Explain pitching. Explain why some can and some can't. Explain why greatness can be a moment's gesture or a career's addiction, and a fastball at 95 promises nothing, and how a gust of wind changes everything, and how one day you own a big league mound and the next they're knocking you off an Indy League mound.
Explain the shoulders that hold and those that don't, and the seasons stolen by a centimeter's worth of elbow fiber. Explain the slow declines vs. the gravity-defying plummets vs. the comebacks, the discarded arms, the disposable arms, the reinvented arms, and the places they take – and re-take – in a game so desperate for, yes, pitching.
Explain Scott Kazmir.
"No chance," Kazmir said. "That it would come to this? Especially this fast? It seemed so far away."
He'd stood in so many clubhouses mourning so many failures, then packed so many bags for who-knows-where. He was done and everyone else was waiting for him to realize it, to come to terms with it, and if nothing else baseball can occasionally be respectful like that. So Kazmir and his near-6.00 ERA toured St. Petersburg, Fla., and Anaheim, Calif., and Sugar Land, Texas, and Carolina, Puerto Rico, and the folks there waved him in and then waved him through.
There's almost certainly a reason or a hundred for it, and Kazmir was a victim of it the same as anyone else. It was his shoulder. It was his mechanics, his velocity, his results. His 30th birthday was coming. He'd lost his fastball and a few jobs with it, and you might have assumed he'd lost his nerve, too, because who wouldn't? Except Kazmir kept showing up and taking the ball when it was offered, even when he was the only one who expected the outcome to be different, right up until the outcome actually was different.
"You feel a little naked," he said.
The game, at its worst, buries hopeful careers at 26. No explanation. No apologies. Just, gone.
"I felt my performance, for sure, was letting down my family, everyone who'd helped me and supported me since Little League," he said. "As much as my family put into my career, it was disappointing. It's not something you feel proud about, the way everything happened."
At its best, though, it brings them back at 30, with more.
"Now," he said, "it's a different story."
The Cleveland Indians last season gave Kazmir a shot on a minor league deal with a chance to make a million dollars, not even twice the major league minimum, on the unlikely chance Kazmir had anything left. He refused to go home. He rediscovered his mechanics. He reintroduced his legs, his power source, to his delivery. He retrieved 5 mph on his fastball. He made 29 starts for the Indians, one of the better and unlikely stories of 2013. And in early December, before they lost Jarrod Parker or A.J. Griffin to elbow surgeries, the Oakland A's – given who they are and what they were gambling on – announced the most surprising transaction of the offseason: Kazmir for two years, $22 million.
"It's hard to think of someone who's followed that trajectory," A's assistant general manager David Forst said. "A couple years ago, he was toxic. No doubt."
The more they looked at Kazmir – the second half of 3.38 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per nine and near-five strikeouts to walks, the fastball life – and considered a marketplace desperate for anything like capable innings, the more Kazmir made sense.
And now, well, he is 4-0 for the A's, who are 6-0 in his starts and 18-10 overall, and just spent a month with the best rotation – by ERA, by innings, by WHIP – in the American League. They just swept the Texas Rangers in Arlington, leading with Sonny Gray, Kazmir and, yep, Jesse Chavez.
On May 1, there isn't a better left-handed pitcher in baseball than Kazmir, which is a long way from Sugar Land, a longer way from toxic. To understand, you would have needed to see Kazmir after some of those horrible starts in the past, explaining the unexplainable in little more than a whisper, clearly worried, trying not to be, in the squall of the evidence otherwise. He gets to compete again. He's taking more than one pitch – or half-a-pitch – to the mound. With the fastball, that hard sinker, comes the slider, the changeup, the outs, the innings and the wins. He is one of them in the clubhouse again.
"Just being back here," he said, gesturing to all that's returned to him. "The littlest things. Being in the clubhouse with everyone. Watching big league games. I don't take it for granted anymore, you know?"
No need to explain.
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