Monday, June 23, 2008

42 Games Left: Sweep Aversion

After rampaging through the Astros and Padres, it looked like a shot of interleague play was just what the doctor ordered for the Yanks. But the Cincinatti Reds, dead last in the NL Central, provided a roadblock, with potential All-Star Edinson Volquez breaking up the team's seven-game winning streak on Friday night--allowing only two runs in seven innings of work wasting a pretty decent Mike Mussina outing. Then Darryl Thompson did Volquez one better, leading a five-pitcher shutout of the Bombers on Saturday. Again, the Yankee offense--this time joined by a porous bullpen--helped waste Dan Giese's fine effort in his first start in Pinstripes.

So coming to the ballpark yesterday, the Yanks were in a tight spot, a fun romp through a weak NL schedule suddenly turning into a must-win situation to stop a three-game losing streak at home. Sunday's starter, Johnny Cueto, is someone I think will be better than Thompson or Volquez in the long term. Physically, he reminds me a little of a young Tom Gordon--short but long-armed--just with a better assortment of pitches.

True to that promise, Cueto was a surgeon against the Pinstripers for four innings yesterday, allowing just a couple of Bobby Abreu singles, and a hit by pitch against six strikeouts. He was hitting spots with a 95 MPH fastball and his breaking stuff was darting in and out of the strike zone. Fortunately, Andy Pettitte was just as fine for the Yanks, working his way out of a bases-loaded one-out jam in the fourth. It was a gutty performance, with the veteran lefty having a classic eight-pitch confrontation with one of the top rookies in the NL, BP's #1 prospect, Jay Bruce, to close out the inning.

The forecast had said thunderstorms, which kept some of the, shall we say, less intrepid elements from coming to the Stadium. My brother T, who signed on as my wingman on the late side, got to the ballpark extremely late--he missed Pettitte's fourth-inning drama, if I recall correctly. He also brought a dark and foreboding cloud to the ballpark with him: up until that point it had been pretty nice weather. Still, his timing was perfect. He arrived, the Yanks rallied to score a run off Cueto on a Jason Giambi single, a Hip-Hip-Jorge! double and a Robinson Cano sac fly. Pettitte worked a clean top of the sixth, interrupted a couple of times by huge dust clouds kicked up by the incoming high winds. Then the skies opened up in the most discrete and tidy rain delay I've ever experienced: maybe 20 minutes of hard rain and thunder--just enough time for a bathroom break and a short search for snacks among the Stadium's concession stands--then a short period of light rain, and about 20 minutes of cleanup. The crowd was oddly complacent, during the delay--someone asked me if the game was official, as if asking for permission to go home, and it did seem that the crowd was thinner after the tarp was removed from the field than it had been when it was put on.

When the game resumed, it was no longer fireballing Johnny Cueto on the mound for the Reds, but Gary Majewski, the centerpiece of the Austin Kearns trade a few years back, who almost immediately came up lame after joining the Cincy ballclub. The Yanks staged a second rally against Majewski and former Rockies reliever Jeremy Affeldt, capped by an opposite field double by Jason Giambi, and an RBI single for Posada that ran the score to 4-0.

At that time, I abandoned my perch in the left field Main boxes, to meet up with Jay Jaffe by his seats in the upper deck. Jay'd run into Rob Neyer and some friends during the rain delay, so he invited me to visit, now that the crowd had thinned out and his section had a fair number of empty seats in. It's from there that I watched the game to its conclusion, made a little bit too exciting by a couple of singles off of Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Good win for the Yanks to take on the road to Pittsburgh, en route to a rematch with the Willie Randolph-less Mets.
Even though both of these teams have struggled, to some extent, the Yankees would be well advised not to take either of them for granted--after all, they just lost 2 of 3 to the Reds.


Two issues came up in discussion after I joined Jay's party in the upper deck, and I fear both made me look like a New York fanboy rube. First, talked about the "Tell Big Papi Where to Hit a Homer" at the Home Run Derby promotion. There's next to no chance that this promotion will come off, thanks to David Ortiz's wrist injury, but now that my credential application for the ASG has been rejected, can I just say that this was one of the dumbest ideas, ever? Maybe I'm mis-remembering (as Roger Clemens would put it) but I don't think that Major League Baseball built too many promotions around Yankees ballplayers the last time the All Star Game was at Fenway. No, as I remember it, that game was all about Red Sox history, Ted Williams coming out in his motorized scooter, that sort of stuff. Featuring a Red Sox player in the last All Star Game at Yankee Stadium is a bit like inviting your fiancee's ex-boyfriend to your wedding, then letting him have the first dance with the bride. I know MLB promotes the living daylights out of "the Rivalry" but seriously--is this where attention should be at this event? Does that make sense?

Regardless of my feelings about the promotion, I'm pretty sure that if I'm in attendance at David Ortiz's last game--or even just his last game at Yankee Stadium--I will cheer for him. The same goes Manny Ramirez, or Curt Schilling: regardless of their status as "enemies" who've killed the Pinstripers repeatedly over the years, at some point you've got to get beyond that and just be a baseball fan. And as a baseball fan, it'd be pretty damn small of one not to acknowledge the accomplishments that any those guys have had, the mark they've left on baseball history.

Just the same, the cheers caught in my throat when it was time to recognize Ken Griffey on what is likely to be his last game at Yankee Stadium. Junior likely ended his Stadium career yesterday with a homer, the six hundred and first of his career, and it came in a perfect spot (from a Yankees perspective): a solo shot in the late innings of a game in which the Yanks were comfortably ahead. But I just couldn't bring myself to cheer a guy who's spent so much of his career venting vitriol at the Yankees franchise and fans. I don't mind an opposing player beating the Yanks on the field--after all, that's their job--and Griffey certainly put the knife in the Yanks a few times, most notably in the 1995 ALDS. But for his entire career he's carried a chip on his shoulder against the franchise, apparently because Billy Martin yelled at him when he was a kid. Griffey may not have noticed, but Billy died quite a while ago--the same year that Junior made his major league debut, in fact. You'd think that the adult thing to do would be to let go of the insult at some point, but in interviews this weekend, Griffey was surprisingly graceless. Rather than fondly recall any of the 18 homers he'd hit in the Cathedral, his response to a question about his time spent at Yankee Stadium was "My favorite Yankee Stadium memory? It's leaving Yankee Stadium...For us [the Reds], it's a trip we have to make, not something to look forward to."

For most of his career, I found myself wishing that I liked Ken Griffey Jr. more--the same way some people wish they enjoyed classical music. After all, he was one of the most important players of the 90s. It looks like I'll have to go on wishing. I only managed a half-hearted golf clap for Griffey's homer, and if that makes me a bad fan, then so be it.

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