I don’t know about you guys, but to me this will always be the definitive image of longtime MLB reliever David Robertson:
That’s from October 2017, when a foul tip off the bat of Brian Dozier, then of the Minnesota Twins, deflected a Robertson pitch directly into the dick and balls of Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, in the sixth inning of a wild card game. It’s troubling that I remember this event at all—I am a fan of neither the Yankees nor the Twins, and I have no other memory of this game—but the fact is there is a spot in my brain that is reserved for short videos of athletes getting smashed in the groin by projectiles. As I recall, Sanchez’s hog region took a brutal direct hit, the violence of which was reflected in his teammate’s horrified reaction.
Robertson, now 37 years old, is still at it. After pitching just 18 total innings over the last two seasons following Tommy John surgery, he secured a job this season closing games for the Chicago Cubs, who stink real bad. Wednesday night the Cubs faced the Pirates in the third of a four-game series, in Pittsburgh. This series has not been real close: Pittsburgh won the first two games by a combined 17 runs, and the Cubs took a 13-run lead into the ninth inning on Wednesday, before the Pirates cobbled together some late garbage runs. Improbably, none of these games have produced the worst blowout in this season series: Back in April, the Cubs beat the Pirates in Chicago by the outrageous score of 21–0. Rookie infielder Diego Castillo closed that game on the mound for the Pirates, allowing four runs on four hits and a walk in his first career pitching appearance.
Castillo was back on the mound Wednesday night, again to spare Pittsburgh’s bullpen and mop up a lopsided loss. Position players pitching is more common nowadays than ever before, but what is now less common than in the entire history of professional baseball is pitchers hitting. And what has simply never occurred at any point over the last 18 years, stretching back to his senior year at Paul W. Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is David Robertson making a plate appearance in a live baseball game. As a 37-year-old reliever, and now that the designated hitter is featured in both the American League and the National League, the chances for Robertson to swing a bat in a competitive game are effectively nil. That Robertson’s career could pass without ever standing in the batter’s box isn’t quite a Moonlight Graham-level tragedy, but it’s also not nothing: According to MLB’s Sarah Langs, Robertson’s 695 career games without a plate appearance registered as the fourth most in baseball history. The dreams of the absolute most pragmatic of baseball-loving children do not stop short of ever swinging a baseball bat in the majors, let alone over a major-league career spanning 15 years. The man simply must be allowed to dig in there and swing the damn bat!
Cubs manager David Ross evidently agreed, and decided that Wednesday night’s blowout would be Robertson’s big chance. How unprepared is a reliever in his 696th career game to take his first and only career at-bat? Well, for starters, there is the matter of equipment: Robertson, who was a teenager the last time he needed batting gloves, quickly borrowed a bat from Cubs utility man Christopher Morel and a helmet from catcher Yan Gomes, and made his way to the on-deck circle, where the delight of the moment finally sank in. “He couldn’t stop smiling on-deck,” Ross said after the game. “His teammates were definitely enjoying that, I was enjoying that. It was fun.”
The smiling continued as Robertson made his way to the righty batter’s box, where Castillo’s blazing heater (topping out at a scorching 55 mph) presented a rare chance for an absolute novice to make decent contact. What ensued was as delightful a late-game at-bat as Major League Baseball is capable of producing, with an infielder, making his second career pitching appearance, lofting eephuses (eephii?) at a veteran closer, making his first career plate appearance:
The magic, in the end, fell short of producing any sort of storybook result. Robertson took two awkward cuts to fall into a 1–2 hole and then worked the count full. Castillo’s sixth pitch of the at-bat sailed in head high, but Robertson was committed the whole way. “I wasn’t going to not swing,” he said after the big moment. “I had to swing. I had to try.” With all due respect to Pirates catcher Michael Perez, I think we can all agree that the funniest possible outcome would’ve had Robertson foul-tipping a ball violently into the catcher’s junk, for a nice bit of symmetry. Alas, Robertson’s third swing of the night was just as wild as the first two, and he struck out without ever making contact. Still, that he went down swinging is something we can all feel good about. “I’m glad I did, and made my dream come true,” a euphoric Robertson reflected in the postgame. Hell yeah.