Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 7, 2000

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website

Before the game, they gave Al Leiter the Roberto Clemente award for being such a good person. Maybe it’s just me, but don’t athletes always seem to get in trouble after winning these things? Like when the NBA gave PJ Brown the citizenship award before he decided to play Charles Martin to Charlie Ward’s Jim McMahon?

The Met announcers pointed out that Met leadoff men have opened Game 3 of the World Series with a home run in each of the team's three prior Series appearances. [THIS WEEK’s TRIVIA QUESTION: name them]. But Timo Perez went quietly. Another bad omen.

Both starting pitchers brought their Good Stuff for this one. Rick Reed, in particular, cranked it up a notch, striking out 8. I’ve always been a Rick Reed fan going back to his Pirates days; he was on my Rotisserie team in 1994. Reed seems to have something extra on the ball in September and October; for his career, in the regular season, he has struck out 6.28 batters per 9 innings after September 1, compared to 5.47 the rest of the year; in the postseason the past two years that jumped to 7.94.

The big controversies in this game would be the two Met rallies against an exhausted El Duque, one in the sixth inning and the other in the eighth. In the sixth, Hernandez started to wear down, giving up a game-tying RBI double to Zeile and loading the bases with nobody out. At this point, Jay Payton came up with a chance to blow the game open. Some people called after the game for a pinch hitter here – Hernandez is murder on righties and Payton has a huge platoon split – but Payton is also one of the toughest guys on the team to get a third strike on, as Felix Rodriguez will attest. Hernandez got it anyway.

Then Bordick was due up. Bordick, I would have pinch hit for. Yeah, you don’t want to lose your best defensive shortstop with (at least) three innings to go, but Bordick had been lost at the plate for months, and with the Payton strikeout the odds were starting to turn; this would be the last shot to at least get one run in or to start a really big inning. Darryl Hamilton was on the bench, as well as Bubba Trammell and Todd Pratt; I would have called here for Hamilton, a lefty and a contact hitter. Instead, Bordick struck out as well. Then Hamilton came in to hit for Reed. I would have liked to see Reed stay in, but the bullpen was rested, Reed had thrown 102 pitches, and in any event you just couldn’t let the picher hit here with El Duque about to get off the ropes. Hamilton grounded out weakly, and thoughts of hearing more Yankee guff about the “magic” of the pinstripes were dancing in my head.

In the seventh, Hernandez plowed through the top of the order (including the by-now-helpless Timo Perez) 1-2-3. He opened the eighth with his twelfth strikeout; exhausted as Hernandez was, there was a building sense that this would be like one of those classic Fernando outings with guts winning out over an empty tank. Joe Torre thought so too, and there was his undoing. The next batter was Zeile, who singled past a diving Jeter on exactly the kind of play that most shortsops make without diving. Jeter wound up as Series MVP and deservingly so (although I would have given it to Rivera), but this was not one of his high points. An RBI double by Agbayani and a single by Payton drove El Duque from the game after 134 pitches, and the Mets finally hit for Bordick with Bubba Trammell, who added an insurance run with a sac fly.

Then... Benitez. I would have closed my eyes, but I could still hear the radio. Despite the flamethrowing that makes him untouchable when he’s on his game, Benitez has lots of outings in the edge-of-your-seat tradition of past Mets closers like Franco, Roger McDowell, Neil Allen and Tug McGraw. The inning led off with a battle of the brain-frozen, Benitez against Knoblauch, and soon there was a man on first. Torre, looking for a repeat of his Game 1 coup, called again for Luis “jail was better than the Yankees” Polonia, but this time Benitez got him, and Jeter too. Up comes Justice. Ball. Strike. Ball. Ball. Uh-oh. What’s worse – the fear of grooving a game-tyer to Justice, who has had more than his share of huge postseason bombs, or walking him to bring up the ticking time bomb of a still-hitless-in-the World Series Bernie Williams?

On Benitez’ third pitch to Justice, Knoblauch takes off for second. I’ve seen this play before, and from the Yankee perspective maybe it makes a little sense because the easy force at second is off in the event of a grounder deep in the hole to Ventura or Abbott. The Mets didn’t throw, as they often don’t in this situation, which on its face also makes some sense; Piazza is nearly as likely to throw the ball away as to catch a runner. BUT: the downside is the Yankees get another base, or even a run if the throw really goes wild and it’s 4-3. The upside is the Mets get an out and the game is over. How can you not try, unless you were truly caught with your pants down as far as the runner’s jump? The Mets won’t throw with a 1-run lead either, but that’s because they fear that Benitez won’t throw his split finger pitch with a runner on third and a 1-run lead, and Game 1 notwithstanding, Benitez doesn’t give up many singles anyway. Just to concede a chance to get a game-ending out – or to risk it for little gain, from the Yanks’ perspective – is ignoring the costs and benefits.

But it was moot. Benitez got Justice to pop out, and threat was gone. The game was, in many ways, a replay of Game 4 against the Braves last season (the one Rick Reed pitched where Olerud’s bouncing grounder past Ozzie Guillen beat John Rocker to avert a sweep), breaking the sense that the Mets just couldn’t beat these guys – but doing so too late. They broke the Yankees’ 14-game World Series winning streak and the Yanks’ streak of never having lost a postseason game started by Orlando Hernandez. But they were still down 2-1.

I believe it was before Game Four that the Baha Men, now in their fourteenth minute of fame, performed the kind of song that K-Tel record collections used to be made of.

Neither side was overjoyed at what seemed likely to be the pivotal game of the Series being pitched by a soon-to-be-free agent fourth starter; Neagle had gone totally in the tank down the stretch (he has since decided to accept a large salary and a built-in excuse for future failure by signing with the Rockies) and Jones, though he had won 11 of his last 14 decisions and been brilliant against the Giants, was actually the Mets’ fifth starter during the regular season.

Jones never even got warm. Derek Jeter blasted his first pitch for a homer, Paul O’Neill hit his second triple in two days (after none in the regular season) in the second, and Jeter tripled in the third. 3-0 Yanks, and that was all they would need.

Neagle wasn’t really a lot more effective, falling behind 10 of 15 hitters (not counting a first-pitch single by Payton) after the first inning and giving up a 2-run homer to Piazza; he only got out of trouble in the second because Bordick and Jones were up when the Mets got 2 men on. Torre went with a quick hook, and asked David Cone to get one man – Piazza – after Neagle had retired Perez and Alfonzo on 4 pitches in the fifth. Naturally I and other Met fans were drooling at this after Piazza’s homer in the third, but Cone got him and Torre knew not to press his luck by going another batter just to get Cone a win. It’s not fair to beat up Piazza for driving in only 2 runs in this game, but when you are the superstar you are supposed to do better than pop up against a guy with a 6.91 ERA.

The honeymoon with Timo Perez officially ended in the seventh, when Valentine pinch hit for him (albeit against Stanton, who was eating lefthanders alive) with Kurt Abbott. Abbott, as he had as a pinch hitter in Game 3, struck out on three pitches while Todd Pratt and Mike Hampton rotted on the bench and Darryl Hamilton (who had been used up without batting in one of Valentine’s send-up-two-guys routines) headed back to the dugout.

Having burned through his bullpen by the end of seven innings, Torre called for Rivera to hold the one-run lead for two innings. What Torre did here was inspired managing. You can’t use Mariano Rivera two innings at a time all year; he’s not Goose Gossage, he’s not used to it, his arm would fall off. In fact, if you tried it for an entire seven-game series, Rivera would be burned out by Game Six. After all, Rivera threw 2 innings in Game One, and the next day the Mets teed off on him like he was Jaime Navarro.

But Torre gambled that if he won Game 4, he could put the Mets away and not have to face a Game 6, or at least not a Game 7. And that’s how you manage a World Series – everything for today and to heck with tomorrow. Win the game and lose the player? It’s worth it. It worked. A single by Zeile was the Mets’ lone threat, and Rivera took apart the suddenly helpless Alfonzo and the rest of the Mets’ lineup.

Torre made more good decisions in Game Four than he did in five years managing the Mets. Now they were down to one game. At least it was at home, and Al Leiter would be on the mound.

For game 5, Valentine conceded the obvious: Bordick and Timo were not getting the job done and Bordick wasn’t 100%, so in came Trammell and Abbott, with Benny Agbayani – surprisingly effective as baseball’s widest leadoff man during the regular season – batting first.

In the second, the bomb went off: Bernie Williams finally got a hit, homering on a 3-2 pitch after fouling off four pitches. In the bottom of the inning, things got really strange. Pettite walked Trammell and gave up a single to Payton. With Abbott and Leiter due up, this looked like a replay of too many Met rallies killed by the 8-9 hitters, and Abbott went quietly, advancing the runners on a grounder. Then, with two outs, Leiter bunts. For an infield hit! Actually, it was scored an error on Pettite. What a crazy, stupid, gutsy move – how often will you see a weak-hitting pitcher with bad knees bunting for a base hit with two outs? Then Agbayani hit a roller to third that was booted by Brosius for an infield single, and the Mets had another run in and two on with Alfonzo up and Piazza on deck.

Time to bust the game open. Pettite had been working behind in the count the whole inning, and the Yankee defense that supposedly never makes an error in a big game was unraveling. But Alfonzo popped out, and it was over. The biggest overall frustrations of this series, aside from the particulars of individual games, were the futility of Edgardo Alfonzo and the Mets’ inability to hit Andy Pettite the way the American League hits Pettite. Time and again they had him on the ropes and couldn’t put him away; it was the two Leiter-Pettite matchups that really decided the Series.

In the fourth, the Mets rallied again. Trammell led off with a single, and after Payton grounded into a force at second, Kurt Abbott finally pitched in, working Pettite for a nine-pitch walk. This time Leiter could bunt the runners to second and third for Agbayani, and the Mets would have a clean shot at going up 4-1 with Leiter fully in command. Then, disaster. Pettite picks off Abbott. Pettite has an amazing move to first, and Abbott was getting ready to run on the bunt, but there is still no excuse for getting picked off first when there’s a runner on second, one out and the pitcher at bat. The rally was dead just like that, and this time Pettite got Leiter and the inning was over. The lead was still 2-1, so Derek Jeter was able to tie it all up with a solo shot in the sixth. In the bottom of the sixth the Mets re-played the fourth inning rally, with Abbott staying put this time; Leiter bunted the runners over but Pettite got Agbayani to ground out.

That brought us to the fateful top of the ninth. Leiter had thrown 121 pitches, but he was still throwing hard. Valentine left him in, and sensibly so; a guy like Leiter isn’t in danger of hurting himself from one season-ending outing, so if he’s still in command you don’t pull him while he’s still chugging along. He blew away Tino to start the inning. 124 pitches. O’Neill battled, fouling off four pitches, but Leiter dialed up that little extra something left in the tank to get him swinging. 129 pitches. The Met announcers were wondering now if Leiter had just used up the last of his stuff, and with Posada’s home run power I was worried, but I figured Leiter could get one more guy. He came very close. Posada fought off four pitches and walked on a 3-2 count. Leiter thought he had him on the seventh pitch of the sequence, but he didn’t. 138 pitches.

Leiter was spent. Maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to see him stay in one more batter and try to get Brosius. Brosius isn’t really that dangerous at this point, and maybe one more cut fastball could get him to beat one into the ground. I was probably being silly and sentimental, but I wanted him to get one last shot. So Leiter fell behind, as he did with Posada, now trying to stay way out on the corners. Brosius singled. 141 pitches.

It was obvious to me, listening on the radio, that Leiter was finished for the day, couldn’t possibly have anything left to reach back for. The weak-hitting Luis Sojo was coming up; a single could win the game, but a fresh reliever – Benitez, Turk – could handle him easily. Was Valentine thinking too far ahead? We all expected yet another extra inning marathon at this point, and Leiter was due to lead off the bottom of the ninth. No need to burn another pitcher – except that now the game was in jeopardy. But Valentine, normally a quick hook, suddenly turned into Buck Showalter at the wrong time, just sitting there on the bench. The next pitch rolled between two Met infielders, Payton got overeager trying to throw home, and it was 4-2. Valentine had to use up John Franco to get Glenallen Hill (amazingly this worked, given that Hill has just murdered Franco in the past).

The damage was done. It’s one thing for Joe Torre to pull this sort of foolishness; Torre's an emotional guy and has gotten great mileage out of being loyal to a fault to his players. If he sometimes overdoes it, that’s part of why they love him. But Valentine’s a manipulative jerk; he wins precisely because he doesn’t make emotional decisions. I really think he was thinking too much about saving his bullpen and hitting for Leiter; sentimentality just isn’t his style.

Torre went to the well one last time in the ninth, and yet again Rivera wasn’t that sharp after throwing two innings the prior night. He walked Agbayani on 4 pitches, and the Mets pulled the same play as the Yanks the night before, with Agbayani taking second base uncontested. The final out came down to Piazza against Rivera, like Yaz and the Goose 22 years ago, with similar results. On the radio I couldn’t tell how close Piazza’s drive came to clearing the center field fence 410 feet away, but the Met announcers didn’t sound as optimistic as the roaring crowd. Bernie hauled it in, and I would have thrown the radio out the window except (1) the windows in my office don’t open and (2) it was my boss’ radio. Back to work. Ugh.

A major hero of the series, and a bit overlooked in the aftermath, was Posada. Posada was really the guy who turned the tide in the twelfth inning rally in Game One and the ninth inning rally in Game Five. In fact, all season, Posada never got the credit he deserved for his contributions to shoring up a Yankee offense weakened by the rapid declines of Martinez, O’Neill and Brosius and the chaos in left field and DH before the arrival of Justice.

Just like that, it was over. The coda was the parade; I wanted to ignore it, but I had to fight my way through the crowd carrying boxes back and forth to court. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but I’d probably just best leave the scene to your imagination.

2000 has been a year of close calls, parity and cliffhangers, a year when coulda shoulda woulda was everywhere you turned. At this (Thursday) writing, Al Gore looks likely to end the year the way Kevin Dyson began it, reaching out, half a yard from the goal line, victory forever frozen just out of reach. Rasheed Wallace can sympathize; so can Arthur Rhodes and Barry Bonds. So can the girl who lost the gold medal to the sniffles, or that guy (I forget his name now) who lost that heart-stopping tournament to Tiger Woods. Like the US Olympic baseball team, the Yankees clawed their way to the title with only inches to spare, rather than their usual accustomed unopposed walk. We couldn’t have expected it any other way.

Yankee Stadium has always been Where Miracles Go To Die, the place where the unexpected is stamped out at every turn. This time it was a precarious run, but a successful one again. The defining feature of the Yankees has always been this: they win when they are supposed to win, and they don’t win when they are not supposed to win. Try on the phrase “Miracle Yankees;” it just doesn’t fit. The closest the Yanks ever had to a Cinderella team was the war-depleted 1943 squad that beat a heavily favored Cardinal team in the Series. Still, that team was taking its seventh pennant and sixth World Championship in 8 years, so they were hardly fitted for a glass slipper. Or the “Heartbreak Yankees;” think back to all the pennant races and postseason matchups decided on bad hops, near-miss home runs, freak plays on the basepaths, and other controversies and close calls.

Have the Yankees lost those? Once in a blue moon: 1904 (Jack Chesbro’s wild pitch), 1926 (Babe Ruth caught stealing), 1955 (Sandy Amoros’ catch of Yogi’s drive), 1960 (the infamous bad hop to Tony Kubek’s neck). But they have won the overwhelming number of those, including the 1977 pennant race and 1996 playoff series that turned on non-calls of fan interference in the Bronx.

Anyway, it was a lot to gag on. I grew up as a Mets fan in the late 1970s, when it was very easy to be a Yankee fan; my grammar school class included no other Mets fans. This is still a baseball town; nothing in the other sports can match a Subway Series. With the 2000 Series, another generation of schoolchildren will go the Yankee way, and the more of them there are, the bigger the Yankees’ cable contract will be.

Aside from Clemens, a few bit players like Canseco and the always-theatrical O’Neill, the Yankees have mostly turned away from the circus atmosphere that pervaded the first two decades of Steinbrenner’s reign, and now resemble much more clearly the Yankees of the fifties, a relentless machine with a leg up on everyone else. Then again, it’s still easy to hate a team with a $110 million payroll and not one but two players who have been on People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful People” list; the absence of Billy and Reggie means that Yankee fans just have more ways to brag about their team.

“New York has become satiated, blasé with baseball championships. It no longer appreciates the thrill of a world series. The country at large cannot work up much interest when two New York clubs are fighting for the championship of the baseball world. It was novel, thrilling for a couple of years to see the teams of the greater city struggle for supremacy; then it became monotonous.”
--Damon Runyon, in 1924.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:25 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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