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Mariano’s Moment

(Photo by the great Bob Leverone)

(Photo by the great Bob Leverone)

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the New York Yankees have produced the best players in baseball through the decades and the All-Star game sendoff last night for retiring closer, Mariano Rivera, produced one of the single, most iconic moments in the history of the sport.

When the best reliever to ever play the game was brought in to pitch the 8th inning he did not know there was a conspiracy afoot. The players on the American League squad had worked it all out. With the exception of the catcher, they would not take their places in the field until after the standing ovation from the New York crowd. And so the Panamanian-born Rivera stood alone, by himself, on the pitcher’s mound, his eyes welling up with tears. His fellow All-Stars from both leagues lined up in front of their dugouts, applauding.

As he was showered with love and respect from the players and fans and umpires, Rivera, as he has throughout his career, epitomized dignity and grace. And sheer talent. You don’t see too many 43 year-olds playing this game. But this is no ordinary player. He wasn’t selected for the All-Star game for the sentimental value. He got selected because he’s still earning it. He has an ERA under 2.00. He has 30 saves. He is a living legend and we are all fortunate to have seen such a talent sometime in our lives.

I am old enough to have seen Mickey Mantle, but at the time he was just a shadow of what he’d been. It was maybe five years ago when my friend from ABC News, Jeff Fitzgerald, invited me to a Yankee game back when I was living in the Big Apple. I distinctly remember Mariano coming into the game in the 9th for the save and Jeff saying, “You know, that’s the greatest closer of all time.” And everyone has known it for damn near two decades now.

So just for the record:

– 638 saves, already a major league record with about 20 more to go for the season at his current rate.

– A win/loss record of 77-60 and a career earned run average of 2.20.

– 13 All-Star games

– 5 World Series rings

– 1 World Series MVP award

– 1 ALCS MVP award

– 3-time League leader in saves

Not goodbye quite yet, Mr. Rivera, but that was one magic moment last night. Baseball fans from every nook and corner of the world, no matter what team they root for, will always remember him for his skill, that unhittable cut fastball and for being one of the class acts in the history of the game.

I Love Stealing Players from the Yankees

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Nats-Yankees

I’ll admit to being an intermittent Yankee fan through the years. It’s what happens when your own hometown doesn’t have a baseball team for over three decades. But now that we have this very cool ball club called the Washington Nationals, it was outrageously wonderful to learn yesterday that we had stolen last year’s closer for the Bronx Bombers.

That’s right, Rafael Soriano, the guy who stepped up for the great and injured Mariano Rivera last season is now going to be wearing a curly W on his hat. Analysts have been writing that the Nationals sent a statement by agreeing to pay so much money for the best free agent relief pitcher on the market. The statement being, basically, “Screw All of You.”

See, the traditional baseball world made up of general managers, managers, owners and ornery old scouts who still spit tobacco products- doesn’t like the Washington ball club very much. They think we were crazy to sit Stephen Strasburg just to protect the young kid’s arm a year after Tommy John surgery. They see arrogance in Washington GM, Mike Rizzo’s approach because shutting down your star pitcher implies you’re keeping him healthy for all the future division titles, playoffs and World Series wins you’re going to be piling up.

Many in the traditional baseball world are also just plain crazy jealous. In Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nats lucked into two of the most remarkable players to come down the pike in about 20 years. The baseball establishment liked the Nats better when they were a doormat; a sorry little team from a rich but fickle market that used to have to pay a King’s ransom for any marquis talent (see Jason Werth).

But after a 98-win season and the realization that 87-year-old Nationals owner Ted Lerner is, in fact, one of the richest men in the world and certainly the wealthiest owner in the sport, suddenly old DC doesn’t looks so bad as a destination for premier talent.

But the fun part about stealing a Yankee is that back in our old insecure days, that’s what we beleaguered Washington fans thought was surely going to be the fate for our diamonds in the rough. That sometime in 2016 or 2017, Bryce Harper was going to be wearing pin stripes instead of the curly W- that it would be just a matter of time before Stephen Strasburg would someday be the opening day pitcher for the Yankees.

And now we have the Yankee closer- a decision that no doubt was actually made shortly after a chilly October night at Nationals Park when young relief ace, Drew Storen, picked the worst possible moment in the world to collapse. Blowing a six run lead in the deciding game of a playoff series is something you remember. And vow to never repeat.

Drew will get his chances in 2013, but it will be the Yankee closer, the 33-year old veteran Rafael Soriano who will be shutting the door on most nights. Young Drew will learn. But right now, it’s time for the formerly forlorn Nationals to rule the baseball world. And to their detractors: here’s a little tobacco juice in your eye.

Aw-His First Ejection: Bryce Harper and the Art of Emotional Containment

The Kid’s an adventure, alright.  Two homers and an ejection on the same night indicate there’s a still a bit to go on the emotional IQ front.   But let’s not forget, he also almost single-handedly lifted the Nationals out of a scary 5-game losing streak that had pretty much all of Washington wondering if this magical season had just been a cruel mirage.

His first homer last night put the Nats on the board for the first time in 13 innings.  And if that weren’t enough, he hit his 2nd homerun ridiculously further- way into the top deck in right field at the cavernous ball park in Miami, the longest shot this season in the Marlin’s new stadium.  He also made at least two beautiful defensive plays and, at a key moment, with the Marlins rallying with men on 2nd and 3rd and less than two-out, threw a laser to home plate to keep Florida from scoring.

He also dropped a ball that hit his mitt early in the game and later got himself ejected in the 9th  when he hit into a double play and, frustrated with himself, tossed his helmet rather violently on the ground, just a little too close to the 1st base umpire.

On the emotional front, in addition to last night’s ejection, Bryce so far this season has:

–         Smashed a bat in the hallway off the dugout early in the season, causing a laceration dangerously close to his left eye and taking the field with blood dripping down his cheek.

–         Smashed a bat at home plate after a strike-out, so hard that it broke up into a hundred little splinters for which he later apologized to both the opposing team’s catcher and the ump.

–         Repeated the scene a few weeks later, sending bat shards flying into the infield.

–         Was replaced in an innocent double-switch situation this week and according to manager, Davey Johnson, busted up several batting helmets.

Davey points out Bryce is a “100 percenter,” but that he just can’t keep acting like this.  Following the ejection, Harper’s response was an instant classic:

I just need to stop getting [angry] and just live with it and there’s nothing you can change. I just need to grow up in that mentality a little bit. Try not to bash stuff in and things like that I’ve always done my whole life and those need to change.

Yes, a moratorium on “bashing stuff in” would probably be appropriate.

He is, you know, a teenager.  But a damn good one.  Only Ken Griffey Jr., Mel Ott and Tony Conigliaro have ever hit more homers in the majors under the age of 20.  And we haven’t hit September yet.

To my eye, Bryce is like a big ‘ol Great Dane puppy, romping around, smashing baseballs, bats, helmets, careening into walls.  At least he doesn’t chew on electrical cords.

In a sport where failure happens about 70% of the time, he might want to chill just a tiny little bit.  It’s a pretty tough sport for a perfectionist.

The Magic Season that Took Off Like a Rocket

(Photo courtesy of WTOP.com)

It seems like ages ago in another universe.  Remember the “Take Back the Park” promotion way back in early May?

Back then, the Washington Nationals were worried about supporters of other teams outnumbering the home fans.  The mighty Philadelphia Phillies were coming into town for their first series of the year with Washington’s promising young team.  Heh.

Today, the Phillies are 20 games behind the Nationals, in 4th place in the NL East. Twenty.   Average attendance is over 30,000 and good tickets are getting increasingly difficult to get.  Television viewing is through the roof.

Remember how thrilled we all were when the Nats opened the year 14-4 and we went to TEN games over .500?  We were all whipping out our calculators.  “Let’s see, if the Nats go .500 from here on out, we probably get a wild card slot!”  Heh.

As of today we are 31 games over .500.  Thirty-one.

Then there was Throw-back Day at Nationals Park.  The players were dressed nattily in the cool white uniforms of the 1924 Washington Senators, the last team from the nation’s capital to win a World Series.  Inspirational videos played on the big screen of that magical season from long ago when a pebble altered the direction of a baseball and gave the Senators a World Series victory over the New York Giants, the predecessors of the San Francisco club that was in town for that nostalgic promotion last July.

The Nationals won that day in a heroic come from behind effort in the 8th and 9th innings built largely against a pitcher who previously in the season, had thrown a perfect game.  We ended up sweeping the Giants in that series last month and went on to take two out of three from them on their turf later in August.

Been to the stadium lately?  It is a raucous, noisy, nightly spectacle.  At last night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, every one of Stephen Strasburg’s ten strike-outs was cheered like it was the final out.

These days, the handful of visiting team jerseys in the stands are as sparse as a land mass in the Pacific Ocean.  Not only do they no longer inspire wrath of any kind, they, instead, elicit a certain amount of sympathy.  Oh, you poor dears.  We welcome you to the Lion’s Den.  Please, enjoy another beverage.

Nats mania knows no bounds. Why just last weekend while attending a friend’s annual summer party in distant Rappahannock County at an otherwise lovely home that didn’t happen to get MASN on Direct TV, I distinctly recall three of us climbing into a parked car, desperately seeking out the latest score, huddled like lonely baseball refugees, hungry for any tidbit of the game that could make it through the static of the radio signal.

Yes, the team and its fans have gone through quite a metamorphosis this season.  Akin to the launch of a Saturn rocket; slow at first and then gaining speed, altitude and momentum.  We are now sky-high.

But it’s not September yet.  There are about 40 games left in the regular season.  There is much work and more cheering yet to go.  Strap in, fellow travelers.  There is a still-to-be-determined ride ahead of us yet.

The Strasburg Shutdown: Ultimately a Moral Decision

We live in a disposable culture, and for once, there is a sports franchise, smart enough and moral enough to say that no matter the stakes- a young man’s health trumps even a potential World Series trophy.

The Washington Nationals will not risk sacrificing their once-a-generation talent on the altar of immediate gratification.  And those calling the team “pathetic” and “disgraceful” reveal a win-now-at-any-cost mentality that for years has left a trail of broken arms and broken dreams.

Nationals fans, by the way, have been accepting of the team’s position from the get-go.  They saw how the team shut down Jordan Zimmermann last year, his first after returning from the same surgery as Strasburg, and they see how the young man is now a legitimate contender for a Cy Young award.   Local surveys find National’s fans have few qualms about this approach. All the critics so outraged on our behalf, please spare us.

Stats and Real Life Cases

It is true that there has never been a study of the careers of 24 year-old, 1st round draft picks and how they perform in the first year following Tommy John elbow surgery.  Forget the surgery.  There’s plenty of data about pitchers between the ages of 21 and 24 who have not undergone such surgery that shows the more they pitch, the more likely they are to blow out their arms or never return to their original form.  See what the Chicago Cubs did to the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

Leo Mazzone, the former Atlanta Braves pitching coach who calls the National’s organization “pathetic” for wanting to shut down Strasburg, has nothing to be proud of in regard to how he overused a 21-year old pitching sensation named Steve Avery. To the point that by the time he got into his mid 20’s, Avery was a shadow of his former self and would never return to his early form.

It’s About the Long Haul

The way sports teams are built now, especially in baseball, there is precious little thought given to the construction of a franchise that can win consistently over a decade or more.  For most General Managers, it’s a piece-meal approach accentuated by headline-grabbing trades in the Winter and desperation gambles at the end of July.

This is not how the Washington Nationals have been constructed.  They have a nucleus of largely home-grown young players who are under contract and will play together everyday for most of the next ten years.  Their unexpected rise to the top of their sport this year is testimony to the sheer talent that has been assembled the old fashioned way; through wise scouting and careful draft selections.

The critics who whine that this could be the Nationals last shot at a World Series don’t have a clue what they are talking about.  Everyone knows the baseball playoffs are an utter crap shoot, anyway.  But this is a team that is built to last and young Stephen Strasburg is the lynch pin of a starting rotation that could well dominate hitters year after year.  I would wager a considerable sum this is not Washington’s only playoff appearance of the decade (and, of course, they’ve clinched nothing yet so it’s premature to assume just about anything).

It’s also good business to shut down Strasburg.  How many future Strasburg’s out there will ever forget how this team treated, respected and treasured the health of their young star?  Next time Nat’s General Manager, Mike Rizzo, sits down at a kitchen table with the father of a young man he wants to draft for the club, those won’t be empty promises he’ll be giving about protecting the health and career of his son.  It will be a fact guided by history.

Strasburg’s “Devastated” Teammates

But what about the poor players who expect management to field the strongest possible team for any drive to a world title?  Well, first of all, the Washington Nationals are much, much more than Stephen Strasburg.  Eliminating all of his stats, Washington’s pitching staff would still have the best ERA in the game.

Secondly, the Nationals have overcome the absences of other players important to the franchise, including Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Jason Werth, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos.  This has always been a team bigger than any of its individual parts.

I also believe the players will take the Strasburg shutdown as a challenge and will be highly motivated to rise to the occasion.   He will certainly be in their hearts and minds and I would not be at all surprised to see them dedicate their playoff drive to the young and absent pitching sensation.

We’ll Never Know Who Was Right

As there will be no real way to tell if the team was right or wrong about the Strasburg shutdown, there are a few ways the Nationals can have the last laugh here.  They need to win the World Series this year without him.  And then they will have to win one with him.

How’s that for a lofty set of goals?

It would well be worth it- not only for the sake of Washington’s historically beleaguered franchise, but also for the rich comfort of being able to tell all those ESPN blowhards and pitching coaches who have disposed and ruined so many young arms in the past, that they were wrong.  Wrong on the facts.  Wrong on the morality and the ethics.  And wrong about the humanity and the business of baseball.

Washington Nationals- The Real Deal

Washington Nationals Manager, Davey Johnson

In the span of a single week the Washington Nationals have gone from humiliation to redemption to dominance.

The Precipice

Just last Friday, they had their ace on the mound and a 9-0 lead. And then it unraveled historically. They ended up suffering the most gut-wrenching loss in franchise history, blowing the lead and then a 10th inning comeback to the Atlanta Braves in a defeat so stinging and surreal it left usually talkative Nat’s skipper, Davey Johnson, a stammering, shaken man in his post-game press conference.

What would have been a 4 and half game lead against the 2nd place Braves, was suddenly and shockingly reduced to 2 and a half.  How does a team recover from such a humiliation before the home fans in the opening game of what was billed the most important series of the season to date?

They didn’t. In the first game of a doubleheader the next day, they were shut out 4-0.  Lead down to a game and a half.  The wheels had come off.  It had all been an illusion.

The Nats looked like just another 1st half Cinderella.  It seemed they were on the verge of a collapse like the 1995 team that entered the all-star break in first place and promptly went into a 2nd half swoon that left them in their usual position- last place.

Nats nation was stunned.  On the mound as their last defense against the abyss was their 6th starter, John Lannan, a two-time opening day pitcher who found himself rudely relegated to the minor leagues at the start of the season but brought up on this day thanks to baseball’s new rule allowing a team to carry an extra player for doubleheaders.

And the gloom only deepened as he and the Nats quickly fell behind the Braves 2-0 in the very first inning of the night cap.

Redemption

And then something changed.  Inalterably.  And maybe forever.  The discarded Lannan found his rhythm.  The Braves would not score again that night.  The Nats hitters, listless through four innings, finally broke through, gifted by the fickle Baseball Gods.  A wild pitch scored a run and they were on the board.  In the 6th, a ground ball out scored another, game tied 2-2.

In the 7th, a 4th-string catcher, Sandy Leon hit a grounder to first and the Baseball Gods smiled again.  The ball hit the bag and magically turned into a single.  A two-out single would give the Nats a 3-2 lead.

They would go on tack on two more runs.  The nightmare had ended.  Lannan was sent back to the minors the next day, now likely to return for the stretch run when NL strike-out leader, Stephen Strasburg, is shut down for the season.

On to Sunday, when a Nats victory would result in a series split and a remarkable redemption from the historic Friday night debacle.  And so they won 9-2 on the shoulders of 3rd baseman, Ryan Zimmerman’s two home runs.

It All Comes Together

They have since been unstoppable.  Bryce Harper, with the big-stage glittering before the teenager’s eyes,  homered in his first at-bat ever in New York City and the Nats would go on to sweep an unraveling Mets team in three straight.

And the dominance continued Thursday night with an 8-2 win in the opening of a 4-game series in Milwaukee.

Since the nightmare a week ago today, they’ve responded with 6 wins in 7 games.  They’ve won 6 in a row.  They are the first Washington team to go 20 games over .500 since 1945.  They are tied with the New York Yankees with the best record in baseball.

After the victory over the Brewers, Davey Johnson was asked what he thought about reaching so many milestones and he answered not with bravado or hubris.  He responded that there was still a lot of work to do and then, with a steely determination, “We haven’t done nothin’.”

Except rising from the ashes to become, at least for now, the best team in the sport. 

The Future

Baseball’s trading deadline is next Tuesday.   It’s usually the time of year pennant contenders seek the final piece of the puzzle  that will put them over the top.   There is no urgency in Washington.  Let other teams give up their young minor league talent for 2-month rental all-stars.   The Nats have the depth, the talent, the humility, the leadership and most of all- the chemistry and work ethic that makes any new, splashy additions to this team thoroughly and completely unnecessary.  

Earlier in the season, the Washington Nationals were a curiousity and a new-fangled sensation.  They managed to overcome one injury after another to key players.  In Strasburg and Harper they had youthful, potential hall-of-famers.  No one ever doubted their pitching; it’s been the best in the game since Day One.  But in those days, they had an anemic offense.  

Now- there is no team in the sport that has scored more runs in the month of July.  The pitching remains suffocating.  Their manager pushes, cajoles, compliments and motivates his players.   They have weathered injuries and responded to things like the worst blown lead in the history of the franchise a mere week ago- in a resounding manner.   They have answered every challenge thrown their way.  They are not wilting, they are still gathering strength.

This is not a good team.  This is a great team.  One for the ages.  A dynasty is being born before our very eyes.

Welcome to the Nats Bandwagon!

It’s just a baby bandwagon right now, but we’re building a much bigger one.

Young, fresh and amazing, the Washington Nationals are now recognized as being the real deal.  And they are getting admiration from some unusual places.  And not just because of media hype.  They are the 2nd best team in all of baseball.

First off, I’ve posted twice on the Nats in the last few weeks.  One of these was a statistical analysis comparing Bryce Harper’s rookie season projected from his first 100 at-bats, to the first full seasons of 15 hall-of-famers.  It was a gushing, almost sickeningly enthusiastic piece that naively compared the kid favorably to some of the greatest names in the history of the sport.  Since that was published, Harper’s only gotten better- hitting for better average and showing more power.

Then last Saturday, I posted about the remarkable performances by both Harper and Stephen Strasburg in the first of a three-game series at fabled Fenway Park.  It was yet another love poem to the Nats, quoting from some of the best baseball writers in the nation.  And the Nats  have only gotten better.  In fact, they haven’t lost since.  They swept Boston then went on to sweep the Toronto Blue Jays, their first 6-0 road stretch since baseball returned to Washington in 2005.

So now, on the eve of a three-game series against the New York Yankees, I know this good fortune cannot continue.  Both the Yanks and the Nats enter this series on 6-game win streaks.  Somebody has got to lose.  It’s youth against grizzled veterans.  It’s baseball’s most storied team against the sport’s perennial losers.  It’s the past against the future.  I have a feeling the Yanks are going to take at least two out of three.

I might add I also thought the Nats would get swept in Boston.

————————————-

And now to the converts.  Wasn’t it just last April that the Nats made such a big deal about the Philadelphia Phillies coming to town?  The great “Take Back the Park” promotion?   The defending NL East champs?  As of this morning, the Phillies are 10 games behind the Nationals.

And there is this.  It’s from a Philadelphia sports blog and you’d think that with a headline like Nationals Aren’t Going Anywhere– it might be a column about the team’s impending collapse.

You would be wrong.  Here are some of the more amazing excerpts:

 The Nationals, of course, are the Nationals. We are trained not to take them seriously.

My advice to Phillies fans is to start.

The only thing that can derail Washington now are injuries. In Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, they have two of the best players in baseball. From top to bottom, theirs is the best rotation in the league, with a strong bullpen and defense backing them. All together, there is just enough pop in their lineup to propel the club to 38 wins, the second-highest total in baseball.

What part of this equation do you envision falling apart? The Nationals have dealt with their share of adversity, like losing catcher Wilson Ramos for the year, or Jayson Werth for 60 days to a broken wrist. Still they are on top, their confidence building.

And they are only getting better, I’m afraid.    

Many of us watching this Nationals phenomena have been rooting for Washington for many years.  A lot of folks easily go back to baseball’s return to the nation’s capital in 2005.  Some, like me, date back to the 1960’s when as youngsters we cut our baseball teeth sitting in RFK stadium watching Frank Howard, Mike Epstein, Del Unser, Joe Coleman, Eddie Brinkman and Bernie Allen.  And there are those Washington fans who remember Griffith stadium, a place better known in baseball lore as the location of Mickey Mantle’s 565 foot homerun more than anything the Senators ever did there.

When you go back that long and see what’s happening now and watch the sudden hype in all the coverage from every corner of the media world…when you see curly W’s on the hats of hundreds of people—in Boston..when you read stuff like the post above from the Philly sports blog- there’s a tendency to say to yourself:  “Hey wait a doggone minute…I was there at the creation!  Everyone else is just a front runner!”

To my long-time and long-suffering Washington baseball buddies- resist that temptation, my friends. Welcome the converts to our fun and ever-expanding tent.  Open your arms wide for the refugees suddenly washing up on the shores of the Potomac.  Finally,Washington has something to offer the world besides debt and gridlock.  

Behold, world- in Strasburg and Harper and even with rookies you’ve never heard of like Lomdardozzi and Moore, there is the spirit and brashness of youth.  In Davey Johnson, there is the wisdom, good humor and steely determination of a lifetime in baseball winning World Series titles as a player and a manager.  In Mike Rizzo, you have the general manager who is suddenly now being recognized as the architect of one of the most interesting ball clubs in the history of the game.

Welcome one and all!  Hitch yourselves to the bandwagon but be prepared for a long, long ride through this season and into the next four or five.  Do not doubt.  Do not fear.  And for crying out loud, do not ask any Clown questions, bro’s.