Joel Zumaya is excited. It is Spring Training 2012. It’s the first time he appears in a new uniform, the Minnesota Twins. He hasn’t pitched in any other uniform besides the Detroit Tigers; the team that gave him birth. He hasn’t pitched since 2010. Period.
Zumaya sets and deals to an empty batting cage. “Yes, sir!”, he screams. The scouts, beat writers, and players laugh. It seems that all is normal again for Joel. He’s returning to his old self. He’s throwing 100 MPH again. He’s enjoying baseball.
But according to the Youtube video, this was right before Zumaya left the bullpen session with elbow discomfort. That discomfort Zumaya felt is from a torn ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow. He now has to wait another year. Or is he waiting to retire?
I take you back to 2010, to the last professional pitch that Joel Zumaya threw. It’s like I’ve seen this motion 1,000 times.
The score is 7-5. The Detroit Tigers have travelled to division rival, Minnsota. It’s the bottom of the 8th. I’m watching the game from my leather couch. It’s cold at times, particularly stiff this evening. Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya is on the mound. He’s know for his electric fastball, his 8th inning demeanor, and hurting his career while playing Guitar Hero. At the plate stands Delmon Young. A top-prospect bad ass, who once was suspended indefinitely for throwing a bat at an umpire.
It is not a cold day. It’s the summertime here in Minnesota. The Twins just built a new ballpark, Target Field. A beautiful complex compared to the Metrodome.
But there’s something particularly interesting about tonight. Something haunting, you might call it. Zumaya has repeated this delivery thousands of times. He comes out of the stretch. He brings the ball to the heal of his glove. He’s just received the sign from his catcher: a fastball. The count is 3-2, 2 outs. One more pitch and Zumaya is out of the inning. He can go relax in the clubhouse, ice his arm, and shower knowing he’s given it his all tonight.
He has his grip. The right-hander’s front leg comes up off the dirt. His leg grazes the gray jersey that reads “Detroit” in a fancy script. Young is at-bat. He’s fiddling around with his bat, easing the nerves that flutter in his body. He wants to throw his bat into the ball, almost like he’s trying to protect himself. His swing is so beautiful and easy. He slices into a downward plane, as if he’s chopping at a tree.
His hand is caressing the ball as if it’s a grenade. Zumaya will let it sail, hoping it comes up inside, past the bat of Young. He brings the ball out of his glove. His glove hand is pointing towards the mitt of the catcher.
Zumaya’s leg is now preparing to land. It lowers itself to the surface. He motions his left leg to third base, to gather more momentum to the plate. His hips shift like a dance everyone has known. As it comes around, his right foot pivots, temporarily leaving a mark on the dirt. He throws himself off the rubber, leading his fastball right to where he wants it. His right arm comes around his body, at 3/4th of an angle. He lets the ball leave his hand, gently. Nothing is forced here. He just repeats what he’s done thousands of times.
Foul ball. 99 MPH. You hear a sound. A sound of ball meeting bat. As Young admires where the ball travels, we are left to see Zumaya leaned over. His mouth is open. I don’t know what he is saying. He shakes his right hand down to the ground, as if he’s blaming the mound for the pitch. But his body springs up. Is it in disgust at the pitch he just threw? Or is Zumaya feeling something I am not?
He jumps up. It looks as if he’s tumbling down the mound. The camera focuses on Young. A faint “oh no” is played in my head, but I don’t know who says it. I know what’s happening when I look at Young’s face. I can barely see his eyes. The bill of the helmet is shielding them. He motions back towards the Twins dugout.
A Broadcast asks, “What happened?”
“Oh no, Zumaya…”
He’s hunched over. He looks like he’s shielding something from everyone. He nurses his right elbow. He leans backwards and looks towards the sky. He’s clearly holding his elbow, a grip that doesn’t want to let go. His mouth is opened. You can see the pain in his face. The whites of his teeth are exposed. They let out a cry. A wounded soldier rolling in the trench.
He falls over as if he has no control. The left hand grabs his cap as his body topples over like a fallen tree. And for a few seconds, nothing means anything to me. The words of the broadcasts are nothing. I am given a picture, a high-definition pitcher of Joel Zumaya, holding his Tigers baseball cap to the ground, hunching over motionless. A man in a black uniform, with a pair of scissors in his back left pocket, accompanies the right-hander. He puts his hand on his back. His catcher rushes towards the mound and arrives at the same time as the trainer.
Manager Jim Leyland rushes to the mound. He gets on one knee, if remembering Zumaya, yet he lies right before him.
“This is just another chapter, in what has been…”
Silence is upon me.