Jacob deGrom would have thrown one of the first pitches of the 2020 season, shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday. Perhaps 20 minutes later and 205 miles to the south of Citi Field, Gerrit Cole would have unleashed the first pitch of the rest of his life.
So much is being lost to the coronavirus pandemic. So much more than first pitches. But in our little corner of the world, New York was set up to have what hasn’t existed in 35 years and maybe not since the heyday of Gotham baseball in the 1950s.
New York just might be the home office for the two finest purveyors of pitching arts in the world. Two gems at the peak of their crafts and all the possibilities that entails.
DeGrom was to embark on an attempt at a third straight Cy Young, only accomplished by Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, who both won four in a row. Imagine telling a painter he could join a class exclusively of da Vinci and van Gogh.
Cole just had two seasons that raised the imagination — and his income bracket. The righty became the most expensive pitcher in history — $324 million guaranteed over nine years. Though now he is not going to earn all of it, with games (and maybe a season) lost to the virus.
An actor can miss a year of movies, a singer a year of making music, and have it viewed as a hiatus. But there are just so many years for an athlete, particularly just so many throws in a pitcher’s arm while at the apex of their talents. For now, neither deGrom nor Cole expends pitches in competition. But learning Noah Syndergaard needed Tommy John surgery while MLB was in lockdown only reverberated how fragile a pitching career is. How precious maximizing the good years — the great years, in this case — is.
For now at least, deGrom’s indomitability waits, as does Cole’s introduction. On tape and in our imaginations we see the blend of power, guile and precision that makes them possibly the best of what they do in the majors.
When was it last possible to say that was true in New York? Maybe 1985, when Doc Gooden was the best pitcher on the planet and Ron Guidry was the AL Cy Young runner-up. But you actually might have to travel further back. To 1956. When the first-ever Cy Young results covered both leagues and went like this in the top three: Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers first; Sal Maglie, who began the year in Cleveland, but finished in Brooklyn, second; and Whitey Ford of the Yankees third.
In the cold months when I imagined Opening Day, it always started with deGrom in Queens and Cole in Baltimore. So when I think about what was lost by the absence, I begin there as well: 1. deGrom. 2. Cole. — or is it vice versa? What else was lost until, hopefully, a day in the near future? Where else was I going to flip on Opening Day to get my first tastes of the compelling, intriguing and dramatic?
3. What was it going to look and sound like this year for the Astros? The first six games were scheduled for Houston, so we were not going to see the Astros on the road until April 3. But after a sign-stealing scandal led to the firing of their GM and manager and tainted their 2017 title, Game 1 was going to be must watch to determine how the Astros were wearing the burden of being Public Enemy No. 1. The sounds of baseball silence is good for no team — but the biggest winner among all the losers is the Astros.
4. Mookie Betts as a Dodger. The biggest trade of the offseason landed Betts and David Price in Los Angeles, promised to make the best team in the NL on paper all the better. Now we wonder if Betts — a free agent after this year — will ever play a game for the Dodgers, who just might have traded three prospects for nothing.
5. Josh Donaldson in the Twins’ lineup. This was a champion weightlifter finding a way to get stronger. What was this order — the one that produced a record 307 homers in 2019 — going to look like that first time with Donaldson (37 last year)?
6. Joe Girardi, Didi Gregorius and Zack Wheeler as Phillies (albeit Wheeler would not be starting the opener). The Phillies needed a competent adult as manager. Girardi needed a place to show he could grow beyond his rigid persona. What would we see first in the Phillies’ dugout: a Girardi binder or a Girardi smile?
7. Madison Bumgarner in a Diamondbacks uniform. Which was still not as weird as finding out he was competing in rodeo in the offseason under the name Mason Saunders.
8. Nolan Arenado in a Rockies uniform. How many more days were we going to be able to say that?
9. Seeing Mike Trout play again because, well, because he is Mike Trout, and we shouldn’t lose track he is in the handful of best players ever. Playing. Now. Well, not right now, which is sad.
10. The science experiment that is the Chicago White Sox. They added veterans (Edwin Encarnacion, Yasmani Grandal, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Steve Cishek) to young Luis Robert (signed long-term before playing a major league game in center), Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Nick Madrigal. Was this going to look like a contender or the latest win-the-winter, lose-the-season episode?