A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling late into the night next Thursday, so there will be no post. The regular schedule will resume next Sunday, which is of course Opening Day. Thanks as always for reading.
In northern New England the old season hangs on with stubborn tenacity. A bit of fresh snow fell as the weekend was starting, and some freezing rain marked its end. March has already been declared one of the coldest in many years, with any warmth that might appear over its remaining few days insufficient to change that. But in the land of Spring Training things are very different. Each team’s final preparations for the longest season are being made in temperatures that have locals complaining about a March heat wave. Skies are blue and the sun is shining, with just the passing puffy cumulus providing the occasional respite from sol’s strongest rays. The weather and the play on the field remind one that in time the long, languid days of summer will spread all across the land, and a new campaign will be well underway.
For now managers and GMs are busy contemplating final decisions on the makeup of the Opening Day roster. In Tampa that duty falls to Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman, leaders of the New York Yankees. The smart money says that their team will be a middling squad, finishing perhaps a few games over .500. The Yankees have unburdened themselves of a coterie of aging and underperforming stars, but it’s not clear that the next generation of Bombers is fully ready to move into the spotlight. Meanwhile the starting rotation remains uncertain, with the naming of the fourth and fifth starters the two most crucial decisions that Girardi and Cashman will make in the next few days.
One pitcher definitely scheduled to take the ball every fifth day is CC Sabathia, though at age 36 and with a left arm that has thrown more than 3,200 regular and postseason innings, his role is no longer that of the dominant ace. That is apparent on Friday, when Sabathia labors through 5 1/3 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. He breezes quickly through a perfect 1st, but after that the afternoon is a struggle. By the time Sabathia exits he has surrendered nine hits. Yet perhaps it is a testament to his guile that for all their base knocks the Phillies have dented CC for just a pair of runs. Jeremy Hellickson is having a sharp outing for Philadelphia, but the game is not out of reach.
Dellin Betances, back from his stint with the Dominican Republic team at the World Baseball Classic, quickly records the final two outs of the 6th inning. He yields the mound to Luis Severino, one of the young Yankee hurlers vying for a cherished spot in the starting five. Severino was marvelous when he was first called up late in the 2015 season; and every bit as awful when given the chance to be a full-time starter last year, before being sent back to the minors to hone his craft and restore his confidence. One senses that this season is a crucial year for the Dominican, who is still just 23. Today he shows all of his promise, throwing three perfect innings and striking out five.
Still the game goes to the last of the 9th with Philadelphia still leading 2-1. Most of the more than 10,000 paying customers are still on hand, hoping for a New York comeback. As if on cue the designated hitter starts things off with a single up the middle. The first baseman follows with a double to the gap in right, scoring his teammate all with way from first. He then steals second to move into scoring position. Two outs later the right fielder comes to the plate and sends a hard line drive to center field. It falls safely in front of the charging defender, even as the runner is racing around third. A good throw might make for a close play at the plate, but this throw is well short, landing not just on the pitcher’s mound but precisely on the rubber. The ball caroms off the surface as if off a trampoline, flying over the catcher’s head even as the winning run slides home, capping a walk-off win for the Yankees.
One day later it is déjà vu all over again, as Yogi might (or might not) have said. The Toronto Blue Jays jump out to an early 3-0 lead before the Yankees rally, with first baseman Greg Bird’s seventh Grapefruit League home run opening the scoring for New York. Still by the bottom of the final frame Toronto still leads 5-4. But once again the Yankees rally, helped this time by a porous Toronto defense. This time it’s the left fielder who singles to start the comeback, and one out later Ronald Torreyes reaches on an error by his Blue Jays counterpart. After Rob Refsnyder flies out, Mason Williams smashes a pitch to the right side, and the Toronto first baseman can’t handle it. The ball rolls into foul territory in right field, allowing the tying run to score while Torreyes goes to third. Then the designated hitter strokes the first pitch he sees into center field and Torreyes trots home for a second straight walk-off win.
Both days the fans at Steinbrenner Field erupt with cheers that can surely be heard over the fences by those in the passing cars on Dale Mabry Highway. The Spring Training crowds may be a fraction the size of ones that will populate the Stadium up in the Bronx in just a couple of weeks, but these loyal fans are no less boisterous. The twin 9th inning thrillers, along with a more routine 7-4 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, give the Yankees a 22-7 record, best in the majors.
All of which is of course meaningless. The Spring Training schedule is a series of exhibitions which count not at all in the race for the postseason and World Series glory. In the play-by-play accounts above several batters were identified only by their position because their names would be unknown to any reader not a relative or close friend. The heroes of the walk-off wins were Abiatal Avelino and Wilkin Castillo, Rashad Crawford and Trey Amburgey, Zack Zehner and Pete Kozma. Even Torreyes, Refsnyder and Williams are players with limited big league experience, and no certainty of being part of the roster that will soon head north. It’s fair to say that fans were loudly cheering as the Yankees AAA and prospects rallied against similar squads of Phillies and Blue Jays.
Yet if these games lacked meaning in the context of the season to come, they were not without consequence in the moment. As the winning runs scored we were reminded of the endless possibilities of the Great Game, the countless ways nine innings can unfold every time the home plate umpire calls out “play ball.” Perhaps even more important, we were reassured that however gray the skies and white the ground may be at home, summer will soon be back.