Bronx, N.Y., April 29, 2004 — If Tuesday night was a game only a baseball player’s mother could love, the gem played in the Bronx Thursday night was a superb example of the baseball playing art and sport, and one that riveted the attention of a pretty big crowd in the House That Ruth Built. Played on a gorgeous night in temps that cooled from the announced 71-degree start time, even the high-tech auxiliary scoreboards with the hard-to-track out of town scores added to the beauty of a spring evening that soothed the soul as it excited the emotions and stimulated the mind.
It featured good pitching, great pitching really. It had athletic plays in the field. Players hit balls that soared into the night, and managers manuevered fresh arms in and out to try to keep the not-to-be-denied offenses off the board. Yankee righty Kevin Brown and A’s soutpaw Barry Zito pitched with grace and skill, but both were tested early, both gave up first-inning homers, and both threw too many pitches in the opening frame to have much of a chance to finish things this night.
The crowd got into the game almost immediately, and began cheering Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter the moment he appeared from the dugout to lead off the bottom of the first, despite the quick 2-0 deficit on Eric Chavez’s two-run jack to right in the frame’s top half. And the 0-32 (to that point) Yankee leadoff man did not disappoint, lifting a no-doubt-about-it high drive to left-center on Zito’s first pitch that immediately cut Oakland’s lead in half. Jeter had just electrified the crowd moments before when he ended the A’s hopes in the first and Scott Hatteberg’s first at bat on an improbable backhand grab on a tracer that seemed clearly by him when it merged with his glove’s leather. “Smack!” Then “Boom!” He’s our hero again (though he always was).
Zito re-established himself by striking out Williams and Rodriguez (the first two of 10 K’s on the night), threatening to strike out the side, a feat he achieved twice this night. But he then issued his only two free passes (and the only two of the game by either side), so even though the only Scoreboard damage inflicted was over after one toss, it took him 26 to negotiate a third out. But although his control hurt him again in the third, it was the long ball that did Barry in. Alex Rodriguez tied things on a homer to left (on a 2-0 pitch) that just cleared outfielder Eric McMillon’s try for a catch, and Bernie Williams gave the Yanks a 3-2 lead with his first homer of the year in the fifth.
Kevin Brown’s first inning had cost him 23 pitches and two runs on a Kotsay single followed by Chavez’ blast, but he found a groove and retired the next 14 A’s batters, helped by four of his five punch-outs, a fine Giambi stab on Kotsay’s bid for another safety in the third, and a fabulous Gary Sheffield catch of Erubiel Durazo’s gapper leading off the fifth. So Miller’s two-out double down the left field line cost Kevin another four pitches, and not the tying run.
But Brown did not escape Oakland’s sixth-inning threat. Kotsay singled to right, moved up a grounder and scored on Jermaine Dye’s long double to left center well beyond Ruben Sierra’s try. Bernie Williams has a sore knee and was DH’d this night so Matsui played center with the hard-hitting Sierra playing left. But although I’m sure Matsui would have come closer to playing Dye’s ball, he probably wouldn’t have caught up with it either.
The Yankee offense has struggled, and they have been criticized as a team that relies too much on the long ball, a notion that was largely dispelled by the manner in which they won this series’s first two games. But this night they had three runs on three home runs by the first three batters in their lineup, and little else really.
Gary Sheffield is a guy expected to hit some long balls, but though he has contributed, he has but one homer. He treats a bat like a weapon and wields it with impressive force, but if his early season work is any indication, he succeeds as much as anything by the strange ways balls behave once he attacks them. Before he took strike three in the third, for instance, he slashed a foul that he pulled so much that it landed in the upper deck above the third base dugout. As a guy who has harvested three fouls in that location, I can tell you that righties don’t hit them there; lefties do. Sheffield had an important hit in Tuesday’s big rally on a ball that knuckled far enough from the second baseman that Gary reached safely. And leading off the sixth Thursday, he was at it again, dropping a ball in short center that landed, took a hop back, and just stopped. Matsui, the only multi-hit Yankee batter for the second time in this series, followed with a one-out, hit-and-run single (that made some strange moves of its own) past first that put runners at the corners with one down. But all seemed lost when Sierra stomped back to the dugout after taking strike three, and Miguel Cairo walked to the plate with that “number-nine-batter-in-the-order” tag. But Zito threw two off the plate, and Miguel threw his lot in with the three homer hitters in the order that followed him rather than with the strike out that had preceded this plate appearance. He blasted one to left for three runs, and the Yanks had a 6-3 lead.
The A’s came back gamely, starting a one-run seventh-inning uprising against Brown that Quantrill squashed and plating another on a McMillon double off Paul and two singles off Tom Gordon in the eighth. Gabe White got one out, Gordon another, and Rivera came on for a four-out save. Bubba Crosby excited the crowd by beating out a run-scoring single off Hatteberg that was scored a single in the home eighth, and the final 7-5 score was forged.
Watching this back-and-forth thriller from the upper deck was like being at some friends’ house with a great view and a really big couch. There was another fine fan’s one-handed barehand catch of a foul (with a beer in his left, though he did spill several drops) just to my left in the first, while a fan in Section 13 down the first base side got the night’s biggest “Boo!!!” when he flubbed a catch of Cairo’s foul in the second, only to have it hit a seat and carom right back at him. His ineffectual flail on the mulligan try did nothing but propel the ball into the expensive seats below.
With the lights in the ballpark and those beaming around the Bronx, mixed with traces of smoke rising both from cars and industrial activity, views of the sky around the Stadium at night generally reveal no object less bright than the moon, which was appearing in its half-moon phase this night. But Thursday this celestial beacon (and we fans watching from below) enjoyed some company, as we spied a dazzling view of the planet Jupiter tucked in just west and below the moon from our vantage point; the heavenly bodies appeared to approach quite close to one another just as the fast-paced game and the nine o’clock hour were coming to a close.
I think any fan would have enjoyed this game, but the home-team victory certainly upped my pleasure ante. It was heartening to see the Yanks win the first two games of this series getting small hits in bunches and moving runners, but the majestic shots into the charged night atmosphere were pretty cool too. Jeter homered and “touched ‘em all” after Oakland A’s third baseman Eric Chavez had jacked out a one-out dinger. A-Rod tattooed a 2-0 tater that just cleared; Bernie Williams’s bomb was a blast that had the loudspeaker intoning “Bern Baby Bern,” while some in the stands cried, “A-B-C-you later” when Miguel Cairo “took Zito D-O-W-N-T-O-W-N!!!” The first edition of Peter Roget’s Thesaurus was published 152 years ago on April 29, so the preceding descriptions, along with one postgame libation, go out in honor of his much-welcomed tome.
But no desciption of this game would be complete without another look at Yankee vets Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter. Williams hasn’t been healthy for a year at least, so although his struggles haven’t been as numerically startling as Jeter’s, one look at the uncharacteristic reactions he has been showing home-plate umpires calling unwanted strikes bespeaks volumes about his inner battle. But the biggest salute is in honor of the Yankee Captain, a guy who has refused to let his own struggles be the story, who has continued to play good “D” and to play a cheerleader to his dispirited teammates, who was the first to congratulate Matsui on his game-ending catch Wednesday night despite the fact that his own schneid had been extended to 0-for-32. He made a great and cunning play to turn two Wednesday night, and he snagged a bullet minutes before blasting the oh-fer from his shoulders on Thursday. I’ve heard fans nitpick his numbers for years, and seen him respond by winning and always coming up with the big play.
On April 29, 1967, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin released the song that may have been her biggest hit. I find the following paraphrase totally appropriate:
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That’s what Derek Jeter has earned from me.