Sliding to El Paso

Kirby Snead and his slider might be in the majors before too long. (via Joel Dinda)

“If I were to tell the baseball one thing before I threw it, it would be to miss bats.” – Kirby Snead

For years, the slider waited patiently for a pitcher to find it. It sat alone in an empty space in the baseball universe, a small corner, tucked away from the hitting noise, undiscovered – a spark waiting to be formed into a thought that would lead to a grip, a grip that would spin the baseball from a dream into a bat-missing reality. The pitch danced in different minds until the day it finally slid home and confused men who stood frozen, feet planted within the batter’s box, as the “slide ball” flew past them.

The slider’s grip is similar to the sinker, but the subtle differences make for a more extreme pitch, full of bending chaos, often spinning into the dirt. Baseball historians and lovers of the game debate who threw the first slider or invented the pitch. Some argue George Blaeholder merely threw a cut fastball. Some say George Uhle is the one true slider king.

I’m no expert on the matter: I only know what I’ve read from an ESPN article, written by Rob Neyer, that dives into its mysterious history. Strange Days. I wonder what Jimmie Foxx thought about it – the “slide ball.” He probably thought…strange days.

John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, CC Sabathia, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, and Sparky Lyle all were masters of this unholy pitch. They were all throwers of this venial sin that damns hitters back to the dugout and back to the pine. They were some of the best ever to hold it in their hand. The best ever to release it with their middle and index fingers. But where did they pick it up? Someone had to say something to them, whisper the idea into their ear. There’s always a story attached to the slider.

***

It was the beginning of July. The summer heat was sizzling the sweat out of all the ballplayers in the International League. The Buffalo Bisons had just finished playing their third game in Syracuse and had one more to go before they went home for the All-Star break. The long-awaited All-Star break: a nice breath of fresh air away from the dirt and grass on the baseball field and diamond. The Buffalo boys were ready to step off the field and diamond for a few days to visit friends and family, as were the rest of the players in Triple-A. Sometimes the kids of summer need a break, too.

The Bisons had just picked up a 7-1 road win against the Mets, and the clubhouse air was rich with confident noise. Kirby Snead, a lefty pitching prospect who is known for having a great slider, was about to get into the shower when his manager, Bobby Meacham, called him into his office. The bearded and long-haired Snead, who had grown out the corporate clean-cut look Florida College had forced onto him, walked into the manager’s road room.

Meacham told Sneady he was going to El Paso to pitch in the All-Star Game. Snead stood there a little confused about what his manager had just said because every player who had been selected for the All-Star Game already had gotten the news much earlier. But it was true, Snead was going to pitch in the Triple-A All-Star Game. He was going to take his slider and spin it in El Paso. Snead was not going to go home for the break. Snead was not going to fish under the Florida sun.

But before that moment happened for Snead; before he was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2016; before he was promoted to Buffalo; before he was called into his manager’s office and found out he was pitching in the Triple-A All-Star game; before he took the mound in El Paso and threw a clean inning before millions of viewers; before all of that, Snead had to find his slider. And it was waiting for him in Florida.

***

Alachua, Florida, home to under 10,000 Americans, rests in the mainland, many miles from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a small town, located in the northern part of the sun-kissed state. Not too many Americans know about Alachua unless they are passing through it to get to Orlando or Tampa. It’s a drive-through town near Gainesville that Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Snead calls home. It is the place he discovered his love for baseball. It’s the place he discovered his love for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And it’s the place his journey to the unruly slider began.

Baseball. Skynyrd. The slider. As a young kid, Snead would listen to his dad share stories about growing up in Jacksonville and what the music scene was like back in the late 1960s and early ’70s in the northern region of the Florida state. His dad went to high school with some of the members of Skynyrd, so Snead feels a connection to the band through all the tales his father has told him over the years. He has Florida rock in him and now the baseball roll. But he wasn’t always a pitcher.

As a young child growing up in Alachua, Snead would play baseball on countryside diamonds scattered throughout the county. He’d look up at the open blue sky around him, sweat slowly soaking the brim of his cap, the slider off in the distant future, and chase down fly balls, as he had yet to discover his love for the art of pitching.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He had no idea back then who Blaeholder or Uhle were, and he never really thought about pitching or throwing a slider. He had no idea about the strange days the “slide ball” created for hitters like the great Foxx in the 1930s. He had no idea that one day he’d discover the pitch and it would lead him to El Paso. He had no idea he’d end up pitching in Triple-A for the Buffalo Bisons, either.

Growing up as a little leaguer in the state rich with the juice of the sun, Snead spent hours on the road. He spent miles with his father, in the passenger seat, driving from county to county, going from diamond to diamond, listening to Skynyrd, staring out the window and chasing baseballs in the outfield, not chasing the slider, which was tucked away somewhere in the Florida sky waiting for him.

But the slider eventually would choose Snead the way it chose Blaeholder or Uhle or Feller. It chose him the way it chooses all of the pitchers that master its bend. It finds a way to find the ones. The slider seeks pitchers, who stand on that small patch of earth’s linen in the middle of the diamond, to throw it sixty feet and six inches into the dirt, into the same earth’s linen they hurl from: toe to slab, hand to ball, fingers to leather, gripped and hurled. And none do it better than lefties like Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.

It’s no wonder lefty, Andrew Miller, who is from Gainesville, was one of Snead’s favorite pitchers growing up. The day came when one of his Little League coaches asked Snead to try pitching because he was left-handed. And that was the day everything would change.

That was the day that would send him into the direction of the slider and onto the road he travels today. That was the day that would lead him to follow Miller’s impressive career, a career that has seen his slider wipe the Toronto Blue Jays out of the 2016 ALCS. Miller has thrown it 35.9% of the time. In total, Miller has thrown 13,490 major-league pitches, which means his slider has danced home 4,842 times. Snead has watched Miller throw many of those pitches. And maybe his slider, like Miller’s, will dance in the big-league dirt, too.

***

Once Snead’s love for pitching began to take hold of his thoughts and playing outfield became a distant childhood memory, the “whatever happens, happens” young man, started to think of the endless ways to play around with different grips of the baseball. He would explore the red stitches; learn to spin. Deception.

Snead had always had natural movement on both his fastball and change-up, but he didn’t throw a breaking ball until he was in high school, yet to spin the slider. It was just a pitch he had seen, but he never tried to pick up even though it was waiting for him all along. He wouldn’t find his pitch in high school. He wouldn’t discover the “slide ball” until his freshman year at Florida College.

The slider eventually would crash into Snead and land in his hand like it has all the others who have thrown it before him. But before being introduced to the pitch that would send his career where it is today, he had a breaking ball. It wasn’t really anything special. It wasn’t bending minds in the box or missing many bats. A couple of the older lefties on the team showed him different grips, so he started playing with it. And then it got better. It grabbed him. It held onto him. And it hasn’t let go. Now, he understands it. He lets it do its thing: Whatever happens, happens.

Snead told me at the end of last season his “go-to” pitch depended on the day, but more times than not, his slider was working for him. Occasionally his change-up and sinker combo were his “go-to,” as well, but it just depended on the situation and what was working better for him on that specific day.

The slider, though, likes to work for him, and it really worked for him in a game against the Columbus Clippers back on August 10. And it was that slider, the one showcased that night, that was the reason Snead was drafted. It was that slider that led him through the minors. It was that slider that led him to Buffalo and to pitching in the 2019 Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso back in July.

***

On the summer evening of August 10, Snead’s slider slayed the Clippers.

The Bisons, who were on the tail end of a six-game road trip, were up 4-3 when the lefty from Alachua came on in relief in the third inning. Bobby Bradley was the first to take his ash wood bat to the box. He swung the barrel at Snead’s slider and carved a path to nowhere land, missing white leather and red stitches.

Snead’s spinner: a Clippers K.

Bradley was the first victim to be stabbed by the spin. Second baseman Mark Mathias, who set foot in the right side of the batter’s box, had no chance against this great pitch, either. Snead’s slider would be too much for him, too. He quickly found himself in a 1-2 hole. It was a hole his bat dug; a hole to a K.

The fourth inning would be the same: Snead, sliders, and Ks.

Eric Stamets led off the inning and looked at strike one; the ash wood never left his shoulder. Still. He found himself 0-2 in fewer than 45 seconds. And then a few seconds later, he swung and missed the third pitch that slid past him.

Snead’s spinner: a Clippers K.

The Clippers came and went. Jake Bauers swung and missed and chased Snead’s slider, too. It rolled like a rock in Columbus. Andrew Velazquez was next. And he, like Bauers, was another Clippers K, as the Columbus batters spat seeds and cursed in the dugout.

Snead spun two innings and had five Ks. And Clippers hitters, who dug their cleats into Huntington Park’s dirt that evening to face Snead, had no chance against his slider: It spun, unbeatable.

And now Snead’s slider waits for its day in the majors.

***

Baseball historians love to debate the origins of the slider. They like to think about when it first slid its way home. But before all of that, it began as a thought that rode a wave that eventually kissed the shore. And maybe it was Blaeholder who picked it up one day walking along that beach. Or maybe it was Uhle who slid it into the dirt for the first time.

But since its discovery, it has been mastered by Johnson. Mastered by Feller. Mastered by Miller. And Sabathia, too. It has been played with and gripped and spun into the air and slid its way across home plate summer after summer. And years after, it brought strange days to the batter’s box. The future continues to grip it tightly. And now it holds onto Snead and many other prospects who want to spin their way into big league dirt.

It’s always waiting for the future to find it. And the pitch always has been in good hands.


Ryan is a lover of birds and all things minor. He writes for Blue Jays Nation dot com.
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Really terrific writing, keep it coming, please.