LOS ANGELES – A man travels unforgiving ground in a game in which he gives away height and breadth. The game is tolerant in that way, however, if not overly generous. And still the challenge is to leave a footprint on that ground. To do something. To be great. If not forever, then today. Then see about tomorrow, tomorrow.
So, yeah, he shows up early, reports to the batting cage, lowers his hands when he’s told, loosens his upper body, gets a little space in that swing, forgets that nasty slump, and becomes the 17th man to hit four home runs in a big-league baseball game.
When it’s done he thanks God and his bat company and he marvels at the game that makes it all so, that puts a 5-foot-10, 185-pound man shoulder to shoulder with giants.
Three days later, Scooter Gennett had no concrete explanation for why he’d hit 38 home runs in 502 games, then four in one, other than “God was working that day,” and he got four good pitches to hit, and hit them hard enough to carry over the fence. No sense overthinking it.
The beauty of Gennett is, of all the players in that game in Cincinnati, of the people who watched and heard about it, of those who track the numbers and the men inside them, he may have been the least effected. Even as the Hall of Fame requested and then accepted his bat, and the stories were written, and the messages flooded his phone, he turned to a friend and said, “You know, this feels like any other game. Like nothing’s changed.”
The 27-year-old was drafted 496th eight years ago out of Sarasota High School in Florida. He debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers four years later and was their regular second baseman for the better part of 3 ½ seasons. At the end of March, nearing the end of spring training, the Brewers released him. The Reds claimed him and he reported to Cincinnati, where he was born, to play for the team he grew up loving. He introduced himself around, picked up a couple more gloves, and began the process of becoming a super-utility player. He arrived at the ballpark Tuesday for a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, noted he was in left field and batting fifth, considered the adjustments hitting coach Don Long and assistant hitting coach Tony Jaramillo had suggested, and promptly flared an opposite-field single against Adam Wainwright.
“It was a good swing,” said Gennett, who bats left. “I stayed inside it, like we’d talked about.”
Encouraged, Gennett came to the plate in the third inning against Wainwright. The bases were loaded. He worked the count full. Wainwright threw a cutter toward the middle of the strike zone, a little inside. Gennett’s hands were low. His swing felt loose. Easy. He turned on that cutter, whipped his bat at it, caught it flush, watched it go.
Fifteen years later, Shawn Green’s phone rang and he laughed.
“That’s the one day everybody still remembers,” Green said. “Either ‘Jewish player’ or ‘four home-run game.’ It just becomes kind of, more than an anecdote of your career, the defining anecdote.”
On May 23, 2002 in Milwaukee, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Green had six hits, four of them home runs. He hit 324 other home runs in his career. The remaining four are the ones people best recall, and they are the source of the text messages and emails he receives on that day, every year.
“More than on my birthday or wedding anniversary,” he said.
If Green’s experience can be borrowed, Gennett’s perspective likely will not change with time. A glorious handful of at-bats remain so. A perfect day, somewhere back there, remains so. The confluence of earnest preparation and wheelhouse pitches and good swings and ball flight and backspin and ballpark configuration and wind (or lack thereof) and healthy breakfast (presumably) repeats itself, as does the required contact, and a few hours later you’re one of 17. You’re Scooter Gennett, standing beside Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig and Mike Schmidt. And Shawn Green.
“Everything lined up perfectly that day,” Green said. “It’s really a freakish event.
“This really is a quirky club. Quirky in a good way. I mean, anybody can have a day. Anybody who can hit one home run can hit four, right?”
That cutter from Adam Wainwright in the third inning landed in the right-field bleachers, 424 feet away. Gennett had hit one.
“It was awesome,” Gennett said.
He came up the next inning against Wainwright, a man on base, the count 3-and-2 again. Wainwright threw a sinker. Gennett hit it to center field, 424 feet again. He’d hit two.
Wainwright was gone by the sixth inning, when Gennett came to the plate again. On a 3-and-1 count, Cardinals reliever John Gant threw a fastball, up and away. It seemed safe. Gennett hit it high down the left-field line and it, too, landed in the seats. He’d hit three.
And when John Brebbia, the third right-handed pitcher he’d see, threw a two-strike fastball, up and in, Gennett clubbed that to right field. He’d hit four.
Searching for his best swing just those hours before, a .270 hitter with three home runs and 20 RBI just those hours before, Gennett walked away a .302 hitter with seven home runs and 30 RBI. And as you go to a ballpark hoping to see something you’ve never seen before, so did Scooter Gennett go to that ballpark hoping to achieve something he’d never achieved before. Maybe nothing so grand as to leave a footprint. But maybe something great. Maybe something better than the day before.
“You know what?” Gennett’s manager, Bryan Price, said. “I think when you hit four home runs in one game there’s some magic involved, in some part. There has to be that combination of seeing the ball better that night and getting pitches to hit. And having that little flash of magic.”
Sure, that too. The game allows for that, for the man who requires a little help from time to time, for one amazing moment to become two, and three, and four. For the man who must play up, who does so willingly.
“To be able to be an example of that is just amazing,” Gennett said. “It’s truly amazing.
“It was just as perfect as it could be.”
More MLB coverage on Yahoo Sports: