Above the Beltway

When Cory shows up, he’s grinning. It’s a cocky grin, which matches his swagger. Everyone else on the team is already at the field warming up when Cory gets there, which makes his entrance that much more grand.

It’s Opening Day, and Cory will be our starting pitcher. The Opening Day pitcher is baseball’s version of the starting quarterback. You’re certified as the team’s “ace” if you get the nod on the first game of the season.

It wasn’t a done deal that Cory would be the #1 pitcher for the Green Sox this year–not until the doctor looked at the left arm on which he had operated a few weeks before and said, “resume normal activity.” In Cory’s case, that meant mowing down hitters.

I was catching the first time Cory pitched for the Green Sox back in 2003. My chief memory of his performance was not his 6’3″ 240 lb. frame standing on the mound. It was not the cocky smile that he now wears permanently. I mostly remember running back to the backstop behind home plate to chase after his wild pitches.

To be fair, the first reason so many balls were going back there was because I wasn’t a real catcher. I’m an outfielder and always have been. I’m also baseball’s version of a cockroach–willing and able to adapt to any circumstance in order to survive, despite the lack of any obvious virtues (the most auspicious record I hold is leading the team in being hit by pitches).

So, in 2002 when one of our catchers (a 140 pound angry Irish bartender) injured his foot, and another (who once bragged about making twice as much money as our former pitching ace) burned out in the middle of a double-header, I put on the protective gear and became the starting catcher.

But in my defense, it was mostly Cory’s fault that so many balls were flying past me. First, his arm was rusty. He didn’t have his pitching mechanics down, and so he was releasing the ball at different points in every pitch, striding differently, and generally being erratic. The second reason for Cory’s pitches being so wild would prove, a few weeks later, to be his chief virtue–the tail.

***

Cory found about the Green Sox through a posting on the website CraigsList. Ryan, a foul-mouthed, fleet-footed, half-Chinese kid who played on my team in Pelham Little League in 1994 (Ryan was the winning pitcher in the game where we won the Pelham championship), posted on the website a call for any hardball players in a wooden bat league. We got two responses. One was from an economist named Pete with the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The other from a lefty named Cory, with e-mail address that ended in “soldier.army.mil.” That was, as Ryan would say, “pimppp.” The catcher who would eventually replace me, a 42-year-old named Stew, was struck by the e-mail addresses and occupations on the team.

Our salty shortstop who designed weapons systems, such as guided missiles, for the Pentagon would lose his starting role to a Hoosier who worked for Lockheed Martin and was learning diode laser technology. One guy on the team named John (everyone calls him Doug) works for Northrup Grumman.

A new pitcher worked on Tony Knowles’ Democratic Senate campaign in Alaska. The guy who founded the team, Mike, works for Tom DeLay, while the team manager, Kyle, is a Peace Corps alumnus who is now with Envirocitizen. But increasingly, since Mike formed the team in 2001, we’ve begun to identify as Green Sox.

In fact, at a party in the winter of 2004, Mike and I were greeted with the typical Washington question “what do you do?” (the alternative to the more standard “who do you work for?”). Mike answered, “We play baseball.”

It was a wise-ass answer, which is how Mike learned to deal with insecurity when he was an awkward redheaded kid at Gonzaga, the local Jesuit school. But it’s an answer I’ve given a dozen times since, whenever I feel myself sinking too deep into the beltway swamp.

In political Washington we all have a problem. It’s a species of a problem you can find in many professions. We take our work too seriously, and believe that politics is everything.

You see this same tunnel vision among scientists, for example, who feel irritated by ethical nags and religious types trying to slow down their progress. They know their work is noble, and so they believe impediments are always destructive.

You see it with academics, artists, and all sorts. But it might be worst in politics. Bills, regulations, and scandals not only take up our work, our water-cooler banter, and our happy hour debates, but we also see them on the front pages of our newspapers and in the headlines of our evening news. The media affirms our parochial idea that politics is everything.

This tunnel vision is certainly personally harmful to everyone–folks of all political persuasions who get mired in the swamp. But it is also harmful to conservatism as a cause, if that cause is understood to include the limiting of government power and deep respect for tradition, religion, and family.

If we see the world through Washington lenses, we are apt to believe Washington has the answer to all problems. As one friend, a self-identified conservative who works for a Senator known as a conservative, recently summed up the mindset in his congressional office: “doing nothing is not an option.”

Indeed, a political type is not at ease doing nothing, because he has come to believe that only from Washington can virtue come. But the reduction of everything to politics is a de facto assault on the family and the church.

***

A few weeks after Cory’s ill-fated relief appearance in 2003, I showed up at the field in Prince George’s County and got the word: I would play the whole game at catcher, and Cory would be the starting pitcher. I deferred to the manager’s judgment, bit my tongue, and gave my legs an extra stretch to prepare for a day chasing wild pitches.

But in the first inning, Cory struck out two batters and gave up no runs. All night long, he dominated the other team, who couldn’t seem to hit his fastball. Inning after inning, he sent the hitters back to the dugout with their heads hanging.

By the end of the game, Cory was running on fumes. He couldn’t seem to throw two pitches in a row into the strike zone. Somehow, though, he kept mowing down the batters. I couldn’t figure out why, with a pitcher who was having control problems, opposing batters kept swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone.

The answer lay in a fact of physics that Cory had been exploiting his whole life, though he could never explain it: His pitch “tails” down and away from a right-handed hitter. (“I’m a lefty–that’s just the way it works.”)

At play was the “Magnus effect,” which explains that a spinning projectile creates greater pressure on the side of the ball that rotates against the direction of the air’s resistance. An overhand fastball has backspin: from the batter’s viewpoint, the top of the ball is rotating away from him, and the bottom is rotating towards him. This generates greater air pressure beneath the ball, which generates lift. The lift slightly offsets gravity, causing the pitch to “rise.” The raised seams on a baseball “grip” the air and amplify the Magnus effect.

Cory pitches with a “three-quarters” delivery. His throw is neither directly overhand nor side-armed, but somewhere in between. This means his fastball, from the batter’s perspective, will rotate from about 7:30 on the clock to about 1:30. The air pressure, then will be greatest on the bottom left of the ball. Also, Cory’s release imparts more spin to the baseball than most pitchers do.

Accordingly, the ball breaks to the right, or away from the right-handed batter. But Cory’s grip on the ball minimizes the contact the seams make with the air underneath the ball, all but eliminating the “lift” his pitch should have–thus leaving gravity to drag the ball downwards more than it normally does on a fastball.

The result appears to a hitter like a ball tailing down and away. This combination of physics and optical illusions is why I couldn’t catch Cory’s pitches the first time he pitched. And it’s why the batters couldn’t hit him the next time.

We won that first game Cory started back in 2003, which proved to be a turning point for the Green Sox. His first start still stands as a dividing line, not just for the ’03 season, but for the team’s history. We mark our sad-sack days as everything before that game. Our days as a serious team began that night.

Cory’s last name is McEntee, but soon we starting calling him “McNasty.” (Nasty is a high compliment in baseball, exceeded only by “Filthy.”) We used Cory so much in 2003 and 2004, that he tore a tendon in his arm. He had to have surgery in the offseason (we all refer to November through March as “the offseason”).

Also in the offseason, Cory had a birthday party at a bar in Virginia. When I showed up, I met his colleagues. They weren’t soldiers. They were all computer programmers. The E-vite for this gathering called Cory “our favorite computer nerd.” At this writing, Cory is working late transferring his office’s network to an Active Directory Domain from some other thing that means nothing to me.

Cory spends his days tinkering with computers.

But on Opening Day, Cory swaggers and grins onto the field. Even after he struggles in the first inning, and has to leave the game after three innings, he is still Cory McNasty. Next time he shows up at the field, he will look just as cocky, and we will all feel a certain sense of security the next time he takes the mound.

On the baseball field, Cory, our favorite computer nerd, becomes our ace. And we all transform. Kyle, our Peace Corps guy, started the only brawl in our team’s history. Mike, a redheaded anonymous Hill staffer, becomes our most valuable offensive weapon. Ryan springs from behind his desk and becomes a cheetah on the basepaths and in the outfield.

Baseball reminds us all that there is meaning outside of politics. Getting the chance twice a week to struggle on a very different field of play is the reminder we need to stick our head above the swamp of Washington. Only when we transcend the political do we have a chance to live the good life–which is exactly what we have on the baseball field.

Tim Carney is a Phillips Fellow, a freelance journalist, an outfielder, and a No. 9 hitter.

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