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On The Intensity/Integrity of Late September Baseball (corrected version) + "Porgy and Bess" at Met Opera + Kelli O'Hara Triumphs With NY Philharmonic

I knew as an Orioles fan that this first year of full-scale rebuilding was going to be difficult.  Leave it to my Birds, though, and especially rookie utility man Stevie Wilkerson, to end the season in Boston with a vivid example of how baseball can turn ecstasy into agony with shocking suddenness.

 

Their 162nd and last game of the season against the Red Sox in Fenway was tied 4-4 with two out in the bottom of the eighth.  Stevie Wilkerson, playing right field for only the tenth time, made a sensational leaping twisting catch, robbing Jackie Bradley Jr. of a two-run home run though barely missing landing in the right field stands.  (Turnabout was fair play because Bradley had robbed Orioles MVP Trey Mancini earlier in season at Camden Yards of a game-winning HR.)

 

Yet one inning later, Wilkerson was slow returning to the infield a single by Xander Bogaerts.  Running on the pitch from first base, Mookie Betts circled the bases to end the Red Sox's disappointing season on a high note.

 

(It won't appear in any of the often indecipherable analytic charts, but it seems to me that the Red Sox season was doomed early when the team split between black and Hispanic players and manager Alex Cora who didn't go to the White House to celebrate their 2018 championship with Donald Trump, and the white players who did go.)   

 
I have a lot of respect for teams long out of the race that play hard in late September. The Bosox and Birds have a history of that kind of intense play that make "the integrity of the game" not just an empty phrase. 

 
I recall back in 1976 when both teams had been eliminated by the resurgent Yankees.  Yet on the last day in the proverbial "meaningless game," they played 15 innings at Fenway before the Bosox won 4-3.     

 
To those teams who last week played genuine spoiler in the pennant races, I tip my cap. 

**The White Sox who started the Indians on their slide out of the playoffs by two victories in Chicago.  It was a sad ending for Cleveland who had played very well until the last week despite injuries to both the pitching staff and key regulars. The Tribe continues to own the longest World Series-victory drought of any historic team - no title since 1948.

 

**The Colorado Rockies salvaged some respect in the last two games of a very disappointing season.  They beat the Milwaukee Brewers in two dramatic extra-inning victories.  They prevented the Brew Crew from forcing a tie or even winning the NL Central over the Cardinals who had swept the Cubs in Chicago knocking them out of contention (and manager Joe Maddon into the unemployment line though not likely for long.) 

 

**The Diamondbacks get an honorable mention for playing hard in beating the Cardinals two in a row in Phoenix. It started St. Louis on a four-game losing streak. The Brewers' losses and Cardinals' young ace Jack Flaherty shutout effort during the 162nd game finally clinched the NL Central for the Redbirds. 

  

Now the Brewers must face the Washington Nationals on the road in the NL Wild Card

game on Tuesday October 1.  The Brew Crew deserves great credit for playing so well in much of September without Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP whose kneecap was broken by a foul ball off his bat. (The injury reminded me of the broken leg suffered by Oakland A's outfielder Jermaine Dye in the 2001 playoff against the Yankees that sadly shortened his career.)

 
I don't bet and I rarely make predictions.  But I have a feeling that the clock has struck midnight for the Brewers and the Nats will finally come up with a victory in a big post-season game, even if it is just a Wild Card game.  How they will fare as underdog against the defending league champion LA Dodgers is another question to be dealt with later this month.

 
As to the American League Wild Card game on Wednesday October 2, the Tampa Bay Rays will visit the antiquated and sanitarily challenged Oakland Coliseum to take on the A's.  Both teams are resourceful and talented with limited payrolls. They rarely play before big crowds.

 

I sure hope Oakland has reason to open their upper deck for what could be an exciting game.  The A's have a youthful group of largely farm-grown players, many of them from California including three star infielders, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson at the corners and emerging Marcus Simien at shortstop.

 

Whether with the Rays or A's can deal with the Astros and their home field advantage in the best-of-five Division Series is doubtful. Though the A's played the Astros very tough in regular season. 

 

The Yankees will be favored in their ALDS against their perennial patsy the Minnesota Twins. The matchup between the Atlanta Braves and Cardinals looks like a tossup with Braves having home field advantage.  No one really knows. Sl as the late great broadcaster Red Barber used to say, "That's why they play the games." To find out who is best.

 
It's tough for me to deal with the absence of daily regular season baseball now until late March 2020. But I am fortunate to live in NYC.  Vernon Duke asked in his great song, "Autumn In New York/ Why is it so inviting? Autumn in New York, it brings the thrill of first nighting."

 
Well, I didn't attend the first performance of the new production of "Porgy and Bess" at the Met Opera, but I do go on the last night of September.  It was a thrilling evening of opera with kudos deserved for everyone.

 

From the new production by James Robinson with its revolving stage that recreates the fictional fishing community Catfish Row; to choreographer Camille A. Brown in her Met debut; to the powerful all-black "Porgy and Bess" chorus; to the fabulous orchestra conducted by David Robertson (not the oft-injured relief pitcher); to all the singers led by Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles. With special mention of Leah Hawkins' brief turn as the Strawberry Woman.

 
I had not realized until this production how organically the famous songs in the opera are connected to the story and plot development.  Beginning with Clara's opening rendition of "Summertime" to Serena's mournful "My Man Gone Now" to Porgy's "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'" to Sportin' Life's "It Ain't Necessarily So" to the repetitions of "Bess You Is My Woman Now" to the achingly beautiful trio of Porgy, Serena, and Maria near the end of the opera that rivals anything that Verdi or Mozart ever wrote in that form. 

 

I couldn't help thinking how much more Gershwin could have contributed to opera if he hadn't been taken from us at the age of 38.  "Porgy and Bess" runs a few more times through Oct 13.  Check out metopera.org

 
At a time when there are more and more disturbing discoveries of blackface and brown face incidents in both the US and Canada, "Porgy and Bess" deserves our attention because it was a genuine effort by George Gershwin and the librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward to delve into the lives of this unique Gullah black community outside of Charleston, South Carolina.    

 
One final music note:  In mid-September I was blessed to hear Kelli O'Hara sing Samuel Barber's beautifully succinct 16-minute tone poem, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" with the New York Philharmonic under Jaap Van Zweden.  

 

The lyrical piece, based on the prologue to James Agee's "A Death in the Family," is ideal for O'Hara's lilting and compelling mezzo-soprano. She is branching out successfully from her heralded work in musical theatre.  I heard her as Despina in Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" last season and she owned that saucy crucial role of the maid who is a co-conspirator in the plot to prove that men are not loyal to their women and women are not loyal to their men.

 
That's all for now about my ardent loves of baseball and music. Until later this month as the playoffs take shape, always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

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Yankee-Red Sox London Slugfests Bring Back Memories of Phillies-Cubs 23-22 1979 Classic Re-Told In Kevin Cook's "Ten Innings At Wrigley"

I have my doubts that the two end-of-June slugfests the Yankees and Red Sox engaged in at London's Olympic Stadium will "grow the game" in Europe as both players and owners claim.  It was somewhat entertaining if you like lots of run-scoring and bizarre plays. 

 
My favorite moment was the amazing catch of a foul pop-up by Red Sox rookie first baseman Michael Chavis in the final game of the two-game series. He's not really a first baseman but injuries to regular Mitch Moreland and his capable sub Steve Pearce forced Chavis into an unfamiliar position.  

 
In a stadium built for track and field, now used for soccer and never for baseball, foul territory is huge. Far larger than either Oakland's cavernous Coliseum or Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  After not making a play on a similar foul on Saturday, Michael Chavis calculated the distance better on his second chance.  

 
Starting from between first and second, he raced into foul territory like a sprinter, slid, and made the catch with room to spare before he hit the wall. Yet I sure hope before the next series in 2020 between the Cubs and Cardinals, they somehow reduce the foul territory.  

 
Red Sox manager Alex Cora was very honest after the Yankees swept the games, 17-13 and 12-8.  "They are better than us right now," he said.  The Sox did show spunk by making games of each tussle, but their bullpen is in disarray. 

 
There is now talk of putting oft-injured starter Nathan Eovaldi in the closer's role when he returns. Yet I wouldn't count out the defending world champions from making a run, at least at the first wild card.  They still have the Four Killer B's in the heart of their lineup - Benintendi, Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley Jr., all home-grown by the way. And I haven't even mentioned the big bopping Trump-supporting J. D. Martinez.

 

The six-run first-inning haymakers delivered by both teams in the 17-13 must have shocked the British locals used to seeing low-scoring soccer. In blessed baseball, nothing is new under the sun.  

 

To my mind the game brought back memories of the 23-22 10 inning game in May 1979 in which the Phillies scored 7 in the first only to see the Cubs respond with 6 of their own. Later in that game, Philly couldn't hold 15-6 and 21-9 leads and needed a Mike Schmidt 10th inning homer off future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter to give them the victory.   

 

Kevin Cook has brought that game back to life in "Ten Innings at Wrigley:  The Wildest Ballgame Ever, With Baseball At The Brink" (Henry Holt).  Cook, who recently authored the absorbing "Electric Baseball" about key characters in the 1947 Dodgers-Yankees World Series, is blessed with an almost pitch-perfect ear for pithy character revelations.  

 

Here is sportswriter John Schulian remembering  Cubs manager Herman Franks seated in his office "with his feet on his desk, eating chocolate donuts and smoking a cigar, ignoring questions."  There is Phillies manager Danny Ozark, the master of malapropisms, saying that an opening day ovation sent "a twinkle up my spine."

 

But when starting to feel the heat for failing to make the World Series with three straight playoff teams, Ozark branded Phillie fans as "the boo-birds of unhappiness."  To a player demanding more time on the field, Ozark scoffs, "His limitations are limitless."  


"Ten Innings" is a lively summer read, but what separates it from the usual light baseball reading are the sensitive stories of the players and their later lives.  Bill Buckner, who died just after the book came out, is remembered as a gritty ballplayer who played hard through nearly-crippling injuries. In a reflective moment before the start of the 1986 World Series, he even mentions a nightmare of missing a ball on defense.  

 
Dave Kingman, the other offensive power on the 1979 Cubs, is recalled as focused almost entirely on his home run output to the detriment of other aspects of his game.  He did draw many fans to Wrigley, prompting Cubs fan turned official team historian Ed Hartig to tell Cook, "He was bad in interesting ways."  Kingman's contempt for the press is well-described but he is now evidently living his life happily as a family man in Lake Tahoe. 

 

The most tragic story in "Ten Innings" centers on relief pitcher Donnie Moore who entered the game after starter Dennis Lamp was knocked out in the first inning.  (In one of the vivid details that permeate this fine read, Lamp's wife arrived late for the game and no one was eager to tell her what had happened.)  

 

Cook was able to interview Moore's daughter who provides many insights on the life of her talented tormented father who committed suicide in 1989 after failing to kill his wife. Observations from Moore's teammate and fellow moundsman Ray Burris are very moving, memories of happier times in Chicago 1979.    

 
That's all for now.  Next time I want to say a lot about the play "Toni Stone".  For now I just want to mention it is running through Aug. 11 at the Pels Theatre at 111 W 46th Street just west of Sixth Ave. in NYC.   The story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues is extremely well-told, acted, and choreographed.  

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

 

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