Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Baseball: Trying Mo With Less


The Season is approaching the quarter mark. After thirty-five games, the Mets and Yankees are both 20-15.

Hall of Fame Reading
You are forgiven, if you had to read that sentence twice or check the accuracy of those records against official MLB statistics. Yes, the Mets are playing .571 ball. In the National League that may be good enough, if sustained throughout the Season, to get a team into the playoffs.

These Mets have been entertaining so far, coming from behind to win in unlikely ways, and, lately, coming from behind to go ahead, then painfully losing anyway.We can keep the champagne, or, in the currently penurious Mets case, domestic sparkling wine, on ice for quite a while.

The Yankees, of course, are expected to do better than .571, which, in the American League East, even with the tumbling Red Sox, will not be enough to win the division or secure a playoff spot. Year after year, it takes .600, winning 60% of the time or very close to it, to win the division.

A brief note on the San Francisco Giants (formerly of Manhattan), a sentimental favorite here. They are at 18-17 or .514. This is what happens when your ace pitcher goes astray (Lincecum) and your two-coasted archival (Dodgers, of course, formerly of Brooklyn) treats you like a Panhandle Flower Child holding a long-stemmed lilly in the batter's box in place of a thirty-six once piece of varnished lumber.

The Mets may be too young to understand that their early season triumph over widely predicted failure may be short-lived. That's a good thing. The Yankees are too old and experienced to know that their current efforts approach expectations. Both teams, at this point, very nearly reflect their manager's style and owner's philosophy.

Manager Collins is patient, scrappy, optimistic, blunt, and fair. Manager Girardi is patient, hopeful, pensive, honest, and fair. Both know that they are not the star of their respective teams (unlike managers of rival-city teams in Boston and Miami). This is much harder for Collins in Queens than for his Bronx counterpart. Collins has, arguably, only two stars, Johan Santana and David Wright; and Santana is the only Met who would play regularly for the Yankees. Girardi, on the other hand, holds a deck full of sure-thing and close-call Hall of Famers.

The Mets' owners are keeping a low profile for now, an excellent idea. Most of these young players came up through the organization as formed by former GM Oscar Minaya. They can hit, sometimes. They can field properly, sometimes. They might even hit the cut-off man once in a while. But, let's face it, they are playing in the Bigs, because they have low salaries. Period. The Yankees owners need no introduction or explanation, but attendance is down and a prized winter-catch, pitcher Pineda, is out for the season. GM Cashman will be looking for young legs and a peppy bat by trading deadline. But, how could he or anyone fix a Mariano Rivera-less team?

Exit Sandman*.

Speaking of which, can we talk about "Closers?"

Let's be clear about this: there is a big difference between a real Closer and a pitcher attempting to save a game. Certain pitchers, their agents, managers, owners, fans and announcers may refer to a Closer entering a game, but, there is only one true Closer.

His name is Mo**.

The Mets' own Franky Francisco just blew two saves in Miami in three days. He did this in such an excruciating and annoying style that a young team like this might easily have fallen into a ten game swoon. Instead, they and Collins willed themselves to a win against the Brewers last night, despite Franky getting himself in a position to blow another one.

Closer? Please. Only Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson (Keira Sedgwick) and Mariano Rivera are The Closer.

"Billy Ball" was invented, because Billy Beane realized that he would never be able to afford Oakland Athletics stars who could really hit. So, he found players who could really walk, which required them to know how to hit a lot of foul balls, in order to tire and frustrate the starting pitcher. "Deep into the count" has replaced "Deep into the seats" as a baseball mantra.

Each team only has 1-3 excellent or very good starting pitchers, occasionally 4, tops. Batters go deep into the counts, fans watch foul after foul, starting pitchers hurl pitch after pitch, umpires invent strike-zone after strike-zone, until managers have to go to the bullpen. They call for something called a "relief" pitcher, so-called because he is supposed to relieve the starter.

Hah! Or, should we say, Bull! More often these guys are giving relief to the batters. By definition a "relief" pitcher is one who is a failed starter. That is worth repeating in a slightly different way. A relief pitcher, with very few exceptions,  was or is not good enough to be one of the five or six starting pitchers on the team. They are meant to be pitching in a league somewhere between minor league AAA and the Majors, a league of their own, the Bullpen League.

Re-enter Sandman. There is only one, no Mo.

* For those who have been away from baseball for a while, Enter Sandman is the times song used when Yankee Mariano Rivera, the best Closer in history, comes into the game.
**The name by which most fans know Mariano Rivera.

Ed Note: Five Seasons, by New Yorker writer/editor (and fellow NY/SF Giants fan) Roger Angell is one of the best, if not the best baseball book. You can read it even if you do not know much about baseball or even like it, just as you can read The Sun Also Rises without liking bullfighting or fly-fishing. Should there ever be a place in the Hall of Fame for Books, this one is a first ballot winner. We also recommend  a more recent title, the novel The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

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