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The Regular Season Vault

Posted By Jon DeRosa On February 8, 2011 @ 10:43 am In Bronx Banter,Jon DeRosa | Comments Disabled

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Has the regular season lost all significance to us as fans?

In the 2010 stretch drive, we watched the Yankees rest their players for the looming Postseason tournament. While there were voices on both sides of the debate, all parties had to agree their was a heirarchy of achievement in which the World Series placed at the top. This reduced the substance of the argument for those of us gunning for the division crown to purely nominal terms.

And the Yankees don’t even hang a little felt pennant unless they win the Series.

But we marginalize the regular season at our own peril. Sooner or later, and possibly even this year, it’s all we’ll have. In those years, I don’t intend to stop being a fan, so I think it’s a good idea to try to realign priorities in order to make that fandom possible. After all, what value is the regular season if losing out on the World Series invalidates everything that preceded it?

Baseball viewed through the prism of the postseason ignores the fact the foundations of championships extend all the way back into April, and even into surrounding seasons. It’s an iceberg viewed from an airplane – most of the mass is underwater.

But no more! We have exhumed the “Lost Classics” of regular seasons past. Games that deserve our attention. Games that defined players and teams, that set-up championships, that were epic poems in and of themselves. Without these games, there are no Hall of Fame inductions, no retired numbers, and no parades. And after all, isn’t baseball a summer game?

THE BIRTH OF COOL (AND CONFIDENT) – July 4th, 1995

Our first extract from the vault of “Lost Classics” hails from the pre-natal days of the most recent dynasty. It was Independence Day, 1995 and the Yankees were visiting Chicago. We need not describe their opponent any further, because way back in 1995, there was no interleague play. Both teams, division leaders at the time of the 1994 strike, were struggling since the return to play and found themselves on the frowny side of .500.

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The Yankees had problems in the rotation (I guess as almost every team does almost every year) and were searching for answers.  Even back in 1995, Jack Curry had the goods [3]:

Without Jimmy Key for at least the rest of the season and probably without Melido Perez and Scott Kamieniecki until the second half of the season, the Yankees have desperately searched for starters. They have talked on the phone about trades and searched on the farm for the right prospect.

Rookie Mariano Rivera had debuted earlier in the season and spilled his first cup of coffee with the Yankees right down the front of his brand new uniform. He got the ball four times and was awful three times. In 15 innings, he allowed 18 runs, and even more striking, walked as many men as he struck out – eight. He got battered back to Columbus dragging a 10.20 ERA behind him. But in Columbus, something clicked.

Rivera had not allowed a run in his last 20 2/3 innings in the minors, so when the right-hander returned on Monday for his second stint of the season with the Yankees, he carried a scoreless streak with him. … In his last start, Rivera won a five-inning no-hitter for Columbus against Rochester. … With a microscopic 1.17 earned run average in five starts at Columbus and a 1-2 record and 10.20 e.r.a. with the Yankees before today, Rivera had a goal: to prove he could win in the majors.

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Rivera earned another shot in the bigs. He faced the Chicago White Sox who were an above average offensive team – they could hit for average and scored the fifth most runs in the American League. It wasn’t a powerhouse, but it wasn’t a bad representation of the division-winning White Sox lineups from 1993 and 1994. And they couldn’t sniff Mo’s stuff.

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He struck out 11 batters, and nine of those were swinging whiffs. When they put the bat on it, they could only manage weak contact as the Sox grounded 12 outs to the infield while getting only four balls to the outfielders. Dave Martinez (later corroborated by John Kruk [6] on Baseball Tonight) offers Curry a likely explanation: “The scouting report we had said that he throws about 85 or 86,” White Sox outfielder Dave Martinez said. “He was throwing a lot harder than that.”

Frank Thomas got him for two singles and a fly out, but in those days, that was not a bad line versus the Big Hurt at his most bone-crushingest. None of the rest of the team had any chance, though the veterans were annoyingly patient and worked all four walks (Kruk twice, Dave Martinez and Ozzie Guillen). Robin Ventura made two loud outs (around a swinging strike out), so I guess he was able to square it up a little bit, too.

Not only was Mariano dominant, he was only in one mini-jam the whole game. It was the type of jam that you’d expect from a rookie, but one that seems totally uncharacteristic given what we know of the pitcher today. After Paul O’Neill staked him a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth with a solo jack, Mariano committed the cardinal sin of walking the lead off man Dave Martinez in front of Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura. He got Thomas to fly out, but then balked Martinez over to second – that’s one of three balks in his 16-year career.

With the runner in scoring position (the only one he would allow all game), he bore down and struck out Ventura to culminate an eight-pitch at bat. He lost John Kruk on a full count, but rebounded to strike out Warren Newsome to end the threat.

Already cruising, after the fourth he found a higher gear. He allowed only one more single and one more walk, and struck out six to wrap up his night. He left after 129 pitches and eight superb innings and his final line tallied 11 strikeouts, four walks, two hits, and zero runs. The Yankees iced the game with a couple of sac flies and a Bernie Williams triple. John Wetteland wobbled in the 9th and gave up a run but never had to face the tying run as the Yanks won 4-1. I assume there was much rejoicing.

Mariano only had five more starts after this one. Three went well, and two went poorly. Though the results were not as eye-popping as the fireworks of the Fourth of July, he did exhibit some encouraging signs. He produced a K/BB ratio of 18/8 in the final five starts of his career. Of course, these encouraging signs were abandoned once he stepped on the mound in the 12th inning of the second game of the ALDS later that fall. That night, he permanently switched the course of his career, with a new heading towards becoming the greatest relief pitcher of all-time.

What’s so fun about this “Lost Classic” is that it’s not only an inspired performance by one of our favorite players, but it’s almost like a peephole into another reality, where up is down, the Clippers are the Lakers and Mariano Rivera is a stud starting pitcher with an arsenal of pitches.

Wouldn’t we love to listen to the early Beatles experimenting with their sound? Don’t we get excited at auctions when artists’ early works are discovered? This game is the unseen underbelly of the legend. The guy figuring it out. The work in progress. The brief fulfillment of one potential that ultimately would be abandoned in favor of some other pursuit. It’s not vintage – it’s pre-transitional.

Wouldn’t it be a treat to see Mariano earnestly operating with a slider and change-up? Heck, I’d sign up just to see the balk. I want to see if he was rattled at all – if he was sweating. I want to see how those foreign pitches come off his hand – would it look completely unnatural?

I also get a kick out of the vocabulary of Jack Curry’s coverage. It has the familiarity of our first encounters with Chien Min Wang, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova – the narrative of the young guy trying to make a mark and stick around. But it lacks all the familiarity of what we expect to read about Mariano Rivera. There’s no cutter to talk about, and in its place is a change-up and a slider? No catalogue of broken bats and broken hearts, just an inkling that something wonderful was stirring there in Chicago.

Check out Mike Stanley’s reaction: “The makeup is there and he’s got the confidence,” catcher Mike Stanley said when asked whether Rivera had the repertory to be a star. “If he continues to be determined and aggressive, he’ll get there.”

Or from Mariano’s self-assessment: “I know I can pitch up here,” Rivera said. “No doubt about it. They have to hit me. They didn’t.”

It really feels like they’re talking about a different player, or like when a TV show hires a different actor to play to the same part. There’s recognition there, but something is off.

Also remarkable is that some of the insights were really spot on. Mike Stanley spoke of “makeup” and “confidence” above any specific detail of his pitching. When you look back at Mariano, the statistics are mind-boggling, but in almost every season, some closer puts up better numbers. But they flame out and lose their ability to get consistent results. Rivera matches his talent with collected confidence and that’s what enables him to return the same quality each and every outing.

I remember watching K-Rod trying to close out an All-Star game in one of the years the league was too dumb to put Mariano on the team. As he bounced a couple of fastballs to the catcher like cricket pitches and visibly worked through the intense emotions of closing a big-time game, Mariano’s predictable poise stood out for the rare gift it is.

Curry himself used words that would come to appear in almost every Mariano-related article to follow when he wrote, “…Rivera was as cool and confident and commanding in his start today for the Yankees as he has been at Columbus this season.” If he had only thought to trademark “cool and confident” he’d be rolling in it.

Imagining Mariano Rivera as a starter is not a particularly compelling game of “What If?” for Yankee fans since we are all so thrilled with the alternative. But I can’t but help but think how differently his evolution would have been received if it had taken place 15 years later.

Mariano had very good minor league stats, and at least in some of his Major League starts, showed signs of an immense ocean of talent in his right arm. The media and fans alike would anticipate his arrival, and some not-small amount of hype would surround his ascent. Mariano appears to materialized in pinstripes out of shadows and fog.

And a touted rookie with recent shoulder trouble would never even be allowed to throw 100 pitches in a game – Mariano threw close to 130. Jack Curry mentioned the fact in passing, without a trace of concern or controversy, in the final paragraph of his recap.

And let’s recall the outcries (and bash ourselves about the head while we’re at it) unleashed when Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain made their forays into the bullpen. The opinion is almost universal with Joba, in particular because he is coming off a bad year and seems to be now permanently a reliever, that the Yankees botched his education and wasted his talent.

Even if you like Joba in the bullpen, you probably think the Yankees screwed him up by shuttling him back and forth. And if you don’t like Joba in the bullpen, his current status is a tragedy.

And yet the Yankees moved Mariano Rivera to the bullpen without a peep from the media. Were fans upset? I wasn’t. Even if some were, there was no internet for opinions to gather and alternative positions to congeal. Maybe there would have been objections, after all, the Yankees were not flush with starting pitching. Consider their rotation: Cone, Pettitte, Gooden, Key and Rogers.

Much as today with CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, David Cone provided stability and Andy Pettitte provided youth and promise, but the rest of the rotation was filled with Gooden, Key and Rogers. Faded greats and the Gambler. There weren’t any convincing reasons to give those guys 59 starts in 1996 (and another 41 in 1997) at the expense of developing a potential star.

Other reasons for the lack of outcry are that fans and media alike were not as knowledgeable of the farm system in 1995 and their statistics were not as readily available as they are today. Projection systems have become more sophisticated, and the value of relievers versus starters is more firmly delineated. Back then, if the Yankees thought Mariano Rivera was best suited for the bullpen and fans just accepted that they knew what they were doing.

I don’t want to trade the last 15 seasons for a chance to see what might have happened if Mariano had remained a starting pitcher. But I would be very psyched to sit down and watch this game and see what it might have looked like.

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How about you guys? What are the regular season games that have stuck with you? When a player did something great or a team came together in a memorable way? Help us recast the regular season as something other than a tedious entry form for the big tournament.


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[1] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/12a_vault_ORAU1.jpg

[2] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/whitesox95sl-111.jpg

[3] Jack Curry had the goods: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/05/sports/baseball-rivera-may-have-said-final-goodbye-to-columbus.html

[4] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/By6gqywmkKGrHqNikEw5hrnFyzBMTvsI3HgQ_31.jpg

[5] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2da1be97-150a-4314-8c53-a071d4222de31.jpg

[6] John Kruk: http://espn.go.com/blog/new-york/yankees/post/_/id/5040/what-are-marianos-best

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