Friday, October 30, 2009
This goofy picture of G-Hill dressed up like some kind of 1930's private eye has always been one of my favorite SI covers of all-time. What exactly was the thinking behind that one? Did someone walk into the big weekly meeting and suggest, "Hey, you know how Grant Hill is becoming a true superstar in the league? Well, whaddya say we put him on the cover? But not in his Pistons uniform...in an old-school gray trench coat and a Tom Landry-style fedora. And he should be holding some kind of giant flashlight that doubles as a magnifying glass. Oh, and last thing! Let's make sure we can only see Grant's head and shoulders...the rest of his body should be underground...in the sewer system!! Now let's get to work!!" Didn't anybody raise their hand at any point and ask what in God's name was going on? I'm all for originality and thinking outside the box, but there's gotta be a limit, right? The least they could have done, if they were planning on going down this route, would have been to include fellow Piston Bison Dele (Alav Ha-Shalom) in the picture. It would've made a little more sense that way. Bizarre picture...bizarre person. I could have gotten on board with that. People do sometimes forget, with the name change and his other shenanigans, how good ol' Bison was at times for the Stones during his two years in the D. He had a tough post-up game, highlighted by his deadly left handed jump hook. Let's not forget that the man put up 16 and 9 a night during the 97-98 campaign featured on the G-Hill mobster cover. It really was sad how his career and life spiraled out of control when he decided to leave the NBA to go run a water purification company in Beirut. (What...isn't that what all NBA guys in their prime dream of doing when their playing days are done?!??) He eventually wound up being murdered at sea by his brother (allegedly...the details have always been sketchy), who then proceeded to commit suicide himself by intentionally overdosing on insulin. Bison was not a superstar by any means, but he was a pretty enjoyable Piston to root for in the time that he was here. In the famous five-game loss to the Hawks in '99, Bison and Dikembe Mutombo took turns just destroying one another, depending on who had home court. Bison did nothing in the first two games, then took Big Deke apart when things returned to the Palace. It might sound crazy, but I don't think the Pistons have had a legitimate threat in the post since Bison a decade ago. We must never forget the silly G-Hill Sports Illustrated cover. And we must never forget Brian "Bison Dele" Williams...the most underrated left handed, two-named, oft-complaining, murdered, Eastern Conference big man of the last 25 years.
Larry Brown took his Charlotte Bobcats into Beantown for their season-opener. Forty-eight excruciating minutes later, the final buzzer sounded and the coach led his team off the floor. After scoring 59 points. That's sick. No, I'm being serious...that is just sick. It's one thing to play the fifth game in eight nights during the dog days of January, come out flatter than a pancake, and hang a 60 or 65 on the board. Semi-understandable. But the first game out of the chute? Not OK. I'm not blaming the whole thing on LB of course, but he's got to take the brunt of the responsibility. He is not exactly the definition of "innovative" when it comes to offensive philosophy. Hell, he's still vehemently against using the three-pointer as a weapon despite the fact that it's been in the game for 30 years now and it ain't going anywhere anytime soon. I can't imagine the 'Cats spend much time in practice shooting the trey, perhaps a reason they shot an embarrassing 0-10 in the Boston Massacre. You do have to wonder what Michael Jordan is doing in the front office, too. How did he create a team with Nazr Mohammed, DeSagana Diop, and Vladdie Radmanovic? Was he just tyring to assemble a whole roster full of slow-footed, overly sweaty (I'm lookin at you, Radmanovic), journeymen?? If so, he did his job...almost too well.
I know people keep trying to push Portland as a possible NBA Finals sleeper out of the West, but let's get serious for a moment. If you watched any of their home loss to the Nuggets last night, you saw the one and only Juwan Howard not only suiting up, but actually playing in the game for 16 minutes. Unless it's some kind of Big Ten Legends game or a carnival contest featuring the world's ugliest jump shots (and people, may I add), then Juwan should really not be included. The man was drafted in '94! The last pick in that draft was Zelly Rebraca, who had to retire because he was having weird "heart" problems. Voshon Lenard was taken in that draft, and I believe he literally has no knees anymore. They're just gone. He's got a foot, an ankle, a calf muscle, and a thigh. That's how brittle ol' Voshon is. What does that say for Juwan?? Aaron McKie was in that draft...he seemed old like 10 years ago. I mean, some of the guys (Yinka Dare) from that draft aren't even alive anymore. (We really miss ya', pal.) The Blazers might be the cat's meow for the time being in the eyes of the analysts, but with each minute Juwan logs in the box scores, their odds at winning the whole shebang are reduced considerably. But maybe I'm wrong and his veteran presence will be an asset. After all, he can tell Greg Oden and the other young big guys what it was like to play against some of the game's all-time greats. Hakeem Olajuwon...Charles Barkely...Jesus. Yeah, he actually played the bearded one in a game of H-O-R-S-E during his rookie year, back in 7 A.D. Legend has it that Jesus ended up winning with a final trick shot that required Juwan to can a 17-footer off glass while not frightening the nearby children with his famously grotesque delivery and follow-through. Juwan buried the shot, but the pack of kids began sobbing on the release, nullifying the bucket and giving the victory to J.C. Remains to this day one of my favorite "Is it true?" NBA stories of years gone by.
Here's a fun drinking game for the next time you tune in to an LA Clippers game...
-Take a drink any time you see Chris Kaman run the floor and then at the next whistle appear hunched over, hands on knees, panting heavily, with a pained facial expression on his unflattering mug that tells you his next breath could very well be his last. Only do this one for the first quarter, though. Otherwise, Kaman might not be the only one passing out.
-Take a drink anytime Baron Davis finishes the game with a shooting percentage above 50%. Don't fret, you have nothing to worry about. Remember, he had a 62-game streak last year, and he is fully capable of getting there again. His first two games produced a 1-10 against the Lakers, and a 4-11 against the defensively-challenged Suns. I'm proud of you, Baron. No matter how bad you play, you can always play worse. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
Reach the High Socks Legend at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, October 29, 2009
The High Socks Legend will return on Friday with a new article, but for now, grab a Peach Tea Snapple and enjoy some fine offerings from the archives of the HSL...
The All-Basketball Movie Dream Team
Pickup B-Ball...It's a Religion. Meet the Usual Suspects.
The Origins of the "High Socks Legend"
A Fun, Random Mid-February Night in the NBA
Monday, October 26, 2009
It's a new beginning for our Detroit Pistons. Expectations heading into each of the last several seasons have been of trips to the Conference Finals and of possible contention for the NBA championship. We always knew that our core was coming back intact, and that when all was said and done in the East, the Pistons would still probably be right there. Well, times have changed. Chauncey Billups is now leading his team and making big plays...in Denver. Rasheed Wallace is frustrating fans and hoisting up ill-advised threes...in Boston. Antonio McDyess is still desperately battling for that elusive ring...in San Antonio. The pseudo-mini-dynasty is now officially over, and it is time to turn over a new leaf in Detroit. And I can't help but feel a little déjà vu that we've been down this road before. The year was 2000 and the Pistons were preparing to embark on their first season without their leader from the last handful of years in Grant Hill. They had a coaching vagabond in George Irvine (accompanied by his splendidly maintained moustache) taking over the reins on the sidelines. And fans weren't exactly buzzing over the off-season acquisitions of Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins. Fast forward to now, and not much seems to have changed. Our leader (Chauncey) is gone. Our new coach (John Kuester) is another basketball nomad, having previously spent time as an assistant in all 30 NBA cities. And believe it or not, Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins are back for a half-compelling, half-depressing farewell tour with the franchise that jumpstarted both of their careers a decade ago. So how did that infamous '00 Stones squad end up doing? They won a paltry 32 games, while featuring the deathly horrifying 7 for 26 free-throw shooting from a Mr. Eric Montross. (I truly hope that 27% still keeps you up at night, sir.) How will this current Pistons outfit compare to their evil twin from nine years ago? Let's dig a little deeper and find out.
(Sidenote: I don't know whether I had some kind of crush on Chucky back in the day or if I just respected his game, but let's just say that for a while, I shot threes with my feet bowlegged facing the other end of the court, I completely shaved my head, and for a period of six months, I actually became black. I know he'll barely see the court this year, but let's just say I'm very happy that Ol' Chucky is back. Very happy.)
One year in the mid-to-late 90's, Grant Hill described him and his merry band of followers as a team of "Clones." Meaning, they pretty much all did the same thing. They had him, Jerry Stackhouse, Malik Sealy, Lindsey Hunter...I'll even throw Charlie O' Bannon in there. For the most part, all of them had the ability to slash and get to the rim. But none of them really specialized in distributing the ball or connecting consistently from the perimeter. Each of the aforementioned guys were pretty good at what they did, but at the end, it was a flawed roster with not enough variety, ultimately leading to Doug Collins' dismissal 45 games in. This year's guard-heavy team will face similar issues, some of which will be problematic, but also some of which history tells us might lead to surprisingly pleasant results down the road.
I'm reminded of an old episode from one of my favorite TV shows of all-time, The King of Queens. Doug and Arthur are both patiently waiting at the table around dinner time. They have their plates and silverware at the ready. It is simply a matter of someone putting the food in front of them, and they could commence eating. Only Carrie is not home yet from work, and thus has not prepared anything for them to consume. Both Doug and Arthur are more than capable of eating whatever is put in front of them. But what they are not able to do, however, is make the food themselves. To complete their task, they need help...they need an assist. The fearsome foursome of Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, and Will Bynum can all put the ball in the hole. There is no debating that. They range in height, weight, and ability, but at the end of the day, each is at heart, a "pure scorer." Rip will occasionally think about dishing in traffic to an open teammate, but unfortunately, in Rip-Speak, that translates to "Turnover leading directly to a layup on the opposite end." Stuckey will be announced as the "point guard" in all of the pre-game introductions, but truth be told, he's about as pure a point guard as Annie Banks, Steve Martin's shoot-first daughter from Father of the Bride. Gordon has talked about his willingness to slide over to the one if necessary, and while I applaud his attitude, guys that average around 22 shot attempts per 48 minutes in their career do not make for the best distributors. Bynum is probably the closest thing to a legitimate NBA point guard in the group, as he is able to get others easy buckets with his penetration while also finding his own offense. But even with me being one of the bigger Will Bynum fans in the country, I will admit that the guy is not exactly the second coming of Doug Gottlieb in terms of his unselfishness. (As a PG at Okie St., you could give Gottlieb an open 8-footer and he would still pass it to the nearest available cheerleader, coach, ref. Didn't matter, the guy wouldn't shoot.) With all of these prolific scoring guards, it begs the question: Who's gonna be collecting all these dimes? Anybody?? Bueller??
(Sidenote: An underrated quality when assessing the skills of a baller is that of vision. Does he see the floor like Ray Williams or Ray Charles? There are millions of guys who can physically pass the basketball to another player on the court. But it takes a true gift to be able to recognize this fact in the flow of the game and make the necessary read and dish. Seeing as how the Pistons don't exactly employ anybody with this unique ability, I would have to put out a semi-serious suggestion that the front office go out and take a look at my man J-Brown, a guy I've played with throughout my life, and whose vision rivals that of most NBA floor generals. Don't get me wrong. J-Brown has a broken jump shot, and a free-throw stroke that'll make children cry. But the boy can pass. You'll be running the baseline, not even thinking you are open, and BANG!, the ball is suddenly whizzed in from the top of the key. Before you even start bringing your hands up for the catch, the orange rock is smacking against the side of your dome and careening off the bleachers. Now that's vision. Sure, many of his passes were ill-advised, and some could even be considered life-threatening, but you could never dispute JB's ability to find the open man. If you had a little daylight in a position where you can score, he was going to get you the pill. Who knows? If the Pistons get desperate enough 20-25 games in, where the point guards just aren't hacking it, J-Brown might be getting a call...as long as his teammates would be permitted to wear helmets while he is on the floor.)
Now to the positive side of having a quartet of extremely explosive guards on one team. If done correctly, you can use said group to your advantage by forcing the other team to adapt to your frenetic style and eventually run them into the ground with a barrage of fast breaks and three-pointers. Since this article seems to be filled with flashbacks and references to NBA squads of the past, let's take one more trip down memory lane, this time to the desert, for a look at one of my favorite teams of all-time, the 1996-97 Suns. Like these Pistons, they had a first-year boss in Danny Ainge. (He actually took over for Cotton Fitzsimmons eight games in.) And like these Pistons, they were basically devoid of big guys. The frontcourt was filled with people like Hot Rod Williams, Danny Manning, and Wayman Tisdale (Alav Ha-Shalom). With their season going nowhere and Ainge continuing to get little to no production from his bigs, he finally said, "Screw conventional wisdom. I'm playin' my guards. All of 'em." That Suns team had a young Jason Kidd manning the point. They had an aging, but still highly potent Kevin Johnson pouring in over 20 a game. Sharpshooters Rex Chapman and Wesley Person would spend the majority of the game spotting up outside the arc and just bombing away from downtown. It was entertaining as hell, but they weren't just some kind of sideshow. They were good. The four-guard lineup produced an 11-game winning streak towards the end of the year, leading to a playoff berth after starting the year 0 and 13! They eventually got bounced in an unforgettable five-game classic with the defending conference champion Supersonics, (which contained one of the best shots, period, in NBA history) but the Suns' season was the feel-good story of the year. Was that team ever a real candidate to win the NBA title? No, probably not. So instead of simply falling in line with everybody else and floundering to a sub-.500 record, they decided to play to their strengths, and wound up having a wildly gratifying campaign. (Seriously...ask a Suns fan whether they had more fun making it to the Finals and losing to the Bulls...or the '97 season with the four-guard madness. You'd be surprised at the responses.)
So that's where I think the Pistons need to go this year. Don't try and force Kwame Brown down our throats. Don't play Ben Wallace 30-plus minutes. Relax a little bit on the "Dajuan Summers-Jonas Jerebko" Hall-of-Fame tour. You have four electric guards on your roster, all capable of going off for 30 on any given night. So play 'em together. See what happens. There will be mismatches on defense, to be sure...but you can be just as sure that the other team will be having no fun trying to figure out what to do on their end. John Kuester is the man in charge for the first time in his NBA career, but he could turn a lot of heads early on by not falling victim to the generally accepted 'Two guards, two forwards, and a center' group that has been the preferred crunch-time setup since the beginning of time. This is a unique team. The stable of big men are uninspiring and forgettable. The guards are deep and explosive. There might not be a true point guard in the bunch, and it might be chaotic and confusing at times, but when the game is tied with a half-dozen minutes showing on the clock, it would do Coach Kuester a lot of good to just throw his four guards out on the floor, and let the Piston trees fight to the death for the last spot. The year probably won't be ending with any kind of big parade or ring ceremony, but as we saw with Danny Ainge and his scramblin' Suns, that doesn't mean you still can't have plenty of fun along the way.
Got a Pistons 2008-09 prediction or thought?? Drop it here, or shoot me a line at email@example.com
Friday, October 23, 2009
Anybody else find this whole Jim Zorn play-calling business to be pretty ridiculous? First of all, why is there considered to be "too much on Zorn's plate" to also expect him to call plays?? Isn't that something you might expect from your head coach, especially one with such an extensive offensive background? Exactly what else is there to consume yourself with during the game if you are not involved in calling the plays? Making sure everyone is drinking enough Gatorade? Throwing the red challenge flag a couple of times over a 3-plus hour period? Is that really enough responsibility where it now becomes too stressful to also have a hand in what actually gets run out on the field? You didn't see Rick Moranis pulling a stunt like this in Little Giants. And unlike Zorn, he was a guy with little to no experience in coaching professional football. Secondly, why was there such intense coverage of this move? I understand the NFL is king in today's sports world, but still. The Redskins are a ho-hum franchise that have not been a factor in a number of years. So they made an adjustment in their coaching staff...fine. Go ahead and report it, but with all respect, please throw it on the back page or tail end of the show instead of giving it a splashy headline and "Armstrong Walking on the Moon" treatment. I've seen more of Jim Zorn in the last 72 hours than I have my own family. Let's tone down the coverage. Or just take the guy out and shoot him, like a busted horse. Either way, I want this to be the last we hear of it...
Pretty wild story coming out of ESPN with the news that Baseball Tonight analyst Steve Phillips has been carrying on an affair with a 22-year-old production assistant. Phillips is married with four kids, and always seemed (at least on-air) to be a down-to-earth guy that had his head on straight. But the story gets a little harder to understand when you get a gander at this girl. That is one handsome woman. Yamma-hamma, Steve! What was going on there, buddy? Busting up a marriage and a family for a couple of rounds with the female version of Sal Fasano??? You'd have been better off with the real thing. At least that way you'd get to play with his moustache and hear him tell nightly tales about what it was like to catch the likes of Kevin Appier and Sidney Ponson despite never actually being in possession of a human soul. A disturbing story, on all fronts.
I know it's not a big deal, but couldn't the Pistons have found some different digits for rookie Jonas Jerebko's jersey than the once G-Hill owned 33? I'm not saying the number needs to be retired, but how about a little respect by not handing the dueling threes to the first lush with blonde highlights that comes around?? Let's not forget that Tayshaun Prince's game has been regressing for years, lending further credibility to the widespread speculation that it's been the ghost of John Crotty's #22 behind the dropoff in production the whole time. And how are we supposed to officially refer to Jerebko?? Is he a "Rich Man's Walter Herrmann" or a "Poor Man's Zeljko Rebraca?" What's the ruling here? I'm fine with either one, and would also support any variation of the two that involves references to Billy Curley or David Wood. Let's just figure it out so we can avoid any further confusion. Thanks...
Reach the High Socks Legend at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, October 22, 2009
The deodorant aisle is like the snack aisle. There are a lot of things trying to distract you: pretty containers, slashed prices, and unfulfilled promises. But you gotta stay focused: there's a goal in mind. Some people are anti-war...others are anti-abortion...I'm anti-perspirant. And I've been fighting this battle going on 20 years. (I'm 22 now)
This topic brings me back to a time in middle school when, let's just say I was packing more than a lunch in my schoolbag...I was packing shirts. In the futile battle against sweat, the first line of defense is a man's deodorant. Sure, doubling up on T-shirts and wearing dark colors may mask the damp devils until you can get home. But the right deodorant can put you in a peaceful state of mind and body without worrying...or so they say. Let me take you for a ride down "Deodorant Advertising Lane" and show you the proper path.
Triple Protection System: Okay...I can see where they get the first count of protection. It must be the scent. That's right, I must have forgotten: since the stick smells like "Cool Waves," I can be sure that whatever the thermostat reads, I'll be Cool......Waves. Not a chance. The people at Right Guard better focus harder on the next two levels of protection in order to gain the confidence of me and my dri-fit button down dress shirt.
Clear Gel: Gillette, if your deodorant is in fact "clear," then why must it show up on my clothing??? You must have meant "Cool Gel," right? Because every time I put you on, it seems that the gel is 30 degrees colder than my body temperature. The bottom line here is that gels are useless jelly wannabes...and you know damn well I'm not eating it............................
3-D Odor Defense: Gosh, this statement gets me so fired up...I'm not even gonna start.
Let me change gears: here are some healthy tips to keep you dry...
-24/7: I know a guy who carries a stick with 'em all the time...and I say why not? I look up to people like this...literally. Anyone packin' heat walks tall...
-Not just for under-arms. Yeah, I said it. Wait, people might actually read this...forget I said it.
-Arm and Hammer: It's probably just baking soda...but it works...wonders. Let me be the first to tell you that the search for a cure doesn't have to cease outside the toiletry bag. Take a look in your kitchen. At the household chemicals. Those people at Arm and Hammer have heard our cries...and given us hope.
-Deodorant + Anti-Perspirant: This is the key. It must read "anti-perspirant." Unless you're either a complete savage or an actor from the Planet of the Apes movies, your deodorant has got to give you this much.
-Don't settle on "trial size" sticks for a vacation. I'm here to put an end to the "smaller, economical" version of the real thang. Hell, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't gone through a full travel-sizer in one night. Purchase the full size and turn your worry machine off. You can thank me later.
-Puzzle Pieces: You know what I'm talking about. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Don't look away...look here. When your stick is kaput and the remains fall to the floor like giant jigsaw pieces, it's time you spring for a new defense and not try piecing it back together. Don't even bend over to pick up your fallen comrades...it's an unpleasant reminder of a broken friendship. There is one circumstance, however, where I can excuse you for using this sorry tactic: you garnish one under-arm, only to see the stick break into pieces before you can go cross-body. Go ahead, I won't look. Pick them up. Just let me know when you're done so I can slap you across the mouth. When it's done...it's done.
I'm sweating. Out.
Sam went through approximately 3.5 'Right Guard Sports' during the writing of this article. We would like to thank him for his honesty...and wish him the best of luck in his ongoing lifelong journey to "stay dry." Shoot me an E-mail at email@example.com
Monday, October 19, 2009
Heckling is a lot like handling the TV remote. Everyone can do it, but very few can do it right.
Being a good heckler takes patience. It requires a strong base of knowledge. And you better have a voice, too. Anybody can just go out to a game, throw down multiple brews, and start screaming venomous material at the opposing team. But in all likelihood, that guy isn't putting any effort or thought into his heckle.
He's just screaming for the sake of screaming. His insults are poorly worded, lack cleverness, and only make one person (himself) in the whole stadium laugh. He's forgotten one of the cardinal rules of heckling; proceed only when you have a legitimate bullet to fire...otherwise, keep the safety on.
Take, for instance, the guy in my section during the Tigers' final home game of the '09 season. He had nothing to offer as a heckler, but that didn't stop him from peppering our ears with his nonsense for the majority of the day.
Scott Podsednik came to the plate for Chicago and this guy yells out at the top of his lungs, "HEY PODSEDNIK!! (then gets very quiet for some reason)...Yah muddah wears Ah-Mee boots." (Translation: "Your mother wears Army boots.") He continued repeating this inexplicable heckle throughout the day, each time eliciting the same confused reaction from myself and all others unlucky enough to be subjected to such amateur (and dated) heckling.
Why the decrease in volume at the big moment? Why was he going after Scotty Pods in the first place? And what in god's name was he trying to convey by suggesting that the left fielder's "Muddah" wore Army boots??? It was an unequivocal disaster on every level.
The one thing this guy did have going for him was that he did not rely on the "shock factor" of swear words to make an impact. The best heckles are the ones that do not require an abundance of vulgarity. It's about the fan having a little nugget of information about a certain player and playing that card in the perfect situation. It's about that moment when the stadium gets just quiet enough where you see your opening to not only let loose with your catcall, but to do it at such an elevated pitch where your intended target can't help but listen to every last syllable. Seeing a back-and-forth game with a classic ending is a wonderful memory. But hurling out a perfect heckle and getting a perfect reaction in return is what stays with you forever.
Following are some of the best and most bizarre heckling experiences I've been involved with or seen in my countless years as a sports fan...
-One of my favorite heckling/fan-athlete interactions was a cute little back-and-forth between myself and Braves utility infielder Tony Graffanino. The scene was Wrigley Field, sometime in the late 90's. The Bravos were stretching and getting ready for the game when I made my way down near the field and yelped, "Hey Graffanino! You're the poor man's (Mark) Lemke!!"
Graffanino looked stunned for a beat, then took the insult in, pondered its meaning, and finally nodded, as if to say, "Yeah, that's about right." It was the unique heckle where not only did the player refuse to get upset about being razzed, but also went the extra mile to actually acknowledge that the pseudo-insult was probably pretty close to the truth.
In this case, calling him the "Poor man's Lemke" was not the worst thing. Lemke was no superstar in his day, but he did have some very heroic moments in the month of October. Graffanino was simply following in the footsteps of the many mediocre middle infielders the Braves employed in that time period (Lemke, Jeff Treadway, Mike Mordecai), and I was essentially stating a fact that he was probably the lesser version of all those that came before him.
He knew his place on the baseball totem pole, accepted my barb as tasteful and well-researched, and gave me a respectful nod of approval in return. It was a mere 7-8 second exchange, at most...but it remains one of the more pleasant heckling experiences I've ever been a part of.
-Back in August of '01, my older brother Gabe and I were on a summer trip to LA to visit some family and take in a few ballgames. This particular night saw us sitting about 8-10 rows behind the visitors' dugout at then-named Edison Field (home of the Angels) for a nine-inning affair between the White Sox and hometown Halos. Jarrod Washburn was on the hill for the Angels that night, and not surprisingly (to Tigers fans), he got absolutely ripped. Line drive after line drive, capped off by a monstrous three-run bomb from Sandy Alomar, Jr. that sent fans racing for the exits just a few innings in. All except one.
Stationed a few rows in front of us was an Angel fanatic. Full gear, authentic merchandise head to toe, and the "headphones tuned in to the radio broadcast" move which tells everyone else around him, "I'm all business."
He was gonna stick it out for the remainder of the game, no matter how long it took, and no matter how badly it pained him to see his boys getting shellacked all over the diamond. But he had to let his frustrations out somehow.
Perhaps it would be towards Angels second year skipper Mike Scioscia for allowing such a dreadful performance to take place. Or maybe he would take it out on the struggling Halo pitching staff, which at one point trotted out somebody called Mark Lukasiewicz, a hurler so atrocious that many in the crowd believed that the right hander had inhaled about a fifth of Manischewitz before emerging from the pen.
In a game where the Angels were getting beaten every which way, this crazed fan could have went after anybody wearing the 'A' on their chest and it would have been justified. But this psycho was anything but your conventional fan. When he finally blew his top, the heckling began, and his target was revealed...the first base coach for the White Sox, one Gary Pettis.
The four of us (Me, Gabe, my two uncles) were completely flummoxed. What the hell could Pettis have done?? He was coaching first base in a 15-1 blowout!
Then the insults started flying from our psychotic neighbor and the entertainment for the evening went from "mild" to "off the charts."
He bellowed, "Hey Pettissss!! You think you know everything...well you know nothing...NOTHING!!"
We were all still extremely confused. What could Pettis, a one-time good-glove, no-stick outfielder for the Halos, have possibly done?
The man continued. "You think we would just forget, Pettis??? We will never forget!! You never listened to Carew!! He tried to teach you everything, and you thought you were too good for it. Guess what?!? You'll never be as good as Carew!!!!!"
Pettis looked shocked, perplexed, and altogether terrified at the same time...like he wanted to turn around and scream, "What the $#&$ are you talking about???"
After the initial onslaught had ended, we approached Sir Heckles (very carefully) to find out the background for these bizarre allegations. He told us through bated breath that when Pettis was a young outfielder in California in the mid-80's, the Hall-of-Famer Carew was just finishing up his time in the bigs. He claimed that Carew attempted to take Pettis under his wing, and was repeatedly denied. Apparently this perceived stubbornness was the main reason Pettis never fixed his flawed batting stroke (.236 lifetime BA).
The only thing is this...there's no record of this "battle." Nothing. Anywhere. You can Google the words "Pettis...Carew...mentor...
Of course, once we found out this dude was straight loco, we egged him on all the way, saying things like, "Man, that Pettis has some nerve! Hey, you remember that time he slept with Carew's wife?!?!?"
He ate it all up, and due to the fact that he was probably an escaped mental patient, never figured out that our comments were dripping with sarcasm, as opposed to his, which were loaded with passion and legitimate insanity.
He went on busting up Pettis for the duration of the night, never swaying much from his main thesis involving Carew's failed teachings. We all had fun imagining what this guy must have been going through from the years 1983-85 to make him this crazy on a lazy summer night in 2001.
The best heckles are the ones that come out of nowhere and attack a guy that you would never think in your wildest dreams would be the intended target of a three-plus hour verbal assault.
That's what happened on that magical night in Anaheim when Gary Pettis was blasted to smithereens for "refusing to listen" to Rod Carew.
An otherwise forgettable 15-1 Pale Hose smackdown was instead cemented in sports history...all because of a little heckling and a frayed relationship that most likely never even existed in the first place.
-It was the summer of 2003. There was a massive power outage along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. People were scrambling to local hardware stores for flashlights, water, and DVDs of the 90's football classic The Program (for $4.99, it seemed like an "essential"). Our family hightailed it to Toledo, Ohio, the next closest place rumored to still have power. In a nice twist of fate, the Mud Hens were playing a doubleheader that night in their beautiful new park. What better way to kill the time than a couple of ballgames on a gorgeous summer night? While I looked forward to the evening of baseball ahead, I was completely unaware that I was about to witness one of the great heckling performances of all-time.
My brother Gabe is what you might call the "complete package" in the world of heckling. He has it all: a wide range of knowledge spanning multiple sports and time periods, a solid voice capable of reaching the on-field recipient, and most importantly, a freewheeling willingness to say whatever it takes to get his point across.
That night, he was Reggie Miller in the Garden. He was Barry Sanders twisting Harlon Barnett into a pretzel. Simply put, he was in the zone.
He got going in between games of the doubleheader. Norfolk rigthander Jason Middlebrook was jogging around the warning track, and seeing as how he was Jason Freaking Middlebrook, he had no reason to believe he was about to get put on blast in a major way.
Who in their right mind had any idea who this guy was anyway?? Or any reason to heckle him whatsoever??
Luckily, this was a couple of years after Barry Bonds hit his record 73 home runs, and I had been just crazy enough at the time to want to memorize all 73 pitchers (in order) that served up the dingers.
I quickly relayed to Gabe, "Hey, I think that Middlebrook is the guy who gave up like a million bombs to Bonds a couple years ago."
Gabe heard me loud and clear, and within five seconds, he was leaning over the wall barking, "BONDS LIT YOU UP!!! BONDS LIT YOU UP!!! BONDS LIT YOU UPPPPP!"
Middlebrook was clearly stunned that he'd been identified for any reason whatsoever, and even more so that a fan in Toledo was actually aware of his past involvement in Bonds' chase (he surrendered #s 65, 66, and 68).
Gabe's words were perfectly chosen. Straight to the point, no wasted breath, and the multiple repeats of the phrase to make sure it hit home. Brilliantly executed two-man heckle (I get some credit for the initial player recognition) and the perfect beginning to an unforgettable night.
The second game wore on uneventfully. The Hens were trailing, and the crowd was dwindling. The Norfolk manager decided to get involved, sending up a pinch-hitter in the form of Mike Glavine. And yes, if you are wondering, that is the brother of one Tom Glavine.
His at-bat was pretty lame, taking a few weak hacks and ultimately rolling one over to second for an easy out. He trudged back towards the dugout, seemingly content with his night's work and happy to escape the diamond heckle-free. Not so fast, sir.
Gabe wasn't about to let a golden opportunity just go to waste. He cupped his hands, took a breath, and bellowed, "YOU'RE A DISGRACE TO YOUR BROTHER!!"
Glavine's face turned three shades of red. You could tell he'd heard this kind of thing a million times before, but you also got the sense that this one struck a particularly meaningful chord and that he most likely would not sleep for the next month as a result.
It was stellar work once again from Gabe. He identified the target, gathered the appropriate background information necessary for launch, and then let loose at the precise moment. A flawless sequence.
The night crept closer to its end, but Gabe still had a few bullets left in the chamber.
He hit Tsuyoshi Shinjo with a politically incorrect "Ichirooooooo" chant, drawing laughs from nearby fans and even a couple of repeats from the admirers that had indulged too heavily in the beer consumption portion of the evening. (Oddly enough, those fans were promptly ejected from their seats, while Gabe was never even given a second look. Guess they respect the pros.)
The Mud Hens were coming up now in the last inning with one final chance to come back and earn a sweep of the twin-bill. As is sometimes the tradition in minor league ball, the Hens sent out journeyman outfielder Hiram Bocachica to coach first base. And little did we know (but soon to find out), Bocachica was none too happy to be out there.
He'd been up and down from the majors to the minors throughout his career, and let's just say that coaching first base on the tail end of a dog-days doubleheader in Toledo was not a personal highlight.
Again, Gabe saw an opening, but just could not come up with the right dig. But as is the case with any legendary performer, sometimes you just have to grind it out and see what happens. Sure enough, with just one out to go in the game and the tying run in scoring position, Gabe fired.
"BOCACHICA, YOU SUCK!"
It wasn't smart, it wasn't clever, it wasn't even original. But it did the trick...and plenty more.
Bocachica spun around, glaring coldly right in our direction. The final pitch was literally being thrown (with the ball put in play), and he had his back to the field with his eyes focused squarely on us.
The only problem was, Bocachica wasn't staring at us...he was staring at me.
And his middle finger was now being raised to full extension.
The moment had just gone from "hilarious" to "potentially life-ending." The final out of the game was being played out on the field, and this simmering Puerto Rican fireball could not have cared less.
We briskly skipped up the steps toward the concourse. I glanced over my shoulder every few seconds to see if Bocachica had moved, and each time I saw the same sight.
Him standing there motionless, like a wax figure, his third finger still pointed to the sky, and his face meeting mine with a look that could literally melt lava. I'd be lying if I said I still don't get shivers up my spine whenever someone mentions the name "Bocachica" at a party.
The night was one of the best in my baseball-viewing life, but it came with a price...the Bocachica Price.
Got a favorite heckling story or memory?? Leave a note here, or shoot me the story via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, October 12, 2009
Today marks the 100th entry in the history of the High Socks Legend. What better way to celebrate the anniversary than to thank a few of those that have lent a hand along the way? Let's get this party started with big-time thanks...
To Baron Davis, who took center stage in the High Socks Universe for the better part of the winter with his nightly shooting adventures on the hardwood. The Clippers' "star" managed to play 62 straight NBA games without once shooting better than 50% from the floor (an unconfirmed NBA record). At first, it was just a funny little streak that most likely would come to an end soon after its first mention. But then just like that bass-drumming rabbit, it just kept going...and going...and going. It soon became a national phenomenon. Clippers message boards were blowing up. Team bloggers were openly plagiarizing yours truly for material. The LA Times placed this prestigious site on their daily "Top 5 NBA Reads" along with similarly successful operations like the New York Times and ESPN.com. Most people saw Baron's nauseating run of basketballing ineptitude as a negative. But for the High Socks Legend, it was pure gold. Let's just hope the addition of #1 pick Blake Griffin doesn't do anything to ruin Baron's misfiring ways. I only have so many good ideas per year...
To BK, a proud member of the High Socks cult since its infancy...the only problem being that the guy is also a charter member of the Detroit Lions, Hilary Duff, and Perfect Strangers (yeah, the TV show) fan clubs. Not sure if I'm exactly in elite company, there...
(Note: the Perfect Strangers fanaticism is mutual...that show really was good.)
To Brother Sam, the blog's resident right hand man from the first printing. He'll bang away with a late night or early morning edit, then send me a complimentary/not-so-complimentary text saying something like, "Loved the article. Perfect ending. Oh, and I found two typos...lush." He's made some mistakes himself, however. There was his never-fully-explained storming out of the room when an LPGA playoff was flicked off the TV. There was the infamous "Day without Daylight" when both of us played more Nintendo-64 than any human being really has the right to in a 24-hour period. And for the cherry on top, Sam recently declared, "I hate that f$%#king split-screen" when the 60-inch Sony was (I thought justifiably) equally divided by Lions-Steelers and Red Sox-Angels in the late stages of a potential clincher playoff game. Not exactly the kind of comment that's gonna earn you respect in these circles, especially when he revealed for which side he wanted to give the full-screen treatment. (Let's just say the words 'Dennis' and 'Northcutt' were involved.) Not a banner day for the VP of High Socks Nation.
To Marty Baseball, a loyal High Socks reader that has forgotten more about our national pastime than most will learn in their lifetimes. The guy won't answer your question unless it is presented in a trivia-like format, and you really gotta respect him for that.
To Cousin Mayer, a High Socks reader and supporter from day one. He has made two very significant contributions to society in the last number of years. First, he discovered a unique way to keep bottles of pop cold at all times in the winter by nestling them cozily in the snow just outside the screen door of the house. Very little fuss or muss, and ice-cold beverages at all times. The man knows what's important. Switching seasons, when Mayer happens to be enjoying a bite to eat outdoors in the summer, and bees decide to impinge on the festivities, he has mastered the following technique. Grabs an empty cup. Carefully and quietly raises said cup to desired height so as not to frighten or disturb the troublemaking bee. At the moment of truth, May slams the cup down over the unsuspecting flying terrorist, bringing some much needed peace back to the once enjoyable lunch. It's a harmless crime. He will normally let the bee just buzz around inside his new home until the end of the meal, at which point he lets him free to go irritate some other party. To see the whole routine in full is like watching a young Mr. Miyagi at work...minus the chopsticks and broken English, of course.
To Will Bynum, the spritely dynamo off the Pistons' bench that I had a brief obsession with during the second half of last season. His lack of playing time from then head coach Michael Curry drove me off the deep end on more than one occasion, and you can only hope that new boss John Kuester will get the clue and finally allow Bynum to unleash all of the untapped potential stored inside that not quite six-foot frame.
To my boy Aubrey, who used to be a frequent contributor to the "Comments" section following each article before he got blasted a few too many times by anonymous readers, causing him to take his frustrations out on his keyboard like Carlos Perez did to that Gatorade cooler in the late 90's. We probably played somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 hours of Ken Griffey Baseball on N-64 back in the day, and I'd venture to say there isn't a person alive that could challenge either one of us. Prettttty proud of ourselves...
To The Good Doctor, my Dad. Never one to just watch sports with a passive mind, he has come up with many a revolutionary idea while sittin' on the couch taking in a ballgame. For example, ever find yourself watching a football game and continually lamenting the amount of penalty flags being thrown, specifically the "it could theoretically be called on every play" holding infraction?? My Dad has been down that road, but he refused to just sit by and not come up with a solution. He suggests equipping all of the offensive linemen (minus the center) with, get this...boxing gloves. Sounds crazy, right?? Not so fast. My Dad points out that an offensive lineman is taught to block using leverage, weight, and hand placement. None of these things would be effected by the use of boxing gloves. However, what it would do is restrict these behemoths from simply grabbing a handful of jersey on every snap and robbing us of the next 2-3 minutes of our life while the zebras sort out all the laundry. Think about how much more pleasant and less choppy the action would be. A fascinating idea to be sure, and one that would make in-game brawls about fifty times more thrilling than they are now.
To Dennis Farina, the most underappreciated actor in the history of American cinema...and the only one whose mustache alone can make you weak in the knees. In February, a full column was rightly devoted to his career-long brilliance. The article made its way over to his representation, and that's where things started to heat up. I received an e-mail a few weeks later saying that his people absolutely loved the article. They forwarded it on to his wife, who also enjoyed the piece so much that she printed it out, tied a ribbon around it, and presented it to Farina himself at the breakfast table on the morning of his birthday. I'm not making any of this up. A few months later, after I'd lost complete hope of receiving any type of acknowledgment from the legend himself, a large package arrived in the mail. As he always does, Farina came through. There were the half dozen autographed DVD's of his classics, ranging from Reindeer Games to Little Big League and of course, the timeless Striking Distance. There was an autographed copy of his CD. Now I could fall asleep whenever I wanted to with his gravelly pipes dancing on my ears. A baseball cap from his production company (obviously a last minute throw-in, but still appreciated). And the grand finale, a handwritten letter from the one and only Dennis. He thanked me so much for the "wonderful article" and finished with a perfect send-off, "Maybe one day we'll meet on a movie set." I think Farina said it best during his memorable back-and-forth with Bruce Willis in the aforementioned Striking Distance..."There's an old Italian saying: don't burn your tongue on another man's soup." A solid credo to live by. And it's all thanks to Dennis Farina...a true American icon, and a High Socks Legend for life.
I sincerely appreciate all of the readers that have made it a point to keep up with the High Socks Legend since the beginning one year ago. I hope you have enjoyed all of the various material thus far (even if some of it is a little bit different...okay, real different), and will continue to do so in the future. Feel free to leave a thought below or reach me by E-mail at email@example.com
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The game meant everything. And by the time it ended, it had seen everything. Sparkling pitching, defensive wizardry, clutch home runs, blown opportunities, bizarre umpiring, curious managing, more blown opportunities, and ultimately, a game-winning seeing-eye single from a guy (Alexi Casilla) that had been inserted into the game as a pinch-runner. The Tigers jumped out early, established a comfortable lead, only to see it slip away slowly as the night wore on. Sound familiar?? So many times you found yourself thinking, "All right, now we're in business. Just a fly ball here and the game is ours." But the fly ball never came. The closest the Tigers came to driving in that elusive run came when Brandon Inge was clipped ever-so-slightly on his shirttail with the bases loaded in the 12th. Too slightly, it turned out, as legally blind home plate ump Randy Marsh missed the call, dooming the Tigers' chances in the process. By the time Carlos Gomez slid head-first (still not sure why that was necessary) into home plate with the division-winning run, all you could do as a Tigers fan was slump back in your chair and shake your head. For the next several hours.
In a game of this magnitude, with so much on the line, in such a hostile environment, perfection cannot be expected. Mistakes in execution will inevitably be made, but your hope is that the effort and focus will be constant throughout. This game had crucial moments where concentration lapsed, and the Tigers paid a dear price. Rick Porcello was cruising along with a cozy 3-0 lead in the bottom of the 3rd. The Twins had failed to really get anything going and were flailing wildly at many of his two-strike offerings. He was in total control. Finally, they got a little something going, putting men on the corners with two outs. Three-time batting champion Joe Mauer was digging into the box. Even at such an early stage, you sensed it was a big moment in the game. Retire Mauer, and the Twins might get a little panicky seeing that goose egg stapled to their side of the scoreboard. But with the stage set for a pitcher-batter showdown, Porcello got jittery and became obsessed with Denard Span at first base. Now let's examine this situation for a minute. The Twins were facing a three-run deficit. Their best hitter was at the plate. There were two outs in the inning. The best throwing catcher in baseball was sitting behind the dish, ready to fire on any foolish trespasser. Span had stolen just four bases in his last 45 games. The main point of this breakdown is that in this spot, there was no way the Twins were going to attempt a steal and risk wasting a critical opportunity for Mauer. I repeat...there was zero chance that the Twins were going to allow the inning to end on a failed stolen base attempt with the league MVP standing in the box. But Porcello threw over just to keep him honest. Nothing happening. Span's lead was so pedestrian that even the first throw over made you wonder what Porcello was worried about. After going 2-0 on Mauer, and still clearly preoccupied with Span, Porcello again pointlessly fired to first, and this time, the baseball gods were not as kind. His toss was low and wild, skipping past Miguel Cabrera and allowing Matt Tolbert to speed home with the Twinkies' crucial first run. You could almost feel the collective sigh of relief from the Metrodome crowd, knowing that they'd been given a gift and that it was now a brand new ballgame. To make matters worse, Mauer eventually drew a harmless walk, and Porcello overpowered Jason Kubel to end the frame. If only he'd just understood the situation at hand and pitched his way out of trouble, the game might have taken on a completely different feel. It wasn't a memorable sequence, and probably one that will get lost in the shuffle due to the wild dramatics later in the evening, but little momentary lapses such as this are often what end up costing you in games carrying so much weight. The Tigers eventually lost the game 6-5...you do the math.
The game continued with Porcello racking up punchouts, the Tigers' offense returning to its roots with a string of silent innings, and Ron Darling mispronouncing enough guys' names to make you seriously consider watching the rest of the game on 'Mute.' (I never knew our ace pitcher pronounced his name Ver-LAND!-er) But things still seemed alright. The Tigers led 3-1, there had been a middle innings appearance by my good friends 'Pizza' and 'Coke,' and my Mom was providing for plenty of good karma with a few well-placed references to the World Champion '68 squad.
With the game progressing into the 6th, Porcello finally ran into some trouble. He got the first two in order, one of which was an absolutely filthy strikeout of Mauer. But then young Rick went 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' on Kubel and he wound up blasting a homer to the upper tank in dead center that traveled no less than 800 feet. One batter later, Porcello was done for the night, a truly valiant effort in such a pressure-packed setting. Leyland called on Zach Miner, and while he escaped the inning unharmed, he didn't exactly exude confidence in doing so. When he came back out for the 7th, with the top of the order coming up, you sensed that trouble might be on the horizon. Sure enough, Nick Punto banged a single the opposite way to start things off. (Sidenote: why does Punto always seem to grind out a great at-bat when it is needed most? He's a .228 hitter, right?? Why doesn't he act like it...you know, like our guys do??) After a Denard Span K (Fun fact: he's never been seen in the same place at the same time with DeWayne Wise), it was time for Miner to officially set fire to the Metrodome mound. He greeted annual playoff participant Orlando Cabrera with a first pitch breaking ball that hung so much it made Rick Mahorn blush, and the Twins' shortstop got every bit of it. It crept over the wall in left, and in the blink of an eye, the lead the Tigers had nursed for two hours was ripped from their grasp.
4-3 Bad Guys. Six outs left.
In a season that has had more ups and downs than Kurt Russell's career (when's the last time he made a good flick...like 15 years ago?? 20??), it was only fitting that the Tigers climbed right back into it with a dome-silencing home run off the once left-for-dead bat of Magglio Ordonez. But the rest of the inning would be a grim foreshadowing of things to come. Carlos Guillen drew a one-out walk. Raburn followed with a gutsy effort against Matt Guerrier, winning the battle with another base on balls. Two straight walks, and Ron Gardenhire decided it was time to go to his horse, Joe Nathan. With a new pitcher coming in, even one of Nathan's stature, with the previous two batters reaching via the walk, you would think Brandon Inge would go up there looking to take a pitch. You'd be right. Inge took back-to-back wild offerings from Nathan and you got the sense this might come to be the inning that defines the Tigers' season. With the count sitting at 2-0, Inge had to, I mean had to make Nathan throw a strike. You take a pitch. If he hums one in there, you're a hitter again at 2-1. If he misses, you're in the driver's seat and most likely will earn a walk to load the bases. And as a career .236 hitter, there is really no reason why Inge would want to get frisky in this spot. But baseball is a funny game sometimes, and things don't always play out as conventional wisdom might suggest they would. Nathan rocked and fired on 2-0, again aiming well wide of the target, but this time Inge was hacking away like a pathetic weekend duffer going for broke on a 650-yard Par 5. He knows he probably can't reach the green in two, especially with that 300-yard carry over the lake, but why do the smart thing when it's so much more fun to be stupid?? Inge lifted an innocent pop fly to second for out number two, letting Nathan and the Twins off the hook with one senseless flick of the wrist. Like Porcello's errant pickoff attempt, this was a less "flashy" moment in a highlight-filled game, but it very well might have played a large role in deciding the outcome. In a tie game in the late innings, with the two batters before you both drawing walks, and you see the count run to 2-0, the prudent thing to do is take a pitch. When you are a scuffling hitter carrying a .186 post All-Star break average, you have no choice but to take a pitch. Tigers fans will be pondering the thought behind that swing for a long time.
A thought on Randy Marsh, the home plate umpire for last night's affair. Simply put, he was brutal. The strike zone was a constant mystery throughout the night, for both sides. Identical pitches would be thrown in the same at-bat with differing calls. At times, his zone was excessively tight, and then he would randomly expand things with two strikes, most notably on Polanco's potentially game-changing at-bat in the 9th when Marsh punched him out on a call that was to put it kindly, "horrendous." He took what seemed like a dozen hard foul balls to his mask, which also was not good for business. I'll give him credit for making a gutsy call on a bang-bang play at the plate, but after seeing several replays, I think Casilla got his hand on the dish just before Laird applied the tag. His final gaffe, albeit a very tough one to catch with the naked eye, was the HBP on Inge in the 12th. Bobby Keppel's delivery looked like it skimmed the jersey of Inge on replay, with his shirt noticeably rippling as the ball made contact. The bases were loaded and the correct call there would have given the Tigers the lead, but Marsh said no and the Tigers ultimately went begging. You have to think there would have been a better option than Marsh for a game of this magnitude, like Enrico Palazzo or even the slightly rough around the edges Louis Braille. Not a banner night for the men in blue.
The top of the ninth inning started out smelling like a rose and ended up stinkin' like a roadkill sandwich. Ramon Santiago opened with a gorgeous drag bunt and brilliant diving slide for the bag, just barely eluding the tag of Michael Cuddyer. Leyland then curiously sent Adam Everett in to run, causing my Dad to wonder, "Has a guy ever bunted for a single, then been taken out for a pinch-runner??" I can't remember such an instance myself, since baseball logic would lead you to believe that if you're quick enough to beat out a bunt, you're quick enough to do your own running. It didn't end up making a difference, but I just found it to be an odd move, seeing as how Santiago is the younger and faster of the two players. Curtis Granderson followed Santiago's bunt by muscling a single down the line in right, putting men on the corners with nobody out. Joe Nathan was in a big mess again, and contact specialist Placido Polanco was due up. Unfortunately for the Bengals, Randy Marsh took matters into his own hands and rung up Polanco in what might have been the biggest at-bat of the game. Ordonez was next and hit the ball right on the screws, but also right at Orlando Cabrera. Two outs now, go-ahead run still 90 feet away. But wait. Apparently Tigers' first base coach Andy Van Slyke forgot to inform Granderson of the popular baseball axiom, "On a line drive, make sure it's through." The ball was struck, Grandy took 3-4 tragic strides towards second, and by the time he dove back to the bag a split second too late, Nathan had his rabbit's-foot double play and the Metrodome crowd was in a tizzy. As the trail runner in a tie ballgame, you basically want to just avoid doing something foolish. The guy ahead of you is who counts, so just keep a low profile and let things develop in front of you. Unfortunately, Granderson made this mistake at the most critical of junctures, ending the inning and costing the Tigers a golden opportunity for their best hitter to come up next with two on and two out. Not the worst play of the night...but one that cannot be made when you are trying to win a division title. (Sensing a theme here??)
The game pushed on to extra innings and that is when any hint of normalcy just went right out the window. Aubrey Huff came on to pinch-hit and was nicked on the bottom of his pant leg, at which point he practically went bananas and booked it down the first base line. It's OK to be happy with getting a free base like that, but Aubrey just seemed a little too happy. You got the sense he would have taken a fastball right to his 'Money Pot' if it meant he didn't have to see another pitch from Nathan. The Twins' stud closer was working on fumes at this point, and it showed one batter later. He grooved a 1-1 fastball to Inge and it got laced down the left field line. With Vanilla Don Kelly trucking around to score just ahead of the throw, the Tigers had reclaimed the lead and were now three outs away from the playoffs. Riiiiiiight.
Just like the 2006 World Series came to be uniquely defined by the fielding miscues from the Tigers' hurlers, this season's epic collapse will be forever known for this exact play; batter lofts a soft looper towards a corner outfielder...outfielder gets late start on ball...catch can still easily be made by remaining upright and simply making the grab...outfielder makes ill-advised slide/dive, missing the ball completely. All hell breaks loose. This is precisely how the biggest half-inning of the Tigers' season started Tuesday night. Cuddyer lifted a harmless fly into short left, and Ryan Raburn came charging in with the confidence of a blind surgeon. From the word 'Go,' he was unsure of whether or not he would be able to catch it, and at the Metrodome, if you can't make the grab, you do not want to get too close or the ball will bounce way over your head for an extra base. The truth is that on this one there was no debate. If Raburn simply came hard, he would have made the play with ease. But he was hesitant, and it cost him dearly. By the time he made his previously described dive, the ball was basically by him, skipping all the way to the wall. Cuddyer motored all the way around to third for the cheapest triple in the history of baseball. In a game full of what ifs and coulda beens, I place this sequence at the top of the list. Raburn makes that grab to get the leadoff out, I think Rodney sets them down in order and it's Tigers-Yankees in Game 1 tonight. To make things just a little zanier, Raburn ended the frame with a spectacular throw moving to his left to nail Casilla by the smallest of margins. (Note: one of the sicker displays of baserunning by Casilla not being on the bag when the catch was made. Exactly what was the advantage of being a step and half off the bag while the ball was in the air??) It was now starting to feel like the Pistons-Nets Game 5 classic from 2004. No matter who took a lead or by how many, the game seemed like it was just never going to end.
Just for good measure, the Tigers loaded the bases again in the 12th with one out. Could Inge knock in the go-ahead run twice in the same night?? The odds were not good. With the not-so-speedy Miguel Cabrera standing on third, you sensed it almost needed to be a base hit to score him. But Inge did this the next best thing at the Dome. He spanked a high chopper towards the middle infield, generally a ball that with the runner moving on contact, it is near impossible to get the force at the plate. When Punto fielded it, I thought he might go for two. He instead took a chance and fired to the plate, hoping to keep the Tigers off the board. You sensed a bang-bang play was about to occur, but it never did. Cabrera was out by a comfortable margin, and the TBS replay showed us why. For reasons I will never understand, when Inge smashed that ball into the ground, Cabrera essentially stood and watched. He was moving gingerly down the line, with an eye on Punto, instead of just putting his head down and burning rubber towards home as best he could. When he saw Punto was intent on cutting him down at the plate, he turned it to another gear for the last 40 feet. Inexcusable. I think it is one of two things, based on the way he reacted. First, and I think the less likely scenario, is that he thought Punto might try and turn two up the middle. If this were the case, Cabrera knew he would not have to run so hard to the plate and would score easily if the double play weren't turned. But based on the entire play and Cabrera's reactions throughout, I'm thinking this: he did not realize the bases were loaded. He played it as if he had a choice of whether or not to go, and decided to make a run for it when he saw how high the ball was hit. The first several steps he took down the third base line were those of a guy unsure of what he should be doing and where he should be going. The ball ended up beating him by a step or two, and I fully believe that if he were simply gunning it from the outset, as he should have been, he would have snuck in for the potentially winning run. When a ball like that is hit on a turf field, with a guy running on contact, there is almost zero chance to cut the guy down at home, regardless of who is running. It was an inexplicable lack of effort and concentration from a franchise player in a game-changing moment.
When Carlos Gomez led off the bottom of the 12th with a single, every Tigers fan got a little pit in their stomach that told them, "This is it." Five minutes later, it was done. Fernando Rodney had wiggled out of tough spots like this all year, but nearing his 50th pitch, the final blow was a mere formality. Four and a half hours of gut-wrenching baseball, and all we had to show for it was this lousy T-shirt. It just wasn't meant to be. The Tigers had dozens, hundreds, of chances throughout the season and tonight to secure a playoff spot, and they could not do it. It is a cliché , but this game really was symbolic of the season. Moments of greatness, spells of inconsistency, mental mistakes at the most inopportune times, and ultimately, a one-run loss. It was a game where Wilkin Ramirez seemed to pinch-run eleven different times. It was a game where my Dad actually uttered the words, "Why is Bobby Seay not available?" It was a game where the typically impossible-to-strikeout Placido Polanco went down looking on two different occasions, just the second time the whole year that has happened. (Take a wild guess where it happened the first time) The Tigers took a lead, the Twins crept ahead, the Tigers tied it up, went ahead again later, and when all was said and done, they had relinquished the lead one final time and were sent home for the longest Detroit winter in a long time. It was a classic contest between two desperate teams, but one that will most likely be known for for its various miscues and failed chances than for anything else. For the Tigers, it was a final punch to the stomach, capping off one of the most stunning stretch run collapses in the history of the game. It is a night we will always remember...no matter how hard we try to forget.
The High Socks Legend can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, October 5, 2009
Ok, it's getting a little ridiculous now with Michael Cuddyer. The guy has been hot as a pistol for the last month and it's to the point now where he could probably walk up to the plate holding a spatula and still jack one out of the yard. The Twins finished the season on a torrid 16-4 tear, and Cuddyer led the charge with his blazing .333 average, 8 homers, and 24 RBIs. The only real moment of adversity for the Twins this weekend came when the Royals rallied to tie Saturday's game in the 8th, putting the pressure back on the Twinkie offense to reclaim the lead. Cuddyer took matters into his own hands in the bottom of the inning, while when facing something called a "Dusty Hughes," he looked changeup on 2-0 and proceeded to hit the longest home run in major league history. The Twins have experienced a true roller-coaster ride this season, and there is none better to symbolize that than Michael Cuddyer.
The last half dozen years of the guy's career have been something straight out of Caligula. You never know what to expect. In 2004-05, he was a marginal utilityman with a little pop in his bat. Then he finally busted out in 2006 with 24 taters and 109 rib-eyes (the same number he had total in his first five years in the bigs). He was officially a star on the rise in the Twin Cities. But then '07 came around and Cuddyer clumsily returned to Earth. His power numbers went down, and nobody could quite figure out why. Then last year, albeit one marked by injuries, Cuddyer stepped to the dish 279 times and hit all of three home runs. A guy has a year like that, and more often than not they are bagging groceries within the next 8-10 months. It was a startling drop in production for a guy that looked to be a Twins cornerstone just two years prior. Which makes his most recent stretch of dominance so hard to figure.
He scuffled for large parts of the summer, and then when big bopper Justin Morneau went down for the count, Cuddyer simply turned into some other type of rawhide-bashing life form. Wonderboy catcher Joe Mauer is the likely choice for American League MVP, and the rest of the Twins lineup contains a number of little land mines that must be sidestepped with care, but heading into Tuesday night's all-or-nothing showdown in the Homerdome, it is the once-forgotten Michael Cuddyer that will be feared most. And rightfully so.
The Chicago Cubs had one of their more forgettable seasons in 2009. They followed up consecutive playoff appearances with a sloppy 83-78 finish, good enough for second place, but still well out of the money in the ultra-depressing National League Central. The Cubbies typically strong pitching staff suffered throughout the campaign. Ryan Dempster returned to his normal perch atop Mount Mediocrity, Carlos Zambrano had a year that had him pondering retirement, and Kevin Gregg blew so many saves that the front office gave serious consideration to bringing back the late Rod Beck for the stretch run. He couldn't do much worse, could he? The everyday lineup was no great shakes, either. Fonzie Soriano found his comfort zone in the .240's while becoming a highly respected butcher in left field, Milton Bradley singlehandedly transformed one of the best clubhouses in the league into one of the worst, and amazingly enough, Derrek Lee (111 RBIs) wound up being the only guy on the team to drive in more than 65 runs. Putting that in perspective, the Tigers, another offensively challenged club, employed four such players. So heading into the season finale Sunday afternoon with the Diamondbacks, there really wasn't much to look forward to. Just two run-of-the-mill squads playing out the string on a blustery day in north Chicago. Cubs rookie outfielder Sam Fuld got the start in center. And while Fuld has dazzled with his glovework, his run production has left a little to be desired. And when I mean "a little," I really mean a lot. What I'm trying to say is that Fuld had strode to the dish a cool 121 times in his big league career before Sunday's affair, and driven in a grand total of zero runs. Not a one. Not a broken bat blooper with a couple runners on...not a lazy sacrifice fly to bring home a guy from third. Not one run batted in. And it's not like the guy can't hit. He has a sharp eye, sprays the ball all over the field, and kept his batting average close to .300 throughout the year (finished at .299). But he just couldn't manage one stinkin' ribbie.
Then came Sunday. You knew Fuld did not want the ignominy of this "feat" haunting him all winter. You thought maybe he would be inspired by the Jewish holiday of Sukkot getting kickstarted over the weekend. Whatever the case, Fuld wanted to put the demons to sleep for good, and finally did so in the home half of the fifth when he took a Doug Davis offering and blasted it high and deep to right where only the bleacher bums had a realistic chance of making a play. L'Chaim!! It took the 5'10" spark plug from Stanford the whole year to do it, but Fuld was finally able to wipe off that nasty goose egg from his rookie stat line. And just to prove that the first time was no fluke, Fuld drove in his second career run next time up with an otherwise uneventful groundout to first.
His confidence was now growing, and his RBI total was practically exploding. But in this wildly disappointing Cubs season, it is no wonder that the final out of the game was made by former Rookie of the Year turned bust Geovany Soto with one of his trademark flailing Ks, leaving the hottest hitter on the planet, Sam Fuld, stranded in the on-deck circle. An oddly poetic conclusion to a truly joyless season.
Before Mark Reynolds came along, 200 strikeouts for a hitter in a single season was simply unheard of. Heck, you only bat five or six hundred times a year. How can you pretend to make a living when you're striking out more than a third of the time?? Guys used to approach Bobby Bonds' old record of 189 Ks late in the year, and suddenly vanish into thin air. Out of the lineup, five days in a row. Nobody wanted to be associated with such a shameful record. Jose Hernandez, formerly of the Cubs and just about every other team in Major League Baseball, used to perform this ritual annually. He'd get to 185 or 186 and just shut it down. Doesn't exactly conjure up memories of Ted Williams' refusal to sit out the season's final doubleheader, even though doing so would have assured him a historic .400 batting average. He played the games, got his hits, and earned that mark. Which is why you kinda have to respect Mark Reynolds. The third baseman for the Diamondbacks came along last year and tallied a whopping 204 strikeouts. He didn't ride the bench to avoid his rightful place in the record book. He took it like a man and made an oath to not let history repeat itself in 2009. Well, at least it sounded like a good plan at the time. He finished his season yesterday afternoon with a "Reynolds Classic" three-strikeout day at Wrigley, giving him a grand total of 223 Ks on the year. No sir, that was not a typo or a misprint. The man became the first major leaguer to eclipse the 200-K mark last year with 204, and proceeded to absolutely crush that number in 2009. What's his goal for next year...250? 300? To be fair, the free-swingin' Reynolds also bashed 44 round trippers and drove in 102, but at what point does his almost silly 'feast or famine' approach become detrimental to the cause?
Reynolds should do himself a big favor this off-season and take some time to learn about Joe Sewell, the underrated Hall-of-Fame shortstop for the Indians in the 1920's and 30's. Sewell was just 5'6" and weighed all of 150 pounds. He might have looked like the kind of guy you could simply overpower with a blistering fastball up in the zone. Guess again. Sewell was quite possibly the toughest man to strike out in baseball history. He walked to the plate 8,329 times during his career, and on only 114 of those occasions did he wind up trudging back to the dugout shaking his head. That is once out of every 73 times. Placido Polanco is perennially at the top of the "hardest to strike out" list. But his numbers are usually in the 14-15 range...not seventy-three. Sewell's most ridiculous season came in 1925 when he amassed a mind-boggling 699 plate appearances, and struck out FOUR times. Four. He went to bat nearly 700 times, and let the pitcher reach the three-strike limit on exactly four of those instances. And to prove he wasn't making contact just for the sake of making contact (see: Juan Pierre), Sewell hit .336 and finished third in the AL MVP vote. (I'm still bitter that Roger Peckinpaugh took that award over my boy, and I still think the numbers speak for themselves, but we'll let it go...for now.)
Sewell was the picture of consistency throughout his 14-year career, and he remains arguably the most overlooked Hall-of-Famer in this game's deep history. It took him 1,903 games to collect his microscopic career total of 114 whiffs. Reynolds had 123 by this year's All-Star break. Reynolds is undoubtedly one of the most potent young sluggers in the National League. But until he embraces the legend of Joe Sewell and learns to command the strike zone even the slightest bit, he will continue to be a punchline in a profession where production, not comedy, is the top priority.
We close the book on another baseball season, but plenty more awaits in the playoffs (hopefully...for Tigers fans). And wherever you are, don't forget to have a little piece of cake on Friday...it's Joe Sewell's birthday. Reach the High Socks Legend at email@example.com