For years, the world believed that Mike Mussina’s baseball story ended in 2008. At age 39, the veteran ace retired after his first 20-win season. He never won a World Series, never pitched a no-hitter, and never claimed a Cy Young, but with 270 wins and 3.68 ERA in one of the highest offensive eras in baseball, he was considered a solid Hall of Fame candidate among fans who knew what the hell they were talking about. After Mussina left baseball, he spent his days doing crosswords and fixing up old tractors. He never thought he’d get a chance to pitch again, except maybe in an old-timer’s game if he suddenly decided he could stand to be around the other old-timers.
The first robot baseball stars could be distinguished by their design. Top robotics firms used space-aged alloys, precision-crafted joints, and advanced processors to build machines that would stand out among their counterparts. But before long, every android player was built from one of a handful of perfected designs. The only advances made in the machinery were slight and incremental. Teams had to find new ways to elevate their robots–to make them better than the competition.
First efforts in advanced robot AI were led by MLB’s chief programmer, Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur was an ex-ballplayer himself, who had retired and went back to school to devote himself to other causes after a life-changing incident in the independent leagues: he’d let his bat slip out of his hands on a strikeout and killed a fan sitting behind the dugout. A repentant Francoeur had devoted himself to the cause of safer baseball. To him, this meant helping transition to robot baseball players whose pressurized mechanical hands could never lose the grip on the handle of a bat.
There was only one problem with Jeff Francoeur’s AI programs: Jeff Francoeur was about as good at programming as he was at baseball. The first few months went great, and everyone thought his robots would revolutionize baseball. Then they began to let balls drop in front of them on the field, run backwards around the basepaths, and try to drink Gatorade even though it would cause them to short out and malfunction. The last straw was when Francoeur saw one of his AIs attempt to hit while holding the wrong end of the bat. This triggered an intense episode of PTSD and he quit programming forever to become a professional skydiving instructor. That was the last anyone ever heard of Jeff Francoeur.
With the AI program dead, MLB needed new ways to implement unique performance from their robots. They turned to their former players. MLB developed a program for imprinting the minds of real baseball players onto their robotic counterparts. Young players who had been driven out of the game by the robots refused to take part, so MLB drew from their particularly misanthropic retired personnel. Mike Mussina, who hoped that this would somehow lead to technology allowing him to imprint his brain on his tractors so that he could drive several of them at one time, was one of the first retired players to volunteer. Unfortunately, the technology was still in its infancy and something went wrong. Instead of copying Mussina’s mind into the robot, his mind was transferred. Permanently.
Mussina’s fate wasn’t as tragic as it seemed at first. The Mussina-bot, codenamed PrimeTime Moose, had a new lease on life in baseball. And when the time came for six robot masters to go back in time to destroy the sport, Moose was one of the first offered the opportunity. Moose didn’t go back to 2014 out of some loyalty to K.I.R.K.G.I.B.S.O.N. and the robots, or some desire to lord over humanity. No, his reasons were fare more complex.
Inspired primarily by his general apathy towards baseball after dominating the sport for decades as a robot, Mussina decided that it was time for the sport to end. He did not hate the game he had played for so long and in some ways he knew that he would miss it. But that wasn’t going to stop him from doing what he felt needed to be done.
Unlike the other robot masters, PrimeTime Moose had found his job quite easy. He did not have the problems some of the others had with live, human competition. He had pitched against real batters before–even some of the same batters he was called upon to face in 2014. He knew their weaknesses and the holes in their swings. His robot body gave him the arsenal of his early career, while he retained the sharp mind of his later reinvention as a crafty veteran.
Enter Strike-O-Matic and the Kansas City Royals. As the month of June opened up, the Royals squared off in a four game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The first two games were scheduled at Busch Stadium, then both teams would travel across the state for two more at Kauffman. This was an important series for the Royals, who were just now establishing themselves as possible contenders. The Cardinals, behind PrimeTime Moose, had the best record in baseball and even getting a split would show that the upstart Kansas City team was for real.
The first game was a showdown between Bartolo Colon and Shelby Miller, the Cardinals prodigal prospect. Colon did exactly what he was acquired to do, holding the Cardinals offense to three runs and lasting into the seventh inning. Miller, inconsistent as ever, held the Royals scoreless for three innings, then fell apart in the top of the fourth. The Royals batted around, with Alcides Escobar delivering the biggest hit of the inning, a triple off the wall in right-center.
The Royals held on to win the first game 5-3, giving them a shot at winning the series even if they were shut down by PrimeTime Moose in game three. This confidence did not carry over into the next game, however, which would be a matchup between Royals leftballer Bruce Chen and Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn. Unfortunately for the Royals, the Busch Stadium pitching mound was in no condition to handle the heft of Bartolo Colon one day and then support the weighty mass of Lance Lynn the next. Pummeled down into the ground, the mound provided a significant disadvantage to the Royals’ Chen, who needed every millimeter of height to reach a velocity capable of fooling Major League batters. Not surprisingly, Chen was ineffective against the Cardinals lineup. He gave up six runs over less than four innings, including a bomb by Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
The Royals didn’t have the same success against the burly Lance Lynn as they did against Shelby Miller, and they had to settle for a 1-1 visit to Busch Stadium, staring at a very likely loss against PrimeTime Moose in the next game. Scheduled to pitch for the Royals was Kyle Zimmer, the rookie righthander who had reinvented his windup to look like something out of the early 1900s. Zimmer had been good enough to solidify his spot in the rotation, get some national attention, and be accused of being twitter user @oldhossradbourn. But was he prepared to match up a robot inhabited by the soul of Mike Mussina, who had established himself as the best pitcher in the National League? Probably not.
So on three days rest, Strike-O-Matic volunteered to take the ball again, looking to face off against his nemesis from the year 2099. Because PrimeTime Moose had been an MLB pitcher and Strike-O-Matic had been a pitching machine, they had never played against each other in the future. But rumors of Strike-O-Matic’s American League success in in 2014 had reached Moose’s cybernetic ears. Perhaps it should have worried him, but he had gone up against so many great pitchers–robotic and human–in his lifetime that he could not be phased.
While Strike-O-Matic still had his work cut out for him based on the batting averages, Mike Matheny had put out one of the most puzzling lineups in history to face the pitching machine. Recently acquired Adam Lind, who was hardly hitting to expectations, slotted in at cleanup. Meanwhile, Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter were on the bench because Matheny didn’t get the memo that Strike-O-Matic threw right-handed. Mark Ellis spelled Carpenter at 3b, and while alt-2014 Ellis was hardly the disappointment of prime-2014 Ellis, he still was a bench player. Tony Cruz was barely a backup catcher. And then there was the notable absence of Oscar Taveras, who in alt-2014 had been in the Majors all year and was hitting over .270.
Strike-O-Matic got through a shaky first inning, walking Wong and giving up a hit to Jay before inducing a double play from Craig that was straight out of prime-2014. A strikeout of Adam Lind finished the inning. Then it was time for Mechanical Mike Mussina to take the mound.
The first inning was the closest the Royals got to scoring off of PrimeTime Moose. They continued to get baserunners, but Moose used his powerful mechanical arm and extensively honed mind to get out of every jam the Royals manufactured. As soon as someone reached first base, no one could touch him. Strikeout after strikeout piled up and it seemed like the Royals would never score.
Moose wasn’t the only dominating pitcher on the mound. Strike-O-Matic matched him pitch-for-pitch. The Cardinals formidable lineup, crippled as it was by Mike Matheny’s decisions, should have been able to reach against a tired Strike-O. But he used his assortment of hard fastballs and slightly less hard fastballs to keep his opponents off balance.
Strike-O-Matic went eight innings, striking out 11 while only allowing five hits and no runs. It wasn’t a complete game. He didn’t even get the win, with Moose pitching just as well on the other side of the diamond, but it was enough. He matched his competition.
Dueling with Strike-O-Matic gave Moose a reason to appreciate baseball again. After years of dominating his opponents through the 90s and 00’s as a human pitcher, and then decades of even more success as a robot pitcher, he had forgotten why he loved the game. He needed competition. He needed the adrenaline rush of knowing every pitch could change the outcome of the game.
Unfortunately, it would not be Strike-O-Matic or PrimeTime Moose who would dictate the final result of this tense match up. Both robot pitchers would be pulled before any runs could score. Strike-O-Matic made it through eight full innings, then Moose was pulled in the middle of the bottom of the eighth as a left-hander came to bat. He was over 120 pitches, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny chose to play the percentages.
In the eighth inning, Randy Choate entered the game to face Eric Hosmer. Hosmer blooped a single to the opposite field and, in what had to be a moment of sheer insanity, Choate was allowed to remain in the game to face Pat Burrell. Matheny survived himself that inning, however, when Burrell hit a long flyout to center.
Strike-O-Matic, who was well over 110 pitches, was removed for Joakim Soria. Soria put down the Cardinals in the top of the ninth 1-2-3 on three straight groundouts, setting the stage for a dramatic bottom of the ninth and more fascinating bullpen management from Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Despite the fact that Randy Choate, a lefthander, was still on the mound. Matheny made the switch to right-handed submariner to face Colby Rasmus.
Neshek, who had been just as resurgent in alt-2014 as in prime-2014, had never been great against left-handed hitters. Fortunately for him, Colby Rasmus was a streaky, inconsistent hitter who jumped out of his shoes to swing at every pitch he thought was a meatball. Neshek struck out Rasmus on a ball way out of the zone, foreshadowing some of the control issues that would plague Neshek just a couple batters later.
It looked like Mike Matheny and Pat Neshek were going to get out of trouble. The next two batters, Alcides Escobar and Jose Molina, were righthanders who didn’t play for their skills with the bat. However, Neshek’s control wasn’t sharp. He ran Escobar to a 3-2 count before getting him to pop up, and then in a fit of wildness walked Jose Molina on four straight pitches. Next up was another Moose, Mike Moustakas, a lefthanded hitter. With the winning run on first base, most managers would have pulled the wild righthander for either a lefty (Kevin Siegrist) or the team’s closer (Trevor Rosenthal). Not Mike Matheny. He believed in Pat Neshek.
And so, just as a Moose had started the game, a Moose had ended it. Mike Moustakas hit a towering walkoff HR to center field, ending the game and sealing the victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps Strike-O-Matic had not defeated PrimeTime Moose. The win went to Joakim Soria, the loss to Pat Neshek. Both robots had given up zero runs, and both had double digit strikeouts. But Strike-O had stuck it out long enough for the true weakness of the Cardinals to be revealed. After the game, PrimeTime Moose visited with Strike-O-Matic in the locker room…
Indeed, while Moose had gone rogue from K.I.R.K.G.I.B.S.O.N’s mission to destroy the game of baseball, he would not be joining forces with Strike-O-Matic to save it. The tense eight innings of 0-0 baseball against the pitching machine had revitalized his love for the sport, but the way the Cardinals collapsed afterwards forced him to adopt a different and terrible position. Baseball should not be destroyed, but should be converted to an all-robot sport decades earlier than in prime-2014.