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Secret Base Hall of Fame: Casey Fossum

One day fifteen years ago, this man ruined me.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Photo Day Photo by Andy Lyons /Getty Images

“Eephus” is a stupid-looking name for a stupid-looking pitch. Only a few players across Major League Baseball history have regularly thrown it, and Casey Fossum is one of them.

Many of the greatest pitchers of all time have found success mostly by changing speeds. If you can throw 95 miles per hour one minute and 77 the next, you make it tough for the batter to lock in and time it right. This only really works if you can make it look like either one might be coming out of your hand. You can’t tip off the batter. Your delivery needs to look the same.

If you wanted to right now, you could give yourself an oversimplified demonstration of how high of an art this is. Wad up a paper ball or something. Throw it as hard as you can, paying close attention to how your arm and your body moves when you throw it. Now mimic that same throwing motion, but only throw it half as hard. You’ll then have some iota of how difficult this is to do with a baseball from 60 feet away.

But the eephus? That only hits the mitt at 55, 50, even 45 miles per hour. Here is what Fossum’s looked like.

Animation: Casey Fossum’s eephus pitch, which arcs cartoonishly high and gets to the plate very slowly.

Some GIFs make a sound, and this one sounds like a slide whistle. It’s cartoonish in appearance, and it can work if it’s deployed smartly — in one newspaper report, teammates noted that he only threw about three eephus pitches per game. Deploy it too often, and they’ll catch on to you. You have to keep it a weird, sad surprise, like a cigarette butt in a load of laundry.

I don’t know why the 25 or so notable eephus pitchers in baseball history picked up that pitch, but greatness is not the common denominator. Casey Fossum was not at all a great pitcher by Major League Baseball standards; in fact, among pitchers to make at least 100 starts, Fossum finished with one of the worst ERAs of all time. But you will not hear me denigrate his abilities for two reasons: first, he was, of course good enough to stick around and make those 100-plus starts in the first place.

And second, the video game version of Casey Fossum inflicted upon me a great and terrible humiliation. One that made me swear off baseball video games forever. To this day, I have not returned.

It’s 2006, I’m 23 years old, and we’re in my apartment. This story is about Casey Fossum and not me, so I’ll only pull the curtain back a little.

If you look to the left of the TV, you’ll see a weight bench. I have a friend who likes to drive around and pick up random junk that people have left on the curb. One day he stopped by unannounced, back when people just did that, with the weight bench in the back of his truck. “You want this? I’ve already got one.” Sure.

We lugged it up to my place, and it wasn’t until a couple days later that I tried to use it, stood up, took a close look at it, and realized that it was a child-sized weight bench. This possibility never occurred to me because I didn’t realize such a thing existed. Was I mistaken here? Another friend stopped by. “No, yeah, dude, this thing is for kids. It’s gotta be.” I’m too lazy to try to sell, it, and I’m certainly not going to pay a junk hauler to drive it away, because I don’t have the kind of money you need to do … anything, really. So it’s sat there for a year. It doesn’t do anything and it isn’t going anywhere. Takes one to know one, pal.

If we can direct our attention back to the right, I’m firing up Major League Baseball 2K6 on my Xbox. I don’t know why! I don’t even like playing this game! I felt, and still feel, that realistic baseball video games are a bad idea. They should either be oversimplified like the R.B.I. Baseball series, or off-the-wall lunacy like Mario Superstar Baseball. The art of getting good wood on the ball can’t possibly be simulated by a single button-press, but that’s what this game has stuck you with, so batting really feels more like bet-placing than anything.

I’m in the lobby of this game I suck at and don’t enjoy, waiting for an online match. This is only gonna piss me off, because even by 2006 standards, my internet connection is terrible. I’ve lost Yahoo! Chess matches due to lag, that’s how bad it is. I get matched up, and as the loading screen appears, I hear some kid’s voice crackle through the mic. He probably isn’t older than 12.

Online gaming with kids is a pretty weird experience that we all just kind of have to get used to. You’ve been robbed of your superior social standing. You’re not any more dignified than they are. This is not a friendly game of Mario Kart with your youngest sibling, and you can’t laugh it off as a friendly match that’s all in fun. That’s not why people play online games. We play to win, not to have fun. Who took the time to upload a custom avi? Who carefully monitors their rating? Who patiently waited in the lobby for five minutes to find a ranked match? You did, dummy, just like they did. You’re taking this equally seriously and you cannot even try to pretend otherwise.

I’m beginning to think I might collect my first-ever win when I see that he’s chosen the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, one of the worst teams in baseball. The only real draw for selecting this team lies in Scott Kazmir, their young ace with a high-90s fastball and a terrific slider. I’m further amused when this kid doesn’t even start him.

He starts Casey Fossum.

At this time, I have no idea Fossum has an eephus pitch, or what an eephus even is. Unlike the real-life Fossum, the kid throws this thing so often that his fastball is actually the off-speed pitch. It goes something like eephus, fastball, eephus, eephus, fastball, eephus. When he strikes out the side in the first inning, all I can really do is laugh. I’ve never seen a pitch that looked like that. It moves like the clay pigeons in Duck Hunt. But it’s fine, I’ll figure it out.

He strikes out the side in the second as well. I just cannot figure this guy out. The eephus is such a strange pitch that even when I guess correctly that an eephus is coming, I still miss somehow. I can’t even make contact. Worst of all, I can’t even work the count, because the vast majority of his pitches are landing over the plate.

Around batter number five, I hear him over the mic:

What, lil’ bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

What, lil’ bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

This will continue throughout the rest of the game. He doesn’t stop.

Heading into the third inning, I talk myself through a strategy: listen, if he’s going to keep throwing the eephus, just assume he’s throwing one every single time. If I’m late on a fastball, I’m late. Just hit the eephus. If I time it right, I could hit that thing 500 feet.

He then strikes me out on three straight fastballs, all of which I am comically late on. I immediately abandon this strategy.

What, lil’ bitch

Lil’ stupid-ass bitch

What, lil’ bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

I don’t have a mic, and thank God for that.

Beyond completely destroying the opponent’s sense of timing — a thing already compromised by the lag — there’s another special utility to the eephus as deployed against you in an online game. It makes you look like a total idiot. You’re finished with your swing before the ball is even halfway to the plate. If you bet the other way and guess wrong, you don’t even begin to swing until the ball’s basically in the mitt. Video Game Fossum doesn’t even have to fool you with pitch placement. Every ball goes over the plate. He’s attacking your your ability to time, sense, react. He’s directly attacking your intellect.

Nothing will tilt an online gamer quite like being obviously and repeatedly outsmarted and made to look like a dummy. Someone will find out you’re susceptible to one particular parlor trick and beat you to death with it. There’s the phase in which you recognize what’s being done, how it’s happening, and what you need to do to counteract it. What comes after is the phase in which you realize that there’s nothing you can do. Your opponent has run this playbook a hundred times against a hundred clueless marks. You’re next on this merry-go-round, and you’re here to lose.

Hey lil’ bitch

What’s up lil’ bitch

What lil’ bitch

What what lil’ bitch

It’s the fourth inning. 12 up, 12 down, all strikeouts. This is a perfectly-targeted attack on my ego.

I think I’m smart. I think I’m an excellent tactician when it comes to video games, my abilities forged in the fires of Madden ‘93, Perfect Dark, and Rainbow Six, but also informed by the dark arts of weird old DOS strategy games. Games like Warlords and Nobunaga’s Ambition that required mastery of troops and economies to conduct campaigns of great conquest. Games this kid is too young to have a clue about.

I also think I know a lot about baseball. I watch it constantly. Even in 2006, I’m poring through Baseball-Reference every day. I want to write for a living someday, and if it can ever somehow happen, it feels like baseball is my ticket in. I’m a professional baseball writer in training. I should know what an eephus pitch is.

I think I’m a pretty laid-back guy. I don’t get angry easily. I’m really easygoing. I get along well with people. At the tech-support call center I work at, my supervisor notes in my reviews that I’m very good at de-escalating, which is to say that when mad people call me, I’m good at helping them feel more understood and less mad.

All these things mean a lot to me. They’re the basis of my ego. Hey, look at that guy. You know, he doesn’t have his shit together at all and is actually kind of a doofus, but hey, he’s a smart guy who knows stuff and is good with people. That’s something.

All those pillars are shaking. I’m a shiftless bum who can’t hit a 55-MPH pitch to save my life because I don’t know anything about baseball, and on top of that, I’m being absolutely driven up the wall by a Video Game Casey Fossum and some random 12-year-old who’s outsmarting me every chance he gets.

He is way better than me at everything I thought I was good at. My self-esteem is being annihilated.

Lil’ old bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

Lil’ old bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

One thing that to this day makes me an absolute loser is that I take online gaming etiquette very seriously. I never abandon a match, no matter how badly I’m getting destroyed. Someone can say incredibly cutting things to me and I’ll say “Thanks!” and pretend I’m not mad, that this doesn’t matter to me. Kill ‘em with kindness, you know? I’m above this. I’m better than this.

When you’re 23 years old and nothing feels like it’s breaking the right way, if it’s even breaking any way at all, it’s a lot more difficult to feel that way. But I try, I really do. I refuse to abandon the match. I am determined to solve this puzzle. This can only last for so long. Even if I can’t win this game, I can at least light him up a little bit, proving to both of us that, yes, I figured him out.

What, lil’ bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

Lil’ old bitch

What what, lil’ bitch

Imagine the experience of losing 50 consecutive rounds of rock-paper-scissors, and you might have a sense of what this is like. I’ve fouled off a handful of pitches, but I haven’t put a single ball into play. This kid is a genius, but it’s not really about that anymore, it’s about how fundamentally bad at this I am. Can I at least be okay at a video game? We’ve settled that I’m a stupid baby who doesn’t know anything and gets mad at things that don’t matter. Can I have this, at least? No.

I hope this kid thinks I’m someone his age. I hope it never occurs to him that he’s thoroughly embarrassing a grown man so badly that he’ll write about it a decade and a half later.

And I’d like Casey Fossum to know that for one day, on two televisions, he was a god.

Having surrendered every other claim I thought I had, my sense of honor is the last thing to go. Somewhere around the seventh inning, I disconnect. I don’t have time to navigate through the menus. I have run out of oxygen. I unplug the console from the wall. It was a tornado, for all that kid knows. I never play an online baseball game again.