Sometimes, over the course of a season or even just in October, a pitcher is so memorably great that he will own that year. Gibson has 1968. Alexander has 1926. Hershiser, 1988. Morris, 1991. Even after three famous swings of the bat—Sammy Sosa's cork job, Barry Bonds's homer off Randy Johnson in his first game after his father's death and Randall Simon's whack at a racing sausage—Beckett took 2003. Beckett, 17-17 in his young career, did so by becoming the least accomplished of three pitchers ever to eliminate New York by pitching a shutout at Yankee Stadium. ( Johnny Podres, in 1955, and Lew Burdette, in '57, are the only others.) It was as if Beckett were back in high school trying to embarrass batters. He allowed them only five hits in the 2-0 victory.
"This," teammate Rick Helling said that night, "is the beginning of the rest of his career."
The very same could have been said about Palmer, nine days from his 21st birthday, when he beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-0 in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series. It was also the last game Sandy Koufax ever pitched.
We had another one of those rare solar eclipses this year. Clemens watched from the dugout in what he said would be his final game, as a younger version of himself introduced himself to posterity. What had changed, really, since Clemens learned at the elbow of Red Sox teammate Tom Seaver in 1986, or in the 100 years since Bill Dinneen ended the first World Series with a four-hit shutout? Not this: Control of the game lies in the hands of the starting pitcher.
A month after Beckett arrived, Spahn died. He was 82. Even in youth the winningest lefthanded pitcher in history had an aged look about him. With sunken eyes and crooked nose, he had an Old Testament kind of visage, like a sage. He spoke as if one, too.
"Hitting," the old lefty once said, "is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
His words, like the excellence of Beckett, are timeless.