Everybody plays a part.
Matthew Bowman throws the pitch, which was supposed to be low and away and was neither. As soon as Kevin Pillar hits it, Bowman does a precious little hop and spin, and then his shoulders slump into a frown. Bowman, a former 13th round pick out of Princeton of all places, hasn’t allowed a run yet this year. He has a 0.00 ERA. It’s on the scoreboard, which you can see for a split second in the background as the camera tracks the ball; Bowman might even see that 0.00 when he hops and spins to watch the baseball soar into right field, and he might realize that he likely won’t see it again this year, barring something amazing. Bowman has a 0.00 ERA and he is a bundle of nerves, and he plays a part.
Stephen Piscotty chases the baseball, which forces him to take one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen-forteen-fften-sxtn-svtn-etn-nineteeeeeeeeeeeeen steps in pursuit. The last is the longest, a lunging leap into the wall. For just one second, we’re watching a totally different highlight, the one in which Piscotty reaches out and catches the ball with a perfectly timed jump, tumbles off the wall, stumbles forward back toward the infield, rears up and raises his glove; the camera cuts to Bowman, Bowman with the still-perfect 0.00 ERA, Bowman raising his hand and pointing out at Piscotty; Chris Coghlan retreats casually to first base. That highlight. Seen it 1,000 times, and it never gets old. He misses it by this much:
Piscotty’s pursuit continues. He finally tracks the ball down and throws home, but by this point he’s run two legs of a 4×100 relay, and his throw doesn’t have much on it. It bounces, then bounces again, then bounces one more time. A baseball’s third bounce is usually as flat as a joke’s third telling, which is why, at the moment Coghlan arrives, Molina is hunched over like he’s trying to find a travel coffee mug that rolled under his car.
Yadier Molina plays a part. He’s in mortal danger at this moment. He’s gone into the baseline, which means he’s fair game for Coghlan to smash him with the full weight of a Chris Coghlan body. He’s stretched out a little funky to get the throw, a little unbalanced, and here comes Coghlan, sort of awkwardly, not totally sure what’s about to happen, looks like he’s almost falling forward, not entirely in control of his stiff-legged gallop.
Coghlan plays a part. Coghlan is as nondescript as baseball players come. He looks like a dentist. He has curly hair and a bald spot. He is not fast, he is not athletic, he is not particularly good; he was on this field in this moment only because three different teams — two of them terrible — told him to clear out his locker over the past 10 months. But, more importantly, he is very fast, and he is incredibly athletic, and he is phenomenally good, when judged by any standard more forgiving than “compared to the most elite of his elite athlete teammates.”
Coghlan once ended a player’s season with a slide. It was in 2009, and he was trying to break up a double play that Akinori Iwamura was working on. “Coghlan’s immediate response was to apologize,” Juan C. Rodriguez would later report. “He went to the Rays’ clubhouse and personally told Iwamura how sorry he was about the injury. Iwamura appreciated the gesture, but Coghlan remembers feeling tension from Gabe Kapler and others in the clubhouse who took exception to the slide.”
Coghlan is a sheep among wolves. He didn’t want to hurt Iwamura, but it was his job to. He apologized; the wolves bared their teeth at him. Eight years later he finds himself in the situation once more, but this time he is neither sheep nor wolf. He takes flight. He’s a … flying sheep. Or something. He’s a metaphor.
Ezequiel Carrera plays a part. He’s the on-deck batter waving for Coghlan to get down, get down, get down. Okay, bud.
Like Carrera, Molina fails utterly to see this leap of imagination coming. Molina stays low, expecting to make a tag against a pair of mean spikes. When Coghlan disappears, Molina awkwardly stands up, the way you do when somebody on your left reaches around and taps you on your right shoulder. In doing so, he gives Coghlan the boost he needed. Coghlan is the stunt car, but Molina, by standing up, is the angled ramp that will make the car flip. If Molina hadn’t given him that bit of propulsion, Coghlan never finishes the revolution.
Coghlan plays a part: If you go frame by frame, this is a disaster of a crash. He is in a full handstand for a second before his arms collapse, his face flattens, his torso and legs briefly form a backwards “K” and his elbows seem on the verge of dissolution.
We are, again, almost watching a completely different highlight, one in which Coghlan’s body unsnaps and unzippers and lies afterward in a puddle of ache. But he somehow pulls out of the dive, tumbles all the way to his feet and does the cool guy look-back as he jogs away, waiting for confirmation, showing off his bald spot.
The umpire, Quinn Wolcott, plays a part. He doesn’t signal at first. He looks at Yadier Molina, but of course whatever Molina is doing is irrelevant. Either Coghlan touched the plate or he didn’t. There is no reason to look at Molina. But Wolcott looks at Molina. Why is he looking at Molina? Why isn’t he signaling? Because he can’t believe it, either.
This is quietly crucial to this highlight. We know what we saw, but we can’t believe what we saw. We need some verification by a person who was there, close to it, in person, verification that what we saw was as bonkers as it looked. Ballplayers are terrible about validating our amazement; this is the Blue Jays’ relatively whatever dugout when Coghlan gets back:
But for two seconds, Quinn Wolcott forgot he was the umpire in a major league game. He quit functioning. He was in awe, and we were in awe, and our awes aligned. Then he snapped out of it, with a panicked little flip of his arms, and the play was confirmed. It exists, even if the front-row fan in the blue shirt chose that moment to take a sip of beer and missed it all.
Matthew Bowman, the bundle of nerves backing up the play that ruins his perfect ERA, gives an awkward little jump kick. It is like no physical movement you’ll ever see on a baseball field.