Alfred Hitchcock presents Opening Night

AlfredHitchcockAt long enough last came Opening Day. Well, Opening Night. On which New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge nailed the COVID-19 delayed season’s first hit and his teammate Giancarlo Stanton nailed its first home run two batters later.

On which the Washington Nationals opened without a key element, outfielder Juan Soto, whose positive COVID-19 test result came back well enough before game time to make him a scratch.

Before that rain-shortened game even got started, the word came from the opposite coast that Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Night start thanks to a back problem sending him onto the injured list.

In Washington, the Nats’ co-ace Max Scherzer would have loved if Judge and Stanton were Thursday night scratches. They accounted for all Yankee runs in the 4-1 final shortened in the top of the sixth when the rains smashed in with the Yankees having first and third and one out.

In San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Dustin May pitched five innings to San Francisco Giants veteran Johnny Cueto’s four, both men leaving with a one-all tie, and the Dodgers’ new $396 million man Mookie Betts broke the tie scoring on an infield ground out in the top of the seventh.

Scherzer’s good news Thursday night: eleven strikeouts. His bad news: four walks and an inability to solve Judge and Stanton. Judge also doubled home Tyler Wade in the third and Stanton singled home Gio Urshela in the fifth. Remove Judge and Stanton from the Yankee lineup and the Nats’ Adam Eaton’s hefty solo home run in the bottom of the first would have been the game’s only score.

Betts singled with one out in the top of the seventh and called for the ball. Published reports indicate that ball plus the evening’s official lineup card now repose in his home. “It’s just a new chapter in life,” he told reporters after the 8-1 Dodgers win.

After he came home when Justin Turner grounded into a force out, Corey Seager’s grounder got Cody Bellinger caught in a rundown at the plate, but Enrique Hernandez singled home Turner and Seager (who’d taken second during the rundown), Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock walked back-to-back to load the pads, Austin Barnes sent Hernandez home with an infield hit, and Max Muncy walked Pederson home.

And, on both coasts, all four teams figured out a solution to the issue of whether or not to take a knee for “The Star Spangled Banner” that might actually help more than hurt the too-easily outraged.

Abetted by a suggestion from Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees and the Nats lined up on the base lines holding a long, long, long black ribbon, standing apart enough for social distance, then took their knees before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

On the same suggestion, the Dodgers and the Giants held a similar long, black ribbon and took their knees before the anthem’s playing. In Washington, both the Yankees and the Nats rose from their knees while the anthem was played. In San Francisco, ten Giants including manager Gabe Kapler plus Betts on the Dodgers’ side stayed on their knees during the anthem, with Bellinger and Muncy putting hands on Betts’s shoulder as a gesture of support.

I went back on record Thursday saying that there are far worse ways than kneeling before a national anthem to protest something you think is dead wrong. Kneeling, as two Scientific American writers I cited remind us, is anything except disrespect.

“While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference,” wrote psychologists Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner in 2017.  “. . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.”

I’ll ask again: Would you rather those outraged by rogue police doing murder against black or any people raise clenched fists, burn a flag on the field, or start a riot with or without looting and plundering in the bargain? Neither would I. But if only now-former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick had thought in the first place to take his original knee before the anthem played, would that have worked very differently for himself and the outraged?

Let me repeat, too, that you don’t have to subscribe to every last clause or every last impulse of the social justice warriors to agree that rogue police doing murder is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave was supposed to mean. Neither must you subscribe to the formal Black Lives Matter movement itself to agree that black lives and all lives don’t deserve to end when those entrusted to uphold the law break it instead.

Let me repeat further that it’d be far better for baseball to limit playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to before games on Opening Days, games played on significant national holidays, the All-Star Game, and Games One and (if it goes that far) Seven of the World Series. Not so much to cut back on the kneeling protests but to re-emphasise that patriotism compulsory is patriotism illusory.

Back on the field, Soto’s COVID-19 positive test approaching Opening Night shook the game up just enough to provoke serious questions as to how MLB is going to navigate even this truncated season without further medical issues. And, whether the most stringent health and safety protocols will keep more Sotos from turning up positive.

Other surrealities include the empty stands, other than cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, and the canned crowd sounds at the ballparks. The coronavirus world tour already turned baseball into something between The Twilight Zone and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Now that the season is underway at last, should we throw Alfred Hitchcock Presents into the mix?

At least neither Opening Night game went to extra innings, so we didn’t have to deal right off the bat with the free cookie on second base awarded each team to start its extra half-inning. The mischief that’ll inspire will just have to wait.

Funny thing, though, about that equally nefarious three-batter minimum for pitchers. Two Giants relievers faced the minimum in that five-run Dodger seventh before surrendering any runs. If bullpen preservation was part of it even if those two got pried, I can see already that this dumb rule isn’t going to end well for Kapler and other managers.

And, let’s be real, the PA people in charge of the piped-in sounds are only human, after all. Who’s going to be the first poor sap having to live down the accident of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch?

On the other hand, it was easy enough to feel normal again once the Yankees and the Nats got underway . . . when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez began blowing pitch calls. Calling a few strikes balls and a few balls strikes? That’s about par for the course for him. So when’s that umpire accountability coming at last?

Before the game, Dr. Anthony Fauci—otherwise doing his best to battle a pandemic involving both a stubborn virus and a political (lack of) class that surely makes him wonder if he was really there when all this happened—threw out a ceremonial first pitch. Later, he was seen in the stands with his Nats-themed face mask off his face a spell. What’s up with that, Doc?

You’d love to say Fauci threw a perfect strike to Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle behind the plate, but you’d be lying like an office holder. Fauci’s delivery is described politely as resembling a man trying to compensate for a fractured upper arm. The ball sailed almost to the on-deck circle. Rumour has it that Hernandez called it a strike on the outside corner.

How the Yankees beat themselves

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It almost figures that Aroldis Chapman’s smile of utter disbelief would be taken the wrong way by Yankee fans after Jose Altuve’s Saturday night special.

Aroldis Chapman showed a very odd smile almost immediately after Jose Altuve ended his assignment and the Yankees’ season with one swing. Then, as the Astros’ little big man rounded third, Chapman finally made the long, head-down walk off the mound into the Minute Maid Park visitors’ clubhouse.

Every report from that clubhouse after the Astros’s stupefying 6-4 win Saturday night describes Chapman as, phrased politely, bent out of shape. He sank at his locker, refusing to look up unless one or another teammate happened by for a pat on the back. And when he looked up, the towel he put over his head stayed put.

He’s not the only man who ever smiled in disbelief after being humiliated in front of a full house in the ballpark and a throng watching on television or listening on radio. And he won’t be the last. He’s not even the only Yankee who ever smiled in disbelief in a moment like that.

Even Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera showed a very similar smile after Luis Gonzalez singled the Diamondbacks into a World Series ring on the longtime Yankee bellwether’s dollar. But I don’t remember Yankee fans crawling all over The Mariano the way they hammered Chapman over it.

“At that moment when the ball went out, I couldn’t believe it,” the 31-year-old lefthander who still throws the proverbial lamb chops past wolves said after Altuve’s drive banged off the left field pavilion concrete. “I couldn’t believe it went out at that time of the game. For that split-second, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Why did Chapman throw Altuve a second straight slider on 2-1 after showing him two fastballs that didn’t quite reach his once-signature 101 mph but still had plenty enough giddyap to stay above the average? Did beleaguered Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez lose the plot? Did manager Aaron Boone call the pitch from the dugout? And did either or both simply make a terrible call?

“I fell behind in the count and wanted to get ahead with the slider, and I didn’t,” Chapman said. “It didn’t land in the spot where I wanted, and he took full advantage of that. That’s what I was trying to do in that at-bat.”

In the moment you, too, sat in disbelief, even if you were an Astro fan and even if you knew that if anyone could or would come up big enough in that moment, a pennant on the line in a game tied in the top of the ninth, it just had to be Altuve.

Look at the Astros through the full ALCS set. Alex Bregman, who’s liable to be named the American League’s Most Valuable Player if Mike Trout isn’t, had a solid on-base percentage but slugged .222.

Yuli Gurriel looked like an Astro bust overall until he smashed a three-run homer in the Game Six first. Carlos Correa hit a couple of home runs including the electrifying Game Two winner but hit 22 points below his weight otherwise. And their likely AL Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, was last seen offering a ransom for his kidnapped bat.

And look at the Yankees. Aaron Judge hit one out in Game Two (and it was his only homer all postseason long) but nothing else among his six hits in 27 plate appearances went for extra bases. Except for one home run Giancarlo Stanton’s bothersome quad made him useless in the designated-hitter role. Brett Gardner, Mr. Savages-In-The-Box? He had a .345 . . . series OPS.

Sanchez, the classic good-hit/terrible-field catcher, hit one out and managed to drive three in but he was otherwise good for nothing much at the plate. Of all the Yankee regulars, only D.J. LeMahieu—whose two-run homer in the top of the ninth set the stage for Altuve’s heroics in the bottom of the inning in the first place—and Gleyber Torres showed real value in the batter’s box.

Then you remembered Chapman began reaching for his slider more after 2016. Including 31.1 percent of the time this season and 38.3 percent of the time when he had a hitter at two strikes, according to MLB.com. And with George Springer aboard on a two-out walk, Chapman and the Yankees didn’t even think about putting Altuve on to pitch to Jake Marisnick, a late-game insertion who’s known for his defense far more than his bat.

Boone said it wasn’t an intentional walk situation but a situation to pitch aggressively. “[H]e just hung a breaking ball,” Boone told reporters after the game. “That’s obviously a pitch he’s trying to not give in and probably get down and out of the zone, see if you get a chase or something, and he hung it.”

Except that there wasn’t a jury on earth who’d convict him for malfeasance or cowardice if he’d ordered the free pass to Altuve. And of the eleven breaking balls Chapman threw in the inning, four of them hung—including the strike at which Altuve looked one pitch before the hanger that graduated Altuve from mere Astro heart and soul into eternal Astro legend.

All season long Boone and the Yankees operated around their bullpen. All season long Boone managed his pen adroitly, refusing to overwork those bulls, refusing to let the other guys have the same looks at the same arms in too-short intervals.

And all of that disappeared in the American League Championship Series. Against a team that pounces on the slightest mistake and refuses spurn such gifts as seeing the same arms in just about the same situations. And, against a Chapman whom the Astros hadn’t even seen except for two ALCS innings before Saturday night but whose slider suddenly made the ten most wanted list.

In fact, Chapman was almost in danger of resembling the forgotten Yankee this postseason. And when he did appear, he didn’t miss as many bats as usual. Even inserted to pitch the ninth in a Game One division series blowout, when he got one strikeout and two contact outs plus a walk. When a man with a 13.4 strikeouts-per-nine rate on the season doesn’t miss that many bats, the alarm should be blasting.

Just don’t ask Chapman if his use during this postseason factored into the final disaster. He isn’t buying it. “What happened on the field is what happened on the field,” he said matter-of-factly. “It had nothing to do with that.”

Far more sensible to point to assorted Yankee mistakes all series long and even all Game Six long. They weren’t as slapstick in Game Four as they were in Game Six, but Game Six was its own comedy of errors, official and unofficial alike:

* Playing for the double play with nobody out and the Astros having first and third in the bottom of the sixth. Down a run, the Yankees should have played the infield in. Instead, they got the double play grounder, but shortstop Didi Gregorius unexpectedly took a quick peek toward the plate before throwing. That moment cost the Yankees the double play and the run scored regardless.

* Letting Tommy Kahnle pitch a third day in a row. Kahnle was one of the Yankees’ best relievers in the set but it was bad enough the Yankee bullpen rarely if ever appeared in differing conditions without Kahnle being extended like that. The Yankees may have been lucky to escape the sixth with only one run scoring in the inning.

* Judge ambling too far toward second base on Aaron Hicks’s seventh-inning pop to shallow left. Granted that Astros left fielder Michael Brantley wasn’t known for his defensive virtuosity, but his diving catch, springing up promptly, and throwing strongly back to first doubled Judge up too easily. You got why Judge got over-aggressive but every baserunner matters in a tight game and he cost the Yankees a chance to push one around the circuit.

* Edwin Encarnacion was such a bust as the Yankee designated hitter this series that, with Stanton still ailing, Boone could and should have reached for alternatives. He had Cameron Maybin on the bench. He could have assigned the defensively challenged Sanchez to DH in Game Six and sent Austin Romine, who doesn’t hit much but handles things far better defensively, out behind the plate.

The Astros entered Game Six with a shot at both the pennant and at not having to burn Gerrit Cole in a Game Seven when they’d far prefer to have him open the World Series if they got there. The Yankees entered Game Six needing to do or be dead. Those Game Six mistakes built the Yankee coffin Altuve nailed tight shut.

Neither the Astros nor the Yankees hit with authority during most of the ALCS, but the Yankees had potential tying or go-ahead runs at the plate 26 times in the set. Entering Game Six they were 5-for-29 with men on second base or better. The Yankees also became notorious this set for failing to cash in several bases-loaded situations including first innings in Games Three and Four. But staying loyal to the veteran Encarnacion, a June trade acquisition, cost the Yankees dearly.

He may have hit 34 home runs during the season but come the ALCS Encarnacion looked twice his 36 years. He wasn’t anywhere near resembling the bombardier who once sent the Blue Jays into a division series with a mammoth game-ending three-run homer made possible when Orioles manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t even think about bringing in his best reliever because it wasn’t a quote save situation.

All season long Boone looked like a master administrator. You don’t win 100+ games in your first two seasons otherwise. But in Game Six he looked like a novice while his team got out-played, out-thought, and out-smarted most of the way.

Right down to the moment he wouldn’t even think about giving up the ghost, walking Altuve on the house after 2-0, and pitching to a .289 regular-season on-base percentage instead of a .353 OBP with a man on in the bottom of the ninth. If he’d ordered Altuve walked he might have gotten extra innings and another chance.

And don’t even think about blaming Game Six plate umpire Marvin Hudson. Both the Astros and the Yankees had plenty of reasons to complain about his Rocky Horror Picture Show-wide strike zone: a little to the left, a little to the right, let’s do the Time Warp again. The only wonder was that no Astro or Yankee was tempted to try fouling Hudson into the concussion that took Jeff Nelson out of the set unintentionally.

The Yankees measure their success by World Series appearances. And they’re not even a twentieth as obnoxious about it as their fans. Of all the cliches around the Yankees, the truest is that they don’t like to lose. Of all the cliches around Yankee fans, the truest are a) they think annual trips to the World Series are their birthright; and, b) to err is human, but to forgive is not Yankee fan policy.

They’ve just finished only the second decade in their history without reaching a World Series. And they did it by failing to deliver the second part of their most successful manager ever’s wisdom: Baseball is percentage plus execution. With occasional lapses operating the former.

The first ended the year Eugene Debs was imprisoned for speaking against World War I, Prohibition took legal effect, Albert Cushing Read made history’s first transatlantic flight, American women received the vote, and eight members of the White Sox either did their best to throw a World Series or kept their mouths shut about those trying to do it.

It’s enough to make a team whose average age this season is 28 feel as though the average age is 86.

And the way Jose Altuve 86ed the Yankees in the end sent him to the same chamber of legends where Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski, Luis Gonzalez, Dave Roberts, and David Ortiz reside in the small but honoured sub-chamber of Yankee slayers.

The first annual Karl Ehrhardt Prize for Extinguished Baseball Trolling

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My phutile attempt to imagine how the 1930s Phillies’ Lifebuoy endorsement was, shall we say, augmented editorially by a disgruntled fan . . .

Once upon a time, the Phillies played in a ballpark shaped more or less like a sardine can, with the field looking as though shoehorned into a gymnasium. The place was called Baker Bowl, and the high aluminum right field wall once bore a team endorsement for a deodorant soap. With the Phillies not exactly being National League oppressors at the time, a particularly disgruntled fan managed to add to the ad’s slogan, making it read, “The Phillies Use Lifebuoy . . . and they STILL stink!

In the same decade (the 1930s), the Dodgers earned their legendary nickname the Bums, thanks to a cabbie asking a passenger, “How did our bums do today?” The passenger was  legendary New York World Telegram cartoonist Willard Mullin; the exchange inspired Mullin’s fabled remake of Emmett Kelly, Sr.’s “Weary Willie” hobo into the eternal representation of the Dodgers. The Bums were bums enough that one angry fan took his paint to Ebbets Field’s occupancy law sign, making it read, “Occupancy by more than 35,000 unlawful. And unlikely.”

You thought fan trolling began when Yankee fans trolled Curt Schilling during the 2001 World Series, after he alluded somewhat sarcastically to the Stadium’s “mystique and aura” to be greeted with, “Mystique and Aura. Appearing Nightly?” When George Steinbrenner’s worst of the 1980s inspired a Yankee Banner Day parade winner wearing a monk’s hooded cassock and hanging a sign saying FORGIVE HIM, FATHER, FOR HE KNOWS NOT WHAT HE DOES from the Grim Reaper’s scythe? When Red Sox fans began chanting “Darr-yllll! Darr-yllll!” at a certain Mets outfielder who wasn’t exactly breaking the neighbourhood on the Boston leg of the 1986 World Series? When assorted Cub fans at Wrigley Field whipped up placards saying WAIT ‘TILL NEXT YEAR—on Opening Day when the season’s first pitch was thrown? When seven Original Met fans greeted the Dodgers’ first return visit to New York by unfurling, in perfect sequence, from an upper deck rail, seven window shades spelling out:

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Yes, it’s another futile artist’s conception.

When done properly, with genuine wit, and without truly frothing malice, fan trolling is as much fun as a game-ending home run—or, if your team faces the bases loaded, a full count on the enemy hitter, the winning run at first base, and nobody out, your heroes turn a game-ending triple play. (Yes, it’s happened, though not with the bases loaded. The first victims, what a surprise, were the Mets, who ran themselves into one in August 2009, and unassisted yet, when Jeff Francoeur—batting with first and second—lined to Phillies second baseman Eric Bruntlett, who stepped on second and tagged the runner advancing from first in a near flash. Obviously the Mets needed Lifebuoy.)

Even Dodger fans enjoyed a sad chuckle when, with the Cardinals about to push the Dodgers out of a postseason and now-traded Yasiel Puig at the plate, a Busch Stadium fan held up a placard hailing, “Dodgers win? When Puigs fly!” The late Karl Ehrhardt would have been proud. So would the ancient Dodgers Sym-Phony Band, whose atonal racket charmed Ebbets Field fans and the Dodgers alike. Especially when they’d play “Three Blind Mice” after close calls went against the Dodgers. (The humourless umps actually tried getting injunctions against that and also against Ebbets Field organist Gladys Gooding for similar musical crimes against their dignity.) Or, trailing an enemy pitcher knocked out of the box, the Sym-Phony bass drummer would beat his drum to the pitcher’s steps back to the dugout, where taking his seat in the dugout (if he didn’t go to the clubhouse first) received a loud SPLAT! of bass drum and cymbal in unison.

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Troll over, Beethoven!

Karl Ehrhardt was the fabled Sign Man at Shea Stadium for a very long time (1964-1981), assembling handsome, colourfully-lettered, sometimes made-on-the-spot signs to address plays or situations. His parents moved their family from Germany to Brooklyn when he was six; he grew up a Dodger fan and became a commercial graphic artist by profession. He was known to bring as many as sixty of his reputed 1,200 signs to a given game, picking them according to whom the Mets would play and what he thought was likeliest to happen in a game, and he rarely misstepped.

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Karl Ehrhardt.

A favourite was one of his greetings to an enemy pitcher who’d just been knocked out of the box: LEAVING SO SOON? (An alternate: Y’ALL COME BACK NOW, HEAR?) To an enemy pitcher walking a Met hitter intentionally: CHICKEN. To the Orioles with the Mets three outs from their miracle 1969 World Series conquest: BYE, BYE, BIRDIES! To any Cub foolish enough to argue with the umps over a close call going to the Mets: BACK TO YOUR CAVE, BEAR! (When the Orioles argued a close infield play during the Series, it was BACK TO YOUR NEST, BIRD!) After a win over the Cardinals, it was likely to be 5 AND 20 REDBIRDS BAKED IN A PIE!

When Athletics owner Charlie Finley tried to remove hapless second baseman Mike Andrews from the 1973 World Series roster, after two Game Two misplays in Oakland helped the Mets win in extra innings, Ehrhardt was more than prepared. Sure enough, there was an Oakland field miscue in the bottom of the first in Game Three. Up went the Ehrhardt sign: YOU’RE FIRED! (No, we don’t know whether Donald Trump was among the stadium crowd that afternoon.)

But he also knew how to let his own heroes have it when they were playing less than heroically. HE’S HOT TONIGHT! worked either for a Met on a streak or a Met in a slump. IT’S ALIVE! usually greeted a Met breaking out of a slump or a customarily weak hitter reaching base. JOSE, CAN YOU SEE? usually greeted any player named Jose, Met or opponent, who’d struck out. (It started with Jose Cardenal.) Clearly the man who had those plus KONG! and THE KING OF SWING! ready for one of Dave Kingman’s orbital home runs, ORANGE CRUSH! for big hits by Rusty (Le Grande Orange) Staub, and THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE! for the Miracle Mets’ first parade down New York’s Canyon of Heroes, deserves enduring recognition.

Ehrhardt’s days in the Shea third base field boxes ended after he became fed up with the team’s seemingly willful dissipation in the mid-to-late 1970s, with then-boss M. Donald Grant a particular target for having screwed the Tom Seaver pooch. WELCOME TO GRANT’S TOMB was probably the mildest of Ehrhardt’s trolls to the front office. Once a concurrent fixture at Mets team functions, Ehrhardt’s zaps made him persona non grata there, and, as he eventually said, “They turned their back on me so I turned my back on them.” But a later Met administration convinced him to return for the team’s 40th anniversary, a one-off appearance for which he shocked Met fans by hoisting THE SIGNMAN LIVES! before returning to his private life until his death in 2008.

Fans so often turn trolling into an art worthy of Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Gracie Allen, Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, George Carlin, P.J. O’Rourke, and Jokey Smurf. But so do those involved with baseball professionally—as anyone can tell you who saw Roger McDowell bomb Mets first base coach Bill Robinson with a time-delayed hotfoot, or Joey Votto trolling road fans by chasing down foul grounders as if they were potential double play balls before they could become fan souvenirs. If the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in this year’s American League division series, Aaron Judge would be the most powerful contender for the troll awards, thanks to his zapping the Red Sox as he left Fenway Park for the series move to the Bronx by playing “New York, New York” on his boom box.

Except that the Red Sox dumped the Yankees quickly and without a loss in the Stadium. No less than former Yankee star Mark Teixiera reminded Judge what happens when you awaken a sleeping giant. Even MLB itself, whose social media staffers know a thing or two about symbolism, couldn’t resist hitting the Yankees where it hurt on Twitter:

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Having been unable to exhume the actual identity of the staffer whose genius it was to create that impossible to top fashion statement, we’ll just have to settle for giving  Throneberry Fields Forever’s first annual Karl Ehrhardt Prize for Extinguished Trolling thus:

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Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled Yankee fans yearning to breathe, period; the wretched refuseniks of the steaming Stadium. Send these, those homeless, Series-ringless-this-time-round to me. And lift your braying ears before the House That Ruthless Built!