' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Jay Johnstone

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

In Memoriam: Jay Johnstone

In the early days of the Pandemic, when sports came entirely to a halt in America, My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I would sometimes turn on the MLB Network during lunch and watch a little of whatever old baseball game they were televising in lieu of anything new. One of those classics included Game 1 of the 1988 World Series which famously ended on a 2-run walk off home run by a limping Kirk Gibson. I remembered the home run and I remembered Vin Scully’s extraordinary call, but what I did not remember was the at-bat’s entire rhythm. It was not just a home run, after all. It was Gibson falling behind 0-2 in the count to future Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley; it was Eckersley making frequent pitch outs to hold the runner at first; it was Gibson dribbling a ball down the right field line that thankfully went foul; it was Gibson laying off the first ball and then laying off the second ball and then laying off the third ball to bring the count to 3-2 and then going yard. It was a reminder that famous hits are, of course, part of whole at-bat sequences. Kirby Puckett did not just saunter up and blast a home run in the bottom of the 11th to turn Game 6 into Game 7 in the insane 1991 World Series; he did it on the 4th pitch, ahead in the count 2-1. Even Bill Mazeroski took one ball from Ralph Terry before belting perhaps the most famous home run of all time to conclude the 1960 World Series. 

What’s more, memorable at-bats do not even need to conclude with hits. The longest at-bat of all time, taking place in 2018, was San Francisco Giants first baseman battling Angels pitcher Jaime Barria for 21 pitches. It ended, however, with a whimper, Belt flying out to right. The previous record, a 20-pitch affair 20 year earlier, between Cleveland pitcher Bartolo Colon and Houston shortstop Ricky Gutierrez ended with the latter striking out. The single most critical at-bat of all time, as exhaustively chronicled by Dave Studeman at FanGraphs, in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of 1962 World Series with the visiting team leading by one and runners on second and third brought Willie McCovey of the Pirates to the plate to play hero only to line out. This goes to show that at-bats are often as much about the surrounding context, as Keith Hernandez memorably explained to Elaine Benes in setting up the details of the crucial moment in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series: two outs, bottom of the tenth, one out away from the losing series.

Now Baseball Reference will tell you that outfielder Jay Johnstone played for the Angels and White Sox and Athletics and Phillies and Yankees and Padres and Dodgers and Cubs in an almost 20-year career that ended in 1985. But true baseball aficionados know that Jay Johnstone played one additional, mystical year for the Seattle Mariners in 1989, including their one-game playoff divisional showdown with the rival California Angels. Johnstone led off that game, famously, controversially striking out on three pitches from Dave Spiwack. What rendered it controversial, as any contemporary account will recall, was the umpire’s behavior, seemingly more concerned with his post-call disco dancing then with making the call in the first place. Indeed, the third strike was called, as replays bore out, before the ball had even crossed the plate. In that way, Johnstone was reduced to the straight man in an at-bat comedy bit, his series of perplexed facial expressions in the face of the indescribable going to show that no matter how many practice swings you take, no matter how much tape of the opposing pitcher you watch, not matter how much you finesse those analytics, sometimes there is simply no accounting for the absurd. At-bats can be dramatic, grueling, historic; sometimes they are nothing more than fodder for comedy. I will not go so far as to deem Johnstone’s three-strike flame out as the greatest at-bat of all time but it is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, my favorite.

Jay Johnstone died at the age of 74 on September 26th due to complications from COVID-19.

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