Friday, October 17, 2003

It was good to have a day off from baseball. The wild ride of the past week has been dizzying and baseball fans everywhere needed a day to catch our breath. Breathing brings reflection and reflection reveals that it is a shame that the focus on the past two league championship series was on the losing managers or a poor fan in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reflection shows that two very good teams with a lot of character have overcome the obstacles and face each other in the World Series.

Absolutely, the unfortunate circumstances that befell the Cubs and the Red Sox will be rehashed for a long time and that is too bad. The Cubs beat the mighty Braves in a thrilling division championship and the Red Sox dismantled an Oakland team that was the best team in baseball down the stretch. Their seasons were improbable and triumphant. The Red Sox and the Cubs just didn't make it all the way to the top.

"What ifs" will always be part of the game. The Fan will always hold John McNamara responsible for Boston's heartbreaking 86' loss to the Mets. Buckner shouldn't have been where he was and the game shouldn't have gotten to where it went and so Buckner is absolved. And remember, the Buckner error was in Game 6 of that series. Is Buckner responsible for the Red Sox losing Game 7 too?

And what of that poor fan who interfered with the foul ball that every Cub fan in the country blames for the Cubs loss in Game 6 of that series. Few would admit that it could have been anyone who went after that ball. And few recognize that Prior was gassed and should have come out of the game after Castillo reached base. But that's baseball and the Cubs lost. But again, that was Game 6. Did that fan lose the seventh game too?

Baseball is a team sport and a team loses or a team wins. Individual performances help or hinder the results but baseball players are imperfect just as we are perfect. Sometimes they are heroic and other times they fail. But those players on those teams helped get their teams as far as they got and that should be celebrated. Dusty Baker got the Cubs into a position to go to the World Series after the Cubs lost 95 games the year before. Go ahead and crucify the guy for leaving Prior in the game too long.

Should Pedro have pitched the eighth inning? Hindsight is perfect and the answer is no. But games aren't played in hindsight and Pedro pitched and he lost. Frankly, his stuff was only so-so all game and the eighth inning could have happened any inning. It took 160 plus games for the Red Sox to gel their bullpen. Despite the playoff bullpen heroics, one can forgive Little for not having full faith in a staff he had to juggle all year.

Second guessing is part of the game too and Grady Little and Dusty Baker will be victims of it for a long time. That's why they get paid well. If I screw up my job, somebody returns a $500 software program. I'm glad my picture isn't in the paper with goat horns on my head.

So let's spend a few minutes celebrating the Florida Marlins and the New York Yankees. These two teams won the games to get them to this point. And let's celebrate two players: Ivan Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera. It's a team game, but these two players rose to every occasion and never faltered. Rodriguez consistently got the big hit and Rivera pitched his longest outing in seven years and he was a towering hero of resolve and nerve. Second guess if you will. I will tip my cap at these fighters and their resilient teams.
For once, the Fan is speechless. Part of me feels joy from my boyhood team coming from behind to tie Pedro and then the homer in the eleventh inning from Aaron Boone. Another part of me feels pain for the Red Sox fans a night after pain for the Chicago Cubs fans.

But the biggest part of me just feels amazed at the quality and wonder of this season followed by this post season. It's been the greatest year of my forty plus years as a fan of Major League Baseball.

My memory of Mariano Rivera laying prone on the Yankee Stadium mound join hundreds of other images from this season and post season that will last me a lifetime.

And Red Sox fans and Cubs fans...I feel you and I understand profoundly about the loss you feel. But consider this: It was fun, wasn't it? I mean, at least you weren't a Tigers fan. It was fun all the way and it isn't quite over yet.

The World Series is going to have a tough time to not end up an anti-climax.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Fan was driving home from work today and the radio, set to an oldies station blared the BTO song: "Taking Care of Business." When I arrived home and saw the score and then read about how it happened, I saw that the Red Sox must have been singing the same song.

With the Red Sox 9-6 win to even their series with the Yankees at three games apiece, the Sox now have a 50/50 chance of winning the series with Pedro on the mound Thursday night. The game could go a million different directions as you are dealing with a 41 year old legend trying for one last hurrah and a fading superstar who will look to have just enough to play the ace he has been for so long. It's almost too intriguing to watch.

I will report here one more time that Joe Torre made the wrong move by taking Pettitte out after the fifth inning. I'll take a roughed up Pettitte over anyone in the Yankee bullpen and that bullpen allowed five runs in three innings and cost the Yankees the win and maybe the series.

Speaking of watching...the Cubs game has been almost too sad to watch. First, they answered a quick three runs from the Marlins with a Kerry Wood homerun. Then Moises Alou put the Cubs ahead by two and Wood looked terrific. But as with last night, the tantalizing hope was excruciating when the walls fell in.

The walls fell in during the fifth inning when Kerry Wood got out of rhythm and walked two batters. That is a fatal mistake and two innings later the Marlins have the lead 7-5.

I have loved the story of both the Marlins and the Cubs this year. The two teams made for terrific drama during the magical regular season. And then their dramatic wins in the division series cemented the fascination. But the Cubbies have had so much history of bad and their fans are so faithful and long-standing. It became impossible to root against them. My heart goes out to those fans and I feel their pain.

But you have to give it to the Marlins. They never quit. They battled. They took the pitches they needed to take. Pudge Rodriguez has been incredible. Miguel Cabrera plays like the next coming of Alex Rodriguez no matter where on the field you put him. And after the Marlins stayed close on the lollipop offerings of Mike Redmon, the Marlins had nothing but fireballers to finish the game. The game isn't over yet, but Cubs' fans already know in their hearts that it is.

It will be settled tomorrow night and then it will be the World Series.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Is there any more agony in American sports than to be a fan of the Cubs and the Red Sox? Tonight was a microcosm of everything those fans have endured for decades of their faithful patronage. And you could see the pain and the doubt in both sets of fans as they filed out of Fenway and Wrigley. Heartbreak snatched from the hands of victory.

The Cubs, up three games to two and needing only one win to get to the World Series, had their best pitcher on the mound and five outs to go with a 3-0 game lead. Pierre doubles. No problem. Prior has been in total control all night. Luis Castillo then hits foul pop to the left field line. Moises Alou is primed to jump and catch the ball. He jumps and one of his own fans reaches out and knocks the ball away. The announcers state that the fan did not reach over. My view is that the fan did reach over. No matter, the result is that the second out is now just a strike.

Castillo then walks. And then Gonzalez boots another out and all hell breaks loose. Eight runs later and the Cubs fans are stunned, demoralized and fighting long held demons. It doesn't matter that Kerry Wood is pitching tomorrow--their second best pitcher. What matters is that these tired fans fear and dread the worst. And who can blame them.

The Red Sox game was far less dramatic. The Yankees simply beat them with sound fundamentals, great pitching from old warrior, David Wells, and cold, cold hitters in the middle of the Red Sox lineup.

As reported here yesterday, Torre made a mistake by not pitching David Wells in his normal turn. Wells has won so many big post-season games for the Yankees and if he had pitched yesterday, the Yankees could have entered today's game up 3-1 instead of tied at 2-2. But Wells did pitch today and he was fantastic. The man simply knows how to pitch. No longer overpowering, Wells changes speeds and eye levels better than most pitchers in baseball.

Now the Yankees go back home with a 3-2 lead and Pettitte pitching tonight and Clemens in reserve for the seventh game if needed. The equally fractured fans of the Red Sox would be down by the state of the series, but more so since it is against the Yankees. These tired fans also fear and dread the worst. And who can blame them.

They still have to play the games and anything can happens but...a Cubs/Red Sox World Series would have been a celebration and it was a pleasant dream while it lasted.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Three things seemed spectacularly clear from watching the Red Sox tie their series with the Yankees at two games a piece. The first is that the Yankees have a terrible plan or no plan when it comes to facing Tim Wakefield. Knuckleballs are very difficult to hit, but if you wait back long enough and react to the ball at the last moment depending on which side of the plate the pitch goes to, you should be able to adjust.

The Yankees only want to swing from their heels against Wakefield and pull every pitch no matter if the pitch is outside or in. Since the pitch is so slow, you have plenty of time to react at the last moment and drive the ball to the opposite field or up the middle. If the pitch is inside, it's slow enough to move the hips out of the way and jack the ball. But the Yankees could have batted for thirty innings against Wakefield and not figured out how to get the job done. In fact, they are half way there as Wakefield has now pitched 15 innings and allowed only a run. A big swing must be started early and you cannot start early against a knuckleball.

The second thing that is clear is that Mussina cannot or does not rise to the occasion on big games. He has now lost three games in the post-season...all the games the Yankees have lost. Sure, he only gave up three runs. But in the playoffs, you have to step it up and hold the other team scoreless. Mussina continually kept the ball up and he is very hittable when he does that.

I totally disagreed with the decision to start Mussina. The Yankees have had a consistent rotation since the beginning of the season and it was David Wells' turn to pitch. Wells would have been a good start because even if he lost, you have Mussina, Pettitte and Clemens for the last three games. Not only that, but Wells always comes up big in big games.

The last glaring truth is that if I were an opposing pitcher, I would never throw anything to Alfonso Soriano other than a slider low and outside (off the plate). Soriano simply cannot lay off that pitch and at least one hundred of his strikeouts this season. And I would throw that pitch every at bat until he has clearly proven that he can lay off of it.

The Red Sox have one more game at Fenway and if they win the next one, it will be nearly impossible for the Yankees to come back. I would feel that statement was more possible if Garciaparra would only get a hit.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

For at least one game, the Florida Marlins showed why they made it all the way to the National League Championship Series. Twenty-three year old Josh Beckett threw the best game of this year's playoffs. Mike Lowell, only twenty-nine years old himself, hit a two run homer, his second of the series and his second game winning hit. Twenty year old Miguel Cabrera went one for two and is batting .353 for the series. He also played right field flawlessly. And veterans, Jeff Conine and team leader, Ivan Rodriguez, hit solo homers.

The Florida win staves off elimination and sends the series back to Chicago. Watching the Marlins today, one hopes that Marlin ownership can keep this team together as they will be a good team for years to come. Signing Rodriguez will be critical.

There was only one negative to the Marlin win and that was Beckett's post game reaction to Sammy Sosa's irritation at being pitched up high and inside. Beckett was quoted as saying: "He over reacted a lot. I don't know if he was trying to pull a Boston Red Sox-Yankee thing...It was pretty ignorant. I'm not trying to hit him.''

The comment was insensitive to the fact that Sammy Sosa, one of the greatest sluggers of all time, has been beaned twice this year. Sosa may have over reacted, but Beckett shouldn't have been so disrespectful.

The game was a wonderful showcase for the Florida Marlins and a tribute to their season and their future. The win also postponed elimination. But any hopes the Marlins have for coming all the way back for this series to continue are undone by two words: "Prior" and "Wood".
Whew! What a day. What a fiasco. The boxscore says that the Yankees beat the Red Sox 4-3 and that Clemens got the win and Martinez got the loss. Too bad the facts aren't that simple.

In what became an embarrassment for baseball, the game became surreal as a beanball by Martinez set the stage for one of the ugliest baseball games in history. My respect level for Martinez plummeted as it seemed that he blew his cool when confronted with the fact that he could not dominate a game. His days of domination are over as he can no longer throw 94 MPH to go along with his pitching skill and guile.

The loss of Pedro's fastball has to gnaw away at him. And when the Yankees jump on him for four runs in a critical game that the world still expects him to dominate, his reaction was to throw at someone's ear. Very uncool.

In year's past, Pedro was an absolute. There was no doubt that he would bury you with a combination of Greg Maddux-like pitching skill combined with a power fastball that ranged from 94 to 98 MPH. He still has the pitching skill which is why his record during the regular season was 14-4. He also kept his ERA down. The difference shows up in the big games.

Against Oakland in the division series, Pedro didn't dominate. Today he was pushed around by the Yankees. His answer was to head hunt. A stunt you'd expect from lesser mortals.

This incident came a month after hurting Soriano and Jeter in what was known as a deliberate act in the Yankees last Boston series of the regular season. Don Zimmer, the little pepper-pot who has adopted Jeter and Soriano, took exception and during the bench clearing after the stupid, childish reaction of Manny Ramirez to a high pitch (but not inside) and went at Pedro. Pedro in what appears to be a defensive move grabbed Zimmer by the head and threw him to the ground. Zimmer is way beyond the age of being able to hurt anyone. So though I understand Pedro's defensive reaction, a cooler head would have just fended Zimmer off until security or another player separated the two.

Harold Reynolds of ESPN really did a good job at putting into perspective how Pedro's beanball hurt his own offense and it clearly showed with how Ramirez was buckling every time Clemens pitched. So it was no surprise that a high pitch that wasn't even close to being inside (a fact verified by Manny's own manager) set Ramirez into such a defensive posture that he then did a foolish act to cause the bench clearing incident. When players perform acts out of fear, they are on new ground and that ground is not very pretty.

And as if that wasn't embarrassing enough for baseball, an incident happened in the Yankee dugout in the eighth inning where a Boston grounds keeper somehow got in an altercation with Yankee pitchers in the bullpen. Somehow Karim Garcia, the man Pedro plunked, ran back to assist the bullpen and became part of that melee. Who knows what an investigation of that incident will bring.

But the boxscore does tell the final story. Clemens adds a win to his impressive career statistics and wins his last game at Fenway. Pedro loses. Rivera, the best reliever in history got the two inning save and the Yankees go up 2-1 in the series. I just wish the facts were that simple. Ugh!

I had to feel terrible for wildness that Dontrelle Willis had tonight in his game with the Cubs. It's such a shame that a great rookie year will be marred by the memory everyone will have for his last outing of the year in which he gave up six earned runs that included five walks in two plus innings. It was very sad to watch.

Don't get me wrong, I would be happy with either the Cubs or the Marlins in the World Series as both were remarkable stories this year and both became the Cinderella teams that lit up this season as the best one ever. But you'd like to see both Cinderellas play well in the series and the Marlins have not played well. It looks like the Cubs are going to the World Series.