Friday, July 02, 2004

Rumble in the Bronx

Quite a bit to talk about here, from the Kerry campaign's record-breaking fundraising to the disappointing June job growth and even a certain Philadelphia baseball team retaking sole possession of first place after six lean weeks of also-ran status. And we'll get to most of it over the holiday weekend. But I had the absurd good fortune of attending another ballgame last night, the latest chapter in the greatest one-sided rivalry in sports: Red Sox-Yankees at the Stadium.

Like most ridiculously amazing baseball games, particularly those that go 13 innings, this one had so much good stuff that most of the juicy elements are already forgotten, superceded by the madness at the end. In that vein, you had the 23 year-old New York rookie pitcher Halsey--I don't know his first name, and we just referred to him as "the Admiral"--outpitching Pedro Martinez for the better part of six innings. Pedro--who has a bit of history with these Yankees--plunking Gary Sheffield in the first inning and almost triggering a brawl at the outset. Jorge Posada, no fan of Martinez, hitting a second-deck home run to put the Yanks up 3-0 in the bottom of the fifth. Two defensive misplays by Yankee outfielders Hideki Matsui and Kenny Lofton, both leading to Boston runs and a 3-3 tie. Flash Gordon's dominance coming out of the bullpen (I really wanted the Phils to get this guy last winter, but I didn't realize just how sick his season numbers have been). Terry Francona's I-Want-This-One-Bad move to bring in his closer, Keith Foulke, in a tie game, on the road, in the 8th inning. The Yanks coming thisclose to ending it in the ninth, before Ruben Sierra struck out with the winning run on third and one out against a tiring Foulke. (Sierra would redeem himself.)

And then free baseball--man, that must cheese Steinbrenner off--and the really weird stuff beginning. Boston loading the bases with no outs and getting nada as Alex Rodriguez--who will win the Gold Glove at his new position this year--turning a 5-2(-5) double play that we initially thought was a triple play before realizing he'd gotten the same runner out twice. Miguel Cairo, a late-game replacement, leading off the home 12th with a triple, and getting stranded at third after Sox reliever Curt Leskanic struck out parasite-wracked slugger Jason Giambi and then got the next hitter to ground into a fielder's choice at home. Giambi was pinch-hitting for Jeter after the Yankee captain got up close and personal with fans along the left-field line while making a superb catch to hold Boston off the board in the top of the inning. Leskanic then plunked Sheffield for a second time, drawing harsh criticism after the game from the usually gentlemanly Joe Torre. Along the way, we saw Boston go to five infielders, with multi-positional Kevin Millar shuttling from right field to third base to first base and back, and Sox first baseman David McCarty changing gloves between every hitter. (This was either a righty/lefty thing or the most bizarre in-game superstitious ritual I've ever seen.) Pokey Reese was guiding Boston outfielder Manny "Man-Ram" Ramirez in and out, left and right, on seemingly every pitch.

After Cairo was stranded, my friend Feral said to me that the Yanks would lose the game. It looked like he'd be proven right when Ramirez smashed his second homer of the game off end-of-the-bullpen guy Tanyon Sturtze in the 13th. Then Sheffield--playing third base for the first time in years, as A-Rod switched to shortstop for the departed Jeter--overthrew gargantuan Yanks first baseman Tony Clark for an error, and Sturtze issued a walk. But Rodriguez, a Gold Glove shortstop in Texas, neatly turned a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning and keep the score at 4-3.

It didn't look like it would matter. In his second inning of work, Leskanic recorded two quick outs and got to two strikes on Sierra, and the (many) Boston fans in attendance-whose faces throughout their team's great escape in the home 12th and their taking the lead in the top of the inning never really wavered from what I'd call pre-tragedy--began to exhale. Then Sierra bounced a seeing-eye single up the middle. The two Sox fans sitting behind us scowled, and both held their hands together in front of them in a manner that looked a lot like prayer.

But we all knew where this was going. Cairo watched two strikes go by, and then belted his second extra-base hit in as many innings to plate Sierra with a double. And John Flaherty--the Yankees' last position player, technically pinch-hitting for pitcher Sturtze since DH Bernie Williams had been sent in to play center field after Lofton was lifted--won it with a double that dropped fair by a few feet in left field, with Manny Ramirez looking on like he was watching the end of a Little League game played by strangers. The Boston guys scowled and left, chants of "Nine-teen eight-teen! Nine-teen eight-teen!" ringing in their ears.

I've always maintained that none of us get to choose the MLB marketing area we're born into, and that rooting for an accursed baseball team builds character. If this is true, then Boston over the last 86 years has been populated with some of the great moral giants in human history. What's really amazing is that the Yankee fans, who have been on the winning end of this rivalry pretty much without exception, still take such joy in the pain of the Sox fans. They have shirts that read "Babe, Bucky, Buckner, Boone." I never believed in The Curse until the 1999 ALCS, which I remember watching in grad school--balls hit off Boston bats that looked to be way out of the park, bouncing off the wall for doubles, runners to be stranded. Last year's seven-game war offered still more proof (though the Sox can probably claim a Pyrrhic victory considering that New York clearly had nothing left for the World Series, losing to a probably inferior Marlins team). But last night was just something else altogether. At one point in the top of the 10th, a Boston runner was going first to third on a single, and the cutoff man missed A-Rod at third base. Rivera was backing up the play, and he missed the ball too--but it hit his foot and died. The runner was left at third, and the rest, though I couldn't see it at the time, was obviously foreordained.

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