"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
September 13, 2001
WHY BASEBALL STILL MATTERS: My September 11 Story
On Tuesday, they tried to kill me.
I am ordinarily at my desk between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning, in my office on the 54th floor of one of the World Trade Center's towers. Tuesday, I was running late - I stopped to vote in the primary election for mayor, an election that has now been postponed indefinitely. Thank God for petty partisan politics.
Around 20 minutes to 9, as I have done every day for the past five years, I got on the number 2/3 train heading to Park Place, an underground stop roughly a block and a half, connected underground, to the Trade Center. The train made its usual stop at Chambers Street, five blocks north of my office, where you can switch to the local 1/9 that runs directly into the Trade Center mall. The subway announcer - in a rare, audible announcement - was telling people to stay on the 2/3 because the tunnel was blocked by a train ahead of us. Then he mentioned that there had been "an explosion at the World Trade Center."
Now, I grew up in the suburbs, so maybe I'm not as street smart as I should be, but after living in the city a few years, you develop a sense of the signs of trouble (like the time there were shots fired in the next subway car from mine). I didn't know what the explosion was, maybe a gas leak or something, but I knew that I was better off getting above ground to see what was going on rather than enter the complex underground. So I got off the train to walk to work.
When I got above ground, there was a crowd gathering to see the horror above: a big hole somewhere in the top 15-20 stories of the north tower (having no sense of direction, I thought that was Number 2 at the time, not Number 1 where my office was), with flames and smoke shooting out. I quickly realized it would not be safe to go into the office, despite a number of things I had waiting for me to do, so as I heard the chatter around about there having been a plane crash into the building (onlookers were saying "a small plane" at that point) and a possible terrorist attack, I turned away to start looking for a place to get coffee and read the newspaper until I could find out what had happened. That was when it happened.
The sound was a large BANG!, the unmistakable sound of an explosion but with almost the tone of cars colliding, except much louder. My initial thought was that something had exploded out of the cavity atop the tower closer to us and gone . . . where? It was followed by a scene straight out of every bad TV movie and Japanese monster flick: simultaneously, everyone around me was screaming and running away. I didn't have time to look and see what I was running from; I just took off, hoping to get away from whatever it was, in case it was falling towards us. Nothing else can compare to the adrenaline rush of feeling the imminent presence of deadly danger. And I kept moving north.
Once people said that a second plane had hit the other tower, and I saw it was around halfway up - right where my office was, I thought, still confused about which tower was which - it also appeared that the towers had survived the assault. I used to joke about this, telling people we worked in the only office building in America that had been proven to be bomb-resistant. I stopped now and then, first at a pay phone where I called my family, but couldn't hear the other end. I stopped in a few bars, calling to say I was OK, but I still didn't feel safe, and I kept moving north. In one bar I saw the south tower collapse, and had a sick feeling in my stomach, which increased exponentially when I saw Tower Number One, with my office in it and (so far as I knew) many of the people I work with as well, cave in. Official business hours start at 9:30, but I started reeling off in my head all the lawyers who get in early in the morning, and have for years. I thought of the guy who cleans the coffee machines, someone I barely speak to but see every day, who has to be in at that hour. I was still nervous, and decided not to think about anything but getting out alive. A friend has an apartment on 109th street, so I called him and kept walking, arriving on his doorstep around 1 p.m., and finally sat down, with my briefcase, the last remnant of my office. I had carried a bunch of newspapers and my brown-bag lunch more than 120 blocks. The TV was on, but only CBS was broadcasting - everyone else's signal had gone out of the Trade Center's antenna.
Finally, the news got better. I jumped when there were planes overhead, but they were F-15s, ours. American combat aircraft flying with deadly seriousness over Manhattan. My wife was home, and she had heard from people at the office who got out alive. It turns out that my law firm was extraordinarily lucky to get so many people out - nearly everyone is now accounted for, although you hold your breath and pray until it's absolutely everyone. The architect who designed the towers - well, we used to complain a lot that the windows were too narrow, but the strength of those buildings, how they stayed standing for an hour and an hour and a half, respectively, after taking a direct hit by a plane full of gasoline - there are probably 10 to 15,000 people walking around New York today because they stayed up so long.
By Wednesday night, the adrenaline was finally wearing off, and I was just angry. They had tried to kill me, had nearly killed many of the people I work with, and destroyed the chair I sit in everyday, the desk I work at and the computer I do my work on. And that's before you even begin to count the other lives lost. Words fail to capture the mourning, and in this area it's everywhere. I finally broke down Thursday morning, reading newspaper accounts of all the firemen who were missing or dead, so many who had survived so many dangers before, and ran headlong into something far more serious, far more intentional. My dad was a cop, my uncle a fireman. It was too close.
The mind starts to grasp onto the little things, photos of the kids and from my wedding; the radio in my office that I listened to so many Mets games on, working late; a copy of my picture with Ted Williams (more on that some other day); the little Shea Stadium tin on my desk that played "take me out to the ballgame" when you opened it to get a binder clip, the new calculator I bought over the weekend. All vaporized or strewn halfway across the harbor. The things can mostly be replaced, they're just things, but it's staggering to see the whole context of your daily routine disappear because somebody - not "faceless cowards," really, but somebody in particular with a particular agenda and particular friends around the world - wants you dead.
There's a scene that comes to mind, and I'm placing it in the Lord of the Rings because that's where I remember it, but feel free to let me know if I've mangled it or made it up. Frodo the hobbit has lived all his life in the Shire, where the world of hobbits (short, human-like creatures) revolves around hospitality and particular etiquette and family snobbery and all the silliest little things, silly at least in comparison to the great and dangerous adventure he finds himself embarked on. Aragorn, one of the Men, has been patrolling the area around the Shire for years, warding off invading creatures of all varieties of evil. Frodo asks Aragorn, eventually, whether he isn't frustrated with and contemptuous of hobbits and the small, simple concerns that dominate their existence, when such dangers are all at hand. Aragorn responds that, to the contrary, it is the simpleness and even the pettiness of the hobbits that makes the task worthwhile, because it's proof that he has done his job - kept them so safe and insulated from the horrors all around them that they see no irony, no embarrassment in concerning themselves with such trivial things in such a hazardous world. It has often struck me that you could ask no better description of the role of law enforcement and the military, keeping us so safe that we may while our days on the ups and downs of made-up games.
And that's why baseball still matters. There must be time for mourning, of course, so much mourning, and time as well to feel secure that 55,000 people can gather safely in one place. The merciful thing is that because, save for the Super Bowl and the Olympics, U.S. sports are so little followed in the places these evildoers breed - murderous men, by contrast, have little interest in pennant races - that they have not acquired the symbolic power of our financial and military centers. But that may not be forever.
But once we feel secure to try, we owe it most of all to those who protect us as well as those who died to resume the most trivial of our pursuits. Our freedom is best expressed not when we stand in defiance or strike back with collective will, but when we are able again to view Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as the yardsticks by which we measure nastiness, to bicker over games. That's why the Baseball Crank will be back. This column may be on hiatus for an undetermined time while the demands of work intrude - we intend to be back in business next week, and this will not be without considerable effort - but in time, I will offer again my opinion of why it would be positively criminal to give Ichiro the MVP, and why it is scandalous that Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame. And then I'll be free again.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:00 PM | Baseball Columns | Blog 2002-05 | War 2002-03 | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
September 7, 2001
BASEBALL: Mussina's Near-Perfect Game
Originally posted on Projo.com
Give the devil his due: if there's one thing we've seen this Yankees team do over the past 5 years, it's put away an opponent on the ropes . . .
On Sunday, Mike Mussina nearly became only the fifth pitcher in major league history to throw a 9-inning, complete game perfect game -- on the road. When you consider how many games have been played in the history of the game, 4 perfect games by the visiting starting pitcher is just a shockingly low number. On the high wire of finishing off a perfect game, maybe that friendly crowd really does make a difference . . . Carl Everett also robbed Paul O'Neill of the opportunity to play right field behind an unprecedented four perfect games. Mussina's near-perfect game, sowing salt on the ashes of what used to be the AL East race, brings to mind a question: how many perfect games have been thrown in pennant races?
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*15 regulation, nine-inning perfect games - 6 in the NL (in 126 years), 8 in the AL, and 1 (by David Cone against the Expos) in interleague play.
*1 postseason perfect game.
*2 nine-inning perfect games broken up in extra innings (Pedro's effort with the Expos and the Harvey Haddix game).
*4 complete perfect games of less than nine innings; presumably, these were called for rain or darkness.
Major league baseball has seen perfection in one form or another just 22 times in 126 seasons. It's not as easy as a teenager whomping on Little Leaguers.
Of the perfect games, 6 were thrown in September or October:
*Don Larsen's perfect game, which gave Larsen a 1-1 postseason record to go with a career record that then stood at 30-40, was a 2-0 victory to give the Yankees a 3-2 Series lead over the Dodgers. Interestingly, Jackie Robinson, who had hit just .275 with 10 homers in 1956 and would retire after the season, batted cleanup in that game (not that the batting order wound up mattering).
*Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against the lowly Cubs on September 9, 1965 on the way to winning the pennant by just 2 games (the Dodgers' lead was just a half a game entering September). Not only was this in an airtight pennant race, but the Dodgers scored an unearned run in the fifth inning for their only run, and had just one hit and one walk the entire game.
*Tom Browning threw one in September 1988, in a year the Reds finished 7 back of the Dodgers team he beat that day (they were 9 back entering September), so that was about as much in a pennant race as Mussina's game. This was also a 1-0 game, with just 3 hits for the Reds, all after the fifth inning.
*Mike Witt threw one the last day of September in a season when the Angels finished 3 games out in a second-place tie; as I recall, they'd just been eliminated when Witt tossed his masterpiece. This, too, was a 1-0 game won on an unearned run.
*Rube Vickers' 5-inning perfecto in the second game of an October 1907 doubleheader against a dreadful Senators team was the season's last game, but his team finished just 1 game back in the loss column, so in many ways the situation was the same as Witt's (the A's were eliminated the day before, having been beaten by Washington rookie Walter Johnson in an extra inning duel with Eddie Plank.). There are some strange notes with this game: Vickers had thrown 12 innings of relief to win the first game of the doubleheader, and those were his first two major league victories. Unsurprisingly, this earned him a spot in the rotation for the following year.
*The most critical game, other than Larsen's, was thrown by Addie Joss on October 2, 1908, a game that stands with Larsen's, with Jack Morris' performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, and with Babe Ruth's 14-inning victory in Game Two of the 1916 World Series, among others, as one of the best big-game pitching performances ever. Joss was facing 40-game winner Ed Walsh (the two men finished first and second on the career ERA list, albeit due to having short careers in the pit of the dead ball era, and both were at the peak of their powers in 1908), and beat him 1-0, in a race the Indians lost the next day by half a game (and the White Sox finished just 1 game out). Walsh, the big spitballer, struck out 15, which if memory serves was the AL record at the time.
A few other semi-random thoughts:
*This season's rookie crop is really something, although history teaches that great rookie classes don't always yield the best players, long-term (the vaunted 1986 crop had more than its share of duds, but whose list that year even made room for the .223-hitting Barry Bonds?). Should Ichiro be eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award, formally known as the Jackie Robinson Award, after the first man to win it, a 28-year-old veteran? The question answers itself. But who will be the best player to come of this group? I haven't seen Adam Dunn play yet, but my money is on Roy Oswalt.
*Russ Branyan has struck out 116 times this year -- in 279 at bats. I believe that Dave Nicholson had held the prior record for fewest at bats in a season while striking out 100 times, just 294 at bats to whiff 126 times in 1964.
*Ichiro will probably get just enough rest in the season's last month to fall short of Willie Wilson's at bats record; he's currently just even with the pace.
*All those graphics you see showing Bonds ahead of McGwire at the same point . . . they ignore how hot McGwire got at the end. Like catching Henry Aaron's career record, you have to be ahead of the pace to outrun that powerful finishing kick.
*Only 2 weeks ago, I defended Dan Duquette. But failure to communicate with the players is one thing; actively aggravating the team's superstars is another. When they asked Joe McCarthy how he got along with Ted Williams, he replied that if the manager doesn't get along with the .400 hitter, who's the team going to get rid of? McCarthy was a wise man. The Duke has made some great moves in Boston and some terrible ones, and the overall record is not a bad one at all considering the state of the franchise he inherited, but there comes a time when new management is needed to start the housecleaning that needs to go on among the team's second-tier players.
*Tony Batista has the major leagues' lowest on base percentage among all major league players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title; in fact, at .268, he's more than 20 points below the nearest competition. Yet, unlike many other players with dreadful K/BB ratios, Batista sees more than 4 pitches per plate appearance, among the highest in the majors. Even granting that some of that is foul balls, that's a bad sign -- it's one thing to take an impatient man and teach him patience. It's entirely another to teach a man good judgment -- which pitches to swing at -- or the ability to make contact. Batista was a good gamble for the desperate Orioles, given his power, age, salary and ability to play multiple positions, but unless there's something we're missing here (bad eyes?), Batista may just lack the ability to tell the difference between good pitches and bad pitches. If so, his days as a regular may already be done.
*On this "Curse" business . . . don't forget that the Red Sox were not the only, or even the first, team to sell Babe Ruth. In 1914, pressed by declining ticket sales caused by the opening of a Federal League team accross town, Jack Dunn -- owner of the Baltimore Orioles of the then-independent International League, and the man who discovered Ruth in a home for wayward boys -- had to sell Ruth to the Red Sox to stay in business. Dunn's team had some hard times immediately thereafter, but between 1919 and 1925 they ran off 7 straight pennants, winning 100 or more games every year, and 3 postseason championships. It was one of the greatest runs in the history of American professional baseball. No Babe? Dunn came up with Lefty Grove. Some Curse.
*How conservative have major league baserunners become? Roger Cedeno and Luis Castillo share the major league lead in caught stealing -- with 15 apiece.
*The talk among Mets fans this month is of 1973, when the Mets went from last place at the end of August to within a game of the World Championship. Stoking this has been a rare combination of aggressive play and bizarre luck, like the recent game where (1) Tsuyoshi Shinjo scored from first base on an infield groundout and (2) Todd Zeile scored the winning run from second on a botched routine toss back to the pitcher. I wrote off the Mets as far back as June, but in some ways this is the fun part: watching a team try to scale the mountain. There's only so disappointed you can get if they fail. And Bobby Valentine is a big part of it. I'm not a huge fan of overmanaging in general or Valentine's style in particular, but you've got a veteran team that's been miles from contention all year, and Valentine is pulling out all the stops, running through relief pitchers like there's no tomorrow, battling the umps, sending in the pinch runners and calling the trick baserunning plays . . . even from the cheap seats you can feel the sense of urgency coveyed by Valentine -- we need this run! this inning! this out! -- and that has to rub off on the guys in the dugout, watching it up close.
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