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      F I E L D  T R I P S

JUNE 11, 2002

June 9, 2002: San Francisco Giants at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium
Marquee Matchup, Saved in the Nick of Time

In age of increasing competition for our sports-loving eyeballs—hell, try a weekend chock full with the NBA Finals, NHL Finals, a sibling-rivalry French Open Finals, a potential Triple Crown winner, and the heavyweight bout to end all heavyweight bouts—we viewers are subjected to a few predictable strategies when it comes to selling those games.

One is for an organization — a league, say — to introduce a novelty into the sport in a misguided attempt to shore up its fan base. Take interleague play, the wild card, or the designated hitter. Please.

Another is for the promoters — a network, perhaps — to boil a complex team sport down to an individual matchup, as if the two athletes in question were slated to do-or-die swordfight at center court/ice/field for the honor of their squads.

At times it's necessary for a fan to tilt against windmills, summoning enough outrage to rail at the powers who have sullied our games with gimmickry and crass machismo. And at times it's preferable just to grab that ticket to a gorgeous Sunday afternoon Yanks-Giants game featuring Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and march up to Yankee Stadium like a good little soldier. This, as you can probably guess, was one of the latter occasions.

Played to packed houses, the first two games of the Yanks-Giants series generated enough electricity to light a borough: low-scoring affairs where the balance seemed to hang on every pitch, and plenty of theater surrounding the game's hottest ticket and most devastating offensive machine, Bonds. But this billing, with the promise of two inner-circle Hall of Famers—both still more than on top of their games — facing each other for the first time in their storied careers, this would be the one you'd order from the catalog. Years from now, this would be the ballgame you'd tell your grandchildren about as they sat on your knee just as surely as your own grandpappy told you about watching Babe Ruth face Walter Johnson.

Few things in life could stand up to that kind of hype, of course. But just as the horse War Emblem had faltered at Belmont in pursuit of the Triple Crown the day before and opened the door for the biggest longshot in the race's history to win, so it was on this day—the fans didn't get exactly what they expected, but they did get more than their money's worth.

There was no getting away from the central matchup at the outset, as Bonds, DHing and hitting third, came to bat in the top of the first inning with two outs and nobody on. This appeared to be a golden opportunity for Clemens to challenge Bonds with his best stuff and relatively little consequence for failure, but manager Joe Torre clearly thought otherwise. Even after directing the Yankee infield into an extreme shift which had third baseman Robin Ventura playing at double-play-depth shortstop, shortsop Derek Jeter playing at DP-depth second base, second baseman Alfonso Soriano playing short right field, and first baseman Jason Giambi guarding the line, Torre had Clemens pitch around Bonds, walking him "un"-intentionally on five pitches.

This move immediately came back to bite the Yanks on Clemens' ample posterior, as Giants catcher Benito Santiago lined a double off of the right field wall. Bonds held at third, but he scored moments later when Clemens bounced an 0-2 pitch to Reggie Sanders off the plate and out of the reach of catcher Jorge Posada. The damage was held in check when Sanders struck out a couple pitches later, but the Giants had the lead.

The Yanks responded in the bottom of the first with a two-out rally of their own. Facing Russ Ortiz, Giambi cracked a single to left, Bernie Williams drew a walk, and Ventura lined a two-strike single up the middle. From there, Ortiz asserted control of the Yankee bats, however, striking out six of the next nine pinstriped hitters.

Clemens plugged along until he faced Bonds again in the third, when he succeeded in living up to some pregame hype. This brand, however, came straight from his own mouth. Asked by reporters prior to the series about the prospect of facing Bonds, Clemens responded with a chest-thumper:

"Maybe I'll introduce myself pretty quick," he told reporters. "That big ol' piece of plastic he has on his elbow, we'll see if we can't make him take that off and make it even, so we don't have that thing sticking out over the strike zone."

Now, the Rocket has a point when he talks about the armor Bonds wears on his right elbow. It allows him to stand over the plate with near-impunity; no way does he hit 73 homers and post one of the top offensive seasons of all time without that protection. And he has a point when he protects the contested inside part of the plate with the kind of gas that will weakens most players' knees. But Rocket, ever the big donkey in the china shop, has a penchant for backing up his gruff talk with a bit too much walk (just ask Mike Piazza), fueling plenty of fires along the way and allowing hand-wringers like me to mix metaphors until the cows come home to roost. Or something like that.

And so here, again with two outs and nobody on, Clemens plunked Bonds on the plastic on the second pitch of the at bat. Fifty-five thousand Yankee fans groaned, but Bonds shook off the slight and trotted down to first. Again, it seemed the Yankee strategy would backfire as Santiago, a mediocre hitter thorughout his career but riding a hot streak at the moment, followed up with his second hit of the ballgame. Again, Sanders bailed out the Yanks, this time by flying out to left.

The Giants pulled ahead in the fifth. Pedro Feliz, batting ninth, singled to left, and Tom Goodwin, president of the Fast and Otherwise Useless Centerfielders of America, literally sacrificed himself to move the runner over. Goodwin collided with Soriano, who was covering first as Giambi fielded the ball. The Yank second baseman stayed down for several moments, but Goodwin, clearly shaken up, outlasted him on the ground. When play resumed, SF shortstop Rich Aurilia stroked a double over Williams' head in right-center, and the Giants reclaimed the lead.

That brought up Bonds again, and this time the strategy was formulaic:

base open + runner in scoring position + Barry Bonds = intentional walk

Not exactly fun, but unquestionably the right call. Clemens rose up to strike out Santiago and Sanders, ending the threat, and he struck out the next two batters as well en route to his first 1-2-3 inning.

Feliz triggered a nearly identical situation in the 7th with a single and another Goodwin sacrifice. Aurilia grounded out this time, but again Clemens, under Torre's orders, stuck to the formula and walked Bonds intentionally. This time, Ventura, standing in against a flying broken bat fragment, speared Santiago's line drive to end the frame.

The Yanks, meanwhile, failed to make much of a dent. Ortiz buzzed Giambi back in the third, drawing a warning to both benches from home plate umpire Joe West. This in turn drew a visit from Giants manager Dusty Baker. Baker gave West an earful, but the ump let him get his money's worth without tossing him.

West seemed to bend over even further to accomodate the Giants outrage by not raising an eyebrow (let alone a crooked thumb) when Ortiz plunked Derek Jeter on the wrist in the sixth. Following that, the Yanks loaded the bases thanks to two walks. But Jorge Posada struck out on three pitches, and rooke DH Nick Johnson, after working the count from 0-2 to 3-2, looked at strike three as it came right down the pipe to the collective groans of Yankee Stadium (minus the several fans boldly outfitted in Giants regalia).

The Yanks didn't get a hit off of Ortiz after Ventura's RBI single until Soriano's two-out single in the seventh. While that hit went for naught, it and Jeter's long at-bat which followed brought Ortiz to 123 pitches, his highest total of the season. Baker brought out setup man Felix Rodriguez to start out the eighth, a move which on paper, would have spelled doom for the Yanks; Rodriguez has had two stellar years in a row setting up closer Robb Nen. But he's struggled this year, allowing too many walks. Giambi made Rodriguez lived up to that promise by promptly drawing a base on balls. Williams struck out, and Ventura momentarily left the crowd breathless as he hit one deep to right-center. But Tsuyoshi Shinjo, in the game as a defensive replacement, ran the ball down near the warning track for the second out.

At that point, with two outs in the eighth, Baker summoned Nen, a lanky triple-digit flamethrower with a deceptive hitch in his motion. Nick Johnson stepped in against him, looked at a strike and then swung through another. He drew a ball from Nen, prompting me to turn to my roommate and utter, "Good morning, good afternoon, and — hold that thought."

I was poised for the "good night" punchline, but Johnson surprised me and every one of the 55,334 other fans. He drove Nen's pitch deep to right-centerfield, well over the head of the shallow-playing Shinjo. The crowd erupted as two runs scored, giving Johnson a double and the Yanks the lead. They continued to draw blood from the Giants, as Rondell White slapped Nen's next pitch into left field for an RBI single and a 4-2 lead.

Under normal circumstances — a two-run lead in the ninth inning — Joe Torre would call upon Mariano Rivera to close the door on the opposition. But Rivera had been beaten by the Giants the day before, and according to reports (which I didn't realize until later) was nursing a sore groin that would likely require a trip to the disabled list. So Torre brought on Steve Karsay, who's turned into the missing piece of the Yankee bullpen puzzle thus far, posting a 2.06 ERA in 39 innings.

Karsay retired Feliz on his first pitch, then got Goodwin on a grounder. But with the Giants down to their last strike, Aurilia drew a walk on a full count, bringing up... Barry Bonds. Sweet.

At this point, the Yankees held a conference on the mound that included Joe Torre; I was so confident that Karsay was getting the hook in favor of Mike Stanton that I even cashed out his line in my scorebook (.2 innings pitched, 0 hits, 1 walk, 0 strikeouts...). But Torre stuck with Karsay to face Bonds.

And so there it was. With the crowd on the edge of its seat, Bonds swung mightily and whiffed. But Karsay missed on the next pitch, and the next, and the next. With a 3-1 count, Karsay had his orders and intentionally walked Bonds, bringing up Santiago. On Karsay's second pitch, the Giants catcher hit a sharp grounder which third baseman Enrique Wilson (on as a defensive replacement) fielded cleanly, firing to second for the forceout and the ballgame.

After the game, Torre explained his strategy regarding Bonds: "Look, there's no question there's no greater theater than the pitcher against the hitter,'' Torre told reporters. "The 1-on-1 is great. But those people booing, I'd like to poll them and ask if they'd rather go home with a victory or having seen Barry beat us with a homer.''

Count this as a vote for the win. Thank you, Joe.

Final Score: Yankees 4, Giants 2. One hot dog, one frozen lemonade, a slathering of sunscreen, an endless supply of water, five plate appearances for Barry Bonds without an offical at-bat, 50-some-thousand satisfied customers. BOX SCORE