<![CDATA[Word hit the press box long after former heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali — for me, always, The Greatest — appeared at Yankee Stadium for a stirring pregame ceremony. This was sometime during Thursday night’s Yanks-Red Sox series opener, and the news I was hearing up in the box was that that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and incoming MLB players’ union head Michael Weiner would make a special appearance of their own before Saturday’s game.
It will be anything but a ceremony for them. Instead they will be addressing reports that Ortiz tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs in 2003.
Over a week has passed since Ortiz name was leaked as being among 104 others on the list of players who drew positive results — a list that was supposed to be anonymous when the union agreed to testing and now under a court seal that’s obviously looser than the waistband of the trousers that were always slipping down below Harpo Marx’s knees in all those old movies.
A real Harpo Pants list we’ve got here. It makes me feel wonderful about how our legal system protects your and my constitutional rights in the US of A. But I’m not writing about the leaks now, the injustice and basic moral wrongness of those names getting out to the public one by one despite binding guarantees to the contrary. That’s for another time, maybe.
This is about how far we’ve come from when I was a kid who watched so many of Ali’s fights with my father on our huge black and white living room console television, and loved Ali for what he did in boxing ring and his larger-than-life personality, and never had to wonder whether his accomplishments were aided by some kind of doping.
Clean it up. That’s the slogan on the sleeveless red T-shirt David Ortiz wore at his locker over an hour before Thursday’s game in the Bronx. It’s in the middle of this immense chest, right below the Red Sox logo. Ortiz wore the same shirt during warm-ups in Baltimore a few days after it was revealed he was on the Harpo Pants list. When a news story revealed his name was on it, Ortiz said he was “surprised” to find out he’d tested positive for anything.
Of course that doesn’t jibe with what we’ve heard before from the Feds, namely that all the players on the list were notified they were on it. Who knows if that’s true, or exactly true. I don’t.
I don’t know that to believe from David Ortiz, just like I didn’t know exactly what to believe from Alex Rodriguez when his name slipped off the non-anonymous anonymous list a few months ago. Throw our Harpo Marx government into the pot, too, since I definitely don’t know what to believe from them. Everybody’s got an agenda.
“You know me — I will not hide and I will not make excuses,” Ortiz said over a week ago. And since then there’s been nothing but silence.
Clean it up. Ortiz has advocated more thorough testing and stiffer penalties for PEDs, and maybe that’s what the slogan on his T-shirt is about. Again, I don’t know. All I do know is that in the visiting team clubhouse at the Stadium before Thursday’s game, he joked around with friends at his locker, and then got serious with the reporters around him, said he’d soon “let them know” whenever he was going to about his testing positive. And then he cranked up the music on whatever mini sound system he had in his locker and didn’t say anything else.
A little later, when the Sox were taking BP, I was hanging around the visiting dugout, and happened to find myself between Ortiz and the field. As he made his way to the batting cage Ortiz passed me, put a huge hand on my shoulder, squeezed it warmly, and smiled.
I’ve never met David Ortiz. I don’t know him any more than I knew the network TV cameraman who pushed me out of his way trying to get to Mark Teixeira’s locker about five, six hours later for some postgame footage.
“Hey c’mon, outta my way I gotta get in here!” the cameraman yelled as he bulled through from behind me, swinging around his video contraption.
Compare and contrast. Ortiz the besieged baseball superstar giving me the shoulder squeeze when I’m getting in his way near the steps of his dugout, and the cameraman who’s got no business telling anybody anything in the Yankee clubhouse acting like a jerk when a simple “excuse me” will do the trick.
Ortiz got booed loudly every time he came up to bat Thursday night. There were a few “Steroid!” chants mixed in for most of the nights. Comes with the territory, I’m not crying for him. Personally, though, I’d have liked to hear the cameraman getting booed out of the clubhouse.
Which is to say that Ortiz makes it easy to like him, and hard to want to see him go down as just another name on the list, even for this diehard Yankee fan.
I was at a Portland Sea Dogs game in Maine once when I noticed all the Big Papi merch in the team store. The Sea Dogs are a Double-A Red Sox affiliate, and they sell out on a regular basis. But go into the store, and you won’t see a fraction as many T-shirts and jerseys with the names of Sea Dogs on them as you’ll see the Ortiz stuff. At least that’s how it was a couple of years back. Ortiz stuff was clearly outselling everything else, especially in the kids’ sizes. The store’s mascot was even a gigantic Ortiz bobblehead.
I remember thinking back then that I was glad those Maine kids had a big, loveable athlete who’d captivate their imaginations and make them proud of their team. You have to want that for kids, even if you’re a diehard Yank fan. It isn’t as if they’re going to be rooting for Derek Jeter up in Maine anyway.
That’s why I’m sad David Ortiz is on the Harpo list. One by one by one, we hear the names. One by one by one, the careers and records are tarnished. No matter what Ortiz says on Saturday, which I have a hunch is going to be irresolute at best.
Watching Muhammad Ali being honored on the field before the game, I was glad he fought his game before any of us ever heard of PEDs and leaky government lists. As he was driven around the warning track in a golf cart, everybody was on their feet. The fans, the players in both dugouts, on their feet as he waved and pointed to them with the one arm that seemed easiest for him to move. I stood in the press box, pretending it was for a better look, but really to show my own respect for this man, the best heavyweight fighter of a generation, and maybe ever, who stood up for his principles even though it stripped him of a title and almost sent him to jail. Who has not only kept his dignity while enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, but enhanced his reputation with countless humanitarian efforts.
When that old chant — “Ali! Ali! Ali!” — broke out from the stands, I felt a shiver run through me. And I wasn’t alone.
“I got chill bumps, to tell you the truth,” said Jorge Posada, who’d jogged up to shake the fighter’s hand. “I didn’t know what to say. It was a good feeling to see him at the Stadium.”
One day, a long time from now I hope, Ali will be gone, but his magnificent accomplishments as a man and athlete will remain with us forever.
Sad, really sad, about steroids and leaky lists. For we are helpless as they leach our tomorrows of moments such as the one everyone shared at the Stadium on Thursday, Yankee and Red Sox players and fans, all briefly standing together to recognize a man’s unassailable greatness.
In the good old days, it was the Red Sox that did the bad little things to lose games.
There’s Buckner’s fumbled play at first base, of course. That’s the epitome. The Sox are one out away from winning the 1986 World Series, one out from beating the Mets at Shea, and Buckner lets Mookie Wilson’s easy grounder slip under his glove into the outfield to tie the game, and the rest is bitter history for Sox fans. Too much.
But we don’t need to go back that far. In the late nineties, and up till they finally celebrated on the field at Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS on the way to winning it all, the Red Sox made all kinds of slip-ups that gave Yankees fans chuckles.
Some forget that the games would be close lots of the time. That was a big part of the fun, what made watching the Yankees beating the Red Sox such a delight. The Boston teams were tough, and scrappy, and talented, and they fought hard till the bitter end. But there would always be that one act of self-destruction, a bobble, base-running mistake or managerial gaffe that made you slap your knees till your hands were raw while you almost choked on your own hoots of laughter.
Nomar Garciaparra gave us plenty of great moments. An athletic shortstop, sure, but remember how he’d sling the ball into stands on overthrows to first base? And Todd Walker, what a pleasure it was watching him boot those balls at second. And let’s not forget Trot Nixon in the outfield. He kinda reminds me of a surly version of Nick Swisher. A hardnosed player who did loads of things right until he would do the one thing wrong at the worst possible time — like misjudging a fly ball to blow an easy catch, or getting caught napping off a base pad — that ultimately helped his team lose.
The Red Sox usually played with heart and effort. They threatened, and they got close. But in the final tally, in the box score, they always came out short.
It was like the Yankees were in their heads or something.
A game in 2002 comes to mind. Let me take you back. It’s late July in the wonderful Grady Little Era, and the Sox come into Yankee Stadium trailing the Yankees by a couple of games for first place. Jeff Weaver’s pitching for the Yankees, he’s got a four-run lead in the early innings, but the Sox come all the way back to tie the game, and then take the lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, Nixon lets a fly ball off Bernie Williams’ bat get by his glove out in right and the Yankees tie the game, Enrique Wilson scoring all the way from first. Even before that, though, in the top of the inning, Jose Offerman, who played a bunch of different positions, got nailed recklessly trying to steal third base with one out, maybe costing the Sox some tack-on runs.
But I don’t want to forget the best part. This, again, is at the bottom of the ninth inning, when Grady goes for his five-man infield deployment. With Williams on base, and one out, Little has his closer, Ugueth Urbina, intentionally load the bases with two walks, and pulls an outfielder out of position for that five-man infield configuration he loved so dearly, hoping to elicit a double play from the next Yankee batter up at the plate, Jorge Posada.
And, making a long story short, Posada walks in the winning run.
In those days, that kind of Red Sox loss was sweet and natural as the sugar in Pepsi Throwback.
And they kept on coming, through 2003, and then into the next year. In 2004, in fact, David Ortiz tried his best to reenact the Buckner error for young Sox fans who might have been unaware of their painful heritage.
What made it such a gas was that, at first, Ortiz was the hero. He drives in a run early, then homers in the sixth inning to make the score 2-0 Red Sox. And that’s how things stay until the bottom of the seventh, when Big Papi, who’s playing first base that day, muffs what should be a groundball out, and instead brings home two Yankee baserunners to tie the game. The very next inning, Gary Sheffield would double in the winning run for the Yankees.
“My glove was kind of soft. Maybe that’s why it went through,” Ortiz said afterward.
What a hoot. And things got even better the next day, in the 13-inning marathon that saw Derek Jeter’s fearless dive into the stands to catch a Nixon fly ball that would have dropped in for a potentially game-winning base hit, sacrificing his body to make one of the best plays you’ll ever see in what would also become one of the best Yankee victories over the Sox you’ll ever see.
With that win the Yankees swept the series, sending their archrivals back to Beantown to celebrate the July 4th holiday with their tails between their legs.
As I say, those were the days.
I couldn’t help but think of them watching the Yankees lose to the Sox Wednesday night. Take the top of the second, for instance. Matsui doubles and Swisher lays down a surprise bunt for a base hit, and then it’s first and third with nobody out. But then Melky Cabrera hits a hard shot to short, and Swisher’s strayed too far from the bag, and he gets easily doubled off. It would take a Jeter fly ball out to officially end the rally, but it really died with Swisher’s slipup. And he would further undermine the Yankees’ cause in the bottom of the inning misplaying what should have been a fly ball out to hand the Sox a run and compound Chien-Ming Wang’s struggles.
Give Swisher credit. He’d make a great catch later in the game. And he’d even hurl himself into the stands to try and make another. But in the end, it was the bad little things he did that hurt him.
We’ve seen lots of those things this series, and, so far, this whole season between the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s just like Sox players used to do, especially at Yankee Stadium. Except now the shoe — or maybe I should say the cleat — is on the other foot.
Now the point of all this isn’t to make everyone in Yankeeland feel more miserable than they already are. It’s to emphasize that baseball, more than any other sport, is one in which paying attention to details matter. The little things are what win or lose baseball games. Right now, when they play the Red Sox, the Yankees are doing all the bad little things, and that’s why they’re down 7-0 in the season series.
Here’s something to consider, though.
As I mentioned before, Ortiz’s Buckneresque play, and the Great Jeter Dive Game that capped the Yankee sweep of the Sox in July, all came in 2004.
That October, as nobody should have to be reminded, the Sox would turn the tables in historic fashion. Fortunes can change very quickly in baseball. And the players can make their own fortune.
Crestfallen Yankee fans might want to keep that mind as they drag through Thursday morning and afternoon, hoping for CC Sabathia to take the mound and prevent a sweep.
As might Red Sox fans amid their present good cheer.
A.J. Burnett isn’t the only one to blame. Some of it falls on the Yankees’ absent offense and defense, and some of it’s about giving credit to Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox.
But Tuesday night’s loss at Fenway was mostly about Burnett’s haplessness on the mound. He couldn’t throw a fastball for strikes, and he couldn’t throw a curveball for strikes, and since those are his two primary pitches, it follows that he couldn’t throw much of anything for strikes. Less than three innings and eighty-four pitches after taking the mound, Burnett had surrendered five runs, two of which came on a loud David Ortiz homer to deep center. Loud when it happened, loud when it drew a curtain call from the Fenway crowd.
It was only his third home run of the season. Nobody has to be told it wasn’t the Big Papi Yankees fans have come to fear standing there at the plate. This was an Ortiz who hasn’t been Big Papi all season. An Ortiz who’s been getting far more catcalls than curtain calls at his home ballpark. An Ortiz whose batting average has barely scratched .200, who’s hitting .188 against righties, who was dropped from third to sixth in the batting order, who’s been benched in several series, and who Peter Gammons and others have reported has come close getting acquainted with the bench for a lot longer.
But there he went and did it, hitting one out against the Yankees for old times’ sake, laying into a four-seam fastball Burnett served right over the middle of the plate at 95 mph, right over, which only means that ball wanted to introduce itself to the sweet spot of his bat in a hurry.
Burnett wouldn’t be helped that inning by a fielding error committed by Alex Rodriguez, his fourth of the season. With one out, and outfielder Mark Kotsay having strolled to first after taking four consecutive fastballs that never came close hitting the plate, Red Sox shortstop Nick Green hit a hard grounder to third, and A-Rod seemed caught between going the easy out at first or a double play he wouldn’t have gotten anyway, and held onto the ball too long in his indecision. And then neither Green nor Kotsay were out, and couple of batters later both of them scored on a double.
Four-zip Sox. Second inning. You get them going at Fenway Park, you stake Beckett to that kind of early lead, and you are in serious trouble.
Again, the Yankees defense was complicit in the loss. There was Jorge Posada’s passed ball, and Robinson Cano missing a groundball to second that was ruled a hit but was a play he should have made.
The Yankees play eighteen errorless games, set a Major League record, and now all of a sudden they can’t go a single game without making one. Go figure. At Fenway, you can’t afford that. It helps lose games. Far less importantly, it forces out-of-market fans watching those games on NESN, the television home of the Red Sox, to hear their fill-in color commentator, resident baseball whiz and king of objectivity Dennis Eckersley, try to sell the argument that a record-breaking errorless streaks doesn’t mean a team’s played good defense during that streak.
Again, go figure.
But the big thing is the loss. This one, most of it, the sixth Yankees loss to their archrivals in as many games this season, falls on Burnett. He began poorly and never got himself straightened out, which is a mystery. This is not some inexperienced rookie pitcher we’re talking about. This is a 10-year veteran. Somebody who never used to lose against the Red Sox and killed the Yankees on his way to winning 18 games with Toronto last season. This is someone the Yankees signed for five years at $82 million to be their No. 2 starting pitcher. And he couldn’t adjust.
Can we throw in one last “go figure?”
In his postgame comments, manager Joe Girardi attributed Burnett’s wildness to too much rest. He hadn’t pitched in seven days as a result of Girardi’s decision to reinsert Chien-Ming Wang into the Yankees’ rotation, and then a rainout last Friday.
“It was control, and I’ll take the blame for that. I mean, it’s hard to pitch on seven days,” Girardi said. “A guy’s used to a routine, and we tried to change our rotation a little bit to separate some people, and insert Chien-Ming Wang, and you can’t have too many expectations of a guy’s command.”
But Girardi was skirting around the widespread perception that he’d largely changed the rotation to avoid leading off the series with Wang, who’s still working back into form, on the mound. Putting it another way, he thought Burnett had a better chance of getting things off to a solid start for the Yanks.
His explanation for Burnett’s lack of command is also based on suspect logic. Monday night at Yankee Stadium, Phil Hughes had no trouble throwing quality strikes for a scoreless seventh-inning after cooling his heels in the bullpen for well over a week. Last Thursday, Wang managed to throw a decent ratio of strikes-to-balls in his first start since returning from rehab. If they weren’t too strong, why was Burnett?
After the game, YES studio analyst David Cone commented that the good pitchers, the really good ones, are supposed to be able to make the adjustments. He ought to know. He once ranked among the best.
And let’s add Beckett to the list. As Johnny Damon would point out, he’d also labored through the early innings, struggling with an inability to locate his off-speed pitches. But, said Damon, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek noticed that Beckett’s four-seamer was working best for him and repeatedly called for it until he could spot it over the plate — and then build off it until he got a feel his curveball.
The Burnett-Posada tandem could accomplish no such thing. And when interviewed in the visiting clubhouse, even Burnett wouldn’t let Girardi’s too-much-rest, too-strong, explanation take him off hook.
“There’s no excuses,” he said. “I mean, I was out of whack, and I don’t think I repeated a delivery the whole two innings I was out there. So that’s just, you know, Skip being Skip.”
Translated: That’s just the manager expressing confidence in his player and casting his poor performance in the best possible light.
Girardi trying to take some of the heat off him is commendable — but it won’t erase Burnett’s ineffectiveness, or change the fact that he’s only won four out of his 11 starts for the Yankees and is carrying a 4.89 ERA into June.
Whatever the reason, Burnett has underperformed to this point. At Fenway Tuesday night, he appeared to be pitching not to lose rather than pitching to win — and to a point that’s how his team appeared to be playing behind him
Six games against the Red Sox, six losses.
If the Yankees are going to win the AL East in 2009, that will have to change.
Tonight would be good time to start.