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Prize Fight Intensity On Display in Baseball Playoffs

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."
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Pre-Thanksgiving Reflections on An Unprecedented Year (Not Just In Sports)

I find it amazing that to the best of my knowledge no one has noticed that 2016 marks the first time in the long history of Major League Baseball and the shorter history of the National Basketball Association that each champion was crowned after coming back from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the final series.

Not only that but both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Cubs won their titles on the road - over the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Indians, respectively. It was a volatile year in sports, and the upset tide spilled over to politics with Donald Trump’s wholly unpredicted triumph over Hillary Clinton.

As usual the results in sports were clear-cut and indisputable unlike the very unsettling Trump electoral college victory that finds him the loser in the popular vote by at last count over one and a half million votes.

Hardly a mandate for alt-right foreign and domestic policies but that seems to be the direction the Trump administration will be going.

Roger Simon in the November 16 politico.com quoted a Leonard Cohen poem to provide the solace for those upset by the election result. Cohen, who died a day before 11/8/16, once wrote:

Ring the bells that can still ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

RETURNING TO BASEBALL . . .
For those who love the triumph of underdogs, the World Series was a no-lose affair except, of course, for fans of Cleveland who will now have to wait until next year for the chance to win their first World Series since 1948.

The Indians have a young core of players not too close to free agency like shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis plus their formidable mound staff. So they surely have a fighting chance to return to the Series as early as 2017.

Though the Cubs had not won a world series since 1908, they were prohibitive favorites from the first day of spring training. It is not easy to deal with that pressure but master psychologist-manager Joe Maddon had the team embrace the challenge from day one.

At the same time, he tried to downplay the expectations with another one of his famous T-shirts, “Try Not To Suck.” His first T-shirt may have been his best.

Before the 2008 season of the Tampa Bay Rays, he handed out “9=8” shirts. It meant nine players working as a team can make one of the eight playoff spots. Sure enough Tampa Bay, a chronic non-contender before Maddon's arrival, made the playoffs though lost a rain-plagued World Series in five games to the Phillies.

The 2016 Cubs won their division going away with 103 wins. But October and early November baseball is another animal.

The Cubs showed their mettle by coming from behind in their last two playoff series. Not only in the Fall Classic over the Indians, but in beating the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series after falling behind two games to one.

Now the silly season of free agency is upon us. Part of me wishes that the first years of free agency could be restored. When the first Basic Agreement without the perpetual reserve clause was signed before the 1976 season, there was a limit to how many free agents could be signed by any club.

It’s unrealistic to think that will happen as every year there seem to be more and more free agents on the market. Some are very good, some not so good at all. It depends on smart management to decide what will work for one’s team and what won’t.

I just hope that players make sane judgments themselves and don’t allow their agents to make the choices for them.

That’s all for now. More thoughts on the hot stove league next month.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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