Monday, June 29, 2009
I love old ballplayers. My heroes are the guys who get past age 40, which is the demarcation for "ancient" in most sports, but who keep on going.
Today – Saturday – I’ve been watching 42-year-old Tim Wakefield, of the Boston Red Sox, throw six shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves before being removed for a pinch-hitter. Wake is a hero of mine, anyway, due to his charity work, but the fact that he’s 42 years old and leading the American League in wins is wonderful and amazing.
(Throw in that he’s a knuckleballer and you get just about the perfect guy to be my baseball favorite. I’m a knuckleball groupie. There’s something incredibly cool about a guy who has the guts to throw 65mph pitches in a league where everybody else throws 90mph on a regular basis. No matter what team they were pitching for, when Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher, Charlie Hough, Stu Miller, Tom Candiotti, Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood, or any other junk master came into the game, they became the guys for whom I’d root. The pitch itself has always fascinated me, but so have the guys who throw it. They seem to be, for the most part, an extremely even-keeled – perhaps even somnambulant - lot, which I suppose is a necessary part of the psychological makeup when your few mistakes often result in moonshot home runs.)
I think My Dad trained me to like old guys. When I was very young, I’d watch football with him and he’d wax rhapsodic when George Blanda came into a game. Blanda played something like 27 seasons in the NFL and seemed to always be hitting the game-winning field goal while we were watching. And he wasn’t just a kicker. Blanda played quarterback, too. My Dad was only in his 30’s while this was happening, but he had found his own playing days ended while he was in his 20’s – as is often the case with footballers, since there aren’t a lot of amateur opportunities for tackle football players once they’re beyond college – so Blanda, and other relics like him, let My Dad dream of perhaps resuming his own career.
That’s where it’s at, of course. Every guy who’s had some level of success in a sport will always harbor the fantasy of actually playing professionally, so long as he hasn’t been irreparably crippled. The pull of that dream is as strong as anything that exists in the American male psyche. Seeing some other guy who’s older than you - and who may actually appear to be in worse shape than you physically - still getting the job done at the highest level, allows guys like me (and you?) to envision miraculous comebacks, even if the place we might be coming back from is Never-Was-Land.
So, my heroes are 42-year-old Tim Wakefield and his superannuated cronies.
(By the way, when you reach a certain age in sports, your age becomes part of your name. I first noticed this with a past favorite of mine, Steve DeBerg, who, at age 45, came out of retirement to play quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons during the year they went to the Super Bowl. DeBerg was a coach/backup, but the starter went down and DeBerg came in to start, and win, three or four games. Every time he was first shown on-camera, the announcers would say, "And there’s 45-year-old Steve DeBerg..."
From that point onward, I noticed that the same thing happened with every other player over 40 [in basketball, over 35, and in women’s gymnastics, over 16.] Listen for it yourself. Sports announcers can’t resist it. "And there’s 43-year-old Doug Flutie... and here’s 46-year-old Jamie Moyer... 46-year-old George Foreman will attempt to regain the heavyweight boxing crown tonight versus Michael Moorer...")
In my own case, being 52 and irreparably crippled, I’ve finally given up the dream.
Nah, not really. I bet if I could learn to throw a knuckler, I could get some team to sign me and… No, really, I’ve given up all hope, unless maybe I could have a tryout and hit a few 30-yard field goals. What the hell. I still have one good leg.
Tomorrow, Sunday, I’ll be dragging my one good leg to Smith Field to play for the Bombers. If we can win two from MHC (the Moe Howard Club, which is close to what I would have called a team had I started one; I’m more of a Shemp man, myself) then we will be almost mathematically assured of a playoff spot. And, if there’s a scout from the Red Sox in the stands at 9am on Sunday in Brighton, and I get a couple of hits, maybe… no, I don’t want to put the jinx on myself.
BOMBERS – 4 MHC – 2
MHC – 3 BOMBERS – 1
Now THAT’S the way this game was meant to be played. Superb pitching from both teams, timely defense, clutch hits that had to be worked for, some thought put into the decisions made by the coaches, and hustle all around. Softball – modified fast-pitch, anyway – doesn’t get much better than that.
Dave Vargas started game one for us, the first start he’s had for us this season. And he was mighty impressive. In seven innings of work, Dave gave up TWO hits. He had a no-hitter through 5 and 1/3, giving up the two runs in the sixth via a walk, a run-scoring clean double, and then a two-out single. He showed amazing grit and determination in the seventh, striking out the side (sandwiched around two walks and an error) to preserve the win. With the bases loaded and two outs, he punched out the final batter with some nasty smoke on the paint. As he walked off the field, I shook his hand and told him that I hadn’t seen such a gutty performance in a long time, and I sincerely meant it. Dave was just plain awesome on the mound yesterday.
His counterpart in game one for MHC, a fellow named Manny, was no slouch. He wasn’t blowing anybody away, but he was as cute as they come, mixing speeds and working with very good control. He sure didn’t give us much, but we pulled it out thanks to Dave’s beautiful work and some nice clutch hitting.
In the first, Billy Botting mashed a pitch to center, slightly misjudged by their center fielder – he started in, and he couldn’t recover in time as the ball sailed over his head. Billy, with his great speed, circled the bases for a 1 – 0 Bomber lead.
In the third, Jack Atton doubled with one out. With two outs and Jack on third base, Mike Minchoff dropped a single into left to put us up 2 – 0. We didn’t score again until the sixth, when, with Emilio Zirpolo on second base and two outs, his son, Cam Zirpolo, punched a double to left center to put us up 3 – 0.
After MHC got their two runs in the bottom of the sixth, to make it a nailbiter at 3 – 2, we added an insurance run in the top of the seventh on a Jason Atton triple and Dave Vargas’s sacrifice fly. Then Dave did his thing in the bottom of the seventh and we had one damn satisfying win.
So, I started this thing by talking about old warriors. In game two, we faced one. Mark (I wish I knew his last name, and I should because I’ve played against him for years now, but I can’t recall it) started for Moe Howard and he was as tough for them as Dave had been for us in game one. Mark is a graybeard, for sure, but man can he pitch! He struck out seven (I was one of them) and limited us to a lone run in the first inning. After that, we really threatened only once.
On our side of the ledger, we got another great pitching performance. Buddy Carchide has been throwing well all year. He had the misfortune of being on the opposite side of Mark’s gem, but had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in the loss. Buddy spread 8 hits over 7 innings, but took the loss. Sometimes life isn’t strictly fair.
We were home team for game two. In the top of the first, MHC got a run on a home run that might have been more a matter of miscommunication than pure power. Their second batter lofted a deep fly to left center, but from the bench it looked as though Cam Zirpolo had a bead on it. However, he sort of pulled up as Billy Botting approached from center, and then the ball kept going past both of them. By the time they recovered, it was 1 – 0.
In the bottom of the first, I led off with a single.
(This was the first time I’ve batted leadoff since 2007, and it’s a spot in the lineup I really take pride in. I ended up 2-for-3 in game two - in the book, anyway. I don’t think I hit the ball all that well, and I think whoever was keeping the book at the time gave me the benefit of the doubt. I’ll take it. Last week, I stroked the ball and went hitless. It all evens out.)
After a strikeout, Emilio Zirpolo reached on catcher interference. MHC started arguing that Emilio had actually hit the ball before his bat contacted the catcher’s mitt, but if that had been the case, then the catcher would have had to have had his mitt out in front of the ball, almost a physical impossibility – and patently illegal even if he had been able to pull it off. We won the argument via logic (good umpire, by the way, even though his strike zone was a little expansive for my liking as a hitter.) So, first and second with one out.
Following a Jason Atton walk that loaded the bases, Billy Botting hit a vicious line drive right back at the box, the result of which made every man on the field wince. Mark caught the line drive... well, in truth, the line drive caught him, right in the cojones. It is a testament to his manhood and his competitive spirit that he actually tried to fire the ball to second base for a double play before he collapsed, face down, on the pitchers mound.
Everybody from both teams ran to the mound. Mark looked to be in severe pain, and he no doubt was. Even though he was smart enough to be wearing a cup, a 100mph line drive back at your nuts, from 42 feet away, will still leave you feeling abused. Happily for Mark, he recovered and pitched. Perhaps as a result of being a bit shaken up, he walked Joey Baszkiewicz to force in a run. Tie game, 1 – 1. Mark then recovered his form and got a strike out to end the inning.
The pitching the rest of the way, from both men, was truly excellent. Buddy gave up two runs in the third, on a walk and three singles, but held MHC scoreless from that point. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get anything much started against Mark. We had one good shot in the fourth inning, when Billy Botting followed a Jason Atton single with one of his own, but Billy was out trying to stretch it into a double. Jason took third on the play, but was stranded there. After that, we had only one man reach second base the rest of the way.
Superb ball, really, from both teams, and perhaps fitting that each team got one win out of the deal.
We have no games next week, due to the July 4th holiday. With the win we got yesterday, we’re sitting in a decent position for the playoffs, but we aren’t in yet. We’ll need a win or two more, for sure. In the meantime, we get to rest things (knees, in my case; other things, in Mark’s case) and then back to it in two weeks time.
Sundays like this are why this old warrior is glad he's still playing.
Soon, with more better stuff.