The Fastball Also Rises

The Brewers currently have a reliever named Jacob Barnes. For you literary types, this coincidentally happens to be the name of the main character of The Sun Also Rises, a disabled war veteran referred to as Jake Barnes. I thought it would be funny to write a riff on the classic Hemingway novel with the 2016 Brewers as the backdrop instead of post-WWI Paris.

Ryan Braun was once MVP of the National League. Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a title, especially since the award was revoked after he was suspended for PEDs, but it meant a lot to Braun. He cared quite a bit for baseball, in fact he enjoyed it, but he plays it now to counteract the thousands of fans who jeer at him during every at bat. Braun is an interesting fellow, a real “five-tool player” as the scouts say, but that wasn’t far enough for him.

Braun was a top-tier talent. Fifth pick overall, can’t miss prospect. He came up and performed exactly as advertised. He could hit. He was really very fast. He was a true 30/30 hitter.  And yet even though he would’ve been a fine ballplayer had he not used PEDs and gotten involved with Biogenesis, he had to have that extra edge. Now in his presumably his final days with the Brewers, ostensibly without PEDs, he’s still one of the better hitters in baseball. He has a .319/.376/.541 triple slash and 13 homers. He has a 139 wRC+. His isolated power is .222. However, while Ryan Braun is having a good season, he is still far from his peak.

I mistrust all confirmed steroid-users, even Bartolo Colon. When rumors about Braun filtered in through the news, I always had a suspicion that perhaps Ryan Braun had never deserved his MVP, and that perhaps Matt Kemp should get the award, or that he had, maybe, been on PEDs all the way back to his days at Miami before he started hitting 30+ homers as a rookie. His power numbers have been down. He’s only 32, shouldn’t he be getting into his “power prime”?

And yet Ryan Braun is a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, and so am I.

I was called up on June 3rd and pitched against the Phillies. I am 26 years old and have spent five years in the minor leagues. The game against the Phillies was my first career appearance. I faced Tommy Joseph, Jimmy Paredes and Pete Bourjos. I struck out Joseph and Bourjos. Parades grounded out. It was a pretty successful outing, all things considered.

I remember there was a time when Jimmy Paredes was going to be a real major leaguer. I remember when Pete Bourjos was a legitimate outfielder for a competitive team. Now they faced me on the Phillies, a terrible team that was running out of its early season luck. Bourjos couldn’t touch anything I threw. Paredes, he of the career 28.1 strikeout percentage, swung at everything.

That day was also the third time I met Ryan Braun.

We’d talked twice during spring training, and he made good small talk. Talked about his family. Talked about his daughter, Celine. Told him my wife was pregnant with a daughter. That was before things got hectic. That was before my stepfather who raised me passed away from lung cancer. That was before my baby was born. My thoughts were not on baseball, obviously, and Braun and the Brewers and baseball all meant little. I was Ryan Braun’s baseball acquaintance. We are teammates and coworkers.

“How was your first game, Jake?” Braun asked.

“It was solid. Felt nervous,” I said.

“That’s awesome, bro.”

Then he left to go take a shower. The Phillies had beaten us 6-3. I looked at the box score on my phone, just to make sure it was all real. There it was. Jacob Barnes: 1 IP, 2 SOs, 0.00 ERA. It was real. The job I had dreamed of for years had materialized.

That week the trade talks for Braun started to appear in the media. There was talk about trading Jonathan Lucroy, the man who had caught my first major league appearance, but Braun and his big contract drew the most attention. The Giants, Nationals, Mets, Astros and Red Sox seemed interested. Braun said little to us about the matter. It would distract from the overall team effort. He talked to

Yet the news was out there, every day. For the media, Braun adopted the indifference characteristic of all players on the trading block. He’s never had to face this before. He was the franchise player, the golden kid of the Brewers. But that’s gone now. He’s not indispensable. His past is too fraught with broken promises and lost years. Now that even Milwaukee has soured on him after the suspension, to an extent, there’s nothing tying him to the area.

Regardless, the Brewers are a bad team with only the future to look forward to. Holding onto Braun, Luc and Jeremy Jeffress is not a good idea.

On July 9th I faced the New York Mets and gave up my first run. Juan Lagares hit a double. As I watched the Mets, I realized that I was sitting on my couch watching this team in the World Series not too long ago. And yet they were different. They carried themselves like a team with low expectations. The lineup I studied before the game was new. Ty Kelly? James Loney? Asdrubal Cabrera? Neil Walker? That lineup was completely different. The sands of time shifted everything, and yet the shirt remains the same, unsullied by player transactions and 40-man rosters. Maybe we should take the shift off time and let the fielders just hang on for a moment.

I talked to Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who was on the Mets for years.

“Do you feel any urge to avenge yourself?” I said.

“No, it’s just another day at the office. I know the guys, I say hi, and then I do my job.” he said. Kirk had two hits against Colon. Kirk once had three homers in a game less than a year ago. But after looking at his swings for a week, I struggled to see how that was possible.

I faced the Mets again two days later, this time to close out the game in the ninth with the Brewers up 7-3. Johnson singled. Loney flew out. Asdrubal Cabrera singled and Johnson went to third. My good friend Jeremy entered the game because Craig wanted to protect the lead. He allowed one of my runners to score, which was irritating, but we won the game so I dismissed my concerns. Ryan Braun homered twice. He looked very assured.

June rolled onwards. I did not give up another run until I came into a tie game against Washington and earned my first loss. It was infuriating because the game was scoreless until I gave up a home run to Jose Lobaton. Jose frickin’ Lobaton. That was his 15th career homer in almost 1,000 plate appearances. I struck out four batters, but one of them was Stephen Drew so I don’t know if it counts.

It doesn’t look like the Brewers are going to send me back down just yet. Apparently they like what they see. I strike a lot of guys out. My “BABIP” has been unlucky, so the stat guys say. My slider is nasty. I’m a two-pitch pitcher. I throw the fastball, then I get whiffs with the slider. My arm is fresh and I can get around 95 and change with the fastball. When batters see the slider, they think they are getting the fastball but the ball dips below their sightline and the rest is history. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I give up runs, like I did against the Dodgers a couple days ago.

Today, the rain poured down at Busch Stadium. I’m writing this during the rain delay after my relief appearance. Me and some of the other guys left the bullpen and headed into the visitors’ clubhouse.

“Hey Jake, what are you writing there?” Braun asked.

“Just a couple scrawls, you know.”

“You want to be a writer? Go hang out with those idiots with laptops in the box!”

“I think I’d much rather be playing.”

“Oh for sure, for sure. What are you writing about?”

“My family.”

“Oh that’s nice. Very nice. I’m sure that’ll be a great read someday!”

“I’m sure.”


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