Pop Quiz: what do an incompetent Miami cab driver and an ex-stripper in a low-cut Santa dress have in common?
Answer: They are each responsible for getting the one of the two pitchers currently tied for the club lead in wins, onto the New York Mets. If Anna Benson hadn’t showed up for the Met’s Christmas Party in a skimpy Mrs. Claus outfit, the Mets would probably not have dealt her husband for Jorge Julio, in which deal the previously unknown and unimpressive John Maine was included as an after thought. And if Duaner Sanchez, the Met’s top set-up man, hadn’t injured his shoulder in a Miami taxi cab there would have been no reason to trade Xavier Nady for veteran reliever Roberto Hernandez and a once promising starter that the Pirates had given up on, named Oliver Perez.
In 2004, for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Perez had one of the most tantalizing seasons for any young pitcher, leading the Major Leagues with 10.97 strikeouts per nine innings and putting up 2.98 ERA that was good for a tie for fifth place (with the Rocket, whose recent minor league starts are NOT impressive to Pedro Martinez) in the NL. However, even prior to that season, Perez had had issues with his control and tendencies towards wildness—glaring weaknesses in his game that would never cease to haunt him. In 2005, after a loss to the Cardinals, he broke his big toe kicking a laundry cart in the dugout and spent two and a half months on the DL. He opened 2006 as the Pirates number one starter, but quickly moved from the rotation to the bullpen, to the minors. When the Mets traded Nady to the Pirates for Hernandez, Omar Minaya was probably the only person left in baseball who saw enough in Perez to demand that the Pirates throw him in.
At first for the Mets in 2006, Perez was much like he had been before, very closely resembling the little girl immortalized by the poem: ‘for when she was good/ she was very, very good/ and when she was bad, she was horrid.’ He would be lights out for innings at a stretch, only to develop un-conventional notions about the size and location of the strike zone, and walk and hit batters until the game was out of reach. When he started game 7 of the NLCS, he had compiled the worst statistics of any pitcher to pitch a game seven in the history of baseball.
But Perez was good in that game, only giving up one run in six innings, and since then he has basically been brilliant, with flashes of wildness, instead of the other way around. True, he has thrown some rotten games this year, but they have been the exception, rather than the rule. He has been evolving into something like a ‘big game pitcher,’ having his best games against ‘rivals’ like the Braves or the Yankees. Indeed, while Atlanta’s Chipper Jones has embraced the label of ‘Met Killer’ to the extent that he named his son ‘Shea’ after the stadium where he has had the most success, the Mets should start calling Ollie ‘Firewater’ (or maybe Smallpox), because he always messes up the Braves (knock on wood).
The part of the human brain that evolved from animals that would hide from their predators in trees feels deeply sorry for pitchers. They have nothing to protect them, no wall to put their backs against: man was not meant to be quite so out in the open. Few pitchers, however, manage to draw much attention to their humanity: good ones (Tom Glavine) make it seem as if they aren’t doing anything that impressive; great ones (Pedro Martinez) give the impression of having evolved into Supermen; truly bad ones (Jose Lima) can only be reviled; and we are never tempted to relate to true and deep mediocrity (Steve Trachsel), although maybe we should be.
Perez is none of that: he sits on the cusp between fantastic and abysmal. He has touched greatness, but been unable to grasp it. He is bound by superstition— when he skips over the baseline he sometimes seems delightfully exuberant and sometimes demented. The control that he lacks, that is his great weakness, is not a control over others or over outside forces; rather it is the control of his own product, his own process, and his own stuff.
Oh, Oliver! Oh, humanity!