Tag Archives: baseball

Pinstriped Pleasures

22 Oct

Half the fun of being a Yankees fan is the freedom to revel in being rich and evil. By those standards, the Bronx Bombers’ 2017 season was an odd one. With this year’s squad, we had a chance to enjoy things the way most other fans must: with cautious optimism, excitement at rising prospects, and eventually coming to realize that hey, maybe this team can make the playoffs and has a fighting shot once it’s there! This Yankee team was fun to watch, their most entertaining in years, and gave a necessary jolt of life to a franchise that had been treading water for years.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez had both shown their potential at the major league level, and there are always enough high-priced stars in the Yankee constellation to keep them relevant, even if said stars are past their prime (CC Sabathia), having down years (Masahiro Tanaka), or otherwise not living up to their contracts (Jacoby Ellsbury). In the Age of the Bullpen, they had about as impressive an assemblage of talent for the late innings as any team ever. With a young core and a strong farm system, an 88-win season and a chance at the second wild card berth didn’t sound too outlandish at the start. The ultimate result was within the margin of error of that prediction.

It didn’t come easy, though. Many of the things we assumed would be strengths (Tanaka, that bullpen) were surprisingly inconsistent. Injuries depleted the lineup at times, most notably to Gary Sanchez, but also afflicting Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro after fine starts to the season, and ruining most of Greg Bird’s year. The Yankees had the run differential of a team that should have won 100 games, meaning their end total of 91 was in some sense a pretty serious underachievement.

They made up for it in the postseason. After an early deficit against the Twins made the Wild Card game look lost from the get-go, Gregorious had an instant response, and the Yankee offense rolled from there. Down 0-2 to a Cleveland juggernaut after a brutal blown lead, they flipped a switch and restored order in the Bronx behind a rejuvenated rotation and that bullpen. Again down 0-2 to Houston, the offense awoke at home in Game 3, and a late stunner in Game 4 seemed to flip the whole series. Yankees fans had every reason to be confident heading back to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the ALCS, but you can’t predict baseball, Suyzn, and the feisty Astros fought back, while the Yankee bats went cold.

Unlike the Yankees’ ALCS run, a 2012 push that felt like it was running on fumes, this roster was laden with energy and hope for the future. To get the obvious out of the way, there was Aaron Judge, whose record-setting rookie season got most of the national headlines, and gave the Bronx Bombers a bona fide offensive star for the first time since Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez listed into decline. Didi Gregorius set the Yankee record for home runs by a shortstop, and has succeeded at the impossible task of being Jeter’s successor. He and Castro create a dynamic double play combination with plenty of years ahead of them, and combine with Judge and Sanchez to form a multifaceted offensive core.

Some of the more important moves for these Yankees took place off the field. ALDS review snafu aside, Joe Girardi stayed himself, handling the craziness of New York and (eventually) managing his pitchers well, and while I’ve gone up and down on him over his ten(!) years in the Bronx, I believe he deserves an extension. Brian Cashman comes out of the past year and a half looking brilliant, with particularly with his deadline moves. In 2016, he had the guts to admit the Yankees were out of it and held a fire sale that rebuilt the farm system overnight. This season, he shored up the rotation and the bullpen with a couple of decisive moves that made a deep playoff run possible.

They bring back everyone who was anyone on offense, and have Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres lurking in the wings to help in the spots with the biggest long-term question marks. The bullpen will be just as lethal, and if it lives up to its fullest potential, will be practically unhittable. The rotation, the weak spot to begin with, remains the biggest issue, though it’s full of respectable options. They’ll have to make decisions on Tanaka and Sabathia, whose postseason performances may have earned them both extensions; they could do a lot worse than those two, especially with Tanaka, whose rough regular year was probably a blip. Severino is still growing into his role, Sonny Gray is fairly reliable, and if Jordan Montgomery can reprise his respectable role from this past season, they could have a complete rotation, albeit one with little margin for error. Of course they could just go shopping to shore things up, but within a monster free agent class coming up after this next season, I expect they might save their pennies for now.

No season without a pennant is a true success in Yankeeland, but it was hard not to enjoy this one, even with the end result. Yankee Stadium came alive again, or perhaps truly alive for the first time since the move across the street in 2009. It’s been loud, of course, but the intimidating Yankee environment hasn’t quite been the same in the new behemoth, and the ring of ever-empty box seats and paltry attendances (by Yankee standards) at times even this season attest to this loss of the old ideal. But this fall the Bleacher Creatures seemed to find that raucousness that made the old building shake, bouncing around and singing like soccer hooligans. After a phase of gradual decline and painfully long good-byes to old icons, the Yankees and their fans are finding their swagger again. The Yankees won back the Bronx this postseason, going 6-0 at home, and with any luck a couple of its old residents, Mystique and Aura, aren’t far behind.

For now, though, it’s time for a long winter, and for the first time in a while, “maybe next year” is more than an idle wish. And I do believe high school hockey teams drop the puck in less than a month…

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Chicago, Triumphant

3 Nov

On a handful of occasions in my life, sports have caused me to shed a few tears. Twice they were the result of jarring defeats for a kid, as the 2001 World Series and the 2008 section 7AA hockey semifinals left me crushed. Twice they came when childhood heroes rode off into retirement. Twice, there have been tears of pride and joy: in the waning moments of a AA state semifinal in 2015, and, now, after the final out of the 2016 World Series.

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Karl and Mom in the Duluth Rose Garden, now sitting on my desk at work.

I come from a family of Cubs fans, but, contrarian child that I was, I instead adopted the Yankees as a kid. The Cubs, however, still settled in at number two. The wins were sporadic in those early days, but the North Siders always managed to entertain. Whenever I joined my uncles at Wrigley Field, we were treated to absurd games: a 100-degree, four-hour war with the Mets in the Sammy Sosa years, a Roger Clemens loss in pursuit of his 300th win, a laughable marathon against Atlanta in which the Cubs rallied from four down in the 9th only to lose when a ball bounced off of Aramis Ramirez’s head in the 13th inning. Win or lose, those days at Wrigley always showed how baseball should be: long, lazy afternoons basking in the sun, the Bleacher Bums cursing up a storm throughout. It was always a delight.

In a year in which baseball often took back seat to other things, I only casually followed the Cubs’ 103-win regular season and the first round of the playoffs. But by the end of the NLCS I was fully on board the bandwagon, keeping score like I was a kid watching the Yankees’ 90s dynasty again. My mom showed more emotion over sports than I’d ever seen when they finally clinched the pennant against the Dodgers, and lately I’ve been glued, growing gradually more and more sleep-deprived and invested.

What a World Series it was: intense drama, back-and-forth games, and a weird aversion to giving starting pitchers any slack anytime beyond the third inning. Sure, there were too many pitching changes and long games, but there were also plenty of brilliant moves by the managers, and it felt only natural that it came down to a thriller of a seventh game. When a bear wandered down into the middle of downtown Duluth today and climbed a tree, it was hard not to think of it as an omen. The extra inning rain delay in Game Seven only added another dose of mystique, as the heavens made it clear they’d leave their mark on this one. All it takes is a silly sport to turn all us skeptics into true believers.

This batch of Lovable Losers proved to be thoroughly lovable winners. Even if he had me muttering things with his pitching choices in Games Six and Seven, Joe Maddon set the tone here, and made sure he had a group that could handle the moment. There was David Ross, riding off into retirement with a home run; Dexter Fowler, who just sounds like he was born to be a leadoff man. The double play combination of Addison Russell and Javier Baez, overflowing with promise and flair. I forgive Jon Lester and John Lackey for being Red Sox, admire the ace Jake Arrieta, and feel for Kyle Hendricks, pulled too soon, the quiet hero of the Cubs’ postseason. There was even some cosmic justice in the Game Seven implosion, as Aroldis Chapman, the most questionable of Cubs, blew the save and gave an entire city ulcers. But Kyle Schwarber lumbered back from injury to start the tenth inning rally, and Ben Zobrist was on hand to play the consummate hero. A few more pitching changes, and we were finally ready to end 108 years of pain. The final out, Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo, the powerful combination at the heart of the lineup combining to take a franchise where so many before them could not. Eight different players scored in the clincher, while seven drove in runs, a total team effort. They all earned it, scraping past an opponent that gave it their all.

As Wrigleyville parties into the night and “Go Cubs Go” echoes around the world, my mind drifts to all of that Field of Dreams mush about how baseball reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again. It’s timeless, and much as I love my Yankees’ history and lore, the 2016 Series has far more powerful generational ties. As I settle in to bed in world in which the Cubs are World Series champions, my thoughts are with my grandparents, in their late 80s and lifelong Cubs fans, who get to experience this for the first time in their lives. Congratulations to all the Cubs fans in the Maloney clan, and thanks for teaching me to enjoy this beautiful game. In 2016, you leave all of the rest of us musing “maybe next year,” and get to enjoy a trophy more deserved than any other in professional sports. Hey Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs, at long last, won it all today.

Out of the Park

16 Jun

Tonight I’m going to a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. It will be my first baseball game this year. In fact, I can count the number of games I’ve caught on radio or TV this year on one hand. High school friends will find this shocking, but many of my more recent acquaintances don’t even know I’m a Yankees fan. I’ve fallen away from my first sports love, and barely even noticed the change.

I grew up glued to baseball, with internet radio feeds of Yankee games running in the background every night, all summer long. I was a proud member of the Bronx Bombers’ elitist and cutthroat fan base, and poured out my soul on internet forums discussing their performance. I loved baseball in any form: adventures in the miserable old Metrodome, family outings to the bleachers at Wrigley, and nights in crumbling old Wade Stadium on the west side of Duluth, watching the now-defunct Dukes go on that 2001 title run. (I still have plenty of the old scorecards.) Bob Uecker’s voice was the soundtrack to countless childhood drives across Wisconsin, and in a home without cable, FOX’s Saturday Game of the Week was required viewing, even though I had to endure Joe Buck. Baseball’s lessons spilled over into life: Bill James taught me how to analyze the world around me, and Roger Angell taught me how to write with grace. I wrote my college admissions personal statement on being a Yankees fan.

Now, however, I just glance at the standings from time to time. Part of my apostasy is just a natural swing. My evenings tend to be more interesting now than they were when I was fifteen, and few of my roommates or housemates over the years have been baseball fans. It became hard to find time, and harder to multi-task as other chores became more demanding than the high school math I used to do during the middle innings. Baseball requires a level of commitment that is harder and harder to find in a busy life, especially when compared to other sports that only feature a game or two a week.

I also admit that part of it may be me being a fair-weather fan. The Yankees are treading water around .500, in need of a desperate boost if they are to avoid missing October baseball for a fourth year running. (No, I don’t count last season’s stupid wild card playoff.) I started out as a Yankees fan when titles seemed to fall from the sky, but those days are now long gone, and when you’re rich and still can’t win, it feels rather lame. With Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter riding off into retirement, even a new genuine star would pale in comparison. They set the bar so stratospherically high, and were so tied up in my childhood, that no one can ever fill those holes in the roster. At least the decline of the mid-2000s, and even into the first few years of this decade, still had some compelling drama. Now, the franchise just feels mediocre and tired.

I still enjoy a warm night at the ballpark, and will happily use any cheap tickets that come my way. My other major sports loyalty doesn’t overlap with it; in fact, it’s perfectly timed to cover for the few months when baseball isn’t on. I’ll confess to a rising interest in soccer; in recent weeks, the Copa America and Euro 2016 have commanded a little more of my attention. These international tournaments that come only once have every few years have much more urgency than one game out of 162 in June, and the pageantry puts any American sport to shame. But baseball still has so much potential.

The popular narrative says young people now find baseball boring, and while I don’t have any reason to doubt that, I find it highly ironic that a sport in which you’re lucky to see three goals in a game is eclipsing baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is lots of beauty in the slow build-up of play in the 88 minutes of soccer when people aren’t scoring, but why can’t we see the same thing in baseball’s steady rhythms, and the slow pacing that builds to each climactic pitch late in a game? There are so many little details to appreciate, and so many ways the sport could still be great. It isn’t clear that anyone has noticed them.

There’s the usual list of in-game culprits that MLB should attack, and it has made a few efforts to speed up time between innings and to (allegedly) crack down on batters stepping out of the box. The sabermetrics revolution, both insightful and perhaps alienating to fans who don’t understand WAR or advanced fielding metrics, has to date mostly decreased excitement for those not in its thralls by emphasizing walks, long at-bats, and crazy shifts that depress batting averages. We can only hope that the next round of innovation speeds up the game by attacking some of the more dense forms of conventional wisdom such as by-the-book platoon pitching changes. Instant replay, MLB’s latest tone-deaf experiment, is a time-wasting bore. And while baseball has been dominated by pitchers in recent years after the heavy-hitting 90s—so long, steroids—a few rule tweaks could up the runs and make it a bit sexier.

Still, any issues with baseball go beyond the immediate game. Stadiums have become pretty but sterile containers for mild amusement, and amenities have taken precedence over the product on the field. There is no worse offender than the new Yankee Stadium, a gaudy shell of its raucous predecessor, where the seats were right on top of the field and the chanting rarely ceased. Sometime last year I popped in a DVD of the 2003 ALCS, and was shocked by how much more alive it all felt. Now even Wrigley Field has been brought into the modern age with scoreboards and ads and prices through the roof. Alas, the rickety old stadiums are all but gone now. Here in Minnesota we’re left with Target Field, a beautiful structure that facilitates quiet family picnics on middlebrow Asian food and ten-dollar beer. People will occasionally glance up to offer a few halfhearted claps along with the canned music, but otherwise keep to themselves. It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Metrodome. Almost.

To rise again, baseball needs to rediscover its edge. A few young stars provide that, but it goes beyond the product on the field. Again, take soccer: how can their fans be so raucous, even in mundane midseason games with a lousy product on the pitch, while baseball fans idly play with their phones? Some baseball team needs to build itself a core of loyal hooligans who won’t shut up, much like the bleacher bums of old, and rekindle that old sense of tribal loyalty for a team. What they lose in ticket sales, they’ll make back ten times over in energy and hype. Instead, most teams will probably just add on new steakhouses and jumbotrons, convinced that fans need to be entertained by something that isn’t the game.

For all my gripes, though, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself tonight, and with any luck, it will rekindle an old flame. Go Yankees.

Baseball’s Wild Card Format Is an Affront to Humanity.

6 Oct

That is all.

But, what’s that you say? Hockey season starts tomorrow? In that case, all is well in the world.

deathofadynasty

A Curtain Call for Captain Clutch

25 Sep

Derek Jeter was my childhood hero, the first and greatest of my various sports man-crushes. I became a Yankee fan because of him. I’d go to bed cuddling a Jeter beanie baby bear, and I copied his stance in backyard baseball. I was crushed when I learned that lefties don’t play shortstop. (End the discrimination!) I admired his versatility, his prowess in every facet of the game, and in his life off the field, too. He may not be the greatest player ever, but he was certainly baseball’s most enduring champion in my lifetime, and his likes may never be seen again. He was the face of one of the most recognizable franchises in all of sport, enduring the brutality of New York scrutiny for twenty years, and in an era when many baseball stars were besmirched by the steroid scrutiny, he remained a pillar of decency.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much Derek helped form my ideal of what a man should be. Patient and respectful, words always carefully measured, yet consumed by a relentless drive toward greatness. Classy, and with an appreciation for finer things, though not overboard in flaunting it; just living it as it came, naturally, and with pride. A commitment to a clean and decent image, though not afraid to have a bit of fun, too. In hearing from the many fans of other teams who poured out their respect to Jeter this season, I felt a childish bit of possessiveness: Derek never meant to you what he meant to me. He was my idol in my fullest sense of the word, exactly the diversion a lost little eight-year-old needed, and while I grew older and deeper and stopped looking to sports for heroes, he never did anything to betray that trust.

At the heart of the Jeter mystique was his flair for the dramatic, something that made his 9th inning walk-off in his final Yankee Stadium game all too predictable. He had something others didn’t. Just reflect on that list of moments. There was his rookie season in 1996, when he always seemed to be the catalyst of every Yankee rally, most famously on that home run assisted by an 11-year-old; by 1999, he was one of the greatest offensive weapons in the game. His home run on the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series snuffed out any momentum the Mets might have had after finally beating the Yankees, and that Subway Series left no doubt who was the king of New York. He’d built a dynasty, and was the face of the greatest run by a major sport franchise in 40 years. Perhaps his greatest moments came in 2001, when he made that sublime flip play in the ALDS against Oakland, a play whose ingenuity I never expect to see topped. His “Mr. November” home run that year won the 4th game of one of the greatest World Series ever played, an emotionally draining and ultimately crushing run in the shadow of 9/11.

That was hardly the end, though. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is synonymous with Aaron Boone, but the man who started it all was Jeter, who cranked a double with the Yankees down by three in the eighth to ignite the game-tying rally. While the team imploded against Boston in 2004, he was still fighting to the end, showing some rare extra emotion when swatting a key hit in Game 7. The Yankees’ fortunes dwindled over the rest of the decade, their fate tied to increasingly worse pitching and stars who had no measure of Jeterian class, but there was still room for one last spurt of brilliance in 2009, when he collected his fifth ring. Naturally, his 3,000th hit left the park; even when the injuries began to mount, it seemed like every return to action was punctuated by some little reminder of that flair.

Over the years the worship of Derek’s clutch performance became near universal, and the gushing at times went overboard; in turn, there arose a group of snarky critics who pointed out the flaws in his game—his lack of range, his inevitable gradual decline, and the emptiness of that vague, undefined ‘clutch’ adjective. No wonder that by the end it all became a bit tired, a perfunctory string of praise in which everything there was to say had already been said. It didn’t help that Mariano Rivera had gone through the same retirement rigmarole the year before Jeter, and that the team he captains, too, seemed a bit tired. Jeter leaves the Yankees in a state unworthy of his legacy, an iconic franchise sliding into mediocrity due to its failure to nurture that farm system that once produced Jeter and Rivera. The end of these farewell tours lifts a burden from the shoulders of this franchise, and frees them to take the first few steps into a very different era of baseball.

Losing was new and foreign to Jeter, and at times his steadiness in the face of it all seemed aloof and uncertain. Beneath the façade was a man with an unshakable belief in his own self, and unlike the serene Rivera, aging did not come naturally to him. His career paralleled the passing of the years that so many of us go through: invincible in his youth, living the dream and building that legacy before he had to come to terms with the steady march of time, the realization that he was no longer the man he once was. Time was the last and greatest enemy that not even Jeter’s mystique could conquer. But it couldn’t kill those memories, nor prevent another chapter in that fairy tale life from writing itself every now and then. As with Rivera’s stirring sendoff last year, tonight’s Yankee Stadium finale was a homage to all that is good in sports, one that can send us back into childhood without a hint of shame. Dream and reality blur, and whatever we call that state in between, it’s one of pure delight.

I’ve heard a few other Yankees fans say that Jeter’s retirement marks the end of their childhood. I’m not sure how my own story lines up with that, but it was hard not to feel another little twinge of age tonight. Tonight, when I got the goosebumps and, yes, the hints of tears when Bob Sheppard’s immortal voice echoed through Yankee Stadium for the last time ever: “Now batting for New York, numbah two, Derek. Jetah. Numbah two.”

Say it Ain’t so, Robbie Cano

6 Dec

(If you don’t care about baseball, read this post anyway and see if you can find all the Jay-Z allusions! Sorry I’m not sorry.)

Jay-Z’s blueprint for his newest client has come to fruition. Robinson Cano, the star second baseman of the New York Yankees, is headed to Seattle, to the tune of 10 years and $240 million.

Gut-wrenching as it may be for Yankee fans, the team was right to not compete with the Mariners’ offer. Decoding the difference between the Seattle deal and the Yankees’ 7-year, $175 million offer, the Yankees actually offered Cano more per year; the difference is in those last three years. The Yankees, burned in recent years by a number of players tied up in huge contracts in their late 30s, know Cano won’t stay young forever. For years 8-10, Cano will probably be a shell of his former self. Of course, this can be worthwhile if he puts up MVP-type numbers in the first few years. He might. But while Cano’s physique may make him more likely to age gracefully than Albert Pujols (who signed a very similar contract two winters ago), he also has never quite been at Pujols’ level. He’s a very good player at a position that doesn’t have many great hitters, but he has yet to carry his team in the way you’d expect out of someone getting the third-richest contract in baseball history.

The move is also bad for Cano for a number of reasons: he goes from one of the best ballparks for left-handed hitters to cavernous Safeco Field; he probably could have made back the difference of the contracts in endorsements by staying in New York; and unless the Mariners continue to spend a lot of money, he probably won’t be sniffing the playoffs anytime soon. The contract looks an awful lot like the one the Texas Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez ten years ago, and that isn’t a comparison that should inspire much optimism in Mariner fans. For Cano, the Holy Grail was apparently the guaranteed money in the last few years of his career. Baseball is a business, man.

The Yankees may have 99 problems, but the payroll ain’t one, especially with Cano out of the picture. The 2014 Yankees will look very different, but they could still be a pretty good team. They’ve already gone shopping this offseason, luring in catcher Brian McCann and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and while both deals are not without some injury-and-aging risks of their own, the Yankees are in decent position to have an offense that is stronger than last season’s. They’re now free to spend even more, though the free agent market isn’t ideal for filing all of their needs if they want to stop watching other teams mount the throne in October.

The infield, which was one of baseball’s all-time greatest just three years ago, is now a mess. Mark Teixeira is aging and coming off a major injury—and he is the most reliable person here. Derek Jeter is forty and coming off a lost season; ideally he should move to third base, given his diminished range (which was never good, even in his prime) and the decent shortstop options available, but he may have too much pride for that. The options at the other two positions currently consist of Eduardo Nunez, Kelly Johnson, and Brendan Ryan, with perhaps a splash of Mark Reynolds for good measure. They’re going to need another player there, but Omar Infante is probably the best they can do.

Still, I’ve long believed that teams tend to overpay and go awry when they fixate too much on their weaknesses instead of going after the best options available. (Bill James will back me up on this, too.) Hence the Ellsbury deal: who cares that the Yankees already have a decent left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder in Brett Gardner? Go get one of the best out there, move Gardner to left, and have two of them. The 2014 Yankees may not have the Murderers’ Row heart of the order we expect out of the Bronx Bombers, but they’ll have two of the fastest players in the league, and one of the best outfield defenses. And to that end, it now makes good sense to lock up the likes of a Carlos Beltran. He may not be young, but it’ll be a short deal without the deadweight one sees in these ten-year contracts, and he once again improves the defense, bumping Alfonso Soriano to DH and adding a switch-hitting power bat. With enough good outfielders, they can handle bad offense at an infield position or two.

After that, they should train their attention on the pitching staff, where Masahiro Tanaka should be their priority. He comes with some risk, but 24-year-old potential star pitchers don’t come along every day, and this team needs to take some risks to be successful. Add him to Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia (he can’t possibly be worse than last season, can he?), and some intriguing younger options, and you have the makings of a passable rotation. David Robertson, as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, could use an established presence to set him up and take his spot if he flounders. Complete that checklist, and the Yankees will have had a very strong offseason, considering where they were just a few months ago. They may not be a great team, but they’ll have enough storylines to fill the seats, and if enough of the veterans bounce back from lost seasons in 2013, they’ll contend.

Cano’s legacy in pinstripes will be an oddly incomplete one; it’s hard to think of a Yankee star who came up through the system who chose to go elsewhere mid-career. He could have run the town; made himself an icon in that concrete jungle where dreams are made of, but he’ll be big pimpin’ in Seattle now. (Three in one line! I’m on fire now.) During Cano’s time in New York, it was common to compare him to his Boston counterpart, Dustin Pedroia. We Yankee fans got pretty sick of the comparison: the scrappy, impish Pedroia with dirt on his shoulders (and everywhere else on his uniform) versus Cano, a man of impeccable physique whose smoothness led some to charge him with laziness; despite his clear edge in talent, some argued, Cano was never the leader or the gamer that Pedroia is. It played into the tiresome scrappy-white-guy-vs.-lazy-but-talented-minority storyline, too. In the end, though, Pedroia took a smaller contract to stay in Boston; he chose to stay true to an organization, and something larger than himself. Cano, while not lazy, chose to chase the money. I don’t blame him for that; you can’t knock the hustle. But while Cano may become a Hall-of-Famer, he will probably never be the icon Pedroia is, unless the Mariners do shock us all in the next few years.

In a deal that looks murky for the Yankees, the Mariners, and Robinson Cano, one person did come out a big winner: Cano’s rookie agent, the man who informed the Yankee brass that they could refer to him as “Jay” during the negotiations. The man knows what he’s doing, and after this contract coup, the clients should come pouring in. On to the next one.

Image from the aptly named http://ridiculouslifestyle.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/jay-z-cigar.jpg.

A Hero in a Sport without Heroes: Farewell, Mariano Rivera

26 Sep

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I’ve been meaning to write a post on the impending retirement of Mariano Rivera ever since I started this blog. Much to the chagrin of my Minnesotan friends, I grew up a diehard Yankees fan, and my earliest baseball memories are of their late 1990s dynasty. Derek Jeter was, naturally, my childhood idol, and I still have a deep respect the Yankee captain; I’m sure I’ll write some glowing words when he retires, too. But as I grew older and more jaded, my pantheon of athletes whom I was willing to call a hero slowly shrank to include just one man. That man is Mariano Rivera.

Writing this post wasn’t easy, in large part because I’m not sure what I have to say that hasn’t already been said. Dave D’Alessandro wrote a masterful column about Rivera in 2011, and the god of all sportswriters, the 93-year-old Roger Angell, used Sunday’s game to remind the rest of us mere mortals of our places. I could trail on about his dominance, both across 19 regular seasons and 16 postseasons, or wax about that single pitch he used to it all, that untouchable cutter. There are the five World Series championships, the All-Star games, and the admirable sendoffs heaped upon him by his opponents over the course of this season’s long good-bye. (The Twins’ “chair of broken dreams,” made entirely of bats broken by Rivera’s cutter, was the best gift he got.) There are also those few moments when some emotion snuck out from behind his serene façade, like when he flopped over in exhausted ecstasy on the Yankee Stadium mound after three shutout innings in the 2003 ALCS against Boston, or his composure when the Red Sox finally got to him the next year. There is also his winning smile, his profound faith, his care for his Panamanian hometown, and his farewell tour in which he spent time with the unrecognized workers and fans at every park. D’Alessandro nails it: Rivera’s statistics are phenomenal, but he became the most universally adored ballplayer in an otherwise troubled era because of his character, his class, and his dignity.

Better writers who know Rivera far better than I do have told those stories superbly, so I’ll settle for simply sharing a memory. I’ve been to a ton of baseball games over the years, including a number of very memorable ones; many stars in their prime have had great days, and I’ve seen some extra-inning marathons and some brutal weather. I saw one of Roger Clemens’ tries at a 300th win in person, and any Yankees fan’s first trip to Yankee Stadium (the old one in particular, though the first visit to the new one was pretty cool, too) has to rank right up there among one’s favorite baseball moments.

But my most cherished memory is one that, on the surface, appears utterly mundane. It happened during my first ever Yankees game, a 2000 win against the Twins. The game itself was smooth sailing for the Yankees, and the paltry Metrodome crowd included more backers of the Bronx Bombers than loyalists to the hometown team. My seat, however, was not terribly far from the Yankee bullpen, and in the top of the ninth, the last ballplayer to ever wear number forty-two rose to his feet and began to warm up.

It was as if the entire game behind him had stopped. My ten-year-old self was absolutely mesmerized. While Rivera was great at the time, he was still a few years away from being as universally lauded as he is today. But even then, there was something different about him. His windup was swift and graceful, yet he unleashed the ball with so much power that it popped in the catcher’s glove in a way no other pitcher’s did. He was the platonic ideal of a ballplayer, and only a handful of other modern athletes can match that blend of dominance and aesthetic beauty embodied by the lanky Panamanian with a soothingly smooth name. Perhaps Lionel Messi, though he still has years to go before he is on Rivera’s level of consistency; perhaps Roger Federer in his prime, but he rose and then began to decline all while Rivera kept plugging away. He leaves the game at age 43, just as dominant as he was when he first settled into his setup role in 1996. It is never fun to watch a former great tail off and struggle some at the end of his career with some other team, as with Michael Jordan or Brett Favre; Rivera didn’t do that. He simply remained Mariano Rivera.

No one does ceremonies quite like the Yankees, and Rivera had his Lou Gehrig moment in front of the fans last Sunday in the Bronx. They trotted out all of the greats of the 1990s dynasty, deluged him in gifts, unveiled his Monument Park plaque, brought in Metallica to give a live rendition of “Enter Sandman,” and even Jackie Robinson’s family took the field to honor the man worthy of being the last to ever wear wearing Jackie’s number. It went for fifty minutes, yet Rivera’s surprise and gratitude never wavered. On the same day, Yankee great Andy Pettitte made his final home start in the Bronx, and he was almost an afterthought. Yet Pettitte wanted it that way, and in fact only announced his retirement because Rivera told him to; so great was his respect for Rivera that he didn’t want to steal a second of his time.

Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” to be showered with such praise, but with Mariano, one got the sense that there was never all that much luck involved. He is a reminder of everything that is good about sports; the sort of human being who deserves every ounce of recognition and fame he’s received, a poor Panamanian kid who used a silly game to make something of himself, and to inspire millions.

His mantra was a simple one.

I know where I come from. And when you always have in mind where you come from, the rest will be easy.

We’re going to miss you, Mariano.

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Photos from yankees.com.