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The Cutoff Man: Champions are built on pitching

November 8, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 11/8/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/11/8/sports/job

After the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers clinched their respective pennants and punched their tickets to the World Series, the scales appeared tipped in the Rangers’ favor. While the Giants had managed to eke their way by Atlanta in the Division Series and then Philadelphia in the Championship Series, the Rangers had essentially pounded their way past the pitching of the Rays and Yankees, jumping on every opportunity they were given to come through in the clutch. The Rangers’ army of pitchers included veteran postseason stud Cliff Lee, brought onboard at the trading deadline for just this purpose, and Colby Lewis, who quickly earned his own “stud” title after dominating the Yankees twice in the Championship Series. The Giants’ pitching corps was led by Tim Lincecum, who after a seesaw regular season had been dominant in the postseason so far, and Matt Cain, who had allowed no earned runs through his first three postseason starts; the Giants also had rookie Madison Bumgarner, who had performed well enough up to that point when called upon, and Jonathan “Ollie Perez” Sanchez, who despite having great stuff at times could not stay consistent to save his life (read: postseason).
The Rangers clearly had the superior hitters going into it. They seemed to have the superior battle-tested pitchers as well, with their staff having convincingly shut down the Yankees, but one couldn’t just chalk the series up as Rangers hitters and Rangers pitchers v. Giants, so Rangers hitters v. Giants pitchers it was.

But a World Series is just as much won on great pitching as it is lost on bad pitching. The Giants, who had won only one postseason game by more than one run and hadn’t scored more than six in a game so far, jumped on Cliff Lee in Game 1 to win 11–7. They then toppled the Texas bullpen in Game 2 to win 9–0, sending a message that they were going to take every opportunity afforded to them — every bad pitch, every error, every walk — and make the Rangers pay. The series headed to Texas with the Rangers hitters hoping that some home cooking could bring back the spark that had driven them through their first seven postseason wins but had left them high and dry in the World Series thus far.

The first World Series game played in Arlington was all the Rangers had hoped it’d be, with owner and Rangers great Nolan Ryan being one of the people throwing out the first pitch, and after much pregame fanfare, a 4–2 Rangers victory. Colby Lewis had once again come through for Texas, and although the runs came from an unlikely source in first baseman Mitch Moreland, the Rangers took what they could get to head into Game Four looking to tie up the Series at two games apiece and, hopefully, take all three games in their home park to head back to San Francisco with a lead in the series.

The Giants’ Bumgarner, though, lived up to the surprising amount of hype that surrounded him all postseason with what can safely be called the performance of his life. The 21-year-old rookie threw eight beautifully scoreless innings, burying the lifeless Texas bats on merely three hits before closer Brian Wilson slammed the coffin on a 4–0 Texas loss. The Giants then wrapped up their first World Championship in 56 years with a 3–1 victory in Game 5, taking advantage of Cliff Lee’s one mistake — a fat pitch that World Series MVP Edgar Renteria sent into the stands for a three-run homer.

Going into the World Series, it was hard not to pick Texas after that team’s offensive performances in its earlier postseason series. But fans forgot that to get to the World Series, the Giants had already shut down a powerhouse Phillies lineup, including holding first baseman Ryan Howard to no home runs and no RBIs the entire series. It was that grit and that ability to take advantage of opportunities that ultimately drove the Giants to this World Championship and, if their core is kept intact, many more in the future.

The Cutoff Man: Who killed Mr. Defending Champion?

October 25, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 10/25/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/10/25/sports/job

In this game of Clue, there were two victims and hence, two culprits. On Friday, it was the Rangers who killed the Yankees in Arlington with clutch hits. On Saturday, the Giants slew the Phillies in Philadelphia with great pitching — and a clutch homer.

The World Series is on tap to start fresh this Wednesday, with one team making its first World Series appearance and another in only its fourth World Series in the past 50 years. The Texas Rangers have already outdone themselves twice this October, first by taking the Division Series from Tampa Bay to win their first ever postseason series and then again by David-and-Goliathing the Yankees to double their historical postseason series victory tally. The Giants, who beat the Braves in the Division Series, entered the National League Championship Series (NLCS) as giant underdogs as they faced a Phillies team that steamrolled through the last month of the season and swept the Reds in the Division Series in convincing fashion.

Although I had previously predicted a Rangers World Series championship (“What was the name of that movie?” from Oct. 11 [SLANT12]https://thetartan.org/2010/10/11/sports/job[SLANT12]), the Yankees looked like the team to beat this postseason after sweeping the Twins in the Division Series with seemingly unstoppable pitching. In the American League Championship Series, though, New York ran into a Texas offense that would require much more effort to subdue, and it turned out that the Yankees pitchers didn’t have tranquilizers heavy enough to get the job done. The Rangers scored first in almost every game of the six-game series, and even when things got close, they found a way to claw back and put a pounding on Yankee relievers in the late innings. None of the Rangers’ victories ended up particularly close, as Texas outscored New York 15–1 from the sixth inning on in the Rangers’ four wins in the series. The pitching that had Yankees fans and haters confident that they’d get the job done after mowing down the punchless Twins more than met its match against a Texas offense that will surely give the Giants pitchers fits if they are the least bit off their game.

The Giants, on the other hand, continued to supply their fans with plenty of feel-good “torture,” as their style of baseball was deemed throughout the season. Their clinching 3–2 victory in Game 6 of the NLCS was the sixth one-run game they were involved in out of nine this postseason, and Giants fans may have had to start on their toenails after biting all 10 fingernails off by the time closer Brian Wilson struck out the Phillies’ Ryan Howard to win it. Torture won’t cut it against Texas, though, as even ace pitcher Tim Lincecum hasn’t been consistent enough this October to ensure that he will be able to quiet the Texas offense. After Saturday’s less-than-admirable performance, it’s doubtful that Jonathan Sanchez will remain the Giants’ No. 2 starter, and even with Matt Cain’s dominating performance in Game 3 of the NLCS, it’ll be a stretch for him to duplicate his success against a team that mashed Yankees pitching instead of the Phillies team that hit a collective .216 in the NLCS.

With hitters like Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, and a healthy Nelson Cruz and Vlad Guerrero to go with pitchers Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis, and Neftali Feliz, it’s hard not to finally pick these Rangers as the team to beat this October. The Giants will reprise their role as underdogs come Wednesday, but after grinding out a plethora of wins that proved critics wrong this season, it’s impossible to predict what will happen once that first pitch opens up the Fall Classic. There’s only one thing we know for sure: There will be excitement and surprises in every game, with good, fundamental baseball being played on both ends and clutch plays aplenty.

Make sure you’re tuned into FOX Wednesday night to watch it all unfold; besides, there’s nothing else good on Wednesday night TV anyway.

The Cutoff Man: What was the name of that movie?

October 11, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 10/11/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/10/11/sports/job

You know, the one where Joe Boyd sells his soul to the devil so that the Washington Senators can start winning?

Here’s a hint: It rhymes with Bamn Bankees.

The Bronx Bombers, the team that many love and many more love to hate, became the first team this postseason to win a division series on Saturday. With a win at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks punched their ticket to the American League Championship Series (ALCS) for the second year in a row, completing a sweep of the seemingly punchless Minnesota Twins. New York has now taken nine straight postseason games from Minnesota, tying the longest active streak in baseball.

Coincidentally, the other nine-game postseason winning streak against any one team is also owned by the Yankees, as they took nine straight playoff games from the Rangers in the mid- to late ’90s. The Rangers hadn’t been in the postseason again until this season, and they have taken full advantage of their newfound freedom from the Yankees, taking the first two games of their division series battle with the Rays to put themselves on the brink of winning their first ever postseason series. If they succeed, they’ll have to face their old tormentors in the ALCS.

Despite the fact that the Yankees were World Series champions last year, expectations were not as high for 2010 among fans and analysts alike. “I’ll be shocked if the Yanks get past the Twins, since our starting pitching is nonexistent except for CC,” lifelong Yankees fan and 2006 Brooklyn College graduate Ian Levenstein commented before the American League Division Series began. Levenstein, like many others, felt that the Yankees’ rotation was a huge question mark after 21-game winner CC Sabathia, who pitched game one of the series and won. Andy Pettitte, who started and won game two, ended the regular season with two mediocre efforts following a groin injury, and Phil Hughes, the eventual game three winner, was winding down his first full season as a starter and, after going 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA before the All-Star break, went 7–6 with a 4.90 ERA in the ensuing 15 games. Coupled with the fact that the once-dominant, still-expensive A.J. Burnett was having a horrendous year and Javier Vazquez was taking lessons from Oliver Perez on how to disappoint even the harshest naysayers, the Yanks’ pitching corps seemed questionable at best.

But somehow, they pulled it out and nailed down the sweep.

The Yankees beat the Mets in 2000 to win their third consecutive World Series and fourth in five years. However, they then lost the 2001 World Series to the Diamondbacks in seven games to jump-start a string of eight straight years of not winning a World Series, with the low point coming when they failed to even reach the postseason in 2008. They then returned to glory by winning the whole shebang against the Phillies last year, and in 2010, it looks like the Evil Empire is back to its postseason winning ways again.

As much as it pains me to say it, the Yankees are the team to beat right now in this postseason. Sabathia may not have had the best overall stats to go with his 21 wins, but that’s exactly the reason that the Yanks have no reason to worry: He still got 21 wins. What does that mean? It means that even if Sabathia gives up four or five runs, his offense will back him up with six or seven, as they did in Sabathia’s 6–4 win in game one. Pettitte, injury concerns aside, showed already that he is still one of the best playoff pitchers in history when he dominated in his 19th career postseason victory in game two. Hughes is only partially a question mark at this point after seven scoreless innings in the clincher, and in a best-of-seven series, there’s a little more breathing room in that department. What will happen with a fourth starter is yet to be seen; if the Yanks are confident enough, they can tweak their rotation enough to eliminate any need for a fourth starter. Sabathia has been historically dominant on short rest, especially in big games, and if the Yankees are on the verge of winning in four or five games, there’s a high chance that their starters will get plenty of rest before the NLCS ends and the World Series begins.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” baseball fan Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address. Similarly, the only thing that may threaten the Yankees’ dominance is, well, their own dominance. They have already won their division series, meaning they will have to wait six days for the start of the ALCS. Likewise, if they do then win that series in four or five, they will once again sit dormant for at least a week before the World Series. In 2006, the Detroit Tigers rocked the American League postseason only to wait till the bitter end of the NLCS to play the Cardinals in the World Series; St. Louis then steamrolled the Tigers to easily take the World Series. The 2007 Colorado Rockies similarly destroyed anything in their path in the NLDS and NLCS before waiting a week and looking cold, confused, and uncollected while getting convincingly swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. Were the Yanks to end up dominating their ALCS opponent as they are poised to do, would the same fate befall them?

Most likely not. Unlike the Tigers in 2006 or the Rockies in 2007, the Yankees are no strangers to the postseason and the World Series. Most of their army of highly paid veterans and youngsters alike have been on the big stage before and know what it takes to win a championship. Love ’em or hate ’em, the Yankees look poised to win it all once more. Besides, the late George Steinbrenner would have accepted nothing less than a world championship, and whatever George wants, George gets!

The Cutoff Man: Five out of 12 ain’t bad, and playoffs are almost here

October 4, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 10/4/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/10/4/sports/job

In the first installment of this column on April 5, “Hail Mary, full of grace; four balls, take your base,” I made the following predictions on who would finish first and last in each division come the end of the season:

“Here are my predictions for this year’s division champs and chumps:

AL East: Champs — Yankees, Chumps — Blue Jays; AL Central: Champs — Twins, Chumps — Indians; AL West: Champs — Mariners, Chumps — A’s; NL East: Champs — Phillies, Chumps — Marlins; NL Central: Champs — Cubs, Chumps — Pirates; NL West: Champs — Giants, Chumps — Padres.”

Well, when a batter is having a 5-for-12 stretch, it’s considered pretty fantastic. When a team only wins five of 12, it is not quite as great. This was more like a team’s performance.

Entering Sunday, possibly the last day of the season, I was at least right about the Twins, Phillies, and Pirates. On Sept. 21, the Twins did indeed clinch first place in the American League (AL) Central, and the Phillies followed suit shortly thereafter in the National League East. The Pirates truly outdid themselves this season, coming all the way back to overtake a rejuvenated Orioles team for the worst record in baseball, easily clinching at least one prediction for me, finishing 18 games back into sixth place and entering Sunday with a chance to tie for the worst road record in baseball history.

The Giants and Yankees entered Sunday on the brink of clinching their respective divisions, which would confirm two more of my predictions. The Yankees were tied with Tampa Bay for the division lead after Saturday’s action; a Yankees win and a Rays loss would clinch the AL East for New York, but if both teams win or both teams lose to finish in a tie, the division would technically go to the Rays, as they won the season series with the Yankees. Meanwhile, San Francisco entered Sunday one game up on the Padres, but the Padres took two from them last week, and a sweep of the Giants would put them in a tie for the division—and possibly for the wild card as well if the Braves won Sunday.

Speaking of the Padres, they combined with the Mariners to cement that I am horrendous at predicting the outcomes of the Western divisions. I picked Seattle to easily win the AL West after their acquisitions of Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley; they entered Sunday’s action 18 games behind third-place Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with a very disappointing 61–100 record.

I wrote in my preseason article that “the only bets people are placing on the Padres involve if and when they trade star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox.” On the contrary, the Padres started off the season surprisingly strong and didn’t fade until the last three weeks of the season, when their once-insurmountable division lead dropped significantly with a 10-game losing streak.

Honorable mention has to go to the Cubs and Blue Jays. The Cubs are finishing strong after what has been a very disappointing and sometimes controversial 2010 campaign, and are poised to finish nowhere near the first place that I’d foreseen. Toronto, on the other hand, traded Roy Halladay in the off-season and looked to be entering a long-term rebuilding mode. Picked by many to be the laughingstock of the AL in 2010, they instead had a record season in home runs, including Jose Bautista’s unpredictable 54 home runs entering Sunday. I guarantee you: Anybody who says they are not surprised by Bautista’s mammoth season is being just as truthful as Rafael Palmeiro was when he told a grand jury in 2007 that he did not use steroids. Way to fail a drug test a few weeks later, big guy.

 

The Cutoff Man: It’s not called softball

September 27, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 9/27/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/9/27/sports/job

In early April, Texas catcher Taylor Teagarden and Cleveland truck Travis “Pronk” Hafner collided at home plate in a beautiful explosion of old-school baseball. In the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2, Matt LaPorta singled up the middle with Hafner on second. Julio Borbon, the Rangers’ relatively rookie centerfielder, came up throwing with a terrific strike to the plate as Pronk lumbered towards home. Teagarden had the ball firmly in his glove a good second before the Indians’ self-appointed hulk got there, and doing exactly what he should have done, Hafner smashed into Teagarden with a blow that only Mo Vaughn could withstand.

Teagarden held onto the ball, Hafner was out, and it was glorious.

That’s not something you tend to see anymore. Nowadays, the collision at home plate is not done nearly as much as it should be. More often than not, a guy will try some ridiculous hook slide to try to avoid the tag, or just straight up give in and slide right into the catcher’s shin guard. If a guy does collide with a catcher and knock him flat, it starts a bench-clearing incident and sometimes ends in retaliation. And yeah, sure, the Cubs’ Michael Barrett didn’t have the ball when A.J. Pierzynski famously bulldozed him, but it’s still better to be safe and look like a jerk, than sorry and look like a fool.

In recent years, there has been an unnecessary amount of preaching from players, coaches, reporters, or other such folks with access to the Internet about baseball’s “unwritten rules.” These rules, though, seem different from how I learned them back when I watched 90s baseball and videos of years past. Back then, it seemed like the unwritten rules of baseball were as follows:

  1. Do what you have to do. Nice guys finish last.
  2. Win games any way you can. Refer to rule number one.
  3. Do the honorable thing; don’t try to stretch a double to a triple when you’re up 10 runs.
  4. Retaliate for a teammate however you must. Refer to rule number one.

Umpires nowadays have seemingly been issuing warnings and ejections with every close pitch. Umpires have far shorter leashes when the question of intent comes into play, so even if a slow curveball slips away from a pitcher and ends up hitting the batter or barely missing him, there’s a chance for a warning to be issued. One especially pathetic instance of an umpire jumping the gun occurred on July 26, 2007, when Washington then-rookie pitcher John Lannan was making his Major League debut against Philadelphia. Lannan’s first four innings went without incident before he accidentally hit Chase Utley with a pitch. Lannan then hit the next batter, Ryan Howard, and though both hits were clearly accidental, home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstadt decided to eject both Lannan and Nationals manager Manny Acta, without issuing a warning, because he decided that Lannan had thrown at the batters intentionally.

“His explanation was that Howard hit a home run in his previous at-bat and then he got hit in his next at-bat,” Acta said in an article on ESPN.com. “I was very surprised. I don’t think the kid is going to come up here and start throwing at people.”

Among others bewildered by the cowardly call was opposing manager Charlie Manuel.

The umpires aren’t the only ones who have gone unnecessarily soft. On Friday, the Phillies’ Utley was briefly chastised for sliding hard into second base to try to break up a double play against the Mets. Mets players complained that Utley’s hard slide had been after the second baseman had already thrown the ball, and hence was unnecessary.

“There’s a thin line between going out there and playing the game hard and going out there and trying to get somebody hurt,” Mets third baseman David Wright commented in an article on mets.com. However, what Utley was doing was playing baseball like it should be played. Players are supposed to try to break up double plays — see unwritten rules number one and two. Utley had the intent of breaking up the double play from the get-go, and it is really hard for a player to change momentum when he is running at full speed if he realizes only a split second beforehand that he doesn’t have to go in hard.

Even Wright’s own manager, Jerry Manuel, was okay with the slide. “There is nothing wrong with a good, hard slide to break up a double play,” Manuel said on mets.com. “We preach that.”

Baseball needs to get back to how it used to be. “Make sure no one gets hurt” was never an unwritten rule in any competitive sport. Neither is “no fighting allowed.” Just ask Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own — there’s no crying in baseball.

The Cutoff Man: Two Weeks Notice

September 20, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 9/20/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/9/20/sports/baseball

Baseball season is almost over.

Welcome to the home stretch, folks. In merely two weeks, the regular season will be over and the postseason will begin. Which teams we will see playing October baseball will be decided in the next two weeks; not for a long time, though, have these next two weeks mattered so much for so many teams.

In 2007, the Mets seemingly gave their two weeks’ notice and played like a team resigned, losing a once-insurmountable division lead and missed the playoffs to the Phillies on the last day of the season. Meanwhile, in the National League (NL) West, Arizona, Colorado, and San Diego were all in a dogfight for both the division title and — with both the fading Mets and the fading Brewers — the NL wild card. Until those last two weeks, Colorado hadn’t even been a postseason afterthought, but with a remarkable 13–1 record down the stretch, the Rockies stormed into a one-game wild card showdown with the Padres, with Arizona barely eking out the division title. It was in that one-game, all-the-marbles playoff that the Rockies did what they’d done that season: They fell behind, seemingly doomed after losing the lead in the last inning, but rallied and won, sending themselves to the playoffs on a winning streak that wouldn’t end until the World Series.

How much crazier could that wild card have been? Consider this: Had the Mets won their last game of the season, they would have tied the Phillies with an 89–73 record. That, coincidentally, was the same record that the Padres and Rockies both finished with, which would’ve set up this scenario: a Mets-Phils one-game playoff, the winner of which went to the postseason as division champion, the loser of which would have played the winner of a one-game playoff between the Pads and Rox, and whoever won that final match would have been wild card champions. Two years ago, it was the American League (AL) Central that joined the NL wild card for the two-week drama. The White Sox tied the Twins for the division lead on Sept. 28, and the two went to a one-game playoff that the White Sox eventually won in dramatic fashion, sending them to the playoffs and sending the Twins home to prep themselves for a similar 2009. In the NL wild card race, the Mets, who had once again faded to cede the division lead to Philadelphia, were on pace to hit a playoff with the Brewers for the wild card title. But, again, the Mets lost to Florida on the final game of the season and Milwaukee won, avoiding what could have been another one-game wild card bonanza. Colorado, the comeback story of the year before, was nowhere to be seen; they’re certainly back this year, though.

The final weeks of 2009 saw only one truly tight race, as the Twins once again found themselves in a one-game playoff for the division title. This time they faced off against Detroit. After an intense game that remained tied from the eighth through the 12th, the Twins did what they couldn’t do the year before, winning the game and catapulting themselves into the postseason. The Rockies were once again wild card champions, though they didn’t take it in nearly as dramatic a fashion as they had two years prior.

Cue 2010. Once more, Colorado is ready to take baseball’s two weeks’ notice and show the world that they’d very much like to play on past September. Already the winners of 10 in a row, the Rockies entered Sunday’s action having won 13 of 17 games this month and trail the Padres by merely one game in the division and the Braves by 2.5 games in the wild card. They are riding on the back of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, whose two-homer game on Saturday gave him a monstrous 14 home runs in 15 games. With San Diego finally floundering and the San Francisco Giants on-again, off-again, the Rockies look like they’re going to make this one even more memorable than 2007.

Atlanta, on the other hand, has its own battle to face. Similar to the Padres, the Braves enjoyed a comfortable division lead for most of the past few months before derailing in recent weeks. The Phillies have played their usual good September baseball and sat in first place by three games entering Sunday. Even though the Braves lead the wild card, the Rockies are certainly not making it easy, and the Braves seemingly have two uphill battles on their hands.

Strangely enough, the American League has no significant battles going into the last weeks of September. The only tight race is that between the Yankees and Rays for first place in the AL East; it doesn’t really matter, though, as whoever ends up in second will undoubtedly be the wild card champion.

So, regular season, your two weeks’ notice has been received. We look forward to what you can bring to the table in your final days, and expect nothing but good things when you are rehired come April.

The Cutoff Man: How baseball helped heal New York

September 13, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 9/13/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/9/13/sports/job

On Jan. 14, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In it, Landis asked the president’s opinion on the continuation of Major League Baseball games in light of America’s entry into World War II. The following day, Roosevelt replied in what has become known as the Green Light Letter.

 

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt said in the letter. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before. Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost.”

 

“Here is another way of looking at it,” Roosevelt concluded. “If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

 

President Roosevelt could not have spoken truer words, and almost 60 years later, Americans once again agreed that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.

 

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting in my eighth-grade humanities class on 107th Street and Columbus Avenue. Out of the blue, one of my classmates’ parents came to pick him up. Nobody thought anything of it, but five more of my classmates were picked up shortly after, and murmurs began to float around as we walked to Latin class wondering was going on. Our teacher didn’t waste time informing us that earlier that, morning, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. At first, I couldn’t comprehend what the big deal was. A little plane had crashed into the Empire State Building a few years prior and had hardly caused any damage. It wasn’t until I got home (after not being picked up from school early) and saw the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing into rubble that I understood the magnitude of the attack on our city. I was thankful that I hadn’t lost any family or friends in the attacks that day; my father lost two co-workers, and a few friends of mine had lost parents or other relatives.

 

Time seemed to stand still as New Yorkers woke up sad, worried, and, more than anything, confused on Sept. 12. School and work were, for the most part, canceled, but even as students reveled in our day off, there was still an air of “Are we supposed to be enjoying this?” The only thing we knew for sure was that the smog from downtown was horrible, and that was it. The Yankees were supposed to host the Chicago White Sox in the Bronx Sept. 11–13. The Mets had just flown to Pittsburgh on the 10th for a series that was supposed to begin on the 11th. But all professional sports, like everything else, were canceled.

 

As the days of the ensuing week went by, things slowly began to return to normalcy. People went back to work, school was back in session, and details surrounding the attacks on our country were becoming seemingly clearer. On Sept. 17, baseball resumed, and the Mets swept Pittsburgh while the Yankees took two out of three in Chicago. Then, on Sept. 21, magic happened.

 

The Mets brought baseball back to New York that Friday, and although it’d been only 10 days since the attacks, it felt like years since any professional sporting event was played in our city. The enthusiasm was undeniable and the celebration was extravagant. Diana Ross sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”and Liza Minnelli sang “New York, New York” during the seventh-inning stretch, and the Mets wore FDNY and NYPD caps instead of their usual baseball caps to pay tribute to New York’s finest. Many teared up during the national anthem and again during “God Bless America,” but through it all, spirits were somewhat lifted as they watched baseball function normally, whether or not the world surrounding it followed suit.

 

Then came the eighth inning. The Atlanta Braves were beating the hometown Mets 2–1 in the bottom of the inning when Mike Piazza came to bat with a man on. Piazza took one mighty swing and the whole city watched as the ball flew — and flew — high over the fence and into New York history. He had given them the lead; New York had come back.

 

If you watch closely on the replay of Piazza’s home run, you can see a pair of firefighters sitting in the Pepsi Picnic Area at Shea Stadium as the ball flies past them. Those firefighters, whose world had undoubtedly been a wreck for the past 10 days, had just as big a smile on their face as anyone in the ballpark that night. They, too, believed that New York would come back. As Mike Piazza circled the bases, we knew we would rebound from this mess we were put in. We were New Yorkers.

 

That was what FDR was talking about. People needed a distraction, a reprieve from the sad reality of living in an uncertain world, and baseball was more than happy to help our town heal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cutoff Man: Summing up and coming down the stretch

August 30, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 8/30/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/8/30/sports/baseball

Bid farewell to August, baseball fans. The time to officially rule your team in or out of the running starts this Wednesday. It’s time for contenders and spoilers alike to turn it up a notch, in what has become affectionately and aptly referred to as September baseball.

September baseball is when every game is significant in the standings for teams with playoff hopes. September baseball means not walking the leadoff man; it means hitting the cutoff man. It means taking advantage of your opponents’ mistakes and not missing any chances. Good September baseball is what teams want to play when the calendar flips past August. Good September baseball is what the Colorado Rockies played in 2007, when they won 11 straight as part of a 20–8 month to force an extra win in October that sent them to the playoffs. Good September baseball is what the Philadelphia Phillies played and what the New York Mets infamously did not play in 2007. Or 2008, for that matter.

In short, playing meaningful baseball in September means getting it done.

There is a long list of teams this year that will be looking to play good baseball in the regular season’s final month. While most signs point to the most meaningful baseball being played in the American League (AL) East, where the Yankees and the Rays are battling it out for first place, the truth of the matter is that barring a giant collapse, both teams will make it to the playoffs as they own the two best records in baseball. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are the ones hoping that they can somehow get on enough of a tear that once Wednesday comes, playing good September baseball will not even matter.

A tight AL Central race began in early August with the White Sox leading at 58–45, a half-game up on the 58–46 Twins. But August has not treated the White Sox well; not nearly as well as it has the Twins, who went on a tear and by Aug. 18 had already taken a commanding five-game lead over their rivals from the South Side of Chicago. Minnesota has begun to level out, though, and as Wednesday approaches, both teams will be looking to take their game to the next level knowing that a spot in October hangs in the balance. The Tigers, though, have completely fallen off the map. After leading the division at one point in July, Detroit entered Saturday’s action 11 games behind the Twins.

Well, at least they’re not the Indians.

In the AL West… Well, it really doesn’t matter how the Texas Rangers do in September. Texas entered Saturday as the only team in the division with a record above .500, 9.5 games up on the Athletics, and with MVP candidate Josh Hamilton leading the charge, it’d take a Mets-umental failure for the Rangers not to reach the playoffs.

The National League features many more teams putting the pedal to the metal come September, especially with the existence of an actual wild card race. (The Yanks and Rays pretty much ruin the term “race” in the AL.) While the Phillies lead the wild card by a half-game over the Giants entering Saturday’s action, Philadelphia finds itself a mere two games behind Atlanta for the NL East lead. The Florida Marlins will be looking, as usual, to reprise their role as spoiler as the Phils enter September looking for a four-peat as division champs, and the Braves head toward the finish line hoping to send manager Bobby Cox out with a bang.

The Reds, coming off of a bad 2009 season and a less-than-enviable start to 2010, have stormed back to take charge of the NL Central. While the Cardinals continue to put up a fight, Joey Votto and the Reds have overall played much better and more consistent baseball over the past few months, and I don’t see them fading enough to lose their division lead when the heat gets turned up. Look for the Brewers and Astros to play spoilers this month, as the Cubs have disappointed everyone this year and the Pirates are too focused on making sure the Orioles don’t try to steal back the worst record in baseball.

I’m glad I didn’t put money down on my prediction that the Padres would be the chumps of the NL West, as their stellar pitching, timely hitting, and defense have catapulted this team into a perch high atop the division. The Giants, while still close enough to make it a battle for the top spot, should focus more on their standing in the wild card race, where they sit in second, right on the heels of Philadelphia. The Dodgers can also make a push for the wild card if they string together enough consistently good September baseball; otherwise, their chances will be just as low as their division hopes already are.

Good September baseball or Mets September baseball aside, I expect to see a very West-ful World Series that will feature division champs Texas and San Diego. There’s no way to slow down the Rangers’ hitting or the Padres’ pitching, which is why I say mark my words now: Texas in six.

The Cutoff Man: Play it again, Bud

August 23, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 8/23/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/8/23/sports/job

The actual misquoted line that Ilsa Lund uttered at the start of Casablancawas, “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”

Play it once, indeed.

Maybe it’s just a bad year, but as Mets announcer Ron Darling so bluntly pointed out, this year has featured some of the worst umpiring I’ve ever seen. Aside from replay-aided home run calls, which have still been potentially wrong at least once, TV replays have shown fans innumerable missed calls on judgments that prove to be both trivial and important.

Perhaps none was more important, or fueled more debate, than the call umpire Jim Joyce missed on June 2 this year in Detroit. Joyce, a 24-year veteran, called Cleveland’s Jason Donald safe on a close play at first that would have otherwise completed a perfect game for the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga. Replays, as well as most naked-eye views, showed that the call should have been out. Galarraga got imperfection, Joyce got infamy, and the debate about expanding replay grew from a small fire to an inferno.

In 2007, the Mets’ David Wright had a double overturned to a home run after the scoreboard showed a replay for all to see. After a plethora of missed home run calls found the spotlight in 2008, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that after much deliberation and planning, the use of replay would be instituted for any close home run call, whether the debate be fair or foul, over the fence or in play (or interference). Cameras were installed at “strategic” locations throughout every ballpark in baseball and by September that year, the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez was awarded the first official replay-assisted home run call in baseball history.

The introduction of replay for home run calls was shunned by some but welcomed by most. As a longtime follower of baseball and a fan of the human element of the game, I warily approved of the move based solely on the principle that close home run calls would be the only instances in which replay would be used. The slew of missed home run calls that year had been too much to overlook, and minimal use of replay seemed to be a rather unobtrusive solution.

It was. Momentarily.

With “the imperfect game” leading the way, the charge for a more extensive use of replay has baseball fans screaming from both sides of the debate. Those in favor have a rather large pool of evidence in their favor, as archives of almost every game can show any missed call from decades of baseball past. With no missed calls, the yeasayers yell, the game will be rid of much frustration and many what-ifs.

But what of the pacing of the game? That is one of the main arguments on the anti side. Currently, similar to the guidelines set by the NFL, any manager can ask that a home run be reviewed via replay if he believes the umpire got the call wrong. A typical video review takes around two minutes, though some have taken almost 10. With extended replay usage, some say, a manager could use that right to challenge any somewhat close call and potentially delay a game far more than necessary.

Such a situation could rarely happen, though. Any manager who can see a close call is correct from the naked eye wouldn’t argue for the sake of arguing. Moreover, according to a survey conducted by ESPN’s Outside the Lines earlier this year, a close call happens about 1.3 times per game — hardly enough to make a significant dent in a game’s timing.

More importantly, the survey revealed that in the 184 games included in the survey — every MLB game played from June 29 to July 11 — umpires called 66 percent of the 230 close calls correctly. Furthermore, 14 percent of said calls could have gone either way, and umpires got 20 percent of the calls wrong. What wasn’t included was how many of those 230 calls, and more specifically how many of the incorrect ones, pivotal plays in the game were, like Joyce’s.

That could be the exception to the rule. What if only game-changing calls like Joyce’s could be reviewed? It would potentially keep replay in the wings unless absolutely necessary, perhaps pleasing both sides of the debate.

But any call can be potentially game-changing. Factors like how many outs there are and how many runners are on base change both the pitcher’s and the batter’s approach; they change a manager’s approach and a baserunner’s approach. In short, there are too many things that could determine whether a call is game-changing or not.

Frankly, what the debate boils down to is how much people value the human element of baseball. Growing up, missed calls were always a part of the game. They always have been. My grandfather loves to talk about how at Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “Three Blind Mice” used to be played as the umpires were being introduced. “Kill the ump!” has been a favorite cry of baseball fans throughout the world and throughout history. Love them or hate them, umpires have always been there to try to get the call right.

As far as I’m concerned — and as far as history is concerned — missed calls have only become a hot-button issue in the past few years. Before the griping really began, missed calls were just accepted as a part of baseball, and for many, a part of what made baseball great. I agree with what Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew said when interviewed by Outside the Lines: “To me it’s the human element part of the game, and I think it should stay that way. Maybe I’m from the old school, but I think that is the way it ought to be played.”

So here’s looking at you, umps. Call ’em like you see ’em. Play it once — in real time — and let baseball be baseball.

The Cutoff Man: Pirates Preview (CMU Orientation Issue)

August 14, 2010

Published in the Tartan, 8/14/2010.

Any returning student or a native of Pittsburgh knows that, in 2009, the Steelers won the Super Bowl, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and the Pirates tied the record for most consecutive losing seasons by any professional sports franchise in any professional sport. Ever. But I guess I just gave away the punch line.

Hey first-years! Welcome to Pittsburgh. Enjoy the pierogies.

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Pittsburgh was what a beautiful ballpark PNC Park was. As a baseball fan, I’d seen it on TV many times, but I think the ugliness happening on the field took the glamour away whenever I’d see it on the screen. My first trip to the Pirates’ beautiful home was in September 2006, when I came to see my Mets clinch the division, needing just one more win to do so. Who better to face than the Pirates, I thought.

The Pirates beat them and actually swept the series.

With a talented young core then consisting of center fielder Chris Duffy, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, left fielder Jason Bay, and catcher Ryan Doumit, and veteran leaders like first baseman Adam LaRoche, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Pirates would start clicking like this with more consistency. Then, finally, the Pirates would bring a winning record to their wonderful ship.

Well, at least Doumit’s still around. But the Pirates’ acquisition of once-promising catcher Chris Snyder from Arizona earlier this month almost guarantees that Doumit should prepare to be traded in the offseason. Start packing up the house, Ryan.

The best word to describe PNC Park is “facade.” Behind the glory is the dim reality that anyone who’s been here briefly enough already knows: Pittsburgh hasn’t won, isn’t winning, and won’t win any time soon. Every so often they’ll give a glimmer of hope — in 2007 they opened the season with a sweep — but in the end it’s always the same result. They started off this year with a winning record — even in the running for first place — for two whole weeks before getting swept at PNC Park by Milwaukee in grand fashion: with 8-1, 8-0, and 20-0 losses.

So, enjoy Heinz Field and its Steelers, enjoy the new Consol Energy Center and its Penguins, and enjoy PNC Park. The Mets of the early 1960s were nicknamed the “Lovable Losers.” Unfortunately, the Pirates can really only be nicknamed the “Sell the Team Already and Bring In Someone Who Actually Will Do Something to Try to Win.”

I’m surprised the Jolly Roger hasn’t quit yet. It rarely ever gets a raise.

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