Bronx, N.Y., July 19, 2009 — Forty-three ex-Yankee players took the field for the Old Timers Game in Yankee Stadium Sunday afternoon, and they were joined by the widows of four more. The stars played through three innings to a 5-2 win by the Clippers over the Bombers, and although routine fly balls fell for hits and grounders sneaked through the infield, there were a few flashes of the brilliance we’ve witnessed before. Present were most of the usual suspects, but I was thrilled to see reliable reliever Lindy McDaniel from my youth, and Charlie Hayes and Chad Curtis, who between them corralled the last outs of the 1996 and 1999 Championships. It was good, too, seeing Mike Mussina looking younger than all those around him, quite a change from the last few years, and the irascible Don Zimmer, whose presence on the Yankee bench was a comforting sight for so long.
It was particularly poignant for some long-time Yankee fans who received our baptism to this wonderful game in the Baseball Cathedral across 161st Street. Reveling in the highlights of yesteryear and the stars who brought them to us, it was hard not to question the wisdom of all the newness around us. But change is the word in 2009. It’s a new Stadium, this annual love fest was held on a new day (Sunday rather than the usual Saturday), and both the celebration and the game that followed were begun earlier than what we’ve become accustomed to. But happy with all the changes or not, it was special to see by the end of the day that great Yankee Baseball is still around.
It was hard not to wonder if Joba Chamberlain would be able to shake his recent troubles. For some time this season he pitched effectively, but was driven from games early by growing pitch counts. Worse still, lately he has proved uncharacteristically hittable. Stacked against hard-throwing All Star Edwin Jackson, it looked to be more of the same when Chamberlain walked Placido Polanco with one down in the first, and promptly surrendered a single to Miguel Cabrera. He got out of it, but in 23 pitches, and walked Tigers hitters leading off both the second and third innings. But just as the frustration from the big crowd became palpable, Joba turned it around.
Ball four to Curtis Granderson was Joba’s 41st pitch, 20 strikes, 21 off the plate. Polanco received no such spread. Joba followed with nine of 11 pitches for strikes, retiring the side on a popup, strike out and grounder to the box. And the fact that Granderson was dancing down the third baseline after reaching there on a stolen base and bad throw didn’t faze him in the least. The strikes/balls ratio following the third free pass represented an astounding turnaround at 48/18. Even the booming home run young Clete Thomas drilled to the back of the right field bleachers for a 1-0 Detroit lead in the fourth did not deter Chamberlain from pounding strike after strike. He came back with a strike out and two grounders in 10 throws.
By the time he took the mound again, Alex Rodriguez had tied the score with a home run into the visiting bullpen in left field. Jackson had allowed nothing but a Mark Teixeira popup that fell for a double in the blinding sun of short left field and two walks to this point, but he walked the next two following A-Rod’s blast. But Robbie Cano bounced back to the mound. And Joba was in immediate trouble in the fifth. With one out Granderson hit a sinking liner to right that Nick Swisher charged, then pulled up, but it got through him for a triple. Joba went up 1-2 on Polanco with the infield in, but then hit him with a pitch. No problem. He popped Cabrera up to second and then struck out DH Marcus Thames swinging, each on 95 mph heat.
The walk that was to Granderson turned Joba around; ironically it was a walk that wasn’t that ruined the superb Jackson’s day. Yankee batters barely eked out two runs off the hard stuff Justin Verlander threw Saturday afternoon. They received no respite from former Tampa Ray Jackson. His first fast ball to Derek Jeter in the first inning came in at 91 mph, but he was routinely at 95 and 96 in the middle innings. He retired the side in order on seven pitches in the fifth, then raced to first and retired Brett Gardner on a grounder to Cabrera starting the sixth. Perhaps a bit winded, Edwin fell behind Teixeira 3-0, then broke one low and toward the outside corner that had Tex tossing his bat and waltzing to first … until Jeff Nelson called “Strike!” that is. Forced to resume his at bat, the Yankee first baseman promptly untied the game with a home run into the second deck in right. In hindsight, Jackson might have been just as happy had Nelson called “Ball Four” to Tex.
Chamberlain retired left fielder Josh Anderson on a grounder to second to finish the sixth with his 98th pitch. He struck out the first two that inning, then did the same in the top of the seventh, giving him eight on the day. His walks stayed at three, he allowed three hits, and just the one run, and Joe Girardi replaced him with southpaw Phil Coke to face the pesky Granderson. Curtis lined the next pitch softly to short. There was no quit in Jackson though, and he withstood the remaining challenges the Yanks sent his way. Following the Tex homer, A-Rod singled off the wall in right and Jorge Posada rifled a double into the right field corner, but Cano lined out to short. Jackson threw 25 pitches that inning, then 23 in the seventh around a Swisher hit by pitch and walk to Gardner, but Tex lined out to left on Jackson’s 117th pitch. Phil Hughes came on for the eighth and, following a one-out Cabrera single, he struck out Thames and Thomas swinging. Brandon Lyon retired the Yanks, and then Mariano Rivera came out for his 26th save, which he got around a rare walk to catcher Gerald Laird.
So the Yanks faced two of the best hard throwers in the American League on back-to-back days. They didn’t bash them, but they beat them, both 2-1, and got the starting pitching they needed to do so. And after reading and hearing about Verlander’s unhappiness with the home run to the short porch that beat him (funny, he forgets the three straight hits afterward that had him down by two when he left), it was gratifying that both Yankee home runs Sunday were shots (though not nearly as prodigious as Thomas’s shot for the lone Detroit score). But I can understand Verlander’s sour grapes. After all, July 19 is sort of a bitter anniversary for me. On this day in 1975, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson (much regaled today) had his single nullified (in a 2-1 loss!) because his bat had too much pine tar on it, a rule that made sense then apparently, but not eight years later almost to the day when the call helped the Yanks.
But I digress. It was a gorgeous day in the Bronx, 80 degrees and sunny with nary a cloud in the sky. The Old Timers, and their old (and young) fans, delighted in their return, even if it was across the street. The Yanks won the game because their third and fourth place batters each had two hits, and each blasted a long home run against a hard thrower on top of his game. Polanco twice made diving stops at second that quickly became 4-6-3 double plays. Joba made a fun play on a Santiago comebacker in the fifth that goes in the scorecard as a 1-3, but could really be a 1-1-3, because it popped high out of his glove and he snagged it a second time, then threw to first. A-Rod went a long way in nabbing Anderson on a slow roller toward short in the fourth, pegging to Teixeira just in time. Alex’s drive carried well. July 19, 2009 would have been the 195th birthday of Sam Colt, inventor of the revolver, which comes to mind thinking about what the Scoreboard displayed after Teixeira smacked what was the game-deciding home run: “Nice shootin’, Tex!”
The Yanks began the second half in pretty good shape, the three-game sweep in Anaheim to end the first notwithstanding. They were tied for first place a week ago Thursday before falling three games back, but they’re only one behind Boston now. More important, though, with Chien-Ming Wang on the DL and Phil Hughes dominating in the pen, they finally got another quality outing from young Chamberlain. The arguments about whether he should start or relieve have dissipated of late, and some have already begun talking trade or return to the minors for him. He’s been an enigma, no question. At least until today. Perhaps that third walk to the first 10 Tigers batters was,
A Walk Too Far