tonight—quite literally as I write these words—Hunter is called out trying to steal second base. (Steal? There he goes again…) He has beaten the play. The umpire calls him out anyway. Inning over. Hunter protests. He is arguing. And, naturally, as he is all up in the umpires face, he is smiling. Ruefully perhaps, but smiling nonetheless.