SWEET SOUNDS

SWEET SOUNDS

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A baby’s coo into her mother’s ear.  Waves crashing on a pristine beach.  Whitney Houston owning the National Anthem.  Children’s laughter.  The question is, what is the most sweetest sound in the world?

I cannot say, with any certainty, the “sweetest”, but what I heard bellowing from a 102-year old ballpark on Saturday night comes pretty damn close.  

Many teams have victory songs – some are horrendous, and actually invite you to root against the home team for fear of being subjected to such noise.  And some teams have fantastic anthems that stick with you for days.

For instance, I defy anyone not to hum “I love L.A.” as they climb into their car a few minutes after a Dodger victory.  When the P.A. blasts Randy Newman upon the third out in the ninth – or, better yet, after a walk-off – there are few more iconic themes.

As a diehard Red Sox fan, I am partial to “Dirty Water”, which rings throughout Fenway Park after every BoSox win.  But as great as “Dirty Water” is, it finds itself in direct competition with “Sweet Caroline”, which plays in the eighth inning of every game.  The Fenway Faithful really get into that one, and the harmony of “so good, so good, so good” gives you chills the first time you experience it.  Truly.  The hairs on the back of my neck are at attention as a write this.

But as you go around the league, the Yankees can keep their Sinatra, and the Giants can hang onto their Tony Bennett.  The Royals can forget about the Beatles’ “Kansas City”; and the ChiSox fall short with the Blues Brothers’ “Sweet Home Chicago”.  

For my money, for my ears, for my fandom, I am not sure anything can top what you get on the North Side when the Cubbies fly the “W”.

I have been to Wrigley a handful of times, and, remarkably, have always seen the Cubs win (which, before this season, was far from a fait accompli).  But, because I am not a denizen of Wrigleyville, and because it is often years between my visits, I always forget the sweet sounds that are about to hit me.  And then I am reminded.

America was reminded – or introduced – on Saturday night.  When the Cubs recorded the final out of Game 6 of the NLCS, beating Kershaw, the Dodgers, and the entirety of the National League to win their first pennant in 71 years, Wrigley exploded.  But it did not explode into riots or idiots rushing the field.  No, it exploded into beautiful harmony.

Russell to Baez to Rizzo, and the celebration commenced on the mound.  Less than thirty seconds later, it started.  Listening to more than 42,000 fans sing “Go Cubs Go” in equal parts shock, adulation, and utter excitement, many with tears streaming down their faces, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.  Yes, that makes me a baseball nerd; and yes, it makes me a sap; and it probably says a dozen other things about me that I wouldn’t want the public to know.  But man, that was something.

When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and ended their 86-year drought, they revised the documentary “The Curse of the Bambino” to include footage of the win, the celebration, and the parade.  But they also included shots of cemeteries all over Boston where fans left championship gear for their dearly departed; fans who never to got to experience the Red Sox as World Series champs.  After too many viewings to count, the documentary still gets me misty.

I thought of those people on Saturday night.  The ones who lived through Ernie Banks and Billy Williams; Bull Durham and Ryne Sandberg; Greg Maddux and Mark Grace; Kerry Wood and Mark Prior; Billy Goats and Bartman.  I thought of my former father-in-law, who grew up on the North Side.  A baseball man whose father used to be a concessionaire at Wrigley Field and befriended a left-handed first baseman some 75 years before his own granddaughter would marry one.  I thought about “Jolly Cholly” Charlie Grimm’s mitt that sits encased in glass in my office, and the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Chicagoans who celebrated – some posthumously – on Saturday night.  Those 42,000 fans sang for them, too.

Feeling those fans exhale a few pitches after Carlos Ruiz hit a foul ball nearly into the “Bartman Seat” (9th inning vs. 8th; 5-0 lead vs. 3-0, but still).  And then to see those fans dance like no one was watching, and hear them sing like no one was listening.  And yet, all across the land, everyone was watching, and everyone was listening.

“Go, Cubs, go!  Hey, Chicago, what do you say?  The Cubs are gonna win today”.

That went on for what seemed like hours.  When droughts end, and curses are reversed, when there is once again joy in Wrigleyville, hearing those fans sing the best victory song in the sport was, simply put, the sweetest of sounds.  (Scroll down and check out the dftbalicia11 Instagram post for a sense of what it was like in Chicago Saturday night.)

Postscript: I will leave you with one fun fact that is not getting nearly enough run: There have only been two instances in which a team faced the minimum number of batters in a post-season game.  The first was Don Larsen’s Perfect Game in the 1956 World Series.  The second was Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS.  A pick-off and two double-plays erased the Dodgers’ lone three base runners.  Bottom line, no matter what he threw or how much command he had, Kershaw wasn’t beating the Cubs Saturday night.

Onto the World Series.  108 vs. 68.

PLAY BALL!!

THE CALL THAT COULD HAVE BEEN


THE CALL THAT COULD HAVE BEEN

*Editors Note: The words you will read below are what you might have heard when we came back from commercial Thursday night, starting as  Clayton Kershaw finished up his warm-up pitches.

As best you can, read this in Vin Scully’s voice, in Vin Scully’s cadence.

“When Kershaw takes the hill, you get the sense he is not pitching against Daniel Murphy, he is not pitching against the Nationals, rather he is pitching against the Phillies, the Cardinals, the Mets, the millions of people who have written and spoken about Clayton’s troubles in the post-season.

No, you must imagine that Clayton is pitching against those doubts that bubble up in the head of every athlete – at one time or another – those doubts that ask, “Am I really that good?”

Anyway, enough about that.

Daniel Murphy digs in and Kershaw comes set at the belt.

Fastball, up and in.

Whoa! So much for fatigue.

That fastball had a little extra something on it. In fact, I dont think Kershaw hit 95 even once on Tuesday afternoon but, sure enough, fatigue is no match for adrenaline.

Kershaw stares in at Ruiz, shakes his head, once, now twice. Kershaw comes set at the belt, and the one and oh pitch is fastball in on the hands; short pop on the infield, Culberson takes a few steps back and just like that, Daniel Murphy is retired.

You have to wonder if Dave Roberts will go out and get Kershaw, having got the one man he was brought in to get.

Well, I guess we have our answer.

Roberts is staying put, and you get the feeling that it would have taken Roberts, Honeycutt, and a team of coaches to pry the ball out of Kershaw’s hand at this point.

So the chess game continues.

Well, fresh out of options, Dusty Baker has gone to the last man standing.

Wilmer Difo, the rookie shortstop is Baker’s and the Nationals’ last hope.

Wilmer, from Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic, made his major league debut on May 19th, and here he finds himself square in the eye of the hurricane.

Difo, a switch hitter, digs in from the right side against the left-handed Kershaw.

Fastball, way inside. Difo had to do a little dance to avoid that 93 MPH heater. Difo must be wondering how he got himself into this situation, and wondering if he can pull a Houdini act and get himself out of it.

Kershaw is ready, Harper leads from second and Werth off of first. Gonzalez is playing behind Werth, and Seager is bird-dogging Harper, trying to keep him close.

The 1-0 delivery is a fastball fouled away. And Kershaw has squared his account.

When you look out in the infield, Seager is doing his best to keep Harper from getting too big of a lead, hoping to keep him from scoring on a single.

Of course, with two outs, the runners will be off on contact. Harper runs pretty well, and knowing the way Harper plays the game, there will be no holding him at third if the opportunity to score arises.

Here comes the 1-1 pitch, Difo swings through a 91 MPH slider. I tell you, that just isn’t fair.

Difo started the season in AAA, and now, in the biggest moment of the year, in quite possibly the biggest moment of his life, he has to face arguably the best pitcher on the planet.

Kershaw brings his hands high above his head, and slowly brings them down and settles at the belt. He takes a look at the runners, and the runners GO.

Difo dribbles it foul up along third, and the runners have to return from whence they came.

Difo really had a defensive swing on that pitch, and really, who can
blame him. He is doing his level best just to stay in the box at this point.

You know, this is the 167th game that each of the Nationals and the Dodgers have played this season; they have split the first two games of this series; and here we are in the bottom of the ninth inning of a one-run game. Folks, it doesn’t get much closer than this.

Kershaw has rubbed up a new ball and is now ready to go.

Difo digs in while Harper and Werth take their leads. The 1-2 delivery is a BREAKING ball in the DIRT, SWUNG ON and MISSED. Ruiz keeps the ball in front of him and guns it to Gonzalez covering first to complete the strike out.

At 12:41 in the morning, East Coast time, the Dodgers have won the division series; and maybe, just as importantly, Clayton Kershaw has slayed his demons.

I tell you folks, just when you think you have seen it all – you get Clayton Kershaw saving a game in which Dodger CLOSER, Kenley Jansen, threw nearly three innings and 51 pitches.

And, not for nothing, but the last time Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young winner recorded a save – it came ALL the way back in 2006, in  rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League. His catcher that day, Kenley Jansen.

Well, that’ll do it from the nation’s capital where the Dodgers have defeated the Washington Nationals 4-3 to advance to the National League Championship Series.

For Charlie Steiner, Rick Monday, and the rest of our crew, this is Vin Scully wishing you a very pleasant good evening.”

GAME 5

GAME 5

NLDS-Game 5-The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate. The Dodgers defeated the Nationals 4-3. Wednesday, October 13, 2016. Photo by Jon SooHoo/©Los Angeles Dodgers,LLC 2016

There is truly no reason to add to the multiple canons that have been or will be written about last night’s Dodgers-Nationals game. That said, and while it is still quite early, after reading and listening to a ton of commentary, I have yet to hear anything about the following three points, which may mean they are only interesting to me. However, on the off-chance that others will find them notable, allow me to throw my hat into the ring:

I.

Two years on, I guess Mike Jirschele is officially exonerated. Who is that, you ask? Mike Jirschele was the Royals’ third base coach in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series who held Alex Gordon. As you may recall, there was great consternation about whether or not Jirschele should have sent Gordon with a chance to tie the game. All metrics showed he made the right call, but some people were still dubious.

Well, after Bob Henley decided to send Jayson Werth to the plate in the bottom of sixth inning last night, and after Werth got thrown out by anywhere from 15–30 feet (depending on the calculation), any and all dubiosity about Jirschele’s decision should go by the wayside. Now we can know, with pretty good certainty, how the 2014 World Series would have ended had Jirschele waved Gordon around. Pop-outs to third notwithstanding, that would have been a tough way to lose.

II.

A lot of ink was spilled — by this writer as well — about the Dodgers’ pre-deadline move to send A.J. Ellis to Philadelphia in return for Carlos Ruiz. Well, I guess Andrew Friedman and company knew something a bunch of us didn’t. It is impossible, of course to know whether or not Ellis would have come through in the same way, but we do know that Ruiz went 2–4, with three RBI in the series, including the tie-breaking single in the decisive seventh inning last night. Oh, and he blocked the hell out of that filthy “Public Enemy #1” to end the game.

As I wrote back in August, Friedman makes $7 million/year to make difficult decisions. There is a reason he is paid like one of the best executives in the sport — because he is. No, he didn’t have a crystal ball, but he certainly knew the Dodgers needed better production from their back-up catcher, and that they got. (Ironically enough, after the trade, Ellis and Ruiz had virtually identical numbers with their respective new teams (Ellis: .313/.371/.500; Ruiz: .278/.350./.683)). But, if you are a Dodger fan, ask yourself who you would have rather had at bat with the game tied and a runner in scoring position in a deciding game. Ruiz felt — to me — like the safer choice.

I am sure there are a lot of people out there who will claim that Ellis would have been better for Kershaw in Game 1 (where he grinded through five innings) or Game 4 (when he just couldn’t get the third out in the seventh) or even last night as he worked against Daniel Murphy. Maybe. All we know is what happened, and Ruiz got the hit and made the block and the Dodgers won.

III.

In all the ballyhoo about Dave Roberts’ managing (every compliment well-deserved), Dusty Baker’s 0–9 record in win-or-go-home games, Kenley Jansen’s miraculous 51-pitch effort, and Clayton Kershaw’s incredible save, I have yet to hear or read this comparison: This was pretty damn close to a Kirk Gibson moment.

Calm down, let me explain. By all accounts, and on nearly every list, Gibby’s dinger was the greatest moment in Los Angeles sports history. Vin Scully’s call of that moment has been played ad nauseum the last few weeks. But hear me out.

Did we have an injured player? Check. Kershaw was on the 60-day DL. When was the last time a player — let alone a pitcher — was on the 60-day DL and then came back to have a meaningful impact on the playoffs?

Did we witness a gutty prior performance? Check. We often forget about the 1988 NLCS against the Mets, but Gibson fought through that, including a home run off Sid Fernandez in the fifth inning of Game 5 at Shea Stadium. Putting aside the final box score, Kershaw was remarkable in Game 4 of this series. He should have been done after six innings, giving up only two runs. He should have been done after seven innings, giving up only two runs. Umpires, shortstops, and relievers are the only reason he was charged with five. Nonetheless, he was awesome (considerably better than Gibson was prior to the ninth inning of Game 1 of the ’88 World Series).

Did we have a player unlikely to appear? Check. When directly asked about Kershaw pitching to even one batter in Game 5, Dave Roberts replied: “Absolutely not”. Hell, Kershaw didn’t even have his cleats on for the first seven innings of Game 5. When Kershaw told Roberts he was okay to go, Roberts first had to check with the trainer to get permission.

We can all hear Vinny saying: “Look who’s sitting in the dugout”. Now imagine that same voice, that same cadence, saying: “Look who’s heading to the bullpen”. It wasn’t just improbable, it was impossible. Clayton Kershaw, the man with the closet filled to the brim with October demons, the man who missed ten weeks with a herniated disk, the man who had thrown 110 pitches just 48 hours earlier in a stadium clear across the country, would not only come in to the game, but would come in to face the hottest post-season hitter on the planet; a batter who took Kershaw deep not once, but twice, in the playoffs last year; a batter who represented the winning run. No, this just couldn’t happen.

Think back. Had Gibby flailed at a few sliders against the best closer in the game and walked back to the dugout with the Dodgers down 0–1 in the World Series, no one would have said “boo”. He did his best just to get to the plate. What a gamer. Ultimate team player.

But had Kershaw come in and served up a gofer ball to Murphy, it may have been the final nail in Kershaw’s playoff coffin. Could any player ever come back from that much heartbreak, that much back luck, that much failure? When Kershaw asked into the game, and jogged to the mound, as Bill Simmons tweeted: “The legacy of his legacy’s legacy is gonna be at stake”. Simply put, a LOT was riding on that Texan’s broad shoulders. Seven pitches; a weak pop-out and a nasty K, a massive monkey off a weakened back.

When Clayton threw his hands in the air and hugged Carlos Ruiz, the Dodgers had felled the Nationals, those demons were exorcised, and Los Angeles had its second Gibby Moment. The only shame: Vin Scully was at home, watching, just like the rest of us.

Championship Series, here we come.

PLAY BALL!!

BROADCAST BLUES (Playoff Edition)

BROADCAST BLUES (Playoff Edition)

A few months ago I wrote how I felt that baseball broadcasters (save for Vin Scully) were hurting the game. They were making it considerably less enjoyable for fans to experience the experience while watching on television or listening on radio. I was brought back to that sentiment – in the words of one presidential candidate – “bigly”, yesterday afternoon.

I will begin by saying that I believe Kenny Albert, Harold Reynolds, Tom Verducci, and Jon Morosi are doing a nice job on FS1. But . . . come on.

Allow me to set the stage; and then you tell me if an opportunity was missed. On October 11, 1978, at Dodger Stadium, a stud pitcher named Bob Welch took the mound (in the World Series) with the game on the line against (one of) the most ferocious hitters in baseball, Reginald Martinez Jackson. (For those of you paying attention, you will note that I have dubbed this one of the greatest two-strike situations in the history of baseball). The pitcher and hitter battled to a 3-2 count, and a few pitches were fouled away. For the purposes of this analysis, the outcome of the at bat is irrelevant.

On October 11, 2016, 38 years to the day, at Dodger Stadium, a stud pitcher named Clayton Kershaw took the mound (in the playoffs) with the game on the line against (one of) the most ferocious hitters in the game, Bryce Aron Max Harper. The pitcher and hitter battled to a 3-2 count, and a few pitches were fouled away. For the purposes of this analysis, the outcome of the at bat is irrelevant.

So how many times, do you think, the FS1 broadcast booth made reference to that epic battle 38 years prior, and how history seemed to be repeating itself? That Kershaw-Harper at bat lasted 8 pitches and nearly five minutes. Did they overrun the telecast with nostalgia? Did they pepper the broadcast with flashback highlights? Did they talk with longing of times past? Nope! They did none of it. Not once did they mention the ’78 World Series. They didn’t show a single clip. I was screaming at my television: “38 years, TO THE DAY!” “Welch v. Jackson!” “Same exact damn location!”

Fairytales don’t get written better than that. And yet, the entire broadcast team missed it. In my anger, frustration, annoyance, I quickly tapped out a text to some baseball friends stating, “Somewhere, Vin Scully is so upset about this missed opportunity”.

Kershaw ended up walking Harper (he should have been called out on the 1-2 pitch, but I digress), and the moment passed. But, the point is, the moment was less because the broadcasters didn’t do more. Only true baseball nerds like me know/remember those moments/dates and tie them back in real time. For me, the moment was beautiful. But what about the 99.8% of the other viewers who needed a little primer, a littler reminder, of the moments that have made baseball so great?!?!

You want to increase baseball viewership, have the broadcasters bring the game to life by reminding us how our collective past oftentimes looks exactly like our collective present.

PLAY BALL!!

TORN BETWEEN TWO LOVERS

TORN BETWEEN TWO LOVERS

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have an undying love of the Boston Red Sox.  (Not for nothing, being a Red Sox fan can better be described as a “close to dying” love.)  Anyone who reads me, knows with absolute certainty of my love of the game of baseball.  So, as we embark on the best month in sports – which started with a bang last night (and with apologies to March, as it really only has three quality sports weeks), and begin the best tournament in sports (with apologies to hockey, whose playoffs simply go on too long), I find myself sitting squarely on the horns of a dilemma.

See, even when the Curse of the Bambino was in full swing, when the names Bucky “Fucking” Dent, Bill “Slow Roller” Buckner, and Aaron “Bleeping” Boone” rolled off the tongues of New Englanders, there was a fan base on the North Side of Chicago that was in even more pain – they just didn’t get the same publicity.  As a reminder, the Cubs’ era (eon?) of futility started a full decade before the Red Sox’.

The BoSox came close in ’86 (at 68 years and counting), but the Cubbies came damn close in ’84 (then in the midst of a 76-year drought).  And while Grady Little and the aforementioned Aaron Boone were ruining the Fall of 2003 for New England, Steve Bartman was doing the same for Chicago.  Had things turned out differently (foul balls and pitching changes are the darndest things), had the outcomes been as the pundits predicted, the 2003 World Series would have pitted 95 years of misery vs. 85; and at long last, either the Billy Goat or the Babe would have been absolved.  Alas, we don’t live in such a world.

We all know that the Babe (really, Harry Frazee and Bill Buckner) got off the schneid the next year, and it has been nothing but sunshine and roses on the Charles for the past ten plus years.  Not so much in Chi-town.

Since Bartman, the Cubs have made the playoffs thrice, and have yet to win a game.  Including the Bartman game, that is 12 in a row over four playoff series.  But Theo Epstein, the Exorcist of the Back Bay, has the Cubs as the heavy favorite to win it all this year.  A close second in those odds . . . Theo’s former employer.  Which has me torn between two lovers.

Would there be a better story in baseball?  Theo Epstein gets (part of) the BoSox band back together with Jed Hoyer (GM), Jason McLeod (Sr. VP of Player Development), Jared Porter (Director of Pro Scouting), Jon Lester, David Ross, and John Lackey, adds a whole crop of incredible young talent, the most unconventional manager in the game, and brings a title 108 years in the making back to the banks of Lake Michigan.  As a true baseball fan, how can you not root that?  Hell, even President Obama would be rooting for it.

The only problem with this fairytale, for me, is that the Red Sox decided to have the bounce back year many people predicted.  And behind Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, Benintendi, Price, Porcello, Pomeranz, a rejuvenated Pedroia, and the most epic swan song in the history of the game for Big Papi, the Red Sox have a legitimate to chance to (a) make the showdown we missed in 2003 a reality and (b) squash the hopes and dreams of another generation of Cubs fans.  So what do I do?  For whom do I root?

I have often said that the 1991 World Series should have been called a tie when neither team scored after nine innings of Game 7.  Both teams deserved to win; and neither team deserved to lose.  But we all know Jack Morris went out for his tenth inning, shut down the Braves, and then Gene Larkin (you all remembered that, right?) got the game-winner, bringing home Dan Gladden (you remembered that, too?), and the Minnesota fans nearly blew a hole in the Hubert H. Humphrey Homer Dome.  (As an aside, how much better would it have been if Kirby Puckett had knocked in or scored that winning run?)

Which brings me back to this season – a quarter of a century later.  As I stare down the barrel of the next four weeks, all I can hope is that the Red Sox and Cubs are tied at three games apiece, tied after nine innings, and then someone cuts the Eversource/NStar power grid.  Then, after a collective groan, everyone calmly and politely exits Fenway Park, gets on the “T”, and goes on with their life.  Hope can always spring eternal.  Hey, it’s not that much of a stretch – the Cubs do have one tie this season!

However, more likely than not, they will both lose in the division series, and then we could end up watching the Blue Jays and the Giants in a World Series battle of two highly unlikable teams.  That said, what would you pay to see Jose Bautista take Madison Bumgarner deep, flip his bat, saunter around the bases, only to get drilled in his next at bat?  That would be appointment viewing.

So as we dive headlong into the playoffs, as the Red Sox fly to Cleveland and the Cubs host either the Giants or the Mets, a man can dream about what may come . . . and fear being torn between two lovers.

PLAY BALL!!