11th and Washington

11th and Washington: July 2005

Friday, July 29, 2005

Ted Robinson, let's have lunch

Another reason I am growing to love Mets announcer Ted Robinson (other than the alma mater we have in common) is that he took a moment to use the Telestrator a moment ago to ridicule the Astros for their "pennant" recognizing them as 2004 Wild Card Champions. Of course, he's right. By definition, you're not a champion if you won the wild card. There's no wild-card division. You're the wild card winners. Not champions. It's even a stretch to say they're the 2004 Division Series Champions. Sure, you won the series, but that makes you champions of ... what, exactly? The first round? Do they give you a trophy for that series? Do they name an MVP? Do players get bonuses? No to the first two questions, and maybe a no to the last one.

The Mets and, I believe, the Rockies have it designated as such in their "banners" at the ballpark: Wild Card Winners. In fact, I think Robinson just talked about how "Wild Card Champions" in Denver irked him to the point where he would point it out to the officials there, and they eventually changed it. I need to get an accurate count of how many teams are under the disillusion that they're champions of the wild card, but I haven't been to all the ballparks involved yet.

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Craig Biggio, 300-home run hitter?

With his home run in the first inning tonight, Craig Biggio now has 251 in his career. He has 16 this season after hitting 24 last year. Say he finishes with the same number as last year, two dozen. That's 259 in his career. Sure, he may be turning 40 in December, but he's in good shape and he's healthy. He could play another two years. Can he hit 41 home runs in two years? I think so, playing at Minute Maid Park, with its 315-foot left-field porch.

Does that make him the least likely 300-home run hitter in baseball history? Probably. He's 5'11", 185 -- if you believe his bio. It's probably added an inch, and maybe 10 pounds. It also locks him into the Hall of Fame, to which he probably will earn entry anyway.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Last of the Expos

The fans in Washington have taken to the Nationals as everyone — outside of Peter Angelos — expected. You'll even see some Expos caps in the crowd at RFK Stadium, as I did on Saturday, a sign that those who come out to the ballgame aren't simply there because it's the new fad in town. These folks know their baseball.

Up in Vermont, the Expos name lives for one more season. I seem to remember the reason being that Major League Baseball — perhaps in an attempt to try to make everyone forget not only how badly baseball in Montreal crashed in the final years there, but also how poorly MLB has handled the situation (they still don't have a new owner for the Nationals, despite having had the bids in hand for months) — decreed that the Vermont Expos must have a new nickname for next season. (I'm pulling for Green Mountain Boys or Chunky Monkeys.) If any team should be allowed to keep the name, it's Vermont, located as it is along the Canadian border. I like the idea of holding onto that piece of history, but it's not meant to be.

The Expos are struggling on the field, though, with the worst record in the New York-Penn League. And the copy desk at the Rutland Herald is struggling too, if they (and their writer) think the road to RFK goes from Vermont to Savannah to Potomac to Trenton to New Orleans. Wrong capital city there. (But how appropriate that the team, which has been in existence for decades, has the Senators nickname? I can't believe it's taken me 2/3 of the season to realize that.)

As I plan to do with the naming contests for the Norwich Navigators and the new State College team, I'll stay on top of the naming developments in Vermont.

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Day 3: Philadelphia freedom

Before I started this weekend endeavor, I had my doubts. I wondered if my enthusiasm would hold through the weekend. As much as I wanted to take the weekend and see three major-league ballgames in three different ballparks, there was a part of me on Friday that just wanted to go home and splay myself out on the couch to read some magazines or pop in a DVD. But as that 7 train pulled into the Willets Point stadium and I saw the high definition screen outside Shea Stadium announcing, MERENGUE NIGHT IS SOLD OUT, I got the feeling that this weekend would be nothing but fun; there would be no funk.

As I crawled into bed at 2:30 a.m. after Matt and I had convened again with Brad to discuss the game over a few pints, I figured 9 a.m. would come too soon. Yet when the alarm went off and I pulled myself out of bed, there was no dragging of feet. Matt and I watched Lance Armstrong pull into Paris and then I tossed my bags into the car and returned to the interstate.

Recent world events have prompted an increase in security, particularly in the various means of transportation, so as I pass through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I am greeted with various variations of the same message flashing on the overhead LED displays: REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY. In Delaware, they use the state's postal abbreviation so that the sign read, DE TERRORIST TIP LINE, followed by the phone number.

I keep my eyes peeled throughout the drive, but the only suspicious activity I may or may not have encountered was not worthy of a phone call: a car with New York plates going the speed limit, a BMW cruising along below 70 mph, an SUV with a "Save the Trees" bumper sticker, a New Jersey driver leaving appropriate distance between the car in front of it, a hybrid car with a George W. Bush decal. These things aren't the usual activity from such drivers, but they don't seem to be threats to national security.

As I suspected, the drive takes two and a half hours, so I exit I-95 just after 1 p.m., find the parking lot that will give me easy access to New Jersey after the game, and buy my ticket with enough time to spare that I make it inside in time for the National Anthem, the first time in three days that I've not missed the first pitch because I'm still en route to the ballpark. I enter on the first-base side but must walk around to left field to get to my seat, so I turn right to walk down Ashburn Alley, the outfield plaza packed with concession stands, standing-room views and a Phillies timeline posted on the back of the brick batters eye in center field. Despite the recent comments by Peter Gammons and John Smoltz, just two of the esteemed baseball men who have come forward to pan the ballpark as a place to play, it remains a fabulous venue in which to watch a game. I ask for a seat in the shade, not wanting to commit to the sun on a hot day. For $22 I am placed in left field, in prime home run territory. As it turns out, I am just outside the edge of the overhang that would've provided the shade I asked for, but it didn't matter. I spend about an inning and a half in my seat; the rest of the time, I wander the ballpark. It's conducive to such perambulations. The wide, airy concourses might as well be enclosed and air conditioned, the difference between those areas and the open sunshine were so great. I'd also guess that 90 percent of the space around the park includes chest-high shelves on which fans can place their just-bought cheesesteaks and watch and eat while they stand and watch the game. If you wanted to get exercise at the ballpark, you could buy the cheapest ticket available and spend the entire game walking laps around the park without ever losing view of the field except for the brief half-minute it would take you to walk behind the scoreboard and Harry K's restaurant in left-center.

The gripe Gammons, Smoltz, et. al. have, though, is somewhat legitimate. Pop flies can end up eight rows deep in the outfield. Power alleys are chip shots. Tomas Perez, playing shortstop, goes back on a pop up -- as any shortstop would in this case -- but because left field is so small, Pat Burrell is playing so shallow that he calls Perez off. When Perez circles around to return to the infield, he's closer to the warning track than he is to the infield dirt.

They're clever there in Philly. As the public address announcer finishes off the day's lineups with the umpires, the theme from Law & Order serves as background music. When San Diego's pitching coach walks out to the mound with catcher Ramon Hernandez for a conference with starter Brian Lawrence, the choice is the theme from Three's Company.

Sometimes it's lonely going to ballgames alone. If you go to see a specific player -- say on a night Pedro Martinez is pitching, or in the minors, to catch a top prospect -- then you have a purpose. You can keep score and then pay particular attention to Pedro's innings on the mound or the prospect's at bats; use the other innings for trips to the beer cart or the bathroom. This is why I felt the need to view Shea Stadium in a different way on my Friday night trip. I was there just to kick off the three parks in three days weekend, not for any other reason. But as a Mets fan, it was easy to cheer and high-five the strangers around me on big plays like Carlos Beltran's three-run home run. In Washington, I sat with a friend and conversed with his fellow season-ticket holders around us. But the energy of the crowd inspired me to stand and cheer when a Nationals pitcher got two strikes on a Houston hitter, even though a Washington loss would be better for the Mets' position in the standings. For one night, I allowed myself to enjoy the atmosphere of a division rival. It made the ballgame more enjoyable.

The night before going to Philadelphia, I wondered how the fans would be. Going in, I expected Citizens Bank Park to rank third in enthusiasm behind Shea and RFK. The city is known to be passionate about its professional teams ... mostly when they're winning. These days, it's an Eagles town first and foremost. Until the lockout, the Flyers were probably No. 2 among the four teams. The 76ers may have fallen to last now that they're a few years removed from Larry Brown and the finals appearance against L.A. The Phillies fluctuate throughout the season. They're higher on the list in April, when they're in contention; if they fall eight or 10 games back by the time Eagles camp opens, they also tend to become the city's second sports interest. Among 35,322 fans on an 83-degree sunny Sunday (the smallest crowd of the weekend by 7,000, but bringing the total crowds of which I've been a part to 128,275), I do experience moments of Phanaticism. It doesn't reach the levels I felt in New York or Washington, but when Ryan Howard launches a double (mere feet from a home run, from what I can see) to left-center in his first at bat, then doubles into the right-field corner to deliver a run his second time up, I stand and cheer. Sure, it's probably more for his days as a BlueClaw, but I still find myself involved in the game.

As I said, I don't sit long in my left-field seats. The breeze is nice but I still feel like I'm baking in the sun -- and getting an uneven tan with the sun directly to my right. I get up to walk along the third-base concourse, stopping into the team store before catching another half-inning standing at the back of the seats, in the shade, on the walkway. Again it becomes clear that when this stadium was designed, the fans were the first thought; the pitchers, clearly, last. I continue out towards center field and Ashburn Alley again, passing the left-field gate and looking out on the sea of cars, the parking lot where Veterans Stadium once loomed. It's the first time I've been to this south Philadelphia sporting complex since a January night to watch Notre Dame play Villanova in basketball at the Wachovia Center. Now all that surrounds the four arenas -- Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field, Wachovia Center and the small Spectrum -- are parking lots and warehouses. If it weren't for the new stadia and their restaurants, there wouldn't even be a place to eat. The biggest drawback to this beautiful ballpark is that it's in the middle of nowhere and can never rank with PNC Park in Pittsburgh or Camden Yards in Baltimore among the best places to spend a day and catch a game.

I pass again by the statue of Richie Asburn beating a throw to the bag, I suppose. I climb some stairs to the bleacher section perched atop the concession stands beneath the big Liberty Bell scaffold that lights up and sways whenever a Phillie goes yard. Here I can look down upon Ashburn Alley while getting a far-away view of the field, perhaps somewhat like the vantage point those rooftop fans around Wrigley Field see. When a spot along the railing below, the one overlooking the visitors' bullpen, opens up, I slid in, resting on the shelf beside a kid chowing down on a carton of seasoned fries from one of the counters behind me. I watch Clay Hensley warm up before he pitches the final two innings of this 5-1 Padres loss. The beauty of this spot is the closeness to the game. I can discern the stitching on Hensley's jersey, I can hear the zip of the ball as he brings his arm around and releases the orb at 80 mph to the catcher 60 feet to my -- to our -- left. Perhaps best of all, I can hear what Hensley hears, that being the taunts and jeers of the famously harsh Philly fans. Just as Hensley gets up to loosen up, Scott Linebrink also emerges from the bench beneath our feet. He stretches his legs, then uses the elastic band strapped to the railing to loosen up his arms and shoulders. "That's right, Linebrink, warm up!" shouts one fan perched behind me up near the bleachers. "Make sure you get that goatee nice and loose!" The comment makes no sense, but therein lies its hilarity. I study Linebrink's face for any sign of acknowledgement, finding none. But I like to think he heard it and was amused by it too.

As I spend the day exploring the ballpark more than sitting still to take in the game, I feel as if I am in a familiar place. I glance at faces looking for signs of recognition; I have this feeling that somewhere in this crowd is someone I know. This sensation, I later decide, stems from two things. The first is the ballpark's proximity to New Jersey -- just over the Walt Whitman Bridge. No doubt there are a lot of Garden State Phillies fans here. The other is derived from the familiar t-shirts and hats, either from a Jersey Shore vacation/recreation town or the Lakewood affiliate of the Phillies. I'm wearing a red BlueClaws hat myself to go along with my Gavin Floyd Phillies t-shirt. So as I stand along the bullpen, watching both the game and Hensley's warm-up routine, I'm not startled -- perhaps I'm even expecting it -- when a hand rests on my right shoulder. I turn around to see Hal, a BlueClaws employee I know from my days covering the team. In that moment I'm amazed more at my expectation of running into someone I know than I am at actually seeing such a person. We spend an inning or so chatting about the game, the ballpark, the BlueClaws before we split up for separate sustinence; now that the line has virtually disappeared at the Italian ice stand, I make my first in-park purchase of the entire weekend and get perhaps the best bargain at any of the three venues when a decent-sized cup of cherry ice is just $3.75. Even my small (or "like it") sized cup of Cold Stone ice cream cost more than $4. I take the ice up to the bleacher perch again to enjoy both the coolness inside my body and the complimentary breeze outside. By the time I'm finished, my tongue has taken on the same shade as the hat and shirt I'm wearing, that of Philly and BlueClaw red.

It's not long before Billy Wagner comes in and shuts down San Diego with perfect ninth inning and I'm scattering with the fans out to the surrounding parking lots. I'm quick to the car despite emerging from a gate behind right field rather than along the first base/right field line and losing my bearings. I walk left up the road at first before realizing that this doesn't feel right though there is some familiarity because I'm heading to the lot where I parked for a game last September (and I had been hoping to find again on my way in today). I turn the other way and head toward an intersection that I soon see is Pattison Ave., where I did indeed park in a moderate sized lot that does not have a bottleneck at the exit. I am out of there before I get to find out whether one forms or not. Thankful for the small but discernable signs pointing to I-76, I'm back in New Jersey in no time, cruising up 295 and then 130 to avoid the Turnpike traffic. When I do join the toll road at exit 8A, I'm north of the congestion and find myself coming through the door to the apartment a mere two hours after the game ended.

Exhausted, I make dinner and watch TV and manage to pound out the account of Saturday's visit to D.C., unsure exactly of how I am able to stay away until midnight. But it was worth it to relive the day before and record an account of this wonderful weekend while the images and sensations are still clear in my mind. My doubts about my stamina, my endurance for a three-park road trip in three days did not surface after Friday's initial questions on the way to Queens. The proximity of the three cities to one another and the comfort of a bed in Matt's house rather than a lifeless hotel room certainly made the trip more bearable, not to mention the camaraderie the three of us shared over burgers and beer and more beer.

I'm happy, too, that I stuck to my budget and limited my expenditures to tickets and higher-quality meals and drinks outside of the ballpark concessions. Before embarking on the trip, I told Casey that, other than the games for which I already have tickets, I think it's just minor-league ballparks for the rest of the summer. These major-league prices can take a toll on your wallet.

My passion for the game is as strong as ever, so I suppose it's no surprise to me that I've already looked at which teams are at home this Saturday, when Casey's away again. I'm happy to get in as many games as I can now, because once December rolls around, when we're two months removed from the World Series, in the dead period between the end of the college football season and awaiting the bowl games, I'll be itching for springtime and the start of another baseball season.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Day 2: At least Washington's first in something

"First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." That's what they used to say about the old Washington Senators, the hapless bunch of baseball men who couldn't do much in two separate attempts at playing baseball in Washington, D.C. So this time, when they brought baseball back to the capital, perhaps they figured they should try the other league. Now -- well, as of July 23, 2005 -- they're at least first in the National League (East). If two out of three ain't bad, then I guess one out of three is ... a start?

In posting Friday night's account of the Mets game (see below), I found myself falling into bed at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. I set the alarm for a not-late-enough 6:30, figuring on at least half an hour of snooze time onto the end of that. And it might have worked out that way ... had I remembered to turn on the alarm. So at 8:15, I looked at the clock and thought, "Shoot. I suppose I need to get going."

An hour later, I was in the car and soon I was zipping down the New Jersey Turnpike, Washington-bound, following the signs that said SOUTH. I find it sad, as I make a quick stop at the Walt Whitman Rest Area, that we're about 90 miles into New Jersey, and the most prominent thing when you walk into the gift shop is a table covered with "I Love NY" t-shirts. It didn't occur to me at the time that, of all the service areas on the Turnpike, I choose the Whitman one for my quick restroom run, considering his 1846 dispatch to the Brooklyn Eagle: “In our sundown perambulations of late through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball ... Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms...the game of ball is glorious.”

Upon arriving in Maryland, I come to an empty house. Matt, the college friend I'd be going to the game and then staying with, was not home. I had called from the road to inform him that I was running late and he didn't have to rush home from his girlfriend's for my planned noon arrival. But I hadn't been specific enough.

"Yo!" he says when he answers my call.

"I'm sitting outside your house ..." I say in a mock-stalker voice.

"Oh ... whoops," he replies.

"I suppose I should have actually given you a time at which I would be arriving," I said. But soon, after bringing another college pal, Brad, into the conversation, we came up with a remedy: I would get back on the Beltway and the three of us would meet in Arlington, Virginia, where Matt was and near Brad's home. We were to meet at Baileys Pub and Grille at the Ballston Common Mall. When Brad first mentioned the place, some interference in our cell phone connection garbled his voice a little, so on the drive down, I tried to figure out why a suburban shopping mall in Virginia -- a commonwealth full of its own rich Colonial history -- would choose to name itself after a New England village green, Boston Common. As it turns out, the mall is roughly the size of Boston Common, so the similar name is appropriate.

After lunch and ice cream, talk of baseball and bachelor parties, Matt and I swing by his house again to leave my car as we head across the District to RFK Stadium. Traffic and then unexpected closure of Matt's regular parking lot -- the former, we believe, caused at least in part by the latter -- prevents us from getting through the turnstiles in time for the first pitch. Or the 31st pitch. Not only do we listen to the top of the first on the car radio, but we get into the bottom of the inning before we park and start walking up the hill to the stadium. Inside, we find Cristian Guzman batting -- a term used loosely when it comes to the .180 hitter -- with two outs and a 4-0 Nationals lead. Settling into our seats, I spot a fan walking in the field seats below wearing a Guzman jersey and I wonder if he'll get his money back. I'm sure the Nationals would like theirs back.

Opened in 1962 for the second incarnation of the Senators, RFK slid in front of Shea Stadium to become the NL's third-oldest ballpark, behind Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium. It certainly looks and feels like a 1960s multi-purpose stadium. Now that the Redskins have moved out, RFK -- or The Rob, as Brad calls it -- again splits its time morphing from a baseball stadium to a football one and back, only now it hosts international football in the form of D.C. United and Major League Soccer. There are no box seats, I notice as I look down. The best they could do was put new, soft blue cushioning on several sections behind home plate and put a table into a small box down in the front row directly behind the catcher. At some point, it's clear that they decided they needed more premium (as in high-priced, not high-quality) seats, so they cut off the continuous walkway by inserting seats at intervals that stretch from behind the first-base dugout around to the one on the third-base side.

With the score already 4-0, there's not much left for us; Washington cruised from there. Tony Armas Jr. carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning before a walk to Craig Biggio ahead of Lance Berkman soon becames a 4-2 Nats lead: Berkman deposited a pitch over the right-field wall for the first hit of the game.

The atmosphere is as electric as it was on Opening Day, now that Washington has risen to first place and we're just over two months away from the end of the season. Matt has become friends with his fellow season-ticket holders, chatting with the two men to his right and the family behind us. One of the regulars points out how the numbers on the outfield wall designating the distance from home plate have moved. Those that read 380 feet that were once in right-center and left-center field are now closer to their respective foul lines, more straightaway right and left. First it was players who couldn't believe their drives to the gaps were falling short of 380 feet; they argued that it was at least 20 feet deeper. When the grumbling got louder, someone decided this matter needed to be settled. Lasers were involved and, indeed, those 380-foot power alleys are actually 394-foot gaps where home runs go to die.

For two nights now, I've been a part of large, spirited crowds. Washington's doesn't quite measure up to Merengue Night madness, but those were special circumstances. Both the Mets and the Nats are teams comprised of loose, laid-back players who feed off of the fans. When Shea starts rockin', you can see the Mets players quietly taking it in, the energy of the fans spurring them on. The same thing happens in Washington, where 81 home games likely won't be enough to make up for 33 years without a team. In two nights, I've been among 92,953 spirited, knowledgeable boosters. In New York, the fans have suffered through high expectations and low results for years now; in Washington, each home run, each big hit, each key strikeout seems to be followed by a release of cheers and applause that have been building since the Nixon Administration. By that logic, the fans in Philadelphia should be exponentially louder -- they've been stuck with underachieving, underwhelming, hapless teams for decades. How they'll be on a scorching Sunday afternoon at a sparkling new ballpark remains to be seen.

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Day 1: Discovering a new Shea

River Road curbside I stand waiting for the 158 New York City bus -- sweating uncomfortably, I might add, until this pleasant breeze kicked up -- I could count all the drivers heading south who unsafely (and perhaps illegally; I'm not sure what Edgewater's law is) talk on their cell phones while driving. Holding it, looking at it -- a glance at the screen as he pulls up to and then through the intersection. I mean, if you're going to look, don't do it at an intersection on a four-lane road. Here I stand, easily annoyed at how much more our society becomes me-centered everyday. But the bus arrives at 5:41, pretty much on time and so articly, refreshingly frigid.

This is my third game in nine days, my second in three, my 48th at Shea overall. How do I approach it differently? How do I put a fresh spin on a routine experience? Therein lies the challenge, I believe. Tonight, rather than sitting and scoring (a task that, in this internet age can be done -- or adjusted, for accuracy -- at home) I decide instead to wander the aisles a little bit, to observe and record the atmosphere, the flavor of Shea on a sweltering July night. I know I'll arrive late anyway, so most of any scoring would be done online as a result. The challenge, of course, is getting to the city. A 20-minute trip at best (and, truthfully, it's never that), 30 minutes on average, takes that long just to get to the last stop in New Jersey, at Lincoln Harbor. Then it takes us another 20 to get through the Lincoln Tunnel to New York, where we head all the way to 31st Street to get onto 10th Avenue to go up to the Port Authority at 40th. All because of traffic. Nearly an hour after I boarded, we're in the left lane at 37th and 10th and I'm wondering how we'll move to the right across three lanes of traffic in three blocks. Turns out we'll do it in the span of one block -- simply by brute force, mere intimidation. When does the 40-ton bus change lanes? Whenever it wants to!

Off the bus at 6:45, I'm in luck with no line at Auntie Anne's, so for $3.70 I have a pretzel and a lemonade. At Shea, that would cost me about $6.50 -- if not more -- and with three ballparks in three days, I'm determined to spend no money inside Shea Stadium tonight. Only the good fortune of no line allows me this stop and my timing turns out perfectly. As I descend the steps inside the subway, the E train has just come to a stop, only the slower moving pokes in front of me prevent me from boarding as the doors close. I stand there a second and the doors do indeed open again, and I step aboard with a satisfied sigh. The pretzel is gone before we've made four stops and left Manhattan.

How to approach this game differently was taken care of by the Mets: a sellout on Merengue Night, an atmosphere off the train and on the ramp like a holiday, a postseason game, an event. The platform railing was packed with people watching from afar (and for the low, low cost of a $2 subway fare). The gates into the ballpark were linked by one extended, meandering, pulsating throng of people wrapping the stadium. It is a late-arriving crowd, the top of the second inning underway inside and lines still forming to pass through the checkpoints and get inside. Mets employees are checking tickets and directing people to their assigned gates to cut down on bottlenecks, not to mention at the top of escalators and ramps, preventing people from exiting onto the loge level if their tickets are for the mezzanine or upper deck.

I couldn't be happier with my seat in the back row of the loge. On Wednesday, when I bought the ticket, I asked for the cheapest, upper reserved. The ticket agent told me she had the rear of the loge for the same price, the trade-off being the low overhang which cuts off my field of view a few feet above the outfield wall. It's not new to me, so I didn't mind taking it for the closer view of the rest of the action. The bonus to this panoramic home-plate view is the constant breeze, natural air conditioning so comfortable, this game might as well be played in a dome. Looking down as I write in my notebook, I hear the crack of Jeff Kent's bat and the resulting, "Ooooh" of the crowd means I don't even have to look up. But I do, and I see Cliff Floyd trotting toward the wall in left field for a token look as the ball sails deep into the Dodgers bullpen. 1-0 Los Angeles.

Up the aisle walks a kid -- maybe 12, 13 years old -- in a Yankee shirt. It's one of my biggest pet peeves at the ballpark, the wearing of a team when it's not on the field. With New York being a two-team city, it's to be expected, whereas in Seattle or St. Louis, it might not be so commonplace. But this kid is no hanger-on, no bandwagon jumper, for when he turns around, the back reads, "GEHRIG 4." That's respect.

As I walk the ballpark -- or, more accurately, the loge level -- the Dominican flags are too many to count. At least six full-sized ones hang from overhangs and railings out in the stands while dozens of a more manageable size are carried, tucked into a waistband or incorporated into a shirt or a hat. For every red, white and blue Dominican flag, there are probably two jerseys or t-shirts with a No. 45 on the back and the name Martinez above it. The electricity that could have been produced had the Mets not altered the rotation and kept Pedro on schedule to pitch tonight ...

By the fifth inning, it's 6-0 Dodgers. Victor Zambrano just didn't have it tonight. At least it's in support of Jeff Weaver, I think, wondering how much that helps, having a pitcher on my struggling fantasy team pitch well at the expense of my favorite major league franchise. Earlier, out in section 31, I heard someone echo my mother's oft-repeated thought. Citing the Mets' 12-0 victory on Thursday, he said they should've "saved" some runs for tonight. Well, no, not really, I think. Hitting is contagious. Get into a groove and keep it going for a few games. That's what I say.

The loge level is where you want to be for a big game, or for a sellout. When there's a raucous crowd, the overhang amplifies the cheers. You feel like you're in a club, it's so loud. That observation is brought to you by Doug Mientkiewicz and his 10th home run of the season, cutting the score to 6-2 in the bottom of the fifth.

Another thought comes to me an inning later, set up by singles from Jose Reyes and Mike Cameron. Carlos Beltran comes to the plate and turns on a Jeff Weaver offering to launch a home run into the small spit of loge seats that extend into fair territory -- way out in section 31. My section behind the plate is eccstatic, the music pumping and Reyes and Cameron exchanging a unique bumping of fists and elbows at home as they await Beltran's arrival. I think back a week to the home run derby in Detroit and to last year's in Houston, where I watched from a seat far out in right-center field, where no balls could reach me (not that I wanted it that way, but that's where they sat the less important media). The Mets haven't asked to host an All-Star Game in nearly 30 years, but how could they have it? Shea hardly has any outfield bleachers, so all of those home-run balls would bounce off the scoreboard or land in the no-man's land of scaffolding and player parking instead of being engulfed in a sea of bare arms and outstreched gloves.

Now it's 6-5, thanks to Beltran, and I decide then that rather than leaving at 9:30 in order to ensure I catch the 10:30 bus back to New Jersey, that I must stick around for this one. There's a feeling in the air besides the humidity, the feeling that there is more to this comeback. I'm sitting in a sea of strangers, brought here first for our love of the Mets, but my neighbors on this night also come for the love of the music to be played after the game. On this night, we gringos are far in the minority. I don't want to leave. I want more of a rebound from the Mets, more reasons to slap hands with these momentary friends around me. I can't bring myself to walk away from this just so I can be home "at a good hour" to pack for the weekend and get off to an early start in the morning.

The seventh inning stretch comes and rather than the standard Lou Monte jingle following "Take Me Out To the Ballgame," someone in the production room plays to the crowd as the Macarena echoes across Shea. Sadly, those are the last few moments of what had become a block party atmosphere. Los Angeles' bullpen comes in and closes the door, preventing any further Mets comeback. I stay to the end, leaving only when there are two outs and no one on in the bottom of the ninth. I stand at the top of the ramp to watch the final out before turning and commencing the brisk walk to the elevated tracks to beat the crowds -- not onto the train, but those who are moving down, entering the field level after sitting for nine innings in the upper deck. They want to be closer to the show, closer to the concert by Fernando Villalona, Sergio Vargas and El Jeffrey.

I walk to the front end of the platform, out from under the overhang and beyond the wall that blocks any view of the stadium. The ramps are packed. The sidewalks around the outside are bustling. It's a festive scene, one that you wouldn't expect following a loss, but this is one of those games where you get the feeling the outcome wasn't the most important thing. Coming to this game tonight was about community, about a night out with friends, whether you planned ahead and came with them, or ran into them as you made your way to your seats -- a phenomenon I witnessed twice tonight. The Mets have always been New York's second team, the one that came along later after the Yankees had existed in the city for more than half a century. The Mets were immigrants to the New York baseball world, and these nine years of heritage nights -- of which Merengue Night is one -- simply seem appropriate for this ballpark, for Queens. A ballgame at Shea Stadium, to me, feels like walking down a city block where everyone knows their neighbors, where they sit on the stoop and send greetings out to the passersby on the sidewalk or to a window three doors down and two flights up. And on Merengue Night, it just becomes a 55,000-person block party.

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Friday, July 22, 2005

Baseball and the road

I love the road and I love baseball. The two go hand in Rawlings glove. For me, I think the lure of covering the sport as a profession was more enticing because of the travel than it was for the involvement and insight into the game. When I was a minor-league beat writer, two of my best assignments were the visits to North Carolina — the first for the first game in Lakewood BlueClaws history, the second for a feature about life on the road. For that one, I rode the bus and essentially lived the life of a minor leaguer for five days. Perhaps a little more the life of a minor-league coach or manager.

Baseball and travel go so well because the game is everywhere -- even up in Alaska, where the annual Midnight Sun Classic is as unique as a ballgame can be. There are several travel guides to help you plan your baseball road trip, and there are numerous post-trip accounts from people who have checked off each major-league ballpark, whether over a single summer or a few seasons.

While I do admire those "ballpark collectors" who try to see everyone, be it major league, minor league, or simply all of them, my feeling is, frankly, it's been done. I try to look for trips that are more unique. I've got a few ideas, a few routes planned out in my head, but I don't have the time to embark upon them right now. I may not be the first to think of them — I may not even be the first to do them. But as long as I haven't heard of them yet, that's good enough for me.

So while my fiancee is out of town this weekend, my first thought was to consult the schedules to see what kind of small trip I could make myself. At first, I thought I'd tick off two new major-league parks by taking today off and cruising out to Cleveland for tonight's game, then moving on to Cincinnati tomorrow. But when my friends in Cincy told me they'd be away, that trip lost some of its attraction. Yet I used that trip as the starting point. It became option No. 1 on a list of 15 excursions I came up with that would include three ballparks in three days, assuming I took this very Friday off and made it to my first destination in time for tonight's first pitch. My 15 routes went as far west as that Great American Ballpark in southwest Ohio, as far north as historic Centennial Field in Burlington, Vermont, and as far south as Harbor Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. I looked at a combination of major- and minor-league stadia that would allow for games on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon — enabling me to be home by a reasonable time in the evening to not completely exhaust myself at the start of the week.

Unfortunately, over time, my conscience kicked in. I felt I shouldn't spend too much money; two nights in hotels — even minor-league town roadside motels — might not be the best use of my money when I have a wedding coming up before the start of the Division Series. (Not to mention the gas prices, which are horrendous, even for New Jersey standards, and aren't likely to get better so long as an oil barron — even one who's never worked for anything in his life — is running the show.) I also then found out that one of my good friends will be coming out a day early for my bachelor festivities, and I realized that would be a better day to take off than this random Friday. I started to narrow down the list to the more manageable, more financially responsible choices. And then I found a trip that would work perfectly.

Sadly, I never got myself up to Montreal during the final two seasons to see what French-Canadian baseball is like. One friend and I talked about it before the 2003 season, but only he and his wife made it happen. I didn't make it a priority. He lives in northern Virginia, and the Washington Nationals are his team now, so he had more of an interest in going. He and I and a third friend of ours in Maryland are all ecstatic that Washington has a team again, and that development is what will enable me to embark upon this weekend's trip.

Tonight, I'll leave work and hop on the 7 train to Shea Stadium. It's Merengue Night, but sadly the Mets are babying Pedro Martinez again and have pushed him back to tomorrow afternoon's game. At least I was aware of that, yet I still decided to go — even though it will be my third game in the last nine days at Shea. Instead, I get Victor Zambrano — who's pitched quite well over his last 10 starts or so -- and one of my fantasy stallwarts, Jeff Weaver.

Tonight, Shea; tomorrow, D.C. In the morning, I'll hit the road and arrive at Matt's house in Maryland around lunchtime. We'll grab some burgers or pizza, then probably chow down on the other before tomorrow night's Astros-Nationals showdown. Sadly, Roy Oswalt pitched yesterday and Roger Clemens goes tonight. I'm just missing all these aces. On the docket in D.C.? Brandon Backe and Tony Armas Jr. At least maybe there will be an onslaught of runs.

Sunday morning, I'll head out from Maryland bound for Philadelphia. It's about halfway home on the trip, leaving me a comfortable two, maybe two-and-a-half hours home in the late afternoon. San Diego, which I just saw in New York on Wednesday, sends Brian Lawrence to the hill against Brett Myers, easily the most intriguing starter of the six I'll see between now and Sunday night.

Three games, three ballparks, three cities, three days. Three teams in the tight NL East race. Had I thought of tackling this trip on a different weekend, when the Braves and Marlins were visiting two of the stops, I could have seen the entire division. If there were, perhaps, a Sunday night game somewhere south of Trenton, and were the Orioles at home, it could potentially be four games in four ballparks in four cities in three days, but I'll leave that for another summer -- or another ambitious ballpark traveler. For now, I'm happy with the route, the teams, the games. For some reason, the Diamondbacks stuck in my head as the Phillies' opponent this weekend, which would have meant the potential to see my fellow Notre Dame alums — Brad Lidge and Craig Counsell — on consecutive days. But a Lidge save on Saturday would be doubly sweet, considering that any loses for NL East teams are better for the Mets. I'll also see two of the four oldest parks in the National League and one of the two newest. RFK Stadium opened in 1962, the same year as Dodger Stadium, with only Wrigley Field older. Shea debuted in 1964.

Tonight, I hope to post an account of the Mets game, though I doubt I'll make an effort to use Matt's internet to put up thoughts on tomorrow's Nats game in such a prompt manner. So Sunday, as I cool off (and likely re-hydrate) after a day in the Philadelphia sunshine, I'll wrap up the final two stops of the weekend.

Fill 'er up and play ball!

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Guide them to a new name

Up in Connecticut, the Norwich Navigators have decided that since half the minor-league teams in the country are either relocating or redesigning their logos that they, too, need a new identity. And they're going all-out, planning a new nickname and logo for the 2006 season.

Apparently, the link to the city's seafaring history along the Thames River is no longer exciting enough, nor is the shortened Gators moniker. But in today's minor-league landscape, 11 years is a long time to stick with a nickname.

So where will they go from here? Coming up with a new team name can be difficult because of the marketing licenses and money involved. You can pretty much consider any current nicknames in the four major sports off-limits to start with, and that would carry on down through the minor leagues and colleges. If, for example, Norwich wanted to go with "RiverRats," in a nod to the Thames and other scenic rivers in their southeastern corner of Connecticut, they'd probably need to get permission -- and then pay licensing to -- the New Jersey Devils' affiliate. And they won't want to do that, because they'll want to keep all the merchandise revenue, rather than having to split profits with another team. Don't be fooled -- the potential cash flow is the main reason behind this campaign. Certainly, Giants will be out, because that's just boring and won't bring in any money.

I love the quirky names and logos of minor-league teams, so I'm interested in this switch. Fans can submit as many requests as they'd like to the Navigators website, so let's see if they take any of mine.

Norwich Steamers. Applies to both the area's maritime history (though that's probably something they're trying to move away from by ditching the Navigators name) and clams -- and when you think of Connecticut, maybe you think of seafood.

Norwich Oysters. Connecticut's official state symbols don't offer many options, unless you want to go with Robins or Charter Oaks.

Norwich Whalers. The NHL's Carolina Hurricanes probably still hold the rights to this one, and since it looks like professional hockey isn't dead, that could be a problem. But the Canes could be persuaded to relinquish their rights in exchange for one-time compensation. This one fits the state symbol idea.

Norwich Witches. Of course. It rolls off the tongue ... but I can't take credit for it. There was a minor-league team with that name in the Connecticut State League from 1899-1907.

Norwich Bonbons. Now we're getting somewhere. Again, sadly, not my idea. Another throwback to a previous team.

Norwich White Whales. Take the Whalers idea and make it more specific. Would provide the second-best literary reference in professional sports, behind the NFL's Baltimore Ravens.

Norwich Blokes. So many New England towns are directly named after burgs back in England, so why not acknowledge that? I suppose it doesn't make sense, considering the sport of baseball has no connection whatsoever to England, but it's not a bad name.

Norwich 95ers. Or Ninety-Fivers, if you prefer. Why not pay homage to the great New York-to-Boston highway with a baseball team name? The logo could be a ribbon of highway with two lanes of cars strung together bumper-to-bumper, not moving. The mascot would be a state trooper or a tow-truck driver.

Norwich Blackberries. Named for the nearby river but also has the added connection to the pinacle of portable personal organizers.

Norwich Traitors. It's the birthplace of Benedict Arnold and since one way to go with team mascots is to have them be mean and threatening, what could be more intimidating than a traitor?

I'll let you know which ones are chosen for the vote.

I don't mean to brag, but I must have decent foresight. Or, at the least, I have a damn good feel for this team and/or Willie Randolph's thinking. I'd like to draw your attention to my previous post (below), dated Monday, July 18, an off-day on the schedule for the New York Mets. Now, if you'd be so kind, peruse the Mets' lineup for tonight's game of Tuesday, July 19. And then take a look at just about any Mets game story or notes column and see what they're talking about.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Hey Willie! Free Wright!

There are still a few things about Willie Randolph's managerial style that confuse -- and frustrate -- me. For one thing, I can't understand why he's so stubborn about batting Mike Piazza ahead of David Wright, yet Jose Reyes is entrenched at the top of the order.

At the end of spring training, Randolph batted David Wright eighth and said that could be Wright's home for a while.

"You do have to pay your dues," Randolph said, alluding to Wright's status entering his first full season in the big leagues.

But then, Reyes didn't have to pay any dues. I understand that Reyes has been in the big leagues for part of the last two seasons, but because of his injury history, it didn't seem to me like he had fully paid all of his dues. Yet, despite just 13 walks all season and an on-base percentage under of .284 -- barely higher than Willie's career average. Randolph had a career OBP of .373. You'd think he'd understand how important it is. But then, it couldn't have been much of a plan, because Wright hasn't batted eighth all year. Randolph did say it "wasn't set in stone." Apparently, it was merely written in the sand. Right along the water. At low tide. Half an hour before high tide. Under a full moon. You see what I mean.

Still, Reyes continues to frustrate Randolph at times but holds onto his No. 1 spot in the batting order. Back before the All-Star break, when Reyes hit seventh in one game, I hoped it would last the week. It lasted one game.

As for Wright and Piazza, the young third baseman has put up offensive numbers as good as any third baseman in the league outside of Houston's juicebox, but has found himself batting sixth or seventh in all but 16 of his team-high 90 games. Wright leads the team in average, is second in home runs and second in RBI. Looking back at Thursday's first game of the second half, Wright drilled two solo home runs in his first two at bats off of Atlanta's Horacio Ramirez -- solo because he led off one inning after Piazza had ended the previous one with two runners on base, and the other because Piazza led off the inning by flying out. In his third at bat, he led off the seventh with a walk because a Piazza double play had ended the sixth. When Piazza came up in the eighth, my friends and I rooted for a strikeout when the count went to 0-2 so that Wright would have a chance with two runners on in a tie game, rather than a double play to end the inning. At least Piazza came through then.

Since that at bat? Piazza's 0-for-9 with four strikeouts. The at bats -- as well as Wright's, batting behind Piazza -- are as follows:

Friday, July 15 vs. Atlanta and John Smoltz
Struck out leading off the second. Wright homered.
Grounded out with one out in the fourth. Wright lined out to right.
Grounded out leading off the seventh. Wright walked.
Grounded into a double play in the ninth with the Braves ahead 2-1. Wright flied out to the warning track in right to end the game.

Sunday, July 17 vs. Atlanta and Mike Hampton
Struck out to end the first with a runner on second. Wright led off the second with a single.
Grounded out leading off the third. Wright singled to right.
Struck out to end the fourth with a runner on. Wright led off the fifth with a groundout to third.
Grounded into a fielder's choice to end the sixth. Wright led off the seventh with a pop out.
Struck out with one out in the eighth. Wright popped out to end the inning.

In three games (13 at bats) since the start of the second half, Piazza has ended innings with runners on base five times, forcing Wright to lead off the following inning. Wright had two hits and one walk in three of those five at bats. There were another three times Piazza made an out ahead of a Wright single or walk, and one more in which Piazza got himself out with a runner on ahead of Wright (the double play in the ninth of the 2-1 game). In all, of 13 at bats, Piazza made an out ahead of a Wright hit or walk six times, and erased runners on base six times -- though some of the at bats apply to both instances.

In the end, I think what bewilders me most about the intricacies of Randolph's managing -- and I do understand this is his first go at it -- is how Reyes continues to lead off despite not getting the job done, and Piazza continues to hit fifth despite not getting the job done, yet Wright comes through time and again, yet his chances are watered down (read: come with fewer men on base) because Piazza's making outs in front of him.

All Willie needs to do is look across town. There, his mentor, Joe Torre, has faced the harsh reality of pushing Bernie Williams down-down-down in the batting order because his bat has slowed and age has rendered him nothing like the player he once was. Williams is batting ninth tonight. Ninth! Piazza's situation is the same, yet Randolph -- who has no long-time allegiance to Piazza, so it's not like writing his name in the fourth or fifth spot in the order is something he's been doing for years and is second-nature to him -- can't seem to break free from the rut.

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Friday, July 15, 2005

More than just another game

Regular-season baseball games can be as ordinary as a trip to the mall. You go because you can, because you need something, and sometimes you come away with a steal. You get more than you expected; you're pleasantly surprised. You go to the games to see some baseball, hope for some home runs, root for the home team and look for the highlights on ESPN when you get home.

When my friends and I bought a six-pack of Mets tickets for this season, we did so in part because we haven't missed a Shea opener in six years and this time around, one of the six-packs offered Opening Day, not to mention five other games on convenient nights for us. Well, at least for me -- no Friday or Monday games. Last night's game was the third in our plan and it was fun to head out to the ballpark for the first game following the All-Star break. We had no reason to expect anything more than another ballgame in another summer, but when I shuffled through the door at 11 p.m., Casey could tell right away that the game had been more than just a night at the ballpark.

"Were you screaming?" she asked after I said hello in my gravelly voice, the result of a sore throat following a night of cheers and a few jeers.

The hoarseness began on a close play at third base, when Jose Reyes ran down a ball in the hole and David Wright -- who scrambled up from his prone position following an unsuccessful dive for the ball -- hurried to third, arriving at the same time as the ball and Atlanta's Andy Marte. But the umpire called Marte safe on the slide. We had no reason to believe our eyes more than the umpires, considering he had the perfect angle without Wright's body obstructing his view, and we were 300 feet away in an upper-deck box on the first-base side of home plate. But it looked good from our viewpoint.

Of course, it got really exciting after that. We'd already seen Cliff Floyd's tumbling catch in left-field foul territory, but this time it was Wright, who had already hit two solo home runs and committed an error that allowed a runner to reach ahead of Adam LaRoche's two-run home run that gave the Braves a 3-2 lead. On a suicide squeeze bunt attempt, Wright raced in and dove to catch the ball before it hit the ground. Marte had crossed home plate before Wright got up off the ground, then trotted back to third for the double play.

In the bottom of the eight, the Mets got two men on with one out for Mike Piazza. My friends and I said to one another how he simply needed to get the ball in play -- in the air. Pop out, line out, hit a fly ball. Single. Just don't hit into a double play. "A strikeout would almost be the best thing here," we said. "Keep the inning alive for Wright," who was on deck.

This is where our faith had gone. In past years, we would've relished the image of Piazza striding to the plate in this situation -- tie game, two men on, one out. Bobby Cox had brought in a left-hander to face Floyd, and he walked him on four pitches. That was probably more planned than not. "Don't let him beat you," Cox might have told John Foster, "they've got Piazza up next." In Atlanta earlier this year, Cox walked Floyd at least once, maybe twice, to get to Piazza, who struck out both times.

I've watched at least some of nearly every Mets game this season, and I've noticed the sometimes-slight, sometimes-steep decline of Piazza. He swings at more first pitches, missing more than he hits. He flails at balls out of the strike zone, nearly putting a knee to the ground as he whiffs at another offering in the dirt, then returns to the dugout, lips pursed, knowing he's fading. His bat's slower and those balls on the outer half that he used to drive up the right-center alley for doubles, or launch over the right-field wall as one of the best opposite-field power hitters in the game, are now strikes as he swings through them -- or, rather, through the spot where they passed, a split second before.

So when Giants cast-off Jim Brower got ahead on Piazza 0-2, the stranger to my right said to his girlfriend, "It's better if he strikes out here." We laughed, because we thought it was true. But when Brower's letter-high fastball got too much of the plate on the outer half, Piazza's eyes must have lit up the way mine do when I see the red circle of a fat pitch in the hitter's hot zone in MVP Baseball. The ball carried out to right field, and first I thought it was a double down the line. But then I saw the arc and looked down at Ryan Langerhans sprinting toward the corner. I knew it was over his head, but was it too high? Would the gravity win out before it had traveled far enough to clear the wall? As Langerhans slowed when he reached the warning track, I couldn't tell at first if it was because he had a read on it or he was going to reach the wall. But then it came down, glancing off the front edge of the loge section, and richochetted behind Langerhans. Home run.

We stood and cheered, our cries rising as Piazza neared home plate. We kept it up through the first pitch of Wright's at bat, prompting a curtain call from Piazza. The atmosphere at Shea was better than it usually is for a regular-season game. The size of the crowd -- 43,319 -- no doubt helped, but maybe it was the presence of enough Braves fans to make a difference when Atlanta scored. What brings them out to Shea when they can't be bothered to go out to the Ted in Georgia? Nevertheless, I think their attendance brought out the best in Mets fans as we cheered to the point of exhaustion.

I don't expect the Mets to be true contenders for the postseason, but the nature of the NL East this year means that they're in the race, for the moment. Perhaps last night's crowd knows that this team is a bad week away from securing last place, from trading off key players within the next two weeks. We don't want another lost summer, another listless August, another meaningless September of playing out the stream. Last night's game and this four-game series with the Braves is as important as any the rest of the season. The Mets can't win two out of four anymore -- at .500 heading into the game, that's exactly what they've done all season. Two out of four is stagnant. That won't cut it. Two out of three, three out of four -- that's progress. That's what they need to do. It had to start last night, and it started with the old guard -- Piazza -- and the new generation -- Wright's two home runs and three runs scored, Carlos Beltran's 4-for-4.

We're watching Piazza's last days as a Met. I've been a fan since I first saw that Mets hat atop his head as I spied SportsCenter from across a Cape Cod pizza joint in 1998. I'd admired his ability before that. I'd like to see him go out strong, sign with an AL team that visits Shea in 2006 so we can give him one last ovation, and then retire after another season or two. Then we can all make our reservations for the last weekend in July 2012, or whenever it will be, and head up to the country to see that plaque unveiled, the interlocking "NY" set in bronze on the cap on his head.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Keep it simple, stupid

Today's games should count more than yesterday's, if you ask me. Oh, there are no major-league games today?

My point exactly.

Driving into work this morning, a caller and the host made a point on WFAN about the idiocy known as "This One Counts." (I won't drop this until Major League Baseball does.) No matter how much weight Bud Selig and his minions try to add to the exhibition, the players are never going to treat it like a true game, unless maybe you award the players on each team a cash bonus, paid on the spot, and other incentives -- say, $1,000 handed to them at first base after a single, or $10,000 in crisp hundreds collected while standing on home plate after a home run. Oh, and don't keep secrets like a new Corvette from the players. You'll have more guys trying to be MVPs.

The point made on the radio was that Jim Edmonds, one of the game's most aggressive players, didn't come close to Miguel Tejada in an attempt to break up a double play. Edmonds -- a guy who dives in the outfield at least once every two games, who only takes off a crisp, clean uniform on days when he never left the shade of the dugout -- didn't slide hard into second base. And Edmonds plays for the Cardinals, the NL team most likely to benefit from having home-field advantage in the World Series! No one's ever going to pull a Pete Rose again and run over the catcher in an All-Star Game, for fear of injury to himself and the stigma that would come with ending Jason Varitek's season. Ever.

Managers may run the game a little differently, instituting some signs, attempting steals, starting a hit-and-run, pitching around a player. (The day we see an intentional walk in an All-Star Game -- particularly if it's the only at bat a guy like Miguel Cabrera might get -- will be, on a smaller scale, as horrendous as the Tie of 2002.) But you're never going to get anything more than Torii Hunter leaping to rob Barry Bonds of a home run, because he was there in plenty of time and it wasn't as reckless as crashing into a wall or diving headfirst for a sinking liner in the gap.

There are those who argue that if you're going to have "This One Counts," then you have to have every team represented, but I think it's even more of a reason to abolish that representation rule. If the All-Star Game is for league supremacy and is meant to determine which side gets home-field advantage in the World Series, then each league should have its best players available to help it win. The NL deserved to have Cliff Floyd's relative youth and strong arm over Moises Alou's creaky knees. It deserved to have Marcus Giles available for four or five innings instead of Jeff Kent for one at bat. Keeping the fan voting is more important to me than home-field advantage, and how can you justify the fans' collective whim with making the game matter? Carlos Beltran and Edmonds didn't deserve to start over Miguel Cabrera and Andruw Jones, but the fans wanted to see them.

Clearly, the game doesn't count to guys like Gary Sheffield, who in the past only went to represent the Dodgers if they paid for his family to join him, or to Pedro Martinez. (As a Mets fan, I'm more happy that Pedro rested for the games that really count -- Sunday against the Braves -- than I would have been seeing him throw an inning against Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Teixeira. Which he would've gotten through unscathed, which is more than I can say for John Smoltz.) Besides, I already saw him face Vlad in the lesser idiocy of interleague play.

I still love the All-Star Game. I like seeing all the different uniforms on the same field together. I like watching players from different teams chatting in the dugout. I love seeing Jimmy Rollins pretend to care enough to ask Luis Castillo where the Marlins start the second half of the season ("Are you at home?") only to have Castillo shake his head, smile, and point to the "Phillies" on Rollins' chest. "Oh, you're at our place?!" Rollins realized. But you're never going to get the players to play harder than they do now, and to use "This Time It Counts" as a failsafe to ensure there's never another tie is as ridiculous as the car salesman's suit Selig wore during his ESPN interview during the home run derby. Just tell the managers they have to save some pitchers in case the game is tied, and if one team runs out of hurlers while the score is still even, then that league loses the game. They won't run out then.

If David Stern told NBA players that the winning side of the league's midseason exhibition got home-court advantage in the finals, they still wouldn't play defense -- they'd just try to win 150-140. If the NHL ... oh, who cares? It's just that I don't see a difference in how the game is played. There's a miniscule difference in how it's managed, but nobody goes to a baseball game to see the managers' strategies played out. They want to see pitchers pitch and hitters hit.

That's what counts.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Wait til next year

Well, hopefully I'll get to see the NL break the streak in person in Pittsburgh. If the AL's going to keep getting home-field advantage in the Series, then I think they should give the NL home-field advantage in the All-Star Game. At least until they win one. After Pittsburgh and San Francisco, give the game to Philadelphia, San Diego, Washington and the Mets' new stadium. And maybe by then (that would be 2012), Miami will have a new one too. Or, you know, Las Vegas will have the Marlins.

I also noticed Fox's Jeanne Zelasko is pregnant. Or she's a pumpkin. Really, who suggested that top? Maybe it doesn't look orange in person, but on screen it sure does. And the puffy sleeves? Good grief, Charlie Brown.

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I knew there was a reason to let Kenny Rogers come to the All-Star Game. About 450 feet worth of reasons.

Three batters, an ERA and WHIP of infinity.

I notice that Derrek Lee is still in the game too. Now I know Tony La Russa wants to win and Lee is one of the two best players in the NL so far this year, but gee -- Lee plays for the Cubs, the team closest (and that's a relative term) to the Cardinals in the standings. Now I know Terry Francona joked about using Mariano Rivera for three innings tonight because the Red Sox and Yankees start the second half with four games against one another starting Thursday, but why does it seem like La Russa might say something similar, only without a chuckle?

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Just what the NL needed

Ooh, Johan Santana's in. The way he's gone lately, this should help erase a 3-0 deficit. And with that, D-Lee starts off with a double and Edmonds walks.

But leave it to a Cub to kill it with a DP. (As for how much this counts for the Cubs, see the Braves comment earlier.)

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Buy a new shirt, kid

Just saw a fan in the stands wearing a Bobby Higginson t-shirt. One of the 20-buck ones. C'mon, kid, you're at the All-Star Game. In decent seats. Can't you at least afford an Ivan Rodriguez shirt?

Since we're talking about fashion, what's the deal with the white shoes? A-Rod's got them on, and I remember David Cone and other Mets inexplicably ditching their standard dark (usually blue) shoes for shiny white ones, only for the All-Star Game. There's one team in baseball that wears white shoes, and that's the A's, at home. These guys look like dorks like that.

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It counts for some ...

... but not for John Smoltz. You know the Braves aren't going to the Series. So he grooves one to Tejada.

Nice going, John.

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I hate that this one counts

Of all the stupid things Bud Selig has brought to Major League Baseball (shiny toupees and used-car-dealer suits on national TV during the home run derby among them), determining which team gets home-field advantage for the league's championship by using the outcome of an exhibition game has got to be one of the dumbest.

There are a few other things that could use a tweaking or revamping. Like the every team must be represented rule. If the fans won't come out to support the Devil Rays or Pirates when they're at home, why should those watching the All-Star Game be forced to cheer for Danys Baez during the player introductions? Of course, they barely did that tonight. When Baez's name was announced, there was clapping. And nothing else. No elevated cheers -- not even boos. They don't care. The Devil Rays are the girlfriend the fans don't want to admit they dated, like a phase Bud went through in the mid-90s when he reasoned that just because there was a mauseleum available in St. Petersburg, it should have a baseball team playing there.

Also -- and I didn't see any violators this year -- players must only wear their team's home whites or road grays in the All-Star Games. No alternate jerseys. No blue Indians tops, no black on anyone except the t-shirts of the White Sox, Diamondbacks, Pirates, etc.

This is the only time, place, dimension I'd ever say this -- use the DH. In both leagues. There's absolutely no reason to adhere to the NL rules where pitchers bat in the All-Star Game. If there's a rule in spring training where teams can use the DH in an NL park if both teams agree and the commissioner's office approves it (which there is), why the heck isn't there one for this? What's the point of putting Roger Clemens' name in the No. 9 spot when there's no conceivable way he'd actually put on a helmet? This is something they should seriously look into before next year, when the game is in Pittsburgh and then San Francisco the following summer.

It's 8:37. Rumor is the game will be starting in the next 25 minutes. Which is another point: no game of any import -- All-Star or postseason -- should start later than 8:15. I'll give them that late. What's more important to the advertisers? Having the West Coasters at 5:45 or 6 p.m. and losing the East Coasters at 11, or having everyone tuned in for the duration?

I'm sure some more things will come to mind over the next four hours.

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Orioles-Nationals gate comparison No. 5

The major league teams in Baltimore and Washington have now played at home on the same day 13 times this season. Well, there have been 13 dates, but a rainout in Baltimore last week (yet not in Washington, interestingly enough) meant the O's lost a game. (It will be made up Monday, Sept. 26, a day after the Nationals finish a series at home with the Mets.)

Thursday, July 7
Mets at Washington: 44,492
Red Sox at Orioles: 47,389

So having the Red Sox in town helps make up for last week's rainout with the Yankees in the visiting dugout.

Out of these 12 days on which both the Nationals and Orioles actually played a home game, Baltimore has drawn the bigger crowds seven times to Washington's five. It would have been 8-5, surely, without the rainout since the Orioles average 40,000 with the Yankees in town and Washington had only 31,000 that night. It's also worth noting that two of Washington's better crowds came on weeknights when Baltimore was hosting the Tigers and drew less than 20,000 (including the smallest crowd in Camden Yards history). Washington took both nights with less than 26,000.

For review, here are each of the dates, repeating yesterday at the end:

Saturday, April 16
Baltimore vs. Yankees: 48,598
Washington vs. Diamondbacks: 34,943

Sunday, April 17
Baltimore vs. Yankees: 47,883
Washington vs. Diamondbacks: 35,463

Monday, April 18
Baltimore vs. Detroit: 16,301 (smallest crowd in Camden Yards history)
Washington vs. Florida: 24,003

Tuesday, April 19
Baltimore vs. Detroit: 18,009
Washington vs. Florida: 25,990

Wednesday, April 20
Baltimore vs. Boston: 36,478 (the Red Sox will bring crowds)
Washington vs. Atlanta: 27,374

Thursday, April 21
Baltimore vs. Boston: 40,419
Washington vs. Atlanta: 30,728 (this for a day game)

Friday, April 29
Baltimore vs. Tampa Bay: 24,910
Washington vs. the Mets: 30,627

Saturday, April 30
Baltimore vs. Tampa Bay: 19,920
Washington vs. the Mets: 40,913

Sunday, May 1
Baltimore vs. Tampa Bay: 30,784
Washington vs. the Mets: 27,333

Tuesday, June 28
Baltimore vs. Yankees(so you know it's going to be high): 47,465
Washington vs. Pirates: 35,828

Wednesday, June 29
Baltimore vs. Yankees: Rained out (killer)
Washington vs. Pirates: 31,213

Thursday, June 30
Baltimore vs. Indians: 27,272
Washington vs. Pirates: 37,361

Thursday, July 7
Baltimore vs. Red Sox: 47,389
Washington vs. Mets: 44,492

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Orioles-Nationals gate comparison No. 4

So I was asleep at the turnstiles last week, when the Orioles and Nationals had three home dates in common. It had been so long (nearly two months) that they'd both been at home that it wasn't on my radar. So let's look at their attendance figures:

Tuesday, June 28
Pirates at Washington: 35,828
Yankees at Baltimore (so you know it's going to be high): 47,465

Wednesday, June 29
Pirates at Washington: 31,213
Yankees at Baltimore: Rained out (killer)

Thursday, June 30
Pirates at Washington: 37,361
Indians at Baltimore: 27,272

There's one more common date before the break, tomorrow, so after those games I'll break down the head-to-head numbers further, and sometime during the three-day lull I'll look at their overall attendance. But entering tonight's games (with the Nationals at home against the Mets and the Orioles in New York), Washington ranked 13th in the majors with an average of 32,812 while Baltimore was 15th at 31,735. The Orioles, despite a two-month run at the top of the AL East, are drawing about 3,000 fewer fans per game than they did in 2004. However, the Northeast's long, cold spring has affected attendance at most parks, and the O's have a chance to rebound with the summer crowds.

Washington is indeed one of the best stories of the season so far, but how far will it go? Can the Nationals keep up this pace? Can they continue to win 77 percent (23-7) of their one-run games? Can they continue to play 10 games above their expected record? Are they a 51-32 team, or a 42-42 team? Can they continue to have the best bullpen record (20-10) in the National League with the fourth-best bullpen ERA (4.08)?

I'm dubious. I look at this team a little like the 2003 Kansas City Royals, though at 51-32 through 83 games, Washington is six games better than the Royals were at the same point (45-38). For now, I have to root for the Nats to slide while the Mets have a slim chance to be a part of this race. But if Washington can continue to hold off the Braves and the underachieving Marlins, I'll be buying that D.C. cap -- the one I've been meaning to get, since it's my initials anyway -- and pulling for the worst-to-first story.

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