The history of baseball in six degrees of pitching separation between Cy Young and Josh Beckett: Young, who began his career in 1890, played in the majors with Grover Cleveland Alexander (1911), who played with Carl Hubbell ('30), who played with Warren Spahn ('42), who played with Jim Palmer ('65), who played with Roger Clemens ('84), who played with Beckett (2003), who introduced himself to the Venn diagram of baseball mythology by seizing the game's most epic setting—a World Series clincher at Yankee Stadium—as his personal property. For one night in the Bronx it was 1890 or any year again, the game controlled by the next blessed arm.� As a butterfly looks almost nothing like a caterpillar, basketball long ago left its wood-plank flooring to be played ever higher in the air. Football also went airborne, with the forward pass making the game unrecognizable to its formative self. Baseball, however, remains truest to its fundamental form. Except for the DH, what's left of AstroTurf and the DayGlo glop they put on ballpark nachos, old Cy himself would have little reason to watch a game today and ask, "What in tarnation is that?"
True, the speed and power of the game would amaze Young. When Boston's Fenway Park opened in 1912, for instance, the year after Young retired, people wondered if it would be possible to hit a baseball over the leftfield wall. The thick-handled, heavy bats of antiquity would be useless against the tall, broad power pitchers of today.
"When I broke in," says infielder Todd Zeile, who with the Montreal Expos just completed his 15th season in the majors, "we'd go over the pitchers before a series, and if a guy threw 88, 89 [mph], you were told, 'You've really got to get the bat head out against this guy' And now, if a guy throws 88, 89, you're told, 'You've got to stay back and wait on this guy.' "
It's still the national pastime as we knew it, only now it's the national pastime on steroids—alas, sometimes literally. In November it was announced that between 5% and 7% of players' urine samples taken this year in so-called "survey testing" turned up positive for steroids, triggering a mandatory, if nearly toothless, testing program next season.
Moreover, after a perfect storm of a postseason goosed TV ratings—the accursed Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox each waited until they were five outs away from the World Series to kill the suspense—the game's next televised images were of ballplayers walking into a federal building in San Francisco to testify before a grand jury looking into a nutritional lab that cooked up "supplements," the athletes' potent potables.
The chemistry of the game may be altered, but the mathematics remain reassuringly familiar: 90 feet, 27 outs, nine innings. The New York Yankees' Clemens won his 300th game, recorded his 4,000th strikeout and left the mound for the last time (or so we thought, given his subsequent daydream to pitch for the Houston Astros) after the seventh inning of World Series Game 4. The Florida Marlins climbed out of their dugout to applaud Clemens. In the honor line, wearing Clemens's original number 21, stood Beckett, a fraternal brother in the order of Texas Flamethrowers ( Nolan Ryan, founder).
Ceremony alone, however, was not enough for Beckett, the dude with the Texas-sized 'rude. As a high school pitcher Beckett once threw at an opposing player's father. ( Beckett did not appreciate the man's giving away the location of his pitches from the stands behind the plate.)
"He would overpower high school hitters, and he would love to do it," says Dan Jennings, the Marlins' vice president of player personnel. "He didn't want to just dominate. He wanted to embarrass the kids."
Jack McKeon, the oldest manager in World Series history at 72, gave the 23-year-old gunslinger the ball for Game 6 on three days' rest.
"If I had Bobby Gibson out there on three days' rest, would anybody be asking me how I pitch Bobby Gibson?" McKeon harrumphed to reporters on the games eve. "Nobody. That's the way we feel about Beckett."