There was Carl Pavano, the supposed anchor turned albatross, battling on Opening Day of the 2007 season, searching futility for a strikeout pitch. He appears out of place in Yankee pinstripes, assuming a secondary skin, awkwardly wrenching arm overhead, seeking the pristine mechanics and precise command that bought him to the doorstep of stardom. Yes, seems too long ago, when Pavano, young, healthy, and fearless, owned the consensus as the top pitcher within 05’s hot stove menu. Matt Clement was deemed erratic, Pedro Martinez dubbed weathered. He was the one.
Here, he grinded through four ugly innings, before departing to cheers from optimistic fans. This was supposed to be the first step toward a revival, Pavano rising from the ashes, overcoming the cursed injuries that had derailed his promising prime. He was a fixture on the top step of the Yankee dugout in the days following his first start, coolly clad in a black hooded sweatshirt, talking shop with Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, legitimately reaching for camaraderie.
He’d pitch one more game in 2007. It was an appropriate beginning. Take nothing for granted.
Not even Pavano’s single win.
I thought they were finished, late May, after two pathetic losses against Toronto, the team contently passive, absorbing beatings that began feeling inevitable. The Yankees were in full descent, the pitching staff ravaged by injuries, and damaged by Front Office ineptitude, the thoroughly overmatched Kei Igawa routinely blitzed. Indeed, Igawa, eyes shrouded behind shades during Afternoon games, had performed horribly enough to indict the whole organization, executive box to coaching staff.
The defeats became a steady drumbeat. My expectations narrowed. I considered new summer hobbies, but, invariably, always returned for more, cursing the whole way as Bobby Abreu bailed out against lefties, Robinson Cano swung at the first pitch, and Hideki Matsui tapped an endless array of harmless groundballs toward second base.
I consider myself an optimist by nature, but couldn’t have been more apathetic at this particular time. Couple weeks earlier, I’d written a bitterly cynical column after a loss at Seattle, cryptically declaring my worry. The past is never at rest, and, after a couple years coping with painful playoff disappointment, I was quick losing patience.
Toronto was the nadir. 21-29. So, it was fitting that the final game on my Saturday ticket package paired the Yanks and Jays, with such a sizable space between then and now. The baseball season is cosmic, organic, it breathes on a karmic level, flowing and connected. This day represented a gaping exhale.
The Jays have a bright future, an impressive collection of young pitching scattered in their bullpen and rotation. While the cataclysmic injury to B.J. Ryan, along with setbacks suffered by Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus, Russ Johnson and Vernon Wells, may have short-circuited any possibility of a playoff run, the organization may benefit long term from the test of it’s depth. The loss of Ryan forced the elevation of Jeremy Accardo, and prompted the emergence of Casey Janssen. The Blue Jays bullpen mirrors Seattle’s relief corps, before September anyway, when the Mariners could trot out an array of young guns with scintillating strikeout to walk ratios and miniscule earned run averages. But, while the Mariner arms leaked late, the Jay hurlers preserved, featuring such a plethora of talent that Brandon League, kid flamethrower without control, has become an afterthought. If Ryan heals quickly enough, the Jays’ pen could be unstoppable in ’08. Who wants to face Brian Wolfe, Casey Jannsen, Jeremy Accardo, and Ryan as the innings dwindle, especially with Scott Downs and Brian Tallet in reserve, revitalized by their shift to fulltime relief?
My brother Greg and I are late arriving to the Stadium, par for the course really. We weren’t exactly in a frenzied rush however, especially with heavy rain showering the city. On the way there, I notice a gigantic billboard for Fox’s new show, K-Ville, starring the renowned Anthony Anderson and legendary Cole Hauser. In the right spot, of course, these guys effectively exploit their specific talents, Hauser’s stone cold stoicism, Anderson’s goofy comic shtick, but frankly, I couldn’t think of worse roles for either to portray than nose to the grindstone New Orleans cops. Can’t see the two having any chemistry, but you never know. After all, I once lumped “House” in with “Skin”.
I’m intrigued by this massive piece of advertising, however, hanging over the Cross Bronx. It exposes the transient nature of life. Few month’s time, and K-Ville will be gone, painted over, replaced by a new show, new car, something new until it isn’t. Meanwhile, my brother and I will continue to drive by, on our way to Yankee games. And that consistency is comforting, part of the reason why we watch sports, afford such attentiveness to statistics, keep track. The human condition includes an inert fascination with consistency, long lasting reliability. Players receive ample plaudits for it. Explains the calendar, New Year’s, all the holidays. Reality is so unpredictable. Our lives can be irreparably changed at any time, upheaval at a moment’s notice. So we hunt for the steadiness, thirst for it, anticipate Opening Day around the corner, or a Saturday matinee.
Because we never know when it’s going to rain.
During the delay, Greg and I make the rounds at the familiar establishments, Stan’s and the like. A new Yankee era has emerged in recent seasons, grandstands jam packed, attendance tipping the scales at four million. This has altered routines. Now, it’s a virtual impossibility to escape the Big Ballpark without encountering a bodily traffic jam flooding the corridors. Try appreciating the extra ten thousand friends on a hot Saturday in May after a disappointing Devil Ray wipeout, arm to sweaty arm in a overcrowded walkway with some slovenly guy muttering that the ’85 team got screwed because “they didn’t have the wildcard”, distinct whiff of barley and hops on his breath.
A great percentage of the chorus jeering A-Rod last season may have rode in on the same bandwagon. Now we all chant MVP, but not everyone feels like a phony for it.
The attendance splurge is in full effect at the watering holes, which are uniformly standing room only. Pinstriped morale is jacked, with good reason. Our guys had rallied from a disastrous start, overcoming both the opposition and themselves. These Yankees look their worst when they overreach, forcing instead of flowing. In that sense, this has truly become Alex Rodriguez’s team. I’ve arrived at a realization, regarding athletic endeavor, an epiphany. In the vein of every artistic pursuit, feats on the field are tapped from the subconscious, the ability to divert focus inward, for the delivery of an expression. Could range from a brush stroke to a sac bunt. Analysis has no place at game time. Proper preparation is a must, but, when the lights are bright, instinct belongs behind the wheel, a difficult task in sports, due to the competition. Old Shakes never had to endure a writing duel. The battle in athletics is to internalize, forcing pressure to become a mere figment of the imagination.
We escape into the stadium, fleeing from the bar deluge. The game is still delayed by the time we arrive, and the wait continued. At my prodding, we try grabbing seats a few rows up, under cover from the precipitation, but these are filled. We return to the bowels. I sit against filthy wall, eating my breakfast, a soggy Stadium hot dog. Tarp’s been on for nearly an hour, without an end in sight.
My back is locking up. I rue my decision not to get wasted. Didn’t want to booze so early. It may have made the situation tenable. Instead, I sit cold sober, resembling a bum. I ponder whether to ask a passerby for pocket change, can never have enough. I’m reminded of the homeless guy outside Gate 6 after games, proudly brandishing a sign with the inscription:
Why lie? I need a beer.
One had to appreciate the everlasting ingenuity of honesty. And this thought springs forth another: It wasn’t always good at the stadium. Drug dealers used to buy tickets to games, a secure location for sales. Same for the addicts, the empty upper deck a perfect place to shoot up, anonymous. I’ve been told these tales. They don’t seem real. Makes overpopulation seem small.
Finally, the tarp is peeled from the field. The game can begin.
Phil Hughes is on the mound for the Yankees, the untouchable one. His velocity sapped by a myriad of leg injuries, Hughes has been left coping with a suspect arsenal, a previously blistering fastball slowed. These difficulties could strengthen his pitching acumen. But for now, the kid struggles in finding the form that had Baseball America anointing him pitching prospect supreme this past winter. But there are flashes. When he perfectly locates a four-seam fastball under a right-hander’s thumbs for a strike. Or when his breaking ball snaps instead of floating. When his change-up dives instead of hanging.
It’s all in that aforementioned consistency.
He’ll find it.
He retires the Jays in the first frame, in order.
Shaun Marcum returns serve, setting the Yankees down quietly. Marcum relies on finesse, no doubt helped by the stellar defense of John McDonald at short, absent today. He mixes and matches, owning a solid grasp of pitching stratagem. He’s one of the standouts in the Jays’ strong front five, a list including the gifted Dustin McGowan, Jon Lieber clone Jesse Litsch, enigmatic A.J. Burnett, and, of course, Doc Halladay.
Can always count on oddity outside the Stadium. Have to view each and every day through a fresh set of eyes, the old yard reminds me, recalibrates my filter. The place is a true inspiration, and it’s passing, in just a couple years time, is saddening. It’s the people. Will they remain? Like the dudes sporting powder blue retro Jay jerseys, old school names like Olerud and Borders stitched across their backs. Or the intoxicated guy cloaked in his country’s flag, running around calling himself “Captain Canada”. Maybe it was Michael Moore. They save their best for the Bronx.
We’ve all seen police procedurals, either on television or at the movies. We recognize the formula, patting ourselves on the back for paying attention. Look, here comes the part where the obvious, number one suspect is revealed innocent. Uh oh, now the alcoholic cop is going to take the case too personally. Wait, wait, we have a new villain emerging… and bam, case closed, good triumphs over evil, roll credits.
Well, with the Yankees, especially this incarnation of the team, I’m able to correlate just the same. After all, they are a long running series, and some episodes are bound to get recycled. So here’s the part when they look beaten, the offense stagnant. The starter is rolling along, they’ve squandered some opportunities, but wait, they have a couple runners on in the sixth, Marcum’s long gone, left with an injury, that Blue Jay bullpen suddenly isn’t looking quite as deep… and bam, four runs are on the board, the place is going crazy, I high-five some guy after not saying two words to him all game, Enter Sandman, let’s have those credits.
Alas, it isn’t that simple. Not today. Because, unbeknownst to my brother and I, who have dinner plans with the family to celebrate his birthday, we are about to go for a wacky, infuriating, exhilarating ride, which not only typified the season, but mortified us. Having not eaten since the dog during the delay, I was praying for the game ending with relative ease, eager to down some fajitas at Tequila Sunrise.
But here came Jose Veras to protect the lead, top of the seventh.
Joba is the man, a second round steal, fell to the Yankees, taken in the same draft as wunderkind Ian Kennedy. He contemplates a hellacious fastball with a devilish slider, sporting the confidence to throw his breaking stuff in any count or situation. He handles the media with ease, displaying a natural charisma that fans feed on, sowing the seeds for a symbiotic relationship. It’s those players who become legends, larger than life caricatures.
But he isn’t available, not today, insulated by a set of rules to protect his priceless right-arm. When the steadily shrinking market for free agent pitching is considered, the value of a stud on the farm increases seventy-fold. There will be fewer diamond-branded band-aids, Mike Mussina available for the highest bidder. Franchises far and wide are making a concerted effort to lock down their aces, well before they hit the market. Where would the Yankees be without the next ones? Bidding for the services of Kyle Lohse?
So instead of Joba, we are treated with Jose Veras. Veras’ violent mechanics echo Armando Benitez, appearing painful, unwieldy. Arm and head jerking, Jose hurls his person into every pitch, both audience and batter pardoned a cringe. His stuff, however, is electric, a final spot on the postseason roster within grip.
He begins by allowing a fluke double to Ray Olmedo. The guy sitting a seat up mutters “Aw, ****”, venturing an early diagnosis on the imminent meltdown. Greg tells me not to worry, he’d seen Jose breeze in an earlier appearance, harnessing his filthy stuff. Reed Johnson, campaign long scuttled by back miseries, follows with a walk. I rebut Greg.
“ Oh man, it’s Jose Veras. Jose Veras.”
Snap judgments in the heat of the moment. They contradict my analysis. Which is the true B.S.? Therein lies the question…
After striking out the slumping Matt Stairs, who seems a grizzled veteran since 1998 for some reason [must be the facial hair], Veras hurls a wild pitch that Jorge Posada, never known as an adroit blocker, probably should have salvaged.
Meanwhile, the wave has broken out, oozing through the entire stadium. I curse the gimmick to nobody in particular. Greg and I remain unmoved as it passes through our section, proud curmudgeons, in solidarity with the Bleacher Creatures. I’m left in awe of those captivated by the ability to raise their arms upward. Small wonders. There’s that extra one million, weren’t around way back when…
Alex Rios strikes out. The wave rolls on. A run scores on a Posada passed ball. The wave refuses to die. John Ford-Griffin, a former Yankee prospect, a casualty of the regrettable Jeff Weaver acquisition, walks, after Veras inexplicably attempted to fool him with a 3-2 curve ball. It was his first AB of the season. The wave is finally dead. If I were drunk, I’d chastise the entire section, the annoying, self-righteous guy nobody wants vindicated. Alas, I’m not, and am left speechless after Hill singles, tilting the contest back toward Toronto. Somewhere, the guy cloaked in the colors of Canada popped open a Molson and checked a disappointed Yankee fan into the boards.
Veras exits the game, to a chorus of indignation. After all, he interrupted the wave, the jerk. This is New York, baby. We’re hardcore.
In comes Edwar Ramirez, proud owner of a plus change-up. Ramirez lacks consistent command and control of his fastball, unable to mask his mistakes. He pays, forced to be perfect at the Major League level, after terrorizing the Minors with his phantom change.
Ramirez has struggled of late. Greg chimes in:
“ You’ve been high on this guy, but I just don’t see it. He’s awful.”
Point taken. I plan on returning serve after Ramirez records the final out. He uncorks a wild pitch. Hasn’t been Posada’s finest defensive exhibition, but the Yankee gas can committee isn’t helping matters. Lind singles in Hill. One ugly inning can infect all nine. I never issue a counterpoint in Ramirez’s favor. I hope he forgives me, someday. Curtis Thigpen, back-up catcher extraordinaire, who waged a battle of attrition with Phil Hughes back in the fourth, fouling off approximately one hundred pitches before lofting a double to short left, flies out to center to bring a merciful close to the proceedings.
The masses are obligated to arise for the ceremonial singing of “God Bless America”. This is especially fun, after the follies of Veras and Ramirez. I’m still paranoid about the Tigers making a miracle push to pressure the Yankees for the wild card, but that’s probably just aftershock from ‘04. Never take a thing for granted. Not in this life. “God Bless America” reaches crescendo.
We can sit.
The Blue Jays lead 8-6. I’m aghast at the incompetence displayed by the backend of the Yanks’ bullpen, but not the least bit phased. For, Brandon League is on the mound for the visitors, in all his frenzied glory. One could sum up League by simply surveying his mannerisms, eying his body language. He grimaces, scowls, slumps shoulders, pouts, out of sync, behavior matching woeful command.
Giambi, bat lagging, flies out to left after working the count in his favor. Then, League somehow manages to walk the free wheeling Cadillac Cano on four pitches. Doug Mientkiewicz, on fire since improbably reclaiming the first base job, fists a lucky, dying quail of a double down the left field line, a twist of fate unfortunate enough to totally unhinge League, squinting even more intensely toward home-plate before allowing a two RBI single to the glacially cold Melky Cabrera. Proceeding a Derek Jeter groundout, John Gibbons, whose hilarious saunter to the mound harkens an outlaw’s gait from Spaghetti Westerns, decides to hook League on a high note, calling on Brian Wolfe, who summarily walks Bobby Abreu, bringing Alex Rodriguez to the plate, ready to absolutely wreck a tie game.
I’m a believer in the power of positive vibes. Last year, Alex Rodriguez’s struggles in pressure situations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, overblown by the media until they weren’t. Alex admittedly piled on the bulk for the ’06 season, bat speed suffering in an unforeseen consequence. This in mind, couldn’t Alex’s ineffectiveness late in games, against hard throwing relief pitchers, be attributed entirely to the added weight, and wouldn’t the results of this season, a trimmed down Alex annihilating the ninth inning, essentially delete any argument persecuting him as a player unable to deliver in the clutch?
Either way, his greatness is undeniable.
Now, those who doubted expect him to deliver. Encouraging, instead of badgering. Positive vibes, in full effect, as he socks a single off Wolfe, putting his team back on top.
The game had been totally nonsensical, delayed by rain, careening off course, yet I was assured. Sure, Farnsworth was jogging in from the pen, but he could toss a clean inning, deliver the game to Mo, and I could finally chow on some quality Nachos.
I was determined to maintain a level of placidity. So, when Greg murmured, “Oh ****, its Farnsworth,” I immediately sought the positive. And here it was: Kyle throws the baseball hard. The soft underbelly of the decimated Blue Jay lineup shouldn’t be able to make solid contact against mid-nineties gas. There was my logic. It would be Farnsworth’s day.
Olmedo beat an infield hit, after Farnsworth, aptly fielding his position, winged an errant throw through the legs of new first sacker Wilson Betemit. Reed Johnson bled a hard earned walk, staring at four straight pitches. Serenity now. The slumbering Stairs hit a rocket into the glove of Betemit. One out. Surely Farnsworth would benefit from this good fortune, Carpe Diem, Kyle. Rios singles. A run. Greg Zaun singles. Another run. We boo Farnsworth as he takes his leave. Loudly. Enter Chris Britton, prisoner of a wide waistline, which obscures his legitimate talent. He retires the only batter he faces, before Torre, in a bizarre maneuver, summons banished import Kei Igawa. The fans, obviously confused, can only summon a smattering of jeers. He allows another run, why not, but the inning, familiar theme, mercifully ends when Zaun, the speed merchant, is gunned out at home.
All told, the deranged game was reaching near surreal levels. 11-9 Jays, and now it really, really, had to be over.
Melky Cabrera at the plate, two outs in the eighth, team trailing by two, two in scoring position. The sun is setting. The game had stretched past reasonable context, spiraling into the unknown, anything possible. It would be a brutal loss, for the fans especially, who’d seen their entire day outside the stadium slip away, with every breaking ball in the dirt, every foul ball, every garbled prod from the overworked P.A. system. The moment was Melky’s for the taking, opposing a tiring Wolfe, pitch count soaring, partially due to a protracted, Abreu styled plate appearance by the recklessly impatient Cano, drawing his second consecutive free pass. Up was down, left was right, and the exhausted Cabrera, simply burnt after two months of everyday playing time, squeezed a single under the glove of second baseman Aaron Hill, scoring both runners. Melky, naturally, was thrown out at first after taking a suicidal turn around the bag.
They won. It was Melky, in the 10th, singling in the deciding run, lacing a frozen rope into right, freeing about 35,000 prisoners of loyalty. They beat Josh Towers, the instigator of a bench clearing brawl weeks earlier in Toronto, revenge for the well documented ha affair, which had, incidentally, occurred the game after rock bottom. Everything could be connected, but it’s impossible to see how all the pieces fit.
It wasn’t the win I’ll ultimately remember, or even Cabrera, returning to peak form, free from fatigue, riding precious adrenaline for a few hours. Not Alex, who continued proving himself King of New York, or Cano, his breath-taking relay peg from centerfield cutting down Toronto’s winning run at the plate in the tenth. No, I’ll never forget something tingling down my spine.
The completely ridiculous seventh and eighth innings, unending, had extended the game beyond daylight. When Mariano Rivera entered in the ninth, the sky had darkened dim enough for flashbulbs to pop from every corner of the Stadium.
Where had the sun disappeared?
This feeling captured me for a split instant, totally helpless, yet peaceful all the same. I was passing through the living embodiment of a metaphor, a parable.
The Blue Jays encounter injuries. They find talent within. High hopes for ’08.
The Yankees struggle, written off. They recover. Playoffs next week, round one.
It rains. Jose Veras tries to trick John Ford Griffin. A marathon ensues.
Every day is the same. Every day is different. Every day is the same in difference.
Assume nothing. Expect anything. Need fresh eyes to see the flashes of night.