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Monthly Archives: September 2008

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The Final Weekend

As we head into the final weekend of the 2008 baseball season, there are still five teams fighting for three playoff spots.

Three days ago, the White Sox pulled into Minnesota with a 2.5 game lead hoping to put the Twins away. Instead, they got swept and now trail Minnesota by a half game with three left to play. Both teams finish at home, the Twins hosting the Royals, and the White Sox hosting Cleveland. The Royals arrive at the Metrodome on an 11-2 tear, but I give the advantage to the Twins, as the White Sox will have to face Cliff Lee on the final day of the season if the race isn’t settled by then, while the Twins will kick off their series with Francisco Liriano on the mound tonight.

Things are even tighter in the National League, where the Mets and Brewers both won in walkoffs last night and remain tied for the Wild Card lead, and the Mets are just a game behind the Phillies in the East, opening up a possibility of a three-way tie for the league’s last two playoff spots. The Astros are technically still alive in the Wild Card race as well, but a win by either Milwaukee or New York, or a Houston loss, will eliminate them, likely tonight.

The Brewers face the stiffest competition this weekend by hosting the Cubs, though Lou Piniella was unapologetic about resting some of his starters against the Mets this week. The Mets will host the Marlins in what could be the final three games at Shea Stadium this weekend. Neither the Mets nor the Brewers has a definite starter for Saturday. The Mets have lefty Jonathon Niese lined up, but could replace him with former Yankee righty and 2008 Olympian Brandon Knight given the Marlins’ righty-heavy lineup. The Brewers, meanwhile, are hoping Ben Sheets can return from elbow tendonitis to start on Saturday. If not, they’ll could wind up starting Dave Bush on three-day’s rest. Sunday, both teams will send out their ace: Johan Santana for the Mets, CC Sabathia for the Brewers.

As for the Phillies, they seem likely to hold on to the division as they’re hosting the Nationals and will have Cole Hamels going on Sunday if necessary. Of course, as with the Mets and Brewers, using their ace on the final day to secure a playoff spot would prevent them from using him in Game 1 of the NLDS, but you have to make it there first.

Oh, and it could rain.

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory #19

By Ben Kabak

I bounded up the stairs of the Yankee dugout on a sunny August afternoon to acknowledge the roaring crowd. I landed on the top step, turned around and saw an ocean of empty seas. Row upon row upon row of those familiar blue seats were staring back at me, waiting for the next home game.

For a minute, I almost knew what Derek Jeter feels like when he turns to wave at the crowd. From the top of the steps, I could see just the box seats just behind the dugout, and even that view sent shimmers down my spine.

But I’m not on the Yankees, never was and never will be. My Yankee curtain call was, instead, just a part of the tour at Yankee Stadium. In mid-August, with the Yanks out of town, my dad and I went on the tour at Yankee Stadium. This excursion wouldn’t be our final visit to the House that Ruth Built, but it was our gesture of saying good bye on our time. We weren’t deluged with constant scoreboard distractions, yet another playing of the Y.M.C.A. or some guy in a hat dancing to that seminal New York song Cotton-Eye Joe. Instead, we walked on the field, sat in the dugout and soaked in the aura and mystique of the stadium in Monument Park.

While I’ve been on the tour twice before, I didn’t truly appreciate it in 1994 as an 11-year-old and couldn’t enjoy it in 2000 as a camp counselor overseeing a bunch of rowdy 10-12-year-olds. This time, though, I experienced the tour as it was meant to be. When 11 a.m. in the Bronx rolls around, Yankee Stadium truly feels like a Cathedral. The stadium is populated only by the grounds crew tending to the field, a few security guards and other tour groups. The grounds echo with the spray of water on the field and the history of eighty five years. The empty stadium bare witness to thousands of games and players long lost to the annals of baseball history.

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Mickey Vernon: Gentleman

We lost one of the good ones on Wednesday, when Mickey Vernon passed away at the age of 90, the victim of a stroke he suffered one week ago. Ordinarily, most of us are not shocked when we hear of someone dying in his ninth decade. But this case is a little bit different for me. I saw Mickey this past June in the Philadelphia area, when he served as one of the featured speakers on a symposium about athletes in the military. Other than walking with a bit of a hunch, he seemed to be in excellent health, a 90-year-old man who had managed to shave years off his physical appearance. His mind and memory remained razor-sharp, with his wits, intelligence, and polite manner all still intact. In fact, this was what I wrote about Vernon at the time:

“As impressive as his personality, Mickey’s health and conditioning are just as striking. He just turned 90, but he looks more like 60, with a full shock of hair that might make some middle-aged men jealous. He remains extremely sharp, with an excellent recall of detail and little tendency to exaggerate accomplishments.”

Later that day, my wife and I, along with several other organizers of the symposium, enjoyed having lunch with Mickey at a local VFW. Not surprisingly, Mickey became the centerpiece of the table, not because he tried to dominate the conversation, but because everyone wanted to hear his stories and opinions. I was no different; I desperately wanted to know about his feelings toward the Yankees, who employed him as a scout and coach in the seventies and eighties—his final job in baseball. Half expecting to hear some grumbles about the ownership of George Steinbrenner (who could be particularly hard on coaches and scouts at that time), I was surprised to hear Mickey say that he loved working for the Yankees. As proof, he showed me the Yankee watch that he still wore, given to him by the organization for his years of service. Mickey might not have been remembered as a Yankee, but he truly considered himself one.

For me, this was my second experience with Mickey. In 2006, I met him for the first time, also in the Philadelphia area, as part of a program that celebrated accomplishments of Chester, PA native Danny Murtaugh. Like the more recent encounter, this occasion also proved uplifting, as I came away with the kind of graceful impression that Mickey had made on so many other people both during and after his career in baseball.

And let’s not overlook that career as a player, which spanned from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Mickey Vernon was a tremendous ballplayer, a two-time batting champion and a seven-time All-Star who was once voted the greatest first baseman in the history of the Washington Senators’ franchise. Yet, his career was hurt by Washington’s home park, which tended to suppress home runs, making life more difficult for a mid-range power hitter like Mickey. He also lost some of his career to military service during World War II, which caused him to miss all of the 1944 and ’45 seasons.

In spite of the obstacles, Vernon played more games at first base than anyone during the 20th century. He was a slick defender, one of the finest fielding first basemen in the game’s history, along with being a productive line-drive hitter who flashed power at various times during his four-decade career. He was a smart hitter, too, the kind who almost always walked more than he struck out. From 1953 to 1956, he put up big numbers with both the Senators and Red Sox, highlighted by a ‘53 campaign that saw him register a .403 on-base percentage and a .518 slugging percentage while reaching career highs in runs and RBIs. He was good enough to have merited inclusion on the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee ballot, which features his name along with nine other players whose careers began prior to 1943. I know that more than a few of his fans in Philadelphia and his native Marcus Hook are crossing their fingers, hoping that the committee will finally call his name this December.

Even after all of these years, his friends still care about the Hall of Fame issue, in large part because of his character and charm. As fine a player as Vernon was, he was a better man. Likeable throughout his playing days, Vernon continued to spread the wealth of his amiable personality as a manager, coach, scout, and after his retirement, as a frequent guest at baseball-related functions. If you wanted to add a touch of gentlemanly class and quiet intelligence to your event, you just made sure to send an invitation to Mickey Vernon.

Jim Vankoski, who skillfully arranges a number of baseball-related events in the Philadelphia area, knew all about Mickey. He was the one who introduced me to Mickey, who told me what a wonderful guy that he was. Mickey certainly did not disappoint. He patiently answered questions that I interspersed throughout our conversations, while at the same time taking an interest in what I was doing. Thanks, Jim, for giving me the chance to meet this special man.

And thanks to Mickey for the way that he treated me—the way that he seemingly treated everyone. I only met him twice, but I feel like I knew him for a lifetime. 

 

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLBlogs at MLB.com.

Finish What Ya Started

The Blue Jays beat the Yankees 8-2 last night as Roy Halladay picked up his 20th win with his ninth complete game of the season. By doing so, Halladay tied CC Sabathia for the major league lead in complete games, though Sabathia could break the tie in his final start. Only one team other than the Blue Jays and Brewers has more than nine complete games.

Halladay needed just 96 pitches to finish off the Yankees’ B-squad. Of the six hits he allowed, three were by Brett Gardner (one of them a double, one of them in infield hit on which Gardner beat out a nice play by Jays second baseman Joe Inglett on a hard grounder in the hole). Melky Cabrera (1 for 3) got one of the others, and Cody Ransom drew the only Yankee walk of the night.

It might have been a bit unfair for Joe Girardi to give catching prospect Francisco Cervelli (0-for-3) his first major league start against Halladay, but then Girardi didn’t make Cervelli swing at the first pitch he saw in his first two at bats (both groundouts, the second a double play). Cervelli took two pitches in his final at-bat, but still struck out swinging on just four tosses. That said, Cervelli showed great form on the one stolen base attempt against him, firing a strike that would have nailed Alex Rios in the third had Rios not gotten a huge jump on Carl Pavano.

Speaking of Pavano, in his final act as a Yankee, he gave up five runs in just 3 2/3 innings. Don’t let the door bruise your buttocks on the way out, Chuckles.

At least Pavano’s short outing allowed Girardi to audition some relievers. Dan Giese stranded the two runners he inherited from Pavano in the fourth, but couldn’t get the second out of the fifth inning, allowing two runs on three consecutive hits before David Robertson tidied up his mess. Edwar Ramirez struck out Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in a scoreless sixth. Humberto Sanchez gave up a run in the seventh after walking two men on nine pitches, but got a double play to get out of his own mess. Finally, in the eighth Darrell Rasner retired the Jay’s 4-5-6 hitters 1-2-3, getting ahead of each hitter before inducing each into a groundout.

Speaking of the bullpen, Mariano Rivera had an MRI on his shoulder yesterday and could need some minor arthroscopic surgery this winter. Meanwhile, Joe Girardi continues to display either a dangerous ignorance or an inexplicable need to snowball the media regarding his players’ physical health. After listening to his post-game press conference, I think it’s the former, which means he needs to work on his communication with his players and his training staff. A manager’s primary job is distributing playing time to his players. If the manager is ill informed about his players’ health for whatever reason, his ability to perform that essential task in the manner most beneficial to the team is compromised. That may not be an issue in Rivera’s case, but may have been with regard to Jorge Posada’s shoulder, Alex Rodriguez’s quad, or any of a number of other early-season aches and pains that got worse before they got better.

Shutdown Mode

With four meaningless games left, the Yankees have mothballed Andy Pettitte for the year, giving Sidney Ponson his start on Saturday. Ponson and tonight’s starter Pavano won’t be back next year. Tomorrow night’s starter, Alfredo Aceves, has already shown enough to survive a bad start and still arrive in spring training to fight for a rotation spot. The means the only remaining game that will actually be worth watching will be Sunday’s finale in Boston as Mike Mussina goes for his 20th win (which he will do; his elbow is recovering nicely).

Here’s tonight’s lineup:

L – Brett Gardner (CF)
L – Robinson Cano (2B)
L – Bobby Abreu (DH)
R – Xavier Nady (RF)
L – Jason Giambi (1B)
S – Wilson Betemit (3B)
R – Cody Ransom (SS)
S – Melky Cabrera (LF)
R – Francisco Cervelli (C)

Derek Jeter is still sitting due to being hit on the left hand on Saturday and playing through it on Sunday. Cervelli is making his first major league start. This is just Melky’s second start since being recalled (he went 1 for 3 in the last, accounting for his only trips to the plate since August). Brett Gardner is 8 for his last 23 (.348) with three extra-base hits. Wilson Betemit 6 for 19 (.316) in September with four extra base hits, but hasn’t drawn a walk since August 16. Ransom is 0 for his last 16.

Perhaps most significantly, tonight’s game will bring Carl Pavano’s phantom Yankee career to a close. He faces Roy Halladay, who’s going for his 20th win. Halladay’s only previous 20-win season was 2003, when he went 22-7 and won the AL Cy Young award.

Meanwhile, Joe Torre’s Dodgers have clinched the NL West. Congratulations to the Dodgers, their manager, and their fans.

Break it Down

Over at Baseball-Intellect, Alex Eisenberg takes a look at the pitching mechanics of Yankee minor leaguer Brett Marshall. Don’t slumber.

Oh, and p.s. here is my favorite Yankee shout-out in a rap song. From Bronx resident, Diamond D, "the best producer on the mic":

It comes about two-thirds of the way into the song. It’s so cheap it’s great.

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory #18

By Tim Marchman

When I was small, I didn’t understand the point of the Yankees. It wasn’t that I disliked them, but that they were irrelevant, the team of suburbs to the north and parts of the city that to me may as well have been. Even in deep Queens there were a few Yankees fans, usually Italians whose families raised them to think of Joe DiMaggio the way Catholics were raised to think of John F. Kennedy.* Those kids would taunt the rest of us odd moments. You’d be playing asses-up, dealing the ball in your best Dwight Gooden motion, when some kid would let on that two rings were nice enough and nothing to be ashamed of, but certainly not as nice as twenty-two, as if he’d been there in the stands when each of them was won. But mostly this didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. They may as well have been Kansas City Royals fans.

It wasn’t until I was 22 that I understood the Yankees at all. My friend P. and I had upper deck seats for the Stadium, and two Snapple bottles full of liquor. We drank and watched the game and talked, convincing ourselves that we were much above everything that was going on around us: New York would never again be something it had stopped being around the time we were born; baseball had changed, with the money; capital had failed us; the electronic advertisements, greasy brokers on cell phones, cheap plastic, and loud music were an indictment; everything was at second hand and a great remove; the world was infinitely mediated and the city a sad, lonely and disfigured place in which great things were no longer possible; etc.

The score ran up early enough, and it was chilly enough, that the stands began to empty early, so we made out way down to field level, well toasted, and then worked our way from seat to seat until we were a row back of the home dugout. There was the field in total clarity: still and quiet, steam rising off the grass, the lights a half mile high, and Mike Mussina on the mound, curling up into his motion, in total control of events. At that moment it may as well have been 1946, 1977, or whatever moment P. and I had just spent so much time convincing ourselves we wished it was. The game seemed further away than it had seemed in the nosebleeds, but very much more peaceful, and at that exact moment neither Mike Mussina or all the ambitious people in the park seemed at all to inhabit a different city than I did, but just to be different parts of one raging engine—parts with which I may not have had much in common, but parts toward which it was somewhere between absurd and obscene to feel something just past distrust and shading toward resentment.

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Diamond Records

Baseball and rock ‘n’ roll are such elemental and ubiquitous American inventions that it’s a bit perplexing that they don’t really fit together. Baseball just doesn’t rock, no matter how hard stadium public address systems try to force the issue. Baseball is a game of calm, precision, suspense and strategy. For that reason, there are precious few worthwhile rock songs about the game.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great baseball songs in other genres. “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” the 1941 novelty hit from Les Brown and his Orchestra, is a stone cold classic, and “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?,” written by Buddy Johnson and recorded by both Johnson and the Count Basie Orchestra in 1949, is a jump-band variation on that theme that’s nearly as good a song and a superior cultural signifier (Johnson name checks African American major leaguers Satchel Page, Roy Campanella, Don Newcome, and Larry Doby). Bob Dylan’s “Catfish” from 1975 is great as well, but it’s not rock, it’s acoustic blues.

Being more of a fan of jazz than of baseball, my dad goes for David Frishberg’s “Van Lingle Mungo”, though I consider it more of a tone poem than a song. Still, I’ll take Frishberg’s list of names over any version of Terry Cashman’s trite “Talkin’ Baseball” (originally “Willie, Mickey, & the Duke”). “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” is a fun alt-country tune, but it’s removed from it’s place and time as part of the Mermaid Avenue sessions in which Billy Brag and Wilco set long lost Woody Guthrie lyrics to music.

There are rock tunes that reference baseball, but aren’t really about the game. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, speaking of DiMaggio, is the most famous. Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” contains a variety of baseball references (including Joe D yet again), but Joel uses the game to greater effect in 1978′s “Zanzibar” (“Rose he knows he’s such a credit to the game, but the Yankees grab the headlines every time”) and also drops a Yankee reference into “Miami 2017″. “Zanzibar” also uses a bit of the “bases” metaphor best employed by Phil Rizzuto in Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. More recently, Belle and Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher” is something of a cryptic love song in which Piazza (and Sandy Koufax, who isn’t actually named) are either incidental or symbolic, and the only baseball reference in Kanye West’s “Barry Bonds” is the title. Of course, extending the conversation to hip hop brings in hundreds of references, from the Beastie Boys having more hits than Sadaharu Oh or Rod Carew to Jay-Z having “A-Rod numbers.”

For a long time, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” seemed like the only proper rock song that was actually about baseball. As a result, it quickly became overplayed to the point that it is now one of the few 1980s hits I can’t stand (and I can stands a lot), though if it weren’t so trite it would have held up better. Fortunately, “Centerfield” finally has some company this year. A quartet of alt-rockers, the most famous of whom is R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, came together earlier this year as the Baseball Project and released a 13-song album devoted entirely to songs about the game and players including Ted Williams (via a rewrite of Wings’ “Helen Wheels” called “Ted Fucking Williams”), Curt Flood, Satchel Page, Fernando Valenzuela, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ed Delahanty, Harvey Haddix, and Jack McDowell (“The Yankee Flipper”).

More recently, Eddie Vedder, who is name-checked in “The Yankee Flipper,” released a Cubs anthem called “All The Way” (as in “someday we’ll go all the way”), and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren released “Yankee Stadium,” a tribute to the doomed ballpark which he cowrote with his wife, Amy. Unfortunately, neither really fits on the list of rock songs about baseball. Vedder’s song deserves to be listed among the classics above, but it’s more of a prostest/drinking song than a rock song (and veers dangerously close the list of team fight songs below). Lofgren’s tune, though well-intentioned (“For every soul who entered here/we raise a glass we shed a tear”), just isn’t very good. Lofgren’s vocal delivery is off-putting and, not surprisingly, the best part of his song is the guitar solo.

Of course, Lofgren already has his baseball song bonafides from Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” (that’s him in the beret with the white guitar), but that’s another one of those songs that mentions baseball, but isn’t really about it.

So what’s your favorite song about the game? What did I miss?

Note: Even though Yo La Tengo once covered “Meet the Mets” and “Here Come the Yankees” by the Sid Bass Orchestra and Chorus, a 1967 Columbia Records release that was the best thing to come out of CBS’s ownership of the team, is a personal favorite, team fight songs don’t count. That includes “Tessie” by Boston’s Dropkick Murphys, and the Sammy Hagar-meets-Kenny Loggins “Let’s Go Mets Go” from 1986. Having said that, be sure to check out Larry Romano’s trapped-in-time “Rock In The Bronx” from 1993. Also worth a look are the abominable “Super Bowl Suffle” rip off “Get Metsmerized,” also from 1986 (cripes, how many songs did the Mets need?), and the horrendous 1987 update of The Twins’ 1961 anthem “We’re Gonna Win Twins.” Actually, pregnant women and people with heart conditions should probably skip those last two.

A Great One

Sidd Finch, eat your heart out.  It’s Jimmy Scott!

 

The Awful Truth

Andy Pettitte’s Yankee career could be over. Pettitte, talking to Mark Feinsand in the Daily News, was critical of his own performance:

"The biggest thing was me, personally; I just pitched terrible," Pettitte said. "I don’t think we played great, I don’t think we hit in some clutch situations when we needed to, but everybody pitched really well other than me down the stretch. If I don’t win one game out of my last 10 starts, I think the last couple days of the season, we’d be right there."

…But was it his last season in the Bronx? Pettitte will be a free agent at the end of the season, and while he said he would consider playing only for the Yankees next year, he hasn’t decided whether he’s prepared to take on the mental grind that comes with another season.

"I probably just need to get away for a while, but I don’t want to drag it out," Pettitte said. "They’ve pretty much already told me they’d like to have me back, so we’ll just have to see."

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pettitte return but I’m not counting on it.

The Kid Stays In The Picture

Untitled

Last night’s pitching matchup of Phil Hughes and likely free agent A.J. Burnett almost felt like an open audition for a spot in the Yankees 2009 rotation. I’m happy to report, Phil Hughes passed the audition. Hughes had a nasty curve working last night and used it to great effect, neutralizing yet another dominant outing against the Yankees by Burnett. After lasting just four inefficient innings in his return to the majors his last time out, Hughes stretched 100 pitches (71 of them strikes) across eight full innings, striking out six (all on curveballs), walking none, and allowing just two runs on five hits. Hughes was actually beating Burnett 2-1 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, but Scott Rolen shot a 1-1 curve over the wall in left center to knot it up at 2-2. Hughes, who was hoping to pick up his only major league win of the season, was furious at himself for allowing Toronto to tie the game, but settled down to retire the next four batters and pass the game to the bullpen.

After Jesse Carlson and Jose Veras swapped zeros in the ninth, Juan Miranda, who started at first and picked up his first major league hit in the fourth, led off the tenth with a double. Chad Moeller failed to bunt Miranda to third, but wound up working an eight-pitch walk, passing the buck to Brett Gardner, who bunted the runners up on the first try. Carlson hit Robinson Cano with his next offering to load the bases, and Bobby Abreu cashed it all in with a grand slam that handed the Yankees a 6-2 win. Sidney Ponson, of all people, pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the tenth to seal the deal.

“One good outing isn’t going to erase an awful season with injuries and being in the minor leagues,” said Hughes, “but it’s good to end on a positive note and carry that over into next year.” Hughes didn’t get the win, but he shaved 1.3 runs off his season ERA. He finishes the year having thrown just 69 2/3 innings between the majors and minors and will go on to pitch in the Arizona Fall League in order to get his innings total up to a higher baseline for next season, though he’s unlikely to get past 100 innings all together, even with the AFL work.

Still, Hughes looked great last night. Joe Girardi said, “he did everything right tonight.” His curveball, which is his put-away pitch, was monstrous, and the cutter he developed this summer is already rivaling his four-seamer. When Hughes is able to locate the latter, he should be able to dominate the way we’ve all expected him to, which was exactly the case last night. Phil Hughes needed that start, and the Yankees needed that start. True, one good outing won’t erase the lost season that preceded it, but it served an important reminder that Hughes is still one of the top pitching prospects in the game.

No Pressure, Kid

Phil Hughes was seven years old the last time the Yankees were eliminated during the regular season. Tonight he’ll be the first pitcher to start a game for an eliminated Yankee team since Sterling Hitchcock took the Camden Yards mound on September 28, 1993. Like Hughes, Hitchock was a well-regarded 22-year-old pitching prospect at the time, but he never fulfilled his potential due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. Here’s hoping Hughes, who pitched well though inefficiently in his last start, won’t meet the same fate.

Untitled Fittingly, tonight’s matchup of Hughes and Yankee killer A.J. Burnett should conjure up a fair bit of hot-stove conversation. Burnett is all but certain to opt out of his contract this fall as he’s set career highs in games, starts, innings, strikeouts and wins this season and could finish with 19 victories by beating the Yankees tonight. His 1.78 ERA in four previous starts against New York has certainly piqued the Yankees’ interest, but they’d do well to notice that Burnett’s season ERA is barely above average and dips below average when you take away his dominance of the Bombers. He’s also going to be 32 on Opening Day next year and has a very sketchy injury history. In fact, all of those career highs this year are the result of the fact of that, at age 31, Burnett has been healthy enough to start 30 games for just the second time in his career this year. Burnett has better stuff than former Marlins teammate Carl Pavano, but the Yankees would do well to remind themselves of the similarities between the two pitchers when contemplating the free agent Burnett.

Phil Hughes’ one quality start in the majors this season came back on April 3 against the Blue Jays. Another one in this, his last start of the season, would go a long way toward building both his confidence and the team’s confidence in him heading into next year, and would reduce the chances of the Yankees making a desperation move for an expensive injury-prone veteran like Burnett or Ben Sheets. In that way, Hughes beating Burnett tonight would be a tremendous victory for the future of the franchise. But, hey, no pressure.

Getting Closer

Nothing original here, but…Go Moose.

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory #17

By Charles Euchner

I’ve seen a lot of great players at Yankee Stadium — Munson and Jackson, Catfish and Guidry, Jeter and A-Rod — but my most memorable moment came at my first game in the Bronx. The Tigers came to town in 1971, just a few weeks after my family moved to Long Island from Iowa. I was a Mets fan but wanted to see any baseball game. My dad got tickets from his job at Con Ed, one of the team’s sponsors. So off we went.

My most enduring memory is how empty the stadium was. About 12,000 went to the game, a quick check of Retrosheet.org tells me. Foul balls did not set off a mad contest of reaching, grasping hands. Foul balls bounced around empty seats while fans raced to retrieve them from other sections. Since it was a blowout — a 9-1 Yankee victory, which improved their record to 68-71, good for fourth place, 18 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles — most people who came left early. Those who stayed sat around looking bored. I tried to convince myself I was watching something special. I wasn’t. The Yankees had only one superstar, catcher Thurman Munson. Roy White and Bobby Murcer were decent. Not much else.

In the next couple years, I experienced some real Yankees excitement during promotions like Bat Day that filled the stadium. I have always been amazed how great it feels to be in a stadium with 55,000 other people. Even when the team is out of the race, it can still feel like a playoff atmosphere. I also experienced how rowdy things can get during bad games. I never smoked pot, but I inhaled plenty when I went to Yankee games in the 1970s. At every game, fights broke out and fans got high and drunk. Then, in the late 1970s, the Yankees started winning. I guess George decided he could set some standards for fan conduct. Whatever happened, things didn’t get so ugly in the stands.

I have a funny kind of nostalgia for those bad old Yankee teams. I went to the stadium because baseball was fun, not because the team was the best. The Yankee dynasty teams of later years were obviously better “products,” as the number-crunching GM’s say these days. But I miss the bygone days when winning more than you lost was good enough, before failure was defined as not crushing everyone every day. I’d love to get in a way-back machine and watch that 1971 Yanks-Tigers game again. Maybe I missed something.

Charles Euchner is the author of The Last Nine Innings.

Hey Nineteen

With one out in the bottom of the third inning of last night’s game against the Blue Jays, Toronto’s rookie left fielder Travis Snider hit a comebacker that ricocheted off Mike Mussina’s pitching elbow and shot into foul territory, allowing Snider to reach base with an infield single. The ball hit Mussina flush on the head of his radius, and when trainer Gene Monahan and manager Joe Girardi ran out to attend to their veteran ace, the conclusion to Mussina’s terrific comeback season was clearly hanging in the balance. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead at the time, but Mussina needed to finish the third and pitch two more innings without giving it up in order to qualify for his nineteenth win and keep his hopes for his first twenty-win season alive.

UntitledMussina asked the assembled group to let him throw a few pitches, and after tossing a fastball and a sharp curveball, he declared himself fit to pitch. He was right. Despite a large red welt on the outside of his elbow the size of a golf ball, Mussina allowed just one more hit before being pulled after going the minimum five innings required for the win. By then his lead had doubled to 2-0 thanks to Jason Giambi’s 32nd home run of the season.

The Yankees added a third run in the seventh when Robinson Cano doubled off Blue Jays starter Jesse Litsch, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a passed ball. Never mind that Cano was actually out at home as the ball bounced right back to catcher Gregg Zaun, who tossed to Litsch, who made a great play sliding across the opposite side of the plate and tagging the sole of Cano’s foot as it came down to touch home. Home plate ump Larry Vanover blew the call and spent the rest of the game calling strikes in a manner that found the middle ground between a sea lion and the Swedish Chef (strike one: “BORK!” strike two: “BORK!” strike three: “ARF! ARF!”).

The Jays got that run back in the bottom of the seventh when lefties Adam Lind and Lyle Overbay singled and walked against Damaso Marte and Scott Rolen greeted Joba Chamberlain with a single that scored Lind. With two out and none on in the eighth, the Jays loaded the bases against Chamberlain thanks to some sloppy defense by Cody Ransom, who replaced Derek Jeter and his sore left hand at shortstop just before game time (Jeter said after the game that he couldn’t swing), and an intentional walk, but Chamberlain won a seven-pitch battle with Lyle Overbay on a slider breaking down and away for a called strike three (ARF! ARF!). Otherwise Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, and Mariano Rivera were perfect in relief, nailing down the 3-1 win and giving Mussina his nineteenth win.

Hard Times Befallen The Soul Survivors

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Unfortunately, the Red Sox also won, putting up a five-spot against likely Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee at Fenway to squeek out a 5-4 win behind Tim Wakefield and a quintet of relievers. The decisive run was scored by Dustin Pedroia on a two-out single by Jason Bay in the fifth (“sweet things from Boston, so young and willing”). With that, the Yankees have been eliminated from the postseason for the first time since 1993, the last year before the Wild Card was introduced.

That year it was Toronto that won the AL East, though the Yankees avoided being eliminated head-to-head by beating Todd Stottlemyre and the Jays behind Jim Abbott in their final game at SkyDome that season. The Yankees won again the next day, beating Rick Sutcliffe and the Orioles 9-1 behind Scott Kamieniecki (playing right field in place of an injured Paul O’Neill, Jim Leyritz homered in both games), but the Jays clinched anyway by beating the Brewers 2-0 behind Pat Hentgen and a trio of relievers that included Mike Timlin. The Jays would go on to win their second consecutive World Championship that October with Joe Carter delivering the Series-ending home run off Phillies closer Mitch Williams.

Please take me along when you slide on down.

Toronto Blue Jays VI: Elimination Edition

Though the Yankees are still alive with just six games left to play, a single loss or a single Red Sox win will eliminate them from the postseason for the first time since 1993. Elimination is all the more likely because the Yankees will be facing both A.J. Burnett and Roy Halladay yet again in this series, having already gone 2-7 in games started by those two this season. Of the Yankees’ 18 games against Toronto this season, 11 will have been started by Halladay or Burnett. The Yanks are 5-1 against Toronto this year in games started by other Blue Jay pitchers.

Fortunately, Mike Mussina has drawn Jesse Litsch tonight as he goes for this 19th win of the season. Mussina, who will start the final game of the season in Boston, has won 19 games in a season twice in his career, but never for the Yankees. The Yankees are 21-11 in Mussina’s starts this year, the fourth time in his eight years with the Bombers that the team has won 20 or more of the games he has started.

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Silly Sousa

I really enjoyed the fact that the Yankees brought out the U.S. Army Field Band to kick off Sunday’s pre-game ceremonies by playing a pair of Sousa marches thereby echoing the band John Philip Sousa himself led on Opening Day in 1923.

This ain’t that:

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The Decline and Fall

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe has a scathing piece about how the Yankee Stadium experience has changed in recent years. Check it out.

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory #16

By Maury Allen

This was in 1972 in the old Yankee Stadium, the one where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle had played, long before the 1974-75 refurbishing and a dream location across from The House That Steinbrenner is building for 2009.

I walked on that green grass again as I had for a dozen years or so as a sportswriter, looked out at those monuments, examined that façade above the third deck and waited for my pitching pal.

Fritz Peterson, the left-handed anchor of the bad Yankee pitching staff of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was on the field now, a smile on his face as always, his baseball cap tipped back, his eyes wide with glee and amusement.

“I got another Tugboat post card,” he said, with that wry smile. “I put it in his locker.”

Peterson had a habit of collecting post cards of big boats or even bigger women and dropping them off in the locker of Thurman Munson, the best Bronx Bomber catcher since Yogi. It irritated the surly Munson no end.

Sparky Lyle, another laughing teammate, had once described Munson as not really moody.

“Moody is when you can smile some of the time,” Lyle once said of his unfortunate batterymate, later to lose his life in a 1979 plane crash.

We chatted a while about Peterson’s next start in another strong season (17-15 in 1972 after 20 wins in 1970) and then I asked him if he was available on the next Yankees off day for a barbecue at my suburban home.

“Sure,” he said. “Can I bring Kekich?”

He had become pals with another Yankee lefty, Mike Kekich and the two couples, Fritz and Marilyn Peterson, Mike and Suzanne Kekich had spent a lot of time together.

The four of them arrived at my home on a beautiful summer night. My wife Janet had gone all out with her best cooking, our best dishes and a beer-filled refrigerator. A good time was had by all.

Soon, the information was out. Peterson and Kekich had arranged that night to swap wives, kids, cars, dogs, houses and hearts.

Marilyn and Mike never lasted as a couple. Fritz and Suzanne are going on some 35 years together.

Some people will always remember the giant home runs at the Stadium hit by Mickey Mantle or the clutch World Series shots by Yogi Berra or the brilliance of Whitey Ford on the mound and Elston Howard behind the plate.

Me? I just remember standing on that famous green grass and simply asking Fritz Peterson to join us for a barbecue. Who knew what evil lurked behind that question.

Maury Allen, a veteran newspaperman and author, writes for The Columnists.com.

The Final Week

With six days left in the regular season, five of the eight playoff spots are still in play and nine teams are still in the hunt.

In the NL East, the Phillies have won ten of their last 11 to build a 2.5 game lead over the Mets. They have just five games left, two against the Braves, and three against the Nationals. The Mets have six games left, the first three against the NL best Cubs. That race looks over.

Fortunately for the Mets, they still hold a one-game lead over the Brewers in the NL Wild Card race. The Brewers also have three games left against the Cubs and have gone just 5-15 on the month. Milwaukee’s other three games are against the Pirates, the Mets’ against the Marlins. Since the top two teams here are choking their seasons away, it’s worth mentioning that the third horse in that race is Houston, which is 3.5 games back this morning and has seven games left against the Reds, Braves, and a season-ending makeup game against the Cubs. All four teams mentioned above play all of their remaining games at home. The other two teams still alive in the NL Wild Card race are the Marlins and Cardinals, both of whom could be eliminated to day with a loss and a Mets win.

The Cardinals host the Diamondbacks for the next three days, then send them home to face the Rockies. The D’backs trail the Dodgers by two games in the West. Joe Torre’s team finishes up against the Padres and Giants.

The AL finds four teams still in play for the remaining two spots, though one of them is the Yankees, who can do no better than tie the Red Sox for the Wild Card. The Sox will clinch the Wild Card with a win or a Yankee loss. Boston also has a chance to pass the Rays for first place in the East (they trail by 2.5 games), though that’s less significant since the Rays have already clinched a playoff spot.

That just leaves the race in the Central, which is where the real action is over the next three days as White Sox, who hold a 2.5 game lead in the division, travel to Minnesota to try to put away the second-place Twins head-to-head. If they fail, the Twins will finish at home against the Royals, while the White Sox host the Indians (actually, that will happen anyway, it just won’t mean as much if the White Sox clinch in Minneapolis).

Here’s the schedule for the White Sox’s series in Minnesota:

Tue 9/23 8:10 (Vazquez v Baker)
Wed 9/24 8:10 (Buehrle v Blackburn)
Thu 9/25 8:10 (Floyd v Slowey)

Sadly, none of these games will be nationally televised.

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