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Baseball

A Great Game

                                          

Let me pause for a moment from the current political chaos that confronts our country, and turn to a still existing passion of mine: baseball.  I have always maintained that the results of sporting events, unlike reality television, are unpredictable.  So it was, with the last game of a best out of five series between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays.  Although going into the series of 2020, the Rays had the better record than the Yankees, the latter had suffered the loss of several of their key players during the shortened Covid season due to injuries.  However, in the playoffs to determine who would win the pennant and go on to play in the World Series, New York was at full strength.

This year the Yankee annual payroll was the highest in the major leagues at $113.9 million, with the Dodgers second at $105.5 million.  Tampa Bay’s payroll was the 27th of all 30 teams at $28.6 million.  As the series began, with the exception of perhaps two batters, all of the Yankees were potential home run hitters. They had the look of sluggers emulating their famed past as the Bronx Bombers.  Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton all brought their own package of peril to any opposing pitcher.  When one looked at the smaller size of the Rays’ players, compared to that of the Yankees, one may have concluded this to be a battle between David and Goliath.

Although Tampa Bay did not compare to the Yankee bats, their pitching came close to equaling that of the New York squad.  But all of the Yankee arms were available, such as starter Gerrit Cole and star reliever, Aroldis Chapman, the man whose fastball had been clocked at 100 miles per hour.   Gerrit Cole had signed a 9-year contract with the Yankees that paid him $36 million per year, the highest salary of all players in baseball.

With Gerrit Cole pitching in the opener of the series, the Yanks dominated the Rays, winning 9 to 3.  But after that, Tampa Bay came back to win the next two contests. The Yankees won the fourth game of the series 5 to 1 with Aroldis Chapman, appearing unhittable, swiftly getting the final four outs of the game.  In that meeting, it was 4 to 1 when Chapman entered in the top of the 8th inning.  The New Yorkers added a run to their lead in the bottom of the 8th inning, at which point I wondered whether Yankee manager, Aaron Boone, would send Chapman out to record the final three outs.  Because New York had to win, Boone probably did not want to take any chances so he let Chapman finish the game.

Boone chose Gerrit Cole to pitch the 5th and final game on 4 days of rest, rather than his normal 5-day respite.  From start to finish, this was the most exciting contest of all.  Cole was quite effective inasmuch as he held the Rays to one run, with the score 1 to 1, going into the top of the 6th.  With one out, by far the best hitter for Tampa in the series, Randy Arozarenac came to the plate and walloped Cole’s first pitch that sent left fielder Brett Gardner back to the wall, and with a perfectly timed leap, he speared the ball in the web of his glove for a great catch.   After that play, Cole appeared dazed and disoriented, as if he was asking:  What just happened?  Wisely, Boone immediately took Cole out thanking him for his efforts.

The score remained 1 to 1 when Chapman started the bottom of the 8th  inning.  Arozarenac, the first batter of the inning, fouled off a couple of pitches before grounding out sharply to the shortstop.  I saw this as a good sign for the Rays because the day before the Rays could not touch Chapman.  I wondered if Chapman’s arm would hold out, given the fact that he had thrown about 20 pitches the previous day.  Now Mike Brousseau came up to hit.  Chapman kept hurling fastballs, but Brosseau refused to go down swinging, fouling off a number of pitches, making it a full count.  When a batter fouls off several pitches after he has two strikes on him, the pitcher may become frustrated and exhausted in trying to get the third strike or an out.  In my opinion, the more pitches a batter sees, the more he adjusts to the rhythm of that hurler.  Furthermore, a full count means the pitcher has to throw a strike or a pitch close to the strike zone to avoid walking the batter.  On the 10th pitch Chapman dealt to him, Brousseau solidly connected with a home run.  Perhaps he was tired or frustrated when, subsequently, Chapman declared he gave too much of the plate to Brousseau making it too easy for him to hit. When Diego Castillo held the Yankees in check in the top of the 9th inning, Tampa Bay won the game.

Chapman could not match his stellar performance from the day before.  It was another day and, in baseball, one cannot predict the outcome of a game based on an earlier result.  With all their money, the Yankees once more came up short, losing to a team whose management did not come close to matching their hefty payroll.

Categories
Baseball

Play Ball

 

Baseball and sports are back, along with the coronavirus, for an abbreviated season, for what most, if not all of us, would never have predicted. The fans in the stands are pop-up imitations of real people to allow the players and viewers to retain the imagined sense of people cheering.  However, the appeal of such figures waned after opening day “ceremonies” as management apparently decided the players could focus on the game without needing an “alternative crowd” to feed their egos.    We are currently experiencing a reality almost tantamount to the Twilight Zone created by Rod Serling 60 years ago.

This moment the Red Sox are playing the Yankees and, as one would guess, are losing.   Many of you already may know that I grew up in New Jersey in the ‘50’s suffering from the angst of rooting for the Red Sox.  Stanford, Connecticut, like the Mason-Dixon line, demarcates Yankee fans from Red Sox fans:  Those living both south, and in Stanford, typically side with New York whereas those north of Stanford side with Boston.  Because I came from New Jersey, I was a geographic anomaly. How did I choose this fate?  In the summers at the height of the baseball season, my parents would take my brothers and me to visit our closest relative, our maternal aunt, who lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts with her husband.  During one of those summers in my early childhood, I became a Red Sox fan.

Oddly enough, I never went to Fenway Park growing up, but as I pointed out in an earlier blog, I had the misfortune of seeing Boston perennially lose to New York at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.  When I first came to California in 1978, the Yankees and the Red Sox had a playoff game to decide the winner of the American League Pennant.  The Red Sox, in true style, had managed to blow a 14 and ½ division league lead to the Yankees that had led to this event.  The Red Sox were leading 2 to 0 going into the 7th inning when the weak hitting Bucky Dent hit a 3-run homer off of Mike Torres.  As Bucky Dent began rounding the bases, an abrupt silence hit Fenway Park. The Yankees wound up winning the game and the Pennant 5 to 4, and then went on to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, after trailing by 2 games, in the World Series.

Then, in an almost repeat performance, but this time at Yankee Stadium, in the last game of the playoffs in 2003 to determine the pennant winner, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 5 to 2 going into the 8th inning.  When Pedro Martinez, who had pitched a good game to this point, returned to the mound I could hardly believe my eyes.  At the end of the 7th inning, Pedro had made his familiar hand gesture to the heavens signaling his readiness to leave the game.  Did Grady Little, the Boston manager, know what he was doing?  Well, we now know he didn’t as the Yankees promptly scored 3 runs against Martinez to make it 5 to 5.  In the bottom of the 11th inning, the Yankee current manager, Aaron Boone, hit a home run off of Tim Wakefield ending the game much to the New York fans’ jubilation.

As 2004 rolled around, I gave a friend who was going to Las Vegas, $200 to bet on the Bosox to win the World Series.  He came back with my ticket stub that yielded odds of 2 ½ to 1 meaning my $200 bet would only pay $500 if the Sox won. The lousy odds reflected the fact that at the time I made the bet the Red Sox were actually favorites.  This was because many believed that Boston was in the process of trading Nomar Garciaparra for the star shortstop, Alex Rodriguez. We all know what happened:  The deal never happened allowing the Yankees to acquire Rodriquez, who replaced Aaron Boone at third base, when the latter injured himself playing pick-up basketball.

Talking about trades, Theo Epstein, boy genius and general manager of the Red Sox, initiated one of the most unlikely and unpredictable swaps in modern baseball history by exchanging Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera, shortstop, and Doug Mientkiewicz, first baseman.  In a side trade, Epstein got the aging, but speedy, Dave Roberts (now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers) for a minor leaguer.  Basically, the Red Sox were giving up, Garciaparra, a household name in Boston for unknown players.  But there was method in the madness.  Beyond the fact that Nomar had not been having a particularly good season, and not playing regularly, he was asking for more time off to perhaps go on the disabled list.  Although this incensed the Red Sox management, the owners along with Epstein were rightly concerned about how the fan base would react.  An article in the Boston Globe had headlined the following:   Young Fans Take Trade of Garciparra Hard.  Despite being widely criticized at the time, Epstein’s deal worked magnificently well for the Red Sox throughout both the end of the season and post-season play.

By far, the greatest series I had ever witnessed was the 2004 playoffs between the Sox and the Yanks to determine the winner of the American League Pennant.  The memory of that series forever will remain etched in my mind.  On Saturday, with the Red Sox already having lost the first two games of the series, I decided to keep the ticket my cousin, a USC grad, had given me to see a USC football game, rather than watch the 3rd game of the series.  I made a wise choice inasmuch as the Yankees pulverized the Red Sox in a slugfest 19 to 8.

In the history of baseball, no team had ever come back from a World Series or a Pennant playoff behind 3 to 0.  But, like most fans, I refused to rule out the possibility of a huge upset.   I decided to do a bit of research, and I googled the results of all 3 to 0 World Series that had occurred in the past.  I uncovered some fascinating data:  In most cases, the 4th game was won by the team leading making it a blow out series.  However, when the 4th game was won by the team behind, the 5th game was almost invariably won by the other side rendering the final score 4 to 1 in games.  Proportionally, there were very few teams that survived the 5th game that necessitated a 6th game meeting.  Now the most interesting fact:  There never had been a team, trailing 3 to 0 in a World Series contest, that won the 6th game.

After Kurt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Bronson Arroyo had lost the first three games of the series, Derek Lowe remained the only starting pitcher Boston had left in their lineup.  Because Lowe had never pitched well against the Bronx Bombers, many Red Sox fans had tossed in the towel deciding not to attend the 4th game at Fenway.  But surprisingly, Lowe held the Yankee bats in check.  Perhaps the most important play of the series came in the bottom half of the 9th inning, when with the Sox down 4 to 3, Davey Roberts came in and stole second base off of pitcher Mario Rivera.  David Ortiz, nicknamed Big Papi, won both that game and the next in extra innings with a home run and a single.  Big Papi, suddenly, had become one of the greatest clutch hitters Boston ever had.

When the contest resumed in New York, I was more sanguine that a comeback could happen due to how improbable it was for a club to win two consecutive times after falling behind 3 to 0. The next game added to my excitement and hopes when Kurt Schilling, showing his true grit in throwing with a bloody red sock, outpitched the Yankee starter resulting in a 3rd consecutive Red Sox victory.  My awareness that no team in the history of baseball had ever won three games in a row, after trailing by three in a best of seven series, made me believe that the Karma was at last favoring the Sox.  The 7th game never was close as the Sox took a 6 to 0 at the top of the 2nd without ever relinquishing their lead.

Insofar as the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games, the World Series was anticlimactic.  However, in addition to rewarding me with $500 for betting on them, it marked the first time the Red Sox had won a World Series after 1918 when they had traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  By defeating their New York nemesis, the Red Sox had finally reversed the curse of the Babe.

As I conclude this blog, I notice the Yanks have beaten the Red Sox 5 to 1 in the season opener between the two squads.  New York appears to have a top club this year, 2020, the year of the coronavirus.  But because 2004 proved how unpredictable and exciting an outcome in baseball is, I will never lose hope.