El Tiante and the Not Ready For Prime Time (Hall of Fame) Players

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It’s November, which is a dangerous time of year for this baseball fan, because Hall of Fame voting is going on. And no, I’m not going to rail on The Hall’s watered down admissions process that now takes place annually led by Participation Trophy-loving voters (Harold Baines?? OH, OH, OH!!!).

Instead, I’m going to zero in on a few stars who’ve been passed over by Hall of Fame voters through the years. And I’m going to start with a personal favorite from my youth, and maybe the coolest cat from an MLB era that boasted a lot of super cool cats — El Tiante.

I got to thinking about Luis Tiant when I saw that the Eras Committee — Modern Baseball Division — had put out their latest Hall of Fame ballot a couple of weeks back. These committees are well-intentioned, and annually are tasked with combing over those former stars who perhaps warrant another look of consideration when it comes to Hall of Fame induction. The Modern Baseball group covers those who played predominantly between the years of 1970 to 1987 and include some names well deserving of deeper dives, including Ted Simmons, Tommy John and Dave Parker, to name just a few.

I found it interesting, though, that Tiant was not a part of the 2020 group, since he’s been under consideration as recently as 2018 (the last year this committee convened). Apparently the Eras Committee has decided that the Luis Tiant Hall of Fame question now falls under the “asked and answered” category, after many failed tries by El Tiante to reach the necessary number of votes. Fair enough.

But just for fun, as I sit 37,000 feet in the air, let’s take a look at El Tiante, the Cuban-born right-hander who made his debut on July 19th of 1964, and promptly shut out the World Series-bound New York Yankees, 4-0. The losing pitcher that day was Whitey Ford, and New York’s cleanup hitter that afternoon was the single-season home run king, Roger Maris.

Tiant would go on to win 229 games over 3400 innings spanning 19 big league seasons. He struck out over 2400 batters during his career, and was a 20-game winner four times (he also lost 20 once). In 1968, the infamous Year of the Pitcher, Tiant was 21-9 for Cleveland, while leading the American League with a 1.60 ERA. He also led the AL in shutouts  in ’68 with nine, while throwing 19 complete games and striking out 264 hitters in 258 innings pitched. That’s one hell of an HOF resume.

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Interestingly in 1969, after MLB had lowered the pitcher’s mound in an effort to force more offense back into the game, Tiant reversed course. He led the league with 129 walks and 37 homers allowed, while falling to 9-20, prompting the Indians to trade him to the Minnesota Twins.

With the Twins in 1970, Tiant won his first six games, but in that sixth felt a “pop” in his right arm and went on the injured list. He would never regain his full velocity on his signature fastball. He mopped up in one ALCS game for the Twins in ’70, giving up two runs (one earned) against the Orioles as Minnesota was swept, and Tiant was released shortly thereafter, presumed washed up by most observers.

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It was in Boston that folks my age remember Luis Tiant at his beguiling best. No longer a flame-throwing strikeout pitcher following his arm troubles (he went 1-7 in his first year in Boston), Tiant learned to be a complete pitcher, changing speeds, locating with precise control, and battling every pitch and every inning for those memorably good Bosox teams of the ’70’s. He would lead the AL in ERA in 1972, win 20 or more in 1973, 1974 and 1976, and was Boston’s ace when they won the AL East in 1975.

If the postseason matters to voters (and it should), maybe they should have paid closer attention to what Tiant did with Boston in the 1975 postseason. Consider this —

*ALCS Game 1 — complete game win, 7-1 over the three-time champion Oakland A’s,  with the only run allowed coming unearned. The Sawx would ride that momentum to a three-game sweep, ending the A’s dynasty.

*World Series Game 1 — complete game shutout throwing only 100 pitches, dominating the Big Red Machine of Bench, Perez, Rose and Morgan.

*World Series Game 4 — guts out a 5-4 win in another complete game. Tiant allows nine hits and four walks, but goes the distance throwing 155 pitches.

*World Series Game 6 — yup, he got the call in the historic Carlton Fisk Wave It Fair Game, and gutted his way into the 8th inning on fumes, giving up six runs in the process while extending himself for another 113 high-leverage pitches, and keeping Boston in it long enough for Fisk to hit his walkoff in the 12th.

For those keeping track, in the seven-game 1975 World Series, the Big Red Machine won their four games when Tiant didn’t start. The Red Sox rode El Tiante in the other three.

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Now let’s throw in for voters the style points. El Tiante’s signature Fu Manchu mustache, the exaggerated delivery that hesitated midway, as he rolled his eyes back in his head, taking a peek at second base, before releasing the ball towards the batter. The ever-present cigar, the smile, the vagabond career path of an MLB lifer, coaxing wins out of his twisted, old, right arm for the Yankees, Angels and Pirates (yeah, he even wore the old time Pittsburgh hat back in the day) deep into his late-30’s (even if no one was ever sure exactly how old Tiant really was).

I know it’s a different time today, especially when it comes to starting pitchers (however don’t tell that to the Washington Nationals, please), but what would happen if a colorful pitcher with a resume the likes of El Tiante’s were to hit the general HOF ballot today? Yeah, that’s right, he’d be considered a lock. In fact, the modern day example of just that type of pitcher may have recently reached retirement. C.C. Sabathia left the game for good last month, and most pundits have him down as a future sure thing for Hall of Fame inclusion.

I happen to be a Sabathia supporter, but give me Luis Tiant on a bronze bust in Cooperstown all day long over C.C. (or Roy Halladay, or Jack Morris). Just sayin’.

All this nostalgia over the great El Tiante got me to thinking — what would my starting lineup of “Hall of Fame Almosts” look like? And with apologies to my buddy Geno, who is undoubtedly already putting together a text for me extolling the virtues of Dwight Evans, here’s the AtticBro Nine of all-time ballplayers NOT in the Hall of Fame (style points absolutely taken into consideration!):

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Right-handed Starting Pitcher — Yup, we are going with El Tiante on the bump, and I really didn’t consider anyone else.

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Left-handed Starting Pitcher — Jim Kaat. This one was a tough call, with Kitty going down to the wire against another deserving HOF candidate, Tommy John (who happens to be up again this year courtesy of the Eras Committee). Winning 283 games (including an AL-best 25 in 1966 for the Twins) puts him on this squad, and his 16 consecutive Gold Gloves are worth noting, too.

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Catcher — Ted Simmons. This may be the final year Simmons is eligible for our squad, as he was only two votes shy when the Eras Committee voted in 2018, and I fully expect the raking switch-hitter to get into The Hall this year. Nearly 2500 hits and a career .348 OBP, along with a .986 fielding percentage makes Simba a no-brainer. Honorable Mention to Thurman Munson, who’s also under consideration again this year with the Eras Committee, and will likely be my starter behind the dish in future years, once Simmons moves on.

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First Base — Dick Allen and Gil Hodges. First base was easily the most hotly contested spot on my starting nine, and I ended up having to throw in the towel and go with a tie. I choose to believe Dick Allen is not in the Hall of Fame today more because his run of absolutely absurd statistical excellence didn’t last quite long enough, rather than due to his questionable attitude and hostility toward those that wrote his paychecks. Who knows, maybe I’m just being naive. But I do know that I want peak-performance Richie Allen of the early-’60’s Phils and early-’70’s Chisox hitting third in my lineup. The problem that Allen created for me was what to do with Hodges? Of all of the all-time Cooperstown snubs, the mystery behind Gil Hodges’ exclusion is the hardest for me to understand. Hopefully one of the various committees can right this egregious wrong one day, but until then, he’ll slide onto the SportsAttic Nine as Player-Manager. From there he can insert himself into games as Allen’s late-innings defensive replacement, while running the show from the top step. Honorable mention (by a fair distance) to Steve Garvey, and no, Yankees fans, Don Mattingly isn’t even in the conversation.

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Second Base — Lou Whitaker. Sweet Lou is also being considered by the Eras Committee, and, along with Simmons, is the only other no-brainer on this year’s Modern Baseball list. It still doesn’t seem right to me that Alan Trammell is in The Hall without his double-play partner from those strong Tigers teams of the ’70’s and ’80’s. Quick SportsAttic footnote: I briefly considered trying to sneak Pete Rose in here at the keystone (the way Sparky Anderson used to move Rose around the diamond depending on who needed a day off), but ultimately decided to exclude those banned by MLB (which is why you won’t see Shoeless Joe Jackson when we get to our outfield). I also decided against including any of the known steroids cheats (easy, since other than Mark McGwire, I can’t stand any of those guys, anyway). Honorable mention here to Jeff Kent, but he was always such a sour horse’s ass that we can’t let him onto our team.

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Shortstop — Bert Campaneris. Shortstop was about as close as it could get between Campy and the Reds’ Dave Concepcion. Ultimately my tie-breaker was simply that I always liked those 1970’s Oakland A’s teams featuring Campy at short better than I did the Big Red Machine and Concepcion. Besides, Campaneris was just so much fun. In 1965, in another hair-brained Charlie Finley attempt to sell more tickets, Campaneris played all nine positions on Campy Campaneris Night in Kansas City. Not only that, but during his time on the mound, Campaneris threw from both sides, going righty against the right-handed hitters, and turning around for a southpaw look against the lefties in the Angels lineup. And yes, the haters may bring up the time Campy hurled his bat at the Tigers Lerrin LaGrow after getting hit by a pitch in the 1972 ALCS (in a head scratcher, Campy was suspended for the remainder of the ALCS and the first seven games of the following season, yet allowed by commissioner Bowie Kuhn to play in the World Series), but c’mon, Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro over the head with his bat, and he’s got a statue outside Oracle Park in San Francisco and a bust in Cooperstown. Campy it is.

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Third Base — Ken Boyer. It was tempting to plug Rose in at third, too, but Boyer was too good an option to pass up. Arguably the best defensive third baseman of his time, who also amassed nearly 2500 hits on some awesome Cardinals teams. It’s puzzling to me that he never comes up when we discuss Hall of Fame snubs. My only theory is that perhaps he was too overshadowed by all the stars those St. Louis teams boasted who would one day go on to Cooperstown immortality — Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson — the Redbirds of Boyer’s day were loaded. But we will take Boyer’s snub as SportsAttic’s gain, even if he did miss out on the best baseball name in his own family to his brother, Clete. Honorable mention to Sal Bando, but it really wasn’t that close.

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Right Field — Dave Parker. Sorry, Geno, but Dewey Evans doesn’t break into this lineup as long as The Cobra remains on the outside of the HOF looking in (both Parker and Evans are up for consideration this year by Eras). I honestly can’t come up with a single facet of the game where Evans outperforms Parker. Evans’ arm was his money-maker and will no doubt be part of the argument for his candidacy this year, but Parker’s arm was at least as good. Somehow Cobra is tainted in the eyes of the voters (cocaine scandal, anyone?), so I expect him to fall short once again, but talk about a five-tool prototype! Pencil in Dave Parker at cleanup for this squad, following Richie Allen, for all of eternity, and just imagine what kind of post-game party those two will throw. Honorable Mention goes to back-to-back MVP Dale Murphy, along with Evans.

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Centerfield — Vada Pinson. C’mon, name me a better centerfielder not in The Hall. Playing in the Reds outfield behind the considerable shadow cast by Frank Robinson, Pinson put up consistently outstanding numbers. However he was never in the running for MVP and ultimately fell a couple of hundred hits short of 3000, both of which cost him in the eyes of the voters. So he may not be HOF-worthy, but he will bat leadoff for SportsAttic and score 120 runs every year easy. Of course, the real reason he’s on this team is that the first Little League bat ever swung with purpose by young AtticBro was a Vada Pinson autograph model. Hey, it’s my list, so my rules.

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Left Field — Al Oliver. That’s right, I’m going there. Scoop is in the lineup, and we’re going with Pirates at both our corner outfield spots. Imagine this hit machine in the six-hole of the SportsAttic batting order? Right after Simba with Ken Boyer waiting on deck? Yeah, I like it a lot. And if you are bored, go to sportsreference.com and take a look at Oliver’s stats. Day games, night games; early career, late career; regular season, postseason; Pittsburg, Texas, Montreal. All Al Oliver does is rake, rake, rake. A career .303 hitter, he topped .300 eleven times in his career. Yes, he played a lot of first, too, but we’ll take that versatility on our squad, especially since we have no bench other than Player-Manager Gil Hodges and our pitching staff. Honorable Mention to Tony Oliva, only because I really wanted to find a spot for Oliva on our team, even if he was more of a right-fielder. Man could Oliva fill up boxscores in the ’60’s and early-’70’s.

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Closer — Sparky Lyle. The first American League closer to win the Cy Young (Mike Marshall had won it with the Dodgers in ’74), Lyle pitched 137 innings as a closer for Billy Martin and the Yankees during his Cy Young year of 1977. He won 13, and saved another 26 on the way to the Yankees first World Series title since 1962. Then, in the offseason he led the league again, this time in factual errors discovered after he put out The Bronx Zoo. But forgetting his misdeeds as an author, the guy the Yanks stole from Boston for Danny Cater back in the 1971 offseason (in 1972, his first season in Pinstripes, all Lyle did was save 35 games, when that sort of total was unheard of), remains the quintessential lefty closer when SportsAttic looks  back on MLB history.

So there you have it. The SportsAttic No-Hall-of-Fame starting lineup. And while I promised myself that I’d refrain from any more “Hall of Very Good” bashing (at least until this year’s elections are announced), I’d be hard pressed to see Andre Dawson, Tim Raines or Harold Baines crack this starting lineup.

Nuff sed (and ten ballot slots does not mean you brainless sheep have to include ten names, for crying out loud!!!). Sorry, but it just had to be said.

Let’s hear from you — who’s your starting nine?

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World Series Game Memories — What Are Your Five?

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We had a strong World Series this October. Two good teams, outstanding pitching, excellent defense, stars on both sides of the field, and an outcome that touched baseball history and gave us an underdog champion.

Not to mention it went the full seven games, giving us bonus baseball and the unmatched buildup and drama that only a Game 7 offers. Yup, all in all a terrific finish to the 2019 baseball season, which got me thinking about World Series games past.

As we sit between the end of 2019 game action and MLB’s awards season, it seems to make sense for a quick inventory of the most memorable World Series games contested during my lifetime. Emphasis on “game” here, not “series.” Additional emphasis on the word “memorable,” and not “best.” That last distinction becomes particularly important, because like most of the work SportsAttic puts out, this list is completely subjective, coming straight to you from AtticBro’s very own Isle of Me.

Also, please note the following important SportsAttic footnote:  we will not be including Game 6 of the 1986 World Series in this post, as that game transcends any single sporting event memory, and has earned a place in the Top 5 moments of my entire life. Besides, another mention of the ’86 Series here may just put my pal Geno over the proverbial edge.

This is MY top five. If done correctly, the hope here is that should you take a look at this post, perhaps you’ll compile your own Top Five. To frame my list properly, understand that the choices will span from the first World Series to register in my baseball fan’s memory bank (the 1970 Fall Classic between the Orioles and Reds — aka the Brooks Robinson Series) through the one that concluded late last month (congrats once again to all you District of Columbia fans who can no longer be described as “long suffering”).

Here we go:

  1. 1977 Game 6 of Yankees vs Dodgers

Mr. October. Reggie Jackson was part of October baseball in seven out of 10 years during the decade of the 1970’s, which also happen to be the first ten World Series this fan ever tuned in for.

Reggie’s A’s lost in the ALCS in 1971 and 1975, and won it all from 1972-1974. He’d spent 1976 watching from home after his Orioles (Orioles?) had missed the playoffs, and joined forces with the Bronx Bombers as a free agent that winter, promising to be the “straw that stirs the drink,” and promptly pissing of his manager and most of his teammates with that statement. He then introduced himself to the New York media with a season-long string of me-first shenanigans that made the Bombers a must-watch club both on and off the field throughout the 1977 campaign.

And then it was all forgotten (at least until the next season), as Reggie deposited three consecutive pitches thrown by the Dodgers’ Burt Hooten, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough into the Yankee Stadium seats on the final night of postseason baseball that October. Reggie’s three-homer feat, which at that point had only been accomplished once before, by the immortal Babe Ruth, closed out an entertaining and competitive series, while cementing Reggie Jackson as synonymous with World Series excellence forever after.

The ’77 series would be my last prior to entering my teenage years, and thus I was still required to beg for permission to watch the conclusion of baseball games played on school nights, even when a World Series hung in the balance. When Reggie launched his second blast, the series outcome was secure, but because it looked like Reggie would get another turn at bat with a chance at making history, my dad relented. And Reggie didn’t let us down. To this day, when I think of the Fall Classic, I start with Reggie Jackson.

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2. 2000 Game 4 of Mets vs Yankees

The only Subway Series of my lifetime (so far) is best remembered for Game 2, where that cowardly phony and steroid cheat Roger Clemens inexplicably threw a broken bat barrel at Mike Piazza. Mets fans may also  wake up at night screaming over Game 1 of this series, as we pleaded with Armando Benitez to put away the pesky Paul O’Neil and deliver us the all important confidence builder of a Game 1 win over the Yankees, who were seeking their third World Series title in as many years. No such luck.

For me, Game 4 is the one I’ll always remember. Mostly because this was the game AtticBride and I chose to attend in person, somehow scoring awesome seats only a few rows behind the visitors dugout. It was from that vantage point that I got to witness a shirtless, psychopathic Mets fan (face painted half in blue, half in orange) climb onto the Yankees dugout roof as the Yanks were completing their infield drills. This deranged member of Mets Nation absolutely unleashed the most profanity-filled, over the top verbal attack on Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter that this fan has ever witnessed. Jeter never took his eyes off the young “fan” and kept repeating back to him a deadpan “thank you, thank you” as he jogged down the steps into the Yankees dugout. Ten minutes later he emerged from the same dugout, and deposited Mets starter Bobby Jones’ first pitch into the left field seats to lead off the game. Totally took the fans out of it before the home team had even taken their first turn at the plate. I will always blame that fan, along with Armando Benitez, for the Mets losing that series.

For Game 4, the Yankees had started the unimpressive Denny Neagle in what amounted to a must-win for the Mets (who’d somehow come into the Series as betting favorites, despite a starting outfield that included Jay Payton, Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez — you can look it up). The Mets had pulled the series to 2 games to 1 by winning the first home game at Shea Stadium a couple of nights prior, and a Game 4 win to even the series that night would have signaled a total momentum shift.

The key moment in this one came in the 5th, when the Mets put two on with two out for Piazza. The crowd was back in it, with the Mets trailing 3-2 and looking to break it open. Yankees skipper Joe Torre emerged from the dugout doing that familiar walk of his out to the mound, head down, hands in jacket pockets as always, and he summoned former-Met David Cone to replace Neagle. Cone had pitched to a 6.91 ERA during the 2000 season, and was clearly nearing the end of his spectacular career. Torre needed one out. Conie got Piazza to pop out to the infield, and an hour later the Yanks were up three games to one.

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3. 1996 Game 3 of Yankees vs Braves

Conie again. This was the first World Series game I ever attended in person, landing an upper deck seat with a work buddy who hailed from Atlanta. From our nosebleed-level vantage point, we suffered through countless renditions of The Macarena, as the Braves fans carried on as though their second consecutive title was a foregone conclusion. And who could blame them, since they’d just returned home after taking the first two games of the series on the road at Yankee Stadium.

Cone had suffered an aneurism earlier that 1996 season, and had staged a remarkable return to the Yanks in September. He wasn’t at his best this night, but battled, giving up only one run over his six innings of work, and exited having survived a bases loaded, one out threat in his final inning. What’s most memorable to me as I think back on that game, was seeing in person the early-career excellence of Mariano Rivera — as a set up man. The future Hall of Famer relieved Cone to start the seventh inning, and actually got pulled after giving up the Braves’ second run in the 8th. Graeme Lloyd and John Wetteland closed things out, setting the stage for the Yanks to run the table the rest of the way and win the series in six games.

The other notable memory from that cool 1996 night was seeing Atlanta fans heading for the exits after that failed rally in the sixth. The game was only 2-1 at that point, and I was flabbergasted that the home fans were calling it a night so early. The fact that the Braves never did mount a serious rally from there has nothing to do with what a shameless display this was to me. To this day it remains one of the most disappointing efforts by an entire fan base I’ve ever witnessed, and it forced me into doing the unthinkable for the remainder of that 1996 series — rooting for the Yankees to bring home a championship.

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4. 1989 Game 3 of Giants vs A’s

The earthquake game. A half hour before the LaRussa/Canseco/McGwire A’s were scheduled to continue their beatdown of their Bay Area rivals over at Candlestick Park, an enormous earthquake hit, fracturing the Bay Area to the tune of 6.9 on the Richter scale. When it was over there would be $5 billion in damages and 67 dead. The Fall Classic was delayed for ten days, allowing the Game 1 starters to take the mound for the second time in Game 3. The outcome would be the same, as Dave Stewart got the win over Mike Moore, and one of the least competitive series of all-time concluded a couple of days later.

But this one was incredibly memorable to me. I’d been working late at my New Jersey office, and one of the guys came running in saying his wife had just called and there’d been a huge earthquake right before the game had begun. We all huddled around a black and white TV set watching all hell break loose on the west coast. The SI cover above remains iconic to this day.

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5. 2016 Game 7 of Cubs vs Indians

Okay, maybe we had to sneak a “best” game into the Top Five. But man it was memorable, too. I’d flown to the east coast earlier that day, the three-hour time difference making it possible for me to remain awake for the entire 4:28 of game time. The problem was that I had to be up at 5:30 eastern the following morning to get to an early meeting, so when the rain delay hit after the ninth inning concluded, I was nearing delirium.

But what a game, and there was no way I was turning this one off (I’m no Braves fan, after all), especially after watching these two great teams slug it out into this instant-classic of a Game 7. I actually remained wide awake and rooting for more baseball right to the bitter end.

This contest is recent enough that most remember the high drama. The Cubs and their World Series drought dating back to 1908,  facing the Indians, who hadn’t won it all since 1948. The Indians owning more momentum than seemingly imaginable after scoring three in the bottom of the 8th off Aroldis Chapman, with Rajai Davis’ two-run, game-tying shot the key blow, tying the game at 6. Cleveland had destiny on their side, but not so fast. Talk about divine intervention in the form of a just-long-enough torrential downpour.

Then the Cubbies came out of the fifteen minute rain delay scoring two in the top of the 10th, only to teeter and give one back in the bottom half of the frame, while putting the tying run on base, before Kris Bryant’s off balance grab/toss to Anthony Russo ended it. As Bryant charged that ball, picking it up off a still wet infield with speedy Michael Martinez making his way down the line, all I wanted was to see Bryant throw it into the seats.

Not just to keep the Cubs from ending their curse (although I did love that curse), or because I was riding hard on the Indians bandwagon (even though I practically had the whip in my hand by the time Game 7 rolled around), but because I simply wanted more baseball. All good things must come to an end, though, and thus ended Game 7 and the Cubs jinx with one perfect Bryant throw.

Honorable mention on my list of most memorable World Series games:

*The Matt Harvey Game in 2015

*The Joe Carter Walk-off Game in 1993

*The Jack Morris Game in 1991

*The Mariano Rivera Blown Save Game in 2001

What’s your Top Five?

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MLB Postseason Post-Mortem

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It’s been brought to my attention that I’m too hard on major league baseball managers.

Is that a bad thing?

I mean, c’mon. There are only 30 of these jobs in the world. They pay millions of dollars in salary to even the least experienced and inexpensive of the lot (you know, the kind the Mets shop for). And they get to spend their workdays wearing an official baseball uniform at the ballpark.

To me, such a job description should also include, at the least, high expectations. Now don’t get me wrong, managing a professional baseball team is a damn hard job. The degree of difficulty is so high in part because it is a sport that millions of us have grown up around, and consider ourselves experts in. Members of the media (and that distant cousin of the media — bloggers), die hard fans, and little leaguers alike, can all be excused for considering themselves savants when it comes to the National Pastime. And as a result, even the most mundane of the big league manager’s daily strategic decisions are open for interpretation, debate, second guessing, and yes, hostile criticism.

Because there are fundamental truths to the game of baseball that we all grew up understanding. Such as, when trying to keep Game 7 of the World Series close, you don’t leave the best pitcher on the planet sitting in your bullpen. Or when hitting with two outs in the bottom of the 9th of the 2006 NLCS (with the tying and winning runners on base for crying out loud), you don’t watch strike three go by without taking the bat off your shoulder.

And that’s where we’ll start today’s postseason post-mortem.

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Astros skipper A.J. Hinch entered the World Series hailed as some sort of combination of John McGraw and Miller Huggins, with a splash of (fill in the name of some other all-time great manager here — you get the idea) thrown in. Yet, Hinch chose to construct a postseason bullpen without a left-handed pitcher on his roster. This became quite problematic when the Washington Nationals wound up as the Astros opponent in the Fall Classic. Washington featured 20-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto in their middle of their lineup. And all the kid had done all season was mash and rake anything and everything from his stance on the left side of the plate. Especially when facing right-handers. Doh!

I had no problem with Hinch riding Zack Greinke into the 7th inning of Game 7. The quirky right-hander was dealing, and even when he gave up the Rendon leadoff home run, I was still in agreement with leaving him in. When he walked the next hitter, I also agreed with Hinch that it was time to come get Greinke. But not for Will Harris, for chrissakes! The best pitcher in baseball was sitting warm in the Houston pen, and with the red hot Howie Kendrick due up, was there going to be a more highly leveraged situation to go to Gerrit Cole? You throw out any “game plan” at that point. Protect your lead with everything you’ve got, right?

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Shit, Cole was going to be a free agent in a matter of hours. This is akin to Hinch having rented a Ferrari and the deadline for returning the sports car is about an hour from now. You don’t put the thing back in the garage to save gas mileage, you see how fast you can get it up to on the interstate! And then if there’s still time, you try to get it onto two wheels with a couple of ill-advised sharp turns, and maybe even run over a couple curbs for good measure as you pull into the rental car return place.

But not only didn’t Hinch bring in Cole there as Harris turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit, he let him sit the rest of the game! We even watched Ryan Pressly (and his 11+ postseason ERA for fucksake) come in and take a turn, and this game was still only a two run deficit through 8. WTF, A.J.?

Now I wasn’t even rooting for the Astros, mind you. I was simply rooting for a tense ninth inning where the D.C. fans would have to sweat through a high wire act from their rickety bullpen one final time, before taking home their long awaited title. But thanks to A.J. Hinch, we got no such opportunity, and the Nats fans received as low stress a ninth as one could imagine to begin their celebration with.

Other postseason thoughts:

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*Speaking of the Nats. Did anyone else find them so much easier to root for without that all-time dickhead Bryce Harper in right field sucking the air out of the rest of his club? I, for one, can not wait for the first time Joe Girardi punches out Harper in the Philly dugout in 2020.

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*More Nats — I suppose I owe Dave Martinez an apology. I still don’t think the guy has a clue heading into the late innings, but a title is a title, and his meltdown in Game 6 was the stuff dreams are made of. Absolutely epic, Davey. Thank you for that memorable contribution to postseason baseball lore.

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*Yup, congrats to Expos Nation. Er, I mean all those Senators fans out there. Whatever — way to go Nationals (I guess, although don’t somehow the Padres, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins all get one of those convoluted hockey assists now that D.C. has recaptured the title for the first time since Walter Johnson was the ace of their staff?)!

*Every 95 years, like clockwork, another World Series title arrives in our nation’s capital.

*“First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” — sorry, but we just love that saying, and felt the need to include it.

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*And how about that Mets managerial hire, huh? Yeah, I know, it’s not technically part of the postseason, but the drama of watching the Wilpons sift through the discount drawer of bench coaches, fringe TV personalities and other assorted second-tier candidates lasted the entire postseason, so we will include it. Carlos Beltran? I heard someone on Baseball Tonight describe him as the best free agent signing ever. EVER. Not just by the Mets, buy by any team. Huh, you don’t say? Funny, since all I remember of Beltran’s Mets tenure is him keeping us out of the World Series by letting some Cardinals rookie strike him out — looking — to end Game 7 of the NLCS back in ’06. Bitter? You bet.

*Is it too soon for me to start lobbying Gerrit Cole not to sign with the Yankees?

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*Dave Roberts must have something on his bosses over at Chavez Ravine. Let’s see, he completely managed the Dodgers out of the 2017 World Series (beginning the knighthood of Mr. Hinch, by the way), was uncompetitive against the BoSox in the 2018 WS, and lost to a Nationals team that finished with 13 fewer regular season wins than L.A. in the 2019 NLDS. Yeah, bring that guy back. I know, everybody says Roberts is a nice guy. So was Art Howe…

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*For the umpteenth time, the skills that help a manager guide a team during the regular season are entirely different than those that can win three playoff series in three weeks. As much as it upsets me to admit it, it appears Aaron Boone may be capable of doing both well. Mets fans can only hope Carlos Beltran becomes another in that elite club, but as I sit here today I can’t tell you I’m feeling it.

*Did the Cardinals really beat the Braves in the NLDS? That ten-run first by the Cards in Game 5 feels like it happened about 15 years ago.

*The A’s ticket office has left me no fewer than 11 messages since they were bounced (again) from the Wild Card game. Their latest offer included an exclusive opportunity to meet Marcus Semien. Yes, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, but I think Oakland may be maxed out in their current value-seeking business model.

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*Joe Maddon to the Angels with Mickey Callaway as his pitching coach? I like both moves. Put Cole at the front of the Angels rotation, with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in the middle of the order, and that’s the season ticket package I want to hear about.

*I guess we should have smelled something rotten in Denmark (or Houston) when the Rays took them to the limit in the ALDS. Cole saved Hinch and the ‘Stros there, though, didn’t he? Hell of a season down in Tampa, especially when I factor in that I still can’t name five players on the Rays roster. Even so, I’m going on record now that the Rays don’t make the 2020 playoffs.

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*Who is it at Fox Sports that feels A-Rod, Big Papi and the Big Hurt make for entertaining pregame and postgame commentary? A-Rod is so busy letting everyone know how he was indirectly involved in every star’s early development that he barely notices Papi frothing at the mouth to his left, looking for the first pause where can force his Boston-biased opinions on an unsuspecting nation. And poor Frank Thomas. Sitting at the end of the row with that placid smile of his plastered across his face, wishing he would get an opportunity to speak. Then, on the rare occasions that Kevin Burkhardt throws a softball his way, the shock of it is so overpowering that Thomas becomes tongue-tied and defaults to cliches and platitudes. Let’s start over in 2020, Fox Sports. Please!

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*How scary would the Yankees be if Gary Sanchez learned how to hit in the postseason?

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*Aaron Judge is the most fundamentally sound, 6’7 home run hitting freak I’ve ever seen. I’d pay to watch him field his position and run the bases. He’s that solid.

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*I think I’d be more comfortable praising Yuli Gurriel for his all-around excellence if he had a different haircut. You can’t tell me someone in the Astros locker room hasn’t pointed out the resemblance to Sideshow Bob of The Simpsons, right?

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*Is Jose Altuve a Hall of Famer right now, if he never played another game? Not quite, if you ask me, but he’s a top five guy in the league and shows no signs of slowing down.

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*And since you asked — today’s top 5 MLB non-pitchers — Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Christian Yelich, Aaron Judge, Anthony Rendon. Sorry Alex Bregman, but Rendon leap-frogged you in the last 10 days (drop your damn bat like a professional, for God’s sake), and probably added about $50 million to his offseason in the process.

*Watching these two teams play defense during the World Series was a pleasure. And thank you to MLB for removing the juiced baseballs this postseason. It allowed us to focus back in on the finer and more subtle aspects of the National Pastime, played by two outstanding clubs. The Nationals and Astros were two damned good baseball teams, and we appreciated not having that diminished in any way by a game of Home Run Derby breaking out.

*And watching two teams that can flat out pick it in the field made this Mets fan green with envy. If you plan to build around your pitching, shouldn’t you surround those pitchers with fielders that are actually skilled at catching a batted ball? Apparently the Wilpons missed that breakout session at the last Owners Meeting. Once again the Mets head into the offseason with no every day centerfielder, an overload of corner outfielders, a second baseman with no range, and no reliable defensive catcher. Welcome, Carlos Beltran.

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*Top five pitchers today in MLB? Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. Apologies to Walker Buehler, but he will find this list and stick for years to follow one day soon. Seeing four of these aces compete in the Fall Classic was awesome, and while I’ve always known Strasburg was good, he took it to a whole new level on the biggest of stages. Deserving MVP.

*Too soon for 2020 predictions? Of course it is, but here goes — Yankees over Astros in an ALCS rematch. Braves over Padres (riding Manny Machado and, wait for it, Gerrit Cole) in the NLCS. Braves over Yanks in the 2020 World Series.

See you all in February along with pitchers and catchers!

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Look Out Patriots — Here Comes Gang Green! NFL Week 6 Notes

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Are the Patriots really that good?

Okay, probably a foolish question, since they are the defending Super Bowl champs, undefeated, and appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL at the six week mark.

But then again, what have they really done so far in 2019?

They trounced a Steelers team badly in their home opener, but that was before we began to realize that the Steelers aren’t very good this year. Since then, the only game you could argue was against a semi-competitive opponent was when New England went over to Buffalo and pulled out a close one, 16-10. The Bills? Yup, that’s the Pats biggest win so far in 2019.

Yeah, Buffalo’s been the class of the Patriots early-season competition. And yes, I know all about how the Patriots can only play the teams the schedule-makers place in front of them each week, but c’mon. Blowouts of the putrid Dolphins, injury-ravaged Jets, only-slightly-less-putrid-than-the-Dolphins Redskins, along with a less than stellar showing last Thursday night over the Daniel Jones-led Giants, hasn’t proven a thing.

Maybe by next Tuesday morning the Pats will be sitting 7-0 and taking bows as more bouquets are thrown their way. But will the Patriots easily dismiss the J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS for the second time in four weeks? This one could actually be a telling matchup if any doubts are still floating around out there about New England.

The Jets are a different team with Sam Darnold leading the offense, and their O-line finally looked as though they were finding their footing against a solid Cowboys defensive front on Sunday. On defense, it appears C.J. Mosley may at last be returning from the groin injury that sidelined him in the Jets opener, and he is a difference-maker for Gang Green if he is healthy and calling the defensive signals.

As bad as the Jets have looked during Darnold’s absence, the defense has actually acquitted itself pretty well, which is no easy feat when you go into a game knowing you have zero chance of winning unless the defense and special teams units rack up multiple scores.

Meanwhile, we may not be watching the same old Patriots of years past. For one, at some point, they will miss Rob Gronkowski. There was a notable difference between the Pats with Gronk in the lineup, as opposed to when he was sitting it out with an injury these last few years, and when the competition picks up Gronk’s absence could be notable. Then there’s the Pats’ 42-year-old QB. He can’t keep up this level of play forever, can he? Okay, maybe he can, but at some point there’s gotta be some kind of injury, right? Brady does take some hits, and I don’t care how healthy a diet you have, it’s harder to recover from a beating at 42 than 32 (or 22, for that matter).

Then there was the whole Antonio Brown embarrassment/distraction earlier in the season. Very un-Patriots-like, don’t you think? And maybe most importantly, the Patriots have made closing the season strong their hallmark during this remarkable run of excellence. It’s almost an October rite of passage that there’s some unexpected New England loss, or losses, to get all us haters hopeful that maybe the jig is finally up in New England. You know the chorus — Belichick’s losing his touch, Brady’s showing signs of his age, etc., etc., etc. Then they go and right the ship and close the season on a crescendo that carries them right through January. Like effin’ clockwork.

Are the Patriots peaking too early in 2019? Can their incredible streak of 19 consecutive wins over teams led by first and second-year QB’s continue uninterrupted? Could they be overlooking the Jets after barely breaking a sweat in stomping their division rivals just four weeks ago?

Well, that’s why they play the games. And forget the point spread, SportsAttic is calling for an outright Monday Night Football upset at MetLife Stadium six days from now. You heard it here first!

Other thoughts from around the NFL following an interesting Week 6:

*Are the 49ers really good, or were the Rams overrated coming into this year? Probably a little bit of both, but until someone knocks them off, consider the Niners the team to beat in the NFC. That defense looks for real.

*And what about the Steelers rallying around a kid who showed up for the game in a duck t-shirt on Sunday night? Methinks that Pittsburgh win may tell us more about the state of the Los Angeles (still can’t get used to calling them that) Chargers, than any real sign of optimism for NFL fans in Western Pennsylvania to grab hold of.

*We can’t help but think that Atlanta sports fans must have had their fill of Cardinals after this past week, huh? Are the Falcons really that bad? As the oracle known as Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”

*So the Eagles go to Minnesota and lay an egg against the Vikings and decide to place the blame on linebacker Zach Brown, who was quoted criticizing Kirk Cousins leading up to the game (he was not alone in his critique, by the way). Yeah, definitely the linebacker’s fault. Here’s hoping the Giants or Cowboys pick up Brown and he exacts some NFC East revenge before the season’s out. Enjoy 3-3, Iggles.

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*Speaking of the NFC East, maybe the best part of the Jets win over the Cowboys on Sunday was reading the hysterical, ranting tweets from Cowboys fans calling for Jason Garrett’s head. Listen folks, Garrett’s stared down way worse than a 3-3 start during his checkered tenure in Big D. Doesn’t seem Jerry Jones will ever pull that trigger. Makes ya wonder what Garrett’s got on this guy, doesn’t it?

(SPORTSATTIC NOTE and SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTIONAL PLUG — Follow us on twitter — @sportsattic2)

*One last note on the NFC East — can the Giants really be only one game out of first place? Could they truly be playing a “must win game” (against the Cardinals for goodness sakes) this coming Sunday? Do they really sport the same 2-4 record as the vaunted Cleveland Browns at this point in the season? Yes, yes, and yes. And don’t think for a second Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t well aware of all of that.

*I know it seems like most of the league is 2-4 right now, but the Jaguars have to be the best 2-4 team of them all. They’ve lost close ones to the Chiefs and Saints at home and to the Panthers and Texans on the road. Plus their QB’s mustache is way cooler than Aaron Rogers’.

*Yeah, the Lions got robbed last night. Yeah, in their heart of hearts, the NFL probably does prefer to see the Packers win at Lambeau on a Monday night. Yeah, it’s getting old having the officiating play such a visible role in outcomes every week. I’m not sure about the correct solution, but it seems to me a catch is a catch, and interference is interference, and we all grew up making those calls decisively in pick up games on every playground from sea to shining sea. Yet those are the calls officials can’t seem to get right week after week. SMH.

*Was Sam Darnold’s triumphant return and demonstration to all that he possesses the intangibles of a franchise QB enough to table these absurdly premature “Daniel Jones is the best QB in New York” arguments? I sure hope so.

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October Baseball — Moments, Thoughts and Memories

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Moment

I hate to start here, but there’s really no choice. An old joke goes something like this — “people may occasionally say ‘I don’t like kids,’ but they almost never will say ‘I don’t like your kids.'”

And so it goes with Clayton Kershaw. I hear people say all the time how much they can’t stand the Dodgers. I never hear anyone say they don’t like Clayton Kershaw.

And that’s what made the future Hall of Fame left-hander’s latest October fail so painful to watch last night. The suffering was raw, real and right there, for all of us to witness, when the big lefty threw the two pitches that completely altered the trajectory of this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs. It was an utterly human moment that reminded me why baseball still remains our National Pastime.

Baseball players are (more or less) like the rest of us. They aren’t a foot taller or a hundred pounds of muscle heavier. They play a game most of us have played in one way, shape or form in our lifetime, with rules we understand, and strategy we can all opine on (or second-guess). And it’s that human element that makes those moments that occur on the biggest stages of October baseball so memorable and poignant for those of us who love this game.

The empathy I felt for Kershaw last night, watching him power through such agony from his seat on the bench, pained me deep inside. There was Kershaw, dealing with his epic failure in front of a national television audience. A failure that further cemented his legacy as a pitcher that doesn’t come through when the stakes are highest, and left him knowing that he’d let down his teammates when they needed him most. It pained me as a fellow human being.

Then watching him be his usual standup self in accepting the blame to the hordes of media following the Dodgers’ elimination, only increased my admiration. Best (regular season) left-handed pitcher of his time. Stellar man.

That feeling of connection to the vulnerable, human side of one of the game’s all-time greats got me thinking about other moments, thoughts and memories that make the month of October such a special time for baseball fans.

Thought 

I don’t need an announcement from MLB to know that they’ve removed juiced balls from October play.  All I need are my ears and eyes. I don’t even need an apology after the league made a mockery of so many cherished records that had been set over the last 100 years or so of the sport. But regardless of how angry I am over the sham of juiced balls this season, I’m glad they are gone now. Baseball like it oughta be.

Memory

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On October 3rd, 1971, Bob Robertson captured my imagination as a young baseball fan. It was the first NLCS of my young life, and it seemed to me the Pirates first baseman would hit a home run every time he came to the plate for the rest of my days on the planet. Robertson homered three times in Game 2 of the NLCS against a loaded San Francisco Giants team (Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds), and the Pirates were on their way to the first of their two World Series titles during the 1970’s (both over the Orioles in seven games, I might add). Bob Robertson — my first October legend.

Memory

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What was it about role players stepping up to October glory in my formative years? On October 14th, 1972 (only a year after I’d decided Bob Robertson was the greatest slugger I’d ever see), Gene Tenace became the first player to homer in his first two World Series at bats, and the A’s were on way to launching a dynasty. Once again, it seemed to 7-year-old me that Tenace had to be the greatest home run hitter of all time.

The Oakland A’s, with their mustaches and bold, green and gold uniforms, became the first team to capture my imagination. Sure, by then I was already a Mets fan forever (which made the 1973 World Series a torturous time in my young life), but those A’s were just so cool. They’d take the Big Red Machine in a classic, seven-game series (without their best player, Reggie Jackson) in ’72, and go on to make their mark as the best team of the decade.

Thought

When did Pedro Martinez turn into the Stay-puffed Marshmallow Man? OMG — wardrobe, order up Mr. Martinez some bigger dress shirts stat! They’re going to cut off circulation to his head when he buttons that top button and ties his tie! Do something!

Thought

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Leaving Kershaw in last night shouldn’t get Dave Roberts fired, but leaving Joe Kelly in sure should. I know 2019 Kenley Jansen wasn’t the lights out closer we’ve seen in years past, but letting Howie Kendrick go deep with the bags full and nobody out, while his closer sat in the pen waiting for the call was inexcusable. I’m half-surprised none of the Dodgers belted Roberts in the mouth when they returned to the bench following the top of the 10th.

Thought

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Does anyone else feel like they are listening to Joe Girardi conducting a job interview when he calls one of these playoff games? I wouldn’t be surprised if before the game starts he scribbles “nice guy” and “relatable” on his palms to remind himself what he’s trying to prove to those clubs hiring out there. That being said, I hope he ends up in the Mets dugout in 2020. If he’s smart though, Girardi should give it a couple of weeks and wait for Roberts to be sent packing, because the Dodgers young talent figures to leave them contenders for years to come.

Thought

If the Rays somehow figure out Gerrit Cole and come back to win Game 5 in Houston (currently trailing 4-1 in the 7th), we may as well just hand the Yankees this year’s World Series title. I mean, an upset or two are always good fun, but leaving us Yankees-haters with the Nats and the Cardinals to choose from in the Senior Circuit simply isn’t fair. And if it’s the Rays against the Yanks in the ALCS? Fight at the back rack for New York. Ugh…when will it end?

Thought

My buddy Geno keeps saying how psyched he is to see a Verlander-Scherzer matchup in the World Series. I agree, because it would mean the Yankees just lost the ALCS.

Moment

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Babe Ruth Day. Yes, I know this didn’t take place in October, but seeing the bigger-than-life slugger suited up in his pinstripes one last time, using a bat for a cane, tears me up every time. I may not like the Yankees, but the baseball fan in me knows they do baseball history better than anyone in the Bronx.

Moment

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Yes, Lou Gehrig Day, too. SportsAttic will now resume Yankees-bashing for the remainder of the 2019 postseason.

Thought

The Astros pen may not cost them Game 5 against the Rays tonight, but it will cause their fans significant pain before this postseason concludes.

Memory

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I was rooting hard for the 1988 Dodgers to get swept. Not only had Orel Hershiser and his gang of over-achievers stolen the NLCS out from under our far superior Mets team, it had become apparent that Kirk Gibson would exploit Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds splitting the New York MVP voters to steal that postseason award as well.

Then Gibson goes and hits that shocking, gimpy, walk-off against Dennis Eckersley, who’d been about as unhittable a reliever as we’d ever seen up until that inning.

Despite that, I challenge any baseball fan worth his salt to deny they’ve mimicked Gibby’s arm-pumping home run trot at least once in the 31 years since that ball cleared the fence.

Thought

How about a hand for Brian Anderson and Ron Darling? How hard must it have been for those two announcers to come up with nine innings of filler after the Cardinals put up their 10-spot on the Braves in the top of the first yesterday. It was painful to watch, but at least we could change the channel. Nice going, boys.

Thought

Is there anything more fun and flat out exhilarating than an elimination game in professional sports? And yes, this applies to all of the major sports, even though today’s post is on baseball. Anything can happen in an elimination game, tension is felt deep in the pit of our stomachs, and memories are waiting to be made.

Moment

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Howard Ehmke is one of my favorite World Series heroes. Ehmke was a 35-year-old (which is like being a 50-year-old today, I think) pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, and started Game 1 of the 1929 World Series.

Ehmke had gone to Athletics’ manager Connie Mack in late-August (after only starting 11 games that season) and told Mack that he felt he had one more great start in his tired right arm. Mack believed the veteran, and told him to shut down his throwing for the entire month of September, and instead spend the time scouting the Athletics’ likely World Series opponent, the Chicago Cubs.

Even though Mack had Game 1 choices in his rotation, such as the future Hall of Famer and 300-game winner Lefty Grove, Mack chose to send Ehmke out for Game 1. The old man set a then-World Series record with 13 strikeouts (including Hall of Fame Cubbies Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby and Kiki Cuyler), while leading the A’s to a complete-game, 3-1 victory in front of 50,000+ hostile Cubs fans at Wrigley Field. The A’s would go on to win the series in five games.

Ninety years ago, folks, but we can still relate to a tired old man asking for the ball and one final shot at glory. And we can admire the manager who defied the odds and trusted his gut, believing in a guy who hadn’t thrown a pitch in over a month to start the most important game of the year.

Awesome. Baseball. Moment.

(Future) Moment

Here’s hoping that somewhere in our baseball future (let’s say October of 2023 or 2024), an aging and near-retirement Clayton Kershaw ambles into his managers office and asks for one final World Series start in Dodgers Blue. And rather than staff ace Walker Beuhler getting sent out for Game 1, we see the big lefty taking the hill for one last shot at October glory. Clayton Kershaw’s modern-day, Howard Ehmke moment.

We probably won’t see a complete game or 13 K’s from Kershaw on this future October evening, but how about six shutout innings full of 12-to-6 curve balls and low-90’s fastballs on the corners, leading his team to a Game 1 win? I don’t like the Dodgers, but I’ll sign up for that moment right now.

Thought

As bad as the Nationals pen has been this year, it will be the Cardinals bullpen that blows the NLCS for St. Louis. Carlos Martinez is a walking blown save right now, and I see him giving back two leads as the Nats move on to the franchise’s first World Series appearance.

Besides, at least the Washington starting rotation will give them a puncher’s chance should they end up facing the Bronx Bombers for all the marbles.

Memory and Moment

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Yup, I had to close with Game 6, 1986. Easily my greatest sports memory, and it is hard to believe it was 33 years ago when the Mets overcame that two-run, 10th inning deficit to stage the greatest comeback in World Series history (sorry folks, not even accepting arguments on that statement).

When the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs and it became apparent we’d be playing a Game 7, the level of joy I felt is impossible to capture with mere words.

But if you are a sports fan, I don’t need to capture it for you. You have your own Mookie Wilson moment, and you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Play ball!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bitter Mets Fan’s Guide to the MLB Playoffs

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First of all, let me start by saying that I hate the Minnesota Twins.

Can we all agree that even if the Twins go 120-42 in 2020, we don’t allow them to participate in the playoffs? I mean, c’mon now, it’s bad enough that as a fan of the New York Mets I have to watch the Yankees (and their entitled, banner-counting fans) make the playoffs every year. Can’t a fella even get a semi-competitive playoff series to throw a scare into the Damn Yankees? Nope. Here come the goddamn Twinkies.

Oh sure, I read all the stories about how this year would be different for Minnesota. The Twins set the home run record (kind of like being named the best steroid-aided home run hitter of the 1990’s) and won over 100 games, and now they are going to “slay the dragon.” Yeah, whatever.

And then they send some guy out to start Game 2 with a 4.90 ERA who was driving an Uber six months ago. Yeesh. Cue the slaughter rule. Get these amateurs back to the land of lakes so we can start up the ALCS. At least then we’ll have a legit chance to see the Pinstripes take one on the chin.

But annual playoff pain for us Mets fans does create opportunity when it comes to how we view these 2019 MLB Playoffs. For example, I realized the other day that once the A’s were unceremoniously dismissed by a Tampa Rays team that could easily qualify for witness protection, not one club was left standing this postseason that I can even remotely root for. As I scanned the four playoff games scheduled for this past Friday (a baseball fan’s dream, by the way, no matter where your rooting interests lie), my feelings ranged from deep hatred (hello, New York Yankees) to indifference (hi there, Tampa).

In the National League, I embraced the fact that I absolutely can’t stand each of the four teams vying for spots in this year’s NLCS.

My distaste for the St. Louis Cardinals dates back to the 1980’s, when the despicable White Rat, Whitey Herzog, and his band of speedster banjo hitters somehow stole what should have been a Mets 1985 World Series title out from under us (if only Darryl Strawberry hadn’t dove for that ball in shallow right that summer…that ill-fated dive cost him 20 games and us the division in the process).

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The Dodgers? They absconded with what should have been our 1988 World Series title. Kirk Gibson never gets his shot at immortality if the Mets had only taken care of business that fall, but Orel Hershiser, Mike Scioscia, Doc Gooden and Ron Darling had other ideas, and the next thing I know I have to watch that shameless, camera-craving creep, Tommy Lasorda, declaring himself a manager for the ages, after L.A. took out the Bash Brother A’s in five games.

By the mid-’90’s the divisions had realigned, and now we Mets fans had the Atlanta Braves in our division, just in time to witness one of the most prolonged periods of baseball excellence (with only one championship to show for it — chew on that one, Braves fans) this side of the 1950’s Bronx. On what seemed like a weekly basis, we had Chipper (“LARRRRR-YYYYY”) Jones, John Rocker and the Hall of Fame version of Tom Glavine (important to note that the Tom Glavine we had as a New York Met was not a Hall of Famer) torturing us to no end. Sure, the Mets made it to the 2000 World Series, but only after the Cardinals took out the Braves, clearing the decks for us to lose another World Series that should have been ours (a pox on you, Armando Benitez!).

And of course now the Nationals are today’s nemesis, signing Daniel Murphy just to mess with Mets fans when we deemed Murphy’s 2015 playoff excellence to be an aberration, and let him walk in free agency. So yeah, Dodgers, Cardinals, Braves, Nationals — I hate ’em all.

Which is what has made the past few days so much fun. If there is one benefit to your team not making the playoffs, folks, it’s that the searing pain of playoff futility shifts to the fans of your arch enemies who remain alive.

Case in point — Game 1 of the NLDS between Atlanta and St. Louis the other night. The Braves are seemingly cruising with a 3-0 lead heading into the late innings, but the Cardinals start chipping away. Ultimately they ding overrated closer Mark Melancon (you watch, Braves fans, if you do advance, this guy will rip your heart out in the NLCS), and put the game away by taking a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the 9th (or did they). The crowd shots of Braves fans with those pained looks smacking of a mixture of disbelief and anguish, when just minutes earlier they’d been seen celebrating like the circus was coming to town, brought warmth and happiness to my heart.

But as if Braves-fan-pain wasn’t enough fun, in the bottom of the 9th we found more joy, as Atlanta mounted a comeback of their own behind a couple of homers and closed to within 7-6, no doubt creating much angst for all those Cards fans who had already put this one in the books as a “W.” That St. Louis hung on to the get the final out is really inconsequential in the telling of this story. The true winners were us bitter Mets fans, knowing that the pain of an imploding bullpen (a unique kind of agony Mets fans became intimate with during the 2019 baseball season) had gut punched not one, but two of our most hated rivals.

Then last night we got to witness that same pain and suffering travel west to afflict Dodgers fans. Up one game to none in an NLDS series where Los Angeles has only downside, being such prohibitive favorites, the Dodgers coughed up home field advantage behind another “meh” playoff start from future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. Now I must admit to being a Kershaw fan, but not so big a fan that I couldn’t delight just a bit in knowing how it has to drive Los Angeles fans crazy beyond reasonable comprehension knowing that the greatest left-hander of his time will take his inability to win in the postseason with him to Cooperstown.

Nats fans didn’t escape the contest unscathed either, despite evening their series at one game apiece. They still had to look on helplessly yet again, as skipper Davey Martinez began to pull his bullpen levers in the late innings, jeopardizing a dominating start by Stephen Strasburg. Not only did Martinez make the puzzling decision to insert ace Max Scherzer, who finished the season with back and arm issues, in the 8th inning to help preserve the Nats two-run lead, he then chose to pull Scherzer after the ace had struck out the side in the 8th, forsaking the dominating Mad Max to instead try his hand with a new Washington arm in the 9th. Talk about tempting fate!

Again, it doesn’t matter that Daniel Hudson closed things out, and now Washington heads back to D.C. with a chance to advance if they hold serve on their home field. What matters to us Mets fans is that no matter which side folks were rooting for last night, they exited the matchup with a few more gray hairs, plus indigestion that would linger long into the night.

Over in the American League? Have I mentioned that I hate the Twins? Only because of how they seem to roll over every year when playing the Yankees in October. And Astros-Rays? This is a mismatch to the nth degree. When they announced the starting lineup for Tampa prior to Game 1, there were only three names I even recognized, and this team somehow won 96 games this year? That would appear to be more of a testament to the tanking going in in Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, Toronto and Seattle, than to anything particularly special about the Rays.

Houston? Yeah, I don’t like them either. That dates back to the ’86 postseason, when Mike “Scuff” Scott nearly stole another World Series from us. That the Mets actually survived that NLCS (thank you, Jesse Orosco) doesn’t matter. I continue to dislike Houston to this day (but I’ll be rooting for them in the next round to send home the Yanks), but my Astros dislike is run of the mill compared to the enmity I feel toward the National League combatants.

With that painful backdrop now fully laid out for you, here’s a few observations about each Division Series:

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DODGERS vs NATIONALS

*Is it possible that Dave Martinez is actually a worse in-game manager than Dave Roberts? I think he may be! I wonder if the Nats front office is secretly disappointed that their squad got on that incredible midseason roll, making it nearly impossible for them to fire Martinez this offseason? He’s that bad…

*Has a manager ever been fired after 106 regular season wins? If Roberts can’t get the Dodgers out of the NLDS we may have a first on our hands. In fact, anything short of his first World Series title in three tries may force the Dodgers’ hand. Managerial skills needed to succeed in the postseason are far different than those relied on to steer a talented team through the regular season. Good thing Roberts got a ring as a player, this ride’s about to end.

*I like that so many of the Dodgers players have decided against growing a beard. Part of it may be that they are too young to be able to grow one (did you catch that kid Beaty last night? Guessing he’s never even bought a razor), but the whole beard thing is played out. We are at a point now where the clean-shaven look is the more edgy and fresh approach. More Gavin Lux and less Justin Turner please. “Oh, the times, they are a changing’…”

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CARDINALS vs BRAVES

*I can’t help but wonder if St. Louis is appreciative of the fact that the Rays ousted the A’s in the AL Wild Card. If not for that, the Cards would easily win  the “least interesting playoff team” award.

*Can you believe that Ronald Acuna Jr. dared pose on his 9th inning homer the other night, after possibly costing his team a run with his prima donna act on what became a long single a few innings prior? Way to go Freddie Freeman, for publicly taking Acuna to task with his postgame comments.

*Is the Tomahawk Chop racist? I dunno, but it always makes me happy when something bad happens to the Braves that silences their monotonous chant.

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YANKEES vs TWINS

*I have to go back to Harmon Killebrew to think of a Twins player I like. Kirby Puckett? Torii Hunter? Kent Hrbek (“buy a vowel”)? Jack Morris? Joe Mauer? Nah — MLB should have contracted this franchise 20 years ago when such talk was making the rounds.

*Even Aaron Boone won’t be able to manage his way into a loss in this series. The Yanks will score at least 10 runs every game on their way to the sweep.

*To give you an idea how deep this Bombers lineup is, Edwin Encarnacion is an afterthought, and the guy has 414 career home runs.

*Is it petty of me to be glad Luke Voit isn’t sniffing an AB in this series? Yeah, probably, but I can’t stand that guy.

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ASTROS vs RAYS

*The fact that Dick Vitale is a diehard Rays fan is the only thing about Tampa that’s remotely interesting.

*I watch Justin Verlander pitch and can’t help but think “this guys is by far the best starter in the postseason.” Then I see Gerrit Cole take his turn on the hill and think the exact same thing. Scary.

*Travis d’Arnaud hit 15 dingers and knocked in 69 runs as the Rays starting catcher this year. Too bad he wasn’t good enough to stick with the Mets. I wonder if Noah Syndergaard would have been okay pitching to him?

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Eli to New Orleans? Make It Happen!

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What to do if you are the New Orleans Saints?

I sometimes curse the rotten cards us Jets fans have been dealt, never more on display than during this past Monday night’s disaster at home against Cleveland, but Saints fans can’t be feeling too upbeat right about now either.

This is a Saints team that was one egregious official’s blown call away from the Super Bowl last year. And while they may not have come away with the Lombardi Trophy, they damn sure would have been better prepared to stare down Belichick and Brady than what we saw from the just-happy-to-be-there Rams.

So New Orleans stomps into the new season with the proverbial chip on their shoulder. Built to win now, with multiple weapons on an offense featuring a Top 5 superstar at both QB and running back, and a good-enough-to-get-you-there defense. They win their opener in thrilling fashion, further stoking the Super Bowl fire of the loyal fandom, laying the groundwork for a magical ride. And that good karma lasts all the way until…

About midway through Week 2’s contest against their old friends the Rams, when disaster strikes.

You know the dialogue from there. Drew Brees out with a hand injury that will require surgery. Backup Teddy Bridgewater looking ineffective and hopeless in relief. The matchup of the week we had tuned in for turns into a cakewalk for the Rams.

Now the Saints find themselves at 1-1 with Brees heading under the knife. Certainly not what you want to hear when you have an aging franchise icon behind center and a roster designed to win this year. The most optimistic of reports have Brees possibly returning for Week 11, but that’s assuming a speedy, setback-free recovery from a surgically repaired throwing hand for a 40-year-old QB with a lot of miles on his tires.

If you are the Saints front office, can you really roll the dice with Teddy Bridgewater as your field general for the next eight weeks?

Meanwhile back east the inevitable is taking place. Eli Manning is officially being replaced by fresh-faced rookie first-rounder, Daniel Jones. The move was certain to happen sometime this year, and after the complete bed-shitting on both sides of the ball by Big Blue in weeks one and two, you can’t blame Giants coach Pat Shurmur for saying “well, why not pull the bandaid off right now.”

Manning, ever the good soldier, is saying all the professional, classy things you’d expect from the borderline Hall of Famer, but we all know Eli is way too much of a fierce competitor to feel good about this decision, inevitable or not.

Manning has actually put up decent stats in the season’s first two weeks, completing 63% of his passes for 556 yards, with two TD’s and 2 int’s. And while that only garners him a modest 78.7 QB rating, let’s not forget that the Giants offense suits up nary a single talented wideout to throw to in this shell of a professional lineup he’s been charged with leading.

Am I really the only one wondering what Eli might be able to do if surrounded by a strong O-line and actual deep threats at wide receiver? We may never find out, but it seems to me there’s way too much to think about here beyond simply wondering how Eli adjusts to leading the scout team at practice back in New Jersey.

Let’s jump back to New Orleans for a second. If the Saints can really count on Brees returning as starter in time for their Week 11 contest against the Buccaneers, what can they reasonably expect between now and then?

The 2019 NFC appears far more wide open than the AFC, where if we aren’t seeing Patriots-Chiefs facing off for Super Bowl rights in late-January, there will be shock waves felt across the entire league. For New Orleans, there needs to be equal amounts of urgency and triage applied to this critical period of the schedule. While Brees is out, one incremental win may no longer just impact home field advantage throughout the playoffs for New Orleans, but now actually could dictate whether they earn their way into the postseason tournament at all.

This Sunday the Saints travel to Seattle. While the jury remains out on the Seahawks, picturing Teddy B. making his first start in front of Seattle’s still-tough defense while their vaunted 12th man cacophony of rabid fans roar away, can’t feel real good back in the Big Easy. We’re calling Week 3 an “L” for the visitors.

Following their trip to the Pacific Northwest, the Saints will host back to back home games against the Cowboys and Bucs. With Drew Brees, the Cowboys game would still be only a “pick ’em” at best. Without? We are calling this another “L” as the Saints fall to 1-3.

The Bucs? A divisional game against a much-improved Tampa Bay defense courtesy of Arians/Bowles won’t be an easy one either, but we’ll give New Orleans the nod for a desperation home squeaker that gets them to 2-3, with Bridgewater earning his first win as a Saints starter.

Then it is back on the road for the Saints, first to Jacksonville and then on to Chicago. Anyone else noticing a pattern here from the schedule-makers? Yeah, there couldn’t be a worse stretch of games for Brees to be sidelined for, with one tenacious defense after another lining up across from the shell-shocked Saints offense.

Even the Jags, as dysfunctional as they may be, won’t be a layup for the Saints on the road. And Chicago? Another stout D that will be enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of the Brees-less Saints offense. Call these two games a split (at best) for New Orleans, putting them at 3-4 with still no Brees sightings on the horizon.

Week 8 would offer some respite to the reeling Saints, as the Cardinals come to town. So we’ll call that a win heading into their bye, but our most optimistic forecast sends New Orleans into their week off a .500 squad at 4-4 (“optimistic” because that’s assuming they actually beat Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, neither a lock if the Bridgewater we saw in relief of Brees last week hasn’t improved between now and then).

The current thinking regarding a Drew Brees return has him rejoining the huddle for Week 11, which means that coming out of their bye, New Orleans will host division rival Atlanta for the first time this season hoping Bridgewater can keep pace with Matt Ryan and the potent Falcons offense.

Hard to imagine a Ryan-Teddy shootout falling into the “W” column for the Saints. Which means, IF Brees returns and takes back the helm the following week on their road trip to Tampa Bay, he may be tasked with running the table from that point on if New Orleans has any hope of earning a playoff berth.

When you handicap the NFC right now, it is hard not to envision both Dallas and Philly as playoff teams come January. Add the Rams to that list of the elite, plus whoever wins the NFC North (let’s call it Green Bay right now, since rules dictate that someone has to win this division). That leaves the NFC South winner (I’m going with Atlanta) and one more wild card. Under this scenario, a case can be made that no fewer than eight teams have a legitimate shot.

Think about it — Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit all currently believe they can sneak in as a wild card if not as the outright division winner in the North. Carolina, Atlanta and even Tampa Bay (yup, the entire NFC South division) could be viewed as playoff teams depending on how the rest of the season breaks. And out west the 49ers and Seahawks both show the potential to still be lining up in January.

Given this parity, five losses may end up being the over/under for wild card qualification in the NFC. Yup, the same number of losses one could easily project the Saints to be staring at by the time Drew Brees and his surgically-repaired right hand take their next meaningful snap from center.

And that’s why this makes so much sense right now.

Would an admittedly aging and immobile Eli Manning deliver just one more precious victory during this extended Brees injury absence to a Saints team built to win now, in a year where one otherwise avoidable loss could spell no playoffs?

It says here the answer is yes.

And why the heck not, if you are either team?

The Giants will be lucky to get to three wins this year, even if a young Y.A. Tittle were to show up behind center this Sunday. Eli earning his $20 million to run the scout team does nothing to impact the 2019 fortunes for Big Blue beyond the “mentoring” and “good example of professionalism” bullshit the latest articles chronicling his demise speak to incessantly this week.

Dave Gettleman, please listen — Give Eli one final lease on a proud career and trade him to the New Orleans Saints.

What does New Orleans have to lose? In all likelihood they could get Manning for a late-round draft pick next year or even the following. Sure, they’d have to pay him for the balance of the season, but the revenues of one playoff game would easily cover the Eli salary investment, not to mention the benefits of the overwhelming intangibles built into such a trade.

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Ahhhh, the intangibles.

C’mon, am I the only sucker out here for this kind of thing? Eli Manning ending his career suiting up for the New Orleans Saints? The same franchise his dad Archie represented with skill and dignity all those years ago? This is a B-movie storyline begging to become reality, folks.

Give Eli Manning the ball and let’s see what happens. It’s too late to save Teddy Bridgewater from the likely loss coming at him in Seattle this week, but what’s the downside in making the move and inserting Eli the Prodigal Son for Week 4 at home and seeing if the old man (who by the way is actually two years younger than Brees) has anything left in the tank?

If the Saints can convert one Bridgewater Loss into a Manning Win while Brees is in street clothes, not only does that warm the hearts of Saints fans everywhere, it damn well might preserve their playoff hopes and save their season.

And if it turns out that Eli is no more effective in black and gold than what we’ve seen in blue these past couple of years, put Teddy back in there and hope for the best until Brees gets back.

I’m going with the half-full storyline here. Eli plugs into the Saints highly effective offensive system and finds a way to steady the ship with a few wins until Brees’ return. Then we watch Brees lead the Saints from there into the playoffs, as the cameras focus in on a series of priceless sideline conversations between Sean Payton, Brees and Manning deep into the NFC playoffs. Cue screen shots of Archie, Peyton and the rest of the Manning family pumping their fists from their skybox at the Superdome. Sign me the hell up!

It just makes so much sense. Let’s go Saints and Giants — give the football world the potential for a magical story down in the Big Easy in 2019.

Manning at QB-1 for the New Orleans Saints? Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

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