It is possible to have a good career in Major League Baseball, which Marlins reliever Richard Bleier has had, without ever really making it into history in any meaningful way. It is meaningful enough—difficult enough, and remarkable enough on its own merits—just to make it to the Majors at all, and surely there were moments during the eight seasons that Bleier spent in the minors before making his big league debut at age 29 when even that seemed in doubt. Before he threw his first MLB pitch in 2016, Bleier had been a part of three different organizations; he’d been a minor-league Rule 5 draft selection and released twice. Naturally, the Yankees unlocked something in him that the Rangers and the Blue Jays and the Nationals had missed, and Bleier has been an effective lefty reliever in the bigs ever since—first in those 23 games with the Yankees, and then in six seasons split between the Orioles and Marlins. And it was the Marlins whose 6-3 lead he came in to protect in the eighth inning of Tuesday night’s game against the Mets.
Bleier did so as a 35-year-old man in his 303rd MLB game, and still the reliable if decidedly non-electric bullpen arm he has been throughout his seven seasons in the Majors. It was possible, in that moment, to see him making it to a once-improbable career that spans a decade without ever quite becoming memorable. But however many more years Bleier has in the tank, that last bit is now firmly by the boards. He is in history now.
It went like this: after giving up a two-out single to Jeff McNeil in the eighth inning, Bleier was called for a balk by first base umpire John Tumpane. Then, just two pitches later, it happened again.
Two pitches after that, Bleier, or more correctly the uneasy partnership between Bleier and Tumpane, finished the job of balking McNeil all the way around the bases. Marlins manager Don Mattingly subsequently got himself ejected, and Bleier became one of seven pitchers to commit three balks in one inning. No one had done it in 34 years.
Most remarkable, maybe, is that Bleier really earned it. Every one of the balks he committed while McNeil was on base was demonstrably a balk—obviously so even from where I was sitting in section 335 of the ballpark. And yet they were not more obviously or egregiously balks when compared to any of the many, many similar moves that pitchers make in every game that aren’t called as balks. Both can be true, but it was Bleier’s unwillingness or inability to adjust to that reality, and Tumpane’s unwillingness to let that stubbornness slide, that elevated the moment. Together, if not quite in collaboration, the two made a moment of red-ass history in the middle of a game that even those in attendance were already working on forgetting.
“It’s the same move I’ve been doing for 300 innings, and here we are,” Bleier said after the game. He had never once been called for a balk as a big-leaguer, and the Tim Robinson-style faces and reactions that he delivered after every call conveyed the confusion and exasperation that he must have felt at finding out, this far into his career, that he did not in fact know how to come completely set before delivering a pitch to home plate with a runner on base. “Maybe I was balking,” Bleier allowed. “I watched the video. I completely disagreed, but I’m biased.” To understand how completely and totally Bleier disagreed, you need only know that, after Mattingly got himself ejected, Bleier took it upon himself after the inning—he allowed only the one run that he balked in—to get himself tossed in turn.
Or, if you prefer imagery, you can refer to the photos taken by Getty photographer Sarah Stier at the game, every one of which looks like the lead singer from Future Islands demanding that the Turbo Team be brought to justice.
It is important to note how insignificant this all was. The game had long since entered a sort of terminal orbit; people were leaving, or had already left. A fan sitting behind us, who was wearing a Yankees hat and a sweatshirt printed with the design of the purple Takis bags, was listening to a Fat Joe song on his phone, loudly, at the moment that Bleier began his personal journey through the Escalating Vince McMahon Face Reaction Meme. Somewhere in there, he left, too.
None of it felt meaningful as it was happening, or anything but ridiculous. And yet it also arrived as a gift, to be there on a lovely fall night, first aghast and then delighted that such a lousy baseball game had found such a stupid and wonderful way to justify its existence. The Mets’ loss, in concert with a Braves win, moved the two teams into a first-place tie. As Mets first baseman Pete Alonso pointed out afterwards, another game today. It is tempting to say that nothing that happens in Wednesday’s game will be dumber than this all-timer from Tuesday’s, but there is, of course, no way of knowing that. If something this goofy could happen once, it could happen twice; if it could happen to Richard Bleier, it could happen to anyone.