(Warning, spoilers for a 60 year old book follow)
In the great story "The Old Man and the Sea," by Ernest Hemingway, a man named Santiago is an elder and respected fisherman who, despite his best efforts, has returned home from fishing empty handed for more than two months. Undeterred, Santiago continues to fish, and one day hooks an eighteen foot long marlin, one that is so strong that it drags Santiago's small boat across the ocean for three full days, pushing his old body to the absolute limit. The marlin, with whom Santiago forms somewhat of a spiritual connection, never stops fighting, but it does tire, and by the fourth day Santiago reels it in close enough to kill it with a harpoon, ending his struggle. However, as Santiago slowly makes his way back to his home, sharks smell the blood of the marlin and begin to devour it, and are too numerous for Santiago to fend off. After five days he finally returns home, and the marlin is naught but bones, but Santiago's efforts will always be remembered by those in his village, and he lives to fish another day.
Now what is the point of all this?
Rich Hill is, figuratively, Santiago. Hill isn't an old man personally but he could be considered "baseball old." Santiago spends his life in somewhat of a perpetual struggle, he is very poor, he is about to break his own record for consecutive days without catching a fish, and his boat isn't in the greatest condition, nor his body. Despite all that is going against him, however, Santiago is prideful and persistent and unwavering in spirit and simply does what he can to try and change his own luck. Hill has been bounced around from organization to organization, getting released and sent down to the minors, he has endured deep, tragic personal loss, and his best baseball years are behind him. Despite all that going against him, however, Hill is still pitching today, even going so far as to pitch in an Independent League to keep his career alive. Hill will not give up.
The marlin is Hill's curveball. The marlin in "The Old Man and the Sea" is more powerful than any other Santiago had ever seen, and though Santiago is fighting it for much of the story, he forms a deep connection with it and gains respect for it. In many ways, the marlin is sustaining Santiago by pushing him to his limits and forcing him to really fight for his success; it's what gives him his pride again. Hill's curveball is a beauty, with extreme vertical and horizontal movement that can really freeze batters in their place. It is a powerful pitch, one that is hard to find and hard to harness, but when one is in its presence, they would be hard pressed not to stare agape at its stature. It is dangerous. It is beautiful.
The sharks are Hill's control. As big and strong and majestic as the marlin was, Santiago ultimately had nothing to show for it, as sharks devoured the great fish before he could get it home and properly clean it. Santiago blames himself for venturing too far out into the ocean to catch his prize, and never faults the scavengers for taking advantage of his perceived error. Hill has dealt with these sharks for his entire career, and he is fully aware that his career will live and die on his ability to throw strikes with his incredible stuff. But does Hill's past success even matter if sharks have stripped away the last bits of what made him great in the first place? Luckily for Hill, the sharks may be left behind in deeper water.
Today's game, for Hill, felt much like the day after "The Old Man and the Sea" ends for Santiago. Santiago still hasn't brought home any fish and has surpassed his own record for consecutive days without a catch, but he is preparing to go out just as he always does the next day to try again, only this time with added confidence and even stronger ability. Hill's four starts at the end of last season were like his victorious battle with the marlin, and spring training was his sharks eroding away all of the hope and expectations people had in him. But "The Old Man and the Sea" doesn't have a sad ending, despite the fact that all of Santiago's hard work mostly went for naught, and it is clear that Santiago still has life in his old body yet. In tonight's game, Hill managed to pitch six innings, striking out an impressive TEN batters and walking or hitting three batters. His curveball had batters guessing all night (save for a solo home run via Chris Iannetta on one very badly hung curveball to account for his one earned run on the night) and his fastball, topping out around 92 MPH, was generating swings and misses throughout his start. Whether or not the sharks eventually get to Hill again has yet to be seen, but most anyone would be encouraged from Hill's performance today.
Ernest Hemingway loved baseball, and with that in mind I have no doubt that the A's offense would have led him to pound down mojitos with joy (for perhaps nothing could truly rival Hemingway's love for alcohol). From the game's start, it was clear that the A's were locked in against Nate Karns, and after a thirty pitch first inning, the A's had already scored two runs courtesy of wonderful table-setting from leadoff man Coco Crisp (who showed vintage Coco speed with two stolen bases, his 300th and 301st of his career) and RBI singles from Valencia and Lowrie. Reddick hit a deep home run several rows back to right center field during the middle innings, to help the A's pull ahead and put the game out of reach for the Mariners by the time Rich Hill needed relieving and the consistently shutdown bullpen was able to take over.
Ernest Hemingway also likely would have joyously pounded down daiquiris after watching the strongest A's defensive effort of the season as well. Alonso continued to play excellent first base defense to help out the infield, though it could be argued that the infield needed no extra help in this game. Right off the bat, in the first inning, Vogt and Semien executed a flawless strike-em-out-throw-em-out on an attempted steal by Aoki, and Semien later in the game made a diving stop that led to a double play, and later still, a diving catch on a low line drive to his left. Lowrie, whose defense has been less than stellar the previous few games, joined the fun with a fun sprawling play in the bottom of the 9th.
This was an all around encouraging game for the A's, as worrisome veterans Hill and Crisp were able to impress in a big way on the field, and the ever-frustrating mental errors that have plagued the A's for the past year were all but non-existent. And the A's defeated a division rival. And the A's saved the bullpen from needing to do too much work. And the A's are now officially in first place, just like we all predicted.
In the spirit of Ernest Hemingway, let us all drink to that!
"You loved [the marlin] when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?"