Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2016

A Weekend For The Great Game

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, On Sports and Life was traveling Sunday evening, resulting in this post being delayed by one day. The usual schedule resumes on Thursday. Thank you as always for your support.

It’s just after 7 p.m. on Friday evening. Fenway Park is near capacity for the opener of a three game series between the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks. I am at the old ballyard under decidedly unexpected circumstances. Last weekend I received an email informing me that I was the grand prize winner of four premium tickets to this evening’s game. I had a vague recollection of entering an online contest for this particular Red Sox sponsor, and after an exchange of emails with Lumber Liquidators’ marketing department I became satisfied that I wasn’t being punked, and so invited two close friends and their teenage son, avid Sox fans all, to join me on an evening when I had originally planned to be in the Bronx.

I’ve since sold my Yankees ticket, happily at a healthy profit, and now my friends and I are making our way to the suite level of Boston’s iconic stadium. All of the northeast is caught in a sweltering heat wave, and the air-conditioned breeze that sweeps over us when we open the door to the luxury box is a welcome relief. Free food and drink, and comfortably padded seats high above the third base line for those of us who choose to venture out into the heat; now “this is how to watch a game,” as one of my friends posts to his Facebook followers.

The contest doesn’t start well for the Red Sox. Their ace David Price surrenders a two-run homer in the top of the 1st. But Boston has the most prolific offense in the league, and Red Sox hitters waste little time jumping on the hapless Arizona starter. With four runs in the bottom of the 1st and a matching four-spot in the 2nd, the home squad quickly takes command. That allows us to focus on devouring the shrimp cocktail and chicken parmesan sliders, pretending for a couple of hours to be members of a different tax bracket. As the game heads to the bottom of the 7th I prepare to take my leave. After saying goodbye to my friends I step from the seating area back into the air conditioning even as David Ortiz strides to the plate. I turn to watch through the full-length windows as Boston’s retiring hero steps in against Zack Godley and promptly sends the first pitch soaring into the night for a home run. The blast does more than just pad the Red Sox lead; it guarantees that having seen Big Papi stroke his 26th homer in a remarkable final season my friends will go home very happy.

In short order I am on the road, heading west on the Mass Turnpike out to Sturbridge, then down I-84 and I-91 through Connecticut, until the final run on I-95 into Stamford. Along the way John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman keep me company on WFAN, the Yankees flagship station. The AM signal starts out full of static, but gradually gains strength as the miles roll past. The start of the contest between New York and Tampa was delayed for an hour by a massive thunderstorm, so I wind up hearing four innings of play-by-play of Alex Rodriguez’s final game in pinstripes. By the time I tune in he has already recorded his final hit as a Yankee, a 1st inning RBI double into the gap in right center. But I listen to Sterling’s account of A-Rod’s final at-bat, a first pitch groundout to short, and a bit later hear the roar go up as Joe Girardi sends him out to man third base in the top of the 9th. One out later Rodriguez is replaced, allowing him to receive the accolades of the crowd at The Stadium one last time. How many of those cheering are thinking “he’s a bum, but he’s our bum” will never be known.

It’s almost 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. From my usual perch above home plate in the upper deck, I watch the Yankees take the field for the first of two weekend day games against the Rays. The normal start time has been pushed back a bit, as it will be again tomorrow. After the hastily arranged farewell to Rodriguez on Friday night, the Yankees are holding long-planned ceremonies before both games this weekend that do what this team does better than any other; celebrate its past. Today the honorees are the members of the 1996 team that began the most recent period of New York dominance.

We in the stands are reminded of what many baseball fans have forgotten in the wake of the three additional championships in four years that followed that ’96 glory. Namely that against the defending champion Atlanta Braves those Yankees were decided underdogs who lost the first two games of that Series at the old Stadium. But they rallied to win four straight, the most dramatic of which was a pivotal Game 5 pitchers’ duel in which a very young Andy Pettitte bested Atlanta’s John Smoltz. Almost all the members of that team are here, and each is given his due; though of course the loudest roars are for the Core Four: Pettitte, catcher Jorge Posada, shortstop and later team captain Derek Jeter, and the setup man in 1996 who became the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera.

On Sunday the day belongs entirely to Mo, whose Monument Park plaque is unveiled in the pregame ceremony. We celebrate his record 652 regular season saves, and marvel at the synchronicity of the last man to wear uniform number 42 having an additional 42 saves in the postseason. The other three members of the Core Four are present, as are center fielder Bernie Williams, manager Joe Torre, and several other former teammates. In addition to a framed replica of the plaque, Rivera is given a ring so diamond-laden and garish that one can’t imagine the profoundly humble born-again man from a tiny fishing village in Panama ever wearing it.

After those twin celebrations of what has gone before, this year’s Yankees still have to play two games on their current schedule. The first ends well, the second decidedly less so. Yet after becoming sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in a generation, New York has not given up on this season. Even more important, the future suddenly seems very bright.

In Saturday’s 8-4 Yankees win, the team’s fourth in a row, every run is plated by a ball sent out of the park. Five of the seven homers are struck by players in pinstripes, and all of those by Yankees age 26 or younger. The two most dramatic are hit by Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, both just called up from AAA and playing their first major league game. In the bottom of the 2nd Austin steps in for his first at-bat, and quickly falls behind 0-2. But he works the count even and then slices a drive to right that just clears the wall for a round-tripper. Judge then blasts an 87 mile per hour changeup to the deepest part of center field. With that Austin and Judge become the first teammates in MLB history to hit home runs in their first at-bats. That it was back-to-back just adds to the joy. One day later, even as Tampa is trouncing New York, Judge sends another ball into the seats. He’s joined in the home run derby by catcher Gary Sanchez, another recent call-up from the minors.

It’s just after 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. I’m headed down the main stairway to exit The Stadium, cross Babe Ruth Plaza and make the short walk under the still broiling sun to the Metro North train station. The train’s first stop is Stamford, where I’ll start my drive home. In less than 48 hours I’ve seen three major league games in two different ballparks, and listened to part of another while traveling between cities. I’ve seen one team in a playoff fight, another that desperately wants to be, and two squads that are playing for pride. I’ve seen wonderful commemorations of baseball’s history. I’ve seen or listened to portions of the final acts of two careers, and been offered tantalizing glimpses of futures full of promise. I’ve been immersed in the Great Game. Is there a better way to spend a weekend?

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