Why I Like Baseball

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Archive for August, 2006

August 21, 2006: Can’t Top This

August 21, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

I lost my hat sometime between 11pm Thursday night and 1pm Friday when the Yankees/Red Sox five-game-set began. This was my black-on-black New York Yankees hat, the one I bought on Opening Day a few years ago. Given what’s happened since then (the Sox won the World Series, for example, and the Yankees have not), I was sure it was not a lucky hat.

But I never dreamed it was an UNLUCKY hat. But I lost it right before the series began and, guess what? The Yankees swept all five games. Apparently I should have gotten rid of this hat long ago! Why couldn’t I have lost it in the hazy elation that followed the 19-8 win in Game Three in 2004 ALCS?

Anyway, the hat is gone, and so is hope from the breast of Red Sox Nation. The wailing and gnashing of the past several days has returned to pre-2004 levels here in Boston, meaning that many, many disappointed fans have been calling talk radio to bare their souls. It is the most entertaining sports radio in the country.

On Saturday, I went into the Forest CafŽ, which happens to not only have the best Mexican food in Cambridge but also to be two blocks from my house and an excellent place to watch the Sox and talk baseball. Everyone in that bar loves baseball (and if they don’t they hide it well). Cambridge is like a ghost town in mid-August, as the student population has yet to arrive and everyone else is at the Cape or out of town. So it was just me, Brian the bartender, and two or three other patrons.

I could not help but overhead the woman at the other end of the bar, to whom Brian was lending a sympathetic ear around the time the Yankees took the lead. The previous day, of course, had been the doubleheader smackdown.

“My boyfriend is a Yankees fan,” she told Brian. “And last night, I picked a fight with him.”

“About the Yankees?” Brian asked.

“No, just cuz. He wasn’t even doing anything, just sitting there minding his own business, but I was like, all over his ass, screaming and yelling. I told him, if you don’t quit liking the Yankees, I’m leaving you.”

“So, are you leaving him?”

“No, of course not. I was just pissed off.”

My own paramour of the past fifteen years unfortunately missed much of the game action in those first three glorious poundings, as he is of the same persuasion as me. He had flown to Florida for a family wedding, and was due to return near midnight on Sunday night.

I figured Sunday I would watch the game at the Forest Cafe, then hop in the car to pick him up at the airport. This plan was foiled by the fact that every game in this series has taken over four hours to play, plus there was a rain delay of almost an hour. So it was that the Red Sox were winning 4-3 when I left to retrieve him, up 5-3 by the time he got off the plane, and then the score was 5-4 by the time he got in the car.

We drove directly to Chinatown to get something to eat, and by the time we parked the car, the ninth inning was about to begin.

“If the Yankees tie the score, we should put on the MyFi and listen in the restaurant,” he said.

“Agreed.” He even had both sets of headphones and a splitter with him in his travel kit.

“If David Ortiz is Mr. Clutch for the Red Sox, then Derek Jeter is Captain Clutch for the Yankees,” said Jerry Trupiano. Jeter brought in the tying run with a bloop single off Papelbon.

We went into the restaurant with our XM Satellite radio plugged into our ears. XM carried the ESPN radio broadcast, so it was Dave Campbell who got to incredulously detail Giambi’s home run in the tenth, and the subsequent two-run shot that made it 8-5. Various people in the restaurant were staring at us–my MUSSINA jersey made us kind of conspicuous, as did the high-fives.

Mariano shut the door around the time we were getting our check (this Chinese restaurant is lightning fast: the Grand Chau Chow) and by 1:30 am we were back in the car and on the way home.

Then, today, I just knew the Yankees were going to sweep when poor Keith Foulke struck our Derek Jeter and retired all five men he faced, yet he let the insurance run score on a wild pitch on only the second or third pitch of his appearance. After both teams had scored all those runs in the previous four games, for the Yankees to win 2-1 just seemed like the ultimate coup de grace.

In the old days we would have called that a Curse. Now we know it’s that the jinx of Cecilia’s black hat has been lifted.*

*The only problem with this is that next weekend we’re flying to Anaheim and we’ll see the Yankees play there. But now I have no hat to wear…

August 19, 2006: Long Ball

August 19, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

As often happens to me, I did not sleep well the night before a Yankees/Red Sox match-up. Because yes, it is EXACTLY like the night before Christmas and I am exactly like a sugared up ten-year-old on holiday when the Yankees come to town. But this time it was actually that I had to drive my dearest to the airport at the crack of dawn. Three and a half hours of sleep is not a lot. I thought perhaps I would take a nap in the late morning, but work interfered with that plan.

So it was that I kicked off the first day of the five-games-in-four-days Yankees at Fenway set utterly exhausted. Bad way to start a doubleheader. I suppose it was fitting though–I was about as worn out as both bullpens.

When the first game started at one in the afternoon, I was sitting at my desk trying to get some work done. Now, it’s no secret that I am co-writing a book with Anna Benson, the wife of Orioles’ pitcher Kris Benson (who won yesterday, by the way). There was a blurb about us in Sports Illustrated and the news has hit the PR entertainment newswires as well. So I may as well tell you that Anna and I are collaborating a lot by phone, since we’re in different cities.

Tired or no, I decided to multi-task, and watch the game on MLB.com’s GAMEDAY (the animated pitch-by-pitch screen with the play by play ticker), and talk to Anna at the same time. Anna and I got a lot done. We were on the phone for almost two hours and NO, I’m not going to tell you any of the juicy anecdotes she shared with me (you’ll have to buy the book for that). Since what I’m writing is a novel, you’ll never know what is wild stuff I made up and what really happened, but honestly, there is so much wild stuff going on behind the scenes in baseball (as with any entertainment industry) that I won’t have to invent much.

The upshot of it is, by the time Anna and I got off the phone, the Yankees were up on the Red Sox 5-3 and I was feeling pretty good about that. Two runs is not very many to the Red Sox, and I knew the bullpen was a question mark, but hey… are you supposed to feel bad when your team is winning? No!

Especially when some of the guys you were worried about choking were on base all the time. Johnny Damon went 0-for-4 on his first game back to Fenway, way back in the beginning of the season. Not this time. He started the game off with a triple, which probably could have been an inside-the-park-homer if third base coach Larry Bowa had not been cautious.

Speaking of which, can I say now what a great job Bowa seems to do at third base? I know folks were apprehensive that the combative, fiery Bowa wouldn’t fit in with the Torre Yankees when he came on board, but he has been great both on the field and in the clubhouse. I haven’t seen him make a bad call at third yet (though Giambi ran right through his stop sign the other day–entirely Jason’s fault), and he seems to be the life of the party among the younger players like Cano and Wang. Yeah, isn’t that interesting? It’s the young guys on the team who flock to him and joke around with him.

But back to our story. Bowa’s caution paid off fie pitches later when Jeter’s base hit brought Damon in. Damon went 3-for-6 on the day, with 4 RBI and 3 runs scored. As the vernacular around here goes, you could say Damon was “awn fiyah.”

Another guy who was on fire: Bobby Abreu. Okay, I admit it, I was a little emotional the other day when I posted that I was skeptical about him. Actually, as I said in that article, I was mostly upset that beloved Bernie Williams was going to ride the bench as a result of Abreu’s arrival. Abreu is not only the new David Justice, he’s actually better. His on-base percentage since coming to the Yankees is close to .500, and how about 4-for-5 with a walk in his first big Fenway test? Hawt.

And then there is Alex Rodriguez, the lightning rod for negativity. All I can say is anyone who expects A-rod to simply crumble in the face of booing, rabid press, or his own psyche’s twists, is in for a disappointment. 2-for-5, 2 RBI, scored a run, a very decent showing in what turned into a Yankee rout.

The final score did not come until 3 hours and 55 minutes after the first pitch, by which time I had packed my car and was headed to Pawtucket, RI to play in the final game of my on baseball season. (If you’re new to Why I Like Baseball, I play in the oldest all-female baseball league in the country, the Pawtucket Slaterettes.) My team has been crummy this year, but I’ll post a season recap later this week. Right now, I’m too busy with the Yankees in town to do it.

I arrived at Slater Park at almost 5pm for a 5:30 game, but couldn’t get out of my car because T.J. Beam was trying to finish the Sox off, and was having trouble. He did give up a run, but eventually induced Mike Lowell to fly out. In the end it was 12-4 Yankees, who outhit the Sox 17-10, and it was a good thing they had rescheduled the nightcap to take place at 8pm, since the first one took sooooo long.

My own game was fun, as always, but between the fact that we played on back-to-back days thanks to a quirk in our schedule, and I played every inning of both games (a rarity, given our roster size, but a lot of folks are on vacation), by about the fourth inning my legs were starting to feel tired. Actually, all of me felt tired — remember, less than four hours sleep — but it was my legs that it seemed to affect the most. I played left field, the furthest position from our dugout, and the run back and forth to my position was starting to feel very long.

The team went out to dinner afterward to celebrate the end of the season, and just our luck, the place we went, a family restaurant called Chelo’s, had a tv on with the game. The Sox/Yankees game, I mean. We were actually in the next room, but I could see it through the windows separating that dining room from the one we were in.

Damon again led off with a hit. Awn fiyah. He was caught stealing by Doug Mirabelli, but I didn’t care. Damon’s hit felt like a sign that the massive offensive barrage of the early game was going to continue. The fact that Jon Lester was on the mound also encouraged that fact. I know the rule of thumb is that the Yankees can’t hit rookies they have never seen before. But I just felt like they were going to get the runs, and that they were going to need them because of one thing. Sidney Ponson.

The Sox got a run off Ponson in the bottom of the inning, but you knew a 1-0 score was not going to stand up. The Yankees then came up to bat, and they were still batting after we’d placed our order, and they were still batting around the time our drinks started to come–which was amazing because we had one of the slowest waiters I’ve ever seen. The poor guy was overwhelmed by our need for 10 separate checks, and needed every order as he was writing them down to be repeated three times–and even then he got some of them wrong and the drinks forgotten.

Who cares though, when you’re having a good time with friends, and oh by the way, the Yankees are now up 5-1? I thought maybe it was 3-1, but Todd, our coach, who was sitting a little closer and who has better eyesight than me, said 5-1.

I paid attention to food and friends after that, and got into my car to leave at the end of the third inning. The third inning? It was almost 9:30 pm at that point, and the Sox had scored four while I wasn’t paying attention. So now it was 5-4 Yanks, but in ninety minutes they had only gone through three innings?

The drive home was long. It’s always an hour, but it felt even longer as the Sox tied the score on a Craig Wilson error (he’s the guy we have at first base now, in case you didn’t follow and the trading deadline moves–Giambi DH’s mostly now). Then went ahead. Then scored three more in the fifth.

So we were down 10-7 when I got home and wanted to go to sleep. But was I going to be able to sleep while they were playing? Of course not. Never. I sat in my office instead, listening to the Red Sox broadcast on the radio while playing a computer game.

A scoreless inning occurred. That’s right. In the sixth inning, neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox scored. Something that had not happened in that game (and only happened three times in the earlier game, too).

Then in the seventh, the Yankees turned the tables once again, trumping all previous rallies of the entire day, scoring seven runs off Craig Hansen and Mike Timlin (who was given the blown save and the loss), making the score 14-10 Yankees. In the eighth both teams were again scoreless, which just seemed soooo weird. Scott Proctor had to pitch again. And Keith Foulke pitched two scoreless for the Sox, after having been activated between games (while the game one starter, Jason Johnson, was designated for assignment).

Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth. David Ortiz hit a home run off him, a solo shot into the bullpen in right, but it really did not seem to matter. The Yankees won 14-11, in a game that set the new record for a nine-inning game at 4:45. The poor folks running the Jimmy Fund radio-thon yesterday had to keep their phones open an extra hour because the game ran so long. (On the other hand, they broke the previous record for fundraising and ended up beating their goal of $2.6 million which is a Very Good Thing. Apparently, during the first game, Jason Giambi even got on his cell phone and pledged $1,000 between at bats.)

It was not the “Boston Massacre” of 1978, in which the Yankee offensive explosion was coupled with stifling pitching. But hey, I’ll take it. By winning the first two of the five, the Yankees insure that no matter what happens in the next three games, they will leave town still in first place.

Today Josh Beckett faces Randy Johnson–heat against heat. Tomorrow Mike Mussina faces Curt Schilling–ace against ace, brains against brains. And Monday Cory Lidle faces David Wells–question mark against question mark. So who knows how it will turn out? All I can say is after a full eight hours of sleep, I’m ready for it now.

July 30, 2006: Dirty Words

July 30, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

Today, I’m just going to be a fan. So get ready for some venting. I’m wearing my lucky Mike Mussina jersey and currently watching the Yankees beating the Devil Rays 3-2 via MLB.com. Michael Kay just announced that the Yankees have a deal that is imminent with the Phillies–the Yankees would be giving up a pile of minor leaguers for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle.

Here’s how I know I’m thinking like a fan and not like a writer. The first thing I did when hearing this was not look up Abreu’s stats, but shout “Cory &*%^$ Lidle!!” and then start wondering which of my beloved Yankees will be benched to make room for Abreu. Ostensibly he’ll play right field, no? So does that mean that Bernie will move to DH, Giambi back to first, and Andy Phillips will ride the pine? Or will Bernie?

I don’t friggin’ WANT you, Bobby Abreu. I want my valiant, struggling, heart-filled Yankees to triumph in the face of adversity. Bernie has exceeded all expectations, the “kids” and the bottom of the lineup have been getting the job done–by all measures the hitting is really going quite well.

Want proof? Okay, here come the stats. Only one team has scored more runs in the major leagues than the Yankees thus far this year: the Chicago White Sox. The Yankees are also in the top 5 in batting average, walks, team OBP, etc… In other words, there is nothing “wrong” with this lineup.

What’s “wrong” is that the Red Sox are right there, too, essentially neck and neck, and the Blue Jays, even, are right in that same pack. In order to “beat” these teams, the Red Sox especially, we need an offensive edge, right?

Wrong. What we need is better pitching. Those runs will count for a lot more if we could keep other teams off the board. That’s how the Tigers are doing it, with a team ERA of 3.70, far and away much better than any other team (the next closest is the Mets at 4.03, and that’s in the NL with no DH). Interestingly, if you look at the team pitching stats you’ll also see both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays doing worse than the Yankees, as well. But the race is still pretty close. If we could get better, more consistent pitching, Matsui and Sheffield could take the rest of the year off and we’d be fine.

So, we need pitching. So we’re getting… Cory Lidle? Insert fannish squeal of frustration here. I remember when he was with Seattle. And Oakland. And I seem to remember he wasn’t that great…

On the other hand, could he be better than Sidney Ponson? My squeal of frustration over Lidle is nothing compared to the sound I made when I heard Ponson was headed to the Bronx.

Are we really that desperate, Mr. Cashman? Is it really that bad? Sigh. I guess it is, or they wouldn’t be bothering. I know Cashman has the same ultimate goal as the fan in me: we want the Yankees to win. But I was really beginning to like the story that was shaping up this season, about the plucky, can-do Yankees who pioneered their way through the jungle of the American League East while a couple of superstars held together a team of rookies, cast-offs, and rejuvenated players.

Put simply, adding Abreu smacks of desperation, not destiny.

Maybe, just maybe, Abreu will be this year’s David Justice, and Lidle will be this year’s Chacon/Small. Maybe in a couple of weeks I’ll be writing about how shrewd they were to make this deal. But at the moment, I write to record this moment in time, when Lidle and Abreu are dirty words in my house.

June 26 2006: Dodging Raindrops

June 26, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

I had an experience yesterday that I have never had before in my life: seeing a game at Yankee Stadium with empty stands.

Oh sure, when I was a kid we often went to games that were half-full. Even Dave Righetti’s no-hitter on a sweltering July 4th had ten thousand seats empty. But these days, when the attendance record was broken last year and is on pace to go up once more, here’s how it happened that me, corwin, and 6,807 other fans saw a game together at the big ballpark in the Bronx.

The trip began on Friday night, when corwin and I packed up our car to head to New York. Normally these weekend jaunts to Yankee Stadium involve leaving the house early enough so that we can get into the Yankee-radio listening area by 7pm–game time. But he had to work a little bit late, so it was actually7:05 when we pulled away from the house. Searching the radio dial proved fruitless–there is no station in the Boston area that carries the Yankees, for obvious reasons. WCBS 880 from New York comes in sometimes if the weather is right and the sky is dark, but on June 23rd the sky is as bright at 7pm as it gets all year. Oh, and it was raining, so the Red Sox game’s start was pushed back over an hour, cutting off our usual alternative listening plan.

So, we suffered through the static for several miles of the Mass Pike. Then we pulled off in Framingham, to the massive Shoppers World shopping center, to the Best Buy, where we knew they had the XM Satellite Radio “MyFi” on clearance sale.

We’ve been drooling over the concept of XM for a while now, ever since they started running all Major League games every night. When I did my book tour for 50 Greatest Yankee Games the rental car I used had an XM radio in it. My thought was–my god, I love MLB.com but this would be in the car

So we bought the MyFi. And then corwin had to spend 20 minutes on the phone with them getting the account activated, while I drove speedily toward Connecticut. As it turned out, of course, by the time we got it working, we were pretty much pulling in a regular non-satellite broadcast of the game, but hey, it was a great excuse to finally break down and buy one–plus it was on clearance sale. Success in baseball is all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s true of shopping, as well.

It was around the sixth inning when we reached Rein’s Deli in Vernon, CT, our traditional stop-off point, and of course they had the game on in there. We sat and watched two innings while we ate. My usual order there is pastrami, cream cheese and cucumbers on rye, grilled. I know it sounds weird, but try it some time–it’s delicious. Kyle Fransworth came in to pitch and we got back in the car. Despite Farnsworth causing us, as always, to chew our nails, he got out of the inning, and the Yankees did win the game.

Now that the game was over, we flipped around the other channels (look! Oakland at San Francisco!) and talked about the upcoming games. I said I wanted to see a pitchers’ duel that ended with Mariano getting the save. corwin said he wanted to see A-rod hit a home run. I reminded him Giambi still owes me one from an earlier trip. (I know this makes no sense, but I’ve decided Jason owes me a home run for every time I make the trip to see him. What is funny is that he usually does hit one.)

We arrived at our midtown hotel at around 1 in the morning, and immediately watched an hour of Sportscenter, which is like a decadent luxury for us. (There is no TV in our house. We have the Internet instead.)

The next day was Old Timer’s Day, but gray skies and pouring rain, which have dominated the season all over the northeast, made it look grim. We put on our pinstripes and went down to breakfast, only to find the hotel’s buffet line had just closed. They served us in the bar instead, which suited us just fine since they had World Cup soccer on in there and we got to see Germany’s two exciting goals against… whoever that was they were beating. You can see my interest in soccer is well-honed. I just like the World Cup games and all the excitement around them. I pretty much always root for the host country, and always against Brazil. Anyway, Germany went on to win that match, but by then we were already on our way to the Bronx. We took the 4 train from Grand Central Station up to the Stadium with our rain ponchos at the ready.

We arrived just in time for the opening of the gates at 12:30. With the weather crummy, the crowd was relatively thin for the Old Timer’s Day ceremony, so we sat down below, in the main section against the wall, right by Artuso’s Bakery in Section 9.

By far the loudest ovation of the day, and the first standing ovation, was for David Cone. Sadly, because of the weather, we didn’t get to see him actually pitch. I still think they should have played Wiffle Ball or something instead–I hear Coney is wicked with Wiffle pitches. Darryl Strawberry was introduced right after Cone, and he got quite a loud and warm reception, too. Mattingly’s of course was so loud you couldn’t hear any of his introduction at all.

Then we had a rain delay. We went up to our regular seats, in Row R of the upper tier. Now, a lot of people hate these seats, but I absolutely love them. I love the steep rake of the upper deck that insures I am never trying to look around the head and shoulders of a tall person sitting in front of me. I love being able to see plays develop on the whole field from the bird’s eye view. Not to mention I love that the seats are still under twenty bucks. And everything above Row P or thereabouts is under the roof. Dry. Shaded.

We never had to break out the rain ponchos because sitting under the roof as we were, we stayed dry.

Then, after much sitting around, the Yankees and the Marlins played one half-inning of baseball, during which the Marlins got a run off Shawn Chacon, and then it rained again and they put the tarp back down. corwin turned on our brand-new portable sattelite XM radio to find out what was happening with Philly and Boston. He was just in time to hear the final inning, in which Tom Gordon with two outs and a 3-3 tie, in the bottom of the ninth, and a full count on David Ortiz, threw something that Ortiz powered out of the park for another of his patented game-winning homers.

Time went by. Because of the sheer number of empty seats, corwin and I invented a new game: sunflower seed baseball. Basically you crack the seed in your mouth and shell it, then you spit the shell as far as you can. One row is a single, two a double, etc… You make an out every time you can’t get it past the seats in front of you. We were just getting going with that when we began to suspect the game was called off. We saw all the relievers leave the bullpen and then all the Marlins go into the dugout and collect all their gloves and stuff. That seemed like a pretty sure sign there would be no game.

At about 7pm, six and a half hours after we had arrived at the Stadium, Bob Sheppard announced it officially: game called. That was definitely a new record ratio of number of hours spent at the Stadium per innings watched.

The good news was that they planned to make up the game the next day, as the night portion of a day/night doubleheader. The bad news was that would mean driving back to Boston in the middle of the night, but that’s really not that bad for a pair of night owls like corwin and me.

So the next morning we went down to breakfast–in time for the buffet this time–and at the table next to us was a nice lady in a David Ortiz number T-shirt. We ended up riding the elevator with her back up to our room before checking out. Me, I was in my lucky Mike Mussina jersey as the pitching matchup was to be Moose against Dontrelle Willis.

It had not rained all morning, though the sky was gray, but then on the way to the Stadium is came down in torrents. Sigh. We were coming up from the East side, so we went up the FDR and crossed over to the Deegan. There was no game traffic thanks to the rain, and we pulled off and up to the first parking lot there, one of the independent lots. “Twenty five bucks,” the guy told me. Then I told him we were staying for both games. “Fifty bucks.” Uh, sorry Charlie, I don’t think so. We pulled out, went another fifty yards or so and into one of the actual Stadium lots, for a mere $13, good for both games. Welcome to New York.

For this game, for some reason, we had Row B. We’ve never sat down that low in the tier, and we still haven’t since instead of sitting in the rain, we climbed up to Row T this time and waited for the rain to stop. Right around game time it did, and by two o’clock it looked like I was going to get my wish.

And I did, a pitchers’ duel with Mariano Rivera getting the save. Can’t ask for much better than a 1-1 tie, broken by a solo homer in the late innings, and then Mariano time. The only perhaps blot on the game was that Farnsworth made us chew our nails again, but he –phew– got out of the inning without giving up a run, so it worked out. Frank Sinatra all around.

We left the Stadium happy, and then looked for a way to kill a couple of hours before they would let us back in for the next game. Good old Ball Park Lanes, “the cleanest place in the Bronx” (so their banner says). For twenty bucks two adults can shoe-up and play for about an hour. That was two games and boy do I suck at bowling. I did have a few strikes though, mostly by sheer luck, and today my arm is killing me. But it was fun. Then we had a huge, dirt-cheap dinner at the Dominican restaurant across 161st Street, El Molino Rojo, and headed back to the park.

We went in Gate 2 since it was the nearest one and couldn’t help but notice there was no line for Monument Park. It has probably been 2 years since my last trip through the Monuments–actually since that day we took press photos down there–so probably 3-4 years since I had seen it with the general public. The line is usually too long. But the entire Stadium was clearly deserted, so we went ahead and wandered around the plaques for a while.

By the time of the first pitch, I had counted, by hand, a total of 500 people in the upper deck. We sat in section 1, our favorite section, Row T to stay dry. Then around the end of the first inning, the security guards started motioning everyone to come down. Of the 200 people I counted in the bleachers, about 150 took the invitation to go into the main section and sit in box seats–while the real section 39 bleacher creatures huddled closer together for solidarity. Lots of people left the upper deck to go down there, too, but not the diehards in section 1. We moved down to row L for a while, but then it started to drizzle, so we climbed back up.

Even the spring training games the Yankees play draw bigger crowds than this. According to the press notes, the last time the Yankees had a crowd that small at Yankee Stadium was April 7, 1984. It was a surreal experience, like watching a private exhibition.

Unfortunately, the Yankees played like it was an exhibition, and they were shut out 5-0. A-rod and Giambi did not hit the homers we wished for.

And yet somehow I couldn’t be too disgruntled. I got to spend two whole days at one of the places I love most in the world, and Moose got his 2500th strikeout and won a 2-1 victory, and I went bowling. And corwin and I got to spend a lot of quality time together. Did I mention we’re leaving on another baseball trip Wednesday? To Seattle, for the SABR convention. Which means that the summer fun is just beginning.

Addendum: As I post this, I find it worthy of note that Jason Giambi got my memo about owing me two homers a day late: he homered in his first two at bats tonight against the Braves.

June 11, 2006: Clean-Up Spot

June 11, 2006 By: ctan Category: Great Ballparks, Great Games

Well, it just goes to show that no matter how long you follow baseball or what capacity you are involved in the sport, there is always something new you haven’t seen or done. Today I was at Fenway Park to see David Ortiz hit a 3-run walk-off home run against the Texas Rangers. That was not the new part–Big Papi does that kind of thing regularly. No, it was what happened after that and before the next game started.

See, at Fenway today they played a doubleheader. Problem was, it was yesterday they were supposed to play the doubleheader, but the rain did not cooperate. So today, in brilliant sunshine, the plan was to play two. The first game started at noon and the second was to start as quickly as possible after the first one ended–the gates were scheduled to re-open for the new crowd at 4:30, with a 5pm start time (so the game could be televised on NESN before the ESPN Sunday night exclusivity came into play).

In order to turn the ballpark over for the new crowd, the public address announcer exhorted people to pick up their own trash, but very few people actually did. So as soon as the crowd began to clear out, Fenway Park employees of every stripe began to put on gloves, fluff out trash bags, and start filling them.

Bill Nowlin and I were in the park today to pass out flyers for SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and recruit new members. (If you are into baseball history or love stats, you should join at www.sabr.org.) We had credentials for both games, so after the first game ended we were just supposed to wait around for the next one.

But just waiting around while groundskeepers, office workers, ushers, concessions employees (we could tell all these by their varying modes of dress and uniforms) were all drafted into trash pickup duty was hard. We drifted down toward the group who were fanning out from behind the visiting dugout. Finally Bill asked someone “Where can we get a bag and help?”

We were pointed to one guy who had trash bags and vinyl gloves. We each took a bag and gloved up, and went to work.

Pizza boxes, beer cups, ice cream spoons, the Sunday Boston Globe, chicken fingers, half-eaten hotdogs–almost every seat had something under it and we sped through picking up as much stuff as we possibly could. A bat boy in full home whites was doing it. Even Larry Lucchino, Red Sox Vice President, was filling up a bag in my section, though he was the only one of us who had a camera man following him around. Scoreboard operations put on the theme music to Sanford & Son and blasted it over the PA. My guess is that it was the only trash/junk-related song they could come up with (though surely they have a Garbage album up there..?).

I’d say with all the people helping, the main grandstand was cleared in under thirty minutes, which is pretty damn impressive. And here’s where I’m supposed to make a punny conclusion about trash or garbage or something, but with the Red Sox in first place (despite almost getting swept by the Rangers–only Papi kept it from being so), nothing appropriate comes to mind.

May 31, 2006; Walking Wounded

May 31, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

If you haven’t been paying much attention lately, you can be forgiven for looking at the standings this morning and finding the New York Yankees tied for first place with the Boston Red Sox. After all, the Yankees are the walking wounded, aren’t they? And they are playing the best-record-in-baseball Detroit Tigers, no? While the Red Sox are coming off a series with Tampa Bay and now facing Toronto.

Yes, the Yankees are hurting. The disabled list includes Hideki Matsui (broken wrist, 3 months), the guy who would have replaced Matsui in left, Bubba Crosby (hamstring, 2 weeks), Tanyon Sturtze (surgery, out indefinitely), and starter Shawn Chacon (got whacked with a comebacker, unknown). Don’t forget Johnny Damon who is playing with a broken foot, Gary Sheffield who is playing with a broken bone in his hand, Derek Jeter who won’t admit his hand may bother him after a slide into the bag the other night in Detroit, Jorge Posada who is having a leg/knee tendon issue, and no one has said anything about an injury yet but am I the only one who has noticed that in the past 3 weeks Jason Giambi’s bat seems to have slowed considerably? After his hot April, May has brought an unusual number of pop ups to left field. Last night he got a fastball down Broadway on a 3-1 pitch and missed it. Fortunately, in the 11th inning, he got a curve ball, guessed right, and jacked it into the seats for the game-winning RBI. It was reminiscent of a day in Oakland when he did the very same thing off Mike Stanton’s curve ball, though that one was a walk-off since Giambi then played for the home team.

So, how are the Yankees doing it? The outfield that was supposed to be Matsui, Damon, and Sheffield has been replaced by Melky Cabrera, Bernie Williams and Terrence Long. They had to call Long out of retirement, for goodness’ sake. Well, after looking a bit rusty in his debut at Fenway, Long has been fine as a fill-in guy, had two hits last night and will continue to be a fine stop-gap. Bernie Williams has stepped up big over the past ten days, hitting .389 (14 for 36) in that span. Melky Cabrera had four hits last night and is batting .333 over the past ten days with 9 RBI. He’s 13 for 39 with six walks.

And Damon, bum foot or no, has still been hitting at close to .300 and playing fine defense. Sheffield sat last night but will be back in the lineup most of this week.

How about the infield? Alex Rodriguez hit .375 over the past ten days, with 12 RBI and 11 runs scored. Jeter has been his usual self–let’s knock wood that the hand injury doesn’t cool him off more than a day or two. Giambi’s bat-speed woes we already discussed, and we’ll keep an eye on him. Robinson Cano continues to be a plain great hitter, hitting .299 this season. Posada’s injury will hopefully not derail what otherwise looks to be one of his best years at the plate so far. And even backup Kelly Stinnett looks like he is coming out of his slump–perhaps the increased playing time he received is the silver lining on Posada’s injury.

Of course, the real question is the pitching. Randy Johnson, who has been the cause of so much hair-tearing over the past month, took a no-hitter into the sixth in Detroit. Aaron Small, who seemed spectacularly ineffective out of the bullpen, has had two strong outings now where his only problem seemed to be he tires after four innings, as you might expect from a guy who just spent a month in the bullpen. With Chacon out and Pavano still not due back for quite a while, Small can once again save the Yankees’ bacon as he did last season. Mussina has once again been simply great, having added a new change-up to his mix this year. As usual Moose’s weakness is the long ball, as with many pitchers who throw a lot of strikes, but this is no more of a concern this season than in any other. Chien Ming-Wang has been consistent with his ground-ball inducing sinker, and Jaret Wright seems to have regained his effectiveness.

The bullpen has had some hiccups, but overall they have been good. Scott Proctor, who was lights out in April, had a rough stretch likely brought on by over-use, but hopefully he is over that now. Kyle Farnsworth has alternated between excellent and awful, sometimes from one pitch to the next, but he appears to be finding himself. Ron Villone has been steady, and Mariano Rivera pitched three innings of effortless relief last night to earn the win–the first time he pitched three innings since the fateful 2003 Aaron-Goes-Boone ALCS game seven.

So how are the Yankees doing it? By mixing and matching and working hard. They don’t have all the parts working together, but they have enough that they have won seven of their last 10 games.

The dogfight with Boston resumes next week with a four-game set at the Stadium. Hang on to your hats as the ride is likely to stay bumpy.

May 27 2006: Now I Remember

May 27, 2006 By: ctan Category: On Playing the Game

Just in time for Memorial Day, summer is here with a vengeance. We had huge thunderstorms yesterday, the humidity went through the roof, and today it hit eighty degrees.

Just in time for my first baseball practice. I had forgotten what it was like to stand in the outfield, with not a hint of a breeze, the noon sun beating down, sweat sticking my hair to the back of my neck. Don’t get me wrong; I liked it. But I have a New Rule: do not drink Belle de Brillet brandy and Cointreau the night before baseball.

Dehydration sucks.

The upshot of today’s practice is threefold. One, yes, I can bunt, and our coaches’ decision that this year, when we’ve got a runner on third and a pitcher on the mound who throws strikes, we may just put down the suicide squeeze. My hands are itching in anticipation. Two, sitting around all winter without a single trip to the batting cage is not good for my swing. But it won’t take long to get it back. Three, I still cannot throw for beans.

The throwing thing is a pain because it’s simply embarrassing. I am not the worst thrower in the league. But the fact that I can throw less far than I could five years ago really irks me, and then there is the fact that my accuracy is for crap, too. I suppose by now I should just start accepting the fact that the torn tendon in my elbow is going to keep me like this. All winter it was great, no pain, good strength, no problems. Then, about a month ago, I tweaked it somehow (possibly pulling something out of the car) and kaboom, it swelled up and it is back to square one.

And of course throwing is one of those things that you have to do all the time. Chase a ball down in the outfield, hit the cutoff. Field a grounder, throw to first. Pick up balls in BP, throw them back to the pitcher. At this point, I can’t tell if my bad throws are because of my elbow or because of a mental block about whether the throw will be bad or not. Sometimes, I don’t think about it, and it’s fine. Sometimes, I don’t think about it, and I uncork these strange ones. Sometimes I think about it, and it’s fine. Sometimes, I think about it, and it makes no difference.

My fielding isn’t great but I want to convince the coaches that I can play second base at least as well as some of the other choices we have for the position, and I at least don’t have to be told when to cover the bag. Right field is nice but… well, no it isn’t. If we really have someone crack at second, I’ll be happy in the outfield because I want the team to win. But I don’t contribute much in the outfield. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m a worse right fielder than I am second baseman. It’s just less obvious.

Sigh. I should just shut up now. Among other good news, we have Nikki, the lefty who was on my old team 4 years ago and who throws harder than anyone in the league, on our team again, which means that we have a good chance to beat our arch rivals, Carter & Carter.

And right field has the advantage that at least during BP I get to enjoy the local wildlife. Today I saw two pretty birds. No idea what kind, but they were mostly black with yellow and orange on their wings. There was a pair of them, and they flew off to the woodsy area beyond third base. There was also a large hawk of some kind, being harried by six small birds. The little birds just dive-bombed it over and over as it went around and around in a circle over me. Eventually it flew off and they left it alone.

Oh yeah, haven’t done any sprinting during the winter either. Before you start getting ideas that me and Sidney Ponson spent the winter on the beach (or in jail) in Aruba, I am actually in better shape for this season than I have been for any baseball season yet. Why? In September I started regular tae kwon do workouts again, and kept it up until last month when I tweaked the elbow. I weigh less, my pants fit soooo much better, and a lot of me is stronger. I hope it pays off in more hits and better speed.

And I once again wonder if I should try a larger bat than my 29″ (22 ounce) Little League stick. Maybe.

On the way home from practice I stopped at the grocery store to grab some lunch-makings. A Hispanic checkout boy saw my pants, socks, and jock flip-flops and asked “You just come from playing baseball? That’s what I’m going to do when I get out of here!” When I’d gone into the store it looked like it was threatening to pour, but by the time I got home the sky was blue and the afternoon looked fine. I hope he got his swings in.

May 17 2006: Tall Cold One

May 17, 2006 By: ctan Category: Interviews

Randy Johnson has struggled of late, so I thought it would be worth revisiting a conversation that he and I had at the end of spring training. Given Johnson’s toughness as a competitor, the problem is more likely mechanical than mental.

Cecilia Tan: Has your perspective changed on your career now versus when you were younger?

Randy Johnson: My career is almost over. I’m not in the middle, I’m not in the beginning, I’m more towards the end. So, you know, I don’t really know how to answer that question other than to state the obvious, yeah.

CT: Was the decision to come to New York part of that knowing you are coming to the end?

RJ: I think it was more the decision to continue to be challenged toward the end of my career. The challenges were obviously there when I was young early in my career, the middle of my career, and I don’t think there is any bigger challenge toward the end to come here and have your reputation as a pitcher that can go out and do the things I do and still do them at the age I am doing them at. So that’s obviously the greatest challenge. If you are not into challenges, this obviously wouldn’t be the place to come late in your career.

CT: In fact, I’d say there are some guys who late in their careers left here to get away from those challenges.

RJ: Yeah, you’re right. I’ve always wanted to be challenged in my career and there is no greater place to be challenged than here. They expect to win, and that is what I’ve been expected to do everywhere I have gone.

CT: How does it feel to be part of that?

RJ: Good. It’s a good fit.

CT: The fans seem to respond to you, also.

RJ: They respond to anybody that wins, and fans are very appreciative of your effort when it’s there and obviously when you pitch poorly they will do whatever they do accordingly. That’s to be expected. That’s the way it is everywhere. If you get a bad steak or go to a bad movie, you send it back to get it cooked right or you walk out of the movie halfway. So, that comes with the territory.

CT: Are you looking forward to this year? Will it be different?

RJ: I think it will be. I think it’s a new year and I’m looking forward to doing this again.

CT: I think the AL East is going to be tough.

RJ: I think it’s the toughest division in all of baseball. There’s another challenge in hand. And if we want to continue talking about challenges, not only coming to the Yankees late in my career, but being in the toughest division, and then also playing in the American League, which is slightly tougher than the National League because you’re not facing the pitcher. There’s several challenge there. But I’m up for challenging all of them.

April 27, 2006: MVP! MVP!

April 26, 2006 By: ctan Category: Baseball Musings, Yankee Fan Memories

Tonight, Alex Rodriguez will be handed his 2006 Most Valuable Player Award in a pre-game ceremony. He was previously the first MVP to ever be traded during his reign. The words “best player in the game” can be placed in a sentence with his name without hyperbole or exaggeration.

So why is he still in Derek Jeter’s shadow?

Perception is a funny thing. Baseball fans and writers alike believe what we see. But what we see–and what it means–is as much a function of expectations as performance. Is this why, even though A-rod hits more home runs than Jeter, Jeter’s always seem to come in “big spots”?

Ask your average Yankee fan to name a Jeter homer and a list will probably follow. The Jeffrey Maier one. The Mr. November shot. The walk-off off Foulke at the Stadium last year. The one off Pedro in 2003 in the Zimmer brawl game. The leadoff homer at Shea, on the first pitch after the Yanks lost a game, the first time they had lost a World Series game in recent memory. The very fact that some of these homers have nicknames limns the point that they are legendary moments.

Now make a list of A-rod’s memorable dingers (as a Yankee–I’ll never forget that one he hit off El Duque’s “eephus” pitch when he was with Seattle…). It’s an unfair question, I know, because he has not had the long tenure in pinstripes Jeter has had, yet fewer of them stick in the collective memory. How about the three taters off Bartolo Colon in a single game last season? Reggie-esque. But no one is more disappointed in the way Alex hit (or failed to) in last year’s ALDS against the Angels than Alex himself.

This year both men are off to hot starts, but Jeter still seems to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. He makes his own luck by virtue of being fearless. When he was in a slump worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2003, Jeter briefly–very briefly–experienced boos at Yankee Stadium. But he has disappointed so rarely (it seems) and come through in the clutch so often (it seems), that the fans’ comfort zone with him is a mile wide. Jeter is home-grown, a fairy tale storybook, and all that. But this does not mean that Alex Rodriguez has to polish his shoes.

Winning the MVP will hopefully add some comfort zone for A-rod, both for himself and the fans. There was a time when Tino Martinez–a guy now thought of as one of the “made” Yankees–was booed at the Stadium as an unworthy replacement for Don Mattingly. A grand slam in Baltimore, another one in the 1996 ALCS, not to mention the homer 2001 World Series… my how perceptions change.

This is what it will take for A-rod to become a “made” Yankee himself. He needs to not only be the best player in the game day in and day out, not just the MVP (though that helps), not only carry the team to another postseason berth, but also to come up big in those big spots in October. Until then, the unfair perception that he is a carpet-bagging attention-seeker will never be completely dispelled on the streets of Yankeetown, and Jeter will always be perceived as the “better” Yankee.

It will be curious to see which one makes it into the Hall of Fame first. I suspect it will be whichever one retires first.

April 11, 2006: Inauguration

April 11, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

And thus was the high holy day of The Home Opener celebrated. With sunshine and cheers and an earsplitting flyover. With elder statesman Yogi Berra throwing out the first pitch and the sacrificial lamb of Ambiorix Burgos served up to appease the gods of Yankee superiority. We clamored in the ritual fashion, and our prayers were answered.

Today dawned sunny and warm in New York City. I have now attended six home openers in a row and this was the first where I did not have to wear a jacket. Sixty-eight degrees, a gentle breeze, it was a great improvement over the snow-out we suffered for Matsui’s debut, and even last year’s 8pm ESPN-fest against the Red Sox. Sadly, announcer Bob Sheppard had to miss his first home opener in 56 years as he fell and suffered a hip injury last night. His understudy, a man I have heard is cut from Sheppard’s mold and like Sheppard taught speech at St. John’s, filled in admirably with his best Bob Sheppard impression. Freddie the Fan was in attendance, though, with his signature pan, and a sign that read “2006 Opening Day/Let’s Go Yankees/Show The Way.”

When Johnny Damon strode to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first, he was greeted by cheers. Opening Day is all about cheering. The last time we had a chance to exercise our lungs was a chilly October night in New York, a game that had been postponed by rain, a nail-biter against the Angels. Today couldn’t have been more different from that night. Damon, the “new Yankee,” doubled, and received a standing ovation. (As I said, all about cheering.)

Jeter and Sheffield each grounded out, though, and Damon remained on second. Was Joe Mays going to escape the first unscathed? Alex Rodriguez then worked a walk, to bring Jason Giambi to the plate. The man sitting next to me called him “the world’s most expensive singles hitter.” I was in the middle of my reply–that it was Giambi who carried the team offensively in the second half of last season, and that even with the awful two months he had, if he had batted as many times as A-rod last season, he would have matched A-rod’s MVP offensive numbers–when Giambi laced a line drive rocket into the bleachers in right field. Three-nothing Yankees.

The cheering was such that Giambi had to be forced out of the dugout for a curtain call. It’s all about the cheering. There were cheers when Damon walked to lead off the third. Louder cheers when A-rod walked again. Still louder when Giambi walked to load the bases. And a terrific cheer when Matsui took ball four to force in a run and knock Mays from the game.

But the Kansas City Royals were not content to merely play a passive part in the inauguration ceremony for the new lineup. They tied the score at four off Chien Ming Wang in the fourth, and went ahead in the fifth. The crowd fell into a lull. But Opening Day, as Jason Giambi can tell you from experience, is also a day for boos. Tanyon Sturtze came in to pitch the seventh, and gave up a home run into the first row of the short porch on his very first pitch. He did strike out Mike Sweeney, but also gave up a ground rule double and another run. Mike Myers and Scott Procter (the Yankees’ best reliever in the spring) closed the barn door after that, though, to give the Yankees the chance to catch up.

Facing Andrew Sisco in the bottom of the eighth, down by a score of 7-4, Giambi reached base for the fourth consecutive time today, drawing his third walk. Matsui followed with a single to the right side, and Posada worked the count and ended up with what would have been ball four but it actually grazed him a little. With the bases loaded, Robinson Cano then his into a fielder’s choice, beating out a double play and bringing in one run. Thus there were men on the corners for Bernie Williams.

Bernie had received the loudest ovations of the day each time he had come up to bat. Yankees fans know this is probably his last year, and as a lifelong Yankee who has provided so many great memories, acknowledge that. Bernie stared at the first three pitches, and anxiety began to grow in the crowd. But Bernie laced a clean line drive into center to bring in another run and make it only 7-6 in favor of the Royals. The standing ovation for Bernie put the crowd on their feet and they did not sit again until the end of the game.

So much for lefthander Andrew Sisco. Even with lefthanded Johnny Damon coming up, Sisco was removed in favor of Ambiorix Burgos. The crowd’s cries for blood in the arena were so loud by then that I have no idea how Bob Sheppard’s understudy pronounced the new pitcher’s name.

A time for boos. Johnny Damon struck out on three pitches and whacked his bat on the ground in frustration. Admittedly, there were only a few token boos at that point–hazing more than genuine disappointment since Johnny had already scored twice and put down a lovely sac bunt which had earned him a standing ovation back in the fourth. Johnny went back to the diugout.

The Captain, Derek Jeter, strode to the plate, looking for all the world like what he might have been thinking was “Jeez, Johnny, do I have to do everything around here? I guess I will.” Jeter walloped the first pitch he saw over the wall in left (yes, he pulled the ball), for a three run home run and a 9-7 lead. Jeter was called out for a curtain call, and fans even tried to get a second one out of him with loud, rhythmic chants of his name, but to no avail.

Gary Sheffield struck out to end the inning in post-climactic fashion. There is always one guy who doesn’t join the party, and Sheff was the only Yankee not to reach base today. The fans serenaded Jeter again as he took his position in the field for the final step in the ceremonial victory over the Royals: Mariano Time.

Rivera wasn’t perfect today, but he didn’t have to be, giving up a bloop single and hitting a man (perhaps payback for Jorge?) but as usual he did not appear troubled. The game ended when Doug Mientkiewicz (remember him?) lined a ball right into Mariano’s glove.

And thus was the high holy day of the Home Opener concluded, with Frank Sinatra, and high fives, and pinstripes shaking hands with pinstripes on the field.

March 30 2006: Yearbook Entry

March 30, 2006 By: ctan Category: Spring Training

Carl Pavano has a sore ass. Boo boo on the bum, sustained when he tripped and fell trying to field a ground ball and made a play at first base the other night. That is the final tidbit of news from Yankee camp this year. As I write this, the Yankee bus is visible from the press box at Legends Field, making its way to Tampa International Airport where a charter awaits the players and staff. They are on their way to Arizona for two exhibition games (supposedly make-goods attached to the Randy Johnson deal), and in usual Yankee style each player and coach is decked out in his finest leisure suit.

It’s funny how a suit makes some of these guys look older and some look younger. Larry Bowa looks positively ancient when he is in uniform, embodying the spirit of every crusty third-base curmudgeon who ever coached the game, but put him in a silk shirt and sport jacket? He could pass for forty something. The opposite happens with Tanyon Sturtze, who if he wasn’t so tall could play the part of overgrown Little Leaguer. In the clubhouse Sturtze is full of smiles and his eyes are round in mock surprise whenever a prank is pulled. Put him in a suit, though, and it gives him a thoughtful bridegroom aspect.

The last day of spring training is a lot like the last day of school. Instead of signing yearbooks, these guys sign autographs for the local staff and coaches, and for each other. Everyone has to clean out their lockers, take down their photos, and figure out what to carry home.

Today, a couple of players even skipped out early (though they had permission, of course). Jason Giambi had so much packing to do, that after one at bat (he walked) he was replaced with a pinch runner. Mariano Rivera, on the other hand, was not happy with the one inning he was scheduled to pitch. He came in early to do extra credit, threw 50 pitches in the bullpen, and then was done for the day.

The Yankees could have used him in the ninth inning, when, clinging to a 4-3 lead, they handed the ball to Matt Smith. Smith gave up line drives to the first two batters he faced, then got a pop-up and faced speedy Carl Crawford. A double-play was probably too much to hope for with the speedster at the plate. In the clubhouse, the players who were not in the game continued their packing. One of them, pitcher Mike Mussina (who had started the game), stood riveted to the clubhouse televsion showing the action on the field. Already in his earth-tone travel suit, Moose couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Smith threw slider after slider to Crawford, but he fouled some off, tipping one low in the zone that would have been strike three if only catcher Wil Nieves had held on. Then after four straight sliders, Smith finally came back with a high fastball, and Crawford chased it for strike three. One more out, and the game could be over, stranding the two runners. “Tough out to get,” Mussina mumbled, the brown of his suit seeming to bring out the dark circles under his eyes.

Moose was right. Jorge Cantu stepped to the plate, and hit a ringing double to bring in two runs. 5-4 Rays. Mussina quit watching after that.

The Yankees went quickly and quietly in the ninth, no chance of staying after school when that bus is set to leave. It wouldn’t have been unusual for the players’ kangaroo court to fine any batter who took a pitch, in fact. Bernie Williams, the ultimate upperclassman for these Yankees flew out on the first pitch, and in no time, the whole team was in the clubhouse, taking hurried showers and cramming the final bits of their possessions into boxes, bags, and suitcases.

Now the jocks are gone, and the honor society are next. After the final postgame chat with Joe Torre, the beat writers repaired to the press box where one by one they are filing their stories, packing their computers, and hightailing it to the airport. (The delay for some seems to be the challenge to come up with a way to write “Carl Pavano has a pain in the ass” without offending either their editors or their readers.) Some are off to Arizona to follow the team, others to New York to wait for the home opener.

Me, I’ll be on a flight back to Boston at the crack of dawn, so my spring training is over, too. And everyone can’t wait for summer vacation.

March 25, 2006: Simple Pleasure

March 25, 2006 By: ctan Category: Spring Training, Yankee Fan Memories

Baseball travelogue: Saint Pete. Today’s travels took us to Al Lang Field, spring home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This venerable old park was built in 1916, and the grandstand has been variously rebuilt at different times through the years. The Braves, Yankees, and Cardinals all used the park during their tenures in St. Pete, but nowadays it belongs to the Rays, whose home ballpark is just on the other side of downtown.

I hope the Rays have some fun this year. Lou Piniella is gone, and they are young, well-paid, and living the major league dream. You know they are not going to win very much. They are in a division with the two Beasts of the East, the Yankees and Red Sox, and the Toronto Blue Jays are also much improved. The fun isn’t going to come from winning streaks and the pennant race. It is going to have to come from the simple pleasure of playing baseball.

Rays fans, I imagine, must take a similar approach to the season, which is to enjoy the simple pleasure of watching baseball played. In fact, this is what spring training spectation is all about. Much of the time you don’t know the players you see, and of course the outcome in wins and losses does not matter at all in the spring. So you watch and you enjoy what you see for the simple fact that it is baseball.

This isn’t to say there isn’t enjoyment to be gained from seeing favorite players, or from winning. Today, in fact, if not for two little things, we might have seen the regular A-list of New York Yankees on the field. The two “little things” were that pitcher Mike Mussina just had a spring start against the Rays a few days ago, and they didn’t want the hitters to get a second look at him so close to the beginning of the season. The other was that catcher Jorge Posada just got out of the hospital after suffering one of the most ignominious baseball injuries ever. While playing catch with backup catcher Kelly Stinnett before Wednesday’s game, Jorge took his eye off the ball–it looked like he might have been distracted by a throw from a different game of catch–and got the ball right in the kisser. His nose was broken and today, three days after the injury, his eye is still swollen up. Hence his absence from the lineup.

It was a perfect day to watch baseball. On the cool side, mid-sixties, with brilliant sun and pleasant breezes. More on the breezes later. We arrived in St. Pete about an hour before game time, crept slowly through the pre-game traffic to a parking lot, and settled the car for the bargain-basement price of five bucks. (I hear the Rays’ latest enticement to get fans to come see them during the regular season will be Free Parking, but this doesn’t apply to the neighborhood business lots around Al Lang Field.) We had two pieces of business to take care of before game time–sell our extra tickets and buy a hat for my brother Julian.

We are accustomed to a sort of gray market carnival following the Yankees from place to place. Whether in the Bronx, Tampa, or on the road, there are the bootleg T-shirt vendors, cap sellers, and ticket scalpers who follow the money. There is one fella we have nicknamed Mr. Shyster who for several years we used to see selling beer inside Legends Field, then we would see him in the parking lot after games selling hats for five bucks, and then we would ALSO see him selling hats, shirts, and other Yankee-related souvenirs in the parking lots in Dunedin, Clearwater, and St. Pete. This year, apparently, he was at Legends for the first few weeks but he has since disappeared. Either he’s found a better racket, or the Yankees ran him off for some reason.

If only he were there today. Bypassing the obvious scalpers holding up professionally printed signs proclaiming “I NEED TICKETS,” we looked for genuine fans in Yankee gear who needed tickets. We had three to sell, quickly found a fella holding up three fingers, and sold him our extras for face value. Then it was off to find a hat for my brother. But sadly, it is late in the spring season, Mr. Shyster was not in attendance, and the only cheapo outside seller we found had a single style of hat that was not to Julian’s liking. He got a sunburn instead, which if you are my brother–and therefore macho about both your sun exposure and your headwear–is an acceptable tradeoff.

In the stadium we found the crowd heavily Yankee-partisan, which is not really a surprise. When the Yankees play the Rays in the regular season, the situation is much the same. Still, most of the cheering had a distinctly pinstriped feel to it. That might have also been because it was a complete drubbing of the Rays, as well.

The fun started in the top of the first, when Johnny Damon, still new to the Yankees, strode to the plate. “I’m still not use to this,” was corwin’s reaction to seeing the former Red Sock in a yankee uniform for the first time. “It’s just weird.” I told him what Joe Torre said the other night during his press conference. One of the beat writers from Boston asked him if it was going to be strange to be playing Boston that night and having Damon lead off for him. “Yeah strange,” Joe replied. “Nice and strange.”

Damon walked, and Jeter immediately followed with a triple. Ding! One run on the board. Torre has been saying all along that having Damon and Jeter at the top of the lineup together is going to drive the offense and “make things happen very fast out there.” There it was in action.

Damon was also playing his first game in center since tweaking his shoulder during the World Baseball Classic, and meanwhile Bernie Williams was playing right field (while Sheff DH’d). On the very first play of the day, Joey Gathright hit a pop fly that at first looked for sure like it would be Robinson Cano’s ball. But remember the breezes I mentioned before? They played havoc with pop flies all day, suddenly pushing the ball deeper than expected, until Bernie apparently remarked to Johnny, “I think you better catch that ball,” but by then it was too late and it dropped between the three of them. Damon, though chagrined, stuck by his spring training mantra, which is “just don’t get hurt, just don’t get hurt.” As he told reporters yesterday during a chat with the writers around his locker, “Spring training stinks. We’re ready for the season now. Now all we’re doing is trying not to get injured.” As he imagined the collision between himself, Bernie, and Cano, Damon apparently saw the pennant flash before his eyes. He let it drop, but the Rays did not take advantage.

In fact, the only run the Rays got, despite the fact they ended the day with 10 hits, was a solo homer by Travis Lee off righty side-armer Colter Bean. The Yankees, by comparison, had eleven hits, yet scored 10 runs. The steady diet of supremacy kept the fans smug and contented in the stands. Meanwhile, some kind of sailboat regatta was running in the harbor, and in slow moments we could see tiny sailing vessels threading their way in, one after another. The sky was cloudless, the beer was cold, and there was baseball.

In the sixth inning we ate ice cream. If you are waiting for anything more exciting than that, you are reading the wrong article. Come back in a few weeks when the regular season gets going. For now I encourage you to bask in the simple pleasures, as I am, because the pennant race will come soon enough.

March 23, 2006: Big Man

March 23, 2006 By: ctan Category: Baseball Musings

A new book came out today that details steroid abuse in baseball and which singles out three players in particular, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi. Can you guess which of the three has admitted what he did?

Now, in the interest of being honest and open (which is the moral of this story after all), I must say that I like Jason Giambi. He was my favorite non-Yankee player in the American League when he was with the Oakland A’s, and I continue to like him despite the controversy. This is a guy I want to see succeed, and not just because the Yankees need him.

But today I feel he deserves to be lauded for what he has done, especially in light of what Bonds has not. It was a year and a month ago that Giambi convened a press conference in New York to apologize for his involvement in the steroid scandal. Now, I know you can say he was backed into a corner by the leakage of his grand jury testimony in which he admitted to using steroids. But bear with me a minute.

Giambi sat in front of a grand jury and actually told the truth. He explained where he went to get steroids initially, then how he became involved with BALCO. He gave dates, names of drugs, sources, the whole works. Isn’t that remarkable in and of itself? Bonds, by contrast, said he didn’t know bupkus. So there is a pretty stark contrast right there.

Giambi’s reaction to everyone finding out was then not to refute the evidence, spin it, nor lay the blame on a trainer or other scapegoat, but to call a press conference. Fears about contract situations made him unable to utter the words “steroid abuse” but his apology to the fans, the media, and his teammates was remarkable nonetheless.

He went into the 2005 season with the apology still fresh on his lips, but determined to move on. At the start of the season he was so awful, the Yankees considered asking him to go to Columbus to work on getting his swing together, but he wanted to stay with the big club under the tutelage of Don Mattingly. Turned out to be the best thing for him. By the time the season had ended, Giambi had racked up impressive numbers and the Comeback Player of the Year award. If he had not had the rough start, it is likely his offensive output would had rivaled AL MVP Alex Roddriguez’s.

Today in the Legends Field clubhouse, Giambi talked about the decision to handle things the way he did and concluded it was the best thing he could have done. “You know to be honest I had no idea what was going to happen,” he told reporters about making the apology. “I just did what I felt needed to be done and never looked back. I just tried to go forward and get my career back on track.”

I’d say Comeback Player of the Year counts as sign that his career in on track. The fans, too, though have come back. “It’s incredible the way the fans have come around,” Giambi told us, with his usual earnest, little-boy expression. “I don’t think I could ask for anything more. To have their respect and the response they’ve given me, it’s pretty incredible.”

It also means that while Gary Sheffield scowls at reporters who ask about steroids and the book’s allegations, spouting various versions of “No comment,” Giambi has already been through it. “I understand you have to ask about it,” he said to the group of reporters clustering around his locker, “but I handled it and I’ve gone forward and I’m worried about winning a World Series now.”

Since we already knew about Giambi and steroids, the only “news” that prompted the lockerside chat was a report in the NY Post that the book claimed that a reason Giambi turned to steroids was to please his perfectionist father. Giambi was offended at the thought that his father needed to be dragged into it. “Pathetic, that’s the word for it,” he said. The authors of the book have since come back saying that although Giambi’s father is mentioned in the book, they didn’t blame Giambi’s seroid use on his father. Which is good, because after all Giambi has done to shoulder the responsibility himself for what he did, no one else should be trying to lay the blame at someone else’s feet.

Now if only Barry Bonds would get that message.

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