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Celebrating the End of an Era

With steroids and 70-Home-Run seasons seemingly fallen, the pitcher shall rise. And it’s perfect.

When Matt Cain fanned fourteen batters and secured the twenty-second perfect game in Major League Baseball history, he did more than shut the door on twenty-seven consecutive batters. He shut the door on an Era –when baseball housed steroids and sluggers in its shadows, and eventually, fell on its face.

Cain’s immaculate game was the fifth no-hitter and second perfect game this season. It was a night that, according to Bill James’ game score, placed Matt Cain second to only Kerry Wood’s 20-K masterpiece for the best pitched game ever. And it arrived on the tidal-wave of pitching dominance that has swept the league in the last few years. There have been 234 no-hitters thrown in the modern Era over 111 seasons. An astounding six percent of them (14) have come in the last two and a half seasons (from 2010 onward). If pitching prowess had always moved at this pace that we’ve seen for the last three seasons, baseball would have over 600 no-hitters in its history. 234 no-hitters suddenly seem so pedestrian.

For those of us who grew up playing Wiffle Ball in the late 1990s, gripping the foam handle of our Mark McGwire Vortex bats, this resurrection of pitching dominance is more than hard to believe –it’s impossible. Less than a decade ago, Barry Bonds sent more than seventy home-runs over the fence in a single season. Five years ago, in 2007, only one qualifying pitcher had an ERA of 3.00 or lower –one. So far this season, there are 25, and a forty home-run season could easily top the MLB at year’s end (assuming Josh Hamilton doesn’t completely obliterate this statement like he does fastballs).

It’s an astounding phenomenon. The new age of the pitcher has changed the league. Less than ten years ago, it was about chicks digging the long ball, the muscles behind the bats, and box scores that more often than not read 10-8 instead of 3-2. Now, we’re not even to the All-Star break, and have born witness to five no-hit performances, and several other close calls. It’s a phenomenon that’s been covered admirably and thoroughly by Jayson Stark –a phenomenon to which there is no easy, surefire answer as to why it’s arrived.

Whatever the reasons may be (likely some combination of the eradication of steroids and enhanced scouting), we shouldn’t be mourning the loss of the long-ball. We shouldn’t mourn this transition of eras from high-scoring shootouts to low-scoring, pitching gems. We should be celebrating it.

Perhaps chicks dig the long ball. But pay attention –fans dig the no-hitter. Home-runs come and go. Even today, they are a part of most games. Witnessing a no-hitter feels like once-in-a-lifetime. It’s not a fleeting play –a sudden dismissal of the ball from the ballpark. It’s not just a moment in time. It’s a total experience –an experience that gets more suspenseful, more painful, and more exciting by the moment.

What could be more exciting in baseball than a situation in which each pitch matters? Each pitch could either be the extension of a magical memory or the end of a chance-of-a-lifetime. How often, in sports, do we get that? How often are we on the edge of our seats an hour before the game ends, knowing that something huge hangs in the balance?

The magic that surrounds an incredible pitching performance is the purest fandom in baseball. It’s the magic that kept many of us awake on the east coast, waiting to see if perfection could find its way to San Francisco. We don’t do that for home-runs. We don’t do that for the chance to see a muscular man hit a ball into the stands. That happens. Perfect games don’t just happen –they are a happening. With that kind of drama presenting itself, why would anyone miss the offensive siege that was the 1990s and early 2000s?

For the first time in a long time, baseball appears to be clean again. The shadows are lifting, and people are coming back to the game. The last time baseball needed saving, it came on the backs of simulated giants, as McGwire and Sosa competed to obliterate Roger Maris’ home-run record. Then the game fell, the numbers suddenly meant nothing, and the game, once again, needed saving.

When all else had fallen, it was the age of pitchers that would rise. And it’s glorious. Do not lament the loss of the long-ball. That Era, along with the stains of steroids, may finally be behind us. Instead, celebrate the returned magic of baseball. The magic has touched the cities of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle in this season, alone. Imagine what other cities, stadiums, and hearts it might find.

I don’t know all the reasons why names like Verlander, Weaver, Cain, and Santana have helped to shut the door on a tainted past and open another into a future defined by pitchers that go the distance. I don’t know if hitters will adjust, if steroids will be kept at bay. All I know is that this new era has ushered in something special. When Humber, Santana, Weaver, Cain, and Wilhelmsen entered the bottom of the ninth, we, as baseball fans, held our collective breath with them…and waited.

That’s when you know sports are special: when everyone is watching, everyone is invested –everyone cares.

Matt Cain did more than shut down the Houston Astros on Wednesday night. He helped officially shut down an Era long dead. He helped those of us still haunted by the demons of baseball’s recent past find excitement and drama in this game, again.

Matt Cain, and others, raised the banner of the pitcher and the question as to whether we should completely alter our perspective of this game. Perhaps, someday not too distant from today, I will look down on my own son and jokingly say, “Chicks dig the shutout.” Perhaps I’ll hear him in the backyard, a baseball bouncing off of a brick-wall, saying, “2 outs, bottom of the ninth, Collins staring down a perfect game.”

And for the first time in many years, perhaps baseball will see ahead an ending for itself that is altogether perfect.

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