"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Hank Waddles

Like So Many Sheep In Red Sox Clothing

I spent much of the weekend being pissed off at the Red Sox, who couldn’t win a single game against the Baltimore Orioles. Not one. In my irrational state of mind I even wondered if there might be some foul play at work. After all, what better way for Boston to get at the Yanks than by rolling over three days in a row in Baltimore?

With this poison still working its way through my system, I sat down to watch the Yankees and Red Sox on Monday evening, and it all became clear as soon as the Boston lineup flashed onto the screen: Pedro Ciriaco, Daniel Nava, Cody Ross, Mauro Gomez, Ryan Lavarnway, Jarod Saltalamacchia, Danny Valencia, Che-Hsuan Lin, and José Iglesias made up the Red Sox starting nine, and three of those guys ended the night hitting less than .200.

CC Sabathia was on the mound for the Yanks, and he showed no mercy. As he was slicing and dicing through Boston’s makeshift lineup (Dustin Pedroia was out with an injured hoof, and Jacoby Ellsbury was on the bench suffering from the 24-hour-lefty-on-the-mound flu), I missed the old Red Sox. Do you remember what an event these series were? Do you remember how every pitch carried with it the weight of the world and a world of possibilities?

I miss the swagger of Pedro Martínez, the horror of Manny Ramírez and David Ortíz, the robotic fierceness of Jonathan Papelbon, the impossible smugness of Josh Beckett, and even the nauseating arrogance of Curt Schilling. I miss the way Jason Varitek would tuck his batting helmet beneath his arm as he crossed the plate after hitting a home run, and the way Kevin Youkilis would slide his hand up and down the shaft of his bat as if he were, well, you know.

I hated all of that, but now I miss it like crazy. These Red Sox? About as compelling as milk. So even as CC was busy dismissing one anonymous BoSock after another, I couldn’t help wondering what this series might’ve been like. Worse than that, when the Yankees sent 13 men to the plate in the second inning to score nine runs and put the game on ice, my heart didn’t beat any faster.

Robinson Canó led off the inning with an absolute monster home run that ricocheted off  the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar a mere 446 feet from home plate, becoming just the second player in four years to turn the trick. Three batters later Curtis Granderson laced a two-run homer into the second deck in right, and before the cheering stopped, Russell Martin backed him up with a homer of his own for a 4-0 Yankee lead.

Canó came up later in the inning and rocked a double to right center, scoring two more runs. A quick word about Canó. Even though some have criticized him this season and accused him of playing below his ability, it should be remembered that people whispered the same things about Roberto Clemente, probably for the same reason. Canó finished the game 3 for 5 with a home run and two doubles, giving him a total of 48 two-baggers and 31 homers on the season. Not bad.

Following Canó was Mark Teixeira, playing in his first game in weeks. He had struck out in his first at bat against Boston starter Clay Buchholz, but he liked something he saw from the new Boston pitcher, Alfredo Aceves, and quickly jumped on it. It was a no-doubter; the ball leapt off Tex’s bat and settled in the second deck. If Teixeira can get his swing together in time for the playoffs (or keep it together), the Yankee lineup is suddenly much more formidable.

Nothing much happened the rest of the way — a solo home run from Nava and a sacrifice fly from Saltalamacchia accounted for the Boston scoring — save for the bottom of the eighth. I’ve always loved watching players get their first hit, so I was thrilled for Melky Mesa when his two-hopper found its way into center field for his first career hit and RBI (Eduardo Núñez scored easily from second). Mesa started clapping and smiling half way down the line, and the Yankee dugout exploded behind him as they officially welcomed him to the major leagues with their cheers and good natured ribbing (Eric Chávez jokingly yelled for him to be sure to touch first base). The smile never left his face during that eighth inning.

The 10-2 Yankee win combined with a Baltimore loss gives the Bombers a tie with Texas for the best record in the league and a luxurious one-game lead in the American League East. I expect that they’ll take care of business on Tuesday and Wednesday. You can count on it.

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]

A Work In Progress

During his post game interview following his second start back from the disabled list in Minnesota on Monday night, Andy Pettitte shook his head and laughed. “I’m definitely a work in progress,” he admitted. If you missed the game and just caught that self-deprecating response, you might’ve assumed Pettitte had struggled, something like four runs in five innings and maybe a loss. Not quite.

Pettitte threw 88 pitches over six strong innings, allowing just seven hits and a walk while striking out three. He didn’t allow a run.

Looking at those numbers on the morning after, Pettitte looks brilliant, but he struggled in the first inning. He gave up consecutive singles to open the game, walked Josh Willingham to load the bases with one out, and momentarily fell behind the dangerous Justin Morneau. But he did what we’re used to seeing from Andy Pettitte, what we saw as far back as Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. He battled. He eventually retired Morneau with a 91-MPH fastball dotted on the outside corner, then induced a ground ball from Ryan Doumit to end the inning. It had taken 22 pitches, but he had escaped.

That first inning had been tenuous, but Pettitte had actually been working with a 3-0 lead. Derek Jeter had opened the top of the first with a walk, then raced around to third on a double from the blistering hot Ichiro. Robinson Canó brought one run home with a ground out to short, but then Nick Swisher crushed a ball off the facing of the upper deck in right center field for a muscle-flexing homer and a three-run Yankee cushion. As it turned out, that would be all that Pettitte would need.

Even so, Curtis Granderson gave him another run in the fourth as he rocketed his fortieth homer high into the right field stands. Granderson has become a disturbingly one-dimensional hitter this season, but as frustrating as his all-or-nothing approach can be, it’s hard to criticize a guy who’s hit forty home runs in consecutive seasons, a feat accomplished by only four other players in the long and homer-filled history of the Bronx Bombers. There was Jason Giambi in ’02-’03, and then the three usual suspects: Mickey Mantle (’60-’61), Lou Gehrig (’30-’31), and a guy named Babe Ruth (’20-’21, ’23-’24, ’26-’32). Is it just me, or is it kind of shocking that Alex Rodríguez isn’t on that list?

Pettitte, meanwhile, was straight dealing. After that shaky start, he set down the side in order in the second, used a double play ball to to escape a two-hit inning in the third, watched as Granderson and Russell Martin combined for a phenomenal play to throw out Doumit at the plate to end the fourth, yielded a harmless single in the fifth, then set down three straight in the sixth to finish his scoreless evening. Pettitte just might be the best September call-up in Yankee history, and he definitely looks ready to assume his usual spot starting Game 3 in the playoffs.

Raúl Ibañez and Eric Chávez added solo home runs in the frame after Pettitte’s departure, giving the Yanks a 6-0 lead in the seventh inning and enough of a cushion that the rest of the game seemed unnecessary. There were really just two things of note: things got a bit messy for the bullpen as they yielded three runs in the final two innings, and Derek Jeter singled with one out in the ninth to keep his hitting streak alive at 18 straight games.

At this point in the season, any win makes for a good day, but this 6-3 win meant more than just a half game in the standings. Pettitte has thrown eleven shutout innings since his return from the disabled list, and suddenly the Yankee rotation of Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, and Hughes looks ready to carry the team through these final nine games and into the playoffs. The Yankees won’t clinch the American League East until the weekend, but I think we’ll look back on this game and realize this was the night it was won.

[Photo Credit: Jim Mone/AP Photo]

You Gotta Have Wa

As crazy as it might sound, I don’t get as much pleasure out of watching the Yankees beat up on Josh Beckett anymore. He’s still the bad guy, but it simply isn’t as much fun when you expect him to get rocked, you know? Heck, even Red Sox fans are tired of him, so it’s hard for me to summon the energy to despise him. The cocky, young kid who silenced the Yankee bats to clinch a World Series almost a decade ago has somehow become just another pitcher, kind of like the neighborhood dog that chased you mercilessly when you were a kid, but years later couldn’t rise from his front porch.

And so it was on Sunday night.

Derek Jeter jumped on Beckett’s second pitch of the night and sent it deep over the head of Jacoby Ellsbury in center field for a double, and eventually came home on a two-out double from Curtis Granderson, and the Yanks were off and running. Beckett was stewing.

That one run almost looked like it would be enough. Hiroki Kuroda was on the mound for the Yankees, fresh off his two-hit shutout of the Texas Rangers, and he picked up right where he left off. He set down the first eight hitters without incident before Nick Punto singled, then cruised through the next three innings allowing just another harmless single. Suddenly it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine him starting Game 1 in October.

To give Kuroda a bit of a cushion, the Yankee hitters chipped in a run here and a run there. With one out in the third, Jeter replayed his first inning at bat and crushed another double over Ellsbury’s head, this one bouncing over the wall. Nick Swisher followed that with a walk, and then Jeter and Swisher pulled off a double steal without a throw. Beckett’s next pitch skipped away from Jarod Saltalamacchia, allowing Jeter to score, and it was 2-0.

In the fourth inning, Ichiro came up to the plate with two outs. I always liked watching Ichiro hit, so it hasn’t been hard for me to start rooting for him as a Yankee. You would always here people talk about how he would effortlessly put balls into the seats during batting practice and claim that he could hit twenty or thirty homers a season if he wanted to, and he gave proof in this at bat. Beckett left a pitch up in the zone, and Ichiro jumped all over it, rifling it into the seats in right for a 3-0 Yankee lead. Two innings later he shot another ball into the bleachers, just because he could. I know the Moneyball folks led an OPS-driven backlash against Ichiro early in his career, but as he stepped to the top of the dugout steps, lifting his helmet to reveal his greying hair as he acknowledged the cheering crowd, I could only think that this was one of the best hitters ever to play the game.

Kuroda was still on the mound in the top of the seventh when the revitalized Adrian González homered to right. Since González plays first base for my fantasy team (Mike Pagliarulo Fan Club), I couldn’t get too broken up over it, and neither did Kuroda, though perhaps for different reasons. He finished the seventh, then ended his night by setting down the Sox in order in the eighth. Rafael Soriano untucked the ninth, and the game was over. Yankees 4, Red Sox 1.

[Photo Credit: Jason Szenes/Getty Images]

Chalk Flew Up!

I really don’t know what to say about these Yankees anymore. Deep into the game I was sure this recap was going to be full of doom and gloom. I just knew they’d lose yet another, what would be their third loss in four games in Detroit, and somehow I’d have to put a positive spin on things and convince the Banter faithful that their faith would eventually be rewarded. It turned out none of that would be necessary, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Doug Fister was on the mound for the Tigers. I’m not sure what the numbers are, but it seems like the Yankees tend to struggle against him. In the second inning, though, things were looking good. Eric Chávez sat on first base with two outs when Raúl Ibañez launched a towering fly ball over Quintin Berry’s head in deep left center field, far enough that even the slow-footed Chávez was able to score the game’s first run and the equally challenged Ibañez was able to cruise into third with a triple. Ichiro was up next, and he wasted no time in collecting his daily hit, flicking the second pitch he saw down the left field line for a stand-up double; the Yankees led 2-0.

I must admit that I didn’t have high hopes when Hiroki Kuroda joined the team during the off-season, but he’s quietly become the Yankees’ most dependable pitcher shorter than 6’6″ and weighing less than 290 pounds. Kuroda cruised through the first four innings, nursing that 2-0 lead but looking perfectly comfortable while doing so. Then came the fifth.

Jhonny Peralta hit a booming double to left to open the inning, and a few pitches later Alex Avila laced a home run down the line in right to tie the game at two. These things happen, I suppose, but what happened next usually doesn’t.

Ramón Santiago singled, and with two outs Andy Dirks floated a high fair/foul pop halfway down the line in left. Ibañez was on the case, though, and he hustled in from deep left hoping to make the final out. He came up short, but for a moment it didn’t seem to matter.

Just before the ball dropped, third base umpire Tim Welke threw his arms up, signifying a foul ball. The problem with that is that a split second later the fall ball fell on the chalk, forcing Welke to reverse his call and point correctly into fair territory. Ibañez chased the ball around long enough to allow Barry to score.

Manager Joe Girardi immediately popped out of the dugout and began debating with Welke. His point was that Welke’s initial call — even though it was incorrect — had caused Ibañez to give up on the play, if only for a moment. (For the record, replays did not seem to support this.)

Girardi could be seen to repeat his single claim over and over: “You called the ball foul!” Interestingly enough, Welke admitted as much early in their conversation, saying “I was too quick.” Sometimes an admission like that is enough for a manager, but it only seemed to throw kerosene on Girardi’s fire. He eventually convinced Welke to convene the other three umpires for a conference, but by that point I don’t think there was much that could’ve been done. Had Welke taken away Detroit’s run and pulled Barry back to third, Jim Leyland would probably still be arguing.

When the umpires inevitably held firm, Girardi lost control completely. Fans in the left field bleachers were probably reading his lips easily as he stabbed an index finger into his open palm to illustrate his point: “I’m protesting this game right now!” Welke made note of it and tried to walk away (perhaps because he knew it wasn’t a protestable situation), but Girardi had clearly made up his mind to get himself tossed.

It’s a funny thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my emotions run at a fairly even keel, and I almost never get angry. But when I’m coaching a basketball game and an official makes what I perceive to be a bad call and refuses to listen to my argument, everything changes in a Bruce Banner kind of way. If I were to list the ten angriest moments of my life, every single one of them would be the result of an official’s whistle. There’s a feeling that something has been unfairly taken from you in an irrevocable manner, and the feeling of injustice starts in your heart, courses through your veins, and eventually reaches your brain where it drives you insane.

I’ve been in that moment, and that’s where Girardi was on Thursday night. Welke eventually ejected him, but that hardly ended his tirade. He reiterated his protest, fired his hat in disgust, and appeared to make contact with crew chief Bob Davidson (suspension coming?). On his way to the dugout he pantomimed Welke’s error, throwing his hands up in the air, then pointing towards foul territory before pointing back fair. The whole episode lasted just a few seconds short of five minutes, and when Girardi finally turned towards the clubhouse, he paused on the steps long enough to hold his nose while looking in Welke’s direction. He didn’t get what he wanted, but at least he got his money’s worth.

Welke gave his take afterwards: “I started to put my hands up in the air — I was a little quick — then I saw the ball hit the chalk line, and I pointed fair about three times,” Welke said. “I don’t think it had any impact. I’ve watched the replay, and I don’t think there was any impact on the outfielder. I don’t think Ibanez ever even saw me. We got the call right.”

It looked for a while like that was going to be the story of this game. Another creatively painful way for the Yankees to lose.

But in the eighth Mark Teixeira jumped on a 2-0 pitch from reliever Joaquin Benoit and ripped a line drive home run into the stands in right, tying the score at three. Before Benoit could think much about that, Chávez took the very next pitch and lofted a home run of his own over the left field wall, and suddenly the Yankees had the lead again.

Rafael Soriano got the last out of the eighth for the Yanks, then almost threw everything away in the ninth, and it took only three pitches. He gave up a double to Avila to lead things off, then yielded a short single to Omar Infante to put runners on the corners with no one out.

The Yankees surely were hoping to preserve a tie and would’ve been happy just to get to the tenth inning, but somehow Soriano did better than that. He got Santiago to float a soft liner to Canó at second for the first out, induced a pop-up from Berry, then nailed down the third out when Dirks hit a weak fly ball to center. Yankees 4, Tigers 3.

There are questions in Yankeeland, but for one afternoon at least, the answers were adequate.

[Photo Credit: Duane Burleson/AP Photo]

Babe Ruth and the Banyan Tree

There’s one thing you should know about the Banter–we spare no expense in the pursuit of a story, and we are never truly on vacation.

So even as my family and I have been enjoying the tropical breezes, idyllic pace, and pristine beaches of Hawaii this week, I’ve kept my nose to the ground the entire time, searching for a story. I found one on Day One.

Directly outside our hotel on the Hilo side of the Big Island, stood an enormous banyan tree marked with a simple sign, “Geo. Herman “Babe” Ruth, Oct. 29, 1933″. After some serious reporting (a five-second conversation with the concierge), I procured a pamphlet which described the evolution of Banyan Drive. Back in 1933 someone decided it might be a fun idea to have celebrities and local luminaries plant banyan trees along a stretch of road that curved around an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The Babe was on a barnstorming tour, so he was a natural pick, as was Cecil B. DeMille, who was in town filming a movie.

Banyan trees appear as if they’ve been imported directly the planet Dagobah. They begin as a tree with a single trunk, but as they mature, the branches drop long tendrils which twist downward until they find the ground and take root, eventually thickening to the point where it becomes difficult to identify the original trunk. Mature trees have hundreds of separate trunks encompassing hundreds of square feet.

I took my daughter Alison down to the tree on the morning we left to take a few pictures. Before we left I asked her to put her hand next to mine on the outermost root. It was rough and full of history.

“Can you feel it?” I asked. “Babe Ruth planted this tree. Babe Ruth.”

Game 1: Dogs; Game 2: Dog Pile

One streak died on Friday night in Oakland, another survived, but more important to the overall picture, a losing streak was born.

When last the Yankees visited Oakland, they thumped the A’s in three straight games, and I spent a lot of time making fun of them in the one recap I wrote, comparing them to a minor league team as I shamelessly listed Oakland batting averages from one to nine, laughing all the way.

Things are different now. (For one thing, Yoenis Cespedes was on the disabled list during that series back in May. He’s been healthy and punishing Yankee pitching during this series, but more on him later.)

Early in the game a preposterous graphic popped up beneath Yankee starter Iván Nova. According to said graphic, not only did Nova lead the league in extra base hits allowed, he apparently led by a wide margin — 61 extras compared to the second place hurler who had only surrendered 49.

I was so baffled by this, that I spoke aloud to the television. “That can’t possibly be true.”

And here’s where things got a bit strange. Nova paused during his warm-ups, waited for the camera to zoom tight, then, as if he were Woody Allen or Ferris Bueller, he turned and looked directly into the camera… and answered me. Surely you noticed it, too.

“You don’t think I can give up extra base hits?” he asked. “Just watch me.”

With two outs in the first, he gave up a double to Josh Reddick, but recovered to escape the inning without allowing a run. In the third, there was a leadoff triple yielded to Coco Crisp, who scored the game’s first run on a Jemile Weeks sacrifice fly. The fourth inning opened with a Brandon Moss double, followed by a Brandon Inge double (Double Brandon doubles?) to double the lead to two.

Guess what happened in the fifth? Another leadoff double, this time to Reddick, but Nova survived that inning without allowing a run. He wouldn’t, however, survive the seventh, leaving after two outs with a deceptive line: only two runs allowed, but nine hits — five for extra bases.

Even so, Nova’s night would’ve been good enough for a win in any of the previous forty-three games, but on Friday night the fearsome Tommy “May Day” Milone was on the hill for the A’s, and the Yanks never got a sniff against him. He cruised through the first three innings, allowing just a harmless single to Curtis Granderson in the first.

Only twice in Milone’s seven innings were the Yankees able to put two runners on in an inning. The first instance was in the fourth, but it lasted only about ten seconds. Mark Teixeira singled with one out, and when Alex Rodríguez followed immediately with a soft single to right, third base coach Robby Thompson inexplicably started windmilling Teixeira around second and into third. To everyone in the stadium, aside from Thompson, I suppose, the outcome was never in doubt. The ball arrived two strides before Teixeira did, and the rally was dead.

Milone struck out the side in the fifth, then found a bit of trouble in the sixth. Derek Jeter reached on an infield single with one out, and one out later Teixeira moved him to second on a single of his own. A-Rod came up with an opportunity to change this recap, but instead he bounced into a fielder’s choice to third.

Millone did yield a somewhat questionable single to Robinson Canó leading off the seventh, but he set down the next three hitters — the last two on strikes — to finish off his night.

How good was Milone? He had been pitching well over his previous five starts, but nothing like this. Seven innings, six hits, ten strikeouts, and nothing else. I’m sure you remember the last time an Athletics pitcher struck out ten or more Yankees without allowing a run. It was ninety-nine years ago when Eddie Plank turned the trick.

And so it all came down to the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing 2-1. (Russell Martin had homered in the eighth.) When Canó validated his twenty-three-game hitting streak by leading off with a line drive that barely cleared the wall in left field to tie the score at two, everything seemed possible. There was life in the dugout, and suddenly it looked like the Yankees might steal a win in Oakland… I’ll give you a second to recover after reading that last phrase… and in doing so they’d extend that other quirky streak.

As the game rolled over to the bottom of the ninth, I convinced myself that it would happen. I should’ve known better, and the YES producers quickly reminded me by sliding one cold-water graphic after another up on the screen. First there was this: The Yankees are 0-30 and the only major league team without a win after trailing in the ninth inning or later. Next: The Oakland A’s have 9 walk-off wins, most in the major leagues.

Josh Reddick struck out swinging, but the rest of the night went like this: single, single, single, dog pile. (Cespedes, Jonny Gomes, and Brandon Moss, if you must know.) A’s 3, Yankees 2.

A new streak starts tomorrow.

[Photo Credit: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

Going to the Dogs

If you’re out there on the East Coast and you decided not to stay up late for this one… Well, you made the right decision, as very little of note took place on Thursday night in Oakland.

One thing I love about baseball is that franchises have identities, and as odd as it might be, teams cling to those identities from one decade to the next, for better or for worse. How much have the Chicago Cubs changed over the past century? Aren’t the Dodgers always developing young talent, whether that kid is named Rick Sutcliffe or Mike Piazza or Matt Kemp? And the Yankees? Goes without saying.

On Thursday night the Oakland A’s reached back to their roots and made Charlie O. Finley proud, reminding us all that even through the division titles and league pennants and World Series rings they’ve won over the years, they’ve really just been a minor league team at heart. In an attempt to set a world record, the A’s invited fans to bring their dogs to the game; before the first pitch all 718 dogs and their owners paraded around the warning track, some in costume, others au naturel (the dogs, not the fans), and then retired to the stands to watch the rest of the game. There was no word on whether or not they actually set the record, but since neither Kevin Millar nor Pedro Martínez were involved in the attempt, it might actually have worked.

If you only watched that opening before going to bed, at least you saw the best part.

The Yankees started out as it seems like they’ve been starting all their games recently. Derek Jeter singled to right, and two batters later Alex Rodríguez hit a laser to left, putting runners on first and second with one out and the game’s hottest hitter coming to the plate in Robinson Canó. Business as usual.

The A’s had young A.J. Griffin on the mound, a big dorky-looking kid with glasses and four major league starts to his name. He had been good in those four starts, throwing six innings in each and allowing just seven runs for an ERA of 2.63. We know the Yankees tend to wilt in the presence of new pitchers, but surely this night — with this promising start — would be different.

It wouldn’t.

Canó sliced a line drive towards left, but Yoenis Cespedes raced in and made the grab for the first out. Or did he? After catching the ball on the run, he fumbled the ball on the transfer and it trickled to the turf behind him. Chaos ensued. Jeter assumed it was an out, so he went back to second, and A-Rod danced around a bit, shuffling back and forth at least five times between first and second. Cespedes stood stock-still for a few seconds in left, as if not even he knew what the hell was going on.

Third base umpire Brian Knight finally singled safe, but not everyone was convinced (probably because they knew he was wrong.) Cespedes picked up the ball and fired to Brandon Inge at third, nipping Jeter by about eighty-nine feet, then Inge flipped it to second, just missing A-Rod for what would’ve been the strangest 7-5-4 double play you’ve ever seen.

Replays confirmed that Knight and the rest of the umpiring crew had botched it, but the end result was the same as it would’ve been — two outs and runners on first and second. It just kind of set the wrong tone. Mark Teixeira grounded out to first and the inning was over.

Freddy García drew the start for the Yanks, and he was decent enough, allowing nine hits over almost six innings, but usually able to wriggle out of the trouble he started, just not here in the first inning. With two outs and Jemile Weeks on third, Cespedes pounded a monstrous home run to left for a 2-0 Oakland lead.

And then the Yankee hitters went to sleep for a while, lulled into submission by Griffin’s assortment of fastballs, changeups, sliders, and seventy-mile-an-hour curveballs. Raúl Ibáñez singled with one out in the second, but the next eleven Yankees went down like dogs, a string that stretched until Jeter opened the sixth with a blooped single to right.

By this point the A’s had added two more runs to double their lead to four, but it looked like the Yankees might make at least some of that back in the sixth. Following Jeter’s single and a Curtis Granderson strike out, A-Rod and Canó singled to load the bases, Canó’s hit extending his hitting streak to a worth-talking-about twenty-two games.

With Teixeira coming up, the only hitter in the lineup who’s been as hot as Canó, it was impossible not to dream about a game-tying grand slam, and when Tex launched a fly ball to deep center, there was a brief second when it looked like he might’ve done it… but alas, it was just a warning track sacrifice fly to score the Yankees’ first run. Swisher backed that up with a hard single to right to plate A-Rod and bring the Bombers to within shouting distance at 4-2.

Nothing of interest happened until the top of the ninth, as two questions remained. Could the Yankees pull out the win? (A graphic of cold water immediately told us that they were 0-30 this year when trailing after eight innings.) And if they couldn’t win, could they at least scratch out a run to keep their quirky but potentially historic streak alive, as they had scored three or more runs in forty-two straight games. Swisher rocked a homer to right to keep the streak going, but it wasn’t enough. A’s 4, Yankees 3.

 

July 17, 1941: Streak Over

This was finally the night when Joe DiMaggio’s streak would end. The Yankees topped the Indians 4-3, but all eyes were on DiMaggio, as usual. Luck is a huge part of baseball, perhaps larger than any other sport, so it’s no surprise that Joe D. benefitted from more than a few lucky breaks throughout the streak. What’s interesting about DiMaggio’s four at bats on this night is how easily he could’ve extended the streak had he just gotten the slightest bit lucky.

The villains in what could’ve been Game 57, Al Smith, Jim Bagby, and Ken Keltner, have all become famous for their part in DiMaggio’s demise, but other powers seemed to be at play here. In DiMaggio’s first at bat, he smashed a hard hopper down the line towards third. Cleveland third baseman Keltner was playing incredibly deep. DiMaggio remembers that he was actually on the outfield grass. He knew DiMaggio would never bunt (in fact, DiMaggio never bunted during the streak), and he had one of the stronger throwing arms in the league, allowing him to play deeper than most third baseman. As the ball bounded down the line, ticketed for the leftfield corner and a certain double, Keltner somehow was able to backhand the ball behind the bag. His momentum carried him into foul territory, but he turned quickly and unleashed a bullet to first base, denying DiMaggio. (Below that’s DiMaggio and Keltner clowning for the cameras years later.)

Cleveland starter Al Smith then walked DiMaggio in his next at bat, much to the dismay of the Cleveland crowd, which was approaching 70,000. In his third at bat DiMaggio again tested Keltner with another two-hop smash down the line, and the result was the same. Keltner was able to glove the ball and fire to first, getting DiMaggio by a step. In what would be his final plate appearance of the streak, DiMaggio came up in the top of the eighth inning and promptly smashed a grounder to shortstop Lou Boudreau. The ball took a wicked hop, and if luck had been with DiMaggio that night the ball might’ve bounded into left field for a single. Instead, Boudreau fielded the ball easily and started a 6-4-3 double play. The streak was over.

Or was it? Down 4-1, Cleveland mounted a ninth-inning rally to bring the score to 4-3. If they could tie the score and send the game into extra innings, DiMaggio would have another shot, as he was scheduled to hit in the top of the tenth inning. That tying run stood at third base in the person of Larry Rosenthal. There were no outs, so extra innings seemed an almost certainty. Unfortunately for our hero, the Indians weren’t able to cash in that run, and DiMaggio never got that extra at bat. The streak really was over.

The Yankees would continue their hot pace in the games to come, and they would eventually win the pennant easily, leaving Cleveland far out of first place. And what of DiMaggio? Failing to hit in Game 57 apparently cost him a $10,000 deal to endorse Heinz 57, but DiMaggio promptly started another streak the next game. This second streak lasted seventeen games, which means that had DiMaggio managed a hit on the fateful night in Cleveland, he might have put together an seventy-four game streak. With his base on balls in this game, DiMaggio did reach base in seventy-four straight, the second-longest such streak in history, trailing only the 84-game string put together by Ted Williams in 1949.

The 1941 campaign, of course, is memorable not only for DiMaggio’s streak, which lasted a bit more than a third of the season, but also for Williams’s season-long feat of hitting .406, the last time a hitter has topped the .400 barrier. From a numbers point of view, the Splendid Splinter’s .406 is generally felt to be more impressive than the Clipper’s fifty-six, but it wasn’t seen that way at the time. The need for DiMaggio to get a hit in each game captivated the nation in a way that Williams could not, and the simplicity of the Streak surely played a role as well. You didn’t need a calculator to track DiMaggio; either he got a hit or he didn’t.

Also, no one had seen a streak like DiMaggio’s, but older fans certainly remembered other players hitting .400. Even though it had been eleven years since Bill Terry hit .401 in 1930, the barrier had been breeched five other times in the decade before that. People probably felt like DiMaggio’s streak would never be touched, but they never would’ve guessed that seventy-one years later we still wouldn’t have seen another .400 hitter.

Williams finished second to DiMaggio in the MVP voting that year. Even though Williams often spoke about wishing he could hit like DiMaggio, that clearly wasn’t the problem. He was a far better hitter than his Yankee counterpart — in fact, better than any hitter in history aside from Babe Ruth. What Williams needed was some love.

Consider this. Williams hit .406 in 1941, and won the Triple Crown in 1942 and 1947, but finished second in the MVP balloting all three years. DiMaggio’s win in ’41 can be excused because of the Streak, but the other two years are indefensible.

MVP Runner-Up
1941 DiMaggio (.357/30/125) Williams (.406/37/120)
1942 Joe Gordon (.322/18/103) Williams (.356/36/137)
1947 DiMaggio (.315/20/97) Williams (.343/32/114)

But this is about Joe DiMaggio and his transcendent hitting streak. Certainly he was one of the two or three best players of his era and one of greatest players in baseball history, but the Streak elevates him. Though some have dismissed it as a quirky accomplishment that’s more about defying probability than hitting curve balls, it permanently positioned DiMaggio on center stage. Statistically he wasn’t as good as Mickey Mantle, and not even in the same conversation as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, but thanks to these two months in the spring and summer of 1941, he sits alongside them in baseball lore.

July 16, 1941: Game 56

In time, of course, this fifty-sixth game would become known as the final game of Joe DiMaggio’s record hitting streak, but at the time it was just another game in a string that might go on forever. Newspapers and radio stations still carried news bulletins on DiMaggio’s at bats, but there was no longer a record to shoot for; the only question was how long he could continue the streak. On this day, the answer was the same as it had been for the previous fifty-five games: one more day.

As the Yankees were hammering Cleveland 10-3 and pushing the Indians five games back of first place, DiMaggio collected the final three hits of his streak. He singled to center in the first inning, reached again on a blooper that fell in front of the center fielder in the third, and stroked a hard double to left in his final at bat of the day.

In an interview after the game, DiMaggio spoke of how the pressure had changed. While chasing Keeler’s record he had felt the importance of each at bat, knowing that any missed opportunity might spell the end of the streak. At this point, however, he still felt pressure to get a hit, but not with every at bat. DiMaggio also had two goals that kept him focused this deep into the streak. First, he spoke of wanting to match the sixty-one game streak he authored while playing for the minor league San Francisco Seals, and second, he wanted to catch Ted Williams for the league batting title. His 3 for 4 afternoon pushed his season average up to .375, twenty points short of Williams at .395.

July 15, 1941: Game 55

The Yankees bounced back against the Sox, winning 5-4 while DiMaggio collected two more hits to reach fifty-five straight. He reached on an error in the first, then shot a ground ball over second base for a single in the third. He would double later in the game as well.

July 14, 1941: Game 54

The Yankees lost for the first time in two weeks,7-1 to the White Sox, but DiMaggio kept his streak alive for another day, banging out an infield single in the sixth. There would be drama in the coming days, but for now this was just another game in the string.

July 13, 1941: Games 52 & 53

The Yankees swept a doubleheader from the Chicago White Sox, stretching their winning streak to fourteen in a row, and DiMaggio kept his streak going as well. In the opener, DiMaggio collected a dubious hit when his grounder to short was bobbled by Luke Appling. The official scoring of the play was questionable, but when DiMaggio came to bat in the fourth, he lined a clean single into center field, ending any potential controversy before it could get started. Both hits came at the expense of White Sox starter Ted Lyons, who became the second pitcher to claim the distinction of having surrended a homerun to Babe Ruth during his historic sixty-homer season in 1927 and giving up a hit to DiMaggio during his streak. The first was Hall of Famer Lefty Grove. After winning that opener 8-1, DiMaggio only managed a single in the second game, an eleven-inning 1-0 Yankee victory, but the streak would live for another day.

July 12, 1941: Game 51

Another day, another win for the Yanks over the Browns. This time, it was a 7-5 win, the team’s twelfth in a row. It took DiMaggio until the fourth inning to get his hit, a solid double to center field. He would add a single later on. The Indians were busy losing to the A’s, so the Yankee lead was now a healthy five games.

[Featured Image via The Pintar Rag]

July 11, 1941: Game 50

At this point, it must have seemed like DiMaggio’s streak would keep going forever. Forever comes just one day at a time, and on this day DiMaggio kept the streak going. The Yankees opened up a four-game lead as they beat the Browns, 6-2, for their eleventh straight win. Once again, DiMaggio singled in the first inning to reach fifty in a row, but he was far from done. He would single twice more and then finish his day by smashing his league-leading twentieth home run in the ninth inning. He was 4 for 5 on the day, which brought his average up to .365, still far short of Ted Williams. The Boston slugger had been slumping of late, and his average had dipped all the way down to .398. As history tells us, he’d recover.

July 10, 1941: Game 49

Following the all-star break, the Yankees travelled to St. Louis for a matchup with the lowly Browns. For the fourth game in a row, DiMaggio secured his needed hit in the first inning, this time singling on a grounder to the hole at shortstop for one of just three Yankee hits on the day. It was lucky for him that he was able to take care of business so early, as the game was called for rain after just five innings, giving the Yankees a 1-0 victory.

Not Half Bad

Here’s a short but true story. On Saturday night, after gritting my teeth through a frustrating Yankee loss to the Red Sox, I looked forward to Sunday night’s game and the recap I’d eventually write. I mentally composed the opening line of that recap, and wondered if it would come true: “The Yankees opened the scoring in the first inning of each game this weekend, plating five runs in game one, four in game two, and three in game three, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone when they scored twice in the opening frame of Sunday night’s series finale.”

Really.

Yankee nemesis Jon Lester was on the mound, but he had been struggling, and the Yankees quickly jumped on him. It started out with another base hit from Derek Jeter, followed by a line drive single from Curtis Granderson. Next up was an angry Mark Teixeira. (Before Sunday’s game, noted philosopher Vicente Padilla indulged in some healthy misogyny while casting accusations of racism towards Teixeira.) Teixeira shot a ground ball down the third base line and into the left field corner for a double to score Jeter and push Granderson to third.

After an Alex Rodríguez pop-up and a walk to Robinson Canó (Canó would wait until the ninth inning to extend his hitting streak to fifteen games), Nick Swisher hit an easy grounder to third, a double play waiting to happen. Mauro Gómez, recently called up from AAA because of his bat, not his glove, fielded the ball cleanly enough, hopped over to third to force Teixeira, then threw across the diamond hoping to end the inning. Inexplicably — and perhaps unprecedentedly — Gómez’s throw actually bounced twice on its way to first. Probably because he had never seen anything like this before, Adrian González couldn’t dig it out, and Granderson brought home the second run I had predicted the night before.

Iván Nova, the de facto ace of the Yankee staff, took this early 2-0 lead to the mound in the bottom of the inning. He struck out Daniel Nava for the first out, but gave up a single to Pedro Ciriaco. No shame in that, though. No Yankee pitcher had been able to handle Ciriaco over the first three games of the series, and he would end the night hitting a robust .538. Ciriaco looks to weigh about 130 pounds, so I can’t imagine it’ll take the Fenway faithful long before they start calling him the Splendid Splinter.

Ciriaco promptly stole second base, allowing Nova to walk David Ortíz and then strike out the blistering hot González. (González would leave the game two innings later due to illness, snapping his eighteen-game hitting streak.) With two outs, Cody Ross lofted a high pop fly behind second base. Having gotten out of the jam, Nova pumped his fist and started walking towards the dugout. Jeter hovered beneath the ball, watched it into his glove… and dropped it. Ciriaco scored.

Jeter did this in Anaheim a few years ago, dropping a pop fly in a play that was so stunning that it caused my brain to convulse and inadvertently create a Banter banterism, the Score Truck. (Here’s the history.) There were no such revelations on this night in Boston, just an unearned run for Nova.

The Yankees added a third run in the second inning when Jayson Nix doubled, moved to third on a passed ball, then scored on a sacrifice fly from Chris “Whythehellaren’tIstarting” Stewart.

Nova was undone a bit by more shoddy defense in the bottom of the third. With one out, That Man Ciriaco hit a grounder slightly to the right of shortstop. Jeter was able to get to the ball, but it hit off the heel of his glove for a clear error — except that the Fenway Park official scorer is apparently already in love with Ciriaco, so it was ruled a base hit. Ortíz was due next.

It’s very rare that I watch a Yankee game live, especially a Sunday nighter, so I almost never watch Ortíz hit. Back when he and Manny Ramírez teamed up to form the most feared 3-4 punch in baseball, I started fast-forwarding through their at bats to get to the result. Watching pitch-by-pitch was simply too much. I still find myself doing this with Big Papi, so I don’t know how Nova pitched him, I only know that Ortíz ended up on second base, and Ciriaco scored a run he shouldn’t have.

Nova eventually loaded the bases on an infield single and a walk, but he rebounded to strike out Jarrod Saltalalalalalamacchia and get a ground out from Ryan Sweeney. It seemed like another step in the maturation of a  young pitcher. His defense kept letting him down, kept making him work harder, but he never faltered. He would never be pushed after that third inning.

The Yankee hitters struck again in the fifth. Teixeira opened the inning with a single, bringing A-Rod to the plate. I just can’t figure him out. He goes through long stretches where he never seems to hit the ball hard, but just when I’m ready to write him off completely, he does something like this. Lester left a pitch up a bit on the outside half of the plate, and A-Rod took a mighty swing. My instant reaction watching the play was that he had failed again. The trajectory off the bat indicated another lazy fly ball to the center fielder, but when the camera found Ryan Sweeney, he was sprinting towards the Triangle, and it was clear he wouldn’t be able to make a play on the ball. A-Rod’s lazy fly ball landed 410 feet from home plate, allowing the speedy Teixeira to score easily from first as Rodríguez coasted into third with a triple.

Three batters later Andruw Jones bounced a one-out single to left field to score Rodríguez, and the Yankees were suddenly up 5-2.

I know a lot of people don’t like ESPN and are terribly critical of their baseball coverage, but I don’t fall with that camp. I do have one criticism, though. Their announcing crew doesn’t really concern themselves with calling the game. They’ve clearly spent the week gathering stories and statistics about the two teams, so they have a series of bullet points they need to get through during the course of the game. The play-by-play is secondary.

In general, I don’t have a problem with this. They’re talking to a national audience of fans who don’t follow these two teams on a daily basis, so it probably makes sense to rehash the Padilla-Teixeira feud, explain Ortíz’s contract situation, review Jeter’s ascent up the various all-time lists, and remind us of Lester’s health issues.

In their kibitzing tonight, though, they missed a great game pitched by Iván Nova. The shaky defense caused him to expend 111 pitches to get through six innings, but he did so with flair. He gave up only one earned run, and even that was gift-wrapped by Jeter’s non-error. He yielded six hits and two walks, but struck out ten. After having to sweat a bit in the third inning, he faced only ten batters (striking out four of them) over his final three innings. He looked like an ace.

After Nova’s night finished, Nick Swisher doubled off the Monster with one out in the seventh, bringing up Andruw Jones. Jones had turned the clock back to 1996, having hit three home runs during Saturday’s double header, and he put this game on ice when he somehow was able to get on top of a Scott Atchison fastball at his shoulders and pound it high into the seats atop the wall in left.

There are a lot of reasons why the Yankees are where they are (and where they are is sitting seven games in front in the American League East with the best record in baseball), but one of the biggest is the unexpected production from Raúl Ibañez and Andruw Jones. The two have combined for 22 home runs and 58 RBIs, but this weekend it was Jones who did all the damage. After sitting out Friday night’s opener, he pummeled Boston pitching on the weekend, going 5 for 14 with four homers and 6 RBIs in three games. It will be nice to get Brett Gardner back if and when he returns, but it will be even nicer to have production like this lurking on the bench in October.

The Red Sox scraped together a run in the eighth, but it didn’t really matter. The Yankees’ 7-3 win and three games to one series win strengthened their position atop the standings while pushing the Red Sox into the cellar. Boston’s .500 record is better than only three teams in the American League. How’d you like to sit with that over the All-Star break?

Thankfully, the Yankees don’t have to worry about such things.

[Photo Credit: Steven Senne/AP Photo]

July 8, 1941: The All-Star Game

All-Star game statistics obviously have no bearing on regular season totals or records, so DiMaggio’s at bats would certainly have no effect on his hitting streak one way or the other, but there was still pressure. There was a feeling amongst fans and reporters that if DiMaggio didn’t get a hit in the All-Star Game, the streak would somehow be tainted. No one knew how long it might extend beyond the All-Star game, but if DiMaggio were to go hitless against the National Leaguers, there would be an asterisk applied, if not in the record books, certainly in the minds of many.

DiMaggio popped up to third for the final out of the first inning, flied out to center with a runner on second in the fourth, then walked and scored in the sixth. The way the game is played and managed today, he would’ve been showered, dressed, and back at the hotel by mid way through the game, but instead DiMaggio came to the plate in the eighth and rocked a double, eliminating the need for any mental asterisks. His brother Dom singled him home to cut the National League lead to 5-3, setting up the drama of the bottom of the ninth.

With one out in the final frame, Cleveland’s Ken Keltner singled with one out, then advanced to second on a Joe Gordon single. After Washington’s Cecil Travis walked, the stage was set for DiMaggio. He walked to the plate as the unquestioned star of stars, the most famous athlete in America in the middle of a streak that had captured the attention of the entire nation. And now, with his American League squad trailing by two, DiMaggio came to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. America’s Hero would be the hero. It almost seemed scripted.

Not quite. DiMaggio hit a ground ball to shortstop, and suddenly the game appeared to be over. The Boston Braves’ Eddie Miller fielded the ball cleanly at short and flipped to Chicago’s Herman Franks at second for the first out. Franks’s relay to first, however, was wide. DiMaggio was safe, Keltner scored, and Boston’s Ted Williams came up.

Williams, of course, was even hotter than DiMaggio, so maybe the outcome shouldn’t be so surprising. Williams found a fastball that he liked from Chicago’s Claude Passeau and roped it into the upper deck in right field for the game-winning three-run homer. The normally placid Williams literally skipped his way around the bases in celebration. American League 7, National League 5.

July 6, 1941: Games 47 & 48

The Yankees had planned a huge doubleheader on July 4th and were set to honor the recently deceased Lou Gehrig by unveiling a monument in center field on the two-year anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day, but rain had pushed the celebration to the sixth. With more than 60,000 on hand to pay their respects to the fallen Yankee captain, DiMaggio and the Yanks rose to the occasion. The Yankees beat the A’s 8-4 in the opener before closing out the twin bill with a 3-1 victory in the night cap for their ninth win a row; they now led the league by a comfortable three and a half games. DiMaggio, meanwhile, had a big day. He had three singles and a double in the first game and added another double and a triple in the second game. His 6 for 9 day pushed his average to a robust .357 for the season, but he still trailed Ted Williams (.405) by a considerable margin.

July 5, 1941: Game 46

Now that DiMaggio had eclipsed all existing records, his streak began to be viewed differently. Instead of debating whether or not he could catch Sisler or Keeler, baseball fans were now watching him intently, wondering how long the streak would last. It would last at least another day. The Philadelphia A’s were in New York for the start of a three-game series, and the Yankees took the opener easily by a 10-5 score. DiMaggio homered in the first inning (one of five Yankee home runs on the day) to extend his streak, but it would be his only hit of the afternoon. Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.

The Ninth Circle of Hell

All right, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but after watching the Yankees lose their ninth straight game in Tampa — and listening to Lou Piniella for nine innings — the title seemed appropriate if a bit reactionary.

There’s something about the Rays that really bothers me. When the Red Sox were at the peak of their powers, each series definitely raised my blood pressure, but I respected those teams. Terry Francona respected the game, and the players not named Papelbon, Pedroia, and Youkilis were actually a bit likable. They played the game the right way, and it was hard to hate them for it.

It’s not that the Rays don’t play the game the right way, because they do. They run out every ground ball, go from first to third, steal bases, all that stuff. But Joe Maddon is infuriating. He creates a new lineup each night, moving hitters four or five spots in the batting order from one night to the next, and haphazardly deploys his fielders, heeding voices only he hears.

The truth of it all, though, is that none of it would be remotely infuriating except for one thing — it works. All of it.

The matchup seemed to be in favor of the Yanks on Tuesday night, with the streaking Ivan Nova on the mound for the Bombers and the disappointing James Shield starting for the Rays. (How befuddling is Shields? Try this stat on for size: Complete games — 0 in ’09, 0 in ’10, 11 in ’11, o in ’12.)

The Yankees jumped on Shields early. Derek Jeter absolutely smoked the first pitch of the game, sending it to the wall in left center for a double, then scored on a laser that Curtis Granderson hit past Carlos Peña at first for another double. After the obligatory strikeout from Alex Rodríguez, Robinson Canó rifled a single through the Maddon Shift for a 2-0 Yankee lead.

DeWayne Wise homered in the third to bump the lead up to 3-0, but Nova was struggling enough to make it clear that more than three runs would be needed. He faced twenty batters over the first four innings, and he started twelve of them out with ball one. As a result, it seemed like he was working hard all night, even when no one was on base.

In the bottom of the third, however, the Rays got some folks on base. There were two outs and runners on first and second when B.J. Upton came up to the plate and immediately grounded a single through the left side of the infield. Wise charged the ball well and came up throwing, looking to get Elliot Johnson at the plate. Wise’s throw beat Johnson, but the ball came loose in the collision and the run scored. I’ve never seen a play this scored as an error, but Russell Martin got the E-2. Jeff Keppinger came up next and singled in two more runs to tie the score. All three runs were unearned, but all three can be attributed to Nova’s shakiness.

The Yankees took the lead right back in the top of the fourth when Raúl Ibañez doubled and came home on an Eric Chavez single, but that lead was immediately erased in the bottom half of the inning by two-run home run by Sean Rodríguez.

Trailing for the first time in the game, the Yankees looked to even the score in the top of the sixth. Reigning American League Player of the Week Canó opened the frame with a single, and two batters later Ibañez blistered a ball over the first base bag and into the right field corner. Third base coach Robby Thompson bravely waved Canó home, but Robinson it immediately looked like the wrong decision. After the relay throw arrived at the plate, catcher José Molina poured a cup of tea and let it steep for a bit before applying the tag on a sliding Canó. It kind of summed up the entire night.

From there, the Yankee hitters went down like lambs as the bullpen coughed up a couple more runs, including one on a double steal, making the final score Rays 7, Yankees 4.

Strange as it might seem, I can’t wait to get to Fenway Park.

[Photo Credit: Mike Carlson/AP Photo]

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