Glorious endings: Walk-offs and strikeouts

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RIGHT NEXT TO MY CAT IN BRIGHTON, MA — On Thursday night, Derek Jeter played his last game at Yankee Stadium. Captain Clutch — damn right I’m calling him Captain Clutch — came up to the plate in the ninth inning with the game tied, a runner on second and an entire crowd chanting his name. He hit the first pitch to right field — right-field hits are what will pop into my head if I’m ever asked to describe Jeter, along with jump throws and a certain flip throw — and the Yankees won the game. It was a magical end to a Hall of Fame career (yeah, I know, he might play at Fenway Park this weekend).

In the summer of 2004, right before the start of my senior year of college, I was at a baseball field in Bergen Beach with my younger brother, Kevin. He wanted to play catch, field some grounders, have me throw him some batting practice so he could get ready for his sophomore year playing baseball at the University of Scranton, noted Division III baseball powerhouse. I did not play baseball at the University of Scranton. There was a time when I thought I might play collegiate baseball, but when I arrived at the UofS my freshman year, I decided I was done with baseball. Not due to any dislike of the game, I was just 18 and figured I had better things to spend my time doing.

When Kevin and I finished practicing, I picked up a bat and stepped to the plate. I told Kev, a lefty, to throw me one pitch. If I hit it over the fence, I would try out for the Varsity baseball team my senior year. He threw a pitch. I hit it over the fence. (Kevin might deny this, but it’s how I remember it).

We returned to school, and despite my friend Steve telling me that baseball practices and games would get in the way of all the drinking I could do senior year, I tried out. And I made the team! I mean the coach told me outright that he was going to keep me on the roster because he wanted to have an extra catcher to catch bullpens and there was an outside chance he might have me catch when my brother pitched, but, either way, I made the team! No matter how shitty the team, making one is a good feeling.

And it was fun. There were early practices, I quickly realized I was not very/any good at baseball anymore, and we had to run laps on occasion, but it was fun. Playing catch, taking swings in batting practice, team parties, my buddy Dennis hating nearly everything. Despite the fact that it was, indeed, cutting into my senior-year drinking time, I had a great time. I also barely played — rightly so!

The last home game of the season, we played at Red Barons Stadium (which is now home of the Triple-A RailRiders, if I’m not mistaken). One of the cool things about playing at a Minor League stadium was the fact that the bullpen was located all the way out in right field, so the pitchers and catchers could straight up lounge with no coaches around. We goofed around, chewed on sunflower seeds (or dipped tobacco like true badasses) and, every once in a while, I had to help a pitcher warm up. Our team stunk, we were playing a team that started this 6-foot-3 dude who threw gas and we were losing. In the last inning, Dennis — who was also a senior — ran out and said, “McGrath, you’re batting this inning.”

“What?”

“You’re batting this inning.”

“Why?”

“It’s Senior Day.”

“Ohhhhh.”

“You’re definitely going to strike out.”

“Thanks, Dennis.”

So I ran from the bullpen to the dugout. I had no idea it was Senior Day, not that I would’ve asked my parents to drive up from Brooklyn for the game, despite the fact that they probably would have since my parents are great. But, hey, an at-bat is an at-bat. I had actually had one previously, but it went like so:

Me in the on-deck circle, to my buddy JP: “I don’t care if the first pitch is over my head, I’m swinging at it.”

First pitch: Over my head. Me: Swing.

Second pitch: Don’t remember, but it was a strike.

Third pitch: Pitcher threw a curveball. I thought to myself, “That’s a nice curveball.” Strike 3.

So I had experience at the plate that year, but not much. I put on a batting helmet, grabbed a bat and strolled to the plate. I was leading off. As I approached the plate, I heard one of the guys on the team, Steve, say, “Imagine McGrath hits a home run!” I thought to myself, “Imagine McGrath hits a home run!” I stepped in the batter’s box.

Now, as previously noted, the dude pitching was like 6-foot-3 and threw gas. I’m not gonna call him the second coming of Clayton Kershaw, but I’m not not going to, either.

First pitch: Slider. Nasty slider! I did not swing. Strike 1.

Second pitch: Slider. Garbage slider. Slider that bounces two feet before the plate. I swing. Strike 2.

Third pitch: Slider. Most garbage slider ever thrown. Slider that bounces five feet from the plate. I swing. Strike 3.

However …

The slider was so garbage and bounced so far from the plate, it bounces over the catcher’s head. I, rally starter that I am, sprint down the first-base line and am safe at first.

First-base coach: “What the hell was that, McGrath?”

Me: “Whatever. I’m safe.”

Next batter: Hits into a double play. End of my baseball career.

Later that night, I was talking to my friend Dan’s younger brother, who was visiting, and he told me that he attended the game. I asked him if he saw my at-bat. He said, “Yes, that was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

My baseball career ended with arguably the worst at-bat in collegiate baseball history. Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium ended with him hitting a walk-off single. Baseball is glorious.

Brian Cougar

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Glorious endings: Walk-offs and strikeouts

HBP just the start for Jeter? MAYBE

He steps to the plate for the beginning of the end. Yankees captain Derek Jeter, in his final season, is hitting No. 2 — how fitting — in the lineup on Opening Day against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. After taking the first pitch for a strike — he did say he wanted to take it all in this year, after all — Jeter digs in. Astros starter Scott Feldman rears back, unleashes an 88-mph fastball and …

Is this how it’s going to be for Jeter during his farewell tour? Mariano Rivera was honored in opposing ballparks all of last year while he wrapped up his career, but is this a sign that it’s going to be different for the Kalamazoo Kid? Tuesday in Houston was just an HBP, but could things escalate in other road ballparks?

Upcoming trips:

Rogers Centre (Friday-Sunday): Blue Jays invite the Ultimate Warrior to return to the site of his greatest victory and throw out the first pitch/gorilla press slam Jeter.

Tropicana Field (April 17-20): Rays invite Jeter to a private tour of the Rays Touch Tank. Push him in Rays Touch Tank.

Fenway Park (April 22-24): For every Jeter at-bat, the Red Sox play Bronson Arroyo’s rendition of “Dirty Water” for his walk-up music.

And that’s only April.

The main questions people were asking entering Jeter’s final year were: Can he stay healthy? Can he still perform on the field? Are the Yankees good enough to send him out with one last World Series title?

But maybe we ignored the major question: Will Jeter get no respect?

Brian Cougar

HBP just the start for Jeter? MAYBE

Derek Jeter: Great fielder, terrible captain

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Derek Jeter’s final season playing Major League Baseball begins on Tuesday, so there will be six billion stories this year lauding his Hall of Fame career. Jeter enters the 2014 season with 3,316 hits (most all time for the Yankees). The 13-time All-Star has won five Gold Glove Awards (all 100% deserved, you swine), the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award and five World Series titles. Jeter’s been part of some all-time great moments (flip throw, every jump throw) in the history of baseball, and he has avoided basically any off-the-field drama. He’s also made a boatload of money and spent quality time with many lovely ladies.

When Jeter announced that 2014 would be his last season, this — #FarewellCaptain – started popping up on the Twitter. This is the name of a biography written about Jeter by Ian O’Connor. The Yankees’ official shop sells this (my favorite), this and this, among other items.

Jeter became the Yankees’ captain on June 3, 2003. Since that date, the Yankees have the most wins (1,019) in MLB. They have missed the postseason just twice during that span, and have won a World Series title. Jeter has 1,901 hits, 136 homers and 77 game-winning RBIs (important stat) since becoming captain. However, how-ev-er, it has not been only good times since Jeter was named captain. In fact, one can make a strong case that the Yankees were better off when Jeter wasn’t burdened with the captainship.

A brief, out-of-order collection of some fond memories of the Yankees with Jeter before he was captain:

World Series titles (1996, 1998-2000); Hideki Irabu joins the Yanks; David Wells and David Cone throw perfect games; El Duque joins the Yanks; Roger Clemens joins the Yanks; the Red Sox win zero World Series titles; the Mets win zero World Series titles (even losing to the Yanks in the 2000 Fall Classic); everything Bernie Williams does during this period; Don Mattingly receives a Don Mattingly arcade game at Don Mattingly Day at Yankee Stadium; old Yankee Stadium still exists; Shea Stadium still exists; Daryl Strawberry hits a homer while the Yankees play some home games at Shea Stadium; Jose Canseco plays for the Yankees; George Steinbrenner calls Irabu a fat, pussy toad; basically everyone ignores PEDs in baseball; Jeter makes the flip throw; Jeter hits a walk-off homer against the D-backs in the 2001 World Series.

Now, since Jeter has become captain, here is a somewhat in-order collection of bad memories:

2003: Pedro Martinez brutally assaults Don Zimmer; Marlins beat Yankees in World Series, smoke cigars on Yankee Stadium infield.

2004: Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte leave Yankees for Astros; Red Sox come back from down 3-0 in ALCS; this image becomes a thing; Red Sox win World Series title.

2005: Randy Johnson joins Yankees, assaults photographer; Yanks lose to friggin’ Mike Scioscia and the Angels in the ALDS.

2006: Jaret Wright starts elimination game in ALDS; Yanks are eliminated by Tigers in ALDS.

2007: Carl Pavano starts Opening Day; Joba Chamberlain is attacked by midges; Red Sox win another World Series title; Joe Torre (Mr. Torre, as Jeter calls him) is fired.

2008: Billy Crystal given Spring Training at-bat; Generation Trey is, in fact, not here to stay; Yankees miss postseason for first time since 1993; Final games at old Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium.

2009: Things went well during 2009.

2010: Randy Winn released by Yankees.

2011: Jeter does not name Bartolo Colon assistant captain.

2012: Colon no longer pitches for Yankees; Alex Rodriguez benched during postseason; Jeter fractures ankle in ALCS.

2013: Jeter can’t stay healthy; Brian Cashman says A-Rod “should just shut the f— up.”; Mariano Rivera pitches final game with Yankees; Pettitte pitches final game with Yankees; Phil Hughes pitches final game with Yankees; Joba pitches final game with Yankees; Yankees miss postseason.

2014: ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Now, could Jeter, as captain, have prevented all/any of this from happening? Outside of the Billy Crystal thing, I don’t know. But were the Yankees better off when Jeter was just a shortstop and not Captain Clutch? I think the answer is clear.

#fireable

 

Brian Cougar

Derek Jeter: Great fielder, terrible captain

Loosey Goosey times with MLB’s most entertaining player

I came across a photo today that brought me to a realization I did not expect, and one that might be a bit of hyperbole (this is an MLBlog, after all) – A-Rod is the most entertaining baseball player of my lifetime.

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Here’s the link: http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/27/10519504-new-york-yankees-baseball-players-pose-for-media-day

The circumstances surrounding this photo are pretty basic and bland: The Yankees were taking their generic annual portraits for the media. However, in the wide shot of the photographer taking the picture of A-Rod, we see that this is all happening in some random men’s bathroom, with three urinals in the background. I enjoy everything about this picture … it’s currently the background photo on my laptop, and I honestly want to print it on some nice glossy paper and frame it.

Now, I’m not saying A-Rod is the best player of my lifetime; that’s certainly open for debate – especially with Albert Pujols around, plus A-Rod’s PED past, and he even has some competition for most entertaining, the most obvious being Manny Ramirez, but I think Manny hit his high water mark with Mannywod in Los Angeles during the 2008 season, and it’s all sort of been downhill since (although I’m glad he’s back with the A’s … maybe he’s got one last run left, however I thought that was going to be the case with the Rays last season, and that obviously didn’t work out). I’ll even throw Ichiro and his 200-hit seasons, “If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland, I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying” quote and Ichiro-designed T-Shirt nights into the mix, but he comes across as more enigmatic that entertaining. A-Rod, on the other hand … I’m going to list, without any Googling, some memorable A-Rod moments, both on and off the field:

Stripper in Toronto; poker game; three home runs off Bartolo Colon; Kate Hudson; Cameron Diaz feeding him popcorn; “loosey goosey” PED defense; calling reporter who broke PED news a “stalker;” two-homer, seven-RBI game to end ’09 season; Get off my mound; homering in first at-bat of ’09 season; ending the past two Yankees postseasons with strikeouts; yelling “Hah!” in Toronto; fight with Varitek; announcing extension with Yanks during ’07 World Series; slapping the ball away in 2004 ALCS; driving home Damon after Damon’s double steal in ’09 World Series Game 4; kissing himself in the mirror; centaur painting rumor …

I’m going to stop there, and I’ve surely left out a lot of other moments. A-Rod is not my favorite player of all-time, not even close (that would be Yankees legend Bernie Williams), and I also grew up watching two future Hall of Famers, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, who have had plenty of memorable moments of their own; but have they been as entertaining as A-Rod? I don’t think so. More respected? Definitely. More easy to root for? Certainly. Do I expect/want them to be any more than elite baseball players who have helped and continue to help the Yankees win games? No. But A-Rod, for good reasons and bad, has been so, so entertaining throughout his career, especially since he first signed with the Yankees in 2004.

Outside of diehard Yankees fans, kids and maybe men/women who find him overly attractive, A-Rod is, obviously, not a beloved figure. The rest is generally broken down to people who respect his immense talent but think he’s a bit of a diva/phony, and those who think he’s just an outright chump. The diva/phony thing, while probably true, is a label I can’t really hold against A-Rod. This is a guy who was an elite big league player at 20, signed the biggest contract of all-time by the time he was 25, then joined the most famous franchise in his sport only after their biggest rival was blocked from trading for him in 2004. Should we expect someone like this to be some normal dude? I know people will point to Jeter and Pujols as MLB megastars who have managed to avoid the types of negative tabloid headlines A-Rod has brought on, but those two also are overly protective of their private lives, and don’t really show you anything about themselves outside of their performance on the field (which I’m 100% fine with). Plus, if the NY Post is to be believed (and who wouldn’t believe them?), Jeter leaves gift baskets for ladies after a night out with a bunch of signed autographs … and that’s A-Rodian levels of bizarre behavior, if true.

A-Rod’s weird behavior also always seems to come from an honest place of obliviousness. There are some “characters” in MLB, like Derek Holland, Brian Wilson and Logan Morrison, who, while on occasion pretty entertaining, seem to be trying really (and sometimes way too) hard at being entertaining. A-Rod, on the other hand – especially the off the field stuff – seems like he just can’t help it, and I find that a bit more endearing.

Finally (ending this like a high school book report), there’s how entertaining A-Rod can be when he’s at his best as a Hall of Fame caliber baseball player. Back in 2007, I was at a Yankees/Orioles game in the first week of April featuring a pitching matchup of Steve Trachsel vs. Kei Igawa, and this was moving along as one of those forgettable early-season games where you go, have an alright time at the ballpark, and never think of the game again. Igawa and Trachsel were both pretty terrible, Trachsel was his usual slow-pitching self and the Yankees were trailing by a run with two outs in the ninth. Then, single, walk, HBP, and A-Rod steps up to the plate with that glorious chance to be the hero or the goat. He gets himself into a two-strike count; my roommate (and Mets fan … but he got me a free ticket to the game, so he’s A-OK) is outright laughing about how great it will be to watch A-Rod choke, then – BOOM! – ball goes flying into the black at old Yankee Stadium, walk-off grand slam.

A-Rod’s walk-off grand slam

He may not be the best, but he’ll get himself photographed wandering around Central Park shirtless and hit walk-off grand slams, and, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb, the quest to be entertaining is not a sin.

Thanks (that’s for @sportsangle).

— Brian Cougar

Loosey Goosey times with MLB’s most entertaining player