I saw my first minor league game of the season this past Wednesday July 21, 2021 - the visiting Altoona Curve, affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, against the Somerset Patriots, the new Double-A Yankee franchise.
The lovely ballpark, currently called TD Ameritrade Park, is walking distance from the Bridgewater Township stop of the NJTransit Raritan Valley line. The independent league team of the same name started playing at the stadium late last century.
Brian Hanlon's impressive sculpture of the late former owner Steven B. Kalafer and former Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle offers a fine meeting place near the main gate. Lyle was the first Somerset manager and is still a regular presence at the games.
The top four in the Altoona lineup had a productive night, starting with Korean leadoff batter Ji-Hiwan Bae, second-place hitter Canaan Smith-Njigba, shortstop Rodolfo Castro (back in Double-A after filling in well with the parent Pirates), and cleanup hitter Mason Martin all contributed to a 9-6 Altoona win.
Martin blasted his league-leading 18th homer in the first inning. But the Patriots quickly answered with a Brandon Lockridge two-run homer. The teams swapped runs in the second inning before the Curve took charge with a 6-run fifth inning on the way to their win.
Both Altoona and Somerset are in the top echelon of what used to be called the Eastern League but now is called Double-A Northeast, another annoying example of the soulless rein of commissioner Rob Manfred.
Starting just a few days ago, Double-A has become the first minor league classification to ban the defensive shift. It's far too early to judge how the experiment will work, but it was aesthetically pleasing to see two players on each side of second base before the ball was thrown.
On the following night, Thursday July 22, it was time for this couch potato to treat himself to baseball on the tube. I was rewarded with three wonderful examples of comeback baseball.
First it was the Red Sox rallying with two out in the bottom of the 9th in the first game of a four-game series with the Yankees. The ever-clutch former Dodger Kike Hernandez delivered the big blow, a two-run double.
After the Yankees scored the "ghost runner" on a sacrifice fly in top of 10th, four wild pitches from emergency closer Brooks Kriske in bottom of 10th led quickly to a tie game. A sacrifice fly by former Tampa Ray right fielder Hunter Renfroe won it for the Fenway faithful.
The second drama unfolded in Cleveland earlier in the evening. Tampa Bay tied the game with 2 runs in the top of 9th and then won it in the 10th on a hit by another Mr. Clutch, the former Pirate Austin Meadows.
It is no accident that Boston and Tampa are neck-in-neck for the AL East lead. They lead all of baseball in come-from-behind wins.
Austin Meadows is becoming a particularly feared hitter. In Tampa's home day game on Wednesday July 21, Meadows delivered a two-run two-strike single to walk off the Woerioles who came ever so close to winning a series against Tampa Bay for the first time since last decade.
If the game had mattered in the standings - the Orioles are bound to the basement for this season and I fear the foreseeable future - it would have been a particularly excruciating loss.
Holding a precarious one-run lead with men on first and second and one out, rookie first baseman Ryan Mountcastle raced away from the plate down the first base line tracking a popup that lingered underneath the blurry ceiling at indoor Tropicana Park.
He didn't realize until too late that second baseman Pat Valaika was chasing the same ball. They collided and the ball fell for a single to load the bases with one out. You can't give a good team like Tampa an extra out.
Going for his first career save, Oriole gifted but erratic southpaw Tanner Scott struck out the next batter but gave up the winning two-run single to Meadows on an 0-2 pitch.
Repeat after me: CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES AND GRENADES.
The third comeback win, one that lasted into the wee hours of July 23, was the most dramatic of all. For the second night in a row, the Giants prevented Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen from securing a save.
Admittedly a blown call on a checked swing by first base umpire Ed Hickox played a big role. Giants substitute first baseman Darin Ruf, back from Korea after undistinguished years with Phillies, was the lucky beneficiary. The call tied the game - if Hickox had correctly called a swing, the Dodgers would have won.
Dodger manager Dave Roberts was incensed and raced out of the dugout yelling at Hickox who promptly threw him out of the game. It was the second straight game the usually mild-mannered if not downright phlegmatic Roberts was thrown out. One hard and fast rule in baseball is that managers cannot dispute ball-and-strike calls.
Before Roberts left the premises, he allowed the struggling Jansen to stay in the game. I guess he felt the very inexperienced well-traveled-in-short-career Phil Bickford was not a good alternative. And he had already used Blake Treinen in the 8th inning.
LaMonte Wade Jr, a productive Giants rookie, promptly blasted a two-run single to right, just in front of the newest Dodger, Billy McKinney, the journeyman originally signed by Yankees who shone earlier in the year for the Mets.
McKinney kept the game alive with a two-out double in bottom of 9th. But former Rays closer Jake McGee, without any help from Me or Bobby McGee or the ghost of Janis Joplin, got a strikeout of former Oakland Athletic Sheldon Neuse (pronounced Noisy) to end the game.
In another example of how many so-called "little things" very often determine a game's outcome, it was Neuse playing second base who didn't stretch far enough to catch a throw from shortstop Chris Taylor on a grounder from former Yankee Thairo Estrada that enabled another Giants newcomer Jason Vosler hustling from first base to beat the throw.
Cheers to Vosler from West Nyack, NY and Northeastern U in Boston who made his debut early this season and is part of the depth to replace the injured Evan Longoria at third base. He grinded out a walk against Jansen that set up in the dramatic denouement.
I am waiting - not breathlessly I admit - for the moment when managers allow a pitcher who has excelled with ease in the 8th to be allowed to start the 9th. I know the ninth is different mentally, but it is still baseball.
Like Roberts going from Treinen to Jansen, Yankee manager Aaron Boore lifted Luis Cessa who retired the Bosox on five pitches in bottom of 8th and turned to Chad Green in the 9th and it didn't work out.
The Giants now lead the Dodgers by 3 games, 4 in the loss column, with another 3 coming up in San Francisco at end of month. The Padres are 7 games back. At this juncture, it's hard to envision anyone catching these three for playoff spots, the NL West title plus the two wild card positions.
But remember that the only word you need to understand baseball, as stated beautifully by the late pitcher Joaquin Andujar, is: YOUNEVERKNOW, YOUNEVERKNOW!
Interesting series coming up weekend of July 23-25 between AL Central-NL Central leaders who have comfortable leads, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox. Meanwhile in tight NL East, Braves visit Mets for Monday July 26 doubleheader and three more games. Braves still can't clear .500 despite having a 15-run better run-differential than Mets, meaning they have outscored their opponents better than the Mets have done.
Red Sox-Rays are neck-in-neck in AL East with Yankees hanging on perilously to hope prior to July 30 trading deadline. Toronto is returning at end of July to its home field for first time since 2019 - it might provide a boost if they get the pitching.
Houston has solid lead on Athletics in AL West but with Mike Trout coming back soon and Ohtani always a presence, Angels not totally out of it either. Nor Mariners.
Condolences to the friends and family of Sparky Lyle's fellow Yankee reliever Dick Tidrow who passed away last week at the age of 74. Originally signed by Cleveland (the Indians, starting 2022 the Guardians), Tidrow won World Series rings with the 1977 and 1978 Yankees.
He was a great mentor to Ron Guidry. Later as a longtime member of the SF Giant front office, Tidrow's pitching evaluations were a key asset to the World Series champs of 2010-2012-2014.
As far as the newly-named Guardians, it could have been worse, it could have been better. There are ornate statues of Guardians on a bridge leading into the city that makes the choice somewhat understandable.
Before I close, the world of opera has suffered a series of losses, announced in just the last few days.
Lighting designer Gil Wechsler, 79, of Alzheimers. He went from Brooklyn's Midwood HS to great fame in his chosen field, nicknamed "the prince of darkness" for his memorable sets at the Met (NY Times obit 7-23).
And director Graham Vick, 67, of covid (NY Times obit 7-19). Vick was director of England's Birmingham Opera and a passionate believer that opera should be accessible to everyone not just the wealthy, entitled upper classes.
That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it. And, just as important:
STAY POSITIVE, TEST NEGATIVE!