Bronx, N.Y., July 21, 2002 — That is just one of a myriad display of big numbers and facts one would have to assimilate to begin to grasp this weekend series vs. the Red Sox. I’m sure looking at the games through the “big numbers” prism is nothing new to most baseball fans. Baseball has got numbers all over it.
In a series where the runs were split evenly at 20 apiece, there were 939 pitches thrown. With almost 40 more of that total being thrown by the visiting team, it really does become apparent that, despite two first-pitch homers today (and a huge 11th-inning double on a first pitch Saturday), the Yankees unquestionably take more pitches. During today’s rubber game, it almost proved their undoing. They took a called third strike nine times (and 17 on the weekend), but when all was said and done, there they were, walking off the field with a victory. Jorge Posada, who has taken a called strike three six times since he pinch hit in the eighth against the Tigers Thursday, took ball four against Ugueth Urbina to drive in the winning run.
And those are not the only ugly (and otherwise) numbers to report. Joe Torre, who had a tough weekend and who probably can be correctly faulted for his staying with his starter too long for two days running, only to emerge victorious in both games, is no stranger to bad numbers on July 21. Just ask Felix Milan, who as Joe’s teammate with the Mets 27 years ago today had a great day in striking four straight singles. It’s easy for me to tell you without having a box score in front of me that Felix did not score after any of those base hits, as beloved current manager Joe grounded into four consecutive double plays behind him.
And speaking of numbers, how about these? I caught the 5:36 express to New York preceding the Friday night tilt (that was rain-delayed into a 9:22 first pitch), and by the time I arrived home today at 6:18 pm, I had spent 25 hours of the last 48 hours and 42 minutes going to, waiting for, watching and rooting during, and returning home from, Yankees/Red Sox baseball games. I sit here at my desk feeling like a stranger in this, my own home, so overwhelmed by the drama of the last three days that attempting to find a coherent string to all this is just beyond me.
We can look at this weekend through the prism of history. The league-leading homerun-hitting Yankees largely abandoned the big bats (aside from Bernie’s two singleton shots and Jason’s two-run shot today) and embraced the strategy of the smaller-boated English as they defeated the bigger-boated Spanish Armada today (not much of a stretch watching the missiles the Sox launched all over the park today), way back in 1588. Gunslinging Pedro shut us down on Friday night, what would have been the 188th birthday of Samuel Colt, who would introduce the line of Colt handguns. But 67 years later, in 1881, on Saturday, Sioux Indian Chief Sitting Bull would be forced to surrender to United States forces on the field of battle, largely due to that same technology.
And there’s plenty of germaine baseball history this weekend too. Twenty-four years ago Friday (glorious 1978!) the Yankees began their assault on the 14-game lead held by the Red Sox in the East, with a 2-0 victory. Donnie Baseball tied a major league record with an extra base hit in 10 consecutive games in 1987, and Dave Righetti vaulted past Whitey Ford as the Yankee pitcher with the most appearances back in 1990, with his 499th. And speaking of Whitey, he tied a record by striking six batters out in a row back in 1956 on Saturday’s date, and Donnie (again) tied the major league record for put-outs by a first baseman on the same day in 1987, with 22. And today? Neil Armstrong took that “giant step” in 1969, and all other July 21 history pales by comparison, at least in my opinion.
But each of this weekend’s titanic battles is worthy of a much longer treatment than I’m willing or able to compile today. I uttered a “from the core” yell roughly 450-500 times as Yankees batted (and fielded and pitched) in the last few days, attacking rooting in these three games as lustily and in as over-the-top fashion as I foolishly did dancing to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” when it hit the charts on Saturday’s date back in 1968. In smoke-filled clubs, gyms, and at parties in people’s houses, I flung my body around the floor in a helter skelter fashion for all 18 minutes (even during the drum solo), ignoring the fact that guys on either side of me appeared to be dancing just as strenuously. They, you see, had grasped the implications of strobe-light technology first, and swayed their way to giration central, letting the light do all the work. Thirty-four years later, I still have not learned my lesson, and I am one of the few fans more exhausted than the players as “New York, New York” blares over the loudspeakers after these big Yankee games.
The preponderance of Red Sox fans in the Stadium all weekend was a problem. The Yankee ballclub, New York City and Yankees fans were given a perceived black eye in the American public’s eyes (at least in the club’s view) once Seattle put their foot down against rude behavior way back in April, just to avoid “being like New York.” So the Yankees policy of no longer tolerating “Boston Sucks” (on shirts, or cheered) and the like, forced many to reassess their behavior. The yells Of “Let’s Go Red Sox” became overwhelming (they held the lead over 10 innings at different times, and put together two five-run innings this weekend; making all the Red Sox fans unhappy all the time just wasn’t an option). The only drowning-out cheer we could resort to (if you agree that yelling “Let’s Go Yankees” in unison was just confusing and counterproductive) was to use “1918″ in that same staccato four-beat rhythm. I guess we could explain that we were all World War I history buffs, huh? (There was a late attempt to bring back Old Faithful in that same rhythm, “Boston Su-ucks,” but if the verb doesn’t end the cheer as one loud syllable, and do it in a short emphatic burst, it just comes off as lame.)
A few other observations. Although Steve Karsay appears a pretty straight arrow, he’s obviously not above trying anything to straighten himself out. After having suffered through a tough road trip (to which we can all attest), he appeared against the Tigers on Thursday afternoon wearing his socks in the high stirrup fashion young Yankees often retain from the minors (as Nick and Alfonso do). It didn’t help Thursday or Friday, so the guy who was the Yankees winning pitcher and hero Saturday came out wearing his socks in the lower, more traditional style. It is also worth noting also that the wily and creative el duque, while still dominating the Sox during Saturday’s sixth inning, unleashed a pitch to Manny with almost as high an arc and slow a trajectory as the old “ephous” pitch, famous to Yankee fans as Steve Hamilton’s “Folly Floater” in the late sixties, and as Dave Laroche’s “La Lob” about 15 years later.
And Jeff Weaver, who obvously has a lot of adjustments to make before he becomes the every-fifth-day dominating starter the Yankees brain trust and this Yankee fan expect him to be, continues to carry some other learned quirks around with him. One is a particularly deft and subtle ability to handle his position defensively, a surprise for a guy with a long trunk, unwieldy limbs and a body that doesn’t promise much grace in fielding a ground ball. A more ambiguous trait (at least in how it applies to his becoming an eventual consistent winner in the Bronx) is his continuing habit to approach the mound each inning in a slow climb straight up the slope’s back side from a position just a few feet in front of second base.
And then, of course, there is that habit that I as a fan and rooter have developed in relation to his pitching style. It is not easy to root for your team in a baseball game when you perceive that during every at bat the opposition has someone in scoring position. But that is the basis for using the number 37 in this column’s title. Until Jeff can show me that he can keep the ball in the park, I root during each and every opposition at bat as if there is a runner in scoring position. Because of course there is. He is the one standing at the plate, with the bat in his hands.