As I said, it’s gonna be like this, and the sooner we come to terms with it, the better. The Yankees will lose two or three or eight games in a row, and hysteria will follow. The team is awful, the general manager is asleep, the manager should be fired! But soon enough, things will look up, and so it was on Saturday night.
After the disappointment of the previous two games, the Yankees hit the ground running in the first inning when Chase Headley and Alex Rodríguez each singled to put runners on first and second with one out. Mark Teixeira struck out, but that brought up Brian McCann, the hottest man in the Yankee lineup. He watched strike one, then laced a single into right field to score Headley, extending McCann’s impressive string of eight straight games with an RBI and giving his team a 1-0 lead.
Nathan Eovaldi was on the mound for the Bombers, and he pitched the way he almost always does, like a tightrope walker in a rainstorm; every step was an adventure. Before we even had a chance to enjoy that 1-0 lead, Eovaldi had worked himself into a first-inning jam with runners on first and second and two out. Josh Reddick singled to left field, but the newest Yankee, Ramon Flores, recently called up to replace Slade Heathcott, charged the ball and fired home to nail the runner at the plate. It must’ve been nice for Flores. The first time he touched a ball in a major league game he turned it into an out at the plate. Sure, McCann helped him out with a nifty diving tag, but when he tells the story to his grandchildren years from now that throw will have become a laser that split the dish and caught the runner by three strides. (In the next inning Flores made a play that won’t have to be exaggerated, as he raced fifty feet to his right to make a diving grab in foul territory. Quite a debut for the youngster.)
Eovaldi’s struggles continued in the third inning. Even though his fastball was consistently in the mid 90s, the Oakland hitters weren’t in the least bit frightened. Billy Burns, Marcus Semien, and Stephen Vogt opened the frame with singles to load the bases, but Eovaldi limited the damage, I guess, by allowing just a sacrifice fly and a run-scoring single before getting the final two outs. Even so, the A’s had the lead, 2-1.
For the fourth straight inning the A’s led off with a single, and this time it was the bespectacled Eric Sogard. In this day and age of lasik surgery and contact lenses, there are few things more rare than a baseball player wearing glasses. Sure, there’s an occasional middle reliever who will sprint in from the bullpen wearing sports goggles, but Sogard’s frames look like something your mother used to wear when she went to Mah-jongg Mondays with the other housewives on the block. All that’s missing is a chain dangling around his neck. I can only assume that he lost a bet at some point and doesn’t realize that he’s playing on national television every night.
At any rate, Sogard singled to center, moved to second on a groundout, and then eventually scored on a single from Marcus Semien. The A’s had their third run, and it looked so easy.
Finally, in the top of the fifth, the Yankee offense began to stir. Jose Pirela started the rally with a two-out single, and the inning stayed alive when third baseman Brett Lawrie (probably still celebrating Friday night’s home run) flat out dropped Brett Gardner’s line drive, putting runners on first and second. Headley took advantage with an RBI singled grounded up through the middle, and the Yanks were within striking distance at 3-2.
Eovaldi got two outs in the fifth before allowing a single to Lawrie. It was the eleventh Athletic hit of the night, and Joe Girardi had finally seen enough. He lifted his starter in favor of Chasen Shreve, who would calmly strike out Mark Canha to end the inning, and then all four A’s batters in the sixth.
The Yankee hitters, meanwhile, struck again in the top of the fifth when Carlos Beltrán socked a two-run homer to dead center field to give New York a 4-3 lead with only six outs to go until the firm of Betances and Miller could turn out the lights.
After Shreve coasted through his inning and a third, Justin Wilson came on for the seventh to retire Semien and Vogt before an anxious Girardi brought in Betances to get the final out.
The game was pretty much over at that point, but the Yankees tacked on another run in the eighth, just to be safe. Teixeira led off with a single, and when he noticed that the A’s weren’t holding him on, the speedy Tex swiped second without a throw. It wasn’t defensive indifference, it was defensive ignorance. Three pitches later McCann grounded out to the right side, allowing Teixeira to trot to third, and then That Man Beltrán slapped a single to left to bring Teixeira home with the insurance run. Speed kills.
Betances cruised through the bottom of the eighth, making you wonder if he’ll ever give up an earned run this season, Andrew Miller took care of the ninth, and the Yankees had their win, 5-3. Tomorrow they’ll get another, just you watch.
Well, the good news is that it might only take 85 wins to claim the American League East, which means the Yankees just have to keep doing what they’re doing to reach the playoffs. The bad news, of course, is that we’ll have to watch them.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m down on this team. There are plenty of guys that I like to watch and love to root for — Brett Gardner, Alex Rodríguez, Michael Pineda, Dellin Betances, and a few others — but more and more it’s beginning to look like these Yankees are who they are. There will be stretches of something less than brilliance, like that three-game sweep in Kansas City, but there will also be dark times when you’ll wonder how they ever managed to beat anyone at all.
Guess where we sit now? Tonight’s matchup certainly favored the Athletics, as they had a true ace on the mound in Sonny Gray, while the Yankees trotted out Chris Capuano, the very definition of a fifth starter.
If you’ve never seen Gray pitch, imagine a 12-year-old boy with a David Cone delivery and a 95-mph fastball, and you’ve pretty much got it. The baby-faced Gray wouldn’t look out of place at an AAU tournament, but he certainly wasn’t intimidated by the Yankee hitters on Friday night. He faced only twelve batters through the first four innings, yielding just a leadoff walk to Gardner before erasing him with a double play.
While Gray was dicing through the Yankee lineup with coldblooded efficiency, Capuano was struggling in the early going. Thanks to some Steve Garvey-like decisions by backup first baseman Garrett Jones, the A’s were able to load the bases in the second inning. Jones fielded a grounder with the plodding Billy Butler on first, but he backed away from the easy throw and chose instead to take the out at first. Two batters later with runners on first and second, Josh Phegley slapped a single to right. Forgetting perhaps that Butler had no shot of scoring from second, both runners behind him took wide turns around their respective bags. Jones could’ve thrown out either man after cutting off Beltrán’s throw (replays showed Brian McCann screaming and pointing towards first base), but he held the ball again. Capuano got Mark Canha to fly out to left to end the inning. Only two innings had been played, and no runs had been scored, but somehow it felt like the Yanks already trailed.
After the next inning, they would. Billy Burns of the Oxford Commas led off with a double and then went to third on a Marcus Semien single. Ben Zobrist then hit a two-hopper to Chase Headley at third for what should’ve been a room service double play, but the second hop didn’t hop as much as Headley expected. The ball dove like a rabbit through Headley’s legs. The A’s had a run and a rally. Butler whacked the next pitch off the wall in left for a double to score another run, and Stephen Vogt rapped the next pitch down the line to right for another double and two more runs. To be fair, it was Headley’s error that opened the wound, but Capuano did nothing to stop the bleeding.
As Gray toed the rubber to start the top of the fifth, I can’t imagine that anyone watching wasn’t thinking about the no-hitter. He had a four-nothing lead, but it might as well have been forty-nothing. He pumped strike one and strike two past McCann, but then the Yankee catcher took the next pitch and pounded it over the wall in right for a home run to spoil the no-no and cut the Athletic lead to 4-1. (Two notes: McCann has now homered in four straight games, and he’s the first Yankee catcher since Yogi Berra to have RBIs in seven straight.)
Capuano, meanwhile, was settling down. He coasted through the fourth and fifth innings, giving the bullpen just a bit more rest. More importantly, he kept his team in the game. In the top of the sixth, Didi Gregorius, of all people, took advantage. He shot a double into the gap in right center, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scampered home on a Gardner groundout, and suddenly the Yankees were down only 4-2.
Esmil Rogers came on in the sixth and was solid in relief of Capuano, striking out three over an inning and two thirds, but rookie Jacob Lindgren ran into trouble in the eighth. He walked the leadoff batter when he lost a ten-pitch battle to Vogt, then things got worse when Brett Lawrie blasted a two-run homer to left to stretch the lead to 6-2. (Quick note about Lawrie: I don’t like him. He was barking all the way around the bases and arrived in the Oakland dugout as if he had just won Game 7 of the World Series. He’s positively begging for a fastball in the ribs.)
The Yankees mounted something of a rally in the ninth, putting two runners on and forcing manager Bob Melvin to bring in his closer, Tyler Clippard, but it didn’t amount to anything. Stephen Drew popped up, and the game was over. Athletics 6, Yankees 2.
It was appropriate that Drew made the final out, because I think it’s time that he’s finally put out. He’s had 152 at bats and he’s hitting .158. Not only is that average the worst in baseball, it’s twenty-four points below the next worst, the Angels’ Matt Joyce. (Gregorius, by the way, is hitting .211, which is eleventh-worst. New York’s keystone combination has combined to hit .183. Go back and read that sentence again.) Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder is hitting .286 down in Scranton. I think it’s time.
So what are we to make of these Yankees? They race out to a first place lead in April and stay there long enough to make folks think about the playoffs even if there were more than 120 more games to play, then they suffer through the team’s worst run in twenty years, losing ten of eleven, before righting the ship with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals. (And by the way, that was a fun series, wasn’t it? I’ll never get tired of the old clips of Brett and Nettles throwing haymakers; they’d each get ten-game suspensions today for behavior like that, but in the boys-will-we-boys era of 1977? Nothing at all.)
So as the Yankees headed out to the West Coast for four games against the hapless Athletics, there were hopes that the momentum would continue. For a while, that’s exactly what happened. The Bombers got on the board first when Brian McCann laced a homer into the right field seats with one out in the second, staking CC Sabathia to a 1-0 lead.
I don’t think anyone in the organization expected much from Sabathia this season, but still he’s somehow managed to fall short of those low expectations. Tonight, however, he wasn’t bad, not nearly as bad as the box score would indicate. The A’s put together something of a rally in the bottom of the third, and for a while it looked like the type of inning that’s been CC’s undoing over the last few years. With one out Josh Phegley hit a flair to right center, Mark Canha grounded a single up the middle, and Billy Burns blooped a ball in front of Carlos Beltrán in right. Three unimpressive singles had loaded the bases, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the next hitter had blasted a grand slam. Instead, the old Sabathia showed up for a bit. He struck out Marcus Semien on a high fastball, then painted the inside corner with another fastball to get Ben Zobrist looking to end the threat. Hope?
The Yankee hitters took that momentum and turned it into another run in the top of the fourth. Alex Rodríguez blasted a ground ball through the teeth of the shift for a leadoff single and then moved to second when Mark Teixeira walked. When McCann followed that with a solid single to center, A-Rod came rumbling around third looking to score the Yanks’ second run, but he was called out after the umpire ruled he had missed the plate.
Here’s one thing I like about the instant replay system. A-Rod knew he had touched the dish with his left hand as he had slid by the plate, but he didn’t get angry at all. After being called out he simply turned to the dugout and motioned for Joe Girardi to challenge the play. A minute later his run was on the board. In the old days he would’ve jumped and screamed and nothing would’ve changed; I like this way better.
In the top of the fifth Brett Gardner started a one-out rally with a single to right, then took off on a 3-2 pitch to Chase Headley and coasted into third when the third baseman stroked a single to right center. A-Rod produced a professional at bat, lofting a sacrifice fly to right field to tie Barry Bonds on the all-time RBI list at 1,996 and give the Yanks a 3-0 lead.
There was nothing fancy about any of it, but the workmanlike efficiency was comforting. Sure, there had been some missed opportunities for more, but a three-run lead against this quadruple-A team seemed pretty comfortable. In fact, when a kid named Billy Burns hooked a ball about six inches over the wall and six inches from the left field foul pole for a homer that cut the Yankee lead to 3-1 in the bottom of the fifth, I wasn’t the least concerned. (If you want to know the truth, it didn’t break my heart. I picked up Burns in my fantasy league a couple days ago. That home run might’ve hurt CC and the Yanks, but it helped keep my Oxford Commas comfortably in first place.)
It was the sixth inning when things fell apart. After giving up a ringing double to Zobrist on the first pitch of the frame, Sabathia dug deep again, getting Billy Butler to fly out and striking out Stephen Vogt. But for some reason he altered his delivery to Brett Lawrie, going to a slide step even though Zobrist was sitting firmly on third base with no place to go. The resulting pitch floated up a bit, and Lawrie pounded the mistake into the seats to tie the game. One bad pitch undid six innings of work.
Making things worse, Sabathia opened the seventh by yielding a single to Phegley and a walk to Canha, and that would be all. David Carpenter came in and made a mess of things (single, bases loaded walk, sacrifice fly for a 5-3 Oakland lead), but Sabathia wasn’t nearly as bad as the numbers make him look. In fact, if he could manage to pitch this well every time out the rest of the way, the Yankees would win the division. Sadly, it wasn’t good enough tonight.
The Yankees mounted a two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth against the ex-Yankee Clippard, scoring a run when Brett Gardner rocked a double to the wall to score Garret Jones, but when Burns hauled in Headley’s fly ball on the warning track in left center, the game was over. Athletics 5, Yankees 4.
I didn’t read Judy Blume when I was growing up but my twin sister sure did. I have a clear memory of her worn paperback covers for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Blubber.
“I’m a storyteller — you know what I mean — an inventor of people,” Blume said. “And their relationships. It’s not that I love the words — that’s not the kind of writer I am. So I’m not” — she made a furious scribbling motion with her right hand — “I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller.”
Of all the ledes in all the stories inspired by the Ali-Liston “Phantom Punch” fight, I liked best the one by my late friend Barbara Long wrote for The Village Voice fifty years ago this week, “I loved the minute of it!”
Her timing, though, was a little off. It was at precisely 1:44 that the Phantom Punch either did or didn’t land and Sonny Liston went down. At 1:56 he got up, at which point Ali began bombarding him with punches, and it was 2:12 when the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott, stepped in to inform the participants that the fight was actually over 16 or 17 seconds earlier.
If you think that’s confusing, then you know how everyone in the crowd of 4,000 (the smallest ever to witness a heavyweight title fight) felt. Watch the fight and judge for yourself.
Three days after the fight, the cover of Life magazine hit the stands with Neil Leifer’s famous photograph on the cover. A defiant Ali stands over a down and dazed Liston. It’s probably the most instantly recognizable photo in boxing history and may well be the most famous single shot in all of sports.
For many, Ali’s pose seemed staged, adding fuel to the rampant rumors that the fight was fixed. Liston had been one of the most fearsome champions the heavyweight division had ever seen; he had never been knocked down and most members of the old boxing establishment simply refused to believe that Ali could have knocked him out so easily.
Leifer’s picture, therefore, came to symbolize the fight itself. Or as Kelefa Sanneh wrote in last week’s (May 25) New Yorker: “The famous 1965 photograph of Muhammad Ali shouting at the limp body of Sonny Liston records not a great triumph but a great fiasco: the fight, hurriedly staged in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, ended with a first round knockout that many still believe was fraudulent – the result of a ‘phantom punch’ and evidence, purportedly, that Liston had been paid to lose.”
Indeed, there were many rumors that Sonny was paid to take a dive, though everyone seemed to have a different theory as to who paid him and why. (You can hear several of the conspiracy theories on YouTube.) But no one has ever been able to explain why it would be worth a lot of money for anyone to pay Liston to lose, or, if he was intimidated by some of the angry black Muslims that surrounded Ali, why he couldn’t have used his well-known mob connections for protections.
In their first fight, Liston was a huge favorite, and anyone who bet on Cassius Clay cleaned up. But in the second fight, the odds were a slim 6-to-5 favor Liston, so there was no big money to be made betting. The real money was in having the heavyweight title or in owning the man who held it. How much money could Liston possibly been paid to throw away the most valuable prize in sports? And who would have paid him since what the mob surely wanted was for Liston to win back the title?
At the risk of destroying boxing’s most cherished conspiracy theories, it’s time to put to rest the notion that either fight represented anything but total domination by Muhammad Ali. Ali went on to become the greatest heavyweight of all time, and Sonny Liston, who was likely much older than the 31 years he claimed – some said as old as 38 — suddenly got much older when facing the fastest heavyweight who ever lived. As the late, great Ring and Boxing Illustrated editor Burt Randolph Sugar put it, “At his best, Sonny couldn’t have hit Clay with a handful of stones.”
What happened in their second fight is that Liston walked right into a punch – two punches really. And the recent spate of Phantom Punch anniversary stories have left out one key fact: not everyone who saw the fight agreed that there was no punch.
In a story in Slate on May 22, Dave Mondy wrote that Leifer’s photo “was actually preceded by the puniest of blows, a ‘phantom punch’ as it would later be known – a wispy, theoretical mini-hook that none in attendance even observed.”
A piece I wrote for The New York Times in 2000 on the 35th anniversary of the fight has been quoted by writers on several sites, but, interestingly, no one has the people I talked who did see the Punch. For instance, the Village Voice’s Barbara Long, who was seated behind Ali’s corner and told me that Liston, when hit, had reacted “Like a man on a bicycle hitting a low-lying branch.”
In a column printed two days after the fight, The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, probably the most respected sportswriter in the country at the time, wrote, “I’ll tell you what happened. Sonny Liston got the hell beat out of him is what happened. This time I was looking for it and I saw it: an old man groping his way into a speedy insolent reckless kid … Cassius could have beaten him in high heels.”
Former heavyweight champ and future New York State Athletic Commissioner Floyd Patterson was the man Liston had beat to win the title. Like Long and Murray, he was seated to Ali’s back when the punch was thrown. In an interview for a book several years later, he told me, “Liston got hit hard … Liston was leaning toward him and about to throw a left jab. Suddenly Clay threw a short right hand that I thought hit Liston on the chin. Liston was rocked. And when he started to get up, he was bewildered. I could see it in his eyes.”
The best analysis of the knockout was offered by Tex Maule in the June 7, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated: “Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, retained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out Sonny Liston with a perfectly valid, stunning, right-hand punch to the side of the head. And he won without benefit of a fix.
“Although it is impossible ever to discount the possibility of a fix because of boxing’s still-too intimate connection with the underworld, there is no shred of evidence or plausibility to support the suggestion that this was anything but an honest fight, as was the previous Clay-Liston fight in Miami Beach …
“The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay” – interesting that both Murray and Maule, two of the leading sportswriters of their day, were still referring to Ali by the name he had discarded – “from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston’s ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston’s left arm and into the side of Liston’s jaw.”
Let’s do a forensic examination of the evidence and see if, fifty years after the fact, we can reach a conclusion.
If you watched the fight at regular speed, try looking at the knockout in slow motion.
In slow-mo, it’s easy to see the impact of the punch: Liston’s head shakes like a bobble head doll’s. So much for the “wispy, theoretical mini-hook.”
In their fight issue, SI ran a four picture sequence of the punch, noting that “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.” You can even see the shadow of Liston’s left shoe on the canvas.
Simply put, Liston walked – lunged, actually – right into it, doubling the force of the blow.
And yet, that might not have been the punch responsible for Liston’s destruction. Watch the fight one more time. At a little more than a minute, 1:07 after the bell by my count, Ali connects a short chopping right directly to Sonny’s jaw. The punch is almost identical to the “Phantom Punch,” which comes about thirty seconds later. If that first punch doesn’t look so hard, look at it from another angle, the one on the cover of the June 7 SI:
From this angle, Liston looks as if he’s just taken a two-by-four to the face. Such blows landed early in a bout, before a boxer gets untracked, can scramble his senses, leaving him dazed though still standing. The first right was a set-up; you can see it because of the angle it’s thrown. The second was the coup de gras which couldn’t be seen clearly because Liston’s body obstructed the only camera angle.
Today, there would be three or four different angles and no mystery about the punch. Ali’s right was on target, but even The Greatest couldn’t KO a myth. No doubt we’ll be going all this again in another fifty years.
I don’t think Alex Rodriguez is going to stay healthy all year. But that constant worry aside, he’s been fun to watch, huh? Passing the greats on the RBI list, approaching 3,000 hits. I know I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
The other night, David Cone said he spoke with Rodriguez who told him how much of a relief it was not to play the field. We often hear hitters complain that they don’t like DH’ing because it takes them out of the game. But at Rodriguez’s age, he’s played the field enough. Standing on the hard infield in spikes is murder on your back., not to mention the mental focus playing the field takes. Now, Rodriguez’s job is to concentrate on getting a few good swings each game. Yes, he guesses. (Recently, he’s gone down to one knee, Reggie-Beltre-style, on some of his big hacks.)
I wonder how much he thinks about Edgar Martinez, the wonderful DH he played with early in his career.
Rodriguez slapped a 3-run home run yesterday which was enough to give Michael Pineda (nice bounce back start) and the bullpen all the runs they’d need as the Yanks completed a 3-game sweep of the Royals, 4-2.
Next stop, late night’s out west in Oakland and then Seattle.
The Wife and I were away for a few days up in Vermont. Big sky country. Green, such a bright, fresh green, too. All that space is pleasing to the eye.
We got back last night and I looked out of our window and saw the lights from apartment buildings near us. So dense, so different. And that was comforting too. This morning, the subways were delayed and I sat in a crowded subway car with half of mind mind still in the country.
This picture reminds me that above all of this humanity, the sky is still big.
Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the airplane is plummeting to the earth and we see the numbers on the speedometer getting higher and higher, faster and faster and finally it says: “Silly, isn’t it?”
I kept waiting for a cutaway to that line as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road. There were moments that I laughed out loud because there’s a Looney Tunes quality to the movies’ craziness–I don’t know what other response you can have. I didn’t find the movie thrilling or suspenseful or even tense. There are some scary moments, but nothing that freaked me out. I felt excited in an over-caffeinated way, but it’s so over-the-top, so fantastic, I almost immediately felt detached and after about 15, 20 minutes, bored. It’s magnificent but not for me.
I was talking to a friend recently about appetites and he called himself a pathological maximalist. Forgive the pun, but I kept thinking about that as I watched Fury Road.
The ads boast that the movie was made by “Mastermind” George Miller and that’s no stretch. This isn’t the work of a director. This is a finely tuned, well-realized orchestration from a mastermind. It’s not pure chaos. There is a keen sense of pacing, there are quiet scenes, with breaks in the action, but really I thought the whole thing was akin to watching two-plus hours of slam dunk highlights. It’s an extended guitar solo, an orgy of technical virtuosity, one stunt more improbable than the next. The technique is formidable and some of the images are captivating–though I dare you to recall any specific images after being bombarded by so many. But the story–which at times suggests Thunderdome as much as The Road Warrior–is corny despite its admirable political sensibility. The dialogue is so sparse that it is easy to laugh at–B-movie fromage. The early movies had that quality too but they also had more of a low budget vibe, a punk vibe. This is Cirque du Soliel, this is Vegas, Grand Theft Auto. Miller’s left punk behind. This is rock opera video game for the hyper modern age.
I’ve read Tom Hardy, who plays Max, say that he had no idea what Miller wanted him to do during filming and I think that comes across. Not that it matters–Max is just an action figure who is playing the role of second banana (the lead is played by Charlize Theron). But it’s too bad because I liked Mel Gibson’s tortured hero of the early movies. (And I liked his dog.) There is nothing of the immediacy and realism of the first two movies here. Even if they were cartoons, there was a semblance of credibility, too Here, Max is captured, chained, and when he breaks free, instead of collapsing from fatigue, he springs to life like the Hulk.
I suppose this movie is in step with the times. Maybe that’s why the critics have fallen all over themselves writing about it. How can you ignore not admire such technical brilliance? But this is the kind of roller coaster that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s remarkable and if you like your thrills and spills larger than life you’ll dig it.