Bronx, N.Y., Apr. 28 — It would be easy to be lulled into thinking that the current Yankee juggernaut is just going to go through the motions for the next five months, and then kick it into gear in time for the playoffs. Despite a sloppy get-out-of-Texas loss yesterday, the Yanks had their second great road trip of the season, winning eight out of 10 from the two teams that played in last year’s ALCS and the team that has on its roster perhaps the major league’s best player.
The Bombers are hitting home runs in bunches and hitting for average. They are driving pitchers whose game is to get batters to swing at balls out of the zone crazy first, and then off the mound in a blaze of offense next. They are running the bases and fielding the ball, despite two costly errors in yesterday’s loss. Joe Torre is mixing his righty batters, his lefty guys and his switch hitters to perfection, and keeping opposing managers up at night trying to come up with a strategy to stop the onslaught.
The starting pitchers, despite a few recent stumbles, have been masterful, as their one-time 16-0 and current 17-2 record clearly shows. And a bullpen that suffered through a trying spring has been slowly coming into its own even though they continue to suffer critical injuries.
Which brings us to the first point about tomorrow’s game: Mariano Rivera’s return to the Bronx. Tomorrow’s starter has been lights out this year, but he has not been finishing games. Just having Mariano in the bullpen in the Bronx is reason enough to celebrate. Given good odds that we’ll be hearing Enter Sandman in the game’s ninth inning changes a ticket to one in-season game in a potentially record-setting year into an invitation to what we used to call a “Happening.”
And then there’s the record. Big numbers and several decimal places don’t particularly scare me, but there is something to be said for the neatness of our 20-5, .800 winning percentage, start. But two years ago this same Seattle team that is coming to town stole much of the Yankees’ 1998 thunder by setting a new major league record with 20 wins in the month of April. We try to tie their record while playing against them tomorrow (we won one in March this year), leaving us a one-day shot at breaking their record too. (They did not win their 21st in 2001 until May 2.)
But to understand the biggest reason that all eyes will turn to the Bronx tomorrow evening, you need the ability and tunnel vision to “make a mountain out of a molehill,” or out of a piching mound anyway. The whole baseball world knows that Roger Clemens is making his drive for 300 wins. And he is not just sticking around until he compiles the number, but throwing with precision and power and desire. Pitching brilliantly, he has held opposing batters to a .212 ba, and he has surrendered one home run in 34 innings while striking out 31 and only walking 10.
It may be hard to believe that Roger was roundly and routinely booed in New York his first two years after the Yanks traded for him in February 1999. It is undeniable that he struggled more often than not, even after winning the World Series clincher over Atlanta in 1999. But he is totally accepted now, and it may have been his dominating one-hitter over this Mariners team in the October 2000 ALCS that cemented his current popularity.
“It was twenty years ago today,” the Beatles classic hit Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band begins. And although Roger has been at his craft that long, and longer, it was only 17 years ago that he made some history against — once again — the Seattle Mariners. On April 29, 1986, Clemens struck out 20 Mariners, eclipsing the record held by Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.
They say the “lights are bright tonight on Broadway.” And it was perhaps fitting that Saturday, the day the night owl and party boy David Wells last started, represented the opening of New York’s famed disco Studio 54 back in 1977. But to find out where the action is tomorow evening in The Big Apple, you’ll have to travel roughly 100 blocks north, take a right and cross the Harlem River to the Baseball Cathedral in the Bronx.
Baseball careers like that of Roger Clemens do not come along very often. Baseball experts are in general agreement that Roger may be one of the last few to achieve 300 victories. So you could step back from the Yanks now, assume they’ll be in the playoffs, and refocus your energies in four or five months. But I think it’s safe to say that Roger’s big milestone will come well before then, and tomorrow night represents a significant step as he goes for no. 298. Miss it, or any of the next few, at your own peril. Sergeant Pepper has one more caution for those who fail to focus on April baseball. As it happened for the Beatles, so too it will happen for Roger, as phrased in the next to the last line of that song’s lyrics:
“It’s getting very near the end.”