Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ubaldo Expedition Concludes Two-Year Expedition to Locate Elusive "Strike Zone"

“Nice pitch, man! But where did you mean to throw it?”

George Mallory and Sir Edmund Hillary had Mount Everest. Robert Falcon Scott had the Antarctic. Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin had the Northwest Passage. Robert Kenneth Wilson had the Loch Ness Monster. Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin had Bigfoot.

And for the past twenty-one months, Ubaldo Jiménez of the Cleveland Indians has pursued an obsession as wily and elusive as any of those: the Strike Zone.

Jiménez leapt into the national consciousness in 2010, starting off the year for the Colorado Rockies with a 15-1 record and a sparkling earned-run average of only 2.20, a performance that earned him a starting spot in major league baseball’s 2010 All-Star Game.

After that game, however, his performance fell to Earth, and then swiftly began to dig: He went 10-16 in his next thirty-six games with the Rockies, struggling with his command, velocity, and (according to some) motivation. He was traded to the Cleveland Indians on July 21, 2011, and finished that season with a 10-13 record and a 4.68 ERA.

Baseball analysts suspect that Jiménez’s problems stemmed not from mechanical issues, a shortened 2011 Spring Training, or cuticle problems on his pitching hand, but rather from his obsessive, Ahab-like pursuit of something that—at least for him—may not exist at all: the Strike Zone.

The Strike Zone—artist’s conception.

“I’ve been searching for the Strike Zone for almost two years now,” says Jiménez.“People don’t believe me, but I know I can find it if I keep at it. I’ve looked high and low for it. High and tight, lately, but low and away, too. Low and way away, even.”

Each red point on this map indicates an attempt by the 
July 2010-September 2011 Ubaldo Expedition to locate the Strike Zone.

The Ubaldo Expedition traveled to dozens of American cities from mid-2010 through spring 2012, desperately trying to find the mysterious Strike Zone. What does Jiménez remember from those trying times?

“Walking. Lots and lots of walking. Seems like it was nothing but walks sometimes—it’s enough to make you a little wild once in a while.”

“Sometimes I wondered if this Strike Zone thing was totally made up, arbitrary. It made me wonder if I was just throwing everything away.”

Things reached their worst for the Expedition in August 2011, when the pitcher began casting his eyes toward the sea.
“I even thought about searching the ocean for the Strike Zone, since I couldn’t find a trace of it anywhere else,” says Jiménez. “But then in Detroit my catcher told me that I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat, so I guess I wouldn’t have been able to try it. That was nice of him to save me all that time.” 

Jiménez’s optimistic outlook is refreshing, but the arduous twenty-one-month trek has clearly left him physically drained and mentally fragile. Psychologists note that Ubaldo recently compared being in Cleveland to being in heaven, and while they hesitate to use the word “delusion,” the evidence is hard to ignore.

It’s not heaven. It’s not even Iowa.
The Ubaldo Expedition’s Spring 2012 campaign hadn’t started off any better than 2011’s had ended—with a 1-4 record and an ERA above 7.00 through the end of March—until Jiménez, much to everyone’s surprise, suddenly located the Strike Zone right inside Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki’s rib cage.

The Ubaldo Expedition’s Strike Zone map, spring 2012.

 “It’s funny—inside Tulowitzki is always the last place you look for stuff,” he says with a shrug. “But I’m excited about looking for it there again and again, as soon as I get another chance.”

That chance may not arrive for a while, however. Authorities in charge of the Ubaldo Expedition have decided to give him a five-day break from his job as a reward for his efforts, and with the Indians playing in the American League rather than the Rockies’ National League, there’s a chance that Jiménez may not encounter the Strike Zone again for several more years.

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