Matt’s Giants, 2010

[by Vincent Getz, New York]

MATT COLLECTED baseball cards, especially rookie ones. Every Saturday he would head down to the comic shop at the wharf and buy at least one, sometimes ten. It didn’t matter who it was, as long as it was a rookie. To him, there was no difference between a 2001 Albert Pujols and a 2009 Chris Jakubauskas. But there was one team for which this was different, his San Francisco Giants. He kept those rookies separate from the others.

For the first time since he was seven, in 2002, the Giants were in the World Series. They lost to the Anaheim Angels back then, a crushing blow. When Matt was eight, his hopes were dashed again when the Giants lost to the Florida Marlins in the 2003 National League Division Series. Since then, nothing…until this year. The Giants won the pennant.

Matt’s uncle John gave Matt his first baseball card. He had a longer memory. He remembers when the New York Giants moved to the bay in 1958. They lost the 1962 Series to their old rival the Yankees in seven games and again to their new one, the Oakland A’s, in 1989, swept in four. People always talk about the Cubs’, Rangers’, and retired Red Sox’ streaks these days, but the Giants are no slouches themselves. They haven’t won a World Series in 56 years, longer than their AL opponent, the Rangers, who have only been around for 50. It’s hard to complain, though. The Giants franchise, founded in 1883 as the New York Gothams, has won more games than any other professional North American sports team.

Matt kept the 2010 Giants rookie cards bound in a rubberband. He snapped off the band and flipped through them. Not a Hall of Famer in the bunch, well maybe Lincecum, but it’s too early to say. It was a group of mostly relative unknowns. That was part of what drew Matt to them, this scrappy, intense, perhaps destined team that had the perfect mix of inspiration and cool veteran experience. He had all the rookies but one – one of the more well-known Giants, leftfielder Pat Burrell, who won the Series two years ago with Philadelphia. His namesake Matt Cain, Buster Posey, and now, Cody Ross were his favorites.

Pitcher Matt Cain and rookie catcher Gerald “Buster” Posey would be the battery for Game 2. Cain started his up-and-down career with the Giants, his record suffering along with bad teams in ’07 and ’08. Posey, a fan favorite, batted .305 with 18 homers in his first campaign and is possibly looking at Rookie of the Year honors. Catcher Bengie Molina was traded to the Rangers to make room for him. Outside of Cain and Posey, every other starter on the field began their career with a different team.

Journeyman rightfielder Cody Ross played his first game for the 2003 Detroit Tigers. Four teams later, he would find a home in San Francisco, in the 2010 NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies. In the Game 1 win, he took Halladay deep twice. In the clinching Game 4, he drove in the tying and winning runs. The unleashed Ross was so far this postseason the Mr. October of the Giants.  Centerfielder Andres Torres also began with the Tigers. He struggled his first seven years, including a mid-career, three-year minor league stint before being given another chance in 2009, this time with the orange and black.

The rookie cards of the Giant infield were a medley of black, white, navy blue, red, silver, and “Marlin Blue.” Gritty first baseman Aubrey Huff started with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2000. 2010 was his first year as a Giant, his fifth team. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez started with the Boston Red Sox, only to be traded to the cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates the year before the Sox won it. Just two years ago a World Series berth was unimaginable to him. Before this year, he and Huff had 18 years of experience between them, on 7 different teams, without a postseason.

The left side of the infield, on the other hand, owns a couple of rings. Third baseman Juan Uribe, who started with the Colorado Rockies in 2001, won it all with the Chicago White Sox in 2005. And Edgar Renteria, veteran of the infield, was brought up by the Florida Marlins in 1996. They won it in ’97.

There was one more home-grown talent on the team, though, that Matt was hoping to see trot out onto the field in the 9th inning tonight – the oddly-quaffed, black-bearded closer, Brian Wilson.  Wilson, who redefines “freak” and has fans screaming “Fear the Beard,” led the majors in saves this year, with 48.

Matt heard his mother come home from work downstairs. He wrapped the rubberband twice around the cards and put them in his pocket. It was a pocket full of journeymen. Many fans took special pride in their team’s home-grown talent. Matt understood that and players like Lincecum, Cain, Posey, and Wilson reinforced that feeling for him, too. But he was quite proud of what the Giants put together here – taking a piece from this team and a scrap from that one, hopefully creating a championship patchwork.

“Dominick!  Matthew!  Anthony!  Time to eat,” his mother called from the base of the stairs. Matt ran down and saw his mother standing in the entryway to the kitchen, smiling.  His eyes glanced over the dining room table.

Pat Burrell.  Phillies.  2000.

Good ol’ mom.

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Thanks to Gene Healy for editing.  Here’s his opinion column at the Washington Examiner.  He’s also the author of  The Cult of the Presidency.  Check it out!

Check out SB Nation, an excellent sports feature and blog site.

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Ryan’s Rangers, 2010

[by Vincent Getz, New York]

GENE UTLEY SETTLED deeper into the comfort of his worn easy chair and took a refreshing gulp of his ginger ale, silently indulging in the moment he had waited for his whole life. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be a Chicago Cubs fan. The Cubs, owner of the longest streak without winning a World Series (1908, 102 years), hadn’t even been to the Series since 1945. The Texas Rangers had penned a similar, though much shorter history, but it was painful enough. Now a new chapter was to be written. For the first time since their inception, the Rangers would take the grand October stage in front of the nation. It was a life-long journey for Gene and the Rangers, who shared the same age, 50. Wouldn’t a championship be a nice birthday present – and delivered by Nolan Ryan, no less?

Ryan, born in Refugio, Texas, was Gene’s favorite player and a state institution. He played the final 14 years of his career with the Houston Astros and the Rangers in Arlington.  He struck out a likely untouchable all-time record 5,714 batters and threw an unfathomable seven no-hitters, the last two for the Rangers. On top of that, if it weren’t for Ryan, it’s possible the Texas Rangers would be on the verge of extinction.

In 2009, Tom Hicks and his holding firm Hicks Sports Group, then owners of the Rangers, defaulted on a half-billion-dollar loan. Hicks had to borrow money from major league baseball just to make payroll and in May of 2010 amidst debts including $25 million still owed to Alex Rodriguez from seven years ago, the Rangers filed for bankruptcy. After a year of legal wranglings that saw major league baseball threaten to take ownership control, a group led by Chuck Greenberg and current team president Ryan managed to finally purchase the team less than three months ago.

Gene remembered watching his first World Series with his dad in 1969, but was unaware at the time, as were most people, of 22-year old backup pitcher, Nolan Ryan.  Before he was “The Ryan Express,” he won the World Series with the New York Mets that year. It would be his first and last World Series as a player in a career spanning 27 years.

Gene finished his beverage and quietly placed the glass down to the clink of ice cubes and watched the celebration. Centerfielder Josh Hamilton, the heart of the team, was just named MVP of the American League Championship Series, and was speaking before the raucous home crowd, thanking God and his teammates. He was once on the verge of extinction, too. Drafted in 1999 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and later touted as the number one prospect in all of baseball in 2001, he lost his way for three years, succumbing to a drug and alcohol addiction that in 2005 found him suspended from the game and emaciated on his grandmother’s doorstep, looking for help.  Today, he touts faith in God and the support of loved ones and teammates as essential to his journey back. After their Divisional Series win against the Rays his teammates showered Josh and themselves in a celebratory ginger ale deluge. They did it again after the ALCS, superstitious bunch those baseball players.

In 2004, the Rangers named Jon Daniels, 27 at the time, general manager.  He was the youngest in baseball history, as the Rangers business model under Ryan looked to emulate champion teams like the Red Sox (Theo Epstein) and Yankees (Brian Cashman). Daniels was responsible for bringing Hamilton to the Rangers in 2008.  Under his tenure, extremely likable player’s manager Ron Washington took the helm in 2006. And this year he added an additional piece to the pennant puzzle, pitching ace, Cliff Lee.

To Gene, Washington and Lee represented good old-fashioned blue collar baseball. Washington was an avowed traditionalist eschewing sabermetrics for intangibles and small-ball. He, too, battled drug abuse, but when asked if that were a bond between he and Hamilton, he said frankly, no, they don’t look at each other that way.

Lee exemplified the old adage that pitching wins playoff series, and backed it up with his undefeated postseason record, now 7-0. He is the postseason pitcher that has opponents buckling at the knees on off-days, and teams rearranging their pitching rotations in the hopes of shutting down the Rangers, perhaps eking out a run, or at least making it to the Rangers’ bullpen.  Gene loved to watch this guy pitch. “Who didn’t?” he thought. He struck fear in the hearts of the Rays, Yankees, Giants, everybody.

Daniels wasn’t finished. He also brought in veteran rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero this season. Gene quietly got out of the chair, so as not to wake up his wife and went over to the computer.  Is Guerrero a Hall of Famer?  He checked Vlad’s career numbers: 436 homers, .320 lifetime, nearly 1500 RBIs, and an MVP.  “Yup. No rings, though…yet.”

“Hamilton, Lee, Guerrero. Big-time players.” But Gene knew you couldn’t win the World Series without some hard-nosed role players and Daniels delivered on that front as well, trading for leftfielder Nelson Cruz in 2006 and catcher Bengie Molina in 2010, acquiring the latter from the San Francisco Giants. No matter who wins the Series, Molina will get a ring. “I’m pretty sure he’s not rooting for the Giants,” Gene laughed. As for Nelson Cruz, he smacked three home runs in the Divisonal Series against the Rays, then added another two against the Yanks.  “Hopefully, he’ll do it again.”

All the same, though, like most fans, Gene took a special pride in those Rangers who played their whole pro career in Arlington.  This was the case for the entire Texas infield.   Mitch Moreland is a rookie first baseman, and shortstop Elvis Andrus is the youngest in the lineup, at 22. Third baseman Michael Young is the team-veteran fan favorite who’s played second, short, and finally the hot corner for the past 11 years.  And five-tool all-star Ian Kinsler rounds out the infield at second base.  While Andrus and Young were initially drafted by other teams, all four started their career after emerging from the Texas minor league system.

If the team could take a lead into the 9th, Gene was confident closer Neftali Feliz, who notched 40 saves this season, would be able to slam the door.  He too has only played pro ball for the Rangers and broke the rookie record for saves on the same day they clinched the AL West.

But would it all be enough?  Gene shuddered to think if, God forbid, the Rangers lost the Series, and how long it would take for them to make it back again.  The mere thought made his heart thump and palms sweat.  With Ryan and Daniels steering the ship, salty veterans with some left in them, and young squabs just starting their career, it should be a shorter wait than the last time.  Still, you never know.

Gene went to the kitchen and poured himself another ginger ale, superstitious bunch those baseball fans.

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Thanks to Peter for the Vladimir Guerrero Hall of Fame chat.  He runs VIDEOROOM, New York City’s largest, oldest, and best independent video store. Check it out!

Thanks to RangerRick, Anthony, and Scooby Dude for their contributions.  Check out Baseball Time in Arlington for the best and latest in Texas Rangers news.  They have a great forum too.

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Another Yankee Game 6

[by Vincent Getz, New York]

WARREN SPAHN FINISHED his third of six consecutive 20-win seasons in 1958 and led the league in innings pitched. So it was not a surprise to see the wiry, screwball-hurling workhorse climb the mound for the top of the 10th, manager Fred Haney opting to stick with his starter. The Milwaukee Braves were counting on Spahn to get them through three more outs, hoping to take the win, and the Series, in the bottom of the inning. If that failed, and the Yankees took the lead, at least they would have the chance to tie it up. With slugging third baseman Eddie Mathews scheduled to come up third in the home half, and possibly right fielder Hank Aaron after that, both in the thunderous primes of their careers, Haney’s strategy was sound.

Spahn is unquestionably one of the best pitchers to have played the game, finishing his career with an astounding 363 wins – 6th all-time and tops for a lefty – tossing 63 shutouts and a couple of no-hitters along the way. He was tough, and not just on the field. He had barely started his career when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was stationed in Europe for three years, earning a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart, and saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge. And there he was on the mound, in Game 6 of the World Series, in extra innings.

It wasn’t his best performance so far, but he managed to stymie the Yanks throughout much of the game, scattering five singles and a solo home run over nine frames. But did the reigning Cy Young winner have enough left in the tank to finish off Game 6 and the New York Yankees? He didn’t.

This was the second time in the Series the Yankees had their backs against the wall and it was unfamiliar territory. Thanks in part to Spahn’s 10-inning complete game in the opener and a 13-run spanking in Game 2, the Braves had leapt out to a three games to one lead, the first time that such a lead had been foisted upon the Bombers since 1942…eleven World Series appearances ago. But the Yanks stayed alive in Game 5 thanks to a stellar pitching performance by Bob Turley, who scripted a complete game shutout.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Whitey Ford, starter in Game 6, didn’t get the memo. He struck out the leadoff man in the 2nd, but then surrendered three singles in a row followed by a walk, prompting manager Casey Stengel to yank him. With Ford done for the game, the Yankees relied on relatively unknown journeymen relievers Art Ditmar and Ryne Duren to span the gap against Spahn. They did.

Spahn finished his warm-ups. He’d have to face Hank Bauer, owner of that solo homer, and Mickey Mantle, owner of 42 homers, in the 10th. But, first, Gil McDougald, Yankees middle infielder for all of the 1950’s, stepped to the plate.

He launched a deep fly ball to left field that gave the Yankees the lead. They would go on to score another, taking a two-run lead into the bottom of the 10th. Plan B for Haney and the Braves.

It wasn’t enough. Mathews struck out. Aaron managed a base hit to left that scored a run. But the previous game’s hero, Bob Turley, entered the game to shut it down and got Frank Torre (Joe’s brother) for the final out. Yankees win. The Yankees win.

They faced a daunting task that postseason having to overcome a 3-1 deficit, but fought back to force a Game 7. Tonight, the Yankees face a similar Game 6 test in the American League Championship Series. With the season on the line for a second game in a row, Joe Girardi will hand the ball to a solid Phil Hughes, proud owner of 18 victories this season. It could be a lot worse. If they make it to Game 7, and Cliff Lee, it will be. But they can take a cue from the ’58 Yanks and their victory over Warren Spahn.

P.S. The Yankees won Game 7, and the World Series – their 18th. After Don Larsen left the game in the 3rd inning, Bob Turley would again answer the call. With the game tied 2-2 in the 8th, the Yankees would score four.  Turley would still be on the mound for the final out.

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Mazeroski, The Moment and The Man

[by Vincent Getz, New York]

JUST A WEEK IN, already the 2010 post-season has delivered two forever-memorable moments. The nearly incomparable, downright astonishing, no-hitter thrown by the Phillies’ Roy Halladay last Wednesday and the 11th-inning game-winning home run by the Braves’ Rick Ankiel Friday night will surely go down in baseball history, both players and their playoff moments forever etched in the game’s lore. Scattered whispers of “Hall of Fame” have now grown in volume for Halladay, a dominant pitcher of his era, 20-game winner three times, 7-time all-star, and Cy Young recipient. For now, his Divisional Series gem will only be compared to New York Yankee Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game. For Ankiel, a fan favorite perhaps known best for converting from a pitcher to outfielder in the middle of his career, and who sports a .248 lifetime average, the accolades are not as aggrandizing, but there will be a discussion nonetheless – where to place his home run somewhere on the list of all-time homers.

Fifty years ago today, though, a singular moment in 141 years of professional baseball and 105 World Series occurred that tops that list. On October 13th, 1960, what many claim to be the greatest home run ever hit sailed over Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field’s left field fence off the bat of 24-year old Bill Mazeroski, instantly granting the Pirates their first championship since 1925, and Mazeroski, eternal fame. Long before the term “walk-off” was coined, this ultimate walk-off hit ended the baseball season.

It’s not the only time a walk-off hit has ended the World Series, though. Nine times the Series has ended in the home team’s last inning, the last time nine years ago – a single off the bat of Arizona Diamondback Luis Gonzalez that buried the New York Yankees in 2001. The first was in 1924, when Earl McNeely’s bad-hop single in the bottom of the 12th won it for the Washington Senators over the New York Giants. In 1993, with the Toronto Blue Jays trailing the Philadelphia Phillies 6-5 in Game 6, Joe Carter captured the title with one come-from-behind swing of the bat, a 3-run dinger – the only other time a final at-bat home run ended the World Series. But what makes Mazeroski’s homer different, and best of all, were the circumstances.

The world had been remade in the thirty-three years since the Pirates made their last appearance in the Fall Classic, in 1927, when they were quickly dispatched in four games by the Yankees, the most loved and reviled team in all of sports. The stage was set for a sequel. The Yankees dominated the American League in 1960 and entered the series heavily favored. They led the majors in wins, runs, homers, and RBI. Not one pitcher on their staff had more than nine losses. They had won two of the last four World Series and seven of the last eleven (and would go on to win in 1961 and 1962). They had perennial winners Mickey Mantle, AL MVP Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and manager Casey Stengel.

And they continued their offensive dominance into the series. Stunned by a Game 1 loss to the Pirates by the score of 6-4, they wrought vengeance in the next two games, winning 16-3 and 10-0. The pesky Pirates came back, though, and scratched out wins in Game 4 (a squeaker 3-2) and Game 5 (a more convincing 5-2). Frustrated, the Yanks slapped their way to a 12-0 rout in Game 6. Six games in, the Yanks had scored more than twice as many runs as the Bucs, 46 – 17, and tossed two shutouts along the way (both on the arm of Whitey Ford). For the 17th time, the World Series would enter a seventh game.

The Pirates jumped out in front first, for only the second time in the Series, taking a 4-0 lead into the 5th inning. But the Yankees fought back, and on the backs of “Moose” Skowron and Berra homers, took a 7-4 lead into the bottom of the 8th, leaving the Pirates three runs down with six outs left in their season. They would only need three.

William Stanley Mazeroski – Bill, or “Maz” – was born September 5th, 1936 in the shadow of Pittsburgh in Wheeling, West Virginia, and began life in a one-room home that did not have electricity or plumbing. Early on he moved with his parents and sister to tiny Adena, Ohio (pop. 739 in 2009) where he played high school baseball and basketball in nearby Tiltonsville and was good enough to make the varsity squads his first year. His father, Lew, a hard-drinking coal-miner, also aspired to play in the majors, and had the skills, but a work accident that severed his foot ended his pro-ball career before it began. Hobbled and suffering from years in the mines, he transferred his dreams to an athletically-gifted and willing only son, often finding the time for practice. Out of high school, Bill signed with the Pirates and spent three seasons in the minor leagues as a middle infielder, working his way up to the big leagues. In 1956, the year of Larsen’s perfect game, he made his major league debut as the Pirates second baseman at the age of 19.

Mazeroski proved to be steady at the plate, providing what was sufficient production for a second baseman…nothing stellar, but expected, consistent numbers. In his first four full years (’57 – ’60), he posted averages from .241 to .283. In 1958, his third year in the majors, he knocked out 19 homers, the most in a 17-year playing career where he averaged 10 a year. Most of that time he batted eighth in the lineup, just in front of the pitcher, as he did on that fateful day, playing a role so many before had played and after him would, watching his championship hopes dissipate against those damn Yankees, never expecting that 50 years later he would continue to be celebrated and connected with one of the most hallowed events in baseball history. Having grounded into a double-play to end the bottom of the 7th, though, he looked on helplessly from the dugout as teammate Gino Cimoli stepped to the plate leading off the 8th, pinch-hitting for Pirate reliever Roy Face, with the season dwindling away.

Cimoli singled. Then, Bill Virdon hit a double-play ball, and destiny’s hand first interfered. The ball took a bad hop and plunked into Yankee shortstop, Tony Kubek’s throat. He would come out of the game and later head to the hospital. The Pirates had first and second, no one out, with NL MVP Dick Groat heading to the batter’s box. He singled, and the Bucs tasted blood, 7-5. Bob Skinner bunt sacrificed the two runners into scoring position, but Rocky Nelson failed to convert and flied out. Two outs. Speedy future Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente denied the Yanks a third, though, when he legged out a weak infield grounder that scored Virdon, making it 7-6. Catcher Hal Smith followed and blasted a three-run homer, giving the Pirates an improbable 9-7 comeback lead. The Pirates dugout and the stadium erupted. Now it was the Yankees who stared at defeat, heading into the last inning. Mazeroski, on deck for the final out in the 8th, dropped his bat, grabbed his glove and trotted out to the field with the rest of the team, thoughts of world champion streaming through his head.

Maz finished his career with a respectable 2,000+ hits, nearly 300 doubles, over 850 RBI, and batted a lifetime .260, but he was not known for power or hitting prowess. He was more comfortable in the field than at the plate, winning eight Gold Gloves in ten years and setting multiple fielding records that still stand today – including most double-plays turned in a season with 161 and most career double-plays with 1,706, leading the league eight times. He also led the league in assists nine times. When turning the double-play it was said that the ball never seemed to touch his glove. He is considered by many to be the best defensive second baseman ever. Ironically, it was his fielding that Mazeroski should have been known for. But then, the Yankees tied it up.

Bobby Richardson, later voted MVP of the Series – the only time the award has ever been awarded to a player on the losing team, led off the top half of the 9th with a single. Dale Long followed with another, and before the Yankees were retired, Mantle and Berra had pushed two runs across the plate, evening the score.

Mazeroski returned to the dugout, flung off his glove, grabbed a bat and donned his helmet, and stood off to the side, watching Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry warm-up on the mound. He stepped up to the plate. Ball one. Fans around the country had watched or listened to 1,232 regular season baseball games in 1960. Maz appeared in 151 of them and then played in all 7 World Series games. The season had gone the distance now, and there was only one pitch left, bottom of the 9th, Game 7…Yankees 9, Pirates 9. Number 9 dug in. Long Season. Long Series. Long Game. It was a slider that didn’t break or a fastball that missed its spot, depending on who you ask. Long Ball.

Mazeroski muscled it just over the head of a knowing Berra and the left field wall. The Pirates Win the World Series. As they say, pandemonium ensued, and as happened in more innocent times, fans stormed the field amidst the deafening roar of the crowd to accompany the jubilant, gliding, arms-waving, helmet-in-hand William Stanley Mazeroski…hero…around the bases towards home and the embraces of his fellow champions. It remains the only home run hit in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series to win it.

Later, Mazeroski, mostly a bottom of the order singles hitter, would acknowledge that as he prepared to face Terry, he was thinking home run. As he rounded the bases, though, his mind was blank. “What did I think? I was too excited and too thrilled to think. It was the greatest moment of my life.”1

Until 2001. By Veteran’s Committee selection, Mazeroski entered the Baseball Hall of Fame. Overcome with emotion, Bill could barely get the words out when he called his wife, Milene, to tell her the news. Humble as ever, when he accepted the honor at the induction ceremonies, he again managed to utter only a few words (highlighting the importance of recognizing defense as much as hitting and pitching) of a prepared lengthy speech before having to step down from the podium, overwhelmed. This was the man everyone knew…known for welling up at the accolades, grateful for the opportunity fate provided him, kindly turning down some celebratory engagements over the years for concern over seeming too proud. When he did come out he was always sure to give credit to his teammates, often inviting them on the stage with him.

Appropriately, outside PNC Park today, rubbing shoulders with bronze statues of Pirate – and baseball – legends Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell, stands one of Bill Mazeroski, “flying” around the bases, one foot barely on the ground, arms outstretched, and helmet held high overhead, on “Mazeroski Way,” celebrating the moment and the man.

1 Associated Press, Will Grimsley, 1960

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