Anyone who has spent a lot of time talking baseball has heard this cliché come up when discussing great pitchers:
“If my life depended on it, I’d take _____ to pitch that game . . .”
To put your very life in the hands of someone playing a game built on the randomness of breaks and spins, hops and bounces, is the highest of praise. It forces the person whose life is at stake to cast aside all of the variables that are woven into the thread of the game. To narrow the nearly limitless outcomes of a single nine inning affair into a binary result for, as they say, “all the marbles.” So of course I’m going to dive right into it, although I should clarify that my life is not actually at stake during this writing (although I am attempting to home school my two year old at the moment, so ya know . . . maybe?).
That being said, there are some ways to firm up the otherwise shifty foundation of this hypothetical. Say the opposing team is the 2019 Tigers: I like my chances. The 2018 Red Sox? I’ll invest in Life Insurance. Is Coors Field the venue? Ugh. What about Marlins Park? Things are looking up!
Before we explore this exercise, let’s clarify a few things:
- Let’s expand the criteria and say your life hangs in the balance in three scenarios: one GAME, one SERIES (say a postseason-style best of five), and one SEASON.
- For the sake of the exercise, let’s say the opposing team is pretty good, but not top of the heap. The lineup would resemble that of the 2019 Nationals, or the 2003 Yankees.
- You may choose ONE starting pitcher per stretch, and there’s no bullpen. Whomever is chosen has to go the distance.
- The assumption is that, whichever pitcher you select, it’s his peak performance.
- In terms of venue, we’ll say modern, but neutral: Progressive Field (home of the Indians)
Since I have the self-indulgent pleasure of this being my blog, I’ll go ahead and lay out MY choices, for both scrutiny and clarity:
ONE GAME: Sandy Koufax
The Left Arm of God gets the most urgent nine innings of my life. I have to be honest: this wasn’t that hard. Over 12 seasons, Koufax accumulated three Cy Young awards, five (consecutive) ERA titles, and struck out nearly 2,400 batters. But I selected him as the ‘one game’ guy because of the No-Hitters. Four of them, to be exact, with one being a perfect game. The truth is, Sandy was going to pitch a no-no until you stopped him. If I’ve got only one shot at preserving my life, I’d love it to be as stress free as possible, and there’s nothing less stressful than the opposition never even getting on base.
ONE SERIES: Curt Schilling
So yeah, as a human, I know . . . Curt Schilling sucks. I mean, he’s kinda the worst (although Aubrey Huff seems pretty determined to wear that crown). But hey, my life is on the line here, so I’m going to take Schill to get me out of a jam. Over 133.1 postseason innings, Schilling posted a sparkling 2.23 ERA while striking out 120 batters. The key ingredient here, though, is grit. There are few pitchers who have not only compiled the statistical case for ‘best postseason pitcher ever,’ but also have the lore to go with it. When you look back at the 2001 World Series, he and Randy Johnson basically took down the three-time reigning champions by themselves. Or look at the 2004 ALCS, when he pitched through indescribable pain in what became known as ‘the bloody sock affair.’ The fact is, if my life is on the line, I’d like the guy taking the mound for me to act like his might be on the line too, and I can’t think of anyone else who embodies that more than that awful human being. Give me Schilling or give me death.
ONE SEASON: Greg Maddux
Now I get to endure an entire season: watching my life hang in the balance over, say, a 30-or-so game span. At some point, the scale will tip to an unrecoverable level. The season will turn into either a parade toward the joyous extension of my life, or a depressing slog toward its inevitable ending. Either way, I’m going with the guy who will get me there most efficiently—hopefully to the former outcome, not the latter. Greg Maddux seems like the perfect candidate for such a season, since he has such a fantastic record—including four ERA titles, four (consecutive) Cy Young awards, and five consecutive seasons with the most innings pitched (so he can handle the workload). The biggest deciding factor, though, is one that many don’t always appreciate: his glove. The fact is, the stakes are high; the VERY last thing I want to see is an E1 on the scoresheet. Thankfully, the Mad Dog is the proud recipient of 18 (yes, EIGHTEEN) Gold Glove awards, so you know that he won’t hurt you in that facet either. Maddux was an exception to the rule of his time. While other pitchers were slinging their arms about, trying to blaze the ball past bulked-up sluggers, knowing the bullpen was behind them, Maddux took a different approach: get them out, do it quickly, and don’t make mistakes.
So let’s hear it. Who’s pitching for YOUR life?