Archive for April 14th, 2005

The best thing ever

April 14, 2005

. . . seems an appropriate title to follow the last one.

Baseball is the best idea that people have ever had. The Gillette Mach 3 and on-line banking are nice, but baseball is the winner. I was reminded of this fact this past weekend, and I’ll try to explain all the wonder that you can find in a randomly attended baseball game.

Last weekend I went to visit my bestest friend Jeff in Vancouver, Canada. Being a true acolyte of the baseball faith, one of my goals is to see a game in all 32 stadiums. Safeco Park in Seattle was my 14th, leaving me with 20 to go (2 of the ones I visited are now defunct). We got into town early and got to sample the sporting culture of Seattle a bit. This is a city that was taken on a magical ride by the Mariners for a few years, only to be dropped off the cliff last season. It still remains a passionate baseball town, though; despite a great season by the Sonics, there still seemed to be more buzz in the city about the start of the baseball season than the local hoopsters.

As game time approached, Jeff and I grabbed a couple of brats and headed toward the park. A big part of the charm of seeing a baseball game live is the stadiums themselves; in no other sport can the design of an arena have such an effect on the gameplay. In football, the field is always 100 yards; in basketball, the court is always 94 feet (I think that’s right), but this uniformity isn’t found in ballparks. Dimensions vary from the cozy confines of Wrigley and Fenway to the cavernous expanses of Dodgers and Shea Stadiums. Safeco is one of the latter; a true pitcher’s park, especially among modern parks which tend to favor the hitters. It is also one of the newest parks in the game and a truly spectacular looking stadium — though it’s been around a few years now, it still has the feel of being freshly minted, everything looking crisp and clean. Safeco also has some individual charm, letting patrons (unthinkable!) bring in their own food, though that didn’t seem to stop the sale of garlic fries and (wild!) caesar’s salads with salmon patties on them.

Heading into the game, I was pretty indifferent about the matchup — the M’s were taking on their division rivals, the Texas Rangers. Both Jeff and I are National League guys and begrudge admitting that the sport played in the AL even qualifies as being called baseball. However, I was excited to see Ichiro, the sexiest slap hitter in baseball, and one of the true legends of the game today. What is it about this guy? Is it the air of mystery he has due not only to the language and cultural barrier between him and the American fan but also the reflective shades that always adorn him as he plays right field? Is it his relentlessly professional preparation, which, along with his cool demeanor and impossibly consistent play makes him seem almost more machine than man? Or is it his iconoclastic approach to the modern game, eschewing power (they say he could hit 30 bombs a year if he wanted to) to pursue excellence as a singles hitter, and even breaking out of the traditional leadoff hitter’s mold to scorn walks for putting the ball in play almost every at bat? Whatever it is, the guy is undeniably cool.

As I saw the lineups, I got a little more interested. The pitching matchup was fascinating; soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer was going for the Mariners, while the enigmatic Pedro Astacio was dealing for the Rangers. Here was a contrast in styles if ever there were one; Moyer’s had a great latter half of a career as a junkballer, keeping hitters off-balance by dropping from slow to slower on the radar gun. He throws so slow, they were reporting his speeds in kmph (ha ha!). Astacio’s always had a filthy arsenal, but, though he’s had a good career, there’s always been an air about him of what could have been. Other subplots included new Mariners Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, signed to give some thunder to the lineup, as well as rookie Jeremy Reed, who was handed the starting centerfield job out of spring training.

The pitchers had the best of it early on. Moyer let two runners on in the first, but cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira had one of the worst at bats in recent memory, striking out on three pitches, to make the second out and effectively kill the rally. Astacio was in a great groove, allowing no hits through the first four. Moyer worked out of trouble all game, giving up only a couple of runs through six innings. Strangely the big bat in the loaded Rangers lineup was 9 hitter Sandy Alomar, who hit off Moyer all game, apparently suffering from a delusion it was 1997.

Late in the game things got fascinating. It started in the top of the seventh when the time for managerial decisions arrived. There’s not much managing to be done in the American League, but both managers managed (pun intended) to make some questionable calls. Moyer was still on the mound when nemesis-for-the-day Sandy Alomar came to bat with runners on. The game was tied 2-2 at that point ( I think that’s right; I’m doing this from memory), and Mike Hargrove came out to talk to Moyer. Apparently he made managerial mistake #1 and asked his guy how he felt, and followed his gut instead of his head and left Moyer in. Well, Moyer wasn’t about to start getting Alomar out, and he gave up the go-ahead run as Alomar got his 3rd hit. Then Hargrove decided to bring in Shigetosi Hasegawa (brilliant!) who, of course, promptly recorded the third out.

But wait, there’s more. In the bottom of the eighth things got downright goofy. Ninth hitter Efrain Valdez led off the inning with a single, and Ichiro followed suit, putting runners on first and second. Jeremy Reed, who looked totally over matched all game, was called on to bunt and drilled the bunt straight into the ground. The bunt chopped up, and by the time pitcher Ryan Shouse fielded the ball and threw to first, Reed was there and he hit him with the ball. This allowed Valdez to score and Ichiro to move to third. Tie game!

Managerial decision #2. Adrian Beltre’s striding up to the plate. He already has two RBI’s and has more ducks on the pond. Showalter’s got Brocail warmed up, but he must like the matchup of the lefty against Beltre (I found this really odd, b/c Showalter, of all people, never goes with his gut over his brains). Naturally Beltre gets a single and give the Mariners the lead. Now Showalter brings in Brocail, who gets out Sexson but gives up another hit to Bret Boone before finally ending the frame. By the time it’s all over, the Mariners are up 6-3 (I’m not sure if that adds up, but that was the score going into the 9th).

I don’t know if the Almighty watches ball games, but He provided appropriate weather for what happened next. We had enjoyed a miraculously sunny day to that point, but as the 9th began, a cold Seattle drizzle began to fall on the field. Jeff turns to me, “Is Seattle’s closer any good?” “I’m not a big fan, but Guardado should be able to hold down a three run lead.” Well, to be fair to Eddie, it wasn’t all his fault. He actually gets out Sandy Alomar, then faces the top of the lineup, and promptly got Alfonso Soriano to ground to his opposite number. One problem — perennial gold glover Bret Boone unbelievably lets the ball kick through his five hole. Runner on base. The rain gets harder.

Sometimes you just know something is about to happen. Me and about 40,000 Mariners fan all have this feeling about now, and that something that’s about to happen isn’t good (at least for them). Sure enough, Hank Blalock turns on one, and Ichiro just turns around to watch it sail over the right field wall. 6-5 Mariners.

Now it’s raining like the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and from the perspective of the Mariners fans it looks like the Orcs are about to win. As the roof starts closing, Michael Young walks to put the tying run on base. Mark Teixeira continues a dreadful day at the plate by getting out, and then Richard Hidalgo comes to the plate. I’d noticed earlier in the game that Hidalgo changed his number this year, and now his 51 matches that on the back of Ichiro. There’s something irreverent about a visiting rightfielder wearing Ichiro’s number on his home turf; surely this interloper won’t ruin Seattle’s day. Yikes! The ball’s heading to the left field gap; it’s going to be close — it — just clears the wall! The Rangers have come all the way back! Boone’s error costs the M’s as Teixeira should have been the third out. Instead, the Rangers are up 7-6.

In the middle of the inning, the roof closes, but the damage has already been done. Though Ichiro and Reed mount a rally, Beltre pops out to end the game, and the Rangers hold on to an improbable victory. The mood of the Mariners fans matches the mood of the weather, as an exhilarating victory is abruptly turned into a brutal defeat. There is no joy in the Emerald City.

But for me, I have been reminded how much I love this game and how wonderful it can be. Every matchup presents the opportunity for drama, strategy and subplots galore. The game proceeds at an easy pace, letting you enjoy a leisurely chat as you watch, but also providing for moments of impossible tension and drama, where you watch with the knowledge that every forthcoming pitch could be the one that decides the game.

It has its problems, no doubt. The men that run it have tried their best to ruin it, but the game itself perseveres, buoyed by an unquenchable regenerative spirit as powerful as that of the springtime in which it begins. Behind all the steroids and contract disputes and Scott Borases lies the game; timeless, ageless, and in many ways perfect.