Thursday, October 21, 2004

Gut Punch

I've been depressed and exhausted all day. It's embarassing to admit that a baseball game has gotten me down, but them's the facts.

Last night was simply awful. I would normally take this kind of game in a tightly-controlled environment: my apartment, where anything I break is my own damn business; where my email connection is handy for quick notes to Brother Joe; where I don't have to worry about anyone being a prick, except for me. If I become convinced that my watching is a jinx (I know, this is a very rational point of view) I can cut off the tube and pick up a book from my extremely long backlog. This approach has worked for me many times in the past.

Last night, the fates conspired against me, on that count. Wednesday is my league night, the night of the week I head out to Amsterdam Billiards to try to clear my mind of all distractions while I play 8-Ball and 9-Ball. My pool game's in a horrible slump -- work has been heavy the last few months, and I don't get anywhere near the amount of practice it takes to do my best work.

But the place is a sports fan's haven, with lots and lots of TVs turned to whatever contest is on the tube. When I got to Amsterdam (late, to add to my worries) the manager, a Yankees fan, says to me: "This place was f'ing Red Sox central last night. I'm giving you a table at the back of the room, so you don't have the TVs distracting you."

Normally I'd protest, but my team's in last place. This'll be good, I think to myself. Concentrate, finish quick, win, then enjoy the game. It gets better when I learn my opponent's a Yankees fan. Good -- no in-game jive about the last three losses.

Except, when I get to the table at the back of the room -- where there are no TVs -- I realize that there is one TV in my sight-line. Amsterdam has a pool table in a private room, off to the side of the main room. It's not the most "private" place, though -- it has a big glass window and a clear door. And through that clear door, there's the ballgame, live from Yankee Stadium.

No problem. I won't get distracted, I tell myself. The TV's something like 60 feet away. You can barely see the action. Not just that, but when I'm shooting well, I drive myself into a state of tunnel vision, near the feeling I imagine you get from taking Ritalin. When I'm on, you could set the pool hall on fire, I'd barely notice the smoke.

That plan -- the Ritalin Plan -- went to crap sometime during my first game of 8-ball. I noticed when Johnny Damon singled. I permitted myself to react when Damon got gunned down at the plate. By the time Ortiz deposited his homer into the rightfield stands, I was stuck. Every moment I wasn't actually shooting, I was watching the TV.

Even worse, the place was lousy with people rooting for the Red Sox. I originally wrote "Red Sox fans" but I doubt that there were terribly many folks who actually followed the Sox in the crowd. Experience tells me that for every Red Sox fan in a New York bar crowd, you'll have three Yankee Haters (that would be Mets fans, plus people who root for any other team) cheering them on. Anyway, since the Haters were maybe 60% of the crowd, you couldn't tell what was happening by listening to the folks watching the TVs. Hearing cheers only meant that something was happening, not which team did it.

So me and my Yankee fan opponent started stinking up the joint, pool-wise. Normally, I play some of the fastest matches in the league because I'm good, I shoot fast, and I'm almost always matched up against the best player from the opposing team -- usually someone who shoots as well as I do, or better. But this match, we're missing everything. It's like watching a pair of near-sighted six year olds play.

Meanwhile, things keep getting worse and worse. The Yankees, in their half of each inning, are completely forgetting the game plan against Derek Lowe. They're swinging early and often, not letting Lowe's wildness get him into trouble. Then Crazy Eyez (Kevin Brown, for those of you who don't read me that often) gets pulled from the game. Javy then gives up a shot to Johnny Damon, and I'm ready to break my pool cue over my knee, Bo Jackson-style.

(After the homer, Alex Rodriguez came over to talk to Vazquez. I can never be too sure of my lip reading on a small TV 60 feet away, but I'm pretty sure A-Rod told Javy "You're blowing my chance at a ring. You realize I can have you and everyone you care about killed, don't you?")

While this is happening, our lousy, distracted play was turning my Wednesday night pool match into slow torture. At one point, after we'd missed a combined 8 straight shots, my opponent turns to me and says, "Our playing is bad luck."

What the heck am I supposed to do about that? Boston's already up 6-1!

The crowd gets rowdier and rowdier. Damon homers again, and the Haters at the bar couldn't be happier if they were drowning kittens in a well. It usually takes me 90 minutes or less to finish a league match, and I'm still playing -- badly -- two and a half hours after I started. We're both playing badly, though, so at one point I'm ahead 3-1 in our best of seven 9-ball match. I drop two games, then win the last one to force a tie-breaker. Honestly, I'd rather have lost the match than continue to play pool at that point. Naturally, I lose the tiebreaker.

I leave the pool hall at the end of the 6th inning. I need to eat, and I want to watch the game. As I leave Amsterdam, haters are chanting "Let's Go Red Sox". Someone tries to start a "Let's Go Yankees" chant as I walk out the door. There is no response.

Naturally, the first bar I head to for dinner, a guy with a Red Sox cap on his head and a "Yankees Suck" T-Shirt is outside the door, telling his friends how freakin' happy he is.

They've taken over the West Side! As I walk away, some schmuck passes by and tells his girlfriend "There's a guy with a 'Yankees Suck shirt -- this is where we gotta watch the game!'"

Only the presence of my girlfriend keeps me from harming the man.

I'll spare you a blow-by-blow of dinner. You all know how the game turned out. At dinner I successfully managed to drink myself into a stupor -- when the game ended, what I felt wasn't anger or sadness, but shock. The walk and cabride home were filled with bleating Haters, honking their horns or stumbling into the middle of the 7th Avenue. I'm pretty sure I could hear their chanting long after I was out of earshot.

In the morning, I was greeted by the Red Sox part-owner/fan newsletter, the New York Times, predictably gloating about the result (NY Post:Republican Party::NY Times:Red Sox Nation). In the Daily News, more big talk of "collapse" and vague threats of how "heads will roll" in Yankeeland.

I'm magnanimous in defeat. For example, I truly hope Mike Lupica doesn't choke to death on Johnny Damon's penis. Selena Roberts, on the other hand...

The inevitable question is, "Is this the worst loss in Yankees history?" I can only speak for the last 30 or so years. I barely felt the sting last year against the Marlins, and in 2001 against the D'Backs there was the consolation of a truly great series. 1997 was kind of painful; 1981 was bad, but you could rationalize it since, without the strike, the Yankees wouldn't even have made it to the Series.

But as bad as this loss was, as devastating as letting a 3-0 lead slip through our fingers was, I cannot say that this is the worst defeat I've experienced as a Yankee fan. The worst would be October 8, 1995. Our first postseason series in 14 years, as the American League's first Wild Card team. We started up 2-0 in a best of 5, winning game 2 in 15 innings, on a Jim Leyritz homer. Then the Yanks dropped 3 straight at the Kingdome, ending in a fifth game where the Yanks took a one-run lead in the 11th inning. The painful part wasn't Edgar Martinez' double that ended the game, but rather Joey Cora's bunt single to start the inning. Cora drag bunted the ball to Don Mattingly, who couldn't nab Joey for the out.

Don Mattingly was a god to Yankees fans. In his prime, he was a graceful, aggressive first baseman with the glove. But by 1995, back injuries had robbed Mattingly of his snakelike movement around the bag.

Somewhere in the Mariners' scouting report was a notation that Mattingly couldn't pick it like he used to. Cora had tested Mattingly before in the series, with success. And in the last inning of Mattingly's last game in pinstripes, Cora undressed him on that play.

It was unbelievably cruel. Mattingly had a pretty good series with the bat, but I always felt that that final bunt ended Mattingly's career, as much as the Yanks' trade for Tino Martinez in the off-season. It kills me just thinking about it.

This wasn't the same. The best team won, and not by a whisker. The Yankees could've won the series with a single run in Games 4 or 5. But they didn't. The Red Sox bullpen didn't falter, and ours did. They deserve this championship.


I mentioned my reading list earlier. The book I'm currently reading is "The Judgment of Deke Hunter" by George V. Higgins. Higgins was my professor at Boston University, his class was one of my favorites. He was also a phenomenal writer -- he wrote some of the best dialogue I've ever read, and really used it to carry the story. You could read an entire chapter in some of his books, and find only a handful of words outside of quotation marks.

George was also a big Sox fan. He passed away a few years ago, but I hope that somewhere, out there, he's smiling right now.

Brother Joe makes a great point about Game 6 in his column today:
I was thinking about it, and I think the Red Sox should send Richie Phillips a very large, very expensive bottle of champagne. See, it was Phillips who orchestrated one of the dumbest moves in the history of labor relations, the umpires' midseason walkout in 1999. It was that decision, which was met with a collective shrug by MLB, that changed the face of major-league umpiring. The increased willingness of umpires to reconsider a call by getting input from their peers is a direct result of the end of the Phillips era. It is that willingness that turned two bad calls in Tuesday's Game Six into two correct ones, both changes benefitting the Red Sox.

I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that had the arbiters' mindset of the 20th century been in place, the Sox might well have lost Game Six, and never had the chance to make history last night.

As I've said before, Brother Joe's clutch in the postseason. Bellhorn's homer in Game 6 was the Jeffrey Mayer play in reverse. It's a different world for umpires now than it was in 1996.

In another column today, Bill Simmons compares the past two Yanks/Sox ALCSs to the Rocky series. In his example, obviously, the Red Sox Nation is supposed to be Rocky, defeating Apollo Creed in their second go-around. If his metaphor holds, the Yanks are due to be killed in the ALDS two years from now, with the Red Sox avenging the defeat, and delivering a message of peace from the heart of the Soviet Union.

But the problem I have is that everyone liked Rocky because he was slow-witted, humble and affable. Those are not the words I'd use to describe the Red Sox, or many of their fans.

Indeed, if you had to describe the guys that come to Yankee Stadium with their Red Sox colors, you'd hear some of the same adjectives used to describe the Pinstriped Faithful: arrogant, entitled, confrontational. It's like looking in a mirror sometimes. And for all the fuss about the Sox and Yanks' differing hairstyles, the players have similar levels of pomposity -- from Pedro's mini-me to Schilling's "healed by God" speech. Both teams boast 9-figure payrolls.

So for all the folks out there who regard the Sox as the Rebel Alliance, finally toppling the Evil Empire (as if the Diamonbacks, and the Angels, and the Marlins hadn't already done that), a warning applicable to any revolution: beware your liberators, they may be no better than the tyrants they overthrew.

No comments: