Game 1

October 29, 2009

There was no pressure on the Phillies going into the World Series.  The Fightin’s won the World Series last year and Philadelphia is still enjoying that orgasm.  Repeating as champions would be like morning sex for a city that doesn’t expect to win every year and is happy when they do.

No, all the pressure was on the Yankees even before Game 1 started.  They’re married to a cranky elementary schoolteacher that hasn’t put out since 2000.  New York spends every morning like Kevin Spacey in the shower in American Beauty, closing their eyes and imaging what it will be like when they finally get a little postseason nookie.

This year, it even seems like the pressure is off Alex Rodriguez’s shoulders.  Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira both had MVP years and Yankees fans talk about them as much as A-Rod.  The third baseman’s heroics in the Division and League Championship Series also seem to have placated Yankees fans for at least this October.

Besides, when Cliff Lee pitches as he did last night, it’s unjust to blame anyone.

This Yankees team has excited fans like none has since 2004 and people are calling it their favorite since the Gang of 25 finished up in 2000.  The 2005-2008 Yankees teams grew stale as Joe Torre wore out his welcome, all the while suffering from Carl Pavano syndrome.  But with Joe Girardi getting his sea legs in his sophomore voyage and Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett making courageous debuts in pinstripes, the team that threw pies at one another after walkoffs suddenly became the city’s darlings.  Unexpected.

For some reason, it feels like there’s some magic with this year’s team, a joie de vivre that they’ve never exhibited.  Even a bit of irreverence.  But now they’re in a hole, having lost the first game at home but worse, losing one of Sabathia’s starts that they’d booked as two, maybe three guaranteed wins in the series.  Now, AJ Burnett, who gave up six runs in his ALCS start in Anaheim, takes the mound with the new Yankee Stadium breathing down his neck and the Legends Club staring indifferently into their Blue Label.  “God help us if we lose both at home.”  “Is this a blended or a single malt?”

The Phillies, meanwhile, cruised.  They put pressure on Sabathia, making him throw 113 pitches and loading the bases in the first inning.  Chase Utley, who has received zero attention in the buildup with Lee and Ryan Howard stealing the spotlight, hit two solo home runs.  He got a little of that short-porch love in the third inning and hit a no-doubter in the sixth.  Lee, insolent, Hollywooded a fly ball and no-look-snagged a chopper behind his back while slicing through the Yankees with LASIK-precision.

Jimmy Rollins told Jay Leno that the Phillies would win it in five games, six if they were being friendly.  Not the words of a player afraid to lose . . . because he won last year.

The Yankees still have an immense lineup.  But just as the Bombers needed to win every one of Sabathia’s starts, the Phillies needed to win every one of Lee’s starts.  They just happened to get the first one.

Things get uncertain when Pedro Martinez takes the mound to an inevitable chorus of jeers and pressure on Thursday; Cole Hamels has not been his postseason-MVP self this year.  The Yankees are a very good team.  But people might be ignoring just how good the Phillies are.  Only two of ESPN’s 23 expert analysts picked the Phillies, despite Philadelphia arguably having advantages at every lineup position but shortstop and third base.

And they’re playing with no pressure.  Philadelphia is still going to throw a warm arm around the Phillies even if they lose.  New York is going to steal the covers and send the Yankees to the couch if they come home empty handed.

But then you realize there are no losers in this World Series, because there are Mets fans.


October Rodriguez

October 11, 2009

I was having trouble putting any thoughts on paper about the baseball playoffs, but Alex Rodriguez wrote the words for me.

It’s October and though I’ve taken interest in English football, it only takes one sniff of postseason baseball to bring me back to where I should be. The world’s game, for all its merits, concludes inconclusively every season as leagues determine champions by the number of points you accrue over a season. It all ends anticlimactically with one team higher on the table than the rest. Give ’em the Barclays trophy, tie some Carlsberg ribbons around the handles, fire off some streamers, and that’s after a 1-1 tie.

Not baseball. In October the air gets crisp, crowds layer up, and every high-five stings a little longer as autumn greets the playoffs. October baseball is a tunnel, with eight teams sprinting for light until ultimately only one survives the attrition.

Cities put pressure on its players in the postseason, and no city has put more pressure on any player this decade than New York has Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees, with their three new mercenaries (Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett) razed the toughest division in baseball to enter October as favorites, and in 2009 boast a camaraderie that the team hasn’t oozed in years.

Alex Rodriguez finally cured his media-and-fan diagnosed postseason anemia, driving in two runs in the first game and hitting an heroic two-run, game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of game two – the kind of hit that instantly bronzes itself in the hippocampus of millions. “He’s great when you’re up by eight, but garbage in the playoffs,” said petulant Yankees fans, who vilified the game’s best player for years but now slap him on the back and buy him a beer after just hitting one ball 400 feet.

No other sport decides its champion in a playoffs sized so proportionally small as baseball’s, where you need to win 11 after playing 162. The game’s objective pragmatists bellow at the arbitrary results that come from a “small sample size” of playoffs games, and indeed this should render the criticism of players like Rodriguez moot. He’d only had 94 playoff at-bats with the Yankees coming into this season.

But it doesn’t, and baseball’s playoffs are better for it. The playoffs bring pressure. They bring blown calls, walkoffs and errors that linger for years and most of all, the playoffs bring transformative moments.

Alex Rodriguez knew how baseless the cries of his playoff inability were from critics and fans who demanded even more courage.

More than anyone, Rodriguez would always be the one to silence his critics with a storybook moment of his own.