When The Champ walked onto the mound in the fifth inning on Wednesday, the situation was only slightly different than most of the rubber straddling he’s done for most of the past 13 years.
Ten thousand one hundred thirty five people squeezed into a ballpark that has an official capacity of 9,100. National television cameras slunk in every well. Chris Bootcheck, at the center of it all, still stood far from the ESPN primetime broadcasts and the $20 million contracts.
Those were in New York the day before, at the MLB All-Star Game. Bootcheck was in Reno, Nevada, “The Biggest Little City in the World”, for the Triple-A All-Star game.
This was his kitchen. The chef got to work.
Just like last year, MLB Network broadcast the game, meaning Wednesday turned into The Detroit Hustle’s annual, “Watch Chris Bootcheck Pitch Day,” my favorite holiday after Christmas.
This time, I was familiar with Bootcheck’s lurching motion and angular build. I wasn’t quite prepared for the Railriders’ uniform combination of a maroon hat, deep red vest, black sleeves, grey pants and Yankee blue socks, but the mismatch became a temporary distraction in watching The Champ’s butchering display.
That is, when they showed him. Most of the bottom of the fifth inning was taken up by MLB Network interviewing somebody whose name was something like Mike Cavaballero, who spent either seven or nine years in independent ball before getting signed and actually making the big leagues. He would be the greatest James Mungro Memorial story ever and I would’ve spent some time actually looking him up, but he played for the Twins, who are barely a baseball team at all.
By the time the MLB Network was done interviewing this character, Bootcheck was already walking off the mound, chewing his gum, almost upset about how easy that was.
First batter: Strike. Foul ball. Lined to Bootcheck’s Railriders teammate Thomas Neal, who caught the ball first and did a completely unnecessary slide second.
Second batter: First-pitch ground ball.
Third batter: Strike. Ball. Foul. Missed spot by five feet. Slammed glove. Missed spot again. Grounder. Walked off mound. Chewed gum.
Ten pitches was all he needed, and it appeared to be all he would get. Every other pitcher before him had pitched one inning and left. But RHP isn’t subjected to the same rules as every other pitcher.
The Railriders manager, Dave Miley, a man who looks like he has no apprehension fighting strangers, was also the manager for the International League. He sent his guy out for another inning.
The Champ had a new catcher: former Detroit Hustle favorite Omir Santos.* Bootcheck gave up a hit and a wild pitch allowed the runner to get to second. With two outs, a runner in scoring position, and a 4-3 lead, he faced something called Tuffy Gosewisch.
Foul ball. Foul ball. Ball. On his 23rd pitch, Bootcheck sent a 90 mph fastball into the catcher’s glove for strike three.
Eff you Tuffy Gosewisch.
Bootcheck walked off the mound, still chewing that gum, still The Champ.
*(I secretly run the Triple-A All-Star Game.)