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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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The Joys of "Meaningful Games in September": Cyclones Win, Mets Come Up A Little Short, and A Final Farewell to Al Jackson

I can't recall a late summer in NYC that has been so warm and beautiful. With chances to see live baseball in this area fading like the summer light, I've been blessed to catch some great games in supremely lovely conditions.

 

Under a nearly full moon on Tuesday September 10, I saw the Brooklyn Cyclones win their first outright Short Season Class A New York-Penn League title. (They shared a league title in 2001 but because of the 9/11 attacks there was no conclusive game.)

 

With the Coney Island boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean visible beyond the outfield, over 3,000 fans at MCU Park cheered the home team as they won a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox farm club.  It brought a title to Cyclones manager Edgardo Alfonzo, the outstanding and truly beloved former Mets third and second baseman.

 

The winning 7th inning rally was fueled by hits by former SEC rivals, outfielders Jake Mangum (Miss. State) who led off with a single and raced home on a triple by Antoine Duplessis (LSU). Third baseman Yoel Romero, a 21-year-old from Venezuela in his fifth minor league season, then singled home the tie-breaking run. 32nd round draft pick lefty Andrew Edwards notched a two-inning save. 

 

Although it is only the low minor leagues, Brooklyn can now claim its pro baseball title since Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series. Cyclones starter Nate Jones, Matt Allan (the Mets 2019 number one draft pick), and eventual winner Mitch Ragan who preceded Edwards all pitched effectively.

 
Lowell used two top Boston prospects from New Jersey that were both drafted out of high school.  Recovering from Tommy John surgery, starter and top draft pick Jay Groome (Barnegat) worked only 2 2/3 innings but showed good mound presence and struck out three despite giving up two runs.  He left to a warm reception from his home town supporters.

 
Right fielder Nick Decker (Seneca HS, Tabernacle NJ) walked a couple of times and was pitched very carefully.  In his last AB, he was hit by a pitch which left him more than a little peeved. He was removed from the game as a precaution against injury and perhaps to cool him down a little.  To me he showed the spunk that makes him someone to watch.

 
Who knows what the future will hold for any of these players?  It is one of the charms of watching baseball on the lower levels.  Pat O'Conner, the head of the minor league ruling body the National Association, likes to say that he guarantees you'll see at least one future major leaguer at every MiLB game. The challenge, of course, is to identify who that will be.

 
Here's a special tip of the cap to Jada Bennett, a member of the Cyclones dance squad who sang the National Anthem beautifully both at the final game and before the semi-final victory over the Hudson Valley Renegades.  She brought the song home in tune in not much over one minute and thirty seconds without unnecessary flourishes that far too often make the performance about the singer and not the song. 

 
The parent Mets were not as fortunate as the Cyclones in their Sunday September 15 rubber game against the Dodgers. It was unfortunate that ESPN forced the Mets to move the Sunday Family Day to a 7p start.  So there were far fewer fans in attendance than the announced 31,000+

 

On a warm low-humidity evening, I saw a very well-played game dominated by the starting pitchers, the Mets Zack Wheeler and the Dodgers Walker Buehler who went only five innings but five relievers held the Mets to three hits, only one after the second inning.

 

(Buehler is another product of the Vanderbilt University pitching factory that has also produced David Price and Sonny Gray who has flourished in Cincinnati with his college pitching coach and away from the bright lights and 24/7/365 intensity of NYC). 

 
As all good teams do, the Dodgers rallied in the late innings once Wheeler left the game after seven strong innings.  He had only thrown 97 pitches but had worked out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings, getting his last five outs by strikeout. 

 
I hope I live to see the day when starting pitchers are encouraged to throw more than 100 pitches.   Maybe baseball life would have been different if 120 had become the magic number not 100.  But generations of pitchers have grown up feeling that seven innings is the outer limit for their efforts. 

 
Kudos to Wheeler and his starting mates Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz who have done their job, along with a revived offense, in fueling the Mets' surprise comeback from 11 games under .500  in July. 

 

Losing a series to the Dodgers, a World Series favorite, is no embarrassment.   Too bad they dug such an early season hole. I sure hope the tearful young fan wearing a Pete Alonso jersey who I saw crying in the elevator after the game realizes it hasn't been a lost season for the Mets.  I just hope the Mets keep that core of pitchers together in the off-season.

 
In closing this entry, I want to say a few more words about the loss of Al Jackson, their longtime organizational pitching coach who died in late August at the age of 83.

(There is a tape of a WFAN interview I did about Al on the home page of this website.)

 
Despite coming up the hard way in the years of segregation and partial integration, Jackson was such a positive presence.  You couldn't help learn valuable baseball and life lessons by being about "the little lefty from Waco". 

 

Among my favorite of his aphorisms:  "Shower away the day" - leave the last game in the shower whether you've won or lost. When you are toweling off, think of the next game.

 

"Know the difference between hitter's strikes and pitcher's strikes." 

 

"Don't get beat with your third or fourth best pitch."  

 

The youngest of thirteen children and the last survivor, Al Jackson was buried in his home town on September 7.  As Mets former PR chief and current team historian put it so well, he was "our national treasure" and should never be forgotten.

 
That's all for now.  Next time some more thoughts from my pal Teny Ymota who loved the Linda Ronstadt documentary and will be hearing Kelli O'Hara sing this Wednesday Sept 18 with the New York Philharmonic one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard, Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer 1915" inspired by the prologue to James Agee's memoir, "A Death in The Family".

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

 

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