Sgt. Slaughter
  • Sgt. Slaughter

DBAP/DURHAM—On Friday night, the Durham Bulls and Lehigh Valley IronPigs played a taut pitcher’s duel, won by the locals, 2-1. But don’t worry, the Bulls were just having some fun with you there, and they were back to their old brutalizing, beat-you-senseless selves in making the IronPigs squeal on Saturday, 10-3. Clad in special camouflage jerseys, they put up two quick runs in a first inning salvo, took a couple of innings off for recon, and then dropped all their remaining ammo in the middle frames, thoroughly defoliating the enemy.

Which is to say that it was Military Appreciation Night at the DBAP, and the Bulls did their best to remind everyone that the best defense is a good offense. Every man in the lineup had a hit, the team belted three home runs, and they scored in six of their eight at-bats, getting at least one run off of every pitcher they faced, a lefty and three right-handers. Brian Baker, who no-hit Indianapolis for five innings in a spot-start earlier this week, tossed four hitless frames to open last night’s game, for a two-game no-hitter of sorts; he left with five more scoreless, two-hit innings under his belt (he needed only 63 pitches to do it), and earned his sixth win of the year, against zero losses. It’s startling to see that this Double-A placeholder is now tied for second on the team in wins. Soft-spoken and modest, with a fastball that hovers only around 87-88 mph, he’s been the indispensable long man and emergency starter on a team that really doesn’t have another candidate for either role—although that could change soon (more on that later).

Military Appreciation Night (or M.A.N.) was represented mostly by Sgt. Slaughter, a Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment persona inhabited by a guy named Robert Remus, who resides in Charlotte. He participated in a pregame skit with a vaguely “Blame Canada”-influenced script, and then later on led the crowd in a seventh-inning-stretch version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It was fun to note that the Sarge is a pretty good singer.

I must stop, having heard the song live last night, to note something that has long bothered me about the lyrics to that song—or rather, about our corruption of them. “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks” is incorrect. There is no such thing as Cracker Jacks. There is, however, a popcorn-based snack candy called “Cracker Jack.” The guy on the box cover is a sailor, and presumably he is there to represent “Jack”—your everyday hale-fellow-well-met. “Cracker” used to be slang for “super-duper!” (The product dates to the late 19th century, by the way.) “That’s cracker, jack!” = “”Super, pal!” Hey, this popcorn snack is cracking good—it’s downright cracker! Say, fella, let’s head to the Polo Grounds and see McGraw’s nine take on the Redstockings! Etc.

(Also, the flavor-sealing pouch inside the box was originally called the “Eckstein Triple Proof Package.” The pleasant payoff here is that Cracker Jack, i.e. the guy on the box, looks not entirely unlike big-league shortstop David Eckstein, who would make a great candy-bar endorser, if you ask me. You can also ask these guys about him.)

It’s a similar corruption to the one that leads a lot of people to enjoy another candy bar that they call “Reesies,” as though each peanut butter cup was something known as a “Reesie” and thus to buy the product was to purchase and consume a pair of “Reesies.” In fact, the candy was the creation of a guy named H. B. Reese. Thus “Reese’s,” as in, “by a fella named Reese.” Ask for it by name.

There. Glad we have that all cleared up.

That apparent digression, by the way, isn’t one. Corruption and sugar-coating were on my mind after the ballgame. So grab a Zero, a Zagnut or a Clark Bar and make the jump, with the FDA warning that a bit of what follows is difficult to digest, and includes some ingredients that contain no actual baseball.

It is very hard to know what to make of Sgt. Slaughter’s mascotting of M.A.N. Everyone had a good time, we were led by an actual Air Force officer in a rousing singalong of “God Bless America”—a healthy reinvigoration, perhaps, of national pride just a few hours after the Americans’ disheartening elimination from the World Cup—and Sgt. Slaughter seems like a genuine and genuinely good guy. He raises money for charity and makes for that thing known as “family entertainment.” You kind of want to hug the big gravel-voiced lug.

Sgt. Slaughter is not, however, a member of the military, although he seems to have at one time been a drill instructor. He is a WWE character. He doesn’t so much help you appreciate the military as make you aware, by his nonmilitary, serious-or-not-serious? demeanor that the military is a strange and inscrutable thing. Sgt. Slaughter is fun for the family, but his name is, well, Slaughter, which is what militaries do to people, and there’s nothing WWE-pretend about it. The US military is one of the most expensive operations in the world, and yet we have little idea what our tax money is really paying for—although it does seem like some of our recent wars haven’t gone very well. What we’re really appreciating on this night is soldiers, and their willingness to do for us what we won’t do ourselves, which is die, if necessary, so that our countrymen can live. It’s serious business, and avuncular and ultimately warmhearted as Sgt. Slaughter is, he’s not really serious—he’s not a member of the military. He’s basically an actor, a mask, a distraction from the real and hard thing—the army hiding behind a simulation of itself—and finally kitsch (which suits him to the general mood of the DBAP). Is having him ringlead Military Appreciation Night a bit like having Dolly Parton host Breast Cancer Awareness Night? Food for thought—a Payday, perhaps.

Yes, there was a game, an oversized, filler-laden eye-candy game about which there isn’t much more to say than what appeared in the second paragraph of this report. Although I was noting yesterday that the Bulls seem a little less scary up and down the lineup than they did just a week or so ago, it only takes an outburst or two like last night’s to remind us that in fact they’re still pretty murderous. Dan Johnson, who has been quiet lately, parked a ninth-homer, his league-leading 18th, into the right-field bleachers; Justin Ruggiano, whose power numbers are down a bit, blasted a long ball out to left-center (he also doubled), and Fernando Perez, who has been struggling terribly for a while now, turned around an inside fastball for his second homer of the year, to nearly straightaway center. The Lehigh Valley pitchers threw hard, some of them—there was a 98-mph reading at one point—but the Bulls hit harder.

And so we were cruising through five innings. Baker had done his job, pitching out of trouble in his last inning of work, and IronPigs’ starter Joe Savery, who took the loss and is now 1-8 with an appropriately accessorized 5.28 ERA—was done as well. It was time for the bullpens to throw strikes and get us home on a heavy, steamy night—a rainstorm passed through about two hours before first pitch.

Instead, the bullpens of both teams collaborated on a tiresome corruption of the game, and pushed it up over three bloated, painful hours. Brian Baker used 63 pitches in five innings; his successors, Joe Bateman, Dale Thayer and Mike Ekstrom, needed 95 to get through four. The two pitching staffs combined to throw 134 balls—not pitches, balls out of the strike zone. Bateman couldn’t find the plate but somehow wiggled through two scoreless innings (Angel Chavez helped him by making a superb play on a hot smash down the third base line by former Bull Paul Hoover). In the eighth inning,Thayer gave up four hits to the first five hitters he faced, walked the next one—got booed (!)—and then left with forearm tightness. Ekstrom came on, fell behind the first man he faced, Melvin Dorta, 2-0, and then gave up a line single to Dorta. That loaded the bases for Hoover, and suddenly he had a chance, with a grand slam, to turn what had been a rout into a 9-7 ballgame. Ekstrom had given up a grand slam in his last appearance, on Thursday.

But Ekstrom struck out Hoover looking—Hoover protested the call—and then got light-hitting Brian Bocock to ground into a fielder’s choice to end the threat. He retired the side in order in the ninth. So everything looked sweet and tidy in the end, but the game had been covered with plaque, and labeled with a carious linescore.

Well, enough of that. The Bulls can make it three in a row with a win tonight. They send to the mound Heath Phillips, who was slapped around for four homers in his last start. Phillips leads the league in homers allowed with 16, and yet the Bulls as a team have allowed the second fewest homers in the league, with 49. One guy has allowed a third of their home runs. Amazing.

A couple of personnel notes:

* Dioner Navarro’s name appeared on the Bulls’ roster sheet last night, and he has apparently been assigned jersey No. 10. Navarro himself was not at the DBAP, however. Players have three days to report when demoted to the minors from the majors, and they usually take all of them (why wouldn’t you?), so I guess Navarro wasn’t officially reassigned to Durham until Thursday.

* The Bulls need Navarro, suddenly, because Jose Lobaton remains day-to-day with a knee strain—it’s been packed in ice after each of the last two games. He hasn’t caught a game since Tuesday, so Alvin Colina is working pretty hard for now. Lobaton’s knee is apparently healthy enough, though, to allow him to warm up pitchers in the bullpen.

* Carlos Hernandez has missed two starts in a row (he’d better be careful or Brian Baker might nudge him out of a job) with what he told me is a hip flexor strain. He can actually pitch without pain, but fielding his position is still a problem. Nonetheless, he’s hopeful of making his next start.

*We’ll let you know about Dale Thayer’s arm injury as soon as we get news. Forearm pain is a rather vague problem, so it could be a bit before we know the exact issue, and how long it will keep Thayer out of action. He has been a durable pitcher for his whole career. But given his control problems this season—walks are way up, he threw two wild pitches last night, and he’s been missing with his fastball a lot—it wouldn’t be a surprise to discover that there’s an injury of substance behind the slip in his overall performance.

* Charlie Montoyo told us after the game that the Bulls’ forgotten fifth starter, Virgil Vasquez, was driving back up to Durham from the Rays’ training complex in Florida. (Hope he didn’t take his scooter!) No word on when he’ll be ready to pitch, nor what his role will be, but he was supposed to be in the rotation this year and presumably that’s where he’ll be expected to end up. Don’t forget, though, that he was a last-minute hire brought in to spell Jason Cromer, who has now been shut down twice with elbow problems. Yesterday I was murmuring about personnel changes on the way (I have no information of any kind about that; just a hunch), and with these latest injuries, departures and arrivals—plus the presence at the DBAP last night of two Japanese scouts—some of these furloughs could turn into discharges. There’s nothing sweet about that.