SIRK’S NOTEBOOK: Josh, Artur, & the Windians

On Tuesday, September 12, my sports worlds collided.

Crew SC’s Josh Williams threw out the first pitch at Progressive Field, while his Black & Gold teammate, Artur, saw his very first baseball game, which happened to coincide with the Cleveland Indians tying the American League record with 20 consecutive victories. (Their streak would reach 22 games before it was snapped by the Kansas City Royals on Friday night.)

Here are some scenes from a memorable night at the ballpark.

*****

The first order of business after arriving at Progressive Field was for Williams and Artur to watch batting practice from the field. They were soon visited by Indians catcher Yan Gomes, who was the first Brazilian to ever play Major League Baseball. Both being natives of Sao Paolo, Artur and Gomes developed a quick rapport, speaking in Portuguese.

“I couldn’t talk to him about baseball because I don’t know baseball,” Artur later said in English as we ate dinner. “We talked about Sao Paolo and how he came to America when he was 12. We also talked about soccer. My club is Sao Paolo, but his club is the rival Santos.”

Williams also enjoyed talking soccer with Gomes, but one topic of which Josh steered clear was the Tribe’s then 19-game winning streak.

“Yan was a great guy,” Williams said. “I didn't want to bring up the streak at all. I knew enough to leave it alone for the most part. I was still trying everything I could at that point to not jinx anything!”

*****

While down on the field, Williams received some advice on throwing out the first pitch.

The first helpful individual was ESPN baseball reporter Pedro Gomez, who introduced himself to the Crew SC contingent and was as friendly as could be. Gomez’s advice was to ease the ball over the plate. He has seen many pro athletes throw out the first pitch and the mere act of being a professional athlete is far from a guarantee of a good throw. He said the No. 1 mistake even athletes make is to try to gun it. If you bounce the throw, you’re going to hit the shins of the player serving as your catcher and they will not be happy. He was confident that since Williams was a former ballplayer, and therefore actually has the unique baseball-throwing skillset, he’d do a fine job. Well, as long as he didn’t try to outpitch Indians ace Corey Kluber.

“No matter what you throw, they aren’t going to sign you,” Gomez joked. “Just throw it nice and easy over the plate.”

That seemed like sound advice, but I thought I would ask Artur for his advice to Williams. Here was his answer:

Amazingly, Gomes offered similar advice. The Brazilians thought alike. The Tribe’s catcher encouraged Josh to let it rip. Maybe this aggressive advice was a fun prank for Gomes to play on Dan Otero, the Indians relief pitcher who would be catching Williams’ pitch. I don’t know.

Later, I apprised ESPN’s Gomez that the two Brazilians had contradicted his advice and encouraged Williams to light up the radar gun.

“Don’t do it!” Gomez pleaded to Josh. “You don’t want to end up on the highlight shows for the wrong reason! Just throw it over the plate. I’ll be watching.”

*****

A fun exchange between Williams and Gomes…

Josh: “I’m not going to get on the mound. Kluber’s been on fire and I don’t want to mess with his juju.”

Yan: “Do whatever you want. Doesn’t matter. The guy’s a robot.”

(Josh stayed off the mound. The Klubot would then go out and throw a complete game shutout.)

*****

I was shooting some b-roll type footage of Gomes and Artur talking, but upon looking at the video, watching Josh made me laugh. With each crack of the bat, you can see his head jerk around to track the flight of the ball.

Indians outfielder Abraham Almonte was apparently putting on a batting practice show. The video cuts off just as Josh said to me, “You’re missing some bombs out there.”

*****

During Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Sporting Kansas City, Williams suffered a finger injury. It’s virtually meaningless for a pro soccer player, but after the game, it dawned on him that the injury was on his throwing hand. He has a momentary panic that it would ruin his chance to throw out the first pitch. But as Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer showed everyone during last year’s playoffs, even nearly chopping off a finger with a drone can’t keep a guy from throwing effectively if he wants it bad enough.

*****

A few minutes before throwing out the first pitch, Indians relief pitcher Dan Otero introduced himself to Williams and said he would be serving as his catcher for the first pitch. Their pre-pitch chat quickly turned to how creepy Ronald McDonald looked up close as he wandered past them on the field.

“Good banter always takes some tension away from situations, so that settled me a little,” Williams said.

When the big moment came, Williams went out there and threw a change-up rather than blazing a fastball. Despite his cell phone ringing during his windup, the pitch was a strike.

“Perfect! Didn't have to move the glove,” Otero told Williams as he signed the ball and gave it to him. [ESPN’s Gomez also chimed in after Williams took his advice on the velocity, tweeting, “I noticed it was a perfect throw. Loved it.”]

Otero and Williams wished each other good luck for the remainder of their respective seasons and just like that, the big moment was over.

One worry down, one worry to go. There was still the matter of Josh jinxing the Indians winning streak.

*****

After Sunday’s match at MAPFRE Stadium, Williams revealed that a large group text with his buddies was focused on the idea that Josh was going to throw out the first pitch and the Indians would lose that night. Josh was going to be the one to jinx the Indians during their epic winning streak.

I reminded him that Kluber would be pitching Tuesday night.

“Kluber’s pitching? I feel so much better,” Williams said then.

In a little bit of a twist, Kluber had originally planned to hang out with Williams before the game, but that had to be scratched since it turned out Kluber was the starting pitcher that night. Although they didn’t meet up as planned, Kluber took the mound with the fate of Josh’s cell phone (and a chance for a 20-game winning streak) on the line. He pitched a complete game 5-hit shutout as the Indians won 2-0.

“I told all of my friends before the game that if they had lost, I was going to ban myself from Progressive Field for the rest of the year,” a relieved Williams said afterward. “I knew what was at stake AND social media never fails to remind you what kind of pressure goes with throwing out the first pitch during the greatest winning streak the Major Leagues has ever seen. The twitter world was ruthless!”

[Note: The Indians 22-game streak was officially second to a 26-gamer by the 1916 New York Giants. The Giants had a tie game in there that was replayed from scratch then next day. Since ties do not count in the standings and the game was replayed from the very beginning, it still counts as part of the winning streak. The 2017 Indians, however, became the first-ever team to win 22 straight times that they took the field.]

*****

Artur is a bright guy. One only needs to hear how freely he converses in English today, when just several months ago the only English he knew was Eminem lyrics, to see how quickly his brain can absorb information. This trait would come in handy while trying to learn about baseball just hours before watching his first baseball game. In Brazil, baseball is a non-entity. Yan Gomes learned about it from a visiting Cuban baseball coach his father had met in Brazil, then became immersed in the game upon moving to Florida when he was 12. For the Brazilians, it’s mostly about soccer.

“And sometimes volleyball,” Artur added, pantomiming the spiking of a volleyball for emphasis.

As the group ate dinner, Josh showed off his grip on a four-seam fastball.

This prompted Williams to explain to Artur the difference between a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball, and how the latter has tailing action to it. Williams started getting into the aerodynamics of the various types of pitches and how pitchers mix them up to fool hitters. Part of me laughed at the idea of this level of granular detail being Artur’s introduction to baseball, but he was soaking it in.

After dinner, back on the field, Williams took to explaining all sorts of stuff about the game. In this clip, you can see (and sometimes hear) Josh explaining stolen bases to Artur.

 During the game itself, Artur was full of questions for Williams. When the Indians had runners on first and second and a three-ball count on the batter, Artur noted that one more ball would be a walk, and then each of the runners would move up a base. He wanted to know what the players did when the bases were loaded.

“I had to explain that if the ball is hit on the ground, all of the players had to run right away,” Williams said. “But if it was hit in the air, they had to stay on their bases, but once the ball was caught, they could try to move up a base if they wanted and the fielder could try to throw them out. You don’t realize how complicated baseball is until you have to explain it.”

With the bases loaded, the catcher called timeout just as the Detroit pitcher entered his wind-up. Before realizing time had been called, Williams had a momentary panic as he though the pitcher had balked home a Cleveland run.

“Could you imagine me having to explain a balk?” he said of one of baseball’s most intricate and arcane rules.

Artur said he had fun at the game and really liked it. Williams was happy to be there for Artur’s first baseball experience.

“Artur was a lot more interested in the game than I had imagined he would be,” Williams said. “He's a smart guy, so he picked up everything quickly. I'm almost certain he's a diehard Cleveland Indians and Cleveland sports fan now. He just doesn't quite understand the heartache that comes with that type of decision. But, on a positive note, what a time to jump on board!”

*****

All in all, it was a great night for both Crew SC players. Artur got to go on a road trip with his mother, Bernardina, and his brother, Matheus, who were visiting from Brazil. He even got to take them on the field to meet with fellow Brazilian Yan Gomes.

Williams had eight immediate family members in attendance, including his parents Stephen and Kathy, as well as his grandparents Joyce and Maurice Buchanan. His girlfriend Christina was there, as were an ever-growing list of friends from Cleveland and Akron. He’d see them popping up around the stadium, including even is principal and vice-principal from Copley High School. He received even more texts and social media posts from people who were at the game to support him even if he didn’t get to see them in person.

“I will always have such an appreciation for those who continue to support me during moments like that,” he said. “It means so much to me and I'm forever grateful for their love and support. It truly amazes and humbles me.”

Williams was originally supposed to throw out the first pitch on August 21, but it had to be rescheduled at the last minute. That night, the Indians beat the Red Sox, 5-4. They then lost their next two. Then the record-setting winning streak started.

“Looking back, I couldn't have imagined that things would have worked out the way they did,” he said. “I was so bummed that the initial date was rescheduled, but everything fell into place and that allowed me to be a small part of history. I guess it's true that things happen for a reason, and I couldn't be more grateful for that. I'll remember that night forever and I'm so grateful some of my closest friends and family got to share it with me. Test passed! ROLL TRIBE!”

Questions? Comments? Were you the unnamed person that called Josh during his windup? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk
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