Serendipitous Sunday

When the rain started pouring at Yankee Stadium during the top of the sixth inning of Sunday’s Yanks-Reds tilt, I felt like I’d already gotten my money’s worth. In addition to surviving what the late Hunter S. Thompson would have termed a king-hell hangover (wrought by my wife’s birthday party the night before) and some early questioning by a garrulous out-of-towner from Deer Park, Texas named Digger who was sitting next to me (and working on the next day’s king-hell hangover), I had been congratulating myself for the foresight to pick this game out on the calendar six months ago to fill out my flex plan schedule. The taut 1-0 pitcher’s duel to that point had featured plenty of drama involving the players I’d hoped to see amid this otherwise random Sunday interleague contest.

See, I had spent a good portion of the offseason reading, writing and talking about the Reds’ fine crop of young prospects. Center fielder Jay Bruce was the consensus pick as the top prospect in all of baseball via Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels. First baseman Joey Votto had already demonstrated his combination of power and plate discipline during a late-season cup of coffee last September. Right-handed starter Edinson Volquez, though technically not a rookie, had been the focus of one of the more interesting swaps of the winter, being traded from Texas for 2007 rookie sensation Josh Hamilton.

But the one who really fascinated me, almost to an irrational extent, was Johnny Cueto, an undersized 22-year-old Dominican righty who had climbed all the way from High-A to Triple-A last year. All winter and spring, prospect cognoscenti suggested he was already a better pitcher than the team’s overhyped Nuke LaLoosh prototype, Homer Bailey. Mid-90s fastball, plus slider and changeup, clean mechanics, impeccable makeup (something Bailey clearly lacks) — sign me up. “Cueto is the ace of that staff. Right now,” said one major league scout during spring training, and when the kid struck out 10 and walked none in seven innings of one-hit ball in his major-league debut, it seemed he might be onto something. Since then the usual young-pitcher growing pains have set in, as he struggled with his release point and his control, with his ERA skirting 6.00 before a run of mostly quality starts.

By the time Sunday’s game rolled around, the Reds’ young arms had already demonstrated their considerable firepower in this series. Volquez, the NL leader in ERA, strikeouts, and fewest hits per nine, pitched seven strong innings on Friday night and earned his 10th win of the year. He held the Yankees to two runs while striking out five, the most impressive of which was a second-inning battle with Jason Giambi in which he’d fallen behind 3-0 and then busted three straight pitches inside, a changeup sandwiched around two fastballs that the eagle-eyed Giambi could only look at before wandering back to the dugout. On Saturday the Yanks were shut out, principally by one Darryl Thompson, an unsung 22-year-old who worked in and out of trouble to spin five scoreless frames in his major league debut in front of 54,509 fans at Yankee Stadium.

Given young talent like that, it’s tough to believe the Reds came into the series 33-41 on the year, but as Yankee fans well know, young pitchers can break your heart, particularly when the contingency plans you’ve got behind them are journeymen of ill repute. Not that the Yanks haven’t been getting decent showings out of Darrell Rasner (whom I watched scratch and claw his way through five innings on Wednesday night at the Stadium) and Dan Giese (who had impressed in his first major-league start on Saturday), but that’s a rough way for a ballclub to survive, let alone thrive.

The Yanks came into Sunday desperate to prevent a sweep, and luckily they had Andy Pettitte — with a career record of 74-37 after Yankee losses — going for them. Already riding a 13-inning scoreless streak, Pettitte retired nine of the first ten Cincy hitters, yielding only a two-out single to Votto in the second inning. He found trouble in the fourth courtesy of Robinson Cano, who with one out flubbed a sure inning-ending double-play grounder hit by Brandon Phillips; miraculously, it wasn’t scored an error. After loading the bases by walking weak-hitting shortstop Paul Janish — stuck in the fifth spot as he’d entered in the third inning for third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, forced to depart after an impressive leaping grab of a Cano liner aggravated his lower back — Pettitte was able to buckle down and strike out both Votto and Bruce, the latter on a tense eight-pitch at-bat that had the crowd on its feet for several minutes.

Cueto was similarly stingy against the Yankee lineup, striking out six hitters in the first four innings while yielding just two hits. Things began to unravel for the kid in the fifth, when Giambi singled sharply to center and then Jorge Posada doubled into the right field corner. Cano atoned for his fielding miscue by pounding a pitch deep to the warning track in right-center, plating the run on the sac fly. That set off an extra cheer; the game was now official, an important consideration as black clouds swirled ominously beyond the not-too-distant horizon of the Yankee Stadium roof.

Soon enough, the rain began to fall, accompanied by thunder, lightning, and darkness only partially illuminated by the stadium lights. Luckily my intrepid co-conspirator Nick had thought to bring a pair of plastic ponchos in his bag; in fact, he’d been holding one in each hand for the better part of an inning, as if ready to pounce on the opportunity to stay dry. Poised as we were, we fumbled with the ponchos amid gusts of high wind which apparently gave Pettitte trouble on the mound as well.

The top of the sixth inning felt like some surreal Weather Channel footage. Amid the downpour and the thunder, camera flashes accompanying Ken Griffey Jr.’s at-bat made it seem as though the stadium had been overtaken by an electrical storm. Fans headed for the concourses in droves, but with our ponchos and an umbrella, we waited out the frame, which was helped along by Janish popping up a bunt to Posada. As soon as Votto struck out to end the inning, the grounds crew took over, covering the plate and the mound, and finally the entire infield. Nick and I didn’t have far to go from our seats — last row, aisle of Section 629 — but the bottleneck created by the crowd slowed our efforts to take refuge on the crowded upper concourse.

The narrow concourse was jam-packed, but we found a pocket near an elevator, away from the throngs pushing their way towards the concessions stand and the bathrooms. Soon enough, I noticed three 40-ish men standing about five feet away, two of whom looked strikingly familiar. I watched them converse with each other, caught a snippet of conversation that included the phrase “Fenway Park,” and noted that two of them were carrying hefty, industrial-strength scorebooks. I had little doubt that I was making any mistakes in identity when I called out a name. “Rob?”

Sure enough, it was Rob Neyer, the ESPN columnist whose work back in the late ’90s did a lot to rekindle my interest in the stathead side of baseball, to say nothing of the thousands of folks to whom he introduced such concepts I don’t know Rob all that well, but we’ve corresponded several times (as recently as a couple weeks ago over his linking my Eliot Asinof piece), and I had the honor of hanging out with him a couple times back in 2006, once in New York when he was here to promote his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, and then a few months later at the SABR convention in Seattle. Accompanying him were Mark Armour, editor of that year’s convention-related publication Rain Check, co-author of the award-winning Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way and good-natured sparring partner, and Baseball Prospectus alum Jeff Bower, the only one of the trio I’d never met.

So Nick and I spent the better part of the rain delay talking baseball with these three Northwesterners, who were in the midst of an enviable road trip that included ballgames at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, a trip to Cooperstown and finally a haul from upstate New York to Cleveland for this year’s SABR convention. Writing projects, scorebooks, recent news, ballpark comparisons, BP alumni, travel itineraries… our conversation wasn’t exactly wide-ranging or deeply philosophical, but as ways to pass a rain delay, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Just as we were reduced to standing around ribbing Rob for eating a hideous CinnaPretzel, the rain subsided and the sun poked out. Game on. I suggested to our ad hoc posse that the families in our section were likely to have hightailed back to suburbia and that they should come join us, since our seats were a few sections closer. Soon enough we were joined by my BP colleague and fellow blogger Derek Jacques, who had been marooned in the infamous Section 36 in high left field for most of the game. Can’t leave a guy stranded out there while better seats and good company could be had inland.

Play resumed with both starting pitchers having departed, and the Yankees soon gained the upper hand against Gary Majewski, who sandwiched a pair of outs between singles to Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui. Former Kansas City lefty Jeremy Affeldt came on in relief, eliciting a groan from Rob, a long-suffering Royals fan who no doubt had less-than-fond memories of the pitcher’s days as the franchise’s Next Big Thing. Affeldt quickly yielded a long drive to deep left field off the bat of the notoriously pull-happy Giambi, scoring both runs, and Giambi himself came home on a double to deep right center by Jorge Posada, running the score to 4-0. Affeldt escaped the frame but got into trouble again in the seventh before departed with two on and one out. His voice dripping with a combination of sarcasm and comtempt, Rob called out, “Nice outing, Jeremy.”

Between half-innings we watch the grounds crew perform their familiar “Y-M-C-A” routine, old hat to us Yankee Stadium vets, but something of a mild curiosity to the out-of-towners, who nonetheless appreciated the irony of a paean to anonymous gay sex being piped to 4+ million people per year at Yankee Stadium (Pete Abraham recently passed along a great Spin Magazine article about the history of the song).

It was my turn to groan in the next half-inning. Edwar Ramirez had tossed a 1-2-3 seventh for the Yanks, but he gave way to Kyle Farnsworth, nobody’s favorite Yankee reliever. Though Farnsworth — Marmaduke, as Alex Belth calls him — got two relatively quick out, he yielded a home run to Ken Griffey, Jr., the 601st of Griffey’s career and the 10th of Farnsworth’s 34-inning season. The solo shot just cleared the wall in right field, and it drew a warm ovation from the remaining crowd. After all, it’s not every day somebody gets to witness first-hand a home run that ranks so high up on the all-time list. My personal personal “high score” was seeing Barry Bonds’ 720th homer on July 7, 2006 at Dodger Stadium (c’mon A-Rod, hurry the hell up!). Bonds’ name came into the discussion among our group and Nick pointed to the right field area where he’d seen Bonds reach on a towering home run on June 8, 2002, the 588th of his career.

Two pitches later, Phillips hit a sharp comebacker that Farnsworth instinctively tried to barehand. After deflecting it to Alex Rodriguez, who was too late to make the play, Farnsworth was tended to by the Yankee trainers; he departed and reportedly needed three stitches in the webbing of his fingers. Ah, go pet your gopher, Kyle. Given that the home run he surrendered had created a save situation, Automatic Joe Girardi pressed the button and called upon Mariano Rivera to get a rare four-out save. Rivera quickly got pinch-hitter Javier Valentin to ground out to end the eighth.

Between innings, the bane of my existence, “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” reared its ugly head. “This is the worst part of Yankee Stadium,” I explained to our guests apologetically, prompting Rob to ask if there was any part of the stadium that was nice. I started into my spiel about the spartan stadium, and pointed out a few of my favorite features, such as the black batter’s eye and rare homers that had reached it, and the way one could see the history of Yankee Stadium by looking out at the three left field wall boundaries — the back, encompassing the flagpole within the playing field’s original dimensions, the middle one where the retired numbers are, representing the post-renovation dimensions from the seventies and eighties, and finally the current fences. That drew a grudging nod.

Our eyes remained on Valentin in the bottom of the inning as the 32-year-old backup catcher made his major-league debut at third base. Jeff Keppinger, who had been activated from the disabled list only that day, had started at shortstop, shifted to third when Encarnacion exited, and then back to short because Valentin had pinch-hit for Janish. That alone made for an entertaining curiosity for the three of us who were keeping score, and it became all the more relevant when Valentin found himself positioned in the vicinity of shortstop when with two outs the infield put on its familiar shift for Giambi. While we hoped the suddenly spray-hitting G-man would test Valentin’s infielding skills, Giambi instead pulled one over the head of Votto for a single, his third hit of a very well-rounded day that also included a hit-by-pitch and a steal as well as two runs and two RBI. Giambi’s departure for pinch-runner Wilson Betemit drew a conversation on scorebook conventions for noting pinch-runners (seriously, we’re great at cocktail parties). Personally, I circle the dot at the end of my single slash, a method I probably improvised the first time I set eyes on Homer Bush. Rob makes notes in the corners of each box. Jeff has a space where the inning each player entered the game can be noted. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Posada struck out to end the eighth, and Jeff set the line at a 12-pitch inning for Rivera. That estimate appeared quite low once Votto and Bruce both singled, the former on Mo’s first pitch, the latter after a seven-pitch at-bat. “You’ll see. Corey Patterson’s going to hit into a triple play,” said Jeff. Patterson at least appeared poised to ground into the obligatory double play, but Jeter was late in getting the ball out of his glove and settled for the force.

That brought up Adam Dunn as a pinch-hitter. Mired in a 6-for-54 slump, Dunn had gotten the day off from Dusty Baker, the end to a tumultuous week in which he been in the headlines for no good reason, as Toronto GM and official Hit List whipping boy J.P. Ricciardi made some bizarre, disparaging comments about Dunn on a radio show, saying that the slugger, who’s bashed 40 or more homers for four straight years, “doesn’t really like baseball that much” and “doesn’t have a passion to play the game,” among other bright things. This just in: even batting .219, Dunn’s 875 OPS (.384 OBP, .491 SLG) is 39 points higher than the top Blue Jay, and despite being “a lifetime .230-.240 hitter” (.247, actually) has a career OPS of 898, 22nd among active players. Such astute talent evaluation explains why Ricciardi’s Blue Jays are in the seventh year of leading the league in Going Fuck-All Nowhere, and why Ricciardi, after canning manager John Gibbons last week, will likely be looking for work come October. Schmuck.

That said, Rivera struck Dunn out looking, which prompted merciless leatherlung Nick to shout out, “If you loved baseball, you’d have swung at that pitch!” Yeah, we’ll show you the Bronx! The game ended when Rivera retired Norris Hopper on a groundout, jogging the ball over to first base himself, which earned the approval of our out-of-town guests. As “New York, New York” rained down, we debated whether it was in fact a melancholy song; the Liza Minelli version, sure, but I’ve never thought that about the Sinatra version, certainly not after getting to sing it with 55,000 of my new best friends when I was present for the 1999 World Series clincher. Anyway, at least it’s not creepy, the way “Sweet Caroline,” — played at Fenway Park and originally inspired by seven-year-old Caroline Kennedy — is, as someone pointed out.

On that note, our full, rich day at the ballpark ended. A win, some great plays on both sides, and an extra side of serendipity that allowed me to share a bit of a game and a ballpark with friends old and new. Can’t beat that with a fungo bat.

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