"The great game opens a portal onto our past, both real and imagined, comforting us with intimations of immortality and primordial bliss. But it also holds up a mirror, showing us as we are. And sometimes baseball even serves as a beacon, revealing a path through the wilderness." --John Thorn
The modern era of baseball begins with the first World Series in 1903. For some defensible reason, everything is suspect that took place before there were two leagues and an end of the season championship, for those who could not get enough baseball.
I don't remember ever testing the waters, and I have a good memory. I can remember images and events from certain baseball games, but I can't place one precisely in time until Game 7 of the '71 Series between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. I know I had already accumulated enough memories behind 3rd base that I was upset at sitting in right field for a change, until my father explained that this was our chance to see the great Roberto Clemente play in right field. Clemente won the Series MVP award. A year later, he died in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission.
I see myself punished in a corner of a third grade classroom, writing myself and my friends into the World Series, me at third, George Ousler on the mound, Frank Bonsal at first, filling my composition book with our ninth inning heroics.
I'm in the backyard, playing catch with a "Pitch Back," a spring loaded net propped up at the strike zone that fires a thrown ball back at your before a live fielder would have time to squeeze the glove around the ball. It's Game 7 again, top of the 9th this time, with Lefty on the mound, shaking off the net and challenging an imaginary slugger with my high heat.
On a typical night from April to September, I'm awake in the dark, a transistor radio beneath my pillow. In October, there's a "Spy Pen Radio" in my shirt pocket and an ear piece broadcasting the play-offs against the A's while we studied fifth grade geography despite knowing as well as anybody where to find Oakland each morning in the box scores and standings.
Last year I came to Atlanta by way of the Great Smokies, spending the game-day morning weaving in and out of the misty hills on the border of Tennessee and Georgia. I was on a season-long mission to discover the relationship between baseball and place, finding wilderness adventures within a half day's drive from the ballparks. This year I take the subway from the airport and a game day shuttle from the subway to the ball park, still in plenty of time for batting practice before the 1st game.
If you worship at the church of baseball, you know that batting practice is communion. It's one of those anchors to sanity in a game that endures its traditions despite changing its faade, its accessories, and its incidentals. The reverberating crack of a wood bat on a baseball is a soothing sound, a sheltering blanket that administers to the psyche and can bring peace in the same way that those "Ocean Sounds" or "Forest Rains" tapes can have on a sleeping conscience. From the rhythm of the bats and the chatter of the seasoned old coaches to the light-hearted games in the batting cage, the competition among the pitching rotation and the bench players.
Before the game, the field is awash in journalists, officials, celebrities, and various well-connected shakers. Somewhere out there, there are athletes too, preparing for the day's work while Spike Lee makes home movies and Evander Holyfield draws a crowd of paparazzi-style reporters, looking for any story to compete with the great Series to end the century. Somewhere beyond the layers of onlookers, the ball and bat banter of BP takes place.
Atlanta's been to five World Series in the '90s, and they've made it to the post season an astonishing 8 of 10 years. Despite the fabled empty seats that come in their early games in the Division Series and League Championship, they know something about playing in October down here in Georgia. Every fan gets a tomahawk, and Jimmy Carter brings his own grocery bag of peanuts to share with the crowd around Ted Turner's field-level box seats.
In Atlanta, the Independent is held in high regard, and my press box seat is situated with the brain trust from Baseball Weekly to my left and The New Yorker's Roger Angel to my right. Behind me is Chris Berman from ESPN and stage-manager Biff Henderson from Late Night with David Letterman. We're out in left field due to the capacity crowd putting the auxiliary press boxes to use, but we're in fair territory and we're among good company.
In all probability, when people think of the '99 World Series, the most memorable games may turn out to be the last two games of the National League Championship Series between the Braves and Mets. The post-season gave us three great contests in four weeks, with the Mets battling down the favored Diamondbacks, the Red Sox taking three straight from Cleveland's overpowering offense, and the Mets -- Braves match-up in the NLCS.
Up two games to none, the Braves came to New York and eked their way to a 1-0 victory before losing two in a row, each by one run, the second in a 15-inning marathon that left Bobby Valentine giddy with a hard-won success, on top of his game, out-maneuvering Bobby Cox in one of the most managed games in post-season memory, where each team used nearly every player on the bench and in the bull pen.
Somehow, in New York, I had been silently anointed as some kind of caretaker of the sacred ground where the legends walk. Standing by the bull pen door with a screwdriver in your hand will do that to a guy. I was a little surprised, but not unprepared when the first wide-eyed baseball lifer walked up to me, stammering a request that was incomprehensible in pure language, but clear as a bell in the lexicon of baseball.
Yes, I told him, I'd be glad to give him permission to go out on the field. New Yorkers are used to being chased down by cops on horseback when they cross the line onto the green fields of Shea or Yankee Stadiums, but this twenty-something fan had permission -- from the Indy, no less -- to enter through the pearly gates and fulfill a life-long dream. His legs trembled as he passed onto the grass in right-centerfield, and I worried about the scene sure to follow if he fainted out there on the holy ground, but he regained his strength as he approached the spot where Mookie Wilson hit his game-winning home run in '86, leaping up to take an imaginary stab at a ghost-drive over the fence in center, and finally summoning the huevos to round the bases, all without attracting the least bit of attention from New York's finest.
Game 1 of the Series threatened to make an equally tension-filled week out of the Braves -- Yankees match up, pitting Greg Maddox, in excellent form, against Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, a pitcher who escaped Cuba less than two years ago on a home-made raft and has pitched in the last two World Series. El Duque seems to get better every time he takes the mound. Only in New York, surrounded by Clemens and Cone, Pettite and Rivera, could a pitcher this good walk in such a quiet shadow. Despite losing the lead on a Chipper Jones home run in the 4th inning, El Duke was untouchable, letting up only that one hit in 7 1/3 innings, and finally getting the win thanks to a Yankee 8th inning that featured three walks, three hits, two errors, and three strikeouts.
This post-season will always be remembered as special, even if it isn't for the play on the field. More than anything, there was an unbelievable array of unofficial "advisors" and "consultants" wandering the fields and tunnels of the stadiums. Sandy Koufax dropped in to talk to Bobby Valentine in Flushing, Yogi Berra, Ernie Banks, and Frank Robinson were on the field in Atlanta, and Bob Gibson was in Joe Torre's office after game one. But before Game 2 on Sunday, one of the most memorable gatherings in baseball history took place out on the field, and, earlier, in a hotel in downtown Atlanta.
Joining the Hall-of-Famers mentioned above were Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn, Roger Clemens, and Hank Aaron for the All-Century Team. Later in the day they were augmented by Mark McGwire, Ted Williams, and Pete Rose, who soon enough became the biggest story of the news cycle. But Rose was still making his way from a signing event at an Atlantic City casino, leaving the media to salivate over the prospect of trying to interview all fourteen of the present All-Century players, instigating the kind of delightful torture that could have only have been invented in Greek myth. Do I dash for an early word with Willie Mays? Or should I engage Hank Aaron in conversation? Do I go to Cal Ripken or to his hero, Brooks Robinson? Or his hero, Stan Musial? And who could keep themselves from the reclusive Sandy Koufax?
You talk about your kids in the candy shop, but this was more like a feeding frenzy in the lions den. Nevertheless, it was a fairly civil crowd, the vast majority of whom merely wanted to know whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall, who was left off the list, and are hitters really so much better today or is the ball juiced?
The old-timer circuit is one of the most accurate barometers for measuring your aging process. When players you saw play in their prime as a kid start to wrinkle up and turn into anecdotal caricatures from the other country of the past, you can start pricing rocking chairs.
He hasn't been allowed to set foot on a baseball diamond for the past ten years, but Pete Rose wasted no time in living up to his old moniker of "Charlie Hustle," though these days he's not hustling down the base paths as much as hustling his name, his case, and his signature to every shock jock, cub reporter, and casino gambler who'll listen to the self-proclaimed "best ambassador baseball has."
Some of Rose's most memorable comments at a pre-game interview session with the press -- when there was literally only one question in some 20 minutes that did not deal in some way with his suspension from baseball -- came in the form of his description of uncharacteristic activities on his part, either real or imagined. For the former, Rose cited the difficulty he had going to the ball game to watch his son play in Cincinnati. Part of the ban prohibits Rose from being on a major league ball field or participating in any aspect of major league baseball. "I drive so many people crazy...when I go to the game," Rose said of the ushers and security personnel he encounters. "They're paranoid about me being at the game....can he park here? Can he go into this entrance? Can he sit here? Can he buy a hot dog? A Diet Coke? They're all scared they're going to lose their jobs."
Another, hypothetical, image of Rose came as he outlined his gambling habits, in part as a way of justifying his signing appearance at a casino over the weekend. "I'm not a casino-type gambler," Rose insisted before launching into a laundry list of his preferences. "I was into horse racing....I don't understand craps, I'm not a blackjack player, I'm not going to sit there and do that wheel and I'm sure as hell not going to pull a slot machine." That final image alone was haunting and hilarious, a fitting portrait of this complex man.
One of the most stirring moments came in the ghostly acknowledgement of the deceased players, whose family members sat on the field as their representatives. It was chilling to see the families of Babe Ruth, Pie Traynor, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, and the rest gather together in the ultimate reunion.
By 8:00 p.m. I felt like a Marine, having done more before game time than most of us do by the end of a full game day. I'd had enough baseball to last me five years, and the first pitch of the second game had yet to be thrown. I don't think any of us could have handled a seven-game series. In hindsight, as the promise of recovery from an overdose of baseball epiphany enters the realm of conceivability, I'm amazed at the short-attention span of the sportswriter/sportsfan. I would have been perfectly content to go home after the All-Century ceremonies, to wait another day for an actual game. Apparently the Braves felt the same way, laying down their bats for eight innings and getting only one hit against David Cone in his seven innings of dominant pitching. The entire game was a colossal blunder for Bobby Cox. After a timid, one-run outing in the first game, Cox benched four of his starters, hoping to provide a spark with the unusual line up.
"It kind of surpised me," said clean-up hitter Brian Jordan. "It's unusual for a World Series to change the line-up so dramatically. I know the guys who aren't playing were pretty surprised." Pitching coach Leo Mazzone may have had less on his mind than hitting coach Don Baylor, but he didn't hold back from giving his tongue a work out, sitting in the dugout before the second game. When told that cameras detected an illegal stance from El Duque in Game 1, Mazzone jokingly said he would encourage his pitchers to take any advantage they could, as long as they don't get caught. "Any advantage you can get out on the mound is certainly well worth taking, that's for sure," Cox said with a straight face. When asked if that included thumb tacks and emery boards -- the tools of the spitball/scuffball artists -- Mazzone answered "Whatever. You don't have to go out there alone."
Cox has had the enviable fortune to appear in 5 World Series this decade, only to find the misfortune to lose four of them. And Cox does put a lot of it down to fortune. There's some validity to his desire to recognize the strengths of his teams that win in the neighborhood of 100 games a season, but never 4 in a Series. On the other hand, you earn your breaks, and it's no fluke that Cox has lost 8 straight Series games to the Yanks, going back to '96 when his team had been up 2 games to none over Torre.
Cox is so adamant about the breaks that he blamed his Game 1 loss on the umps, claimed "neither club scored any runs last night really," after the Yanks beat the Braves 4-1, and still believed that his team was playing world champion ball going into Game 4, saying "we're up 2 games to 1, in my book." In an age where owners, coaches, analysts, and aces all chant the mantra of "staying within yourself" on the field, Cox goes a little overboard in keeping true to his own sense of the book. It may account for players who are too content with the confidence that they are better than their box scores, and for a team that thinks it can still lay claim to being the best team in baseball, even though they haven't won a Series since '95.
Cox is burdened with one of the top two pitching rotations in baseball, and although he and Mazzone have made Atlanta a pitcher's paradise by the way their handle their staff, Cox consistently blew games by trying to get eight inning out of weary starters who were out of gas after seven. In Game 1, he left Maddox in for an 8th inning in which the first four hitters singled, walked, reached on an error, and singled in the tying run. In Game 2 he hit the panic button, starting the J.V. on a notoriously thin bench. To make matters worse, two of the "offensive" replacements, Keith Lockhart and Ozzie Guillen, made key errors. "I feel like Bill Buckner, right now. Goddamn!" Guillen said when approached after the game. Game 3 found Cox leaving Tom Glavine -- barely recovered from the flu -- in for yet another 8th inning, where the pitcher put the tying run on base with a single and a triple to open the inning, setting up an extra-inning nail biter. By the time Game 4 came around, his team was toast.
En route to being named the new manager of the Cubs, Don Baylor made one last efforts to revive his team's hitting as he did during the regular season. Baylor noted the pressure on Braves hitters, and the way the team has used it against themselves. "We have to score early, we can't wait till the game's out of hand....We have to start in the 1st inning.
"...there always will be a tomorrow. You got me today, but I'm coming back." --Buck O'Neill
By Game 4, the only one pretending the Braves were still in the Series was Bobby Cox, still hanging on to his 2-1 lead in his book. After Game 3, David Cone made an offhand prediction that Roger Clemens, after a disappointing season with a merely mortal 14-10 record to match his 4.60 ERA, was poised to have a defining moment as a Yankee in Game 4. Clemens even managed to make himself seem like a sympathetic underdog after his drubbing in Boston during the play-offs. We were all ready for Clemens to choke, ensuring at least one more day of post-season adventures. Once he had his leg trampled and had to leave a shut out game in the 8th, how could you help but root for him? But even though the Yankees have learned to take World Series victories in stride, winning is not getting old, either for the players or for fans of the game.
As indomitable as the Yanks seem these days, winning their division so handily that the rest of the East is already positioning itself for next year's wild card race, they continue to make a compelling story because of the soap opera obstacles that have confronted the team off the field. Manager Joe Torre started the season with surgery for prostate cancer, Daryl Strawberry is coming back from recurring drug problems, and three players -- Luis Sojo, Scott Brosius, and, Paul O'Neill -- have spent part of the stretch mourning the deaths of their fathers.
"We care about each other," Torre explained after completing the sweep. "We have respect for each other. You know, these are human beings. Too many times when players make a lot of money and play this game of baseball, they lose their passion, lose their humanity, but when you're in this clubhouse, you realize how human these guys are....I want to get wet!" Torre concluded, ending the interview in search for a spraying bottle of non-alcoholic champagne."
The more you come to know George Steinbrenner, the more of a caricature of himself he seems to be, even more outrageous than the Seinfeld version of the sanity-challenged Yankee manager. "George Steinbrenner is a stickler for detail," says Torre, but only George Castanza could appreciate the breadth of his stickling. I'd heard rumors of the ultimate micro-managing Boss checking permits in the Yankee Stadium parking lot, but I was still surprised to see him playing elevator operator at the Stadium, ushering people in and out of his way by calling out "Everybody out that's getting out on one floor or another. In Atlanta, he even played locker room attendant, bustling into me as he followed on the heels of Roger Clemens, his All-Century, 5-time Cy Young winning #4 man in the Yankees rotation.
In the victorious Yankee clubhouse, Steinbrenner praised every one from Torre to the advance scouts, declaring that "no team will be talked about from NY, form any sport, for showing any more heart than this team. This was a team of heart. This team was made of heart." Steinbrenner relayed the words of encouragement he used to motivate his team before the game, fending off the threat of miracle upsets. "I told my players to stay focused on what your job its. Your job is to get to the World Series and to win it. But these miracles happen all around us and I'm happy for all of them that happen. But the facts are we walk the walk and we talk the talk."
The scoreboard's off and the cameras are dwindling down and now I've got confetti in my hair and champagne on my sweater. Nobody chased me down with a bottle or anything, but I did manage to jump into the line of sparkling fire, and by keeping my mouth open, I got a taste of the celebratory bubbly of champions.
What more could a baseball kid want than to be sitting in the Yankees dugout after a four-game sweep of the World Series? As Torre says, when you don the pinstripes, you don tradition. I can't pretend that sitting in the dugout, standing at home plate, or even going through my old "Pitch Back" wind-up on the fabled mound at Yankee Stadium adorns me with any of that tradition, but just to be safe, I scoop up a canister full of dirt from the base of the mound.
In Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, after losing the '79 World Series, I took a whole clump of grass from third base. I took it home, sealed it up in Tupperware, and put it on my bureau in a suitably reverent posture for such sacred ground. But this was New York, and no matter how sympathetic their on-going brush with tragedy makes them appear, they are damn Yankees nonetheless. A pocketful of dirt is tribute enough.