It's not like I'm making pitching changes during the game.
- Billy Beane, quoted in the Boston Herald, January 16, 2003
IT WAS LATE JULY, which is to say that Mike Magnante had picked a bad time to pitch poorly. "Mags," as everyone called him, had come in against Cleveland in the top of the seventh with two runners on and a three-run lead. The first thing he did was to walk Jim Thome-no one could blame him for that. He then gave up a bloop single to Milton Bradley and the inherited runners scored-just plain bad luck, that. But then he threw three straight balls to Lee Stevens. Stevens dutifully took a strike, then waited for Mags to throw his fifth pitch.
The first question Billy Beane will ask Art Howe after the game is why the fuck he'd brought Magnante into a tight game. In tight situations Art was supposed to use Chad Bradford. Bradford was the ace of the pen. So that it would be clear in Art's head, Billy had instructed him to think of Bradford as "the closer before the ninth inning." Art's first answer about Magnante was that he thought Mags, the lefty, would be more effective than Bradford, the righty, against a left-handed slugger like Thome. Which is nuts, since Mags hasn't gotten anyone out in weeks and Bradford has been good against lefties. Art's second answer is that Billy put Mags on the team, and if a guy is on the team, you need to use him. Art won't say this directly to Billy but he'll think it. The coaching staff had grown tired of hearing Billy holler at them for using Magnante. "The guy has got braces on both legs," says pitching coach Rick Peterson. "We're not going to use him as a pinch runner. If you don't want us to use him, trade him."
Mike Magnante goes into his stretch and looks in for the signal. He just last month turned thirty-seven, and is four days shy of the ten full years of big league service he needs to collect a full pension. It's not hard to see what's wrong with him, to discern the defect that makes him available to the Oakland A's. He is pear-shaped and slack-jawed and looks less like a professional baseball player than most of the beat reporters who cover the team. But he has a reason to hope: his history of pitching better in the second half than the first. The team opened the season with three lefties in the bullpen, which is two more than most clubs carried. A month ago they'd released one, Mike Holtz, and two days ago sent down the other, Mike Venafro. The story Mike Magnante told himself on the eve of July 29, 2002, was that he hadn't pitched often enough to find his rhythm. He'd go a week when he made only three pitches in a game. With the other Mikes gone, he finally had his chance to find his rhythm.
He makes an almost perfect pitch to Lee Stevens, a fastball low and away. The catcher is set up low and outside. When you saw the replay, you understood that he'd hit his spot. If he'd missed, it was only by half an inch. It's the pitch Mike Magnante wanted to make. Good pitch, bad count. The ball catches the fat part of the bat. It rises and rises and the two runners on base begin to circle ahead of the hitter. Mags can only stand and watch: an opposite field shot at night in Oakland is a rare, impressive sight. It is Lee Stevens's first home run as a Cleveland Indian.