If someone made a movie about Mark Buehrle's life ("Mark Kinda Doin' Work"? "The Other Deer Hunter"?), the first scene would be at a carnival.
Before the opening credits rolled, a precocious Buehrle would be lagging behind his family, tiny hands in tiny pockets, as he walks by a carnival game booth. A grizzled, old carny would bark, "Hey little guy, three for a dollar wins you a stuffed penguin." John Buehrle, Little Mark's dad, ponies up the buck, musses his son's hair, and tells him to take his best shot.
And because Little Mark's only 6 or 7, and small for his age, when he cocks his arm back, beanbag in hand, no one expects much. But then he fires one bag and knocks everything down, then another, then another. People start to watch, the carny's toothpick falls out of his toothless old mouth and Little Mark looks at the camera like the cat that ate the canary.
Buehrle's heard that story a million times, but he doesn't remember it. He's not the type to hang his hat on his own mythology. All he knows is that he doesn't have to think, he just does.
"It just came like I was born with the ability," he said. "When I was a little kid, my mom and dad said they'd take us to a carnival and I'd be there throwing those bean bags and knocking everything down. This was when I was 6 or 7 years old, and they said people would stop by and were in awe, because there was this little kid hitting everything."
Of course, there isn't going to be a Mark Buehrle movie. A hunting video, maybe; perhaps a 15-minute, how-to video on the art of pitching fast. It's probably for the best, because Buehrle's had a pretty good life since his teenage years. There wouldn't be much pathos. And who would play him anyway? A slacker Paul Rudd? A well-fed Seann William Scott?
If it seems like you've read all about Buehrle, and that he's been with the team longer than Minnie Minoso, you're not far off. Buehrle joined the Chicago White Sox in 2000, just two years after getting drafted in the 38th round, so if you don't appreciate him by now, you will when he's gone.
Since joining the rotation in 2001, he's been one of the most consistent pitchers of his era and could go down as the best starter in White Sox history -- left-handed, right-handed, whatever.
The left-hander with the homophone for a surname has won 127 games (and counting), thrown a no-hitter, posted a start and a save in consecutive World Series games, logged 200-plus innings a year (his workload over the past eight full seasons is the most in baseball), and earned his teammates' eternal respect by getting them out of the park at a reasonable hour nearly every start.
His personal guarantee, according to one teammate, is he'll either win fast or get his backside kicked fast. There isn't a lot of nuance to Mark Buehrle.
"They go over scouting reports, and I don't really pay attention to it, because [catcher A.J. Pierzynski] knows what he's doing back there and putting signs down," Buehrle said. "I think it's too much to worry about out there."
The 30-year-old ace is 5-0 for the first time in his career, with a 2.61 ERA, and goes for his sixth win Wednesday night in Cleveland. This could be the season he breaks his personal wins record, which in turn could help him push toward 200, if he doesn't pack up his monster truck and decamp to Missouri first.
It doesn't matter that he struggles to hit 90 on the radar gun, even though he's been the beneficiary of occasional extra rest before his starts, because he doesn't need to. He can hit his spots. Always has.
Whether he's hunting deer or hitters, the fast-pitching, fast-talking, laid-back ace of the White Sox doesn't waste time thinking. See deer, release arrow. See sign, release baseball. It's that simple in Buehrle's world.
OK, he might think a little when he's hunting. No Buehrle story is complete without a hunting reference.
"I'm into hunting," he said, which might be the understatement of the year, if taken on its own merit. But go on, Mark
"When you're out there bow-hunting, you need to tell if whether something's 20, 30, 40 yards away and there are times when I'm out there and I try to guess, like that looks like it's 20 yards. I go to my rangefinder and usually I'm pretty close. But I don't try to put too much thought into it."
Buehrle lockers next to his baseball "wife," Pierzynski, and prefers to let him do the thinking for both of them.
"I'm pretty lucky in the fact that he never shakes me off," Pierzynski said. "He'll throw whatever you want, and he's able to throw all four of his pitches for strikes."
Pierzynski doesn't think Buehrle is overlooked when the conversation turns to great pitchers, but he does think he's a little underappreciated.
"I think people know how good he is," he said. "Mark's Mark. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, he doesn't command media attention. I think people take him for granted, almost."
For sure, Mark doesn't take himself for granted. He digs his life.
His wife Jamie had their second child during spring training. He makes $14 million this year, and for the next two years, as part of a four-year, $56 million deal he signed midseason in 2007. He lives in suburban Chicago, where a man can wash his car in his own driveway and park at Blockbuster without a hassle. ("I tried living in the city my first year or so, and I hated it," he said.)
When he goes back to his St. Charles, Mo., home, he can drive -- possibly in his six-figure monster truck -- two hours north to his 1,500 acres of Nirvana, where he hunts and relaxes. Life is pretty good.
"You're telling me," he said.
So when he had to leave all that behind and get his ever-growing posterior in shape in Arizona, Buehrle opined that he's ready to retire after his contract expires in 2011. If you believe that, Carl Everett has an evolution lesson he'd like to teach you. Despite his protests, he's still a competitor, and given that he's throwing as hard as the 43-year-old Greg Maddux, his arm isn't likely to give out.
This past Saturday, he walked to his locker about three hours before game time, drenched in sweat.
"I guess since I don't do anything in the offseason, I've got to get my workouts in," he joked, probably not meaning for that to get into print. "I'd like to take them through one of my workouts."
"Them" could be the writers who reported that the White Sox brass told him to step up his offseason conditioning, or it could be the Chicago coaches and staff who made public their wishes. It's probably both. As Buehrle said, the team isn't paying him for his six-pack. (Unless there are traces of Nandrolone in his deer jerky, he probably doesn't have to worry about being outed as a steroid guy.)
The Sox are paying him ace money to get ace performances every fifth day, and with a rotation that is getting dicier by the week, Buehrle might need to have a career year to help this team stay in the AL Central race.
John Danks isn't a sure thing yet, and he gave up five runs in two of his past three starts; Gavin Floyd has had more bad starts (four) than good (two) and has an ERA over 7; Jose Contreras is trying to find his forkball in Charlotte; and Bartolo Colon looks like he ate his old teammate CC Sabathia. So basically, either Clayton Richard turns into an ace, or every Buehrle start is a must-win.
But don't worry about putting pressure on the guy.
"Look at Gavin," Buehrle said. "He's totally opposite of me. He's all mental. He's got to think out there. In between innings he's staring out at the field and you can tell he's trying to think about what he's going to do next inning. I'm in here joking around with the guys, running up and down. I don't think there's any need to think."
For White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, Buehrle is the ultimate teaching tool. He works fast and he throws strikes. Nothing makes a manager angrier than a pitcher who can't throw strikes.
"It's funny," Guillen said. "I made the joke to Jose (Contreras): Buehrle throws in the 50s and he gets everyone out. One thing about Buehrle, he throws strikes. He's attacking the strike zone and gets people out, because he's not trying to strike out nobody. He's just throwing as many strikes as he can."
Buehrle's Opening Day performance against Kansas City seemed to validate the concerns over his conditioning. He got a no-decision, throwing five innings, and gave up a home run and two doubles, also hitting two and walking three. That he only gave up two runs was blind luck. He apologized to Guillen after being pulled.
In his next start, Buehrle threw into the seventh against Minnesota and gave up one run on two hits, with no walks. Guillen made a comment -- about Buehrle being better when he's not feeling like Superman on the mound -- that was so counterintuitive (and hard to transcribe), that some reporters quoted the manager saying the exact opposite.
But that's what Pierzynski and pitching coach Don Cooper have been trying to drum into Buehrle's shaggy head: don't try to be Superman out there. Though, to be fair, hitting 90 isn't quite Kal-El territory for most pitchers.
"I think one thing he's learned is that velocity doesn't really matter," Pierzynski said. "Sometimes he still goes out there and tries to see how hard he can throw and he gives up some hits here or there. We try to preach to him that velocity doesn't matter. Eighty-six is sometimes better than 96, especially with the way his ball moves, and the pitches in his repertoire."
Buehrle said it's tough not to check out the big radar display in right. He's only human, after all, and wouldn't you like to see that crooked "9" flashing up there too?
"When you're a pitcher, you want to go up there and see the gun," Buehrle said. "For me, it's 90. For other guys, that's like 100."
If they made a movie about Mark Buehrle, the final shot would be him looking at the radar reading, up past his left shoulder, seeing "84," and smiling.