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Thoughts After Memorial Day Weekend

I’ve always believed with pitcher Joaquin Andujar that there is only one word you need to understand baseball: “Youneverknow.” I like to think I’ve coined an adage of my own: “No four-run lead is ever safe in baseball until the game is over.” I may have to modify this saying after the events in Cleveland last night. On the day their manager Joe Maddon was properly rewarded with a contract extension through the 2012 season, the Tampa Bay Rays blew a 10-0 lead and lost 11-10 to the Indians who scored 7 runs in the bottom of the ninth. Remember that old baseball phrase “He’s due”? Cleveland’s game-winning two-run single was belted by All-Star catcher Victor Martinez who had been hitless in his previous 18 at-bats.

The Rays also discovered yesterday that their underrated second baseman Akinori Iwamura would be lost for the season because of knee and ankle injuries sustained in a hard slide by Florida Marlins rookie outfielder Chris Coghlan in Sunday’s interleague game. Two terrible blows for the defending American League champions but there is another cliché that should help the Rays: “Momentum in baseball is the next day’s starting pitcher.” Matt Garza, Tampa Bay’s emerging ace, will undoubtedly keep that in mind when he pitches tonight against the Indians’ surprise ace so far this year, Carl Pavano. Yes, Yankee fans, that Carl Pavano.

More than any other sport, baseball treasures its history or at least its memorable days in history. Yesterday May 25 was the day when Babe Ruth hit his last three Major League home runs in Pittsburgh for the Boston Braves (1935), Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane was beaned by the Yankees’ Bump Hadley and never played again (1937) and Willie Mays broke in with the New York Giants (1951).

Today May 26 is the 50th anniversary of Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander Harvey Haddix’s 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves, a game that he lost in the bottom of the 13th on a three-run home run by Joe Adcock. (The blow went down in the record books as a one-run single because Adcock passed Hank Aaron on the base paths.) For some reason when Fay Vincent was commissioner of baseball in the early 1990s, Haddix’s perfect game recognition was stripped from the record book (and those of others who did not win their perfect game.) Yet in the annals of historical memory it rightfully remains a special achievement.

The inter-league series of Memorial Day weekend were big hits at the box office and there were many memorable games. None more dramatic than the 9th inning home run at Fenway by Mets reserve catcher Omir Santos off ace closer Jonathan Papelbon with two out in the top of 9th inning to lead the New Yorkers to a 2-1 victory. It took a few minutes for the videotape rerun to prove that ball indeed made it over the Green Monster but the umpires did get the call right. What made the game extra-special were the three outstanding plays in the bottom of the 9th by the deservedly maligned Met defenders to preserve the victory.

I close today with a juicy speculative question: Would Branch Rickey have endorsed inter-league play? I think the answer is a qualified yes. He thought change was the positive engine of the game as long as it didn’t take away from the essence of baseball’s marvelous combination of individual competition in a team framework. I think the imbalance of the schedule would have upset him – it certainly bothers me that the symmetry of the old 22 games against each league opponent has long been shattered - and yet there was always something in baseball played at the highest level that would excite and stimulate him. After all, when he was about to embark on his Continental League adventure, Rickey told a reporter who asked him what was his greatest thrill in baseball, “It hasn’t happened yet.”

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