"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Hank Waddles
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Vin Scully, 1927-2022

I was nine years old when we moved to California in the summer of 1979. I had fallen in love with the Yankees two summers earlier on a trip to New York, so now I found myself three thousand miles and three time zones away from my favorite team. Cable sports networks and the internet hadn’t yet been imagined even in the wildest science fiction, so if I needed to know the Yankee score before the morning paper arrived the next day — and I always did — my only option was to listen to the Dodger game on the radio as I lay in bed.

In the beginning Vin Scully was simply a means to an end. If he didn’t share the out-of-town scores during the final innings, I’d try to stay awake for the postgame show.

Whether doing radio or television, Scully was that rare announcer who worked alone, providing the analysis to his own play by play, so instead of talking to a partner in the booth, he spoke to all of us. He spoke to me. (I’m sure this happened at other ballparks also, but Scully’s one-on-one connection with his listeners was so powerful and ubiquitous that Dodger fans were notorious for bringing their transistor radios to the stadium so they could still hear Vinnie call the game as it unfolded in front of them. Sometimes this would cause feedback during the broadcast, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear Mr. Scully politely ask the patrons below to turn down the volume.)

Like any announcer anywhere, Scully’s repertoire included a handful of phrases that would come up from time to time. If the Dodgers began mounting a rally after trailing throughout, he’d explain that this was the first time the Dodgers were “getting a look at the game.”

As I lay listening in the dark, Scully gave me a look at the game in a wider sense. Even as a boy I knew a fair amount about baseball, and Vin Scully was my guide as I travelled deeper into the game’s history. The wonderfully slow pace of the games allowed him to weave narratives throughout the course of inning, skillfully telling stories one pitch at a time. Davey Lopes would take a throw at second and fire to Steve Garvey to complete a double play, and suddenly I’d hear a story about how Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski would routinely catch a throw from his shortstop by pinning the ball against his closed glove with his bare hand to make for a faster exchange. Reggie Smith’s helmet would come off while rounding third, and it would remind Scully of how Willie Mays would wear his cap a couple sizes large so that it would come off every time he raced around the bases, a bit of gamesmanship that gave the crowd an extra few minutes to cheer and further rattle the opposing pitcher.

These were the bedtime stories I needed, told in the soothing voice of Southern California’s grandfather pulling memories from a lifetime of announcing baseball games. He called some of baseball’s most iconic moments — Henry Aaron’s 715th home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game, any number of World Series clinchers — and even made his presence felt in other sports. His was the voice describing Joe Montana’s pass to Dwight Clark to beat the Cowboys and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.

But I’d argue that his Hall of Fame career was built with smaller moments. Describing the ballet of a 6-4-3 double play, narrating a youngster’s efforts to finish a melting ice cream cone in the stands, opening each game by telling his audience, “It’s time for Dodgers baseball!”

Or teaching a nine-year-old boy all about the game.

To Sleep – Perchance to Dream

The days and weeks leading up to the major league trading deadline first and foremost offer opportunities for a franchise to transform itself, but it asks fans to declare something as well.

The Yankees made some smaller moves, picking up a starter, two relievers, and a couple outfielders while also moving Jordan Montgomery in a late surprise, but the big move came courtesy of the San Diego Padres.

There are always a few shiny objects dangling in July, and Juan Soto was the shiniest. When the youngest superstar in the sport is on the trading block, all of the usual big market teams are immediately linked, and there was certainly speculation that Soto could end up playing right field in the Bronx, giving the Yankees the most lethal left-right combination imaginable.

But it was a smaller market team that swooped in with a genius stroke to get a player whose combination of power and plate discipline has been favorably compared to the legendary skills of Ted Williams. Adding Soto to a lineup that already includes Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis, Jr., gives the Friars three of the best young players in baseball at least through 2023, and that’s where the brilliance of this plan truly lies.

Tatis is in the first year of a 14-year $340M contract, but it’s heavily backloaded, so he’ll be making a relatively modest $20M in 2025, the year that Juan Soto will be an unrestricted free agent. It doesn’t seem remotely possible that any franchise, and certainly not the San Diego Padres, could keep all three of those elite players. Those three alone would cost more than a hundred million dollars a season, but Machado has an opt out after 2023.

So what the Padres have done is assure that they’ll have these three players together for this pennant race and all of next season. With Soto in the fold, a Machado opt out will now actually benefit both parties. Machado will certainly be able get more than the $150M that will remain on his contract, and the Padres will shed that obligation just a year before they have to give a long term deal to Soto. If for some reason they prefer Machado, they can sign him and let Soto walk. It’s a win-win for San Diego, and they just might win a World Series along the way.

There are certainly Yankee fans who are furious right now that Soto isn’t headed to the Bronx, no matter which prospects might have gone in the other direction. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Soto might have done with the short porch in right, I’m okay with Brian Cashman’s decision.

Unlike any other sport, baseball is built on dreams. Every organization has a prospect who might become the next Ted Williams, and it’s easy to be enchanted by that hope. It’s why people don’t stop at a roulette table to bet on red or black but to wink knowingly at the croupier and drop a chip or two on 23. We dream big.

Soto would’ve been a big win, but I’m happy putting my chips on Jasson Dominguez. Thirty years ago the Yankees drafted a kid from Kalamazoo, and I dutifully followed his career through the minor leagues, hoping that he might become something special. A few years after that, Yankee scouts convinced me that another young prospect could be the next Mickey Mantle. The first you know; he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame last summer. The second you might not. His name was Rubén Rivera, and he hit .216 over the course of a nine-year career with five different teams.

There’s no telling what might happen with Dominguez, but the odds are certainly against him matching what Soto has already accomplished. Even so, I’m glad he’s still with us. I’m glad I can still follow his minor league numbers and imagine what he might become in New York.

I choose to dream.

Houston. Do We Have a Problem?

There is no greater crucible in sports than baseball’s 162-game schedule, and the New York Yankees are running roughshod on their opponents this season. Today — and for the past two months — the Yankees have the best record in the game. At 64-30 they have a comfortable twelve-game lead in the American League East and are all but assured of winning the deepest division in baseball and advancing to the playoffs. All season long, they’ve just been better than anyone else.

Anyone else but the Houston Astros.

The Yankees and Astros completed their regular season series last night, with the Astros sweeping a double header in Houston and beating the Yankees for the fifth time in seven games.

Were it not for Aaron Judge and his walk-off heroics that saved two games in New York, the Yankees would have lost all seven contests with the Astros. In fact, those two swings by Judge were the only moments in a week’s worth of games against their arch rivals (sorry, Red Sox) that the Yankees enjoyed a lead. It’s been that bleak. (Judge did his best to rescue his team again on Thursday night, rocking a massive three-run homer to left to cut a five-run lead to two, but it wasn’t quite enough.)

The mightiest offense in baseball was repeatedly humbled by Houston pitching. The Astros threw a combined no-hitter against them in New York and opened the following game with six more hitless innings, and Houston pitchers, both starters and bullpen, were generally in control in all seven games. The Yankees scored 22 runs in seven games, including a disturbing two runs or fewer in four of the seven.

Not surprisingly, acorns are falling on everyone’s heads. Should the Yankees fall into mediocrity and go 36-32 the rest of the way, they’ll still finish with 100 wins and a division crown, but there are those who will tell you that the season is over. That this team cannot beat the Astros.

I understand this point of view because I carry the same scars you do, but regardless of what happened in this year’s seven-game sample, I’m comfortable saying that right now the Yankees of 2022 are better than the versions that watched their seasons end at the hands of the Astros in 2017 and 2019, and that the Astros of 2022 are weaker. If Brian Cashman decides to spend some capital to add Luís Castillo or gut the farm system to land Juan Sóto, the Yankee advantage over the Astros will only widen.

Let me say this again — the Yankees are better than the Astros. If you refuse to believe this because of that 2-5 season record or because of how listless the Yankees looked in so many of those games, I’ll ask if you also believe that the Cincinnati Reds (who handled the Yankees last week) are better than the 64-30 Bronx Bombers.

Yes, the seven games against the Astros were difficult, but sometimes baseball is like that. Everything’s going to be okay.

José Altuve, 1998, and the Blank Check

I was adrift in the spring of 1998. I lived in a small apartment with unpacked boxes in each room and usually nothing but last night’s leftovers in the refrigerator. I once spilled some powdered laundry detergent on the carpet by the front door and it stayed there for two months. I was twenty-eight years old, but I might’ve passed for nineteen. I was adrift.

But that was the spring when I met John Sterling and Michael Kay. The internet was still a brave new world back then, and I discovered that New York’s WFAN was proudly streaming their content 24 hours a day, long before we used the word streaming, and long before Major League Baseball began policing the web. And so each afternoon I’d make sure to be home by 4:00pm so that I could sit down at my computer, log into AOL, and listen to the Yankee game.

It was magic. I sat in my empty apartment three thousand miles away from the Bronx, but night after night I had a virtual seat in the Stadium. And night after night, they just kept winning.

I wasn’t a complete recluse, by the way. On Friday, June 5th, a group of teachers went out after school to celebrate a birthday. Her name was Leslie, and her classroom was two doors down from mine. She needed a lift back to school at the end of the evening, and she laughed when I told her I needed to switch to sports radio to check the Yankee score. (A 5-1 win over the then-Florida Marlins.) She playfully slapped my hand away from the dial, but it wouldn’t be until the next night that I’d hold her hand for real. Next month we’ll celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.

I didn’t listen to as many games the rest of that summer, but the magic never faded. It was young love. Derek Jeter was still a kid, Mariano Rivera was in just his second season as closer, and Chuck Knoblauch could still make the throw to second base. The wins piled up and soon enough Boston wasn’t chasing New York, the Yankees were chasing the ’54 Indians and the ’27 Yankees.

Even before the eventual World Series win, that ’98 season was baseball nirvana, a once-in-a-lifetime experience following a team that was so special that I knew I’d never see its like again. But only 24 years later, here we are.

The 2022 Yankees carried a 51-18 record into this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros, the same mark as the ’98 squad after 69 games. Just as with that ’98 group, this year’s team already seems to be running unopposed in the American League East, having enjoyed a double-digit lead for more than a week.

The Astros, then, were the perfect opponent at the perfect time. No team right now — not the Red Sox, not the Blue Jays, not the Rays — is a greater antagonist than the Astros, and no player is a greater villain than Houston’s José Altuve. Fans in the Bronx boo Alex Bregman out of duty, but the treatment reserved for Altuve is special. He isn’t greeted with derision, but with a palpable hatred that far exceeds anything hurled at Pedro Martínez or Kevin Youkilis or anyone else. The boos rain down each time he comes to the plate, and instead of amusing themselves with the wave, the fans fill any lull in the game with regular chants of “Fuck Altuve.” Sometimes when the Astros aren’t even in town.

If it were only because he cheated in 2017, the animosity would’ve faded a bit, as it has with Bregman. But it’s because he cheated then, stole an MVP from Aaron Judge, stole a World Series appearance from the city, and then continued to break Yankee hearts for the next five years. If Altuve ends up in Cooperstown one day, it will be in large part because of the damage he’s done against the Yankees, ignoring the steady stream of verbal abuse the likes of which few athletes have ever had to endure and uncorking one devastating home run after another. The rational part of my brain admires him for all that, but there isn’t much place for rational thought when the Astros come to town. I despise him.

It wasn’t a surprise, then, that Altuve played his part to perfection over the weekend, doubling twice, homering twice, and scoring four runs. The surprise on Thursday night was that when the Astros took a 6-3 lead into the ninth inning, it was the much maligned Aaron Hicks who saved the day. His game-tying three-run home run rocked the Stadium, shook my living room, and reminded everyone in Yankees Twitter that Hicks does, in fact, deserve his roster spot.

Three batters later the Yankees had runners on first and second as Judge walked to the plate. Cascading chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” washed over him as he watched three Ryan Stanek splitters miss the zone before jumping on the fourth one and lashing it into the corner to bring home the winning run and add another highlight to his historic season.

Justin Verlander led the Astros to a 3-1 win on Friday night to even the series, and then things started to get crazy. Cristian Javier, a kid making his twenty-ninth career start, held the Yankees hitless for seven innings before giving way to Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly who got the final six outs to wrap up a combined no-hitter. Combined no-no’s have suddenly become more common than standard no-hitters, but they don’t hold much weight with me. I was more irritated by the loss than the history.

And then Sunday happened. Facing the mighty José Urquidy, the Yankee bats were silent once again. The Bronx Bombers were hitless through the first six innings. Combined with the nine innings from the day before and the ninth inning on Friday, that made sixteen consecutive hitless innings, the longest stretch for any team since divisional play began in 1961.

Sure, the history was bothering me a bit at this point, but the present was much more pressing. If you don’t regularly peruse the Yankee corners of Twitter, you might (or might not) be surprised to know that even during this wonderful season there’s still an awful lot of angst out there. Some are still ready to fire Brian Cashman for passing on Carlos Correa, others are still certain that Aaron Boone only has the job because of the home run he hit in the 2003 ALCS, and still others regularly clamor for the release of Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks. It’s a dark place, and the reality of a series loss to the Astros or, heaven forbid — a second consecutive hitless afternoon — introduced into that black hole of delusion would likely cause the entire internet to explode.

Thankfully Giancarlo Stanton saved the universe when he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning and swatted a ball over the wall in center field, his third dinger of the series and seventeenth of the season. It was only one hit, and the Yankees still trailed 3-1, but there was hope for the first time all day. As I texted with a friend about avoiding another no-hitter, the response came back quickly: “Fuck this, Yanks are gonna win this game.”

Just an inning later D.J. LeMahieu launched another bomb into the seats in left with a runner on and the game was tied at three. The unhittable Clay Holmes turned the Astros away in the top of the ninth, and the Yankees seemed set to close things out in the bottom half when the resurgent Gleyber Torres walked with one out, stole second, and advanced to third when the catcher’s throw sailed into the outfield. Thursday night’s hero, Aaron Hicks, needed only to put his bat on the ball to get Torres home, but he struck out. When Torres turned his ankle on his way back to third and crumpled into a heap, Houston gratefully accepted the third out on the strangest strike-him-out, tag-him-out double play you’ll ever see.

Michael King somehow managed to keep the Astros from scoring in the tenth, and in the bottom half the Yankees once again found themselves with a runner on third and one out. Pinch hitter Matt Carpenter (I wouldn’t mind a left-right platoon at third, by the way) was walked intentionally, LeMahieu struck out, and Aaron Judge came to the plate with two outs and the game standing on third base.

Part of the appeal of the 1998 Yankees was that no single player’s statistics leapt off the page. This year’s group, however, revolves around Judge, the best player in baseball this season. You can’t read an article about these Yankees without being reminded that Judge “bet on himself” this spring when he turned down the security of the Yankees’ nine-figure contract offer, preferring to play the season out and see what free agency might bring.

It’s a tired observation, but it’s hard to imagine that things could’ve gone better for Judge. I can’t imagine that anyone in the free agent era has had a better walk year than what Judge is putting together this season. At this point I’m actually surprised when any ball he hits doesn’t find the seats, and he’s become the team’s everyday center fielder, just because he can. Aside from everything he does between the lines, he’s become not just the clear leader of this team but one of the most iconic players in the sport.

When he sits down across the table from Cashman this November, it won’t be a negotiation, but a coronation. Whether or not the season ends with another parade down the Canyon of Heroes, whether or not he hits sixty home runs, whether or not he wins the MVP, Aaron Judge has proved his point. Cashman would be wise to slide a blank check across the table along with the keys to the franchise. At the press conference that afternoon, with Aaron Boone at one end of the table and Derek Jeter at the other, Judge will be introduced as the sixteenth captain in the history of the New York Yankees. The terms of the deal won’t matter because he will have earned whatever he wants.

All of this was true before he came to the plate in the late afternoon on Sunday with his team tied with their darkest nemesis. Before he swung and missed at a slider from Seth Martínez, and before he put a smooth swing on the next slider and sent it soaring out of the shadows and into the light. Before he turned to his teammates and shrugged as the ball landed among the masses in the left field stands, before he had to be reminded to circle the bases, and before he danced the final few steps of the route and landed on home plate to close out a 6-3 Yankee win and split of one of the stranger four-game series you’ll ever see.

A Spring Like No Other

I have to say, I can’t remember being so unexcited about an Opening Day. It’s weird. I look forward to the rhythm that Yankee baseball will bring to my life, of listening to the game in the car on the way home from school, turning on YES when I get home to watch while putting together dinner, popping over to this site to mingle with the Banterites.

None of that has changed. I imagine I’ll still consume 125 games this season, my son and I will go to at least one of the games in Anaheim, and we might even motivate to travel a bit farther away to see the Bombers play in person in some other stadium.

But all of that is because that’s the way it’s always been. My attachment to the Yankees right now is more like an attachment to a limb. If they’ve always been a part of my life, if they’ve been the one constant of the past 45 years — and I don’t mean that in a romantic James Earl Jones kind of way, but as a simple fact — how can I not want to do all those things?

Part of this is because I’ve gotten older. I knew when Derek Jeter retired that I would never have another favorite player, just because it made no sense. I’ve got stacks of Jeter baseball cards and a jersey hanging in my closet. Remember the GQ cover with Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar? It’s in a box in the garage.

I’ve written here before about my affinity to the former Captain, and it would make sense if I were to transfer some of those same feelings to Aaron Judge, presumably the next captain of my favorite team, but there’s something missing. Not with Judge, but with me.

It’s likely that there are fewer baseball seasons in my future than in my past, but that realization hasn’t made me look at this year or the next or the one after that as any more precious. Instead, it’s just another campaign in a series of seasons that have begun to spin past with a disturbing quickness. When I was a boy there was no longer stretch of time than the months that separated the last Yankee game in October from the first one in April, but as I write this on the eve of Opening Day it seems like only a few weeks ago that the Yankees were eliminated in a dismal Wild Card loss to the Red Sox, of all teams.

And I’ve fallen victim to the worst symptom of growing up — I firmly believe that I’ll never again know the thrill of waiting for that pop-up to settle into Charlie Hayes’s glove back in 1996. I won’t ever feel so brashly confident as when I was walking out through the Anaheim Stadium concourse in the summer of 1998, chanting “Let’s!-Go!-Yan!-kees!” along with thousands of other West Coast Yankee fans — after a loss. I’ve been watching this team long enough that my heroes have become myths and their exploits have become legend. Nothing that happens in 2022 will match anything that’s come before, that’s what my heart tells me.

Intellectually I know that I’m no different than the cranky guys at the bar who once complained that Reggie and Munson were no match for Mantle and Maris, or the crankier guys who once preferred Gehrig and Ruth over the M&M Boys. Intellectually I know that Judge and Stanton might put a hundred balls over the fence this year, but will that thrill me like Guidry did in ’78? Like Jeter did when he put #3,000 into the seats? Like Mo did for nineteen years?

But they aren’t wrong when they talk about the possibilities that loom large on Opening Day. If fans in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Kansas City can feel optimistic about their teams, certainly I can muster some positive thoughts for my Yankees. I can look past deficiencies behind the plate and age almost everywhere you look. I can be thankful that I don’t have to root for Carlos Correa. I can dream about the glorious possibility of Jasson Dominguez, the same as I once did about Ruben Rivera. (In the dream, it turns out different this time.)

So while I might not be as excited about this Opening Day as I was five or ten years ago, I’ll still be watching. The line drives will be crisp, the curveballs will snap. A new Yankee will show up wearing an old number that Graeme Lloyd or Mel Hall or Luís Sojo used to wear, and I’ll make a mental note, but I’ll stay in the moment. Because that’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I’ll always do.

The Anatomy of a Memoir

Deep into Here I Are: Anatomy of a Marriage, an Audible Original released last week, Alex Belth describes his wedding to co-writer Emily J. Shapiro. It was a private ceremony on a Caribbean island, the type of wedding you see in the closing scene of a romantic comedy that makes you wonder why you bothered with the stress of a hundred and fifty guests and three entrées and a petulant flower girl. The smart ones elope to paradise.

But buried in the beauty of that moment lies a metaphor that’s likely unintentional. Alex spins a charming tale – Alex and Emily are both charming throughout – about how nervous he was walking from the beach to the end of the pier where the ceremony would take place, worrying with every step that the heirloom ring meant for Emily’s finger might slip from his hand and fall through a gap between the planks of the wooden pier, never to be seen again.

When we think about walking a plank, images of pirates and circling sharks come to mind, or perhaps a ship’s captain falling victim to mutiny. I don’t mean to compare a marriage to such a morbid scene, and neither would Alex or Em, but there is something in that moment to which any of us who have walked down the aisle – or a pier – can relate. 

While the captured pirate might take those final steps under threat of a drawn sword, the happy couple is equally powerless, driven by their beating hearts and intertwined souls. But here’s the irony: no matter how deep the love, no matter how committed the mind, each couple walks this plank and takes this leap knowing that the future is uncertain. And like the pirate, they must ask themselves a simple question: dare we look beyond the end of the plank?

In this beautifully produced memoir, Emily and Alex take us on an intimate tour of their marriage, shying away from nothing, illuminating everything, looking fearlessly over the edge. It’s a project more than two years in the making, stemming from a seed planted long ago in an article Alex wrote describing his role as husband and caretaker to Emily as she struggled first with panic attacks and Crohn’s disease and later debilitating vision issues.

The two of them have expanded that original article into a two-and-a-half-hour expedition, beginning with their cautious courtship, continuing through the early days of their relationship, and extending into a marriage that has not just survived but thrived. 

Structured in a series of alternating interviews, the piece feels less like a book than an afternoon with friends. As Emily describes her numerous hospital visits or Alex admits to childhood issues that have lingered into adulthood, something remarkable happens. The two of them draw the listener in, laying out their intertwined stories and memories with such vulnerability and confidence that the exercise feels less like the dissection of a marriage and more like a coffee klatch. You picture yourself sitting at their dining room table, and when the narrative switches from Alex’s discussion of his father’s drinking problems to Emily’s explanation of why she didn’t want to have children, you imagine that Alex has simply left the room for a moment, perhaps to fetch some cookies from the kitchen.

Without question, the personalities are the strength of the production. I should admit that I’ve known Alex for almost twenty years, but Emily is the star of the show, and probably of the marriage. (Sorry, Alex.) Her matter of fact explanation of her various maladies and her frank discussion of what she’s lost along the way are somehow completely devoid of self-pity; we see her not as a victim of her body’s betrayal but as a survivor always ready for the next fight. Listeners will wish they could undo what’s been done, but not once will they pity Emily J. Shapiro.

Alex and Emily clearly recorded this with hopes of providing inspiration, and they’ve succeeded. As specific and extreme as parts of their journey may be, it is somehow relatable and universal. Any listener who has been married will recognize themselves at some point, perhaps as Alex talks about releasing his need to find solutions to his wife’s struggles or when Emily’s voice softens as she describes her husband’s gentle nature. Listeners who have traveled some of the darker roads described will no doubt find solace and comfort, but even those who have not will feel uplifted.

Here I Are soars because it’s about so much more than medical mysteries and marriage therapy. It’s a love story, something every one of us will recognize. It couldn’t be more familiar. All of us have done what Alex and Emily do here. When one couple meets another, it doesn’t take long before we begin unspooling stories. We stare into each other’s eyes and tell about first dates and near misses, of coincidence and happenstance. We draw sustenance from the sharing of these origin stories, but we don’t usually go deeper than is comfortable. We don’t usually look over the edge.

Emily and Alex do. They tell us about their first date, but also their first breakup. They tell us about their wedding, but also why they don’t have children. They give us everything. They walk the plank, and they ask us to follow.


[Photo Credit: Caleb Kenna]

Yankees vs. Everyone

At this point, I don’t even like looking at the scoreboard. It got easier when the division slipped out of reach and I could just root for the Rays to beat everybody, but the rest is kind of muddy. Do I want the Red Sox to push the Blue Jays further back in the wildcard race, or do I want Boston to lose so the Yankees might be able to host the wildcard game? And what to make of the Oakland-Seattle series? Would it be better for one team to sweep the other, or would a split be better? It’s just too much.

Such is the nature of a pennant race, especially one augmented (or bastardized, depending on your point of view) with so many extra spots. I remember seasons when there was nothing more boring than September baseball, as the Yankees and I basked in the glory of a double-digit division lead and looked at the playoffs as a birth right rather than a pipe dream.

Ah, but times have changed. It’s natural to look at each one of these games as life and death, to curse our luck and load a dropped foul ball with the weight of an entire season, but we all know the truth. There is no greater measuring stick in all of sports than the 162-game Major League Baseball season. When each of those games has been tallied, you are, as another New York coach once famously said, what your record says you are. These Yankees won’t look back at a dropped popup, a six-run ninth inning, or any of various trips to the injured list. You can’t pinpoint anything in this haystack full of needles; the pinpoints are everywhere.

The irony of baseball’s playoff expansion is that while it may have created more excitement in some corners of the country, it’s diluted it in others. Out in California, many are making the argument that the Giants and the Dodgers are the two best teams in baseball. Were it not for the wildcard, this would be a playoff race for the ages, but both teams are already making postseason plans. (The Dodgers, sadly, having built one of the best starting rotations in recent memory, a stable of pitchers that will make them the favorites in any postseason series, face the possibility of elimination in a wildcard game without any of their superior depth coming into play. Will it be exciting? Certainly. Is it what baseball is meant to be? Absolutely not.) Oh, and because baseball refuses to fix inequitable brackets, the Giants’ (or Dodgers’) reward for having the best record in the National League will be what baseball feels should be the weakest playoff entry, the wildcard team. In this case that means the two best teams in the sport will face off in a first round five-game series. To quote another New York manager, “It’s not what you want.”

But the wildcard allows us to dream. As inept as the Yankees have looked recently and at various times throughout the season, they can still win the World Series, and that’s the downside of the wildcard. In theory, you could put the Baltimore Orioles into the playoffs and watch them win 12 of 20 October games and host a championship trophy in the end. If there is any sport that should not have expanded playoffs, it’s baseball, but here we are.

And so dream, I will. If the Yankees can finish up business against Texas and then win six or seven of their last nine against Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay, there will be at least one more game. At this point that’s all I want. One more game.

And Down the Stretch They Come…

If there’s been one constant in the Yankee Universe over the past 100 years, it has been postseason baseball. There have been a few droughts — 1965 to 1975, 1982 to 1994 — but no franchise in the history of sports has enjoyed such consistent excellence. The Pinstripes have only missed the playoffs four times in the last 26 years, and while the 2009 World Series triumph might seem like a distant memory, we’ve been spoiled.

And so when things were at their darkest back in June and the Yankees were looking up at several teams in the standings, it wasn’t just October baseball that seemed unlikely. It didn’t feel like the Yankees would be playing meaningful games in September. We acted like spoiled children do everywhere. We screamed. We cried. We lashed out. We assured our non-Yankee-fan friends that all was lost, that this was the worst and most confounding Yankee team we’d ever seen. (They were confounding.) We wanted general manager Brian Cashman to sell at the deadline even though the roster had virtually no sellable pieces. We were insufferable.

But then the calendar rolled over into July, and the Yankees were much better. When August arrived they were even better than that, and in the first week of September the team now sits firmly in control of its own destiny. With the offense looking healthier each day (Gleyber Torres was activated on Friday) and the Baltimore Sacrificial Lambs coming to town for a three-game weekend series, all signs are pointing towards October baseball. Again.

Now if the Rays could only lose once or twice…

If the Season Ended Today…

When I woke up on Tuesday morning it occurred to me that the first game of the double header between the Yankees and the Red Sox would be arguably the most important game of the Yankees’ season.

Sure, the Yankees’ recent resurgence had paired nicely with Boston’s regression to the mean, trimming several games off of a lead that had seemed insurmountable when the Bombers limped out of Boston last month, but this one game seemed crucial to New York’s hopes. It isn’t just that the Yankees had lost their first seven games to the Red Sox this season and 10 of 13, it’s that they were embarrassingly bad in many of those losses. So even though the Yanks had gone 15-5 since that Fenway series while the Sox were 8-20, a loss on Tuesday afternoon would have erased all of that and sent a powerful message to players in both dugouts. Same old Yankees, same old Red Sox.

And so when Boston loaded the bases with none out in the top of the softball-seventh, the Yankees’ 5-3 lead looked about as solid as a Times Square umbrella. Not only were the Yankees going to lose, they were going to lose in 2021 fashion, promising you victory before ripping your heart out and holding it aloft, beating but still dying.

But Jonathan Loaisiga, the most consistent member of the battered bullpen, cleaned up his own mess, retiring Travis Shaw on a line drive and striking out Kiké Hernández and Hunter Refroe to close things out, the last strike coming on a 100-mph heater that overmatched Renfroe and tipped the balance of power in the game’s most storied rivalry. Last month the jeering chants from the Fenway faithful carried an eerie ring of truth, but Loaisiga’s primal scream from the mound following that final strikeout sounded an awful lot like 1978.

The night cap was much less dramatic — solo homers by Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton gave the Yankees all they needed for a 2-0 win behind the historically precocious Luí Gil — and even the ending was uneventful. Chad Green’s three-up-three-down save was delightfully boring.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays are still five games clear of the Yankees, and yes, there are still 42 games left to play, but I no longer look at those 42 games with dread.

The last time the Yankees played a double header was on the Fourth of July. After they opened with a horrific loss to the Mets, I honestly hoped that Aaron Boone would be fired in between games. Only a young George Steinbrenner would’ve been bold enough for something like that, and it turned out to be a good thing that his son Hal is not as rash. No matter what happens with the Rays or the White Sox or the Astros, Boone is almost assuredly the American League Manager of the Year. There were times this season (last week even) when the players on the injured list could form a better team than the one on the field, but Boone has somehow not only kept his group afloat through one devastating loss after another, he’s had them playing their best baseball after most observers had written them off.

An entire starting rotation and a closer on the injured list? No problem. We’ll call up a kid from AAA (Luís Gil) and watch him become the first pitcher in more than a century to start his career with fifteen or more innings pitched over three scoreless starts. Not a lot of home run power? No problem. We’ll just become a running team. Since the All Star break, no team in baseball has stolen more bases than the Yankees.

When things were darkest, I found myself wishing for a firing, but even then I knew that the sky was not falling because of any decisions Aaron Boone was making or not making. I wanted a change simply for the sake of change, simply to send a message, but instead Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner chose to send another message — “We believe in this team.” On Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday night, their faith was repaid.

When Aaron Judge was scratched from a lineup during the days before the trading deadline, Yankee Twitter immediately lit up with worries that the centerpiece of the team was being traded. Many voices wanted the Yankees to buy sellers at the deadline, not buyers. Less than a month later, those concerns are forgotten.

If the season ended today, the Yankees would be in the playoffs.

New World Order


I like to imagine that somewhere out there are Yankee fans who were off the grid for a few months. They jumped on the internet the first chance they got, and lots of things were the same in Yankeetown.

The first thing they’d notice is that the team is still scuffling, teasing fans into thinking about a World Series one day, ripping their hearts out the next. They’d check on Aaron Judge and be relieved that he’s healthy and still one of the best players in the league. They’d see that Aroldis Chapman has a boatload of saves and has been lights out recently, no concerns there. (Don’t bother telling them; they’d never believe you.)

But then they’d look more closely, and nothing would make sense. Anthony Rizzo playing first base and carrying the Yankee offense? Joey Gallo in the outfield and providing another left-handed bat in the lineup? Rougned Odor at third instead of second? Jameson Taillon was American League Pitcher of the Month in July?

GIANCARLO STANTON WITH A GLOVE ON HIS HAND??? This is obviously the most preposterous development of the past season. After spending two years as a full-time DH, removing any lineup flexibility that would’ve allowed occasional half days for Judge or Gary Sánchez, Stanton is suddenly a versatile corner outfielder, looking adequate in left field one night and right field the next. (The irony of all this is that recently he’s been hitting like a utility infielder, continuing the Yankees’ season-long theme of “two steps forward, two steps back.” Nice for salsa dancing, not for baseball.)

If one those out-of-touch Yankee fans had sat down next to you on the couch for the series opener against the hapless Baltimore Orioles on Monday night, you’d likely have turned to your guest and said, “This is what I’m saying.”

The ballpark was buzzing, the Bleacher Creatures were in full throat, the lineup was delightfully staggered, and the worst team in the American League had generously tied a sacrificial lamb to the mound. You just knew that Rizzo or Gallo or both would launch bombs into the bleachers. You just knew that the momentum from the weekend’s South Beach sweep and the energy of the Bronx would push the Bombers to a big win. You just knew the season had turned.

Didn’t you?

But then Andrew Heaney, the newest Yankee starter, gave up four solo home runs. And then Jorge López and his 6.19 ERA carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. And then Aaron Boone played the infield back with a runner on third in the eighth even though he was already down by five because probably even he knew how ridiculous the game had become.

It was one of those games, and if the outcome felt familiar it’s because the 2021 Yankees haven’t won a game in which they trailed by four runs or more at any point. Comeback Kids they aren’t.

Oh, and then Boone opened his postgame presser by casually mentioning that Gerrit Cole would miss his Tuesday start because he had tested positive for Covid. (Don’t worry; we’ve got Heaney.)

But. Still.

Somehow I’m still excited about this team. Somehow I’m still looking forward to seeing Corey Kluber and Luís Severino on the mound later this month. Somehow I’m still excited about a playoff run in September and big games in October.

Somehow I still believe. Do you?

Bad News Bombers?

What if — now hear me out — what if it’s possible?

It demands either optimism or delusion to think positively about a team that’s in fourth place in the division and fifth place in the wildcard race, but here we are. This modest stretch of success, taking two of three first from the Astros and then from the Red Sox, feels significant, but we’ll have to wait a bit until we know whether we’ve finally found the oasis or been taken in by a mirage.

But what if it’s real?

The lineup posted for Sunday night’s Red Sox game certainly didn’t give much reason for optimism. While the top four (D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres) might’ve made sense back in April, the next five were simply preposterous. Four of the players were guys I hadn’t heard of back in April; three of them I hadn’t heard of two weeks ago.

We were promised an outfield of Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge, but for various reasons (mysterious dizziness, wrist surgery, and Covid-19, from left to right) Aaron Boone is left with Ryan LaMarre, Greg Allen, and Trey Amburgey. Seriously.

While it’s tempting to be critical of management for not jumping on Joc Pedersen when the Cubs unloaded him to the Atlanta Braves, here’s the counterpoint — no team in my memory has seen such a devastating stretch of injuries and extenuating circumstances impact a single position group like this. Looking at it from an organizational standpoint, the Yankees are currently working with their fifth outfielder (Brett Gardner), a converted utility infielder (Tyler Wade), and the starting outfield of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Rail Riders. (LaMarre, Allen, and Amberguey).

But here’s the thing. Not only did the Yankees take the series against Boston with a decisive 9-1 win, they looked good on Sunday night. They were having fun.

The names you know were 2 for 15 (a single for LeMahieu and a hope-inducing homer for Torres), but the interlopers carried the day. LaMarre and the stylish Rougned Odor had two-run homers, and LaMarre and Allen each had a stolen base. (I’d look up the last time a Yankee had a home run and a stolen base in the same game, but I fear the answer might be Rickey Henderson, which would make be too sad to finish this post.)

While fans might the lament the lack of star power in the lineup, part of the appeal of what we saw over the weekend came from the joy of the players wearing the uniform, the clear appreciation of these unexpected opportunities.

LaMarre, a thirty-two-year-old journeyman who is hardly a kid, took a tumble that was serious enough to draw his manager all the way out to right field to check on him, but the outfielder stayed in the game. “I told Boonie that I’m not coming out of the game,” he explained. “You don’t get too many chances to wear pinstripes, so I want to take advantage of every inning that I get out there.”

It isn’t reasonable to expect these Bad News Bombers to make a realistic playoff push, but if they can at least keep up the illusion for another week or so until Aaron Judge, Gio Urshella, and maybe Luke Voit can rejoin the team, the playoffs will be a possibility.

Seriously.

A Swiftly Tilting Universe

When Gary Sánchez jumped on an 0-2 fastball from Houston’s Blake Taylor in the top of the 8th inning, he did more than just give the Yankees an insurmountable 7-2 lead. Before he had even finished the follow through on a swing so pure that it must’ve been hard for any observer to imagine his two-year slump, it felt as if we were witnessing a massive recalibration of Yankees Universe.

With just six more outs the Bombers would complete not just a 5-1 road trip heading into the All-Star break, but a decisive three-game sweep of the team that has clearly surpassed the Red Sox as the principal villains on the Yankee schedule.

Nestor Cortes, who always looks to me like he’s just gotten off his shift at Ray’s Pizza (Original Ray’s, not Famous Rays), started the opener and came an out shy of qualifying for the win but still lowered his ERA to a city-best 1.05 as the Yankees set the tone with a 4-0 win.

Cortes was impressive, but on Saturday evening Gerrit Cole was phenomenal. After yielding nine runs in eight and a third innings over two mediocre starts, the whispers were no longer whispers. Cole had struggled since baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances, and suddenly the most important member of the Yankee pitching staff — in 2021 and for the next five years — was no longer a known quantity.

Given those circumstances along with the current desperation of his team, his complete game shutout in the middle game of the series was his most important and most impressive outing in pinstripes. When Cole struck out Robel García with his 112th pitch to close out the eighth inning with a slim 1-0 lead, anyone who’s been watching baseball for the past decade logically assumed his night was complete, even it wasn’t statistically complete. So when Cole climbed back out of the dugout for the ninth inning to act as his own closer, it was as if we were all stepping back in time.

Perhaps we weren’t headed all the way to the days of Tom Seaver, who hit double-digits in complete games in each of his first eleven seasons, or Bob Gibson, who had fifty-six complete games over 1968 and ’69, but it felt a lot like Jack Morris’s World-Series-clinching ten-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in 1991. (I understand that a performance like that in Game 7 of the World Series puts Morris on another level, but if we focus just on the pitching, this is a good comparison.) While Morris pitched all ten of his innings that October night without any runs on the board for either team, Cole worked his masterpiece with the benefit of just a single run, courtesy of an Aaron Judge homer (more on this later).

Like Morris three decades ago, Cole impressed just as much with his determination as with his brilliant stuff. After a lead-off single to José Altuve forced Cole to work the the rest of the ninth inning with the game-winning run standing in the batter’s box, the once and future Yankee ace took hold of the moment and refused to let it go. A ten-pitch battle with Michael Brantley ended with a harmless fly ball to center field for the first out, and then Yuli Gurriél went down on three quick strikes. What followed is the stuff of legend.

When Cole had last faced the Yankees back in May, Yordan Álvarez had touched him twice for two long home runs, so it was no surprise that Aaron Boone popped out of the dugout as the Houston slugger made his way to the plate to face a hurler who had already thrown 126 pitches. Pulling Cole would’ve been the easiest decision of Boone’s night, and it would’ve been that rare move that could never have been second guessed. After all, this is 2021, not 1951.

But Gerrit Cole was not ready to go quietly into that good-night. Surrounded by an infield ready to pat him on the back, Cole greeted his manager with defiance rather than deference, his head bobbing to punctuate words that didn’t need to be heard to be understood. When asked afterwards what he had said, Cole admitted that, “I said the f-word a lot, and I kind of just blacked out. I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.”

Whatever he said, he won his case, then threw three fastballs past Álvarez at 97, 99, and 99 miles per hour, the last pitch accompanied by a primal scream that echoed from Houston to the Bronx and back again. In a month that had seen two of the worst regular season losses in recent memory, Cole had spun a superlative on the other end of the spectrum, giving goosebumps and optimism to Yankee fans everywhere.

The Yankees hung on to that momentum into the third game, plating single runs in the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh behind an impressive effort from starting pitcher Jamieson Taillon, so when the Kracken launched that three-run homer in the top of the eighth, I celebrated.

After a long first half of mediocrity and several different losses that felt like rock bottom, I truly believed the team had found itself, and perhaps even forged a new identity. Saturday’s game had ended with the signature moment of Cole’s defiance and determination, but there was a moment during Judge’s home run trot that seemed, at the time, to carry more longterm weight than anything happening on the pitcher’s mound.

As Judge rounded third, he took a quick peek into the Yankee dugout before clutching his jersey with two hands and pulling it tight, clearly mimicking Altúve’s celebration after his ALCS-clinching homer in 2019, an action that led to rampant speculation about cheating that was more high-tech than just the banging of a trash can.

It was a decidedly un-Yankee-like moment for the de facto captain of this team, an on-field jab at an opponent that we never would’ve seen from Jeter or Mattingly or Randolph or even Munson, but it seemed like exactly what this team needed. When asked about it afterwards, Judge smiled mischievously and talked about how chilly it is in Houston in July. He was just reminding the guys, he said, to stay warm.

Joe DiMaggio was probably spinning in his grave, but the modern day Yankees welcomed the opportunity to join the rest of baseball in 2021. When Sánchez returned to the dugout after his blast, his teammates had somehow found a parka, and he wore it draped over his shoulders (stay warm!) as he paced up and down, accepting congratulations.

It was a happy time. The Yankees would surely close out this game and head into the much needed break in the best possible way. Only a week earlier I had texted friends saying, “The Yankees aren’t going to make the playoffs, but for real this time.” But thanks to this series — thanks to Judge, thanks to Cole, thanks to the Kracken — all of that Sturm und Drang had washed away. The Yankees were back.

But you know what happened next.

The stunning part of this latest ninth-inning collapse wasn’t so much that it happened — we’ve grown used to this now — but how quickly things fell apart, how quickly the universe tilted back into disarray. And unlike previous games, it was hard to question any of the manager’s decisions.

Domingo Germán had looked great in two innings of relief of Taillon, and with a five-run lead and Jonathan Loaisiga on the Covid list and Aroldis Chapman on the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you list, it made sense to roll with Germán through the ninth.

And you know easily things could have broken differently? Gurriél led off the inning with a single, but it was a ball that dribbled down the third base line before dying in the grass for a base hit. Two pitches later Kyle Tucker hit a rocket off the wall in left for a double, and Green was done.

The unhittable Chad Green came in at 4:39 local time, and things combusted quickly.

4:40 — Double by McCormick, 7-4 Yankees.
4:42 — Double by Toro, 7-5 Yankees.
4:44 — Single by Castro.
4:46 — Line out by Maldonado, one out.
4:49 — Home run by Altúve, 8-7 Astros.

Ryan Roucco described it perfectly: “A crushing gut punch here in the ninth.”

LoCastro might have had a shot at McCormick’s double, Judge had come about two inches short of catching Toro’s double, and Torres really seemed to have skillfully dropped Maldonado’s lineout, setting up what should’ve been an easy double play. Had just one of those butterflies flapped its wings, the Houston rally might not have happened.

But it did happen. As Altúve stepped on home plate to complete the comeback, the smallest man in the ballpark disappeared beneath a horde of celebrating teammates. He was shirtless when he emerged, giving the Astros not just a win but the final word in the conversation Judge had started the night before.

So where do we go from here? If there’s one thing we know, it’s this — no team in baseball has the experience that this team does in rebounding from devastating losses. The only difference now is that they’ll have to rebound with a roster decimated by Covid and against the Boston Red Sox.

We. Shall. See.

Houston, We Have a Problem

If the Yankees were 54-32 and comfortably cruising towards the playoffs rather than 44-42 and desperately clinging to dwindling hopes, this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros would be filled with drama and secondary storylines. We’d be gnashing our teeth heading into a three-game set with a team that isn’t just the class of the American League but a true Yankee nemesis filled with villains up and down the lineup.

But as things are, the Yankees can’t afford to worry about which team is in the opposing dugout. Whether it’s the Astros or the Orioles, the Yankees need wins and lots of them. They’ve put themselves in a position where they’re essentially already in the playoffs, but instead of a five-game series they’re engaged in an eleven-week crucible that demands they win five of every eight games at a minimum. They’ll either eliminate themselves early and limp to the finish line, or they’ll arrive in October battle scarred and forged into a team no one will want to play.

Can this team pull off such a feat? That’s the true value of a series like this. The Yankees can’t afford to think about revenge. Should Aroldis Chapman wind up facing José Altuve with a one-run lead in the ninth inning (gulp!), it won’t make sense to think back to how the Yankee season ended in 2019. Winning two or three games this weekend obviously won’t change the outcomes of either 2017 or 2019, nor will it guarantee anything this season. If the Yankees manage to win twice this weekend, it will simply mean that they’ll need to win just 48 games the rest of the way instead of 50. First-half mediocrity brings nothing but second-half pragmatism.

The good news? It’s possible. Sure, Thursday saw the Yankees fall into old habits as they made a rookie pitcher look like Sandy Koufax and failed to close the deal on a potential series sweep, but there are positive developments that give reason for optimism. Luke Voit had seven hits in eight at bats during the first two games of the Seattle series, Gary Sánchez is a serious offensive threat again, and were it not for the most anti-climactic MVP race I can remember, Aaron Judge would be a strong candidate for the award.

So buckle up, everybody. We’re about to learn something.

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

I think I’ve decided that this is it. This is the team we have.

In the three weeks since I last opined in this space, the team has changed and changed back again, teasing us into optimism with flashes of quality play but then falling back into their old ways, cruelly reminding us that we should’ve known better.

Aaron Judge continues to have a fine season. He’s been the one truly consistent Yankee in the lineup, but in a season which needs 2017 Judge, his consistency has been hardly noticeable. Giancarlo Stanton will have a week here or there during which it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever pitch to him, but then he’ll spend the next week flailing at sliders six inches off the plate. Gleyber Torres has seemed so lost that I’ve caught myself wondering if a week or two in Scranton might do him some good.

Oh, but there’s been good news. Although D.J. LeMaheiu spent the first sixty games hitting a hundred points less than he did in last year’s sixty-game season, he’s been showing some signs of life recently, hitting closer to .300 in June. And if I had told you a month ago that Gary Sánchez would be the team’s best hitter at this point, would you ever have believed me? The Kracken has been slashing at .300/.372/.686 this month, featuring six doubles and seven homers; he had three doubles and six homers in April and May combined.

So as we heard several times this weekend from the YES broadcast crew, it’s been two steps forward and two steps back for the Yankees for a while now. That’s works fine for salsa dancing, but when you’re trying to make up ground in the suddenly-deep-again American League East, not so much.

All of this made this weekend’s series with the Red Sox even more critical than such games usually are. Winning two of three or — dare to dream — a sweep would have erased an awful lot of the frustration of the past few months, but when the Yankees dropped close ones on Friday (5-3) and Saturday (4-2), Sunday suddenly felt like a must-win game. Thankfully, Gerrit Cole was on the mound.

But if you’re reading this, you know what happened. Making his first Fenway start in pinstripes, Cole did not deliver. His first pitch was rocketed over the Green Monster by Kiké Hernández, Alex Verdugo doubled a few pitches after that, and two batters later Rafael Devers launched an 0-2 pitch 470 feet into the seats. There were still eight innings to go, but the game was over.

And you know the strangest part of the whole afternoon? I sat there and watched the whole thing. When Aaron Judge hit a two-run homer in the sixth to cut the lead to 6-2, I found myself getting hopeful. When the Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the seventh and LeMahieu and Judge due up, I started thinking about what a big win this could be.

But when my optimism was repaid with a 9-2 loss and I was forced to look back over an abysmal nine innings, I finally allowed myself to answer the question I posed in this space three weeks ago.

Yes. This is the team we have.

I’ve never really subscribed to the theory that teams built around power can’t win in the postseason, so the structure of this team never bothered me. After all, if you have the major league leaders in batting (LeMahieu) and home runs (Luke Voit), and then you add Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez, you’re obviously going to score a lot of runs. Yet only two teams in the American League, the Tigers and Orioles, have scored fewer runs than the Bronx Bombers, and if you watched the three Fenway games, it isn’t hard to see why.

The Red Sox outscored the Yankees 18-7, but the hit and walk totals were much closer — 38-35. The Yankees had plenty of opportunities to score runs, but they weren’t able to. We’ve been told that runs batted in is a meaningless stat in this era of statistical enlightenment, but here’s something that is enlightening. Aaron Judge leads the Yankees with 42 RBIs. Heading into Sunday’s game his then forty RBIs ranked 54th in baseball. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research this, but I’d guess it’s been decades since the Yankees’ leading RBI man ranked that low. (For comparison’s sake, Rafael Devers and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., are tied for the lead with 68.)

If we were to rewind the season back to April and play it again, I’m not sure what would happen. If we were to simulate the season a few thousand times, exactly how many times would we see a team this talented look so similar to the Orioles or the Tigers or the Royals? (For the record, the number crunchers over at fivethirtyeight.com haven’t lost faith in our Yankees. Their statistical models see the Bombers as the fifth best team in baseball, but the same model also projects them to 87-75 and gives them only a 36% chance to make the playoffs, which feels about right.)

But we aren’t living in a simulation, and we can’t turn back the clock. Today the Yankees lost in embarrassing fashion, their sixth straight loss to the Red Sox, and they sit in fourth place at 40-37, six and a half games behind Boston. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

The Truth Hits Everybody

The Yankees trailed the Red Sox by a run heading into the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday night, but there was initially no reason to believe that they had, as Michael Kay is fond of saying, a rally in their bones. Things looked worse after D.J. LeMahieu grounded out meekly to second to open the inning, but then Aaron Judge walked and Gleyber Torres drove him home with a rocketed double down the line, and suddenly the game was tied at four. There was hope.

Gio Urshella whiffed for the second out, but after the Red Sox issued an intentional pass to Gary Sánchez, Rougned Odor came to the plate with a chance to end the game with a base hit. Torres managed to increase the pressure by stealing third base during the at bat, and when Boston closer Matt Barnes wasn’t able to bend a full-count curveball into the strike zone, Odor flipped his bat down onto the plate and turned towards first, delivering what should’ve been a bases loaded opportunity for Clint Frazier.

But home plate umpire Gabe Morales called the pitch a strike and the inning was over.

To be clear, this wasn’t a ball on the edge of the plate that could’ve gone either way. Barnes’s curveball had started wide and had never sniffed the strike zone, a fact clear to both the naked eye and the robotic. It was widely reported that the ball had been 4.55 inches off the plate. Had Odor swung and missed he’d have been chastised for chasing ball four.

Frustrations from a week of futility spilled over immediately as the Yankee dugout erupted. If ever there was a time for a manager to get himself ejected this was the moment, but somehow Aaron Boone remained calm as all those around him lost their heads, most notably third base coach Phil Nevin. That called third strike had not only thwarted a potential game-winning rally, it had offered proof of what was already clear to see. Xander Bogaerts’s two-run double in the top of the tenth stands as the game winner, but that’s like saying Oedipus wasn’t truly ruined until he gouged out his eyes. The fates had conspired against these Yankees.

But if you’ve paying attention, you know that’s a foolish way of looking at things. If the Yankees had become the juggernauts the world expected they’d be and were enjoying a seven-game division lead, they could be excused for dwelling on the misfortune of an umpire’s mistake. It would be understandable that they’d tie the outcome of a game to the temporary myopia of Gabe Morales. But you and I know the truth.

This Yankee offense is historically bad, and it no longer matters whether it’s a team-wide slump, an injury-induced malaise, or something as simple as a coin landing heads 54 times in a row.

Here’s Exhibit A — the historical production of the expected lineup, with the slash lines (AVG/OBA/SLG) from each hitter’s best season, his average season, and (aside from Judge) the trainwreck of 2021. Take a look if you dare.

Player Best Average 2021
Sánchez   ’17: 278/345/531   234/321/493   210/331/384
Voit   ’20: 277/338/610   269/360/514   182/280/250
LeMahieu   ’20: 364/421/590   302/356/425   253/335/321
Urshella   ’19: 314/355/534   272/321/430   269/314/420
Torres   ’19: 278/337/535   271/342/475   272/351/364
Frazier   ’20: 267/394/511   241/325/440   185/305/318
Hicks   ’18: 248/366/467   233/330/399   194/294/333
Judge   ’17: 284/422/627   275/391/556   295/398/540
Stanton   ’17: 281/376/631   267/358/543   252/326/465

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect or even hope for all nine players to stay healthy and produce like the far left column in 2021 (that team would win 125-130 games), but I’m sure Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone were counting on the middle column or better. As it turns out, they haven’t gotten close to that. Take a closer look…

  • Not a single player is anywhere close to his career best. In fact, here’s the average differential: -48/-47/-182.
  • Five different players (Sánchez, Voit, LeMahieu, Torres, and Frazier) are slugging more than one hundred points south of their career averages.
  • Two of those players, Luke Voit and D.J. LeMaheiu, somehow have slugging percentages that are lower than their on base percentages.
  • Of the 27 comparable statistics (nine players x BA/OBP/SLG), only two players are exceeding one of the slash numbers from their career best season: Gleyber Torres’s on base percentage (.351|.337) and Aaron Judge’s batting average (.295|.284).

And so even if you want to blame Sunday night’s loss on an umpire’s interpretation of a single pitch thrown in the bottom of the ninth inning, the much larger concern is that during a seven-game homestand against the Rays and the Red Sox, the Yankees went 2-5 while scoring just 22 runs. But really, even that is a minor concern. Here are some things the Bronx Bombers should really be worried about:

  • Only four teams in baseball have scored fewer runs than the Yankees.
  • Only five teams have a lower slugging percentage.
  • No team has hit fewer doubles.
  • No team has hit into more double plays.
  • No team has made more outs on the bases.
  • No team has seen more runners thrown out at the plate.
  • No team has taken fewer extra bases.

Since April we’ve been hearing that these things will turn around, that players will begin to hit like what we see on the backs of their baseball cards, but we’re sixty games into the season. In the old days managers were often criticized for sitting on their hands and waiting for a three-run homer, but this team is waiting for so much more than that.

What if it never happens?

When Up Is Down, and Down Is Up

A couple of hours before first pitch every game day, my phone dutifully buzzes to announce the Yankees’ starting lineup. Back during spring training, even when I wasn’t watching the games, I would still take a look at the batting order and marvel. More than once I caught myself saying, “Man, this offense is going to be really good.”

For the past twenty-five years, the Yankees have always been really good, and most years they’ve fielded one of the top two or three offenses in the sport. You know, Bronx Bombers and all.

But this year seemed like it might be different. I found myself wondering about preposterous possibilities. Sure, D.J. LeMaheiu had led the league in batting average and on-base percentage in 2020, but what might happen if Aaron Judge’s name was on the lineup card behind him 150 times? What if Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton stayed healthy? What if Gary Sánchez hit even .250 with 25 home runs? What if Clint Frazier built on the quiet success of last season and blossomed into a star?

All baseball fans are overly optimistic in March, but none of those hypotheticals seemed unreasonable back then. None of those things even seemed unlikely.

Well, we know what happened. The Yankee bats waited a few weeks to fly north after spring training, and the result was nothing anyone could’ve expected. On most nights through April and into the first weekend of May, manager Aaron Boone submitted a lineup card with three or four hitters batting below .200 because he simply had no better choices. A recent string of games against some of the weaker pitching staffs in the league has restored some confidence and allowed the Yankees to even their record at 14-14, but there are still concerns up and down the lineup.

We’re three days into May and Gleyber Torres hasn’t hit a home run. Aaron Hicks is hitting far less than his weight, Clint Frazier is no doubt wondering if he might be headed back to Scranton, and while there is a Yankee catcher with an OPS over a thousand, his name is Kyle Higashioka, not Gary Sanchez.

Perhaps inexplicably, I remain a Sanchez supporter, but after teasing us with home runs in the first two games of the season, Sanchez has managed just eight hits and a single RBI over the 17 games since that promising start. The player often referred to as the best pure hitter in the organization now has an OPS (.619) that is lower than Higashioka’s slugging percentage (.706). Every single Yankee season preview devoted a paragraph or two to the Mystery of the Kraken, and most observers marveled that a player as gifted as Sanchez could see his skills completely evaporate during what should’ve been the prime of his career. The Yankees are 6-12 in games when Sanchez starts behind the plate, and 8-2 when he doesn’t. At this point, Higashioka is the best catcher in pinstripes, and everyone knows it.

Oh, but there’s good news, and it abounds from the mound.

Everything begins with Gerit Cole, and even though anyone reading this already knows that he’s been the best pitcher in the American League this season, he’s probably been even better than most people realize.

Cole’s “worst” game was the season opener, in which he pitched a pedestrian five and a third innings, allowing two runs while striking out eight and walking two. It wasn’t a bad outing by any stretch, but his five starts since then have been ridiculous. In 32.1 innings he’s yielded just 19 hits and 4 earned runs, but that isn’t the amazing part. He’s posted 54 strikeouts while walking just one batter; over his last three starts those numbers are 33 and 0.

We’re only five weeks into the season, but we’re clearly watching something historic. The most dominant season by a Yankee starting pitcher in my lifetime was Ron Guidry in 1978. (I was nine years old that October when I created a Ron Guidry costume for Halloween; none of our neighbors in Naperville, Illinois, had any idea what I was doing.)

Should Cole approach Guidry’s legendary season — 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 248 Ks — he would cement himself in Yankee lore forever, but the Cole-Guidry comparison is about more than just numbers. When Cole is pitching at home and finds himself in a two-strike count with two outs in an inning, the Stadium crowd will rise to its feet in anticipation, bridging four decades with a tradition that stretches back to June 17, 1978, the day when Guidry struck out 18 California Angels. Unlike any Yankee starting pitcher since that season, including Clemens and Sabathia and Cone and Pettitte and Mussina, Cole is a flamethrower who seems to have the ability to overwhelm any hitter any time he wants. If you haven’t already begun to plan your week around his starts or schedule your DVR to record his games, it’s time to start.

If there’s been a pitcher more dominant than Cole this season, albeit in smaller doses, it’s been closer Aroldis Chapman. Last year we were constantly reminded that Chapman had lost velocity, but that’s no longer a concern. His fastball is regularly topping out in triple digits, and he’s added a sinker that also hits the century mark. If none of that seems fair as you read from behind the safety of your computer screen, just imagine standing in the batter’s box. Chapman has faced 35 hitters in his ten appearances, and struck out 24 of them. He hasn’t allowed a single runner to get past second base. There are certainly those fans who will withhold judgment until they see him duplicate this in October, but Chapman has shown enough to allow me to move past his playoff disappointments.

Built largely around the dominance of Cole and Chapman, it’s been the Yankees’ pitching, not the hitting, that has kept the team afloat and finally allowed them to climb all the way back to an even 14-14. The staff leads the American League in strikeouts, ERA, and strikeout to walk ratio. The top three arms in the bullpen — Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Chapman — have combined for a preposterous stat line: 43 IP/56Ks/8BBs and an ERA of 0.83. The starting rotation behind Cole has also been rounding into form, with Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo German all posting excellent outings this week, highlighted by Kluber’s eight shutout innings on Sunday, a dazzling performance that gave him his first Yankee win and the 100th win of his career.

I doubt that things will continue exactly as they are. We’ll begin to see more from the offense (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have shown encouraging signs), and it’s possible that Gerit Cole might walk a batter at some point, but if we forget the record for a moment, there’s a lot to be happy about after these first twenty-eight games. In fact, I’d argue that if April had gone as expected, with the offense outslugging the opponents on most nights to cover for mediocre pitching performances, we’d all be more worried than we are right now.

Not Your Father’s Rivalry

For the last few years of the last century and the first few years of this one, the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox was as fierce as it had ever been. The Yankees of Jeter and Bernie and Mariano and Posada were on the rise, winning the World Series four times in five years, and the Red Sox were arguably the second-best team in baseball over that stretch.

Whether in the Bronx or Fenway, regular season games carried the intensity of any World Series game played in that era, and any fan from either side of the rivalry whose memory stretches back that far can rattle of an impressive list of dramatic moments — Derek Jeter stumbling out of the stands with blood dripping from his face, Jason Varitek and Alex Rodríguez scrapping at home plate, Pedro Martínez sending Jeter and Alfonso Soriano to the hospital, Mike Mussina losing a perfect game with two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning.

When Major League Baseball switched to an unbalanced schedule in 2001, suddenly the two rivals were matching up 18 or 19 times a season, and each three- or four-game series would drain days off my life. The games would routinely push the four-hour mark, but there were moments within each game that seemed to bend time. Manny Ramírez and David Ortíz used to hit third and fourth, and while their consecutive at bats might only have lasted three of four minutes, the tension — the absolute fear — made watching their plate appearances feel like a punishment dreamed up by Dante.

The Red Sox were a great team, but they were filled with villains. I could never really hate Manny, but I had plenty of venom for other Boston players. We all did. While standing at a Stadium souvenir stand once, a guy turned to me and said, “Fuckin’ Youkilis…” He apologized for his language when he noticed I was holding my three-year-old daughter, but I shook him off. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “She needs to know.”

All of this escalated more than a little bit when the teams met in the American League Championship Series. I’ve been lucky enough to watch the Yankees play in the World Series ten times, but nothing in their seven wins or three losses — not even 2001 — compares to what happened in the ’03 and ’04 playoffs.

Pedro Martínez reached new depths in 2003 when he plunked Karím García and then tossed 73-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground in Game 3, setting up the drama of Game 7, when he coughed up a three-run lead in the eighth. (Seventeen years later, the highlight clip still gives me goosebumps.) It might seem like blasphemy, but when Aaron Boone hit his walk-off homer three innings later, I knew that the World Series would neither compare nor matter.

In 2004, of course, the Red Sox got their revenge. Before that year’s ALCS, I thought the 2001 World Series would live on as my ultimate Yankee tragedy, but standing by as the Sox climbed out of their 0-3 hole was like watching that bloop single from Luís González four nights in a row. Like having your Promethean heart ripped out by the vultures day after day after day after day.

So here’s my point. THAT was a rivalry. And now we’ve got… the Tampa Bay Rays?

There are so many reasons why I should care about the Rays the way I cared about the Red Sox twenty years ago — the way I care about the Red Sox right now — but I just can’t muster the interest, let alone the hatred.

It should be enough that the Rays maneuvered their way to a division championship last season, but that flag will always have an asterisk on it. It should be enough that Kevin Cash is even more irritating than Alex Cora, but when he threatened to have his stable of relievers throw at Yankee heads, he seemed to be reading from a rejected WWE script. It should be enough that the Rays ended the Yankees’ season last October with a dramatic walk-off blast, but I don’t even remember the name of the kid who hit it.

I’m not being intentionally condescending. There are a lot of things that I like about Tampa Bay. The openers, the incessant shifting, the four outfielders — I love all of those innovations, and I respect what they’ve done without any of the thermonuclear advantages of the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers.

But I don’t care about them. So when the Yankees bowed down to them on Friday and Saturday, there was no stomach churning bile, no grinding of teeth into dust, but there were concerns.

We’re only nine games into the season, but we already know a few things. First and foremost, Gerrit Cole is a freak of nature. I know that Roger Clemens was 20-3 and won the Cy Young in 2003, but it’s hard for me to believe that he was any better then than Cole is now. Other pitchers are also throwing well — eight different relievers still have perfect ERAs, led by Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga, and Michael King’s one scoreless six-inning appearance was enough to make me want to see him in the starting rotation.

We’re only 1/18 of the way through the season, but it’s still surprising that the biggest Yankee concerns are not on the mound but in the batter’s box. There have been some bright spots — D.J. LeMahieu is riding an eight-game hitting streak and Gary Sánchez is off to a refreshingly nice start, regardless of what the New York Post’s racist emeritus has to say — but there are far more question marks.

Will Aaron Hicks live up to the potential we saw in 2018? Will Gleyber Torres remind us why people think he’ll win an MVP one day? And as good as Aaron Judge has been thus far, will he play 150 games — or even 125?

There aren’t any answers here, nor even any predictions, and I can’t say that I’m bothered by all the uncertainty. Yes, the Yankees are 4-5, but they’ve got 153 more games to figure all this out. The only problem I see right now is this — the Red Sox are 6-3.

The Morning Paper

[Author’s note: The following was originally written in April of 2019.]

I read a newspaper today. I found myself staying in a hotel in Washington, DC, along with eighty of my middle school students on an East Coast trip that started in Boston, continued in New York, and finished in the nation’s capitol. When I walked downstairs and turned towards the breakfast buffet, there they were, quaintly laid out on a counter like relics in the museums we’d been visiting all week.

I grabbed a copy of the Washington Post, not necessarily for the news, but for the same reason you might pick up your grandmother’s rotary phone and give it a quick spin. There should be a word that means “amused nostalgia.”

But then something interesting happened. It turned out the Sports section was sitting just where I’d left it ten years ago, three sections from the front, and everything else was just as I remembered. (And by the way, if we’re going to add words to the lexicon, we should also replace outdated similes; from here on out, instead of “just like riding a bike,” let’s agree on a different phrase: “just like reading a newspaper.”)

I’m certain that none of my fourteen-year-old traveling companions could navigate a newspaper, nor would they understand its idiosyncrasies. Headlines make perfect sense in the unlimited space of the internet, where a complete sentence or even two can sprawl luxuriously across the top of an article, but “Nats get boost from Robles in No. 2 spot” drew my eye immediately and reminded me of headlines from a past when static dimensions of pages and columns once gave us headlines like “Spike Inks Pact” or John Updike’s famously poetic “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was an art in and of itself.

So after I read the first eight paragraphs about Victor Robles and his productive night from the second spot in the lineup, a kind note at the bottom of the column pointed towards the rest of the article: See NATIONALS on D5. As I dutifully turned the pages, I passed familiar features common to most Sports sections: a digest with highlights from around the sports world, a table of television and radio listings, and a notes column about the hometown Washington Nationals.

But before I could read more about Robles, I was transfixed by a full page of baseball boxscores. Once upon a time this was the highlight of my day. I’d find the Yankee game and carefully scan each line of the agate type for clues about how the game had gone — who had gotten the hits, stolen the bases, and scored the runs. It was a daily ritual during baseball season that began when I was eight or nine and didn’t end until the internet stole it away.

In this current era I’ve become a much more focused fan. I know far more about Judge and Stanton than I ever did about Mattingly and Winfield, but as the internet and satellite television have narrowed my focus, it’s as if the rest of baseball has fallen away.

Again, this morning’s Sports section reminded me of all this. A dozen box scores stood stacked across six columns, each telling a story of a different game, and the league leaders were posted on either side. Perhaps appropriately, there were none of the modern metrics like WAR or even OPS, but instead the statistics from my childhood: batting average, home runs, and RBIs for the hitters; ERA, saves, and strikeouts for the pitchers. Some of the names made sense — Christian Yelich and Khris Davis, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — but who could’ve known there’s an Alexander in Chicago hitting over .400 or a Yates in San Diego leading the league in saves? None of that would’ve gotten past me as a child, but today it’s news. Tomorrow it’ll be trivia.

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever subscribe to a daily newspaper again, and that’s a shame. For all I’ve gained, something has been lost. Sure, it’s nice to have instant access to the information I want (the Yankee score wasn’t even in the paper: NY Yankees at LA Angels, late), but it was nice this morning to get all the information I didn’t know I needed.

When I put down the paper, I knew more than when I had picked it up, and I was also left with something else my iPhone will never give me — ink-stained fingertips.

In Memory of Henry Aaron

From the time I was old enough to hold a bat, my heroes were always baseball players, and Hank Aaron was the first. I was only four years old in April of 1974 when he hit his historic home run to pass Babe Ruth, so if that moment was spoken of in my home, I don’t remember it, but it wasn’t long before my mother put a slim paperback book in my hands, The Home Run Kings: Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. It was the first of many books I’d read about Aaron, and it would deepen my love of the game while kindling a love of reading, two passions that have never left me.

When I saw the news of Aaron’s passing this morning at the age of eighty-six, I thought about that first book and what Aaron has meant to me. 

It begins, obviously, with his name. When I was a boy, there were only two people I knew who shared my first name. My father, who stood in a frame alongside my mother in a picture from their wedding day, and Hank Aaron. That was it.

One biography led to another, and soon the stories and statistics began to fill my head as if they were my own memories. I learned that he had been born in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, and had taught himself how to play, the same as I had. (I even took more than a few swings cross-handed, with my left hand above my right the way he had before someone set him straight.) I worried for him when I read about his leaving home at the age of 18 with nothing but two dollars and two sandwiches for the train ride to Indianapolis where he’d play in the Negro Leagues for a time with the Indianapolis Clowns.

Before long he was in the major leagues with the Milwaukee Braves, and he quickly developed into one of the best players in baseball. Aaron’s game matched his personality. He was quiet off the field, and quietly great between the lines. We know him now solely as a home run hitter, but he was brilliant in all phases of the game. If steadiness can be dazzling, that was Aaron. He built his mountain of home runs with workman-like consistency, never once hitting as many as fifty home runs in a single season but only twice falling short of thirty from 1957 to 1973. He kept his head down, both figuratively and literally, as he hit all those long balls. Aaron once said that he had never seen a single one of his 755 home runs land, choosing instead to put his head down and circle the bases. That story may or may not be true, but it fits the man and player he was.

Aaron’s greatest accomplishment, his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1973 and ‘74, was one of the darkest times of his life. Ruth was more than just a baseball player, he was a myth, and there were those in the American South (the Braves had relocated to Atlanta in 1966) who couldn’t stomach the idea of a Black man eclipsing a white icon. The hate mail was horrific, and the death threats were frequent. Just six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, those death threats were taken seriously. When you watch the clip of Aaron’s historic 715th home run and you see the crowd of fans spilling out of the stands and onto the field, it’s easy to see it as just a celebration; Aaron later admitted that he feared for his life in what should have been the crowning moment of his career.

His stature in the game is secure. He is one of the five greatest hitters ever to play in the major leagues (Ruth, Williams, Mays, and Bonds are the others, end of discussion), but his legacy was ironically solidified when Barry Bonds pushed past him with his 756th home run in 2007. Everyone knew what was going on, and everyone knew that Bonds’s record was tainted, but after Bonds circled the bases that night, there was Aaron on the video scoreboard, praising the new home run king for his “skill, longevity, and determination.” And there was more: “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase down their dreams.” 

I hit only one home run in a baseball career that ended at age fourteen, but Aaron still inspired me to chase down my dreams. I never saw him play a single game, but he was still my hero.

My dad and I met him at a baseball card show when I was fifteen. He was probably the same age then as I am today, and he sat at a table before a long line of memorabilia hounds. Sometimes the signers at these events would chat a bit with their fans, but Aaron was keeping his head down as usual, signing one item after another, baseballs, bats, and photos. No conversation.

But when my turn came and I set down a glossy 8×10 for him to sign, my dad couldn’t help himself.

“His name is Hank,” he said. “Just like you.”

My hero paused, then looked up at me with a smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

August and Everything After

It begins with the innocent hope of April and awkward adolescence of May, then winds through the first days of summer in June and the All-Star Game in July before ending with the frantic race of September and historic rush of October. Missing in that list, of course, is August, a tiring slog through heat and thunderstorms and nagging injuries. August is when most teams come to terms with their diminishing postseason possibilities, but the dog days of August are difficult even for the front runners.

A series like we’ve got in Los Angeles this weekend, three games between the two best teams in baseball, organizations which each boast more history than the other twenty-eight teams combined, could not have come at a better time. The Yankees travelled to Chavez Ravine to match up against the Dodgers, reminding older fans of grainy newsreel footage, sending analysts into paroxysms of excitement as they breathlessly projected this October’s World Series, and — more importantly — giving me a chance to take my son to a game.

You’ve probably heard of Los Angeles traffic, but what you probably don’t know is that Dodger Stadium traffic can be even worse, so my son and I decided to make a day of it, avoiding both types of traffic by leaving the house at 8:30, having breakfast at a favorite Mexican place just blocks from the stadium (La Abeja), and pulling up to the park before the gates opened.

Our plan worked to perfection. The freeway was wide open, the enchiladas verdes were even better than I remembered, and ours was the first car to arrive at the parking lot gates. Aside from missing traffic, we were hoping to get there in time for batting practice, so it was a bit of a disappointment when we arrived in the left field pavilion and found the field as empty as the stands. Some long toss here, some stretching there, but no baseballs flying into the seats. I had brought my glove to the ballpark for the first time in 35 years, imagining a barrage of batting practice home runs, but now we were left with two hours to fill by guzzling soda and browsing the gift shop.

One of the best things about watching the Yankees in an opposing ballpark is the camaraderie among the fans. Each time you pass a fellow Yankee supporter, there’s a nod of acknowledgment at the very least, often a fist bump, and maybe even a conversation. One man wearing a Jeter jersey to match mine paused as he passed our seats and said, “Did you watch last night? Didi was serving breakfast out there! Grand slam for everyone!”

Such was the mood as Tony Gonsolin took the mound for the Dodgers. After the Yankees had beat up on the best pitcher in the National League the night before, pounding the previously untouchable Hyun-Jin Ryu in a 10-2 victory, surely the merry-go-round would keep turning against the rookie, right?

Sadly, no. D.J. LeMahieu led off the game with a walk, but the next nine Yankees went down meekly and briskly, reminding me that the Bombers are almost always defused by rookies they’ve never seen before.

Meanwhile CC Sabathia was toeing the rubber for the Yanks, making the 557th start of his Hall of Fame career and the last one I’ll see in person. I was eager to get one more chance to cheer for him, but I also worried that there might not be much to cheer about. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when he struck out two in the first and two more in the second. When he came out for the third, I leaned over and mentioned to my son that the third inning would be important. The Dodger lineup was about to turn over, and we’ve all seen how opposing batters go from Punch and Judy to Mantle and Maris as they get second and third looks at Sabathia. I was worried, and soon my worries would prove to be legitimate.

The rally started, ironically enough, with the pitcher. Gonsolin, who admitted afterwards to having been a Yankee fan as a kid, banged a ground ball off of Sabathia and reached base with a single when the ball caromed into no man’s land. Sabathia responded by striking out A.J. Pollock, but the next batter, Justin Turner, rocketed a homer to left center, and suddenly CC was leaking. He walked the next batter, Will Smith (West Philadelphia, born and raised), before Cody Bellinger followed with another single to push Smith to third and then stole second base to tighten the screws a bit more with men on second and third and just one out.

But Sabathia would retire the next batter on a short fly out to Aaron Judge, and he’d collect the third out by whiffing Max Muncy. (And by the way, if you had six strikeouts in the first three innings for Sabathia, you win the pool.)

I’ve only watched a handful of games from beyond the outfield, and I’d forgotten how skewed the perspective can be. A Yankee fan to my right, falling victim to this warped reality, had exploded from his seat back in the first inning, prematurely celebrating what he had thought would be an Aaron Judge home run that quickly turned into a short foul pop behind first base.

So when Judge led off the fourth inning with what looked to be a drive to the outfield, I was cautiously optimistic as I rose to my feet. My eyes shifted back and forth between the ball, which continued to arc majestically, and center fielder Pollock, who turned and broke hard towards dead center field, until the outcome became clear. The ball continued soaring, Pollock started coasting, and Yankee fans around the park began celebrating. (Side note: I’ve now seen Judge homer in three different parks.)

Sabathia wouldn’t come out for the fifth inning, and while allowing two runs in a four-inning start isn’t normally anything to rave about, this was still a nice outing from CC. He was never bothered by the Dodgers except for that rocky third inning, and his seven strikeouts across those four innings came at the expense of Dodger hitters who were often off balance. For a team desperate for consistency from the rotation, Sabathia’s abbreviated start actually provides some hope.

With the Dodger lead now cut in half at 2-1, both bullpens went to work. For the Yankees, it was newcomer Cory Gearrin getting a couple of outs to start the fifth before yielding to Chad Green, who was dominant, striking out four in two innings of work. Adam Ottavino got the last out of the seventh, and then Zach Britton worked a quick-and-painless eighth.

The Dodgers’ bullpen, the only weakness these National League bullies have, was just as good. Joe Kelly and Pedro Baez navigated the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings without incident, and then it all came down to the ninth inning and Kenley Jansen, the All-Star closer who’s been struggling recently, against the middle of the Yankees’ lineup.

I watch well over a hundred games a year on television, but I only get out to a ballpark two or three times a season, and it’s remarkable how different the experience is. Sitting in the stands, sometimes you have no idea what’s going on, but there are countless little things that are revealed, ranging from player personalities to subtle nuances of strategy. Dodger left fielder Kiké Hernández is a fan favorite in L.A., and it took just a few innings for me to see why. In the top of the fourth, a fan in front of me called down to him, “How many outs, Kiké?” Without missing a beat or turning his eyes from the action, Kiké slowly — coolly — raised his right hand and extended his index and pinky fingers to let us know their were two outs, much to the delight of our entire section, Dodger and Yankee fans alike.

We also noticed the intricacies of the Dodgers’ infield defense. There was shifting galore, but what struck me early on was how the Dodgers were hedging their bet against lefties. They wouldn’t move their third baseman until the batter picked up a strike, figuring he wouldn’t risk bunting in that situation. My son and I had talked about it when Mike Tauchman was batting earlier in the game. After strike one, Justin Turner left his spot at third and jogged all the way over to where the second baseman would normally be. The speedy Tauchman then tried to drop a bunt. It rolled foul, but we’d see the ploy again in the ninth inning.

Didi Gregorius led off the ninth. While Didi’s certainly a threat to go deep at any time off any pitcher, in this situation he was clearly looking to set the table. After strike one, Turner vacated third as he had been doing all afternoon, and Didi promptly tried to take advantage. He obviously wasn’t trying to sacrifice, he was looking for more. He attacked the bunt, firing the ball down the left field line, but just foul. Undeterred even with two strikes, he tried it again on the next pitch, but this bunt was almost identical, and he had struck out.

I had no problem at all with Didi’s play at the time, and I still like it in hindsight. No Dodger defender was within a hundred feet of third base, and had Didi been able to place either bunt just a foot or two to the right, he’d have coasted into second base with a double. Also, what Tauchman and Gregorius did in those two at bats won’t go unnoticed around the league. Neither bunt yielded immediate results, but Yankee hitters might see less aggressive shifting down the stretch.

But back to the game. After Didi’s out, Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner singled to put runners on first and second. Suddenly the Yankee fans had hope and the Dodger fans were grumbling — loudly — about Jansen.

And then things got crazy.

Gio Urshela hit a weak grounder towards short stop, but Turner ranged across from third to cut it off. I didn’t think they’d be able to turn two, but then I wondered if they’d even be able to get Gardner at second. Gritner and the ball arrived at roughly the same time, but Gritner was called out as his slide toppled second baseman Max Muncy. From our point of view out in the pavilion, we had little to no idea what was going on. Five or six Dodgers were checking on Muncy, but what I noticed was that Gardner hadn’t left the bag.

A challenge, it seemed, was afoot. But who was challenging what? The stadium replay showed Gardner sliding into Muncy, and fans of each side saw what they wanted to see. I leaned across to a Dodger fan and honestly said, “I won’t be surprised if they call Gardner safe, but I also won’t be surprised if they call him for obstruction and give the Dodgers the double play to end the game.” It was that close.

The umpires ruled Gardner safe, keeping the bases loaded with only one out, and I thought the Yankees had dodged disaster. What I didn’t realize at the time — and I don’t think anyone in my section realized it — was that the Dodgers had actually dodged disaster. Not until I got home from the game and started sifting through video highlights did I see that Gleyber Torres had actually scored on the play. When he saw Muncy rolling around on the ground — with the ball in his glove — Torres had galloped for home with the tying run. The umpires, though, ruled that Jansen had called for time before Torres took off, and Torres was sent back to third. (How did we all miss this? An unintended consequence of the god-awful Players’ Weekend black and white jerseys is that the black Yankee uniforms often rendered the players invisible from a distance.)

It was no surprise that after the game both Torres and Aaron Boone said the umpires had erred in stopping the action in the middle of a play, and Muncy added to the controversy by admitting to some exaggeration. “He still got me good, it still hurt, so it wasn’t entirely fake. But there might have been a little acting class in there.” Neither Major League Baseball nor FIFA has commented on this.

We knew nothing of that backstory at the time, but that didn’t detract from the drama of the moment. After lying dormant since the fourth inning, the Yankees suddenly had the bases loaded with only one out. The August sun had sapped the energy from a crowd that had been subdued for much of the afternoon, but now the stadium was electric as we stood and cheered with every pitch.

First it was Mike Tauchman, and as he dug into the batter’s box, goosebumps sprinkled down my neck as my son lifted his hands to his mouth and called out, “Let’s-G0-Yan-kees!” I had done something right, apparently, and in that moment, with the crowd buzzing and hope surging, I realized we had gotten our money’s worth. A base hit from Tauchman — I imagined a single slashed to left field — would be gravy.

Tauchman struck out, but that brought the scariest hitter in the lineup up to the plate. As Gary Sánchez stepped into the box, there was suddenly poetry spinning around in my head.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Gary, mighty Gary, was advancing to the bat.

The lines are 130 years old, but Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s words describe Saturday’s scene perfectly. Thayer’s Casey watched two strikes go by, but our Gary was aggressive. He took a huge swing at the first fastball from Jansen, and he appeared to have it timed perfectly, as the foul ball rifled directly behind home plate.

He fouled off the next pitch as well, then took a ball high and outside, bringing up a 1-2 count. I wondered if the two-strike count might encourage Sánchez to stay back and shoot a single through the wide open right side of the infield, or if he’d sell out and look to launch a grand slam into our section, the ball settling into my hands. But it wasn’t to be.

The sneer is gone from Gary’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now as Jansen holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Gary’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Gotham — mighty Gary has struck out.


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