September 2011

Terry Francona

As a peck of mainstream baseball guys report that Terry Francona will probably not return as manager of the Boston Red Sox – possibly by mutual consent – I can tell you that early in the week I was told by one source that it was a foregone conclusion. There was only the one indicator, so obviously I didn’t say anything, but I will note that all of the murmurs about people not being on the same page, and the Sox thinking Francona’s light touch with his players had somehow contributed to the September collapse, did not come out of thin air. I got to visit with my friend Tito over the weekend here in New York and while it was two friends talking and should remain that way, I have to say that all the stuff you’ve heard, he’d heard.

I think the Red Sox will regret the move. I’m wildly biased here – I think Francona’s got one of the great hearts in the game and he has never been anything less than amazingly kind to me and my family (as outlined below) – but there is the small detail that he remains the only manager to guide the inevitably flawed Boston team through the inevitably land-mined world of Boston sports media to a World’s Championship in the last 93 seasons (and twice). I don’t think he put together that pitching staff, I don’t think he made the fatal decision that Carl Crawford was a Pennant Race Pressure-ready player, and I don’t think he did anything but become a victim of his own success.

I’ve quoted the line so often that I think I owe its originator at least a flower basket. My former colleague at WCVB-TV in Boston, Clark Booth, told me 25 years ago that to understand the mindset of the Red Sox fan you must be very Calvinist, very bleak, very hopeless. “If the Red Sox win today,” Clark said, “it is only because losing tomorrow will hurt more.” Thus you heard actual adults in New England say that this month’s collapse was the worst thing they’d ever felt, which I guess is testament to the ability of Francona and his teams to wipe out the inherited memories of 1986 and 1978 and 1967 and 1946 and all the rest. In some respects, Tito’s a victim of that. Before him there had been no success – now there is evidently not enough of it.

This is a good place to tell a story from the 2008 All-Star Game. Early in the season we were cracking wise on the bench at the old Yankee Stadium when Tito suddenly observed that he was going to get to manage a game there from the home dugout. In fact, he would be the first Red Sox skipper ever to do so. “Tell me you’re going to come see me manage from the Yankee dugout!” I told him I would; that, in fact, I was going to bring my sister and my nephew down from upstate to see it. “How old is he?” I said he was going to be 10, and it would be his first major league game. “Remind me! I’ll do something special for him. Throw him a ball. Somethin’.”

Comes the day of the All-Star Game and the field is more packed with media than at any event I’ve ever attended. I couldn’t have found Francona with a GPS. No chance to remind him. What’s worse, my nephew has been told (not by me) that Uncle Keith had something special planned for him. Oops. The game, of course, dragged on into the 15th inning and until nearly 2:00 AM and my nephew and I were now in the front row behind Francona’s dugout, and with the indefatigability only a 10-year old can muster, he was still asking about that ‘something special.’ Finally it all ends, Uncle Keith is about to drop off the kid’s radar, and out of the dugout Francona bounds to do an interview, escorted by a friend of mine who was working for ESPN. I gesture to my pal to tell Tito just to wave or something.

Now, in the middle of the night, Terry Francona won me for life. As he starts to run back into the dugout my friend taps him on the shoulder, points to me, and makes the waving gesture. Instead of doing that, Tito runs over to us, doesn’t even look at me, and says, “You’re Keith’s nephew? You came down from upstate just for the game? I’m Terry Francona, I’m the manager of the Red Sox. Good game, huh? I hope you don’t mind, we heard you were coming so we did something special for you and played some extra innings. You ok with that?”

He managed that way, too. If he’s going, I think they’re going to miss him more than they know. I sure as hell will.

The last of three spring training games as Tito’s poorly-dressed amateur bench coach, Fort Myers, Florida, March, 2011.

The Bob Wolcott Of 2011?

You remember Bob Wolcott, right?

One of the seminal figures in modern Post-Season history. A key to an exciting playoff series, a dramatic interjection into the–

No, huh?

Bob Wolcott made six indifferent starts for the 1995 Seattle Mariners. In the exhausting first-ever American League Division Series against the Yankees, he watched from the bullpen, an utter afterthought in a brilliant competition that marked the end of Don Mattingly’s last hope to reach a World Series. He was the last man on the staff, happy to be in the playoffs without having to buy a ticket.

And then Lou Piniella decided to give his overtaxed staff an extra day, and start him in Game One of the A.L. Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. Frankly, nobody – least of all the Indians – knew what hit them. Wolcott pitched seven innings of eight-hit, five-K ball, gave up a homer to Albert Belle in the last frame, and left a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton hung on, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead over the favored Indians. Not that they did anything: the Mariners’ rotation of Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Chris Bosio, and Randy Johnson each lost a game and Wolcott never even got a second shot as a reliever. After a decent 1996 in the M’s rotation, he was dealt off, hurt his arm, went to college (Oregon State for mechanical engineering) and practices his craft in the northwest.

But the prospect of starting a mystery man against a team that had never seen him before – in the opening game of a playoff series – proved plausible. And in this case, Bob Wolcott was not the game’s top pitching prospect.

Matt Moore is. And Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay tonight decided to open him against the Texas Rangers in Game One of the ALDS. It is, to descend into the only appropriate vernacular, one of the ballsiest post-season managerial moves and Maddon will live or die by it – but why not? The other best option, Jeff Niemann, has been sharp lately after weeks of playing the role of the Rays’ Mr. Dynamite – the pitcher who gets into the box out in centerfield before the game and then gets blown up by the opposing team.

Moore has a shorter track record even than Bob Wolcott. He has just one Major League start, but in it, at Yankee Stadium, his heavy lefthanded fastball pulverized New York: eleven strikeouts and just four hits in five innings. He had come off a minor league season split between the Southern and International Leagues in which he finished just eight K’s short of leading all the minors in strikeouts – for the third consecutive season.

And not one Texas Ranger has ever crossed paths with him. Not in his brief stint in the majors, not in AAA, not in AA, nowhere. There is admittedly righthand power to be concerned with in the Texas lineup – Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre – but Moore only gave up eleven homers in 155 innings in the minors this year and if he just ties up Josh Hamilton, the Rangers could be stymied (ask last year’s Giants about that).

Remember what K-Rod did as a very, very late-season addition to the Angels’ roster in 2002? The Yankees had never seen him. The Twins had never seen him. The Giants had never seen him. Results? 18-2/3 post-season innings pitched, 28 strikeouts, and in eleven appearances: five wins and two holds – and Frankie Rodriguez wasn’t even the closer.

But Matt Moore is more than just a power pitcher. One of the most astute judges of pitchers I’ve ever known gushes about his composure, his tendency to greet trouble not with panic or fear but with anger, his ability to unintentionally elevate with the fastball so that the batter is eventually swinging at balls at his neck, and lastly a change-up that’s brilliant and that Moore is only beginning to understand the value of. “It has two-plane depth,” my guy explains. Two-plane depth, I ask, sweetly? “It moves through two planes: as in downward, and tailing to the left.”

Can you imagine what that does to a lefthanded hitter, especially one assuming a fastball at his letters? I’d retire immediately.

The advice to the Rangers from my eyewitness: “Swing at the first good heater you see.” The advice from him to Moore: “use the change-up… if I’m hunting fastballs— and the Rangers historically are— making them guess heater or change will set up the hammer, which is devastating.”

What exactly does Moore have to buy the Rays for this to work? A win – in Arlington – would be dandy. Six good innings – win or lose -in which they don’t have to run through the entire bullpen and they establish Moore as a new weapon in the arsenal that Texas might just have to face again in a Game Five, or Hamilton might have to face all by himself in any of the remaining games, would be a great second prize. Five innings that don’t devastate the bullpen is enough to keep Tampa alive until James Shields takes the mound in Game Two.

Maddon’s decision – and how many managers would have the cajones to do this – was enough to make me trash the prediction I made on the air tonight: a good, safe assumption that a gifted but no doubt exhausted Rays’ team could not hold a candle to the rested Rangers. I like this call on so many levels: I like Moore against them, I like Moore as a potential part of the rotation, I like Maddon saying to his team “we have a secret weapon.” Until tonight, the Rangers had been the beneficiary of the madness of the Wild Card race. Now they may have become its victim.

I also note my Matt Moore scout sums it up this way: “Matt is advanced and his stuff, though not pin-point, is better than (David) Price’s.”

I like Tampa in five, I like the Phillies possibly as quickly as three games (hats off to the Cardinals, but they are running on fumes here), and the Brewers, probably in five. And I particularly like the Tigers over the Yankees, quickly. Lost in the tumult of the Red Sox collapse and the Rays spectacular (you do realize that home run was Dan Johnson’s first major league hit since April 27th, right?) is the fact that after August 21st, the Yankees won just 20 of 37 games, and, after September 6th, the Yankees won 10 and lost 12. They didn’t win the American League East: the Red Sox fell past them like the meteor they keep telling us will some day crash to earth and kill us all (the usual caveat: if the Tigers or anybody else give the Yankees four outs an inning, the Yankees will win – they are vampires).

We’ll look at the Championship Series and the World Series after we see how Matt Moore does. But I gotta tell you: I also like those Brewers.

Dances With Betances As Opposed To Disco With Cisco

On September 28, 1930, with the New York Yankees firmly locked into third place and the Boston Red Sox even more firmly pinioned in last, the Yankees unveiled a surprise starter for their season finale in Boston.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Batting in his customary third position,  and having already hit his customary 48 homers, Ruth scattered 11 hits, struck out three of the scrub-riddled Boston line-up, and pitched a complete game victory (his first pitching win since 1921).  A crowd so otherwise disinterested that the attendance figure is lost to history presumably roared as Ruth harkened back to his days as the best left-hand pitcher in the American League. The Yankees and Ruth would repeat the stunt at Yankee Stadium three years later:  this time Ruth added a homer and surrendered 12 hits, hanging on for the 6-5 win that ended the season, long after the vagaries of the pennant race had assured that the only question was whether the Yanks would finish six, seven, or eight games out of first.

There is no comparison here to the latter-day Yanks starting rookie Dellin Betances tonight in Tampa with the Rays and Red Sox tied for the Wild Card. But it is one of the infelicities of the modern pennant race and the treating of pitchers as if they were Thoroughbred Race Horses that Joe Girardi – or any manager in his situation – must throw out a sacrificial lamb in this situation. Bartolo Colon started yesterday, Freddy Garcia has looked like crap, Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia are needed for the playoffs, and Phil Hughes had to miss a start earlier due to whatever Phil Hughes Syndrome he’s suffering from at the moment.

Who do you want Girardi to start? Babe Ruth?

In 1964 – in a far more complex four-team scramble to win the National League – as the Phillies collapsed they had to face, in the season’s last three games,  career 193-game winner Curt Simmons, then seasonal 17-game winner Jim O’Toole, and then Cincinnati fifth starter John Tsitouris, who could at least claim he’d won nine games that year. The Reds, challenging for the pennant, had to face Joe Gibbon of Pittsburgh, but then Chris Short and Jim Bunning of the Phillies. The eventual fourth-place Giants were stuck facing Dick Ellsworth, Bob Buhl, and Larry Jackson, who among them had won an astonishing 53 games for the deadbeat Cubs. But the last three games the Cardinals played saw them face the hapless (53-109) New York Mets – at home – and the star-studded rotation of Al Jackson (10 wins), Jack Fisher (10), and Galen Cisco (5). They shelled Fisher, but were promptly staved off by five innings of five-hit relief by rookie Tom Parsons, who was getting half his career wins that day (2-13 lifetime, though they would trade him for Jerry Grote).

On the last day of the insane 1964 NL season, the Giants were opposed by a 24-game winner (Jackson), the Reds had to go up against a future Hall of Famer who’d just thrown a perfect game early in the season (Bunning), and the Cardinals had to somehow overcome Galen Cisco.

Wanna see Galen Cisco’s line that day?

New York Mets   IP H  R  ER BB  SO 

Cisco L (6-19)        4  7   5    5     4      0

Galen Cisco lifetime? 25-56, 4.56 ERA.

Did you hear the Phillies bitching that the Cardinals got a soft opponent at the end? Even after St. Louis went on to win the World Series and the ’64 Phillies went on to eternal ignominy? Anybody even mention it when Cisco wound up as pitching coach…of the Phillies?

There is also something else to consider about Betances. Though we live in a time when fans are more aware of minor league prospects than ever before, last week the Rays drew weird looks when they gave Matt Moore his first big league start against New York. Moore merely struck out eleven in five innings. Betances is not quite the prospect Moore is, but he has superb motion on his fastball and is one of the top 20 or 25 pitching prospects in the minors and frankly the Yankees needed to see what he could do, eventually. Moreover, all I heard about yesterday was how, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek out, the Red Sox were “stuck” starting rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway in the penultimate game in Baltimore. All Lavarnway did was hit a three-run homer, a game-cinching solo homer, and then save the contest in the bottom of the 9th when Jonathan Papelbon froze on a squib in front of the plate and Lavarnway calmly threw the batter out at first.

Red Sox fans have every right to feel frustrated that their hopes of avoiding a play-in game hinge in part on a guy whose career consists of having gotten two outs while giving up two hits, four walks, and a hit batsman. But they have no right to complain nor claim the Yankees aren’t living up to some kind of sportsmanship standard. And ultimately – whose fault is it that the Sox are in this mess to begin with? Betances? The Babe?

 

Chicago, Chicago

Was it Mitch Williams on MLB Network who last night suggested that if Jerry Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams were smart they’d choose as Ozzie Guillen’s successor, former Cubs’ great (and jilted would-be Wrigley skipper) Ryne Sandberg?

It would be a brilliant stroke in terms of stealing some of the Cubby fan base, but it comes up against two realities. The Cubs themselves will probably be looking at Ryno again (and everybody else) this winter after the unhappy realization that Mike Quade is a great guy and a great baseball man but not a long-term Cub manager. Meanwhile, Sandberg – judging by his prominent in-dugout role in Spring Training and September – would appear to be Charlie Manuel’s heir apparent in Philly if he wants to wait that long.

He might. The Cubs have to be looking closely at the FenwayPocalypse – the tendency to panic in Boston is decades old and burns below the surface of recent success. It is just the kind of place to run either Tito Francona and/or Theo Epstein out of town and either or both to say ok. As the great Boston sportscaster Clark Booth told me 25 years ago, you have to remember that the fan mindset is simply this: if the Sox win today, it’s only because losing tomorrow will hurt MORE.

Lastly I’m not so confident about Ozzie Guillen in Miami. He is the perfect Marlins manager – for the fans. For an owner who found Joe Girardi too filter-free? Every night could be fireworks night in the new ballpark.

For MVP: Justin Verlander and Matt Kemp (No…Ryan Braun)

If you accept the premise that Felix Hernandez really was the American League Cy Young Award Winner in 2010, then the conundrum is solved as to who is the American League MVP in 2011.

The premise of a pitcher with a won-loss record of 13-12, who led his league in only one standard category, is that the Cy Young goes not to the most valuable pitcher, but to some kind of statistically “best” one. We can argue forever about whether that’s the way it should be (I don’t think so) or if, even accepting the premise, Hernandez really fulfilled the requirement (I also don’t think so). But the arguments are academic and the precedent is set.

Thus, whatever award can go to the “most valuable” pitcher it is not the Cy Young, and by process of elimination it necessarily must be the MVP. Before the Cy was established in 1956, this was an accepted premise that was applied for starters (Lefty Grove) as early as the first year of BBWAA voting in 1931, and for relievers (Jim Konstanty) as early as 1950. If you were a pitcher, and your team rode you to whatever success it achieved, you could be the MVP.

Seems to me that after the Hernandez victory it’s a little clearer, in fact. If the Cy Young can go to a guy whose only exposure to the pennant race was watching on MLB Tonight, then the guy in the middle of the thing has to get thrown into the MVP consideration.

And that’s Justin Verlander.

You can argue that Miguel Cabrera has had an excellent season, and Victor Martinez, too. Jose Valverde has shed his past unreliability to become a bullpen rock. But the Tigers are where they are because Verlander won 24 games. Period. The Tigers have one twenty-homer man (Cabrera), one 100-RBI man (Cabrera), one six-steal man (Austin Jackson, 22), one nine-hold guy (Joaquin Benoit), two .300 hitters (Cabrera and Martinez), and, until Doug Fister came along, they had one pitcher with an ERA under 4.30 (Verlander).

He’s a one-man team.

All of the other American League candidates are flawed. Bautista hit home runs but is going to finish around 12th in RBI. Granderson may lead the majors in Homers and RBI but his awful secret is that over the last 30 days he’s batted .215 and struck out once in every three at bats and is one of the primary reasons the Yankees should be considered decided underdogs in the ALDS. Gonzalez has had a spectacular year in Boston, but frankly, the Red Sox disaster owes to much more than the fact that their pitching staff is broken.

It’s a perfect storm in the American League voting: no clear position-player winner, and a good division winner carried from start to finish by a pitcher. Verlander should be the first starting pitcher chosen MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986 – but I’m not counting on it.

To me, the National League is a lot less clear. The argument for Matt Kemp, Triple Crown Winner, is inarguable. The problem becomes if he finishes third in batting, or “a few” homers or RBI away from something not done in the National League since 1937 and in either league since 1967 (and remember, even that year Carl Yastrzemski tied for the home run crown – I like to note that Frank Robinson was the last pure winner in 1966).

My argument to this point has been that one other statistic has made Kemp the MVP even if it’s just close on the Triple Crown. He has stolen 40 bases. Consider Jose Canseco’s MVP season in 1988: league-leading 42 homers and 124 RBI, plus he finished fourth with 40 steals. So far this looks a lot like what Kemp may end up with. Except Canseco hit just .309, to finish ninth. Kemp seems a lock to finish third or better in the 2011 NL Batting Race.

It’s a compelling argument, until you consider that Ryan Braun is leading that batting race, and is only five homers and ten RBI behind Kemp, and second to Kemp in runs scored, and will finish seventh or eighth in stolen bases – and all of it, in the crucible that is a pennant race.

If I had a vote – and they will give me one when hell freezes over – I would have to wait until Wednesday’s boxscores are in. A year ago Kemp was on the verge of ruining his career, and he’s done what he’s done in a near vacuum (although Andre Ethier wasn’t a bad foil in the batting order), and in the chaos of the nightmare season at Chavez Ravine. But, as much as I hate to say that the MVP should be decided in the last three days of the season, I’d really need Kemp to win the Triple Crown – or miss it by thismuch – to vote against the guy who put up parallel numbers in the heat of the race.

Oh? Cy Youngs? Anybody who doesn’t vote for Kershaw should be banned for life from major league ballparks. He’s going to win the pitching Triple Crown (K, ERA, Strikeouts) with no support. The American League is Verlander, has been for awhile.

But perhaps the most important thing the writers can do is convene a meeting this winter in which they specify eligibility and criteria for these awards so we don’t have to go through this every freaking year.

We Shall Not Forget (Provided You Pay)

For four years, MLB has exploited all the in-season holidays – Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day – plus on many occasions 9/11, by having all players wear special caps. Today, caps with an American flag patch stitched on the back, to the left of the inviolable MLB logo, were worn by all clubs and all players.

So, in New York, where in 2001 first the Mets and then the Yankees honored the fallen members of – and the heroic and selfless acts of – the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, New York EMS, Port Authority Police, New York Sanitation, and several others by wearing their caps during the games of the weeks after the attacks, Major League Baseball denied the Mets the opportunity to wear those caps again, just for tonight’s anniversary game, the only one being played within a thirty minute ride to the World Trade Center.

According to team Player Representative Josh Thole, the Mets players debated violating the dictum and wearing them anyway. Thole told reporters shortly thereafter that the league was adamant and it was a “no-go.” It is meaningful to realize that only three current Mets were even in the majors a decade ago: Miguel Batista, Willie Harris, and Jason Isringhausen. Evidently the Commissioner’s representative reminded them that the punishment – a heavy fine – would be meted out on ownership, not them (and for all we know, a major fine might cause this team to go out of business before noon tomorrow). For his part, David Wright wore a Police cap on the bench, but even he resisted the temptation to wear it on the field and incur the wrath of the Bean Counters in the Commissioner’s Office.

Those bloodless MLB individuals have been down this path before. Ten years ago, Bud Selig’s initially ruled the Mets and Yankees could not wear the caps during games. The Mets ignored the threat, and MLB decided to give them a pass for a game or two, and then the Mets kept wearing them, and MLB wisely backed off their nonsensical decision. Tonight’s ruling reminded everybody that at the moment of the nation’s greatest grief, MLB’s money-making instinct was unhindered by the blood and destruction and fear.

At least in 2001 the sport was smart enough to shut up. Not this year. MLB first blocked the Washington Nationals from wearing military caps in tribute after a disaster in Afghanistan last month. Then came this decision, complete with in the kind of stupidity that would make a megalomaniac proud: they blamed it on MLB Vice President Joe Torre, the native New Yorker who wore these caps at the end of the 2001 season. So if it hadn’t been shameful already, pinning it on Torre made it doubly shameful.

As an aside, I should note that I actually got a tweet from an idiot who wondered why I thought wearing the NYPD/NYFD/PAPD/EMS caps was somehow “patriotic.” It never crossed my mind. It has nothing to do with patriotism. 343 firefighters and paramedics died that day. 23 New York policemen did. And 47 from the Port Authority Police. This is about remembering them – and acknowledging what all those who survived did for this city and the wounds they still have. For me, as the grandson of a New York fireman, and the descendant of several others, and many NYPD and regional PD, this is something deeper than patriotism.

CitiField is, of course, ringed with commemorations and in particular the “We Shall Not Forget” logo placed in the ad right behind the batter’s box. And it has all been rendered utterly hollow because of the crassness of the decision about the NYPD/FD/EMS caps. If you still haven’t figured out why MLB is permitting this public relations disaster to happen; why Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t get on the phone and tell the Mets they could wear those caps right away and damn the consequences, the answer is to be found here.

In case you don’t want to follow the link, here’s your answer: this is available as of tonight directly from MLB for just $36.99.

I guess we should be happy it has an American flag, and that MLB just didn’t sell the space to the highest bidder.

Baseball And 9/11: Continuity, Not Healing

When the anniversary was a week and not a decade, baseball resumed, and as with everything else about the game, it began to cover itself both in glory and shamelessness. Even on this very day MLB is to some degree — apparent or not — selling its role as national healer in the wake of the nightmare here in New York.

It is an exaggeration to say baseball healed the country, or helped heal it – let alone the city. Any true healing has come through love, and friendship, and counseling, and faith, and heroism, and public service. After the World Series ended, the longest winter in the history of New York began, it wasn’t any shorter because games had resumed on September 18, 2001.

I’m being this brutal for a purpose. I have never been comfortable with baseball’s insistence that it provided this role of healing, especially because in fact it provided something more enduring and even useful.  This isn’t to single out the sport, or any sport: the then-Commissioner of the NFL Paul Tagliabue insisted he was postponing the games of September 16-17 out of respect for the victims, when he’d been told by the airlines and the FAA on a conference call that the resumption of air traffic would be so chaotic that no power on earth could guarantee him that all his teams could get to all their destinations (or back) on time.

There is no shame in not being “the healer” of 9/11. If you were healed by baseball, a) you probably weren’t in New York, and/or b) you probably weren’t that wounded. I came no closer to personal loss than having two college acquaintances lost in one of the buildings, and a professional friend on each of three of the four airplanes – and my experiences as a radio reporter covering the scene for the first 40 days – and baseball has been part of the fabric of my being since 1967, and I’m not yet “healed” from 9/11. A friend just sent me an mP3 of one of my stories today. It was the first time I had been able to gather the strength to listen to the piece since 2001.

Baseball didn’t “heal” any of us. What it did – far more importantly, I feel – is provide continuity at a time of total derangement from routine. Games outside the city provided Americans elsewhere to hold up “We Are All New Yorkers” signs – a spirit that quickly dissipated but which was of great value in the first week. Players, especially those of the Mets and Yankees, provided extraordinary public service in the days after the attacks and were of unique support to the first responders. It’s almost never stated but there were people who left New York, some forever. Not one of the athletes did – and it is imperative to remember that the assumption here was that we would be attacked again (as we were, though clearly separately, with the anthrax mailings).

There was great courage in this. And the same credit extends to the fans, at a time when public gatherings of 50,000 people in hard to control public venues like Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium seemed the easiest target for terrorism. We are talking about a time when a smoke bomb causing absolutely no damage could have started a stampede with untold consequences, and yet by the time of an interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium on September 23, the Mets and Braves drew a larger crowd at Shea.

As somebody who was at the first game back at Shea, and at all of the World Series games, and who had his press pass grabbed by a police captain who looked at it and me and said a little too excitedly “They could kill him, steal this, and get inside,” I thought that Sunday Mets’ attendance was a wonderful sign. People were picking up their lives and remembering to enjoy themselves again.

What baseball was providing was not healing but sameness. In saluting the victims, baseball and its players were not just reminding us how much had been lost, but also how much, much more remained. Baseball was essential not for magic curing powers, but because it is our primary link to whatever simpler or better or just younger days have gone before, and it can be our connection to those who have passed, and because of the unstated symbolism of our place in the crowd: our place as part of humanity. The crowd, in a way, is mankind.

But ultimately, in simple words requiring very little interpretation, baseball’s role after 9/11 – indeed its role after any tragedy, national or personal – was eloquently expressed on the morning of September 18. I had been downtown at the crack of dawn to cover the eerie reopening of Wall Street, and the juxtaposition of men and women in expensive suits, tracking through streets covered by this awful paste-like coating of debris from the Trade Center and the still-burning pyre, marching like prisoners past police and national guard with machine guns.

It had been a long, long morning and I was preparing to go home for awhile, when I was approached by a policeman who obviously knew me from my ESPN days. “This is something,” he said as we stared at the giant American flag hanging from the Stock Exchange, still occasionally obscured by gusts of smoke coming from the Ground Zero fire. I agreed with him. “But I’ve got one question for you.” I braced myself. “Do you think the Mets can do it? Can they come back and win the Division? They were really getting going till last week.”

I remember freezing for a moment and then giving him some poorly-devised and no doubt self-contradicting answer. Then I asked him how, given all he’d seen, given what he’d be seeing the rest of that day, and all the days and months to come – how it could possibly matter.

“It doesn’t, not really,” he admitted without hesitation. “But I’ll tell you what. All day today, all weekend, I’ve been thinking, ‘At 7 O’Clock on Tuesday night I can put up my feet and watch the Mets in Pittsburgh and pretend for a little while that none of this has happened. So, that way, it does matter.”

And that – not healing – was baseball’s gift and baseball’s role, and what baseball can rightfully claim as the part it played.

Banquo’s Closer

If you can look into the seeds of time,

And say which grain will grow and which will not,

Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear

Your favors nor your hate.

I’ve always liked that snippet from Banquo’s second speech in Act 1, Scene 3, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But as fans have gotten more and more aware of the minor leagues and player development, it’s become more and more applicable to baseball.

“Which grain will grow and which will not…”

Hmmm.

Here are some images from the 1992 Fleer ProCards set of the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the Florida State League. 20 seasons have come and gone since these kids were the future, and there were more opinions about them than each had seasons under his belt.

Do you remember this guy? Second-round pick in the 1990 draft, gaunt, rangy at 6’3″, 170, with the exotic birthplace of Rotterdam, Holland. The Yankees’ shortstop of the future (as viewed from 1992)…Robert Eenhoorn?It is literally true that he was a Yankee shortstop of the future. In fact, he was the shortstop on May 28, 1995, as the Yankees beat the A’s 4-1 in Oakland. Eenhoorn went 0-for-4, lowering his season performance to 0-for-7. The next game, in Seattle, the Yankees tried another young shortstop to fill in for the injured Tony Fernandez. Jeter somebody.

Remember this next guy?

I was at the Expansion Draft, the November after this card was made. The Yankees had just lost him to Florida, and I stepped into the hotel elevator to find General Manager Stick Michael, who looked like he’d just given blood – or was expecting that George Steinbrenner would make sure it was taken from it. He lasted longer than Eenhoorn (he did 202 homers and was on a World’s Championship team in Chicago) but given the baggage he seemed to proudly carry around (he was just arrested on family violence charges last week) it seems Michael’s anxieties were unfounded.

Everett and Eenhoorn were the Yanks’ top two picks in 1990, but this next guy was the star of stars in their system as of 1992 – the first overall pick in the 1991 draft. If you bought this set in 1992, you bought it to get this card:

What is sadder than this?

Brien Taylor was the real deal. I saw him pitch at New Britain, Connecticut. Not only have I never seen anybody throw harder, I’ve never seen anybody throw as effortlessly. His 100-MPH pitches seemed to be thrown about 5% harder than his warm-ups. You couldn’t see any of them from the stands. And then there was a brawl in a bar, and his brother was in trouble, and he went in to help him, and they tore his pitching arm to shreds.

And so the star-crossed 1992 Fort Lauderdale Yankees would mostly be a tale of woe (there’s also a card of Mike Figga – he’d hit a major league home run – and of Domingo Jean – he’d win a major league game). But, if you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak to me then.

There was also this skinny pitcher – he made Eenhoorn look robust – who’d struggled in Greensboro the year before (3-4, 5.45, 52 strikeouts to 40 walks) and he’s about to hit a milestone in a career that, frankly, dwarfed everybody else who was playing in the minor leagues when this card was made (and nearly everyone who was playing in the majors).

This grain would grow:

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