Bronx, N.Y., May 2, 2004 — Emerging from the Stadium tunnel to make my way down the steps to my seat on Sunday, I felt like Dorothy leaving her house after the twister: I walked out from the ballpark’s dark depths on a day that threatened all-day rain, and looked out to behold a beautiful Bronx afternoon dominated with blues and greens one finds on the sunniest of days in the Baseball Cathedral, under a vast expanse of blue sky dotted by but a few dark clouds.
Despite an inspiring five-game winning streak during which the Yanks have pitched well and their bats have come alive, it was on an East Coast that was just a bit out of whack that I had risen and thought about making my way to the Stadium Sunday morning. It was unlikely that the intermittent morning rain would cause today’s game in front of a crowd of almost 50,000 bat day fans to be cancelled, but memories of last Sunday’s damp, frigid afternoon with the Red Sox hung in the air as surely as the rain-producing clouds, imperiling my mood.
When my better half thought better of attending, I left the car and took the train. Inexplicably, this method of convenient mass transit was discharging passengers from just two of its seven cars at several stops, delaying my arrival in north Manhattan where I would switch to the subway. There, I learned that although service on the No. 4 train was (happily) continuing, it was on the wrong track, due to some police activity that had discontinued No. 5 service altogether. I hurried into the Stadium at the wrong gate, as security was strict and time-consuming; bought a hot dog and soda at an unfamiliar concession stand; and rushed to get to my seat in time.
As my eyes became accustomed to the happily bright sky, Bob Sheppard shared the news that today the team would be bestowing rings on their 2003 pennant winners. General Manager Brian Cashman walked out from the Yankee dugout and handed out the goodies to personnel both behind and in front of the scenes, starting with Assistant GM Jean Afterman, and finishing with the last of the players, the back from the brink of his slump Captain Derek Jeter.
The ceremony was over quickly, so Mike Mussina’s first pitch to KC shortstop Angel Berroa was just a minute or two later than usual at 1:09. The 2004 season has had a start for Mussina much like my day did, with the disruptive Japan trip sending him into a tailspin, and he has struggled to achieve his equilibrium — and a couple of inches on his fastball — ever since. And this game began as his season and my day had, making for a trifecta of things that got off to a bumpy start. Mike whiffed Berroa on a 3-2 count but center fielder Carlos Beltran lined one hard into the right-field corner. The bouncing ball got past Gary Sheffield, and the speedy young star was standing on third base with one out. Mike Sweeney delivered him with a soft grounder to short, but Moose ecaped further damage when Ken Harvey lined a 1-0 pitch to A-Rod at third, leaving Gonzalez, who had singled to right, stranded at first.
Mussina got through the second, though Benito Santiago’s one-out double to right center thumped off the wall just about a foot or two short of doubling the Royals’ 1-0 lead. But Mike wasn’t as fortunate in the third. Matsui tracked down Berroa’s long liner to left, but Beltran drove yet another line drive into the right field corner. There were hard line drives aplenty flying around the Stadium, thankfully most of them foul, and so many landed in the Tier boxes down the right field corner that I had my eyes peeled to see if a fan would think to raise a white flag. But the paying crowd out there seemed to enjoy the barrage and the fact that for many of them this day had become “bat and ball day.”
Mike Sweeney and Moose battled gamely, with Sweeney hitting a very foul and very long home run ball to left on one pitch, but also almost striking out on a darting off-speed pitch that followed. Sweeney fouled off four straight 0-2 pitches before winning the battle with a line single to center that scored Beltran. Mussina had showed the Royals DH a fine assortment of pitches, but it had failed to turn it around for him. He fooled Juan Gonzalez on a 1-1 pitch and the KC right fielder failed in an attempt to check his swing, but his flair carried over Giambi’s head right down the right field line. With first and third and one out, the Royals were threatening to pull away. Mussina was over 50 pitches as he fell behind Harvey 2-1, and the first sacker smacked one toward the second base hole. Yankee second baseman Miguel Cairo tracked quickly to his left, grabbed the hot shot and fed Jeter perfectly for a 4-6-3 that gave both the Yankees and Mussina new life. Neither would waste the chance.
Young KC lefty Jeremy Affeldt, on the other hand, had the Yankee bats looking like my morning and Mike’s Japan outing. Williams and Rodriguez took 2-2 third strikes to close the first, with A-Rod angrily disputing home plate umpire Barksdale’s call on a pitch that appeared outside. Three harmless grounders got Affeldt back to the dugout after two innings having tossed but 20 pitches, and the young southpaw had a 2-0 lead as he faced lefty batter Hideki Matsui leading off the third. The Yankee left fielder lashed a 1-1 pitch to the wall in right center for a double, and he moved to third as Saturday hero Ruben Sierra forced left fielder DeJesus to run to the 399 mark to haul in his 1-0 drive. Cairo fell behind 1-2 and then lofted a liner to left, but Matsui successfully tested the young left fielder’s arm and the lead was halved on a short sac fly.
Mussina came out in the fourth a new man, though KC continued to challenge. Santiago pulled a one-out single to left and veteran Desi Relaford made the Yanks pay for a curious infield alignment that had third baseman Rodriguez in and 20-25 feet off the line, by pulling a single to the third base side. Moose stiffened and retired DeJesus on a nine-pitch fielder’s choice to Jeter that began a string of 13 Royals set down in a row to close out his day’s work. In that streak Beltran gave us the obligatory scare when he drilled a 1-0 pitch to the higher rows of the right field tier down the line, but Mussina got him to pop to second on the next pitch. Mike whiffed Sweeney, got three weak grounders and another two popups, while Harvey lined to Jeter, and Bernie Williams flashed a little old-time brilliance as he charged and made a sliding catch on a liner to short center by DeJesus.
But the Yanks were still behind in the fourth as Giambi strode to the plate with two down. He took ball one, ball two, and strike one. Making a fortuitous call, I yelled, “C’mon Jason, take him downtown!” I love both when I yell these things at the right times and when Yankee players take directions so well. His no-doubt-about-it blast evened things at 2-2.
Affeldt escaped further damage even though Sheffield’s hard single appeared to carom hard off his body. He seemed OK, but he had lost something. He whiffed Posada to close the fourth, and escaped a Sierra double off the left field wall in the fifth when Jeter bounced into a twin killing. He walked Rodriguez leading off the sixth on a 3-2 pitch, and Giambi singled to right. The young Royals lefty gave himself a huge boost when, backing up at third, he corraled Gonzalez’s overthrow and pegged Giambi out trying for second. Sheffield’s ensuing nine-pitch fly to right closed the frame rather than scoring A-Rod on what would have been a sac fly.
But Affeldt’s luck had run out, and he would not escape the next Yankee threat, in the seventh. Batting righty, Posada swung late and his hopper down first evaded Harvey and rolled into the corner. A faster runner would have made third as the ball rolled around Gonzalez, but it was a small matter as Matsui pulled the next offering past Relaford and Hideki took second when Gonzalez’s throw home was cut off too late to get him. This became huge when Affeldt bounced a wild pitch with his next offering.
The “ii” I use on my scorecard to indicate “infield in” has evolved now to the point that it looks like the mathematical symbol for pi. It was an unfortunate choice this day, because math symbols and formulas are by their very nature so precise, while the “infeld in” alignment the Royals employed with the super-hot Ruben Sierra utilized that strategy in name only. They were in, if “in” means playing just a step or two behind the bases rather than the several steps onto the outfield grass they were using most of the day. It was all academic as the Yankee DH lifted a fly to deep right for a 4-2 Yankee lead.
Cairo’s following single to left closed out Affeldt’s day and Mussina handed the ball to the Yankee pen as well. Gordon issued Beltran an uncharacteristic lead-off walk in the eighth, but escaped on a 6-4-3 and a four-pitch punch-out of Gonzalez. Mariano Rivera got the crowd going as he entered to familiar tones, and added to the excitement by allowing a leadoff single to Harvey and hitting Randa with a 1-0 pitch. But he struck out pinch-hitter Matt Stairs and Desi Relaford in succession and coaxed DeJesus to end matters by bouncing to Tony Clark, who had taken over the chores at first base for the ninth inning.
A short week ago all appeared lost in Yankee land as they were swept in three in the Stadium by the rival Red Sox on a day that was cold and bitter in more ways than one. Since then, they mounted an inspiring eighth-inning rally to turn things around on Tuesday and the bats and gloves have been backing up some quality pitching ever since. The missing ingredient has to this point been a more effective Mike Mussina.
Early May has been kind to him (and us fans) since he arrived in the Bronx. Three years ago on May 1 he bested the Twins in the Stadium, 4-0, and beat his ex-mates in Baltimore, 2-1, five days later. He turned in a victory over the Mariners in the Stadium by that same score in the first week of May in 2002. But Sunday he got off to a lethargic start and fell behind, 2-0. But he turned it around and righted his ship and retired the last 11 of the hard-hitting Royals from the fourth through the seventh on 36 thrown balls. He got Kansas City to swing and miss but two times in that span. He “let ‘em hit it,” and they did so, meekly more often than not.
Black inventor Elijah McCoy, holder of more than 50 U.S. patents, was born on May 2, 1844. He became famous for his steam engine lubricator, as it proved so effective that engineers differentiated it from its less effective counterparts by referring to it as “the Real McCoy.” Let’s hope that the Mike Mussina who arrived in today’s fourth frame was the Real McCoy too.