Listen up, Bleacher Creatures

Derek Rodriguez, Mark Lanzillotta

Derek Rodriguez (in his Yankee hat and Aaron Judge T-shirt) hugging Mark Lanzillotta gratefully, after Lanzillotta handed the boy a sixth-inning bomb Judge hit in Rogers Centre.

Recall if you will that I went to Opening Day in Anaheim with my 28-year-old son. From the moment he became a baseball fan in earnest at age six, his dreams included catching or otherwise obtaining one bona-fide major league baseball at the ballpark. On said Opening Day, 22 years later, I managed to make his wish come true.

An Astro lined a foul into our section during batting practise. Thanks to a small but clustered group of fans standing up adjacent to us, neither Bryan nor myself could see which Astro hit the ball. No matter. It bounded around a few times before making its way beneath my seat, where I snatched it and handed it to him.

Neither Bryan nor I cared that it came off an Astro bat, even if he (and I) might have preferred it courtesy of an Angels bat. It was a baseball, major league regulation, a simple but profound little prize of fandom that you can go a lifetime without obtaining, regardless of how often you’re at the ballpark.

My son’s gratitude was boundless, of course, even at age 28. “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living,” Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said, “but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” Savouring and rooting and appreciating this game means the same thing when you’re watching at home or at the ballpark. Even professionally.

So imagine easily how it felt for a nine-year-old boy in Rogers Centre Tuesday, wearing a Yankee T-shirt with Aaron Judge’s surname and number 99 on his back, praying to God and His servants in the Elysian Fields that maybe, just maybe, he might catch a ball hit by his hero. He got the absolute next best thing.

A Blue Jays fan named Mike Lanzillotta sat in the second deck behind young Derek Rodriguez and his father, Cesar, Venezuelan natives living in Toronto the past five years.  Somehow, the boy’s eagerness got to Lanzillotta throughout the game. He didn’t have to imagine when lo! Judge batted a third time in the top of the sixth inning, against Jays pitcher Alek Manoah, who’d struck him out twice earlier in the game.

Not even Mark Harris, W.P. Kinsella, Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, or John Updike could have sketched this one. I’m nowhere in their league so I’m not sure I’m doing it right.

Judge caught hold of a fastball sailing a little inside and drove it . . . right into Lanzilotta’s hands. As Judge rounded the bases, Lanzillotta kept the promise he made to himself and handed Derek the ball. The boy’s gratitude poured into a hug around the older man’s neck and shameless tears of joy. Television cameras caught the moment and it went viral almost at once.

“I almost started crying,” Lanzillotta admitted to reporters. “For real, I almost started crying.” The father soon enough faced a question from his son: “I said, ‘If you were young, and the same thing happened to you, but with a home run off of Derek Jeter, what would you do?’” the boy revealed. “And he said I would cry the same. And fun fact, I was named after Derek Jeter.”

Aaron Judge, Derek Rodriguez

Derek got to meet his Yankee hero before Wednesday’s game.

Funner fact: The tale of Derek Rodriguez, Mike Lanzilotta, and Aaron Judge’s blast reached Judge himself after the Yankees demolished the Jays, 9-1. Reporters told Judge of the Kodak moment. (Oops! Today we’d call it an iPhone moment.) Known for being as fan friendly as the day is long, Judge himself seemed almost overcome by the revelation.

“That’s what’s special about this game, man,” the Yankees’ Leaning Tower of River Avenue told reporters, after grinning and observing you’ll find Yankee fans around the world. “It doesn’t matter what jersey you wear, everybody is fans, everybody appreciates this game. That’s pretty cool. I’ve got to check out that video. That’s special.”

He did more than just check out that video. Before today’s game, Derek got to meet his Yankee hero, who signed the home run ball for him. The still boyish-looking Judge looked as though he’d been taken back to his own boyhood for a few shining moments.

The Blue Jays didn’t exactly appreciate being blown away by the Yankees Tuesday, but it didn’t stop the team from giving more than a tip of the beak to Lanzillotta. They dropped a special team gift package on him for his sportsmanship. Cesar Rodriguez called him a friend for life. His cell phone was all but nuked with texts and calls following his gesture.

“I spilled my beer” retrieving the Judge home run ball, Lanzillotta said, “but it was worth it.”

Now listen up, all you Bleacher Creatures around the Show. You, the mental midgets who think it’s funny as hell throwing the opposition’s home runs back onto the field, pouring  abuse upon an opposition pitcher known to struggle with clinical depression, thinking it’s funny as hell throwing garbage and other debris on the field when an opposition fielder is injured on a play.

You should be made to watch that Judge bomb, that Lanzillotta gift to nine-year-old Derek Tuesday, and the boy’s meeting with Judge today. You might learn or re-learn a few things about sportsmanship. About real baseball rooting and caring. About plain human decency.

Mystique and Aura have left the building

Xander Bogaerts

Bogaerts throwing the perfect strike to the plate to bag Aaron Judge, after Yankee third base coach Phil Nevins didn’t stop Judge rounding third at the moment Bogaerts released the throw. This is the kind of thing that used to make Red Sox life living hell—in the last century.

If we must suffer the wild card system still, we hope yet that the wild card games themselves have potential for excitement, and maybe even a little transcendence. The kind that happened in the American League wild card game Tuesday night, in Fenway Park, was everything the Yankees didn’t have in mind.

Their season ended in a 6-2 loss to the Red Sox that flipped the too-long script of Yankee-Red Sox surrealities past and ancient. Because something that usually happened in the last century to the Red Sox, when they could just taste even a piece of glory, happened to the Yankees Tuesday night.

Two teams about whose seasons it could be said most politely that they threatened to implode at too many points collided. The Red Sox played like a championship team. The Yankees played like a team whose destiny was disaster. This was not the natural order of things for either side before the turn of this century.

That was the Twentieth Century: Dubious decisions with games on the line or close enough to it compounded what seemed ages of Red Sox disaster. This was Tuesday night: A dubious decision when the Yankees could have had a clean chance at possibly tying the wild card game all but guaranteed their homegoing instead.

Much as you’d like to see the sports goat business put out of business once and for all, it’s going to be hard to resist planting those horns squarely upon the head of Yankee third base coach Phil Nevin for what transpired in the top of the sixth.

Nevin only thought he could send Aaron Judge all the way home from first, when Giancarlo Stanton drove one off Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier that looked like it was going to fly into the Green Monster seats. Until it didn’t. It banged off that notorious wall and to the ground in left center, where Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo overran the ball but center fielder Enrique Hernandez running right played the carom almost perfectly and threw in.

Hernandez fired a perfect strike to Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts as the cutoff man, and—as Judge rounded third barreling home on his long legs—Bogaerts whipped around to fire a perfect strike to Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki. Judge started his dive as Plawecki caught the throw, and Judge was a dead pigeon with his right hand about two feet from touching the plate.

Instead of first and third and one out, after finally ridding themselves of Boston’s lights-out starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the Yankees settled for Stanton on second and two out. With Joey Gallo coming to the plate and popping out to Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers playing it back on the short outfield grass for the side.

And, with every cheering jaw in Fenway Park still dropped over Nevin turning Judge into a kamikaze.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone takes an excessive share of abuse for the Yankees’ in-season hiccups and postseason shortfalls—especially with his contract expiring now, but just about since he first took the Yankee bridge. Never mind that Boone managed back-to-back 100+ win seasons in his first two years on that bridge, which no Yankee manager did before him. Never mind the Yankees averaging 98 wins a year in his three full seasons on that bridge.

But even Boone’s worst critics can’t get away with hanging this one on him. Not that they’re not trying. From almost the moment Boone took the bridge in the first place, the first Yankee shortfall of any given series or season—a bad pitch, a bad plate appearance, a bad inning, a one-game losing streak—has brought demands for Boone’s perp walk and summary execution. Preferably five minutes earlier.

You’d think Yankeetown still hasn’t grasped the concept that it’s entirely possible for the other guys to play better and smarter when it means the most. Which is exactly what happened Tuesday night.

Boone once broke Red Sox Nation hearts with his pennant-winning blast in the bottom of the eleventh in Yankee Stadium in 2003. Now the poor man seemed as befuddled himself as everyone else in Fenway Park and in the ESPN television audience for making sense of Nevin’s send.

“I think . . . the ball coming in looked like it was going to be kind of an in-between hop to the infielder,” Boone said postgame about Hernandez’s throw in to Bogaerts. “Bogaerts did a good job of creating a hop, catching it clean and and obviously throwing home and getting him. And that kind of squashed the potential rally there, so I think what [Nevin] saw was what he thought was going to be kind of an in-between hop and really a tough chance.”

“Create” the hop? Bogaerts was simply standing on the short center field grass waiting for the throw and the hop created itself, right into Bogaerts’s glove held out to his left. He turned at the split second the ball hit his glove and threw home perfectly.

Bogaerts talking postgame said that play and his part in it meant even more than the two-run homer he drilled into the center field bleachers off Yankee starter Gerrit Cole in the top of the first. Small wonder. The Red Sox were the American League’s most defensively challenged team of the regular season. On Tuesday night they found it in them to play far above their own defensive heads when it mattered the most.

“That [play] was better than a homer for me, personally,” he said. “I mean, if that run scores, it’s 3-2. Stanton is at second base, the whole momentum is on their side. The dugout is getting pumped up. As Judge was out at home, I saw Stanton was pretty mad. He probably wanted a homer there, but also an RBI, and he didn’t get that, and he probably felt like he didn’t do much because that run didn’t score. But that changed the game.”

The Monster factor was made only too vivid in the bottom of the sixth, when Alex Verdugo sent a high liner to deep right off Yankee pitcher Luis Severino working in relief. The ball bounced off the lower part of the fence, a clean enough double, well enough to enable Bogaerts (aboard with a one-out walk) to score the fourth Red Sox run of the night.

Three times Tuesday night Stanton hit what looked like certain home runs. Aside from the sixth-inning rip that indeed turned out to change the game irrevocably, he ripped one so high toward the Monster that even the Red Sox thought it was going to disappear. Until it didn’t. Stanton was so certain that he settled into his home run trot and was held to a measly single.

In the top of the ninth, against Red Sox relief pitcher (and former Yankee product) Garrett Whitlock, Stanton sent a parabolic launch the other way into the right field seats just past the Pesky Pole himself. By then it was an excuse-me! shot for only the second Yankee run. Whittaker ended the game by getting Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres to pop out to right.

Kyle Schwarber

The Schwarbinator became the first of two former Cubs batting leadoff Tuesday night to strike big . . .

Legends real and alleged used to include longtime Chicago newspaper star Mike Royko’s postulate that the team with the most ex-Cubs lost. The Red Sox and the Yankees may have really tempted real or imagined ancient fates with their chosen leadoff men Tuesday night: World Series-winning ex-Cub teammates Kyle Schwarber (designated hitter, Red Sox, by way of the Nationals) and Anthony Rizzo (first baseman, Yankees, at this year’s trade deadline).

Those moves came of dire necessity, actually. The Red Sox lacked designated hitter J.D. Martinez after he rolled his ankle in the Red Sox season finale, and the Yankees lacked second base regular D.J. LeMahieu thanks to a sports hernia. So, naturally, the Elysian Fields gods decided to have a little mad fun. Right?

Schwarber struck first. With Cole already having a miserable evening in the hole 2-0, the Schwarbinator led off the bottom of the third by driving a 1-2 service no doubt and about twelve rows into the right field seats. Rizzo struck back with one out in the top of the sixth, hitting Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi’s first service on a high line inside that Pesky Pole for the first Yankee run. Then Judge promptly beat out a tough bouncer to shortstop.

The good news for the Yankees is that that finally got Eovaldi out of the game, after he’d manhandled them brilliantly through five and a third including eight strikeouts and no walks. The bad news was Judge on the threshold of disaster on the Stanton home run that wasn’t and the Nevin send that shouldn’t have been.

No Yankee reached base on walks all night. Seven Red Sox reached on walks from Cole and three Yankee relievers. Only Clay Holmes out of the Yankee pen, facing five batters, didn’t walk a single Red Sox batter while surrendering one hit and striking one out. The walks really burned the Yankees in the bottom of the seventh, when Verdugo sent the insurance runs home with two out, slashing a two-run single against Yankee reliever Chad Green to score Hernandez and Schwarber—both of whom had reached on walks.

That Yankee sixth is what used to happen to the Red Sox when they could just taste even a piece of glory in their mouths. Something surreal. Something from The Twilight Zone. Something else from The Outer Limits. Something more from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Leaving the Red Sox yet again fallen to the rocks below when they’d gotten to within one mile or a few innings of the mountaintop.

Why, even B.F. Dent himself—hitter of the home run that broke an earlier generation of New England hearts in the 1978 American League East playoff game—was in the Fenway stands and chatting for one minute with ESPN analyst Buster Olney. (He admitted he’s still asked about that three-run homer into the ancient Monster net—about two or three times a day.)

Except that the ESPN audience probably noticed Dent a lot more than the crowd around him in the stands did. They were too well and appropriately occupied with the Yankees incurring the kind of outrageous malfortune that once seemed the birthright of Red Sox baseball.

Before the game Dent predicted to Boston Globe columnist (and author of The Curse of the Bambino) Dan Shaughnessy, “I think Gerrit Cole will pitch a great game, and I think the Yankees will beat ’em.” That’d teach him. Cole pitched two full innings in the hole 2-0 and got nobody out while facing two more batters after Schwarber’s leadoff launch in the third.

This time, it was the Yankees crushed by trans-dimensional furies and a fatal miscalculation. It’s starting to become as much a Yankee thing this century as a Red Sox thing last. From Dave Roberts stealing second to launch that surreal 2004 Red Sox self-resurrection to Jose Altuve’s pennant-winning two-run homer, it looks as though Mystique and Aura really have left the building.

The ladies didn’t have to take Phil Nevin’s baseball brain with them, though.

Wherever the Red Sox go from here, and they know it won’t be easy tangling with the AL East champion Rays in a division series, nothing can change the extraterrestrial triumph over the Empire Emeritus that gives them that chance in the first place.

On a sober anniversary

New York Mets, New York Yankees

Honouring the murdered and the fallen who tried to save them during the original 9/11 atrocity at the World Trade Center, the Mets and the Yankees stood shoulder-to-shoulder before Saturday night’s game. Shown left to right here: Pete Alonso, Gleyber Torres, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Jonathan Villar, Giancarlo Stanton, Brandon Nimmo (still on the injured list), and Aaron Judge.

Members of the 2001 Mets, including Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, escorted various groups of first responders onto and around the field Saturday night. The Citi Field audience cheered loud and long, not just for those Mets but for those first responders who survived or whose comrades were lost in the 11 September 2001 atrocity upon the World Trade Center.

Several of today’s Yankees and Mets—wearing assorted New York first-responder hats, this time with the blessing of baseball’s government—lined up intermingled on the baseline and came close enough to tears. The Mets wore the same non-pinstriped home whites the team wore in 2001, complete with “9-11-2001” embroidered on the right sleeve, but this time with a  black-shadowed version of their “New York” traveling letters across the chest.

After a moment of silence in honour of those murdered in the WTC attacks,  and those who died trying to rescue the attacked, the New York City Cops & Kids Choir sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in a striking balance of chorale, section, and soloist. The cheer at the finish amounted as much to a prayer that a country now fragmented in enough ways might yet un-fragment once again in enough ways, as it did the performance that truly honoured the dead.

The Fox Sports telecast cut to a special anniversary video story, recalling the moment New York can never forget, ten days after baseball ended its self-imposed hiatus following the original atrocities—Piazza blasting what proved a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, in old Shea Stadium, off Braves reliever Steve Karsay, off the second tier of a television camera stand behind the center field fence.

Then, the Mets’ and Yankees’ 2001 managers, Bobby Valentine and Hall of Famer Joe Torre, threw ceremonial first pitches to the plate, after Valentine puckishly ran back onto the mound to toe the rubber. That was a very far cry from Valentine having led his 2001 Mets in running rescue-and-recovery efforts outside old Shea Stadium itself—and having fear of further danger, as he’s acknowledged often since—after the WTC attacks.

After a commercial break—including a stunning montage of a young lady named Rowen Emerson Jones playing “God Bless America” on her violin, at various New York spots including the Brooklyn Bridge and a 9/11 memorial—it was time at last to set sober reflection and ceremony to one side, play baseball, and grip the Citi Field crowd until the last out of an 8-7 Yankee win.

On baseball terms, the Mets’ home crowd would have loved to have back the awkward should-have-been double play finisher second baseman Javier Baez—hurrying the throw to first—sent airmail past first baseman Pete Alonso that allowed the eighth Yankee run in the top of the eighth in the first place.

This was an interleague game whose sole significance otherwise rested solely in the now-faint postseason hopes of both the Mets in the National League East and the Yankees in the American League East. Had it not been for 9/11’s twentieth anniversary, the bigger baseball news of the night might have been Brewers pitchers Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader collaborating on a major league record ninth no-hitter of the season in their 3-0 win over the Indians—now the first team to be no-hit three times in a season.

The Yankees and the Mets exchanged single-hit halves of the first inning off their starting pitchers, Corey Kluber for the Yankees and Taijuan Walker for the Mets. The baseball fun really began in the top of the second, when the Yankees battered Walker for a pair of two-run homers (catcher Kyle Higashioka, center fielder Brett Gardner), a solo bomb (Aaron Judge, right after Gardner), and a too-early 5-0 lead.

Aaron Judge

Judge led the Yankee attack with two home runs Saturday night.

The Mets got right back into the game in the bottom of the inning. Second baseman Javier Baez, one of the notorious Thumb Bunch, waited out a leadoff four-pitch walk and stole second while left fielder Jeff McNeil struck out swinging. Then a second Thumb Buncher, Kevin Pillar, drove Baez home with a liner just inside the left field line, before catcher James McCann—who’s seen as one of the Mets’ more dubious free agency signings ordinarily—hit a drive that eluding a leaping Judge at the right field wall into an RBI triple. Walker himself followed with a line single to right sending McCann home effortlessly.

From there, Walker overcame his own wounding flaw, trouble commanding his fastball, and retired each the next thirteen Yankees he faced. Along the way, Baez turned on a Kluber service with two out in the bottom of the third and ripped it on a fast high line into the lower left field seats to pull the Mets back to within a run.

Kluber endured through four innings before Yankee manager Aaron Boone opened his bullpen and brought Lucas Luetge in to work the bottom of the fifth. The good news for the Yankees: Luetge shook off a one-out base hit by Mets right fielder Michael Conforto, shot through unoccupied shortstop territory on the defensive shift, to get rid of Alonso on a fly to the back of right field and Baez on a bullet liner Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela speared in a somewhat spinning crouch for the side.

The bad news for the Yankees was Luetge opening the Mets’ half of the sixth by walking McNeil on four straight pitches. Exit Luetge, enter Chad Green in a double switch sending Tyler Wade to play third base. Unfortunately, enter three baseballs thrown onto the field in right by unknown Citi Field idiots, followed by another couple of jackasses running onto the field but taken down swiftly enough by stadium security.

The unruly delay knocked Pillar out of his batting rhythm and into a swinging strikeout. But it didn’t stop McCann from turning on a 1-1 service and driving it into the left field seats, yanking the Mets into a 6-4 lead and inspiring one fan adjacent to the broadcast booth to holler, “Rock ’em! Sock ’em!” Those who remembered Piazza’s 2001 blast hoped against hope that another Met catcher’s bomb would prove the winner on the actual 9/11 anniversary, instead of in the first Mets home game back after baseball’s self-imposed September 2001 break.

The Mets had one more run in them in the bottom of the seventh, when with two outs and Clay Holmes on the mound for the Yankees, Baez chopped one off the plate up toward third, with Wade having a tough throw to make and Baez beating it by a hair as a few television replays plus the umpires’ review showed. McNeil singled him to third, Pillar singled him home with a liner to left, and it looked as though the Mets had an insurance run.

Seth Lugo had relieved Walker and thrown a spotless top of the sixth, and now Trevor May took over for the seventh. Oops. Gardner opened with a base hit through the hole at second, and Judge hit a parabolic punt sailing above the top of the stadium roof but landing halfway up the left field seats to tie the game at six. Yankee left fielder Giancarlo Stanton chased May with a long single, and Aaron Loup took the mound for the Mets.

It looked like Loup would have a simple gig when he got rid of Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a hurry on a fly out that nudged Conforto back almost to the track in right. Shortstop Gleyber Torres smashed one hard enough on the ground to short that his Mets counterpart Francisco Lindor couldn’t handle properly and got ruled a base hit.

Luke Voit pinch hit for Holmes. He grounded one to short on a very weird hop, but this time Lindor snapped it up at once and threw to second to get Torres. Baez in his rush to end the inning threw flatfoot off his right leg, mid-pivot, and the ball sailed over and past Alonso, enabling Stanton’s pinch runner Andrew Velasquez to score the eighth Yankee run.

The blameless Loup promptly struck Higashioka swinging on four pitches, but the Mets couldn’t cash in the two-out baserunner they got when Lindor wrung Yankee reliever Albert Abreu for a full-count walk. After another delay from another idiot running on the field—Hall of Fame pitcher/Fox Sports analyst John Smoltz wondered aloud, and appropriately, why people pick even evenings of sober commemoration for their “look at me!” moments—Conforto wrung Abreu for another walk.

Up to the plate came Alonso, the Met everyone in the ballpark wanted in this situation. He gave it his best shot, too. On 1-1 he hit one high and deep to center field, but he’d connected just on the underside of the ball, enough to give the Yankees a momentary jolt but not enough to keep Gardner from catching it on the edge of the track.

Veteran Mets relief pickup Brad Hand rid himself of Wade (ground out to second), Yankee second baseman D.J. LeMahieu (identical ground out to second), and Gardner (foul tip swinging strikeout) in the top of the ninth. But Mets pinch-hitter J.D. Davis’s one-out ground-rule double wasn’t enough in the bottom. He took third when strike three escaped Higashioka but the Yankee catcher recovered the ball soon enough to keep Pillar from taking first by just a step.

Then McCann gave one a ride out to right. It wasn’t enough of a ride. Judge snapped the ball into his glove to end the game, snapping a low for the Yankees in which they’d entered Saturday night having lost seven straight and—how cruel the irony—nine of eleven.

In baseball terms, the win put the Yankees into a tie with the Blue Jays for the second AL wild card, the Blue Jays having taken a doubleheader from the hapless Orioles. The loss kept the Mets five behind the Braves in the NL East and four behind the Reds and the Padres—both defeated earlier Saturday—for the second NL wild card.

In spiritual terms, the full Citi Field house, the pre-game ceremonies, and the shoulder-to-shoulder interweaving of Mets and Yankees on the baseline during those ceremonies reminded people of the better sides of New York City. The sides that show recovery and perseverance with little more than just basic effort of the heart. Even commemorating the anniversary of an atrocity that—who could have predicted—killed fewer people than were reported to have died Friday alone from COVID-19-related illness.

Maybe sports don’t really heal, but maybe something like a baseball game relieves the sting of certain atrocities, pestilences, and sorrows for just a little while.

But to the idiots throwing balls on the field, running onto the field, and even booing the 7 Line Army—that particular group of orange-shirted, die-hard Met fans—for refusing to partake of the still-idiotic Wave in the seventh inning (if the 1980s call demanding it back, let them have it back, unapologetically), three words: Go to hell.

“Hey, Dad? Want to pitch me a walk-off?”

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson, finishing the hype-busting Field of Dreams Game with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth Thursday night.

The game finished by crossing its original protagonist, Field of Dreams, with The Natural. The most poetically inclined screenwriting/directing team in film couldn’t imagine climax that surreal.

A pair of two-run homers in the top of the ninth to yank the Yankees back into the lead at 8-7. A two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the White Sox, 9-8. This wasn’t the way they won ballgames during the 1910s evoked by the special uniforms the two teams wore for the occasion.

Hey, Dad? Want to pitch me a walk-off?

It was as jolting a climax as ever provided by David Freese, Aaron Boone, Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, Chris Chambliss, Bill Mazeroski, or Bobby Thomson. Even if it didn’t win a World Series, push a Series to a seventh game,  send a team to a Series, or put them in the postseason at all in the first place.

It defied the game’s subtexts. The ones not spoken often if at all in the hype. The ones involving Field of Dreams‘s unlikely turning of baseball’s worst gambling scandal into a fantasy of reconciliation; and, The Natural‘s study of a live young prospect shot Eddie Waitkus-like, into long, long wandering, into a haunted elder returning to prove neither he nor his old dream died, for however long it still had to live.

No volume of pre-game hype—this game’s tribute to artifices of fantasy was as hyped as any sports event could be—could have promised and delivered that kind of a ninth inning. Even Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner, escorting both teams onto the field from the corn beyond the wall, asking the crowd, “Is this heaven?” with the crowd hollering back, “No, this is Iowa,” wouldn’t have dared demand that in a script.

But there was Liam Hendricks, the engaging White Sox relief pitcher, looking made for wraparound sunglasses thanks to being endowed with wraparound eyes, working the top of the ninth, shaking a leadoff single off to strike Yankee veterans D.J. LeMahieu and Brett Gardner out swinging on four pitches each.

Then there was Hendricks at 2-1 to Aaron Judge. He threw Judge a high fastball and watched it sail far enough into the right field corn. Following which Hendricks wrestled Joey Gallo—the former Ranger whose stock in trade is either home run feast or strikeout famine, but who has the odd discipline of working walks (he averages 94 per 162 games lifetime)—into a walk after starting him 1-1 without throwing another strike.

Up to the plate stepped Giancarlo Stanton, a former National League Most Valuable Player and one of the game’s more formidable bombardiers until injuries began to grind away at him in earnest. Stanton hit Hendricks’s first service into the left field corn.

Even the somewhat partisan, small audience—savouring a game on the field built adjacent to the famous Field of Dreams farmhouse field, many paying through the nose secondarily for tickets with face values of $375 or $425, Iowa fans and White Sox season ticket-holders, the latter by special lottery—roared when that fabled Yankee power detonated in the top of the ninth.

It was nothing compared to what happened in the bottom, when Yankee reliever Zack Britton, himself having been in the top tier of his particular profession before injuries began shaving him down, too, took the role normally assigned to the injured Aroldis Chapman. He opened by luring White Sox pinch hitter Danny Mendick into a ground out to first but walking White Sox catcher Seby Zavala—who’d hit one into the corn himself in the bottom of the fourth.

Up stepped Tim Anderson, the lively White Sox shortstop. Britton pumped and pitched, a fastball right down the pipe. It was too fat a pitch to resist. If the White Sox have a classic kangaroo court in their clubhouse, Anderson would have been fined for malfeasance.

It didn’t win a pennant. It was more out of The Natural than Field of Dreams, whose co-protagonist by default Shoeless Joe Jackson had only one known walk-off hit in his entire career. (For the White Sox, against the Yankees, in July 1919.) But when Anderson hit it out, it won a ball game keeping the Yankees from gaining on the second place Red Sox in the American League East and fattening the White Sox’s AL Central lead to eleven and a half. Slamming an exclamation point down for baseball itself.

What began with Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner escorting the Yankees and the White Sox through the corn and down across the field ended with an African-American man from Alabama, who wouldn’t have been admitted to the 1910-1919 Show because of his race, channeling his inner Roy Hobbs, The Natural‘s psychically-buffeted protagonist.

Hobbs in the film version was down 0-2 and struggling mightily with an ancient bullet lodged in his insides, causing him to bleed through his lower stomach, when he hit the pennant-winning bomb that also shot the ballpark lights out. Anderson had no such encumbrance when he sent Britton’s canteloupe into the left field corn.

Until that ninth inning viewers at home and the fans who’d paid into the field saw a very reasonably played game. They saw White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu hit the first major league home run ever hit in Iowa in the bottom of the first. They saw Judge become the first Yankee to go long in Iowa when he hit a three-run homer in the top of the third.

Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees

Wearing 1910s style uniforms, the White Sox and the Yankees entered the Field of Dreams Game through the corn Thursday evening.

They saw White Sox starter Lance Lynn nail the first major league strikeout in Iowa when he froze Gardner on a high called strike, on a night when plate umpire Pat Hoberg was as generous with the strike zone ceiling as he was skinflint about proper strikes on the sidewalls of the zone.

They saw the early 3-1 Yankee lead disappear in a four-run White Sox third, when Anderson doubled center fielder Adam Engel home with one out, and recently-restored-from the-injured-list designated hitter Eloy Jimenez cracked a three-run homer into the right field corn.

They saw Gardner put a number on Lynn’s pitching evening when he hit the second pitch of the top of the sixth not too far from where Jimenez’s bomb landed. They saw Yankee infielder Tyler Wade, one of a host of spare parts coming into regular service thanks to the Yankees’ ongoing shuttle back and forth from the injured list, drop one of the only bunts that should be allowed in a game.

With one out, nobody on, and the non-shifting White Sox infield playing deep enough to prompt calls for sending a search party out to find them, the lefthanded Wade saw enough delicious open real estate to push a bunt to the left side, just enough to the middle to keep third baseman Yoan Moncada from doing anything more than grabbing the ball on the run in.

No wasted out. Nothing but a versatile enough utility infielder, who inclines toward hitting line drives (he has four doubles out of 24 hits this season), not feeling he was going to get something to hit on a line, seeing a free gift and pouncing on it before the supply expired.

Then, Wade stole second while LeMahieu occupied himself with working his way into a walk. Then, a ground out pushing second and third and Judge accepting a walk from White Sox speed reliever Michael Kopech after opening with strike one but seeing four straight balls, including a ball four which should have been called strike two.

No matter, far as the White Sox were concerned. Up stepped Gallo, flashing his usual all-or-nothing style at the plate, swinging mightily enough but whacking a pitch a little up out to shortstop to force Judge for the side.

From the moment Lynn started the game with ball one to LeMahieu and LeMahieu nailed the first major league base hit in Iowa baseball history, to the moment Anderson sent everyone home with his corn ball, the game told the hype to take a shower. Even if the live Fox Sports telecast referenced Field of Dreams to a fare-thee-well.

“I knew it wasn’t over,” Anderson said post-game. “The game’s never over. And once Britton walked (Zavala), I knew there was a chance to start something real dope.” So he finished something real dope with something as dope as it gets. In the immortal words of Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark, “Because . . . baseball!

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.