Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 30, 2017

Perseverance Prevails, On And Off The Field

The new-look Yankees were back home in the Bronx this weekend, after a long road trip that opened the season’s second half. After finishing that coast-to-coast journey with a win, they swept a quick two game series from the Reds, then took three in a row against the division rival Rays before having their winning streak stopped at six on Sunday. This is a young team that regularly sends out a starting lineup with five and sometimes as many as six position players under the age of 30.

Older veterans have been forced to find new roles. Chase Headley, who turned 33 in May, is learning to play first base on the fly after being bumped out of his customary spot at the hot corner by the recent acquisition of Todd Frazier from the White Sox. At all of 31, Frazier is himself one of the “older” Yankees, who with the trade from Chicago is, in his seventh big league season, finally living the dream of playing for the team he grew up rooting for from his home in Toms River, New Jersey.

Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a 33-year old like Headley, had the misfortune of banging his head on the center field wall while running down a fly ball in early June. He went on the 7-day concussion disabled list and lost his starting job to a hot-hitting 27-year old Aaron Hicks. When Hicks in turn went on the DL with an oblique injury late last month, the Yankees called up 22-year old Clint Frazier rather than restore Ellsbury to his customary spot in the starting lineup. With Frazier hitting and fielding so well that sending him back down to AAA will prove difficult, the Yankees have a surfeit of outfielders as Hicks gets ready to return to action. That leaves Ellsbury, who has three years and $63 million left on the contract he signed in 2013, as one of the most expensive pinch runners in baseball history. That at least was the extent of his contribution over the weekend.

Friday night the Yankees bludgeoned the Rays 6-1. New York managed only five hits in the game, but three of them landed in the seats, including a scorching line drive off the bat of Aaron Judge that traveled from home plate to the left field stands very, very quickly. That was more than enough support for Masahiro Tanaka, who retired the first seventeen batters he faced and struck out a career-high fourteen while yielding just one run and two hits over eight innings.

Saturday afternoon the Yankees again displayed some power, but won with an equal amount of grit. New York trailed by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. New York rallied from the first two deficits to tie the game, and overcame the third by taking a 4-3 lead on a two-run pinch-hit homer by Headley in the 6th inning. After the Rays’ Lucas Duda, acquired from the Mets just before this series, knotted the game at four with a home run of his own in the 8th, the contest appeared headed for extra innings.

But the Yankee hitters had other ideas. Headley led off the 9th with a walk, which gave Ellsbury the chance for his cameo on the base paths. He moved to second when Frazier was hit by a pitch. Asked to advance the runners, 24-year old Ronald Torreyes, a utility infielder who has been hitting like an All-Star since moving into an everyday role because of an injury to starting second baseman Starlin Castro, dropped a perfect bunt between third base and the pitcher’s mound which the Rays could not handle. That loaded the bases for Brett Gardner, who looked at one called strike from Brad Jennings before ripping a grounder past the drawn-in infield and into center as Ellsbury trotted home with the winning run.

Even on Sunday, when their winning streak came to an end, the Yankees fought to the end. Trailing 5-3 in the 9th on a day in which they had managed just three hits to that point, New York put the tying runs on with a single and a walk before finally succumbing.

Playing hard to the final out is what every team is supposed to do. Yet it often seems that teams imbued with youth do so more consistently. Perhaps because they are young they do not know fear; perhaps they haven’t yet grasped that the Great Game, more than any of our sports, is supposed to be about managing failure and accepting that some impediments cannot be overcome. The point has often been made that a batting career built on hitting safely one time in three will land a player multiple trips to the All-Star Game.

As the weekend played out in the Bronx, lessons of overcoming obstacles were also on display three hours or so up I-87, for this was the annual weekend when the tiny village of Cooperstown becomes the center of the baseball world. The careers of this year’s three Hall of Fame player inductees, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez, were rich in that regard. Bagwell was but a fourth-round draft pick, and so lightly regarded as a Red Sox prospect that Boston shipped him to Houston little more than a year later. Raines was drafted even lower than Bagwell and faced doubts because of his size. Pudge Rodriguez was tabbed for stardom as a catcher early on, but playing the most demanding position on the field had to overcome both serious injuries and Jose Canseco’s claims of steroid use to make it to the Hall.

This year though, the greatest story of Hall of Fame weekend was told on Saturday, when the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, given for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, was bestowed on Claire Smith. Since its creation in 1962, the Spink Award had been given sixty-seven times prior to this weekend. When she became the sixty-eighth honoree, Smith broke the doors down on what had been a men-only club, while also becoming just the fourth African-American honoree.

Smith spent more than three decades writing about the Great Game, including for the New York Times, Philadelphia Enquirer and ESPN. But it was in her early days writing for the Hartford Courant, at a time when locker rooms were still considered male redoubts, that she faced her greatest challenges. In 1984 the San Diego Padres barred her from the clubhouse during the postseason, but Smith found an ally in first baseman Steve Garvey, who brought her quotes from his teammates so she could write her stories.

Smith has other tales of slights small and large, of bigotry subtle and direct. The story of women covering baseball is still being told, as current ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza can attest. But Smith persisted and persevered, as hopefully Mendoza will do as well, and this weekend her greatness finally got its due. At age 62 and after a career of doing so, she is proof that remaining undaunted in the face of great obstacles is not a talent found only on the field, nor one reserved exclusively for the young.

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