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March 7, 2007: Sprung!

At Legends Field tonight, people were complaining of the cold. The temperatures were in the mid-sixties, the wind on the cool side. Speaking as someone who left Boston yesterday where it was eight–yes (8)–degrees with a wind chill of minus-thirty, all I can say is: hah! It’s lovely here in Tampa and don’t you forget it!

The game, like the temperatures, was not so hot, being scoreless for seven innings, but as any newcomer to Spring Training quickly learns, winning and scoring runs is not what its about.

The excitement began tonight long before the first pitch, when the buzz going through the savvy Yankee fan crowd was that the man in the faded orange hat sitting down by the Yankees’ dugout was Roger Clemens, in the house to see his best bud Pettitte toss a few frames. As Pettitte warmed up, it was time for many in the audience to get reacquainted with the lefty.

“Man, he’s got long legs,” the man sitting next to me remarked. “I had forgotten that.”

“Yeah, but his ass is fatter than it used to be,” was my irreverent reply. Actually, Pettitte’s hindquarters were pretty chunky the last time he wore pinstripes, too, ever since he and Clemens became workout buddies and Andy started building leg and lower-body strength like the Rocket’s. But we’ve collectively forgotten that, too. What we remember is that greyhound-skinny kid with the Texas twang taking the mound in Yankee Stadium with the snow falling during the Home Opener in the magical year of 1996.

The game’s first moment of excitement came on the second batter Pettitte faced. Pettitte, for those of you re-acquainting yourselves with him, is a ground ball pitcher who was known for his nasty cut fastball before Mariano Rivera was. Pettitte saws off righties the way Mo does lefties, and the bat of Cincinnati’s Chris Denorfia sheared off in his hand. The barrel of the bat helipcoptered straight at Pettitte, who hit the deck but managed to snag his hand on the bat as it went by, immediately shaking it in pain. The predictable conference on the mound then followed; Pettitte stayed in.

Pettitte isn’t the only one I re-acquainted myself with tonight. So many little things which fade from ones mind during the long cold winter return vividly on a night like tonight. I had forgotten the storm of flashbulbs that come on every Jeter at bat. The way Hideki Matsui paws at the ground in the batters box, his eyes on the horizon, as he prepares to hit. Giambi’s immense cuts.

And it seems like almost everyone is still using the same at-bat music from last year. There are so many songs I only know 15 seconds of.

Pettitte started to look shakey in the seconds, prompting nailbiting about the possible flying-bat injury, as he loaded the bases with no one out. The clichŽd thing to say in the dugout at a time like this is “Oh, a strikeout and double play and we’re out of it.” That is exactly what Pettitte then delivered, and he would have had a one-two-three third inning too, if not for a crummy throw by Alex Rodriguez.

Chalk this one up as “another tough day in the life of Alex Rodriguez.” How else do you explain that a scrub like Bubba Crosby, who is now with the Reds, got a bigger ovation upon entering the game in the eighth inning than A-rod did when coming to bat in the second? Everyone loves Bubba, a scrappy little player with a lot of heart, a guy for whom the expectations are low. With A-rod, the expectations just keep getting higher. But it wasn’t mere skewed perception on the part of the fans; tonight, it really seemed like that 13 on his back was a jinx.

He led off the second inning with a ringing double. But he was thrown out at home plate on the very next play when third-base-coach hesitation may have cost him his chance to score. He came up with two out and two on the very next inning, and struck out looking. Meanwhile, what would have been the third out of the third, he threw up the line, and his high school buddy Doug Mientkiewicz was unable to apply the tag to the runner. Pettitte walked the next batter but was able to escape unharmed. In the fourth he made a play where the out was made, but he looked absolutely wrong-footed while doing it. For any player, that counts as a bad day, but for A-rod, where everything he does is magnified, it simply looks worse.

Repeat after me: It’s only Spring Training.

You see, if Alex had not been thrown out at the plate, the Yankees would have won the game in dramatic fashion in the ninth inning, 2-1. Instead, they merely tied the game in dramatic fashion. You see, reliever Luis Vizcaino looked impressive in the eighth except when he faced Joey Votto, when he gave up a solo shot. Meanwhile, Elizardo Ramirez, the fifth Reds pitcher of the night, held the Yankees scoreless in the seventh and eighth, just as the four pitchers who preceded him had.

Elizardo, which looks like it ought to be Spanish for lizard but as far as I know isn’t, finally tired in the ninth. A passel of “Yankees” wearing numbers like 93 and 64 scratched a run off him and gave the crowd the most excitement they’d had all night. The “Let’s Go Yankees” chant went up. And when Brett Gardner, wearing number 91, worked the count full with the bases loaded, two outs, and the score tied at one, the entire crowd actually got to their feet cheering for him to take ball four (or get a hit, but really, we weren’t that optimistic).

It was the climax of the game, for sure. Unfortunately, it was also a called strike three, which sent the game to a very anti-climactic and uneventful tenth inning, after which the contest was called a draw.

All I can say is, it beats doing anything in a minus-thirty wind chill.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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