Monday, August 10, 2015

Pitchers from the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Squirrel

Danville, Kentucky -- Sylvilagus floridanus: Wikipedia tells me this is the scientific term for the eastern cottontail rabbit, a common critter in my native land, Kentucky. Most people love rabbits. As a child, I used to get excited when I’d see one hopping around my father’s acres. As an adult, bunnies are a grim reminder of one of the worst episodes of my life. Worse than any divorce, worse than my son’s defeat in the baseball state championship, worse than my ban from Applebee’s, and maybe even worse than my failed proposal at Olive Garden a few weeks ago.

It was opening day of the fall hunting season in ’88. My brother Phil and I headed up to Otter Creek, as was our tradition. 

We were mainly in the business of hunting deer and occasionally wild turkeys. I’ll admit – I was bit mentally preoccupied with the Cincinnati Bengals during that mandatory safety training class I took before Kentucky would grant me a hunting license. I’ll also admit that part of my brother and I’s tradition was to mingle with another kind of Wild Turkey prior to hunting, if you follow my drift. After doing a bit of fishing in the creek and knocking back a few frosty ones in the process, we grabbed our rifles and departed into the canopy of trees in search of our game.

Everything that happened after this is a haze. My brother and I bumbled around those North Kentucky woods with clumsiness reminiscent of Prince Fielder’s lumbering baserunning. After wandering aimlessly in search of an animal to maul, I encountered a cottontail rabbit in a small clearing in the forest. Pale autumn sunlight filtered down through the foliage onto the little guy. Phil stood beside me, egging me on. Instincts took over. I reached for my gun. I put the bunny in my sights. I pulled the trigger, as my inebriated brother Phil tripped in front of me and got caught in the crossfire.

The rabbit was startled by this loud racket. What happened to that rabbit, I’ll never know. My brother’s thigh was grazed by my bullet. It was a bloody mess, but he was alright. Bleeding profusely and reeking of Keystone Light, I helped my brother limp to safety. We both lost our hunting licenses. I haven’t seen my brother since; after this incident that burglary rap in Oakland finally caught up with him and Phil Hart has been doing hard time ever since.

My point? Sometimes, a small rodent can change the course of history.

Sciurus carolinensis: Wikipedia tells me this is the scientific name for the eastern gray squirrel, which paradoxically includes a black sub-species which is common in the Northeastern United States and Canada. After talking to my Uncle Bert from Flint, he says these buggers can be found in the Northern wilderness of the state, but are strangely common in Detroit as well. This past week, a black squirrel irreversibly altered the trajectory of baseball history.

By scampering onto the field, and announcing its presence to the crowd of 30,000+ baseball fans, the squirrel impacted the events of the game. The Detroit Tigers took its presence as a good omen, eventually launching a rally that culminated in a walkoff win against the normally immaculate Kansas City Royals bullpen. The squirrel served as the ultimate diversion, and undermined the Royals mentally. A black squirrel is like a pink elephant – once the idea is planted in your head, it’s impossible to remove. This momentary lapse in concentration resulted in a 2-0 meatball from Ryan Madson to Ian Kinsler that left the park quicker than John Kerry left Vietnam to engage in seditious activity. Would Ben Zobrist have caught Kinsler's bomb if the thought of this black squirrel weren't fresh on his mind? We may never know. To Tigers fans, this critter is a rally squirrel. To Royals fans, it is an accursed creature.

The Caribbean Connection

Whatever one’s perspective on superstitions, the season series between these rival clubs now sits at an even 5-5 split. That won’t be the case after this upcoming 3 game series in the beautiful Kauffman Stadium, which will inevitably tip the season series in one direction or another. If anybody had doubts about the willingness of the post-fire sale Detroit Tigers to grind out W’s, they should’ve been put to rest by their statement-making series W over the Royals last week. Tigers-Royals games are special. Everyone remembers the pennant race from last fall. Even though the Royals are running away with the AL Central now, the intensity remains. It’s a heated rivalry, but also a respectful one. You won’t see Detroit Tigers walking off the field, snubbing the Royals like the Bad Boys Pistons did to Jordan’s East-Coast Chicago Bulls as that torch was passed. There’s too much mutual admiration on both sides.
Even the young and occasionally brazen Ventura, often characterized as a thuggish hothead by the liberal-sports-media-industrial-complex, can’t help but goof around when in the presence of jovial guys like Miguel Cabrera.

What’s the difference between the Tigers and the teams the Royals earned a bad rep for getting into brawls with? I think it has to be the Latin connection. Key players from both teams hail from Venezuela (Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Bruce Rondon, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, Omar Infante), Cuba (Jose Iglesias, Kendrys Morales), and the Dominican Republic (Yordano Ventura, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Kelvin Herrera, Al Albuquerque, Alfredo Simon, Neftali Feliz). I had the privilege of making a roadtrip up from Danville to Detroit (the hometown of my Uncle Bert) to watch these two teams last week, and witnessed V-Mart and Mr. Escobar shooting the breeze before the game. Apologies for the photo quality, I was already several Limearitas deep.
Pre-Game Chat Between Fellow Venezuelans Victor Martinez & Alcides Escobar
By contrast, the teams the Royals fight are full of long-haired, nasty-looking ex-Oakland Athletics with great OBPs but little in the way of a sense of humour or agreeability. The type of white dudes who are saltier than the rim of the Chili’s margarita I’m sipping on right now.

This series will feature 4 starting pitchers with a Latin connection – Cueto, Ventura, Volquez and Sanchez. The Royals and their devil magic will meet its most formidable enemy yet: the Curse of the Black Squirrel.

Pitchers from the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Squirrel
Before the modern left accuses me of being essentialist and lumping diverse Latin American nationalities under the umbrella term “Caribbean,” Wikipedia proves that the term Caribbean Basin includes the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

The swashbuckling Johnny Cueto, still hungry for his first W as a Royal, will once again face off against the rookie Matt Boyd, whose Chris Young-esque arsenal had the Royals producing outs all night long in their last meeting. Yordano Ventura’s youthful and fiery demeanor will again be tested by the still-powerful (albeit Miguel Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes-less) Detroit offense.

Game 3 – Daniel Norris v. Edinson Volquez

the Dominican Amigos of the Kansas City Royals.
It’s the final matchup of this set that is particularly intriguing.

If fire is the element that best represents Yordano Ventura, Volquez is best represented by electricity. His high-voltage arsenal has movement that zips and zaps. His magnetic personality energizes the Kansas City clubhouse. He’s willing to speak his mind, and is unafraid to make shocking, highly-charged comments about crybabies like Josh Donaldson. The Tigers will need to come ready to insulate themselves from Volquez's electric currents.

Daniel Norris is more enigmatic. Shipped to Detroit in the David Price trade, he has spent his first few weeks in a Tigers uniform under the wing of Justin Verlander, the Detroit pitching staff’s once and future ace. Daniel has already won the heart of the Tigers fanbase with his first-class hustle diving plays and lumbersexual appeal. He's the new little-brother of the pitching staff, and the butt of some dugout hijinks, which were likely orchestrated by known prankster, big brother Justin.

Daniel with gum on his hat.
But Daniel has come to realize he is not like Justin. Craig Calcaterra has written that if Verlander were a superhero, “he’d be a suave, carefree and charming hero who actually has a lot of fun while defeating all of the bad guys,” kind of like Iron Man. By contrast, Daniel Norris is quieter and angst-ier, a weighed down by a sense of responsibility like Tobey McGuire’s Spider-Man, Christopher Reeve’s Superman, or Michael Keaton’s superb Batman. Justin drives flashy sports cars and dates even flashier supermodels. Daniel drives a ’78 Volkswagen van, his fortress of solitude.

Verlander's hot wheels and the Van Man
Justin embraces being a celebrity, while Daniel seeks to remain humble in spite of his success. Justin likes eating expensive steaks cooked rare; Daniel eats fried eggs prepared on a portable stove in his van. Justin’s walk-up music is the swaggering Till I Collapse by Detroit’s own Eminem; Daniel prefers some indie track you probably haven’t heard of. Despite these differences, the presence of Justin in the clubhouse serves to remind Daniel of the heights he may yet scale if he achieves his potential and masters the art of pitching. The idea of a 1-2 Verlander/Norris punch in the years to come keeps the fire in Daniel’s heart burning brightly, hungry for glory. I'll admit, Norris and his nomadic van-driving ways remind me a little of some grass-smoking draft dodgers I knew back in High School, but there's a lot to like about this young man and his desire.

What will happen when Volquez’s electric arsenal collides with Norris’ raw untapped potential? A game with Colonial Barn-Burner of the Night potential, that's what. Don't miss it.


Only time will tell if the Royals can overcome the Curse of the Black Squirrel, or if the frightened bushy-tailed little guy that wandered into Comerica Park that day is fated to be remembered alongside Billy Goats, the Bambino and Lil B. Baseball is a game that works in mysterious ways. Even a team of destiny can be thwarted when the Baseball Gods are feeling vengeful and vindictive. You’d best start believing in squirrel stories, Kansas City. You’re in one.