December 30, 2006

SIX WEEKS UNTIL PITCHERS AND CATCHERS...:

GONE SOUTH: In a last surprise, the young Marlins are champs. (ROGER ANGELL, 2003-11-24, The New Yorker)

These wild-card Florida Marlins, who finished the regular season ten games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, entered the post-season as an assemblage of attractive outsiders who’d posted the best record in their league since the beginning of June under a fresh manager, seventy-two-year-old Jack McKeon, called out of retirement to take the post early in May. With a lineup featuring the perpetual All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez; the leggy and engaging twenty-one-year-old flinger Dontrelle Willis, who could start and finish games with equal ardor; and a twenty-year-old Venezuelan, Miguel Cabrera, up from double-A ball, at cleanup, the Marlins appeared elated by the odds against them, even when they fell behind. They didn’t go away, in the parlance, but burned steadily and imperturbably through October, winning the last three games in a row in successive elimination series against the power of the Giants, the celebrated pitching of the Cubs, and now the Yankees—and with the last one, of course, the World Championship. Their closest call, you could say, came when the Giants’ J. T. Snow, representing the tying run, charged frantically down the line toward home with two out in the ninth of the final Divisional game, and slammed into Rodriguez at home. The throw in from left field beat him by yards, and Pudge held onto the ball.

This was the second crown for the Marlins in seven years, but the new champs fielded only one player, third baseman Jeff Conine, who played for them in 1997—a returnee signed aboard this summer after interim stints with the Royals and the Orioles. The current owner, Jeffrey Loria, was allowed to buy the franchise two years ago, after epochal sufferings with his prior fief, the Montreal Expos. By consensus, most of the credit for the Marlins’ sudden rise goes to some brilliant draft signings by the carryover general manager, Dave Dombrowski, who has since accepted the same post with the Tigers, and prior owner John Henry, who now owns the Red Sox, of all things. A uniting thread between these Marlins and the 1997 group—aside from chronic low attendance at steamy Pro Player Stadium, which was built for the N.F.L.’s Miami Dolphins—is that neither champion visited first place after April.

The upbeat Marlins will soon drop out of this account (we are following the Selig fantasy formula), but they leave behind a trail of bright images, including that of the expressionist lefty Dontrelle Willis—who appeared in five post-season relief turns and two starts—tilting and flailing like a reborn Goose Gossage, with his tongue stuck out and his excited eyes alight under that down-to-his-nose, flat-brim street-chic cap. In Game Three, another outsized pitcher, the goat-bearded, sulky-faced Josh Beckett, struck out ten Yankees in seven and a third innings, amid tropic Miami showers, but was beaten by Derek Jeter’s three hits for the night, the last a double up the right-field line, after a terrific mound duel against Mike Mussina. The win put the Yanks one up in the series, and when they rallied late the next night—this was Clemens’s career-closing start—to carry the game into extra innings, and loaded the bases with one out in the eleventh, a customary Yankee outcome appeared at hand. They didn’t deliver, and the winning Florida poke—a lead-off homer down the left-field line in the twelfth by shortstop Alex Gonzalez—bore such an uncanny resemblance to the Aaron Boone walk-off that had killed the Red Sox, days before, that it looked like a mistake in the screening room. Hey, hold it—wrong guys!

The Yankee offense, unreliable all season, was so creaky by now that Torre benched Jason Giambi and the wholly discombobulated Alfonso Soriano the next night—and shortly had to do without his starter, David Wells, who suffered back spasms after one inning’s work and could not return. (Jolly in the interview room the day before, Boomer had boasted that he had a rubber arm and could leave the rigors of conditioning to other pitchers forever.) The Marlins’ seven hits over the next four innings helped build the 6-4 win and the parvenus’ second lead in the series. The teams came back to the Stadium, where the Yankees win big games by force of habit, but they’d finished scoring for the year. The silencing 2-0 win delivered by Josh Beckett was the first Series-ending shutout suffered at home by the Yankees since Lew Burdette did it for the Milwaukee Braves, in 1957. The Marlins were outscored in the Series, and outhit, as well, but it had begun to be noticed by the irritated Yankee pitchers that most of those scores—nine of the latest twelve Florida runs, in fact—had come with two outs. Just when you thought you had them, you didn’t. And here it happened again, with two down in the sixth: a bloop against Andy Pettitte by Gonzalez, a drive up the middle from Pierre, and Castillo’s sliced mini-hit to right, to bring in the first run of the game—the only one required, it turned out. The peg from right had a chance, but the front runner, Gonzalez, came skidding past home on a slide that fell away from Posada’s swipe, and he caressed the plate with his outstretched left hand as he flew by. Marlin-style ball, and a recognizable marque by now.

Beckett’s opponent, Pettitte, was making his thirtieth post-season start here and his tenth in the World Series, but it was the younger man who looked suave and untroubled on this evening, jumping ahead in the counts and delivering ceaseless heat and late-moving curveballs in a thrilling, manner-free flow. He was in the mid-to-upper-ninety-m.p.h. range all night, and here and there edged higher. Beckett, who is twenty-three and six-five, has the contemptuous air of the overgifted athlete, but, having earned the sneer now—he’d added nine more strikeouts, and by the time he was done had surrendered but three runs in his last twenty-nine innings, along with two shutouts—he appeared to forgive us a little at the end. He holds an apprentice’s 17-17 record for his three years in the majors to date, with a 9-8 won-lost record and a 3.04 earned-run average this season, when he had to sit out seven weeks with an inflamed elbow. “He’s just starting to pitch,” said the Florida utility infielder Mike Mordecai, shaking his head in awe. He compared Beckett to a teammate of his from a decade ago, the left-handed Atlanta phenom Steve Avery, but I had a better model in mind: twenty-one-year-old Bret Saberhagen, who gave up a lone run to the Cardinals over eighteen innings during the 1985 Series, and effortlessly won the M.V.P., just as Beckett did here. Watching them both, you could see Cooperstown in the mists ahead—or else the waiting rooms of Dr. James Andrews, the celebrated Birmingham shoulder surgeon, et al., which was Saberhagen’s path, as it turned out. This is a tough trade.

Young players who win a championship are clueless about its rarity, but Jack McKeon, lighting a cigar in the corridor outside the champagne-damp Marlins clubhouse, knew what they’d accomplished. His fifty-five years in baseball include managerial tenures with four other major-league teams, and a decade as baseball-operations vice-president of the Padres, who made the World Series in 1984 but swiftly lost to the Tigers. Now he had that ring. McKeon grew up in South Amboy, New Jersey, but has acquired the skipperish, plainsman’s mien, behind rimless glasses, that comes to so many elder baseball guys. In conversation before the finale, he and I had discussed the way that “seventy-two-year-old” prefix had become welded to his name these past weeks. “You notice that, too, I bet,” he said, throwing an unexpected arm around my shoulder, “but, hell, this beats retirement. Never retire—right?” He’d been idle at home in Elon, North Carolina, when Marlins owner Loria came calling in May. McKeon said that he’d not minded the daylight hours at home, or the garden work, but hated what came afterward. “Sitting in the same damned chair till midnight, watching games,” he said scornfully. “That used to be my working day.”

I hope Jack McKeon saw the Post headline the day after he’d won, and is having it framed: “Yankees sleep with the fish.”


LONG VOYAGE HOME: The games almost finished off their fans, but at last, wow, the Sox have won. (ROGER ANGELL, 2004-11-22, The New Yorker)

Because they lost, the Yankees’ hundred and one wins this season (second only to the Cardinals’ hundred and five) barely count, here at the end. This Torre team, transformed by the departure of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and the arrival of expensive superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and the fragile and palely hostile Kevin Brown, struggled glumly in the early weeks, perhaps distracted by its opening visiting-celebrity series against the Devil Rays, which was played in Japan. The Yankees settled into first place in their division on June 1st and were not dislodged thereafter—more of a feat than it appears, given the miseries of Jason Giambi, pathetically diminished by an intestinal parasite and then a tumor of the pituitary gland. None of the starting pitchers stayed consistent or free of the disabled list, but the rotation was lifted by the bullpen duo of Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon, coming on almost daily before Mariano Rivera. Kept in games they’d looked to lose, the Yanks won late and often, but it was the day-to-day from Hideki Matsui and the imperturbably brilliant Derek Jeter (who shrugged off an early 0-for-32 streak at the plate) and the wrinkly-browed super-pro Gary Sheffield that made up for their deficiencies. A-Rod, acquired late in the off-season after an earlier trade had seemed set to land him in Boston (the Players Association nixed the deal, which would have allowed him to accept a substantially reduced salary), struggled a bit at the plate but not at third base, a new position to him, taken on because of Jeter’s tenancy at short. The team ran into strange blips and swerves along the way—a three-game sweep by the Mets in July, a rocky 1-7 patch in August, and a 22-0 pounding, the worst defeat in Yankee history, by the Indians a few days later. When Kevin Brown came off the field after a losing September effort against the Orioles and smashed his left fist (it was not his pitching hand) into a wall, breaking some bones and sidelining himself for the most serious part of the season, it confirmed something rich and dark about the fame-burdened old champions in the minds of their insatiable haters.

It was quite the other way at the overpacked Fenway Park, where grunge and base hits and a thousand team hug-ups became something like a perpetual kiddies’ picnic as the eventful summer wore along. Headbands and team hair proliferated, batting helmets tarred over, and “The Idiots” replaced last year’s “Cowboy Up!” Johnny Damon’s Sea of Galilee hairline reached his shoulders and below—“WWJDD?” began popping up on the Soxblogs—while Kevin Millar opted for a blond semi-buzz cut to go with his black Abe Lincoln whiskers, and Bronson Arroyo came out in yellow cornrows, with fetching tassels at the nape. On his off days, Pedro Martinez settled capless into his upper corner of the dugout, wearing only remainder bits of the Boston uniform, and delivered momlike nods and smiles toward the unbuttoned Manny as he ambled toward the bat rack again. No one could say how much of this boyish narcissism was just countermatter to the dadly Yankee hauteur, or how much it had to do with the Sox’ bounce and verve when the games began. Why even ask?

This was the most confident lineup of hitters and count-workers we’d seen in years, a bunch at ease with strike two or a late-inning deficit. Their rackety three hundred and seventy-three doubles was an offensive high-water mark famously reached by the Cardinals in 1930. Their talent would show itself unexpectedly in games, and sometimes almost give you a glimpse of what hitting is all about. In the fourth inning of Game Six of the Yankee playoff, the switch-hitting catcher Jason Varitek stood in against a tough-minded Yankee right-hander, Jon Lieber, and quickly fell behind on two called strikes. There were two outs, with a Boston base runner, Kevin Millar, on second. The next pitch, a ball, got away, moving Millar along to third, but seven more pitches were required—four of them fouls and the last one barely ticked—before Varitek singled cleanly to center for the first run of the game. Orlando Cabrera also singled, and the next batter, Mark Bellhorn, hit a three-run homer to left—the big blow of the game, of course, but it was Lieber’s discouragement and hurt feelings about all those pitches he’d had to think about and then deliver to Varitek, all of them after two strikes and two outs, that made it happen. When Johnny Damon came up to bat in the second inning of the final Yankee game, the Sox were already ahead by 2-0 and had the bases loaded. The new pitcher just now summoned in for the crisis was a starter, Javier Vazquez, and it must have entered Damon’s mind that, unaccustomed to the current clutter, he would almost surely opt for a first-pitch fastball and strike one. Damon swung and hit it into the right-field stands for a grand slam.

In the middle of the Sox order this year came the large and optimistic d.h., David Ortiz, forever smacking his gloves together and stepping back into the box, where he presented a pitcher with miserable options. Ortiz swings left, and anything low and in to him tends to be blistered distantly to right—some of his pulled shots got into the stands or caromed off a barrier in right before he was three steps up the line—while up and away produced high drives to left, good for outs in many parks but in Fenway a rain of doubles off the wall. His year-end batting line confirms the pattern: third in the league in doubles; second in runs batted in and tied for second in homers (with his teammate Ramirez just ahead); and first with ninety-one extra-base hits.

Watching the unkempt Red Sox brought back to me a different frazzled and talented bunch, the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, who lost a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals that year. Three veteran swingers in their lineup—Ben Ogilvie, Cecil Cooper, and Gorman Thomas—combined for a hundred and five homers that season, while two others, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, were heading for the Hall of Fame. Grunge and three-day beards were a specialty with the frowzy Thomas, who wore the same pair of lucky stockings in every game of the year, and Pete Vuckovich, a hulking right-handed starter who later played the heavy in the movie “Major League.” Despite resemblances, the style gap (and the income gap) between the two teams is hard to grasp. These Brewers were working guys, grizzled clubhouse rats who lingered over their card games, and later helped out behind the bar at Cesar’s Inn, a nearby factory-clientele bar owned by manager Harvey Kuenn and his wife, Audrey. It would never have occurred to Harvey’s Wallbangers (as they were known) to goof around like adolescents in the clubhouse or the dugout; they were grown men, and private. Were they better hitters than the 2004 Red Sox? Maybe not.

Iconic players—the Kid and Johnny Pesky, Yaz, Jim Rice, and Nomar—have allowed the Red Sox to overlook some chronic problems, like speed and defense, down the years, but on July 31st, minutes before the trading deadline, and with the Sox in second in their division, eight and a half games behind the Yankees, the young general manager, Theo Epstein, completed a multi-club trade that sent away the once untouchable shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs, in return for the younger and quicker Orlando Cabrera, from the Expos; a Gold Glove first baseman, Doug Mientkiewicz, from the Twins; and a late-inning base-stealer, Dave Roberts, from the Dodgers. The shocker here was Garciaparra, who had been too easily injured of late, and had become a distant celebrity in the clubhouse (there was a red line on the floor, a figurative little looped maître-d’ rope, in front of his locker, to discourage writers). Talk was that he’d been affronted by the news that the Sox planned to trade him away over the winter, as part of the aborted A-Rod deal, but I prefer to think that it was a damaged wrist, first injured in 1999, that took away his exuberant line-drive-spraying swings at the plate, and dimmed the gleam in his eyes. “Nomah!” no more.

The trade took a while to work itself out—Cabrera, after an opening home run, went three for twenty-four at the plate, while Epstein confessed that he’d been lying low, to avoid the fans—but then the Sox ran off six straight wins, then ten straight, and twenty of twenty-two along the way, and looked ahead to the hard games and melodramas just up the line. With two seasons gone since Epstein’s appointment, the club now bore his brand. This year, he also brought in the closer Keith Foulke, from the Athletics, and the famous and expensive Curt Schilling (for two years and twenty-five million dollars; or, with options, three years and forty), who had played a central role in his World Series with the Phillies and the Diamondbacks. Kevin Millar and David Ortiz had been scooped up at bargain rates a year earlier, while in low favor with their prior clubs. The winning Red Sox will be deeply involved in the post-season market, with players like Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera, and Jason Varitek launched on the sea of free agency—and other front-office executives, perhaps a little awestruck, will be dealing warily with the young G.M. He turned thirty last December, and one of these days may even lose the prefix.

What remains of the summerlong soap of this year’s Sox and Yankees is a few plays and pitches, so relentlessly repeated in replay that they feel like commercials.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2006 12:00 AM
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