"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: April 2004

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Doggin It

The last hot dog I ate was at Shea Stadium during a heat wave last summer. It was the night Dontrelle Willis made his New York debut, and I won’t forget watching Willis pitch any time soon. Unfortunately, I’ll best remember that night for what happened to me after I ate the hot dog. I won’t go into sordid details, but needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. I won’t be able to stay off dogs forever, cause every so often I really get a craving for one. However, I’ll probably enjoy the next one I eat in the comforts of my own home.

Even though baseball season has started, I hadn’t thought about hot dogs until I read R.W. Apple Jr’s long piece about Chicago cuisine yesterday in the Food section of the New York Times. Man, I just love the way they pile on the fixings out in Chi-town. The article covers a lot more than just dogs, but it seems as if food in the windy city is just plain bad for your health, and completely delicious at the same time. Can anyone give me a first-hand report of what eating a hot dog in Chicago is like? How are the dogs at Wrigley? Are they served Chicago-style as well?

Toast of the Town

I asked my good pal Rich Lederer who he thinks was a better team: The 1986 Mets or the 1998 Yankees. Since Rich is a California native, so I thought he’d have a measured take on the whole issue. Here is an e-mail I received from him this morning:

1. The Yankees won 114 games in 1998, the Mets won 108 games in 1986.

Edge: Yankees.

2. The Yankees won their division by 22 games, the Mets by 21 1/2 games.

Edge: Yankees.

3. The Yankees swept the the Rangers in the ALDS 3-0, beat the Indians in the ALCS 4-2, and swept the Padres in the World Series 4-0. The Mets beat the Astros 4-2 in the NLCS and the Red Sox 4-3 in the NLCS.

Edge: Yankees.

4. The Yankees outscored their opponents during the season by 310 runs, whereas the Mets outscored their opponents by 205 runs. Another way of looking at it is to say that the Yankees scored 1.47 runs for every run allowed. By comparison, the Mets scored 1.35 runs for every run allowed.

Edge: Yankees.

5. The Yankees scored runs at a rate of 1.19x the league average and allowed runs at .81x the league average. The Mets scored runs at a rate of 1.16x the league averages and allowed runs at .86x the league average.

Edge: Yankees.

6. The argument against the Yankees based on such league comparisons is that they benefited from the expansion in the A.L. that year. 1998 was the inaugural year for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team that finished in last place with the worse record in the league (63-99). The Yankees beat the Devil Rays, 11 games to one in their season series. Backing out the Yankees’ record against Tampa Bay produces a won-loss record of 103-47 and a winning percentage of .687. By comparison, the Mets had a winning percentage of .667 in 1986.

Edge: Yankees.
As such, no matter how you slice or dice it, the Yankees’ superiority in 1998 exceeded the Mets’ superiority in 1986.

A clean sweep for the Yankees, according to Lederer. Can anyone punch any holes into his findings?

Yankees 5, Devil Rays 1

You think the D Rays are getting tired of seeing Kevin Brown? Although he wasn’t especially sharp, walking four batters, Brown was helped out by three double plays, and allowed just one run over seven innings (again). It was the 200th victory of Brown’s career and the third time he’s faced and defeated Tampa so far this season. The Yankees became the first team to have pitchers win their 200th career game in back-to-back contests. Jason Giambi jacked a three-run blast in the first. Later, Gary Sheffield added an RBI double and Jorge Posada hit a solo homer.

Today gives a day off; the Yanks begin a four-game series against the Red Sox in Boston tomorrow night. Gentlemen, start your keyboards…let the hyping begin. Alex Rodriguez will be the center of attention. There are already several pieces on him in the papers today. Here’s what erstwhile Yankee bench coach, Popeye Zimmer thinks:

“A-Rod has probably been booed very few times in his life,” said Zimmer, a veteran of each side in the bitter rivalry. “But I am sure he will be booed in Boston for two reasons. One, he is a Yankee, and the other is he was going to be a Red Sox and didn’t.”

I think Rodriguez knows what it is like to be booed. The 2001 season wasn’t exactly picnic for him, and I’m sure they still don’t love him in Seattle.

Braggin Rights

Former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman has new book about the 1986 Mets titled “The Bad Guys Won” due out this spring. I was 15 years old in 1986 and remember absolutely hating that Mets team. After all, they were arrogant, volatile and exciting, and I was a loyal Yankee fan. The Bombers had good players, but they weren’t necessarily a compelling team. The Mets were the story in New York during the mid-eighties and were far more popular than the Yanks; remember, all of the current fair-weather Yankee fans were fair-weather Mets fans back then. Truth is, I lost many a school yard chop session defending the Bombers.

I recall rooting for the Cardinals a lot (Willie McGee was one of my favorite players), and I even committed the ultimate Yankee sin and pulled for the Red Sox in the World Serious. (Lot of good that did me, but hey, I didn’t have to go to school with any Red Sox fans.)
Jeremy Heit ran a fine interview with Pearlman earlier this week (and here is another good one–conducted by Joe McDonald).

Here is one bit that struck me:

Pearlman: I’ve been saying for several years now that the ’86 Mets were a much more complete team that the current Yankee dynasty. Their starting pitching was so deep, and they were very well balanced all the way around. I think they’d really give a lot of teams trouble at the top of the lineup. With the exception of the Marlins, who today has three guys like Dykstra, Backman and Mookie-guys who can get on and really mess with a pitcher’s head.

What hurts the Mets, dynasty-wise, is that they only really lasted one year. So it’s a poor comparison to, say, the Big Red Machine or the A’s of the 70s. But for one season, one game, you’ve gotta like that ’86 team.

Pearlman doesn’t specify any one year of the current Yankee dynasty, but it got me to thinking: Were the 1986 Mets better than the 1998 Yankees? I asked Rob Neyer, who wrote “Baseball Dynasties,” an extremely entertaining book, with Eddie Epstein. Neyer responded:

We (mostly) ranked teams based on what they did over three-year periods, which hurts the Mets because they didnít even win their division in í87 (though they did play well). But if we just look at one year, the Mets do have a case. Not a great case, maybe, but a case. If you look on page 377 of “Baseball Dynasties,” youíll see the Mets are No. 7 on the one-year SD Score list. And they should actually be No. 6, because we got the Giants wrong. Only two post-1927 teams are ahead of the Mets: the í84 Tigers and the í98 Yankees.

The Tigers are just *barely* ahead of the Mets, and in retrospect (look at what they did in í83 and í85) itís pretty clear the Tigers were playing well over their heads in í84.

The Yankees are No. 1, but do we have to discount them just a bit because it was an expansion? Iím not saying Pearlmanís right. But his claim is not absurd.

I’ve got to spend some time mulling this one over. On the one hand, the ’86 Mets were a powerhouse. They sure weren’t dull. But they almost didn’t make the World Serious and then of course, they came one out–no, one strike–from losing it all, before Boston let it slip away. Aside from trailing the Indians in the ALCS 2-1, the ’98 Bombers were never really in a tight spot.

Hmmmm. What do you think? I’m curious to get some reactions to this debate. Food for thought on a rainy spring day in New York.

Meet the Mets

The Mets won their home opener yesterday, beating the Braves 10-6. The affable Mike Cameron made a terrific impression on fans and newspaper men alike. Harvey Araton pines for the days of the “You Gotta Believe” Mets during these dark days when the Yankees rule the town.

The Mets can’t compete with baseball’s money machine, but beyond six summer days, they don’t really have to. What they do have is an opportunity to create a very different kind of baseball summer in New York. If they can be competitive, make a run at a wild card or more, then they can pump some fresh air into an atmosphere that has become the stormy, stodgy domain of the blowhard in the Bronx.

Along with George Vecsey and Mike Lupica, Araton often takes shots at the big, bad Bombers. Come August, I wonder what Araton’s going to write about the Shea-Hey Mets? We know what he’ll be saying about the Yanks.

Off the Top

Just some quick thoughts here:

–Just how aesthetically appealing is the idea of watching G. Anderson and my man, Vlad Guerrero hit back-to-back? Anderson’s swing is smooth like butter, while Vlad looks like he’s trying to chop down a redwood with each hack. I love the contrast. Angel fans will love the results.

–I caught the highlight of Albert Pujols’ home run off of Randy Johnson yesterday. How many guys can catch up to a fastball that high over the plate? It reminded me of a couple of the shots George Brett hit off Goose Gossage back in the day.

–I saw Cliff Floyd strain his right quad running to first base yesterday. What a shame. The guy can’t seem to stay healthy. My girlfriend Emily likes his name but says it has too many “f’s” in it. She pronounces it, “Cli’ Fffloyd.” And how about Piazza getting run over at first base? That was fugly.

–My man Richie Allen chimes in from the other side of the Atlantic with an interesting look at the troubled, but talented slugger, Dick Allen. Stop by and give it a look.

–Former Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte was placed on the 15-day DL on Saturday. Accoring to Lee Sinins:

Pettitte suffered a strained left elbow while checking his swing in his Astros debut. There had been rumors that the Yankees were concerned about his elbow. Pettitte seems to deny that the Yankees were concerned, stating that “They offered me $40 million over three years. If they thought I had that bad of an elbow, why would they offer me that?” On the other hand, Pettitte claimed he received multiple offers and the Yankees were by far the lowest. So, if he is to be believed, what would appear to be a big offer would in fact be a lowball one.

William Rhoden had a nice piece on Barry Bonds and his godfather, the King of Cool, Willie Mays on Saturday. Worth a peek.

Rich Lederer takes a close look at Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame chances this week at Rich’s Weekend Baseball BEAT. Rolen may not be Mike Schmidt, but he’s no slouch either.

–Not for nothing, but it’s painful to see Hideki Matsui batting in front of Jorge Posada. It’s tough seeing him hit any higher than seventh in the order for that matter.

Day off for the Yanks today, then two games at the stadium vs. the Rays in the middle of the week. Tampa will face Kevin Brown for the third time this season. Then it is on to Boston. I wonder if Rodriguez will break out of his early season slump then?

Yankees 5, White Sox 4

It was a chilly, overcast Easter Sunday in New York. I was at my mom’s for the holiday, and when I turned the game on, the White Sox had just scored their third run of the first inning. It’s going to be another long day, I shrugged. But Mike Mussina settled down, allowing just one more run after the first, and he pitched well enough to finally earn his 200th career victory. He wasn’t brilliant, but yesterday’s performance was an improvement over his first two starts.

The Yankee offense showed some signs of life as Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield each collected two hits, but the story of the day was rookie Bubba Crosby who made a pair of nice “Pete Reiser” catches at the wall in center (thank goodness for the padding, huh?), and hit a big three-run homer. The home run knocked off the facade of the upper deck in right field, and Crosby knew it was gone once it left the bat. He even held his right arm out, frozen for just a moment, after he swung, to style the homer properly.

A folk hero is born in the Bronx. Kenny Lofton has to deal with this? Good luck, Kenny. Crosby may find himself on the Columbus Express this summer, but he’s already got a following at the Stadium and in the press.

It was good to see Sheffield get a couple of hits. He doubled home the winning run. He also smacked a single to center that was hit so hard that the center fielder had to make a diving stop as if he were an infielder. Yikes.

The Red Sox won in extra innings yesterday on David Ortiz’s solo blast over the Green Monster. Curt Schilling made his Fenway Park debut as a Red Sox. Boston played several exciting games last week, picking up where the 2003 team left off.

The drama continues this coming weekend when the Yankees play four in Boston. I talk about the rivalry again this week over at The Hardball Times with Ben Jacobs, filling in for Larry Mahnken, who will return next week just in time for all the juicy stuff.

White Sox 7, Yanks 3

Welp, it looks like it’s getting worse before it’s getting better for the Bronx Bombers. The Yanks took another one on the chin yesterday on a beautiful afternoon at the Stadium. How do you know when your team is really out-of-whack? Let’s look at Hideki Matsui again. In the 7th, Matsui took a weak hack a pitch that rolled foul up the first base line. The ball was on the right-hand side of the base line, so Matsui didn’t think to run. But the ball kept spinning, and then it inexplicably hopped back into the field of play. It was a freak play and it all happened quickly, yet in slow-motion. By the time the pitcher fielded the ball, Matsui was making a mad dash for first. It was too late though, and Godziller looked foolish for the second game in a row. Dem’s da breaks when things ain’t going your way.

The weatherman says it’s going to rain this afternoon, so I don’t know if they’ll get the game in. If they do, it would be nice to see the Yankee offense do a little something for us on Easter Sunday. Equally as important though, I hope Mike Mussina can put together a good outing. I’ve been thinking back on his 2002 season, when he was in a funk for a prolonged period of time. We shall see if his first two starts are a omen of things to come, or just a couple of early-season he-coughs.

Oh, and I guess Pedro bounced back just fine, huh?

Sprung

After waiting all this time, it’s finally here: spring in New York. Just this week, the buds started popping up on trees all over the city. This morning, I jumped on the train and headed down to Union Square to the farmer’s market. At about 9:00 a.m. I was walking on the sunny side of 14th street (the south side) to the market and I’ve got it tell you, it felt to be great to be alive and living in New York. Each spring, I’m reminded about how much I love this town.

The farmer’s market is a treat. It’s too early for lots of produce yet, and the stands are still dominated by rooted vegetables, and potatoes and apples. I’m going up to my mom’s for Easter tomorrow, so I thought I would stop by and get her a little something, something.

Like many Belgians, my mom is a terrific cook. Don’t know why they are so good in the kitchen, but it’s true. My mom is a foodie without an ounce of pretension. She lives up in the suburbs so she doesn’t have access to some of the froo-froo items you can get in the city.

She happens to love fingerling potatoes, small, stubby little guys that look like links of sausage, or cigar butts, or thick fingers. Trouble is she can never find them up where she is. So I find a stand at the market that features five different kinds of fingerling’s. Who knew? So I got her a sampler: French fingerling, Austiran Crescent, Rose Finn, Russian Banana, and of course, the Purple Peruvian.

Not only that, but I found some ramps too, which is the ultimate sign of spring. Ramps look vaguely like scallions, but they are younger, smaller, and more pungent. Actually, ramps are a curious combination of the garlic and onion families. It can be used as a substitute for either, and it gives off a special flavor.

My aunt Biece is a bonafide foodie and for years she told me about ramps. The catch with ramps is that they aren’t around long. It all depends on the weather, but the colder it is, the longer they hang around. Still, it won’t be much longer than three weeks a year. After Biece hipped me to them, I think I missed them for two or three straight seasons, either because I didn’t get to the market in time, or because the weather effected the crop. When I finally had them, I have to admit I was let down. They aren’t all that, but they are a nice variation.

Turns out, this is the first week they are around. Since I was at the market early, there were still plenty to choose from. How could I pass up this opportunity? Running into fresh ramps unexpectedly like this. Heck, I know that mom will get a kick out of em.

The ramps are out and baseball is back in the city too. How is this for a spring welcome? Joe Torre received a contract extension for life yesterday, signing a three-year, $19.2 million contract. After that, he’ll make a half a million a year as a advisor. Ten years ago, who ever thought that we would be able to take such news with a straight face? And maybe Torre won’t serve the duration of the contract, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did either. I certainly feel more confident about Torre sticking around than I ever with any manager under George.

The Torre deal was announced on Friday afternoon before the game against the White Sox. In all, it turned out to be a forgettable day on the field for the Yankees as they got pounded by Chicago, 9-3. And it’s not only that they lost, but they looked badly doing it. You know you are going to have a long day when you team draws four walks in an inning but can’t score a run. Hideki Matsui and John Flaherty had particularly embarassing games. But no matter how disapointing the game was, it doesn’t take away from how pleased Yankee fans must feel that Joe Torre has got the keys to the executive warshroom and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Actually, the game was entertaining for several reasons. First of all, before it was over, came news that the Blue Jays had won their first game of the year, 10-5 over the Red Sox, at the home opener at Fenway. I’m not nuts enough to be overly concerned with the standings in April, but I can say that any day the Red Sox lose is a that much better of a day for me, especially if the Yanks happen to lose as well.

Next, the game was curious because it started at 4:00 in the afternoon. How often do you see a late afternoon game on a Friday? Plus, the light at this time of the year is specific, that it casts its own personality on the game. The light in the spring is much whiter, brighter, and cooler than the kind of light we’ll see in August or September, which is much warmer, and more yellow.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed watching how the light was a major character in the proceedings. I think New Yorkers are especially sensitive to light because it is often rationed out in such small, specific doses. I guess that would hold true for anybody who lives in a city, but it is especially intense in New York. In between buildings, for a certain amount of time, light in New York is fleeting, especially during the winter months. You got to catch it when you can. It’s not like living in Los Angeles, where the light and space washes over everything. You can’t get away from it out there. In New York, you have to hunt around for it.

The sharp–even harsh–spring light really makes the blue of the stadium stand out. The grass isn’t lush yet, but it’s a damn sight greener than anything we’ve seen in months, so who is complaining? Watching on TV, you can almost feel the chill in the air just looking at the images. For me, it was just another friendly reminder that spring is finally here. And if I haven’t already told you, spring is my most favoritest season of the year.

Jose Contreras has wonderfully dark skin and looked imposing and cool in the brilliant sun. He hass thick, puffy features, and the navy blue mock-neck shirt that he wore under the pinstriped uniform made him look sharp. As the game started, a ring of shadows, a crescent moon of sorts, covered the area behind home plate and the stands behind the plate moving toward first base side.

By the second inning, the umpire and then the batter’s were in the dark. Slowly, the ring crept towards the mound, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching how the moving light progressively altered the playing field and the stands. In the spring, everything can feel new, so watching concentrating on something like the light in a late afternoon game–something the average baseball fan experiences plenty of times each year–feels like it’s the first time I ever noticed such a thing.
The weather brought a mix of sun and clouds. The batter’s were at a distinct disadvantage for the first four innings, and both pitchers benefitted accordingly. By the fourth, the entire area from the pitcher’s mound to home plate was in the shadows. The pitcher’s stood shinning in the sun, while the batter’s were muted in the shade. But even after the hitter’s were covered speaks and flashes of light refelected on their helemets and faces and shoulders.

When Sheffield came up for the first time, he looked the Prince of freakin Darkness in the shadows, glimpses of light splashing off him (he ripped a double into the left field corner). After the shadows had moved safely behind the mound, it was the fielder’s who were at a disadvantage. And even the base runners too. In the third, Hideki Matsui was standing in the sun off of second base. The infield dirt around him was a deep orange, and it looked like a great place to be. Chicago starter Jon Garland–effectively wild for the most part–had walked the first two men of the inning and Matsui got to be in the sun. Perhaps he couldn’t see the catcher too well, because before you know it, the ball came screaming into second, and Matsui was easily tagged out.

(There is a hilarious photograph of Matsui sliding back to second in the Daily News today. Matsui has his hands stretched out ahead of him, making like a super hero flying. His body is flat on the ground except his feet. His head is down in the dirt, and as the announcers mention, he probably wants to bury it even further into the earth. The slide looks good, the form looks perfect. The only problem is that he is a foot-and-a-half away from the bag.)

Contreras labored from the begining. In the fifth, the Magglio Ordonez tagged him for a three-run homer. He hit a ball, low and inside, and really glicked it. It was somewhere between a line drive and a high fly ball. Actually it had the speed and arc of a golf ball being smacked from the driving range. It got into the seats but fast.

Felix Heredia wasn’t much better and the defense was even worse, as the White Sox scored all of their runs–four in the fifth, five in the sixth—in two innings. By the sixth, the only part of the field that was still in the light was center. Looking in, it was clear that the outfielders couldn’t see the ball coming off the bat. Bernie Williams looked like a deer caught in the headlights on several fly balls.

The one bright spot of the day came when Bubba Crosby hit his first major league home run. A fan favorite grows in the Bronx. But the Yankee offense is still tight. Who knows how long they will continue to struggle. The good news is that they can explode at any moment. Let’s hope it happens over the weekend.

Cooperstown Confidentail

By Bruce Markusen

April 8, 2004

Regular Season Edition

A Home Run For The Ages

Three decades ago this month, the major league baseball season opened with the exalted Babe Ruth still the all-time home run champion

Yankees 3, White Sox 1

Javier Vasquez pitched with poise and confidence yesterday and handled the explosive White Sox offense, allowing one run and three hits in eight innings of work. I was able to catch most of the game on Yankee Rewind last night, and it was a pleasure watching Vasquez pitch. Unlike the dearly-departed Jeff Weaver–who pitched well in his Dodger debut–and the hulking Jose Contreras, Vasquez displays a classic, compact pitching form. It looks as if he uses his entire body, especially his legs. After the game, the new Yankee received raves from his peers. According to the Times:

After watching Vazquez for the first time at Yankee Stadium, Mussina is a believer.

“He threw whatever pitch he wanted whenever he wanted to,” Mussina said. “He looked like he was in control. He was in control of himself physically; he was in control of his emotions. He looked comfortable. He looked like he had been out there the whole season.”

…[White Sox catcher, Sandy] Alomar explained that Vazquez throws his fastball at 92 or 93 miles an hour, not exceedingly fast. But his curveball, Alomar added, makes the fastball seem faster. “It looks like he’s throwing it 150 miles an hour,” Alomar said.

“He throws the breaking ball for strikes,” Alomar said. “You don’t know where it’s going to land. He changes speeds with the breaking ball. He throws it hard. He throws it at you. He knows how to set you up. He is a very smart pitcher. He would have beat everybody in the major leagues today. Nobody would have beat him today with the stuff he had. We have a good offensive team, but he was on today.”

The Yankee offense hasn’t found its groove yet; hitting coach, Don Mattingly thinks that his guys are pressing. It’s been great to see Mattingly in the dugout so far. For longtime Yankee fans, it’s comforting to see him along with Willie Randolph–now in Popeye Zimmer’s seat next to Torre–Roy White and Mel Stotlemyre on the bench. White has a gaunt face, with puffy eyes. I was trying to think who he looks like, and the closes thing I can come up with is E.T.

At one point during the game, Mattingly was on the bench talking with Giambi. I can’t exactly explain why, but the image got me all soft and fuzzy. I didn’t have a Steinbrenner moment, but it was a cool sight all the same. You know what I love about baseball? Players and coaches sit cross-legged on the bench. Often they have their arm behind the guy next to them, as they sit on their side, deep in conversation. When was the last time you saw a basketball or football player sitting cross-legged? For me, it’s another example of how baseball players are like regular guys. That doesn’t mean they are refined. One look at the dugout floor is enough to put you off your bread and jam for a week. But it suggest a kind of ease and comfort with each other that is appealing.

Oh, here’s something that should enrage Derek Jeter’s many critics. The shortstop was charged with an error in the second inning when he couldn’t field a hard-hit ball by Joe Crede (who made three fine plays at third base himself). Joe Torre lobbied to have the call reversed after the game, and the official scorer, Bill Shannon, complied. To be fair, it was a tough error, but it seems cheesy to have it over-turned. But I understand what Torre was doing. He understands that Jeter is going to take a lot of flack this year for his fielding, and he is trying his best to protect his guy.

Down in Baltimore, the Orioles walked on by the Sox in thirteen innings, and in Atlanta, the Braves beat the Mets for the second consecutive night. The hot-hitting Mike Piazza did collect two more hits, however.

Home Opener

I won’t be able to catch the game this afternoon. Can you imagine: I’ve got to work. Ugh and oy. But for those of you who will be watching it, please feel free to leave updates and observations in the comments section below. I would appreciate it. I’m especially interested in how our man Vasquez performs. Go Yanks.

Yanks 3, Devil Rays 2

It wasn’t pretty, or especially impressive, but it was a win. The Yankee offense hasn’t started rolling yet, though Jason Giambi is looking a heck of a lot better than he did at this time last year. Kevin Brown was excellent again, and has been as good as Mike Mussina has been bad. Mariano Rivera allowed three hits and a run in the ninth, but escaped disaster when Brook Fordyce bounced into a double play to end the game. Previously, Alex Rodriguez allowed Eduardo Perez’s shot down the third base line to skip under his glove. According to the Times:

Rodriguez dived to his right but could not stop the ball. “That’s a play I need to make, and I’m not making it,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez did turn the game-ended double play however. Gary Sheffield and Say Hey! Bernie “Snow Cone” Williams made nice plays in the outfield during the sixth inning.

The Yankees will play their home opener this afternoon against the White Sox. Magglio Ordonez and Frank “17-pitch at-bat” Thomas bring the lumber into the Bronx for a four-game series. (Thanks to “Clutch Hits” for the Thomas link.)

Meanwhile, Roger Clemens pitched well in his first start as an Astro. After intentionally walking Barry Bonds, Clemens struck out the greatest player on earth in the next two at bats. Bonds was called out both times, and both calls—particularly the first one—were questionable.

I actually enjoyed watching Clemens pitch. It’s nice being able to see him without being invested in the outcome. Of course, before he came to the Yankees, I loathed the guy. But now, I don’t have any hard feelings toward him. Curiously, I’ll root for the Rocket more this year than I will for Pettitte. Those who read Bronx Banter throughout the 2003 season know that Pettitte was one of the few Yankees than I liked less and less as time passed. Early in his career, Pettitte was a favorite. He was a home-grown player and his game 5 performance in the 1996 World Serious went a long way, right? But all of that good faith had dried up by last season. He was a good pitcher, but not the ace I had expected him to be. Perhaps that is unfair of me, but for all his success, Pettitte was maddeningly inconsistent, and I just never liked watching him pitch.

Furthermore, I’m still put off by the fact that he chose the Astros over the Yankees, no matter how valid his reasons were. Look, if he does well, that’s great, but I won’t be shedding any tears if he has a terrible season. And to be honest, I’m rooting for him to be mediocre. I may change my mind, but for now, that’s how I feel.

The Red Sox rolled over the O’s, and the Mets couldn’t hold a big lead, and got bombed by the Braves. At least Mike Piazza is blazing hot, going 5-5, with two homers. The second shot was the longest in the history of Turner Field.

Opening Day Redux: D-Rays Cream Mussina, Yanks

Devil Rays 9, Yanks 4

Staked to a four-run, first-inning lead, things were looking good for Mike Mussina and the Bombers. But the Yankee ace was off his game again. When he was ahead of hitters, he couldn’t put them away; but often, he fell behind them, unable to locate a tepid fastball, and his breaking pitches. Mussina lasted four innings, and allowed six runs on nine hits. He walked two and struck out one. After the game, he told reporters:

“Nobody’s more upset about the way I’m pitching than I am,” said Mussina, who unraveled again in the Yankees’ 9-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday night. “I know it’s early. I know it’s only two games and all that. But I don’t pitch like this. It’s upsetting.”

Mussina has not lost the first two decisions of the season since his rookie year. How likely is it that he would pitch so poorly in two consecutive games? Not very. I expect he’ll bounce back shortly. The bullpen wasn’t especially sharp either, though Jorge De Paula was decent.

The top of the first inning felt like a blueprint for how this Yankee offense will operate when they are on their game this season. Kenny Lofton lead off and flew out on a full-count pitch. Victor Zambrano walked Jeter, and then Alex Rodriguez pounded an outside fastball over the right field fence to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Next, Giambi worked the count full, fouled off an outside fastball and then walked. Gary Sheffield swatted the first pitch he saw–a fastball eye-high over the plate–into the right-center field stands, and the Yankees were quickly up, 4-zip.

I let out a yell when Sheffield hit his homer. It was a real “Hasan-Chop!” hack. It looked as if the Yankees were going to blow the game open in the bottom of the second. With two out, Jeter and Rodriguez walked and then Giambi just got under one and flew out to the wall. I yelled again, but my “home-run-call” timing was rusty; I snapped my fingers–”drat”–and sat back down.

The Yankees would only collect two more hits after the first inning (Bernie, Giambi), and overall it was a frustrating evening. The worst swings of the night came from Enrique Wilson, who was doing his best Ruben Sierra impression, swining from his heels (ironically, Sierra pinch-hit for Wilson and did his best Wilson impression and went down swinging on a swing that produced a mighty wind). Zambrano walked a career-high seven, in five innings of work, but the Yankees were unable to capitalize.

The one thing that did impress me was Rodriguez’s arm at third. He pegs the ball over to first with power and accuracy. I can’t remember the last Yankee third baseman who had that strong of an arm. Can you?

Elsewhere, Andy Pettitte was not effective in his Astro debut, and Houston fell to the Giants for the second straight night. As I expected, Curt Schilling pitched well in his first start as a Red Sox, and Boston won their first game of the year (Manager Terry Francona spoke with Pedro Martinez, and the first non-story of the year appears to be resolved). And in Atlanta, Kaz Matsui smacked the first pitch of his major league career over the wall in straight-away center for a dinger. He had a perfect night, going 3-3 with two walks as Tom Glavine and the Mets beat the Braves. Mike Piazza also homered and it was a good night for Met fans.

The Bombers are Back

According to the New York Times, the Yankees may be interested in signing Aaron Boone to play second base. Tyler Kepner reports:

General Manager Brian Cashman expressed interest to Boone’s agent, Adam Katz, when Katz called last week. Cashman said his interest in Boone is primarily for next season, and that if the Yankees signed him, it would be to a two-year deal.

“It’s nothing extensive at this point, but just a recognition that he’s going to be back,” Cashman said. “I don’t know if he’s going to be back this year. Any thoughts I would have are more toward next year.”

Meanwhile, the Yankee season resumes tonight in Tampa Bay. Opening Day starters, Mike Mussina and Carlos Zambrano will face off again, and Bernie Williams returns to the Yankee line up as the DH (yay!).

I can’t wait to watch the game.

Trouble in Mind

There is a long, but wonderfully entertaining interview with historian Glenn Stout over at RedSoxNation.net (kudos to the guys at Red Sox Nation, they did a terrific job). I like Stout because he’s a good writer, and a straight-shooter. For starters, he isn’t one of the dreamers pining for a Cubs-Sox World Serious this year:

GS: I think a Cubs/Sox World Series would be over-hyped to the point it would almost be unendurable — definitely a Series to watch only with the sound off and with the newspapers left piling up in the driveway. But I donít think losing to the Cubs would be worse than what happened last year — letís face it, the ALCS was the World Series last year, the Red Sox and Yankees were the two best teams in baseball and that series was one of the most compelling in the history of the game.

Further, here is Stout’s take on the current Red Sox team:

RSN: The 1967 “Impossible Dream” team was as beloved and storybook as any in team history. How do they compare to the 2003 squad in terms of team chemistry and the adoration of the fans?

GS: I donít think the 2003 team compares at all, really. I think much of the vaunted “chemistry” was marketing BS, the result of a protective press and the clubís ability to keep problems below the radar. 1967 was real and genuine and happened all on its own. 1967 will never be forgotten; 2003 will just be another year in the larger view, albeit a painful one.

RSN: What is your opinion of the 2003 Red Sox?

GS: Personally, I never bought into last yearsí team. I never saw they were all that different from dozens of Sox clubsí over much of the last century — they were a slow, poor defensive team built around hitting and self-obsessed stars with not enough pitching. I didnít see anything new in any of that.

On that note, the Red Sox are making headlines today for all the wrong reasons. Evidentally, Pedro Martinez left the ballpark in the middle of the game on Sunday night. Dan Shaughnessy asks: “Why does this stuff always happen with the Red Sox? Why can’t it just be about the baseball? Even for one day.” Does new manager Terry Francona really have a situation on his hands? Nick Cafardo reports in the Globe:

Now the public is waiting to see how Francona handles this, just as it waited to see how Grady Little handled Manny Ramirez’s situation last season. A couple of Sox players were also interested in how their new manager would handle the situation, one indicating, “I don’t think it’s a big deal, but right off the bat Terry has to handle a situation. I know he’ll handle it and be fair because that’s the way he’s been so far.”

Sox fans should feel better by tonight, when Curt Schilling makes his first start for the old towne team.

Oh yeah, it didn’t take Barry Bonds long to pick up where he left off last season, huh?

O’s Thump Bosox in Opener

The Red Sox lost a poorly-played season opener to the Orioles in Baltimore last night. Migeul Tejada, Javey Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro all played well in their Baltimore debuts (for Palmeiro, it is a redebut of sorts). Pedro Martinez wasn’t sharp in the second inning, and although he managed to escape major trouble, it was enough to do Boston in. What hurt more were all the scoring opportunities the Red Sox wasted. Considering how good their offense is, that is not likely to happen often.

I sat in for Larry Mahnken this morning in the weekly column he writes with Ben Jacobs about the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry over at The Hardball Times. Ben put it well when he said the loss was more annoying than anything else. Ed Cossette isn’t too bothered either.

I didn’t watch all of the game, but I did enjoy seeing hairy Johnny Damon. He’s really too much, this guy. Talk about a guy who is going above and beyond to cultivate an image as the anti-Yankee; it’s good to see that the spirit of Bill Lee is still alive and well in Boston. My favorite play of the game came when Miguel Tejada flew out to deep center to end the second inning. Damon, running towards the track, recorded the out, and then jumped at the fence like he was taking a lay up, and dropped the ball in a fan’s lap.

BRONX BANTER INTERVIEW: BILL JAMES

Opening Day Special

Play Ball

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Bill James, the world’s most famous sabermetrician. James is a wonderful writer who is currently employed as a special advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His latest book, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,” written with Rob Neyer is due out later this spring. I thought our discussion would make ideal banter on the first full day of the season. Hope you enjoy.

Bronx Banter: Where did you grow up and when did you become a baseball fan?

Bill James: I grew up in Mayetta, Kansas, a town of about 200 people. I became a baseball fan in the spring of 1961, when POST cereals put baseball cards on the back of their cereal boxes. I was just completely captured by them.

BB: Who were your favorite writers, and players growing up?

BJ: Among my first favorite players were Tito Francona, Minnie Minoso, Warren Spahn, Ron Santo, Norm Siebern, Jerry Lumpe and Dick Howser. Among my favorite writers were Jim Murray, whose column was syndicated in the Topeka paper, which I saw every day, and a couple of local guys. . .Jim Hentzen and Dev Nelson.

BB: Can you talk about the influence that Jim Murray and Leonard Koppett had on you.

BJ: Jim Murray was somebody that I read every day in the time when I was learning to write. Murray was a very talented man, able to make almost any subject entertaining by swinging wildly through an unusual mix of figures of speech. From this I learned a) How to construct a figure of speech, and b) The value of not letting an article get too linear, too straight. But what I do is, in a sense, almost the opposite of what Murray did. Murray picked a position on an issue and honed in on it like a laser, logic be damned. I’m the exact opposite; I start with the issue itself and dance all around it before I approach a conclusion. What I do is more like what Koppett did.

BB: Were you a fan of “Sport” magazine during the 1960s and 70s? In particular, did you enjoy Ed Linn and Ray Robinson? Also, who were your favorite radio and TV announcers growing up?

BJ: I’m a huge fan of Ed Linn. Greatest baseball books ever written–”Nice Guys Finish Last,” “Veeck as in Wreck,” “Thirty Tons a Day.” I read Sport magazine religiously from 1961 to 1967, which contained a lot of Ed Linn and Arnold Hano. These guys weren’t looking for a quick hit; they wanted to really take on the subject.

BB: I read Maury Willsí biography “On the Run” this winter because you made mention of it in one of your books. He claims to have revolutionized the game stealing all those bases. Is that accurate? Do you think Lou Brock rode on Wills’ coattails?

BJ: It is not accurate in my opinion. The stolen base revolution started more with Aparicio than with Wills, and was driven mostly by the conditions of the game. Runs were scarce; therefore it made sense to try to manufacture them. Brock was always generous in crediting Wills, and it is impossible to step between them in this way, and say that Brock did NOT owe to Wills what he was so willing to pay to him. But I always thought he had overstated his debt to Wills, frankly. Wills made a huge deal out of getting the biggest possible lead, and he would lecture anyone who would listen about how to get the biggest possible lead. Brock, as a young player, tried to copy that; he tried to study pitchers, as Wills had, and figure out how to get the biggest possible lead. But eventually Brock realized that this was a mistake, that getting a big lead was delaying his break from first base, and that it was much more productive to “time” the pitcher and get an early jump from first than it was to get a big lead. Suppose that two guys are sitting at an intersection, trying to get away quickly when the light turns green. One guys sticks his bumper as far as possible into the intersection and revs his engine. The other guy lays back, waits for the cross streetlight to turn yellow, then gets a rolling start. Who gets away quicker? Of course, the guy who lays back and gets a rolling start gets away much quicker. Same thing; Wills was the guy who tried to get as far into the intersection as he could, never realizing that this was nailing him down in terms of getting an early getaway. Brock finally realized he could steal more

BB: I only remember Brock in his last year, but I grew up watching Rickey Henderson, Rock Raines and Vince Coleman. Do you think baseball will return to the stylistic balance of the 70s and 80s, or will it indefinitely remain a power game?

BJ: I am absolutely certain that neither of those will happen.

BB: Speaking of small ball, do you think Negro League stats will ever be collated in a way that would allow a good analyst to filter the noise out and compare them in some meaningful way to major league stats? Is this project worthwhile or does it just ask a false question?

BJ: I doubt that it can be done. The problem is not simply missing events. The gaps are more profound than that. The schedule was never very regular. You simply don’t have 150-game samples against relatively balanced competition. The games were never played that way. One can never guess what the people of the future will know, and certainly much progress has been made, and certainly more progress will be made. But I don’t see how these stats could ever be pulled up to something approximating the level of American or National League stats from that era.

BB: What do you make of the wealth of baseball writing on the Internet? Does it hold any interest for you?

BJ: I can’t keep up. Reading stuff on the Internet is not natural to me, as it is to younger people. There are zero web sites that I check every day. Also–and this is one of the most critical differences between myself and regular journalists–I can’t keep current on what could be called the general baseball discussion, and I make very little effort to do so. I never have. Why? Limited brain cells. I’m not that smart; I have a limited number of synapses. I always figure if you fill them up with stuff that’s going to change in 24 hours, you have less capacity to really think about the problems you are trying to puzzle through. I know what the BIG stories in the game are, but the little stories that come and go. . .I can’t keep track of them, and I don’t try to.

BB: The amount of baseball writing on the net is overwhelming. I follow the Yankees, and yet there is so much about the team–like their minor league system–that I very little about. It amazes me that some guys can write with authority about more than one team, let alone an entire league. Do you follow of all the stories–large and small–with the Red Sox however? Do you know what’s going on with the team through your relationship with the front office, or do you read the Boston press to find out the scoop?

BJ: Well, I communicate with the front office every day, usually many times a day. But even with the Red Sox, sometimes I miss stuff. Following up on the earlier question. . .you were close to something worth talking about there. It is the instinct of all young writers to walk toward the game, to get as close as possible to the game, to immerse themselves in it. This instinctive behavior then becomes a commandment of sports journalism: they assume, because they’re all doing it, that this must be the right thing to do. I’m sure it is the right thing to do–for them. But I made the decision, 25 years ago or more, to do the opposite: to walk AWAY from the game. I study the game passionately and thoroughly and without end–but from a distance. My decision was to try to see the game as an astronaut would see the planet earth–that is, with a different perspective. Try to see the big picture. Constantly immersing yourself in the details of day-to-day news coverage interferes with your ability to see the bigger picture of the game, at least for me.

BB: During the 2003 season, was your experience working with the Red Sox front office different from what you expected it to be?

BJ: This question requires me to think in ways that I simply don’t think.

BB: After all those years as a baseball “outsider” what’s it like to be on the inside?

BJ: Different.

BB: How many Red Sox games did you watch/attend?

BJ: I saw 23 Red Sox games in person, I believe–3 in Kansas City, 1 in Oakland, and 19 in Boston. I watched all or virtually all of the Red Sox games on TV, taped them and studied them.

BB: Are you enjoying your work with the Red Sox?

BJ: Very, very much. I love Boston. I hate traveling, but I love being in Boston once I get there. And the people I work with there, from John Henry and Theo down to the shoelaces of the organization, have just been fantastic.

BB: Have you met any of the players on the Red Sox personally? Does meeting and talking with ballplayers interest you?

BJ: Ballplayers are simply people. They are as interesting as your neighbors, as interesting as the people you work with–no more and no less.

BB: Other than when Derek Lowe is on the hill, there has been a good deal of debate as to whether second baseman Pokey Reese is as valuable to the Red Sox as he might be to another team. Will his defense be all that valuable behind pitchers such as Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, neither of whom relies on keeping the ball on the ground to retire the opposition?

BJ: Well, certainly it is going to be MORE of a priority to maximize the infield defense when Lowe is on the mound. But every pitcher appreciates (and needs) defensive support, and we do have other ground ball pitchers, such as Kim and Mendoza. We get an average or above-average number of ground balls. We’re going to go into the bottom of the ninth with a one-run lead sometimes, and we’ll want the best defense out there no matter who is on the mound.

BB: You’ve always championed players like Brain Downing, who was great with the Angels in the eighties. Are there any players like that on the current Sox team? Which Red Sox players are you especially fond of watching?

BJ: My favorite player to watch on the Red Sox is Jason Varitek. Jason has a lot of hustle and a lot of leadership, plus he has a lot of subtle skills that you don’t see unless you focus on him.

BB: What subtle skills does Varitek possess?

BJ: I don’t know if I can describe it. He’s very interactive with the other parts of the game. He interacts with the umpire. He interacts with the other infielders. He interacts with the dugout. He interacts with the pitcher. Of course, much of this is the nature of the catcher’s position, but there are catchers who just go through the motions. Jason’s very alert to how all of those other parts of the game are moving, always looking for ways to contribute.

BB: You have a book that youíve written with Rob Neyer coming out this spring called the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. What does this book give us that we’ve never had before?

BJ: A source for specific information about pitchers–who threw a curve ball, who threw a slider, who threw a change. Not on a hit-and-miss, catch-as-catch-can basis, but systematically and thoroughly.

BB: What can we do with it? Will it be a useful tool for further understanding of the game?

BJ: Well, we would certainly hope so. Suppose that you want to study the question of whether the screwball is hard on the arm, or the question of whether pitchers whose best pitch is a sinker reach their peak later than pitchers who best pitch is a curve. This book gives you a starting place to research those questions, or any of a thousand others.

BB: In view of the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers book soon to be published, do you think that a deception pitch like Rip Sewell’s eephus ball could ever be effective in today’s game?

BJ: Oh, absolutely. Beyond any question it could.

BB: I wanted to ask one Yankee question. In Ben McGrathís New Yorker profile on you which appeared last summer, you said something about how people in Kansas City root against New York more than they do in Boston. Or something to that effect. Have you hated either the Yankees or New York City since you were a kid?

BJ: Well, I love New York City, to begin with, and I wouldn’t exactly say that I hate the Yankees. I root passionately against the Yankees, and I have since I was a small child. It’s like, if you’re watching a car race. . .if you hate somebody you root for them to have an accident. I’ve never rooted for the Yankees to have a car accident. I just want them to lose.

BB: Like Downing, I know youíve always liked Bernie Williams. Do you think heíll be a hall of famer?

BJ: Well, I try to stay out of Hall of Fame arguments. Bernie Williams is one of my favorite players, but I think it is clear that he is not a Hall of Famer based on what he has accomplished yet. He starts the 2004 season with 1,950 career hits. That’s not a Hall of Fame number. Maybe it is if you’re Sam Thompson and you drive in a fantastic number of runs; maybe it is if you’re Earle Combs and the Hall of Fame voters don’t know any better. But in general, Bernie’s numbers are nowhere near Hall of Fame standards.

The Greatest Show on…the East Coast

Gordon Edes has a nice, long column today about the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. Dan Shaughnessy, Michael Holley, and Jackie MacMullen chime in as well. Meanwhile in New York, John Harper takes a look at Pedro Martinez. Lock and load folks, here we go again: All the Hype you have to hate. (And just luuuvv too.)

Cooperstown Confidential

By Bruce Markusen
Spring Training Edition

From Madness To A Miracle?

After the stench of last yearís odious mess at Shea Stadium, fans of the New York Mets should be excused for excessive hyperventilation this spring. For the first time since the pennant-winning season of 2000, the Mets have a team that borders on the likeable. More importantly, they may have the makings of a club that can set a reasonable goal of competing for the National Leagueís wild card berth. Yes, itís amazing what can happen when a new front office adds one of the gameís three best defensive center fielders, finds a powerful rookie shortstop who resembles nothing close to the feeble limitations of Rey Ordonez, and fortifies a shredded bullpen with a playoff-tested veteran and a group of hardball-humming youngsters.

At the very least, the Mets will be a much improved defensive team in 2004. Mike Cameron, whoís used to playing spacious outfields, should have little trouble making the transition to the tricky winds and mind-numbing airplane noise of Shea Stadium; the Mets can point to pages of statistical analysis that declare Cameron as the gameís best defensive center fielder. With Japanese sensation Kaz Matsui and sophomore stud Jose Reyes (assuming his hamstring problems donít become chronic) manning the middle infield, the Mets may have the kind of athleticism and range that the rival Yankees can only dream about at second and short. (Letís just hope that Super Joe McEwing receives a minimum of playing time this summer.) The decision to flip-flop Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips is long overdue, improving the teamís catching while doing minimal damage to first base. And if Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia end up platooning in right field, theyíll be more than adequate (and better than wrong-way Roger Cedeno); both are limited in range, but are surehanded and can throw, with Garcia possessing one of the gameís most underrated outfield arms.

All of the past transactions aside, the Mets may have some options on the trading block for future improvements. Several teams have called to inquire about the availability of Vance Wilson, one of the National Leagueís better backup catchers. The Mets are saying no for now, but theyíll change their minds for the right price, knowing that they have both Phillips and Piazza available to catch immediately, with top prospect Justin Huber primed for arrival in 2005. The Mets also have depth in their bullpen, thanks in part to the luring of ex-Marlin Braden Looper, which is always a nice springtime commodity. Some members of the Metsí brass would like to make room for 26-year-old Orber Moreno, who has resuscitated his career after suffering a torn labrum during his days with the Royals. (And no, heís no relation to “Omar the Outmaker,” the original O. Moreno.) The much improved Grant Roberts is one pitcher who has drawn interest from other teams; he could end up as the Metsí fifth starter, in the bullpen, or in some other major league market during the season. Tyler Yates is another attractive commodity to rival clubs, but the Mets have no intention of trading the hard-throwing right-hander, who will probably start the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

With catching and pitching to spare, what do the Mets want in return? Theyíre still on the lookout for outfield help and have talked to the Blue Jays about Jayson Werth, whoís out of options but is still only 24, and to the Pirates about Sabermetric favorite Craig Wilson, who just canít seem to win the favor of manager Lloyd McClendon. Both Werth and the underrated Wilson would make sense in right field, either as everyday players or in a platoon with Garcia. Another possibility is Baltimoreís Jay Gibbons, who can be had for the right package of young pitching. A left-handed swinger, Gibbons could platoon with Spencer, who has never mastered right-handed pitching (a .313 OBP and a .371 slugging mark over the past three years)

Hurtin’

Don Malcolm has an interesting analysis of the 2004 Red Sox over at Baseball Primer. He isn’t convinced that Boston is as good as many people think they are. Sadly–and I’m not being facetious—Nomar Garciaparra was placed on the DL (joining Trot Nixon) with Achilles’ tendinitis:

“It will be three weeks without playing in games, for sure,” Epstein said. “It’s similar to Trot’s situation. The whole point of an aggressive rest and rehab routine like this is to knock the injury out. It’s a long season. It’s a long career. We want to make sure we put this behind us so it doesn’t become more chronic.”

…”The doctor ordered a lot of rest and sitting on my couch,” Garciaparra said. “He says he’ll talk to me once a week. I’m sure it’ll be more to make sure I am sitting on my couch, which I will be. It’ll definitely be hard, but I’ll be cheering them on.”

Pedro Martinez was smacked around in his last outing of the spring. Michael Holley has a good piece on the mercurial Dominican in the Boston Globe this morning. Jayson Stark reports:

Behind the plate, a section full of scouts scratched their heads. Martinez had touched 90 mph on just a couple of fastballs. He delivered them from an arm slot noticeably lower than the Pedro of old.

“I could never give that guy a three-year contract,” said one scout. “He’s got two years left in him. Tops.”

…Pitching coach Dave Wallace chalked it all up to a case of the “spring-training yips.”

“He’s just anxious to get going and get through spring training,” Wallace said. “I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff happen this time of year.”

But this was, in reality, as strange as it gets. And Martinez’s body language had communicated real frustration — such as the time he got so irritated over not getting a low strike call from plate ump Marty Foster that he caught Varitek’s toss back to the mound with his bare hand.

Never a dull moment with Martinez and the Red Sox, huh? Yankee fans should resist the temptation to feel smug here. I suspect that Boston and New York will go back-and-forth sending players to the DL during the season. Like Boss George says, it’s how you finish that counts.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver