December 3, 2017
The undefeated Wisconsin Badgers football team went down on Saturday night Dec 3 to an inspired Ohio State Buckeyes team, 27-21. It marked the third time in four years that the Badgers had lost the Big Ten championship game.
The odds-makers who favored the Buckeyes by 6 or 6.5 points had it right. Wisconsin had not played any team as tough and swift as Ohio State all season. The Buckeyes scored three touchdowns on plays over 50 yards in the first half, tying the number of big plays the vaunted Wisconsin defense had allowed in their 12 previous games.
Though the 21-10 halftime deficit proved too much to overcome, the second half was thrilling and almost classic - if only Wisconsin had mounted a serious threat late in the game to save their unblemished season.
But all game the stout Ohio State defense throttled Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin’s sensational freshman running back, holding him to just 41 yards in 15 carries, far below his season average. Ohio State's freshman star running back J.K.Dobbins was much more productive and was voted game MVP.
Badger sophomore southpaw quarterback Alex Hornibrook played nobly but didn’t have the arm strength or enough game-breaking receivers to pull off the comeback. His counterpart J.T. Barrett, one week removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, played a savvy game and did just enough with his arm and his challenged legs to lead his team to victory - despite two interceptions including a pick-6 by Badger linebacker Andrew van Ginkel that kept Wisconsin in the game during the first half..
Kudos to the outstanding punting on both sides. I’m a great believer in field position in football and Drue Chrisman of Ohio State boomed his punts deep into Badger territory and kept them high enough to prevent any return yardage. The Badgers' Anthony Lotti for Wisconsin also punted very effectively.
Despite the Buckeyes' victory to claim the Big Ten championship, it was left out of football's Final Four. One-loss Alabama got the fourth seed and will have a rematch with defending champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semi-final on New Year's Day. Oklahoma will meet Georgia in the Rose Bowl in the second semi-final.
Ohio State will meet USC in Dallas' Cotton Bowl and Wisconsin plays in Miami's Orange Bowl for the first time on Dec 30 against home team Miami which slumped badly at the end of the year after being undefeated.
Ohio State's 31-point loss to Iowa on the road was held against the Buckeyes and their 16-point loss at home to Oklahoma early in the season didn't help. But the bruising Big Ten plays nine conference games whereas Alabama's vaunted SEC only play eight and pad their schedule with cupcakes like Mercer.
(Alabama didn't even play for the SEC championship losing to Auburn on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. So they are a very dubious selection to the Final Four despite coach Nick Saban's protestations of their excellence.)
To add to the bad Saturday for the Badgers, earlier in the day the Big Ten opened its basketball season with Ohio State trouncing Wisconsin on the Badgers’ home court, 78-53. The Buckeyes led by 23 at the half and opened up a 35-point lead at one point in the second half. Wisconsin falls to 3-5 overall. The loss of four starters from last year's solid tournament team looks more and more ominous.
As if there weren’t enough sadness for an ardent fan of his alma maters, Columbia blew a 10-point lead in the second half and lost at Albany 86-82. The Lions fall to 1-6 on the season, all road games. They finally open their home season against Quinnipiac from New Haven CT this Monday Dec 4. Maybe home cooking will make the difference.
A final shout-out in 2017 is in order for Columbia’s football team that finished with its best record in 21 years, 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Ivy League good for a second place tie with Dartmouth. Except for its 23-6 loss to eventual champion Yale in New Haven - the Elis’ first outright title since 1980 - the Lions proved they could play with anybody.
Great kudos to the 32 seniors who stuck it out after their winless freshman season under ousted coach Pete Mangurian. The arrival of proven Ivy League winner Al Bagnoli from Penn has made a great difference. Now as Bagnoli has said so wisely, the key will be to stay up there as a perennial contender every year.
Graduation losses will be significant - quarterback Anders Hill, running back Jim Schroer, and punter Parker Thome among them. (Thome BTW is a distant cousin of baseball's possible next Hall of Famer Jim Thome).
But Bagnoli and his recruiting staff seem to building what Earl Weaver and Yogi Berra used to call "deep depth." The prior punters for the Lions are taking advantage of a fourth year of eligibility by punting for top Division I schools - Cameron Nizialek's leg will be on display when Georgia plays Oklahoma and Matthew Nanton will be kicking for Kentucky in the Music City Bowl against Northwestern.
That’s all for now, dear blog readers. Next time there will be real Hot Stove League baseball news and hopefully more informed speculation to write about as baseball’s annual winter meetings convene in Orlando FLA in mid-December. Until then always remember: “Take it easy but take it!”
November 13, 2017
Playing meaningful games in September and October are the coveted goals for baseball fans. For college football fans, it's meaningful games in November that are the gold standard.
This season I'm blessed that Columbia has surprised the world with a breakthrough season. After dominating Cornell on Saturday November 11 in a game that was much more one-sided than the 18-8 final score, the Lions head into its home finale against Brown with a chance to tie Yale for the Ivy League title.
Yale will be favored to win at home against Harvard in The Game and claim the Ivy League title outright with a 6-1 record. But you never know what will happen in a rivalry game. (By the way, a DVD that should be in every historically-minded fan's collection is "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29," Kevin Rafferty's labor of love about the 1968 matchup of two undefeated teams set in the context of anti-Vietnam war unrest and the election of President Richard Nixon.)
Regardless of what happens in New Haven, a Columbia win over Brown will mean that the Lions finish with a 5-2 league record and 8-2 overall, its best season since 1996 and one of the best in its history.
Hats off to the great senior leadership of quarterback Anders Hill, safety Landon Baty, offensive lineman Bewley Wales and defensive lineman Lord Hyeamang. And, of course, coach Al Bagnoli who has brought the organizational skill and the winning touch that made him such a success at Penn.
The only blemish on the Cornell victory was a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against star sophomore wide receiver Josh Wainwright. He was probably complaining too loudly and profanely to an official for an non-interference call in the end zone. It likely cost the Lions a touchdown because Cornell had been penalized on the play and would have meant a first down had not Wainwright lost control.
Wainwright is a great talent who wears #13 at home in honor of his hero Odell Beckham, the football Giants injured mega-talent. (For some reason Josh wears #86 on the road.) IMO the last thing the Lions need as they enter I hope the realm of permanent contention is a player who emulates the worst of Beckham, his mouthiness and overall narcissistic behavior.
Watching the TV feed from the SNY cable channel here in NYC, I noticed chippiness between Wainwright and Cornell defenders from early in the game. I just knew something bad would result from the trash talk even though announcers Jerry Recco and Sal Licata seemed to think his behavior was funny even admirable.
(BTW, the SNY feed was erratic - video was lost for several minutes and the graphics at times were so large that they interfered with full vision of the field. We couch potatoes are very spoiled you know.)
It is not that that surprising that my graduate alma mater Wisconsin gifted with a weak schedule is undefeated as it heads into a big home game against Michigan on Saturday. But the way they held down great rival Iowa to 66 yards TOTAL YARDAGE in a 38-14 win last weekend was very impressive. It was also the first time in seven years that the home team had won this rivalry game.
Badger fans are becoming inured to the almost weekly pick-6 interception thrown by southpaw QB Alex Hornibrook, a lad from West Chester, Pa. But he also made a couple of brilliant throws on Saturday so we'll have to accept the bad with the good.
The annoying fumbles of freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor from Salem in south New Jersey are another disturbing issue.
But if the defense continues to play well, Wisconsin will be formidable. They have already clinched the Big Ten West division and will probably face Ohio State in the Dec 2 playoff in Indianapolis for the league title.
Avenging the 59-0 shellacking delivered by the Buckeyes a few years ago will be on the minds of fans with long memories (like yours truly). Yet the impressive thing about this year's Badgers is that they are really taking it a game at time, a play at a time. So full speed ahead to the 2017 contingent.
Well that's all for now. Some thoughts on baseball's hot stove league next installment.
Always remember: Take it easy but take it.
November 2, 2017
I had a premonition that Game 7 of this gripping World Series might be anti-climactic. But thought it might go the other way in favor of the home team Dodgers.
After all, they had beaten future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander in Game 6, not that they pummeled him. A game-tying bloop 6th inning double down the right field line by center fielder Chris Taylor had been the big hit followed by a sacrifice fly by shortstop Corey Seager.
Behind two solid 8th and 9th innings by closer Kenley Jansen, Dodgers won 3-1. Jansen blew the Game 2 save and lost the Game 5 classic on Alex Bregman’s single, but confidently bounced back in Game 6.
“Little ball” decided that game and as it turned out, so it did Game 7. Deserved World Series MVP George Springer led off the game with a ringing double. Then two ground balls to the right side helped by a throwing error by first baseman Cody Bellinger led to two quick runs.
In the next inning, another ground ball to right side by pitcher Lance McCullers plated the third run. Before manager Dave Roberts could move to replace Yu Darvish, ineffective for second time in this WS, Springer homered to give Astros a 5-0 lead.
After leaving the bases loaded in the first inning and Logan Forsythe unforgivably getting doubled off second on a line drive to shortstop to end 2nd inning, Dodgers hardly threatened again.
I say “unforgivably” because baseball savant Paul Richards always said that the only time a runner is blameless for being doubled up is when he is on first base and the ball is hit directly to first baseman.
So in the end the World Series was decided by Baseball 101 - hitting behind runners and protecting your position while on base. It will, of course, be remembered for the
unexpected momentum swings in every other game, especially the classic Game 2 & Game 5.
I’m happy for the city of Houston after the trauma of Hurricane Harvey and its past failures on the national baseball stage. I’m not happy that the Astros organization let go of eight veteran baseball scouts two weeks before the end of the season.
The reliance on statistical/analytical studies instead of scouts with two eyes and two ears on the field is an industry-wide trend that is unfortunate. But life is always more complicated than I’d like it to be.
The bottom line is that 2017 Houston Astros rose to the occasion in every way.
All hail to them!
[Update on George Springer III: He is a wonderful story that the New York Times has covered with distinction. Sportswriter James Wagner informed us on Nov 3 that Springer has made great progress dealing with a stuttering issue and has become a spokesman and fund-raiser for The Stuttering Association for the Young.
Vivian Lee informed us in the main A section of the Nov 2 Times that Springer hails from New Britain CT, the home town of "The Father of College Football" Walter Camp and Paul Manafort. There is even a Paul Manafort Drive that curves around the Central Connecticut State Univ. campus, named after Manafort's father who was a New Britain Republican Mayor.
Isn't America an amazing bundle of contradictions?!
A few years ago I heard Springer's father George Springer Jr. deliver an inspirational speech at the annual New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner. He is a lawyer who played in the Little League World Series and football at the U. of Connecticut.
Springer Jr. spoke like a preacher that night accepting the Herb Stein Future Star award from the scouts. I normally don't like the term "giving 110 per cent" but he made me a believer when he accepted the award for his son who was unable to attend.]
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:
The absence of daily baseball is never easy to endure, but I do have my college football and basketball teams to follow. Columbia tasted defeat for the first time in 2017 when Yale thoroughly outplayed them in New Haven last Saturday Oct 24 on their way to a 23-6 victory.
Five bus loads of Columbia alumni and students enjoyed a wonderful pre-game tailgate but the vibrancy of our gathering was dimmed by the performance of the impressive Bulldog eleven.
If you’ve never been to the Yale Bowl, it should be on your bucket list. Football tradition exudes all over place. After all, it was Walter Camp in the 1880s who created the line of scrimmage and the concept of four downs to separate American football from rugby. The Walter Camp "fence," where players have posed for decades, is just outside the stadium.
Football history at Yale even predates Camp. There is the number 145 painted on the sidelines at the Yale Bowl. It stands for 145 years football has been played at the storied Ivy institution and counting.
I don’t know if there is a changing of the guard in the Ivy League but upstarts Columbia and Cornell are tied for first with Yale at 3-1 with three games left to play.
Perennial contender Harvard at 2-2 visits Columbia this Saturday Nov 4 and we’ll
see if the Lions can get back on the winning path.
In closing, I want to pay homage to a great Columbia man, writer-author-editor Ray Robinson who died on November 1st. He would have been 97 on Dec 4.
In his later years Ray became an acclaimed biographer of Columbia man Lou Gehrig and Bucknell’s Christy Mathewson.
Ray grew up near the Columbia campus and remembered Columbia’s infrequent gridiron triumphs very well. In our last conversation he reminded me that Columbia had not only beaten Stanford 7-0 in the 1934 Rose Bowl but had been undefeated in two other games against the Pacific Coast powerhouse.
Until next time, always remember: Take it easy but take it
And Then There Were Two: Houston-LA Dodgers Get Ready for World Series (revised with Rose Bowl update)
October 22, 2017
"Sports Illustrated," often accused of jinxing players with cover stories, must be feeling vindicated. Three years ago Ben Reiter wrote a cover story predicting the Astros as World Series champions in 2017.
Starting Tuesday Oct 24 the Astros will have a chance to fulfill that prophecy when they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in Game 1. They triumphed over the Yankees in the seven full games of the AL Championship Series.
They won every home game at Minute Maid Park (which used to be called Enron Field until that corporation fell in disgrace). Houston did play pitifully in the three games in New York, undoubtedly cowed by the loud Yankee Stadium fans and the aura of invincibility they like to project.
Yet the Yankees were equally punchless in their four losses in Houston, scoring a total of only three runs. Justin Verlander’s dominance in his two starts for the Astros was not surprising, and he was the deserved MVP of the ALCS.
Yet the Yankees put up very little fight in the final game against the combined offerings of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, two good pitchers when on their game but not exactly aces. Morton got the win for 5 innings of work and McCullers got the very rare 4-inning save.
There was some great defense in the ALCS. Right fielder Aaron Judge stole two home runs from the Astros, one in each park. Center fielder George Springer cemented Houston’s last two victories with similarly outstanding grabs. The Astro double play combination of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve outplayed their Yankee counterparts Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro.
Not enough can be said about the all-around play and leadership by example of Altuve who listed at 5’ 7” 155 pounds is one of the smallest players in MLB. Yet he has won three out of the last four AL batting titles showing power as well as an ability to spray balls to all fields.
The Dodgers, in what 90-year-old former manager Tommy Lasorda loves to call “The Fall Classic,” will be a formidable opponent. In their first World Series since 1988, they won the most games in baseball in 2017 and will have the home field advantage.
Clayton Kershaw gets the nod in the opener likely against fellow lefty Dallas Keuchel, he of the beard that reminds me of one of the Smith Brothers (cough drop manufacturers for you youngsters reading).
Kershaw, the $32 million a year/three time Cy Young award winner, is at the top of his game. He wants to improve on his over-4 point ERA in post-season play.
Another southpaw 37-year-old Rich Hill gets LA's Game 2 nod.
Hill is a nice story - a journeyman originally signed by the Cubs, he has endured several injuries over the years. He bounced to many teams including the Orioles briefly and the Red Sox and the A’s. He also pitched in Asia trying to keep his dream alive.
The deep-pocketed Dodgers signed him to a three-year $36 million contract last off-season. He has been a consistent pitcher when not bothered by nagging hand blisters.
Hill attended the University of Michigan where one of his roommates was catcher-utility player Jake Fox. Last I heard Fox was still playing in the independent leagues after sipping cups of coffee with the Pirates, A's and O's.
As you probably know, I love acronyms. Fox once scribbled in his glove T.E.W.S.I.C.:
To Everyone Who Said I Couldn't. I wouldn't be surprised if Rich Hill wrote or thought something very similar in his long journey to The Show.
The Dodgers have another rewarding story in utility man in Kike (short for Enrique) Hernandez. A journeyman from Puerto Rico, he was obtained from the Marlins (along with versatile catcher Austin Barnes) in the trade for second baseman Dee Gordon. Hernandez belted three home runs in the Dodgers' clinching 11-1 rout of the Cubs in the NLCS.
Yu Darvish, the Japanese pitcher of Iranian descent picked up from the Texas Rangers late this season, probably gets the nod for Game 3. I know the international wing of MLB was salivating at the thought of Darvish pitching against the Yankees’ Japanese import Masohiro Tanaka. But you can’t always get what you want (to coin a phrase).
At the back of a deep Dodgers pitching staff looms Curacao’s Kenley Jansen, a onetime 6’ 5” 280 pound catcher who has become 2017’s best closer. New Yorkers that can forgive Walter O’Malley for taking the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA in 1957 might find some New York connections of interest on the Dodgers roster.
Justin Turner, a former Mets utility player, has blossomed into a standout third baseman on both sides of the ball. First baseman Cody Bellinger, a shoo-in for NL Rookie of the Year, is the son of Clay Bellinger who earned two World Series rings as a utility player on the Yankees last dynasty of the late 1990s.
No doubt MLB was craving building up a battle between top rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger in the World Series but there should be no absence of drama in this Series. I think the Dodgers will win but I’m hoping for a long and dramatic series. Because once again I say - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.”
That’s all for now - Columbia and Wisconsin football remain undefeated and I am binging on BIRGing - Basking In Reflected Glory. Don’t know how long it will last but nice to enjoy the streaks while they last.
I need to make a correction from my last blog. I said that I'd be satisfied with a Wisconsin win in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champion. But this year the historic Pasadena CA site is part of the playoff system.
So if the Badgers make the Rose Bowl, they'll have to be part of the four-team championship playoff. That means they'll have to run the table impressively to smell the roses and the ultimate crown.
That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!
October 18, 2017
It has been more like late summer or even mid-summer in Gotham the last few weeks.
I am not complaining except that there is a shocking lack of fall foliage so far.
As you know I am not a Yankees fan but they and the Dodgers are clearly the hottest teams left in the post-season. The Dodgers are undefeated after sweeping Arizona in three games in round one of the playoffs - NLDS. And now they have a seemingly impregnable lead of 3-0 in the NLCS over the soon ex-champion Cubs.
The sports highlight of my fall has been the undefeated Columbia Lions football team. They beat Penn in overtime on Saturday October 14 - An absolutely thrilling game before over 13,000 fans at Homecoming way north in Manhattan at the Baker Field complex west of 218th Street and Broadway.
It was the first win over Penn in 21 years and was very sweet for Columbia coach Al Bagnoli who coached the Quakers to most of those wins over Columbia and brought many Ivy League titles to the storied Philadelphia campus.
After the dramatic win, Bagnoli wisely and accurately credited the coming of age of the players who rallied from a 14-point deficit to score 3 TDs in the 4th quarter. In overtime, it was senior quarterback Anders Hill who threw a perfect 24-yard pass to sensational sophomore wide receiver Josh Wainwright for the winning points.
Wainwright spiked the ball with emphasis and the celebration began. Ecstatic fans almost tore down the goalposts until security and calmer heads arrived on the scene.
Columbia faces two tough road games with also-undefeated Dartmouth this Saturday Oct 21. Up next is a visit to Yale on Oct 28 before a home tussle with Harvard on Nov 4. The season ends with Cornell in Ithaca on Nov 11 and a home finale against Brown on Nov 18.
Columbia is a fun team to watch on offense and defense. Sophomore linebacker Michael Murphy was seemingly all over the field in the Penn win and won league accolades for his play.
In his third season Bagnoli clearly seems to have turned the program around.
There is more pride and less resignation in Columbia fandom, a truly welcome development. Expecting to win instead of fearing the worst is a wonderful feeling!
(But believe me, that feeling of dread doesn't die totally after decades of drought.)
My other alma mater Wisconsin is also undefeated but their offense has sputtered at times. They have a remarkable freshman running back in Jonathan Taylor from Salem NJ (not far from the home of former Heisman winner Ron Dayne). But it has been Badger defense that has excelled all year.
The schedule is admittedly weak in 2017 so the road to the playoff in Indianapolis against probably Ohio State or Penn State seems smooth. But it says here that the
offense has to become more consistent if the Badgers hope for a major bowl.
I personally doubt given the weak schedule that they will make the four-team playoff. But as a traditionalist, an appearance in the Rose Bowl would suit me fine.
On the arts and musical side, I've experienced some great performances lately.
I saw the opening of the Orpheus season at the 92nd Street Y. The conductor-less chamber orchestra featured special guest cellist Mischa Maisky.
Citizen of the world fits the intense and lyrical Maisky born in Latvia, educated in Russia, now residing in Israel. His renditions of Arensky and the Tchaikovsky "Andante Cantabile" as an encore connected deeply with my Russian roots.
I also caught the farewell performance of ballet star Robert Fairchild with the New York City Ballet this past Sunday Oct 15. Only 30, Fairchild is the youngest dancer ever to be honored with a "farewell".
He enjoyed several standing ovations at the end and graciously handed out roses to all of the company's principal dancers. Fairchild may be leaving ballet. but he is in line for many musical theatre and other opportunities.
He should be a delightful and rewarding presence on the arts scene for years to come. I loved him as the male lead in "An American In Paris" that ran recently for over a year at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.
I'll be back next time with final thoughts on the MLB baseball season and Orpheus's next performance on Oct 26 at Carnegie Hall with guest soloist pianist Andre Watts.
For now: Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
October 10, 2017
After watching the Yankees-Minnesota first inning last Tuesday Oct 3 (Bobby Thomson Day BTW in 1951 and Dave Winfield's birthday), I couldn’t help thinking of the first round of the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns middleweight fight in April 1985.
More haymakers were thrown in the first round of that classic fight than in most entire bouts (Hagler won it by a third-round KO - I saw it on small theatre TV at Madison Square Garden’s long-gone Felt Forum.)
The Twins hit two HRs and knocked out Yankee ace Luis Severino in first inning. But Curacao’s pride Didi Gregorius smacked a three-run dinger to tie the game immediately, and Yanks won going away.
Nothing like playoff games to reveal intensity a la boxing’s concentrated mayhem. (I’m not an ardent boxing fan because the aim of the sport is really to concuss your rival. But I’m a flawed human being who does believe in a fair fight with no favor.)
And with the exception of LA Dodgers sweep of the Diamondbacks, the playoffs have been intense and gripping (despite the length of the games due to extra commercials and incessant meetings between catchers and pitchers).
We’ll see if Cleveland can continue in the playoffs by winning Game 5 at home tomorrow night (Wed Oct 11). “Momentum in baseball is the next day’s starting pitcher” will be truer than ever. Cleveland ace Corey Kluber will be matched against the former Indian CC Sabathia.
Kluber was treated rudely by the Yankees in the now-infamous Game 2 - you know the one where Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, the obsessive note-taker with the big thick looseleaf book, didn’t appeal a bad call on a hit-by-pitch. And moments later Indians leader Francisco Lindor hit a grand-slammer to bring the Indians back into a game they won in extra innings.
Just hope it is a good game like the classic Game 3 in which Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka won a gripping 1-0 shutout that proved again that nothing quite beats a low-scoring baseball game with plenty of base runners but stout pitching.
Revived Yankee first baseman Greg Bird homered deep into the upper right field stands off usually impregnable reliever Andrew Miller for the game's only run.
It would be nice for Cleveland if they can get injured slugger Edwin Encarnacion back into the lineup. And if their number three hitter Jose Ramirez finds his hitting stroke.
The playoffs, being so short compared to the long grind of the regular season where “tomorrow is your best friend,” intensify slumps. Hope J Ramirez snaps out of it.
Meanwhile Houston eliminated the Red Sox three games to one. The Astros embarrassed punchless Boston in the first two games in Texas by identical 8-2 scores.
The Red Sox salvaged some respect by winning the third game at home and leading the fourth one by one run into the 8th.
But the talented young Alex Bregman, a natural shortstop now playing third because of the emergence of Carlos Correa at short, homered to tie it. And then former Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick hit an opposite field single to give the Astros the lead in their ultimate 5-4 win.
The only blemish on the Astros performance was center fielder George Springer’s botching balls in Fenway Park’s tricky deep center field. On Sunday he played a catchable ball into a double when he didn’t realize he had more room to catch it.
Yesterday (Monday Oct 9) Springer allowed an inside-the-park home run to talented Red Sox 20-year-old rookie third baseman Rafael Devers when the ball ricocheted wildly off the metal wall into Fenway’s vast right field.
For Houston’s sake I hope Springer plays better on the road in the upcoming ALCS either in Cleveland or New York. Or maybe Jake Marisnick returns to the lineup.
In the National League, the Cubs have taken a 2-1 lead over the Washington Nationals. The pitching has been great in this series - the defense not so great.
I was glad that the Nats at least won a game at home before heading to Wrigley Field for Games 3 and 4. They'll have to conquer Jake Arrieta to stay alive.
Washington has not won a playoff series since they returned to the majors in 2005 as the former Montreal Expos. It looks like they will have their work cut out for them to break that bad streak.
Before I close, I want to tip my cap to some of the insights of the Fox Sports One team covering Boston-Houston, Joe Davis and former players David Cone and AJ Pierzynski.
Cone, whose first team was the KC Royals, paid homage to the former Kansas City reliever the late great Dan Quisenberry who once noted that Fenway’s Green Monster Wall had a heartbeat and as the games got close, you felt it beating.
It was also Quisenberry that described the secret to his success: “Thirty ground balls, thirty strikeouts, thirty great plays.”
Cone, Davis, and Pierzinski also deserve kudos for praising Alex Bregman’s confident take of a pitch seconds before he hit his tying home over the Green Monster off Red Sox ace closer Craig Kimbrel.
Just remember as these games go on until the end of the month - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.” Next time I hope to say about my two alma maters currently undefeated on the gridiron - Columbia (4-0) and Wisconsin (5-0).
Both have tough games ahead so not feeling overconfident.
In the meantime, always remember: “take it easy but take it."
October 1, 2017
Friday September 29 was the 63rd anniversary of Willie Mays’ great catch off Vic Wertz in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. Along with a timely Dusty Rhodes home run over the Polo Grounds short right field fence, Mays’ defensive gem sparked the New York Giants to a sweep over the favored Cleveland Indians.
To commemorate this anniversary, New York City's Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed Sept 29 Willie Mays Day. In a noontime ceremony, the sign Willie Mays Drive was unveiled at the northeast corner of 155th Street and the Harlem River Driveway.
Down below stood the Polo Grounds where I saw my first baseball game at the age of 6 in the summer of 1948. Now a school and housing project occupy the space.
One of the prime movers in this celebration was City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez who represents the 10th city council district that includes the Polo Grounds on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. Normally the City of New York does not permit streets to be named for living people but Rodriguez lobbied successfully to make an exception in the case of Mays.
Councilman Rodriguez is a native of the Dominican Republic who came to NYC as a eighteen-year old. He thrust himself into community affairs as a student at City College and has been a longtime advocate for making his constituents aware of the rich athletic history of his neighborhood.
Another honored invitee was fellow Dominican Rico Pena, the coach of the Luperon High School baseball team that in its brief history has already become a contender for the city championship. Pena brought several of his players to the ceremony.
Mays is now 86 — Willie Mays is 86 years old! - and makes his primary home just south of San Francisco (though he has long kept an apartment in the western Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale). He didn’t make the trip for this honor but his adopted son Michael Mays was on hand. So was Mario Alioto, the executive VP of Business Operations for the SF Giants.
“I don’t make history, I just catch fly balls,” Mays once said. He was being modest because he was the epitome of the five-tool player who could run, throw, field, hit for average, and hit with power. In one of his pithiest phrases, Branch Rickey once said of Mays, “The secret to his success is the frivolity in his bloodstream.”
At a reception after the ceremony at the Rio III gallery on the SE corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street, a portrait was unveiled of Mays playing stickball
with neighborhood Harlem kids.
The lower floors of this handsome new building on 898 St. Nicholas Ave. house The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Arts and Storytelling. This new facility was designed by famed architect David Adjaye who created the acclaimed African-American cultural museum in DC and just was selected to build the new Studio Museum in Harlem.
The Sugar Hill Children's Museum should be a must-visit for parents who want to educate their children about the rich cultural history of their neighborhood and urban and rural life in general.
Before I conclude this first October blog, I want to say a few more words about the achievements of three great baseball people who passed on in recent weeks.
Gene Michael, 79, may have been the classic "good field, no hit" player. But he learned from his failures to become a top-notch player evaluator who somehow survived the George Steinbrenner firing machine to be a key part of the Yankees resurgence in the 1990s.
Gene Bennett, 91, spent his whole career with the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Branch Rickey country of Scioto County in southern Ohio, Bennett was advised by Rickey to take a job as scout instead of minor league manager.
"You can get fired if one season you are given a bad team," Rickey sagely advised. A good scout, though, can perform a service to the team if he finds prospects year after year. "TALENT SETS THE STAGE, CHARACTER SETS THE CEILING," was one of Bennett's most memorable adages.
Last but not least, Mel Didier, 91, left a remarkable legacy in baseball. He was the only man to work on the ground floor of three expansion franchises - the Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Didier signed future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for Montreal. He tried valiantly to sign Kirk Gibson for Seattle but team owners weren't supportive and Gibson insisted on finishing his athletic career at Michigan State.
Ten years later when working for the LA Dodgers, Didier was instrumental in getting Gibson to sign with LA as a free agent. It was his scouting report on Dennis Eckersley's penchant for throwing sliders on 3-2 counts that Gibson remembered when he hit his walkoff homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series that propelled LA's sweep of the Oakland A's.
Didier wrote often on baseball and its techniques. His memoir with sportswriter T.R. Sullivan, PODNUH LET ME TELL YOU A STORY is one of the best of its kind.
That's all for now. Next time we'll have a better sense of how October baseball is shaping up. I still sentimentally like Cleveland to win the World Series, perhaps over Washington (but another injury to hurler Max Scherzer puts that outcome in doubt.)
In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!
September 25, 2017
Late 19th century Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward once sagely noted that baseball without sentiment would be a very empty game.
Oriole players and fans in Baltimore proved that point again on Sunday afternoon Sept. 23 when they showered shortstop J.J. Hardy with multiple ovations at the last home game of the Birds. Blue Jay fans gave the same loving treatment to Jose Bautista likely playing his last home game in Toronto.)
The icing on the cake for Hardy was hitting a two-run homer to give the O’s the lead in a game they won 9-4 over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bird season went up in smoke weeks ago when the combination of historically horrible starting pitching and a homer-or-bust offense exploded the myth of contention.
A healthy JJ Hardy might have somewhat stopped the slide, but he was out since mid-May after suffering a broken wrist on a pitch from the Cardinals’ Lance Lynn. Last year Hardy missed considerable time after suffering a broken foot on a foul ball.
Hardy is not that ancient in baseball terms, having turned 35 in August. But the injuries and the decline in his above-average-for-shortstop home run power has been evident for some time. The acquisition of 27-year-old shortstop Tim Beckham from Tampa Bay, the 2008 number one draft pick in the entire country, has likely sealed Hardy’s departure.
Though not blessed with great speed, Hardy will always be remembered for his understated defensive brilliance and quiet clubhouse leadership. O’s manager Buck Showalter has called him “the best tagger I have ever seen.”
I saw a vivid example of Hardy's team-first attitude on a recent Oriole telecast. The clip showed Hardy demonstrating in practice his tagging techniques to his likely successor Beckham.
After a record-breaking August offensively, Beckham came down to earth in September. But it seems likely it is his job to lose come spring training.
Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, the deserved Oriole MVP of 2017, has been effusive in his praise of Hardy's helping him grow defensively. So has Manny Machado.
I hope Hardy's career continues somewhere in 2018 because he brings so much to the game. The son of a tennis pro and a golf pro has really made a great contribution.
Before I close today, let me put in my two cents about the protests around the National Anthem. Americans love symbolic gestures and ceremonial solutions that in my humble opinion generate more heat than light.
If I had my way, I wouldn’t play a National Anthem before EVERY game. Doesn’t it mean more when it is played infrequently only on special occasions? Every now and then, a sports team has even had the creativity to substitute the martial song of Francis Scott Key for the far more lyrical “America the Beautiful.”
I know this is unrealistic blathering by yours truly so let me offer this suggestion: Let’s keep the National Anthem rendition to under 90 seconds, OK? And it should be about the song not the singer.
The best rendition I ever heard came at Yankee Stadium about 15 years ago. The brass section of the U. S. Air Force Band performed it in 75 seconds. They called themselves
The Players To Be Named Later.
That’s all for now. Next time more detailed thoughts on the playoffs with an explanation of my sentimental hopes for a Washington-Cleveland World Series.
In the meantime my visceral fan's focus is now on football rooting for my two alma maters. Columbia is off to a 2-0 start for the first time in 9 years. It faces its first Ivy League challenge at Princeton on Sept. 30.
Wisconsin after a bye week will be trying to up their 3-0 record at home against tough Big Ten foe Northwestern on Sept 30.
BTW during the Badgers' 40-8 shellacking of Brigham Young in Utah, one of the announcers said that freshman running back Jonathan Taylor has developed genuine admiration for science expert Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That's the kind of tidbit I like to hear.
Always remember: Take it easy but take it. (
Playoff Spots Still In Doubt As Late September Baseball Drama Builds + Homage to Three Departed Scouts
September 20, 2017
If you didn’t believe there was such a thing as baseball gods, think again. All summer long the building story was that the LA Dodgers might shatter the major league record of 116 for most wins in a season. Not so fast.
Though they have built up a huge cushion in the NL West over the playoff-bound Arizona Diamondbacks and playoff-contending Colorado Rockies, the Dodgers recently endured a 11-game losing streak.
The slide brought back comparisons to the World War II 1944 Brooklyn Dodgers (Branch Rickey’s second Brooklyn team was a ragtag outfit, waiting for the arrival of Boys of Summer Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, among others.)
LA’s ship has been somewhat righted recently. They won two of three over possible playoff opponent Washington Nats. But then improbably oft-injured ace Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam home run to Aaron Altherr in a loss to the last-place Phillies.
Washington like LA has run away with the far weaker NL East division. If their starting pitching remains healthy, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez could be formidable in the post-season. But the Nats and their fans have their demons to deal with because they have endured many recent tough playoff losses without making the World Series.
Don’t count out the defending WS champions Chicago Cubs. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend and have a three-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Brewers are only one game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot. They host the Cubs in a four-game series starting Thursday Sept 21. Talk about Midwestern baseball drama!
In the American League, the Houston Astros have run away with the AL West, but like the Dodgers they have endured some rough patches. Last-place Oakland recently swept them in four games. Astoundingly, the Astros gave up 9 or more runs in each game.
Yet the late August pickup of Tigers ace Justin Verlander has definitely boosted the Astros’ chances for a good playoff run. But they need a healthy 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to augment Verlander and that remains to be seen
Las Vegas odds-makers and occasional sentimentalists like yours truly are making the Cleveland Indians favorites to win it all. After coming so close last year losing an extra-inning game seven to the Cubs.
The Indians just broke Oakland’s American League record 20-game winning streak by running off 22 wins in a row. Even more impressively, once Kansas City eked out a 4-3 win over the Tribe, Cleveland won the next two games and now are on a 3-game roll.
Another fascinating aspect of baseball's long long season is that winning streaks in baseball are often followed by losing streaks. It was a lesson ingrained in me when I was 11 years old in 1953 and the Yankees won 18 in a row only to lose the next nine. They still won their fifth World Series in a row under Casey Stengel.
A rewarding aspect of the 2017 schedule is that Cleveland and Houston will have a lot to say about the American League playoff participants. Cleveland visits the LA Angels this week and a week later they host the Minnesota Twins. The Astros visit the Red Sox for the final four games of the regular season.
As of this blog posting before games of September 20, the Twins lead the Angels by one game in the lost column. Kudos to Twins skipper Paul Molitor and Angels manager Mike Scioscia for keeping their unheralded teams in contention. The same shout-out goes to Brewers manager Craig Counsell.
There is a school of thought that says playing teams already in the playoffs is a break for the team trying to get in. I’m skeptical of that argument because no team wants to go into the playoffs on a losing streak (I know the Yankees limped into the 2000 post-season, but they were fortunate in playing an underwhelming though gritty Mets team in the World Series.)
Methinks that Boston wants to wrap the AL East before those final games against Houston. Three of the Red Sox’s last four victories on the road have been dramatic extra-inning wins, the last two in Baltimore. They need them all because the Yankees are only three games behind them and are also playing well.
Boston needs to win the AL East division outright to avoid the wild card single elimination game. If they tie, Yankees win the division because they won season series against Boston.
Friday night September it took 14 innings but Boston beat Tampa Bay on the road. Last night they rallied twice from five-run deficits to beat the Orioles 10-8 in the 11th. A clutch two-run single by the remarkable rookie Andrew Benintendi was the difference.
In the Tampa Friday win, the Bosox scored three in the 9th to tie the game. Only a sensational diving catch by the Rays gold glove centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier prevented them from winning in regulation.
Kiermaier made another leaping grab in extra innings and homered to avert a Tampa Bay loss in the 13th inning before Boston salted away the game with 7 in the 14th.
Kiermaier is a great testament to the importance of grass roots baseball scouting. The 2010 31st round draft choice from tiny Parkland College in Champaign Illinois, the Fort Wayne Indiana native has put himself on every team's and fan’s radar.
Speaking of scouting, I want to note with sadness the passing of three great baseball talent evaluators who recently left us within 10 days of each other: Cincinnati's Gene Bennett, Toronto's Mel Didier, and the Yankees' Gene Michael.
More on these irreplaceable men in the next post. They were so much more than the prizes they brought to their teams:
Bennett signed Don Gullett, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and Paul O'Neill.
Didier, who remarkably helped to lay the groundwork for three expansion teams Montreal, Seattle and Arizona, signed Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for the Expos.
Gene Michael, who traded for Paul O'Neill and as general manager in the early 1990s during George Steinbrenner's suspension held on to the Yankees' core players Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams.
That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.
It's Only Early September But American League Wild Card Race Getting Wilder and Wilder + Two Good Causes
September 3, 2017
The innovations of the second wild card and mainly divisional play in September have made for amazingly exciting American League races. Blasé folks will say, “It’s only mediocre teams fighting for the right for an early playoff elimination.”
They may be right, but for an Orioles fan the sudden re-emergence of Baltimore to (more…)