Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 2, 2018

The Full Bull Durham, In Less Than A Day

It’s a sultry late afternoon on the last day of July as the Yankee Clipper, Metro North Railroad’s express service from southern Connecticut, pulls into the East 153rd Street Station in the South Bronx. Opened in 2009, the same year as the new Yankee Stadium, the station sits adjacent to Heritage Field, the public park with fields for various levels of play that occupies the footprint of the old Stadium. While it’s a short stroll past the regulation, little league, and softball diamonds that anchor three corners of the park, then across the multiple lanes of East 161st Street to the Yankees’ current home, there is enough steam in the air that fans are happy to find their seats and wait for this evening’s contest with the Baltimore Orioles to begin.

At least that is the matchup listed on the official regular season schedule. While the visiting players are clad in familiar Oriole orange, Baltimore’s roster contains a number of unfamiliar names. Mired deep in the AL East cellar with the worst record in the Great Game, the Orioles cleaned house in the days leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline which passed just a couple of hours ago. Gone are All-Star Manny Machado, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, starter Kevin Gausman and relievers Darren O’Day and Brad Bach, while Baltimore’s former closer Zach Britton is here, but is now in the home team’s bullpen wearing pinstripes.

Yankee fans can only hope their team’s chances against the Birds will improve in the wake of the Orioles’ roster makeover. Despite Baltimore’s sorry record, the visitors have played New York to a draw over the first ten meetings between the two teams. In contrast, Boston sports a record of 10-2 versus Baltimore, a difference that accounts for most of the gap between the first place Red Sox and second place Yankees.

Those hopes are realized in the first contest of the short two-game set. New York’s Masahiro Tanaka takes the mound after spinning a masterful three-hit complete game shutout against Tampa Bay in his most recent outing. While not quite as dominating this evening, but he’s close. After laboring through a 31-pitch 1st, he settles into a groove. Over six innings Tanaka surrenders just three hits while walking two and hitting a batter. Just three Baltimore base runners reach second. One is Austin Wynns who doubles to lead off the 2nd. Tanaka responds by striking out the next three batters. Another is Tim Beckham, who walks to start the 6th and moves up on a single by Adam Jones. Again Tanaka raises his game and strikes out the next two hitters, ending his night with a total of eight K’s while stretching his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 17 2/3 frames.

The early offense for New York is provided by leadoff man Brett Gardner, who reaches on a walk and a single in his first two at-bats, and by rookie second baseman Gleyber Torres and shortstop Didi Gregorius, who plate Gardner with singles in the 1st and 3rd innings. With the bases load in the 5th a sacrifice fly by Greg Bird plates Giancarlo Stanton with the Yankees’ third run. That brings up Miguel Andujar, the 23-year-old who is giving the 21-year-old Torres stiff competition for recognition as New York’s top rookie. He runs the count to 2-1, then hammers the ball into deep left. Trey Mancini starts to give chase but quickly realizes this hit will be caught by a fan. The three-run homer doubles New York’s margin to 6-0.

Andujar’s blast proves to be more than just window dressing when the New York bullpen wobbles a bit in relief of Tanaka. A.J. Cole throws a clean 7th, but in the 8th he allows a single, a walk, and a two-run double to the first three Baltimore batters. One out later Cole gives way to Dellin Betances, but backup catcher Kyle Higashioka can’t handle one of the big right hander’s first pitches, and the passed ball allows another run to score. But that’s it for the Orioles. Betances fans Chris Davis and Mancini to end the 8th, and Aroldis Chapman strikes out the side in the 9th, with five of his pitches topping 100 miles per hour. Its quarter past ten as happy Yankee fans head for the exits, some knowing they’ll be back just half a day later.

Metro North isn’t as accommodating for weekday afternoon games. There is no direct service from the New Haven line over to East 153rd, the first stop on the railroad’s Hudson line, which extends another seventy-five miles up the river to Poughkeepsie. That means this fan, headquartered in Stamford for this trip, joins others in touching Manhattan ever so briefly at the 125th Street Station in Harlem, there to change trains for the five minute ride back over the Harlem River and into the Bronx. There are only a few stray kids playing catch on the Heritage Park fields, though an adjacent play area featuring a spouting fountain is very well occupied on an extremely humid first day of August.

The Yankees send Sonny Gray to the mound for this contest, which would be enough to cause fans to sweat even if the weather was more temperate. The right hander has been a major disappointment since joining the Yankees at last season’s trade deadline. Still, after falling to 5-7 with an ERA approaching 6.00 early in July, Gray has put together three credible starts, with his best of the year coming in his previous outing when he threw five innings of shutout ball against Kansas City to start the current home stand. As he retires the side in order with two strikeouts in the first, a few skeptical fans are prepared to give Gray the benefit of the doubt.

But the good mood quickly sours when he unravels one inning later. Gray is unable to locate his curve ball, and that allows Baltimore hitters to sit on his fastball. Nine Orioles bat, one walks and six hit safely. Five of the runners eventually cross home plate. The damage might well have been worse, but the Yankees turn an unlikely double play to end the inning when a liner to right that looks like a hit is instead caught and a baserunner is doubled up. Gray manages to retire the first two men he faces in the 3rd, but then Mancini homers and the next two batters reach (one will eventually score), ending Sonny’s day. Gone too by this time is the sunny day, with dark clouds now hovering over the Stadium. With Baltimore leading 7-1 in the middle of the 3rd, those clouds let loose with a sudden torrent. The players on the field and fans in exposed seating all head for cover even as the grounds crew races for the tarp.

One of the many nice features of a stadium as large as this one is that there are plenty of sheltered locations to wait out a rain delay. Just shy of forty minutes after it stopped, play resumes. This young Yankees team doesn’t have a lot of quit in it, always playing to the final out. But while New York rallies, this afternoon Gray has dug his teammates too deep a hole, with the Orioles eventually winning 7-5.

Walking back to the train on a sultry late afternoon, off to the left one sees the familiar quotation inscribed on the outfield fence of Heritage Field. The Yankees have contributed numerous famous words to the Great Game, from Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech to DiMaggio’s gratitude for the “Good Lord making me a Yankee” to any number of Yogism’s from the most quotable Yankee of all. But the source of the quote out there is one Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh, who said he got it from his friend and mentor “Crash” Davis. Both are movie characters, the former played by Tim Robbins and the latter by Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham.” Along with “Field of Dreams” and “For the Love of the Game”, the film is part of Costner’s fabulous baseball triple play, all of which are worth seeing. The quote may be fictional, but it lives on as a perfect description of the Great Game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. And sometimes, a fan gets all three in less than twenty-four hours.

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