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FOR ALL WE KNOW: THOUGHTS ON RAYS AND REST OF PLAYOFFS

As the Tampa Bay Rays went down the stretch in 2010 I thought that the classic 1934 song “For All We Know” applied most definitely to their situation. With key members of the team likely headed to free agency (left fielder Carl Crawford, closer Rafael Soriano and first baseman Carlos Pena), the lyrics by Samuel M. Lewis to the haunting J. Fred Coots melody seemed so appropriate:

For all we know we may never meet again
Before you go make this moment sweet again
We won’t say goodnight until the last minute
I’ll hold out my hand my heart will be in it

For all we know this may only be a dream
We come and go like a ripple on a stream
So love me tonight
Tomorrow was made for some
Tomorrow may never come
For all we know.

Well, tomorrow did come on Tuesday night Oct 12 when Cliff Lee shut down Tampa Bay in the climactic Game 5 of the AL Division Series. It was his second complete-game victory leading the Texas Rangers to their first playoff series win in the history of a franchise that traces back to the short and unhappy life of the second Washington Senators from 1961-1971. (The original Senators moved to Minnesota to become the Twins after 1960 and have been a competitive franchise for most of their years in the Upper Midwest though the Yankees did embarrass them this year in a three-game sweep.)

The Rangers beat the Rays at their own game, daring baserunning that caught the usually alert Tampa team napping. Texas used to be a homer-happy team short on fundamentals but these days they can beat you with solid pitching and aggressive base running. The Rays will remember all winter how Texas’ first three Game 5 runs were scored without hits, thanks to opportunistic Rangers who scored from second TWICE on grounders to the right side of the infield. Normally reliable first baseman Carlos Pena did not alert pitcher David Price that speedy Elvis Andrus was on his way home with the first run of the game in the first inning, and in the sixth inning Price spent a split-second arguing with the first base umpire as gimpy-kneed Vladimir Guerrero sped home with a key insurance run.

The Rays have a fine minor league organization and are developing many impressive pitchers but lack of offense proved their downfall in 2010 and where they get the new bats from will be a big off-season question. It’s possible that Carlos Pena will remain a Ray despite his alarming number of strikeouts and a batting average under .200. His eloquence matched manager Joe Maddon’s when after a great offensive game in Game 4 Pena said that people shouldn’t be “surprised but inspired” by his work.

Texas’ new style is a tribute to manager Ron Washington, who is veritably an African-American Bull Durham. He has risen from years and years as a minor league infielder with occasional cups of coffee in the big leagues to exemplify the new attitude in Texas. A Louisiana native who did yeoman work in saving people’s homes and raising their spirits after Katrina, Washington also survived a positive test for cocaine within the last year. He alerted management that he would likely fail the test, admitted his indiscretion, and management and players all rallied behind him.

As Texas has done behind center fielder Josh Hamilton, a strong MVP candidate, whose earlier career was sabotaged by excessive drug abuse. Having now found sobriety and God (who evidently only knows how permanent the transformation will be), Hamilton did not participate in the Champagne-drenched celebration after eliminating Tampa Bay at their mausoleum of a ballpark known as Tropicana Field. (BTW the Rays-Rangers series was the first in post-season history where the road team won EVERY game.) Instead the Texas players drenched Hamilton in ginger ale and then without their star outfielder moved to another area of the clubhouse for their more alcoholic communal baths.

It is a hopeful sign that perhaps people in baseball, at least some of them in prominent places, are growing up about the pervasiveness of drug use in this country, the lure of temptation and the willingness to forgive as long as there are not multiple transgressions.

WHAT’S NEXT?
The pundits will undoubtedly favor the Yankees and Phillies to meet in the World Series like last year – the Phillies dismissed the Cincinnati Reds in three straight games with Roy Halladay pitching a no-hitter in Game 1. But any team with Cliff Lee in the rotation has a chance. Though he won’t pitch until Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Monday night October 18, Lee has become a fearsome post-game pitcher the last two seasons. He throws complete games, too, with a ridiculously favorable walk-strikeout ratio.

Lee, an Arkansas native, will be a free agent after the World Series and his remarkable journey to four franchises in under a year – Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas - will presumably be at an end. I have no simple explanation as to why Lee has become such a vagabond except that his Little Rock-based agent, Darek Braunecker, is the same agent who negotiated a buyout clause for fellow Arkansan pitcher A. J. Burnett from his previous contract with Toronto. After the 2008 season Burnett signed an exorbitant $80 million-plus five-year deal with the Yankees. A notoriously erratic pitcher unlike Cliff Lee, Burnett was more down than up in 2010 but he is penciled in to start Game 4 against the Rangers in the ALCS.

I guess many team managements are wary of dealing with Braunecker who like many agents is a former minor league player who knows the ropes of the hard life of most baseball journeymen in the bushes and is ready to get the satisfaction of breaking the bank for more talented clients.

If money is everything, Lee will be a Yankee for 2011 and beyond. In the world of “For All We Know . . . tomorrow may never come” let’s be grateful that Lee is delivering on the mound in an historically astounding fashion.

IN CLOSING:
Get well wishes to Bob Uecker who will undergo a second heart operation on Tuesday October 19. He is more than just a comedian who capitalized on his mediocre playing career to become a successful TV and movie actor. He is an excellent play-by-play broadcaster for the Milwaukee Brewers. At the 2000 farewell to Milwaukee’s County Stadium, where the transformed Boston Braves brought two pennants to the Wisconsin city in 1957-58, Uecker said: “It was here boys became men. And men became champions, and champions became legends. . . . Tonight is the final curtain . . . [but] what was, will always be.”

Here’s to many more curtain calls and a swift recovery to Uecker!

Ciao for now and back to you as the playoffs roll on with more likely drama ahead. REMEMBER: THE ONLY REASON TO PLAY BASEBALL IS TO KEEP WINTER AWAY.
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