October 30, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
A Night to Remember
My season came full circle on Thursday night. Back on April 3, I got my first look at the new Yankee Stadium via the park's unofficial opener, a Friday night exhibition against the Cubs for which I was in the right field bleachers. Having spent last fall detailing my mixed emotions regarding the old ballpark's passing, and the winter kvetching about the way me and my crew were being treated, it was with more ambivalence than excitement that I watched that game and beheld the billion-dollar boondoggle. "It feels as though the team put some idealized hybrid of Yankee Stadiums I and II on a steroid regimen, then stuck it in the middle of Times Square," I wrote, "Pure sensory overload-bright flashing lights with sound surrounding you from every angle, and a ginormous scoreboard video dominating the action on the field."
I spent this year's allotment of games in the uppermost part of the upper deck, about four rows away from Hoboken. The view wasn't optimal but the price-$20 a pop, less than a typical trip's expenditure on beer-was right, and gradually, my frosty reception for the park thawed enough for me to admit that yes, I could have a good time in this venue. Particularly with the stretch I've enjoyed for the last month, a run that someone in a less baseball-blessed city might be lucky to experience once in a lifetime: attendance at the September 27 game where the Yankees not only notched their 100th victory but clinched the AL East championship, attendance at Sunday night's ALCS clincher, and now this, my first World Series game since 2003. In a dozen seasons of roughly a dozen games a year at the ballparks in the Bronx, I've not had a run like this.
As fate would have it, our seats for Thursday night were once again in the bleachers, this time on the far section on the left field side. Despite Wednesday night's throttling of the Yankee offense by Cliff Lee, more than a hint of optimism was in the air. The previous night's rain had cleared, allowing the pregame entertainment, a performance of the new New York anthem, "Empire State of Mind," by Jay-Z with Alicia Keys, to proceed. "I'm the new Sinatra," he raps in the first verse, and when he does, you don't have to know anything about hip hop to understand why the song connected with the Yankees and their followers from the moment team captain Derek Jeter began using it as his at-bat music towards the end of the year. This is a grand celebration not just of the city but also of making it there.
The Yankee starter, A.J. Burnett, took the hill with his ability to do just that still in question after his uneven ALCS Game Five outing. One of the pregame factoids floating around the Twitosphere showed that at least in 2009, Burnett was most vulnerable during his first 25 pitches of the game, often getting taken deep:
Split HR AVG OBP SLG OPS Pitch 1-25 8 .263 .356 .441 .797 Pitch 26-50 5 .249 .330 .378 .709 Pitch 51-75 7 .232 .329 .400 .729 Pitch 76-100 5 .262 .319 .406 .725 Pitch 101+ 0 .174 .371 .174 .545
Viewers with the memory of his last outing fresh in their heads don't need the data to recall that Burnett had dug the Yankees a 4-0 hole within his first 12 pitches. It would be different on this night. Taking inspiration from Lee's performance and his postgame words about trusting his stuff-Burnett's can stand with any pitcher in the AL's, but it's the ten-cent head that often sets him back-he came out firing, offering hints that on this night, the "Good A.J." would show up. He breezed through the first inning on 12 pitches, and though the Phillies touched him for a run via a ground rule double by Raul Ibanez and a single by Matt Stairs in the second, he got first-pitch strikes on the lineup's first eight hitters-the Phillies' plan clearly was to take and rake-and didn't go to a 1-0 count until Chase Utley's second at-bat in the third.
That Utley at-bat produced Burnett's first true test of the night. As he fell behind 3-0, with Jimmy Rollins already on second and Ryan Howard on deck, the crowd braced for a typical Burnett meltdown, a 2-0 Series deficit, and a fallen sky. Whether or not the call came from Burnett, backstop and personal valet Jose Molina, or the bench, passing Utley intentionally on the fourth pitch appeared brazenly stupid with the righty-crushing Howard looming. Burnett missed on his first pitch to Howard, a 94 mph fastball inside, but he evened the count when the slugger fouled off a similar but more hittable second pitch, then reeled off three straight curveballs down in the zone and struck the big man out swinging.
For as much baggage as Burnett brought to the party, his opposite number, Pedro Martinez, brought more-an epic history of battles during his days with the Red Sox, highlights (his Yankee Stadium record 17-strikeout performance in 1999, the Red Sox's 2004 ALCS comeback) and lowlights (his 2003 ALCS meltdown, his promise to "Wake up the Bambino, I'll drill him in the ass," and the taunts of "Who's Your Daddy?") aplenty.
But the Pedro who took the hill for the Phillies is a different Pedro, five years and several miles per hour removed from the end of his Boston tenure, and nearly a decade beyond a peak that can stand with any pitcher in the game's history, from Walter Johnson to Sandy Koufax to Roger Clemens. He's older, sadder-his father died of cancer last year-but almost certainly wiser. No longer able to summon superhuman velocity, he showed during his NLCS start against the Dodgers (a rich enough tableau in its own right) that he could still baffle hitters by keeping them off balance, moving their eye level and changing speeds, hitting nearly every increment on the radar gun between the mid-70s and the low-90s while artfully working in and out of the strike zone across seven shutout innings.
Martinez spent the lion's share of the first six innings baffling a Yankee lineup still reeling from the previous night's humiliation by Lee. Derek Jeter struck out swinging to lead off the first inning, and struck out looking in the third. Alex Rodriguez went down swinging in the second inning and again in the fourth. Jerry Hairston Jr., installed in the lineup for his Enrique Wilson-like small-sample success against Martinez (10-for-27, all of that prior to 2005), went looking to end the fourth, squawking to home plate umpire Jeff Nelson when he got the bad news. In all, Martinez collected eight strikeouts on the night against six different hitters.
But whether they went down swinging or looking, the Yankees were waiting Martinez out. Their first four strikeouts cost Martinez 27 pitches, and perhaps because by then they'd seen just enough of his fastball/changeup combo, they soon broke through. Mark Teixeira, who came into the game just 8-for-43 in the postseason, ripped Martinez's second pitch of the fourth inning into the Yankee bullpen to tie the score. After Teixeira and Rodriguez had both struck out to start the sixth, Hideki Matsui golfed a low curveball that caught a bit too much of the plate into the short porch in right field for a 2-1 lead.
That homer came on Martinez's 96th pitch of the night, and for as much as the go-ahead run warmed the hearts of Yankee fans, the knowledge that wiry and wily wizard's night would soon be through thanks to so many deep counts had to warm them even more. After all, who-besides Grady Little, circa October 2003-can forget the splits showing the latter-day Martinez's diminished effectiveness beyond the 100-pitch barrier?
Charlie Manuel, that's who. Conferring with Martinez at length in the dugout after the sixth, Manuel let a commitment to the hurler's heart-and perhaps a fear of his own bullpen-override a bit of common sense by sending him back out to the hill with 98 pitches under his belt. True, it was to face the bottom of the lineup, but it was with a certain glee that the latter-day Bleacher Creatures welcomed him back for the seventh with another round of "Who's Your Daddy?" chants. Still, Martinez put Hairston into a 0-2 hole before the Yankee right fielder got the better of the matchup via a sharp single to right to cap a six-pitch at-bat. Joe Girardi called upon Brett Gardner to pinch-run, and Gardner made it pay off by going from first to third on a Melky Cabrera single to right which ended Pedro's night two pitches later.
I don't care who you root for, it was impossible not to feel for Martinez as he slowly strode off the Yankee Stadium mound, perhaps for the last time in his storied career. The crowd in the bleachers jeered him rabidly, but I could only stand and applaud, doffing my cap not only at the magnificent effort he'd mustered, but all of the pain and pleasure his years of battling the Yankees had brought. At least from this writer's vantage point, never was there an opposing player who made for better blog fodder. My season at Yankee Stadium wasn't the only thing that had come full circle.
Looking back at a recording of the game a day later, the close-ups of Martinez's face are priceless. A bated breath to collect his emotions before walking off the mound. A raised finger and a glance skyward as he headed towards the visiting dugout on the third base side. A head bowed, and then, as he approached the dugout, chin raised with a genuine smile, perhaps at the large sign held by a Yankees fan near the dugout that read: "Daddy's Got a New House." Unable to withstand the lure of consumer capitalism in favor of a poignant moment in baseball history for one single second more, Fox cut to a car commercial. Perhaps their producer had something in his eye.
Martinez's moment having passed, pinch-hitter Jorge Posada greeted reliever Chan-Ho Park with a single up the middle to score Gardner, and suddenly the Yankees, and the crowd, had some breathing room. What followed nearly sucked the oxygen out of the stadium, however, as Jeter did something he would describe after the game as "stupid." Given the sign to sacrifice-a bad idea for a hitter of his caliber no matter the situation-he bunted foul, took a strike, then with the bunt sign apparently off, nonetheless bunted foul again to go down on strikes. It was a shocking mistake from an ordinarily heady player. The end of the inning came even more swiftly and shockingly, as Johnny Damon "lined" into a double play off lefty Scott Eyre. Four hundred feet away from the play, we in the bleachers had virtually no clue what had happened, even after the umpires grudgingly conferred once the two teams cleared the field. The consensus among those who saw the play at home was that it was a blown call, with the ball having hit the ground before being fielded by Howard, the latest of what has to be at least a dozen blown calls this fall. Bring on the robot umps, the sooner the better, please.
By that point, Burnett's work was done. He'd allowed just four hits, two walks and one run over seven innings, whiffing nine Phillies, including Howard three times, and getting 22 first-pitch strikes against 26 hitters. He finished on a roll, retiring 11 of the last 12 hitters he faced following Jose Molina's snap throw to pick Jayson Werth off first base to start the fourth. The opening strains of "Enter Sandman" announced Mariano Rivera's entry for another two-inning save, his second of the week. Rivera was shaky, yielding a one-out walk to Shane Victorino and a single to Jimmy Rollins, but escaped by inducing Chase Utley to ground into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Again, from our vantage point, we couldn't see how bad the call at first base had been, nor can I match the justice Joe Sheehan did to the battle between Rivera and Game One hero Utley. At that point, I was simply screeching with the Bleacher Creatures, pleading for a strike to get the Yankees out of the inning and back in the dugout, one step closer to tying the series.
Which they did in short order, even after missing an opportunity to add to their lead in the bottom of the eighth against Ryan Madson, who scattered three strikeouts around a hit batsman (Teixeira) and a single by Cano. Rivera struck out Howard on three pitchers, capping the slugger's golden sombrero of a night. Werth hit a soft liner to Cano, which the Yankee second baseman ranged to his right to snare, making a difficult play look routine. Ibaņez provided a tense moment by doubling into the left-center gap to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Matt Stairs, whom I've had quite enough of over the last two Octobers. Rivera quickly got ahead Stairs, 0-2, then nibbled away until the portly slugger went down with a mighty hack.
So the series heads to Philadelphia knotted at one, with Andy Pettitte set to face Cole Hamels in Game Three. Meanwhile, the Yankees may have gained an additional upper hand with the news that Joe Blanton, not Lee, will start Game Four, thus halving the Philly ace's remaining potential starts. Lee, as noted in my preview and elsewhere, has never started on three days' rest, and though Manuel considered the move, he's reluctant to break new ground now. Perhaps that 122-pitch complete game drove the decision, or perhaps it's the other way around. Either way, it has the potential to alter the outcome of this series.
Meanwhile, barring a ticket miracle beyond the mere continuation of the series, my time at the new ballpark is done for the year. I haven't quite made my peace with the monstrosity, though I've learned to survive within it. And the important lesson I take home-as if I need reminding after hundreds of games in over a dozen big league parks-is that it's not the edifice or the reviews it garners in architectural digests or even the hassles that impede our enjoyment of the facilities that matters. It's the memory of the events that happen there and the people we share them with, friends and strangers alike, that stay with us, the times when fifty thousand people come together as one to agree on a glorious moment like we agree on nothing else, whether on a lazy, sunny weekend day in May or a crisp October night when the real money's on the table. No matter how this season ends, I've gotten my money's worth at the ballpark in the Bronx.