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.

The upstarts of West Camden Street?

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Whichever era’s gear you like, it looks safe to be an Oriole fan again. So far. All things considered.

I’m not seeing things, really, I keep telling myself. So do most of you who aren’t part of the fan base. So, probably, do most of those whose allegiance—in cardboard cutouts this pandemic season, unfortunately—anchors at 333 West Camden Street in Baltimore.

Where the Orioles have suddenly re-graduated themselves from birds of prey, as in prey for the other guys, to the American League East’s second-best record behind the beasts of the south Bronx and fourth-best record in the entire league.

Entering Sunday the Orioles had the fourth-most runs per game (5.35), the sixth-best team on-base percentage (.334), the second-best team slugging percentage (.466), the second-best team OPS (.800), the second-highest total bases (320), and the sixth-lowest team number of hitters banging into double plays (10) . . . in the entire Show.

So far.

They didn’t do it against their fellow presumed cream puffs, either. They’ve beaten the world champion Washington Nationals four out of five times, and the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays both three out of three.

They’re also one of the Show’s most prolific road shows, too, even in this coronavirus-nourished Quiet, Please! Alfred Hitchcock Presents Dimension X Minus One Fella’s Family of a season—nine road games, eight wins.

They’ve even had a six-game winning streak and they’ve won seven out of eight, including those four wins dropped on the Nats pending today’s skirmish in Camden Yards.

All that despite their pitching being near the bottom third of the league’s team ERA pack and near it in team pitching strikeouts while being just about dead center for surrendering the big flies.

It’s enough to make even generic baseball collectors reach for their Oriole hats of any era, plop them atop their heads almost daily, and wonder what strange new feats of derring-do await from a team who’d turned too profoundly into the AL East’s feats of derring-don’t even think about it.

Maybe the only more surprising ensembles in the Show right now are the Miami Marlins, who didn’t let a little thing such as practically the entire team waylaid by COVID-19 positives stop them from remaking/remodeling on the fly and entering Sunday afternoon with the number five winning percentage.

Most fish get the ick and croak. These Fish either got or laid dormant the coronavirus, lost what seemed like half their first-third of the season . . . and went from the guppies of the National League East to its barracudas. Just pray that they don’t begin behaving like real barracuda and start eating their young. Oops. Maybe the Marlins already did that—their average age is 29.4.

Come to think of it, the Marlins won nine games so far entering Sunday, and four of them came against . . . the Orioles. With this season’s cockamamie-looking playoff plan, it may not be thinking two thousand light years from home to imagine these Birds of Prey against those Flying Fish. It might be jarring, it might seem to threaten the natural order of things, but it may not be all that surreal.

So what went on in Camden Yards on Sunday afternoon? A little comic relief from Nats manager Dave Martinez, for openers, objecting to a pitch call with an extremely emphatic Horse[spit]! Horse [fornicating] [spit]! Didya hear me? in the bottom of the second. (O Vin Scully, where is thy sting?)

Let’s see . . . an RBI single, a sacrifice fly, and another RBI single put the Nats up 3-0 in the top of the first. Oriole right fielder Anthony Satlander got one back in the bottom, off Max Scherzer, with a one-out blast into the right field bleachers. A sacrifice fly and another RBI single made it 5-1, Nats in the top of the fifth.

Orioles catcher Pedro Severino said, “That’s what you think,” with two aboard in the bottom of the sixth, catching hold of a Scherzer fastball practically down the chute and sending it over the left field fence. An inning later, Satlander found the screws on Scherzer’s two-out, 2-1 repeat changeup and repeated what he did in the first, to practically the same section of unoccupied real estate.

Tied at five. If the Orioles are really playing over their own heads, they weren’t going to let even Mad Max take them without a fight.

Oops. With two out and Juan Soto on second in the top of the eighth, Oriole third baseman Rio Ruiz threw Kurt Suzuki’s should-have-been inning-ending grounder wild enough to let Soto score and Suzuki have first and then second on the house.

That was no time for surprise generosity, Orioles. Unless it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Orioles entered Sunday fifth in the American League with fourteen errors. Well, nobody’s perfect, and the Orioles are still trying to get used to winning again, however surrealistic the truncated season.

Heavy sighs of relief, mostly from the Oriole dugout, unless someone figured out a way to send the canned crowd sounds through any cutouts in the park. Oriole reliever Paul Fry got Nats pinch-hitter Eric Thames to pop out to shortstop Jose Iglesias for the side. Staying within one run was child’s play.

Wsn’t it?

It wasn’t. Not when Nats reliever Tanner Rainey struck out the side after opening the Oriole eighth by plunking designated hitter Renato Nunez and World Series finisher Daniel Hudson struck out two after opening the Oriole ninth with a ground ball out. Even upstarts like these Orioles can’t have everything yet, can they?

Horse [spit] Horse [fornicating] [spit]! Didya hear me?

The survival of the unfittest

2019-09-19 NewYorkYankees

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no Yankee was injured during the making of this division-clinching celebration.

Future baseball trivia contests should feature this question: “Name the team that won the 2019 American League East despite making a M*A*S*H triage seem like a day camp’s first aid station.” Then, they should add, “P.S. Name the American League’s 2019 Manager of the Year—according to major league baseball and the American Red Cross.”

Aaron Boone must have days when he thinks he’s not a major league manager but the hapless chief administrator of an overworked urgent care clinic. The Broken Bombers  must have days when they think the umpire isn’t going to start a game hollering “Play ball!” but pulling out a bugle to sound sick call.

They locked down the American League East Thursday night with their 100th win, beating the hapless, Mike Trout-less Angels 9-1 at home in St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium. And they still had twelve players—not including the apparently terminally hapless Jacoby Ellsbury—either on the injured list or listed day-to-day with one or another ailment.

“Nothing has got in their way,” said Boone after the game. “Whatever has come adversity-wise, they faced it and powered right through it.” As almost usual, Boone deflected most attention toward his players, rather modestly for the first manager to win 100 games in each of his first two seasons on the job.

Nobody else has done that. Not John McGraw. Not Connie Mack. Not Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, or Casey Stengel. Not Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Davey Johnson, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, or Terry Francona. The man who once broke Boston hearts by nailing the 2003 American League pennant with an eleventh-inning home run in the old Yankee Stadium sits alone with those C-notes.

Boone may not be one of the game’s premier tacticians or strategists, but maybe he doesn’t have to be for now. Just sending a Yankee team to the field every day in spite of the ceaseless call of calamity was probably enough for the 46-year-old skipper. That and a few tranquilisers.

There’s no truth to any speculation that Johns Hopkins is negotiating for the rights to present the Yankees as medical school exhibits yet. But don’t be shocked if the talks begin any time soon.

Only the Astros among the American League’s powerhouses had an injury overload anywhere near the one that accompanied the Yankees this year. They were episodes of Bones, House, Private Practise, Grey’s Anatomy, E.R., Chicago Hope, Medical Center, and Marcus Welby, M.D. on any given day of the week. Their bangs, bruises, and batterings got so profound so often that Yankee fans could have been forgiven if they felt compelled to claim the New England Journal of Medicine as this year’s Yankee yearbook.

There may not be a baseball team alive that figured out ways to win 100 regular season games and counting despite putting every New York area emergency room on double red alert. And it didn’t seem like any single Yankee faction becoming so injury prone. The 2019 injury bug did the equal-opportunity Yankee panky.

About the only Yankees on or near the field who didn’t have dates with the doctors were the bat and ball boys and girls. Boone was probably ready more than once a week to decide whether he needed an internist on call—or Frasier.

And when the Yankees closed out the Angels Thursday night they didn’t dare dogpile, chest bump, forearm bump, fist bump, jersey strip, or anything else to which celebrating baseball players take these days when celebrating arduous wins or even divisional clinches. With their luck, five Yankees might have ended up in traction.

“We’re just trying to avoid injuries,” deadpanned second baseman D.J. LaMahieu, whose three-run homer with two out in the bottom of the third began the Thursday night thrashing. All things considered, it’s a wonder making that comment didn’t instigate a case of lockjaw.

“There’s a couple guys that are irreplaceable here,” said catcher Austin Romine in April, little knowing he’d have to step in bigger for Gary Sanchez who just went down with a tight groin and could be gone until the postseason rounds, “but we’ve got to find a way to do it. We’re still winning games. We’ve got guys stepping up left and right.” Careful. With the Yankees’ luck, one of them is liable to twist an ankle on the landing.

Guys stepping up left and right? The Yankees practically led the league in reaching down and finding help on the farm, lots of it, enough to make you wonder—even allowing their seemingly infinite financial resources—why other teams who aren’t as financially strapped as they let you believe can’t figure out as well as the Yankees how to re-tool on the fly without tanking and within in far less extreme circumstances.

That should be good enough to earn longtime general manager Brian Cashman consideration as baseball’s Executive of the Year. Whether he gets it from the game or from the American Medical Association probably doesn’t matter.

They’ve used 53 different players and sent thirty to the injured list this year, the latter being the most for any team since 2004. And they couldn’t even win Thursday night without more medical emergencies preceding it.

Relief pitcher Dellin Betances was barely back from shoulder and lat muscle issues that kept him drydocked until Sunday—when he faced two Blue Jays in the bottom of the fourth and struck them both out . . . then somehow incurred a partial Achilles tendon tear doing the happy dance after the second punchout.  Surgery he won’t need. But his season ended before it began even partially.

And Aaron Judge is being watched day-to-day after Hizzoner landed hard on his right shoulder Wednesday night trying for a diving catch.

The Yankees already had to live a lot of the season without Judge, Betances, Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andjuar, Didi Gregorius, Giancarlo Stanton, Jake Barrett, and Greg Bird. Among others. They’ll have to live the rest of the season and postseason without David Hale, Jonathan Holder, and Mike Tauchman. Possibly among others. Tauchman went from an obscure spring acquisition from the Rockies to a co-household name with Gio Urshela—until he, too, pulled up injured with a likely season-ending calf strain.

They’ve managed to comport themselves like overly seasoned professionals in spite of the still-preponderant youth of the team. (Their average age: 28.) But it wasn’t easy this year. Even the most stoic professional can get frazzled when reporting to work the next day to discover yet another colleague in need of major repairs.

And you’d have to be either ignorant or a pure Yankee hater not to appreciate an irony in this year’s AL East conquest. The last time the Yankees won the division, Hall of Famer in waiting Derek Jeter wrecked his ankle in the twelfth inning of what turned into a sweep out of their 2012 division series by the Tigers. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have even a tiny similar fear of even a hint of similar calamity awaiting them this time.

It may rankle Yankee fans that their heroes have only one 21st Century World Series ring to the rival Red Sox’s four. But they shouldn’t be too hard on the Yankees if they don’t quite make it back to the Promised Land this time around. If baseball’s cliches include that great or even persevering teams become the forgotten men once they don’t reach the Promised Land, these Yankees have a chance to stand it on its own head.

Just pray, while you toast the Yankees’ season long witness to survival of the unfittest, that doing it doesn’t tear another Yankee muscle, fracture another Yankee bone, tear another Yankee Achilles, strain another Yankee lat. Or, send even their uncannily resilient manager to the E.R. If not the psychiatrist’s couch.