Curious George and the World Series champs

George

Back in the spring of this year, I had a mission. There was an event being held in Downtown Chicago called March to College, which was designed to get Chicago schoolchildren thinking about the higher education options available to them.

I had agreed to help man a booth at the event, and was looking for a physical manifestation of HMH, my Boston-based employer,  to have with me at the table that day. Thus, I ventured into a dark corner of my basement, went through all of the long-forgotten stuffed toys, and found the Curious George that I was looking for. George came to the event with me, and it was a big success.

After the event was over, George found a home on my desk at work. He mostly sits on a shelf with his friends, the Cat in the Hat and an ALF hand puppet. But last week, George also followed me to an event for the corporate Volunteer Week. And it was a good thing that he did.

I had donated a large box of baseball cards, for the purposes of filtering out the most recent ones to give to a charity called Cards2Kids. In setting up for the event, I rounded up a number of baseball books and other artifacts, which I have collected over my years as a baseball fan. I wanted to have a baseball atmosphere in the room, since October baseball is an all-too-rare occurrence in Chicago.

I loaded up a box with baseball books, and placed a Red Sox pennant on top. The pennant had a green shamrock on it, with a Red Sox logo inside. I had picked it up at Fenway Park a few years ago. But the box was still missing something, so I put Curious George on top. And something just looked right, so I grabbed my smartphone and snapped a picture of it. But there wasn’t any time for sorting through all of the pictures that I took on the day of the event. “I’ll get to it when I can,” I told myself.

I finally got around to it a couple of days later, as I had the radio on and was listening to Game two of the ALCS on the radio while doing some things around the house. Boston had already lost the first game of their playoff series with Detroit, and they also found themselves in a 5-0 hole in Game two. It didn’t look good for the Red Sox at that point.

I was sorting through the pictures on my phone when I came upon Curious George and the Red Sox pennant. Even though it looked bleak for the Sox at that point, I shared the picture on my Twitter account, in the hope that somebody might find it interesting.

Over the next half hour or so, the Red Sox staged a dramatic comeback by tying the game on a grand slam by David “Big Papi” Ortiz in the eighth inning, and then winning on a hit by Jarrold Saltalamacchia in the bottom of the ninth. I was happy with that turn of events, and I’m sure that all of Boston was, too.

What I didn’t realize until the next morning was that because I was indoors when sending out the Curious George tweet–and I have service issues anytime I’m indoors–the tweet was sitting in my Drafts folder as the comeback was taking place. When I discovered this, the morning after the game had ended, I sent it out again, this time successfully. I thought it was a fun image to share, just as I had when it appeared that the Red Sox were on the ropes.

I received a tweet back a few hours later, commenting on the good luck charm and how it had seemed to work for the Red Sox. I will freely admit that a Red Sox victory in Game two was the furthest thing from my mind, when I sent out the picture for the first time.

Now that the Red Sox have come all the way back to take the World Series title, it really is remarkable how completely things turned around. Perhaps Curious George and the shamrock are a good pairing, after all.

D=500 posts

The Romans used just seven letters to represent all numbers. We only see them used in a few places today, such as for Super Bowls and dates of building dedications and Rocky sequels. Come to think of it, we don’t even see them used there, anymore. But Roman numerals are out there, for those who care to find them.

When I wrote the 100th post in this space, back in September of last year, I used the fact that the C on my Cubs helmet also represented the Roman numeral for 100. I didn’t know at the time whether or not I’d make it to the next letter up the chain, which is the D. But I kept plugging away, writing something new whenever I could find the time to do it, and now here I am.

I’m not a Tigers fan, by any means, but their cool script D seems to be a fitting way to celebrate my 500th post in this space. And the Tigers are the only team that the Cubs have ever beat in the World Series, so that’s something, I suppose.

I think there’s something very spooky about Milt Wilcox in this picture. And the way he’s holding the ball doesn’t seem like the way a pitcher would hold it. And so a creepy stare, an awkward pose, and an inexplicable green leaf in the top left corner are as good as anything else I can think of for this numerical milestone.

There’s now just one more numeral to go, and that’s the letter M for 1,000 posts. I’d have to essentially write another post for every one that I’ve already written, and that seems like a pretty tall order. But unlike last fall, I’m now committed to keeping this going, and so, to say it like Bon Jovi once did, I’m halfway there. So let’s do this.

Onward to the next 500 posts!

A Redbird who made good

I got very lucky as a kid growing up in Springfield, Illinois. There were a few reasons for this, but one that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that a smallish city of 100,000 souls somehow had a triple-A baseball team. It was a quirk of fate, really, but I didn’t know anything about that back then. I appreciate it now, though.

The team was called the New Orleans Pelicans in 1977, and was owned by a man named A. Ray Smith. Smith had his team playing in the New Orleans Superdome, which I have to imagine had an infinite seating capacity for a minor-league team. But he wanted more, and for some reason he thought he could find it in a town nestled in between Chicago and St. Louis. And so, just before I turned ten years old, the Pelicans migrated north and became the Springfield Redbirds.

The first season that the Redbirds were in town, one of the team’s pitchers was named Aurelio Lopez. I didn’t know his back story then, but he was the MVP of the Mexican baseball league the previous year, while the Pelicans were playing in New Orleans. His services were then purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to Springfield for a couple of months and then called him up to the majors.

Anything having to do with Mexico seemed strange and exotic back in the 1970s, and Lopez fit that bill. But before too long, he was gone, among the first of a raft of big leaguers I was able to see back then. For them, Springfield was just a stepping stone for bigger and better things.  It’s been that for me, as well.

After the 1978 season ended, Lopez was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He stayed with the Tigers for many seasons in the 1980s, where he was dubbed “Senor Smoke” by Tigers fans. He missed out on the Cardinals’ World Series teams of the 1980s, but he won a championship with Detroit in 1984. And to this day, I’m sure some people still remember “Senor Smoke” with great affection. It’s a great nickname, after all.

After Lopez retired from the game in 1987, following a couple of seasons with the Houston Astros, he returned to his hometown of Tecamachalco, Mexico. He was elected the mayor of the town, which is located in east-central Mexico. He was likely the most well-known figure in the town, and life had to be pretty good for him, at least  until it literally came crashing to a halt. On the day after his 44th birthday, he was killed when the car he was driving overturned. As I have said many time in this space, life is indeed short.

Yesterday was the day after my own 44th birthday. I thought about Aurelio Lopez, and how he must have seen and done things in his life that I can only imagine. Perhaps the only way that my life exceeds his is in longevity. But in the end, that’s really the most important metric, isn’t it?

Cross-post to another ThroughTheFenceBaseball post

I wrote a new piece for ThroughTheFenceBaseball this week. It’s the kind of story that I would have written for this blog only a few months ago, but a baseball site’s readers might enjoy it, too. I like the story, but it needs to be told at the hundred-year anniversary, or else not at all.

And the site is also running a fantasy baseball league (for free, or else I wouldn’t mention it). The link is here.

Hope you like the story!

Who says baseball is in trouble?

Youth Baseball S/S Willow

The World Series that just concluded last night has demonstrated that baseball is alive and well. And if anybody wants to point to television ratings as an indication of anything, I’ll simply say this: Baseball was around before anyone knew what television was, and it will still be around after nobody can remember what television was anymore. Television may be the Titanic, but baseball is the iceberg. And remember how that encounter played out.

What that line of thinking–that low ratings is bad for baseball–seems to presuppose that the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, or one of the other large market teams is needed to give an air of legitimacy to the postseason. And the Cardinals, Rangers, Tigers, Brewers, and every other playoff team this year just proved that you can have a compelling month of baseball without those teams. What happens on the field is what really counts.

The shirt I’m wearing right now is a green one that I bought in Central Park last summer, as shown in the picture above. It was a fundraising-type thing for the Central Park Conservancy, and I was happy to add a few shekels to the cause of keeping Central Park what it is. A city like New York deserves nothing less than an awesome park in the middle of it. Anyway, you can see that the shirt has some crossed baseball bats on it and reads “Central Park Baseball, since 1858.”

I don’t know whether games in Central Park go back that far or not, but it’s possible they could. I’m sure that I wouldn’t recognize too much about a baseball game from 153 years ago. But then again, most of society wouldn’t be too familiar to me, either. In 1858, nobody knew what a telephone was, nobody had ever held a dollar bill before, and almost nobody had ever been photographed. Slavery was still legal in many states, and the Civil War was still three years away. But, if the shirt is to be believed, there was baseball being played back then.

My point is that the game has evolved over the years and decades, but it has also endured. Basketball and football may claim that they are America’s sport of choice, but the NBA is about to do much worse damage to itself this year than baseball did in 1994. Neither basketball nor football is woven into the fabric of this nation as much as baseball clearly is. The postseason and the World Series give us all a chance to remember how great the game is, and how much we, as Americans, rely on it as a way of marking the time.

I’m going to continue writing about baseball-related topics over the offseason, in part because it helps to keep the game alive in my heart and my head. Additionally, I have just been accepted into the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, and I want create even more content than I already have (and it’s quite a lot, believe me) for any of those folks who come on by this way. Some of my posts will be about other topics, because there’s much more to life than baseball, and I’ll never lose sight of that.

This blog will continue to be what it is–Rob’s digital soapbox for putting thoughts and ideas into the wider world. It’s heavy on the baseball, for sure, but has some pretty diverse and eclectic things thrown in, too. Interesting enough–I hope–to come back to on occasion, at least.

The offseason begins today, so let’s make it a good one!

Sometimes you gotta work the count

Hindsight is always 20/20. Without the benefit of hindsight, I’m not able to write this. But with that in mind, the turning point of today’s ALCS game in Detroit happened because a Rangers’ batter failed to employ just a little bit of baseball strategy. And as a result, his team missed a chance to get back to the World Series. They’ll have other chances this weekend, but this one they let get away from them.

It was the bottom of the fifth inning, and the Tigers were on the ropes. Already down 3 games to 1, they were just one big play away from elimination. Those kinds of things seem to happen with Nelson Cruz at the plate in this series. But the batter at the pivotal moment wasn’t Cruz, but Ian Kinsler.

Kinsler came up after the Tigers’ Jason Verlander had just walked the bases loaded. Two of the Tigers’ relievers were unavailable to come in, and Verlander had already gone over 100 pitches for the game. In other words, he was in some serious trouble. All Texas had to do was deliver the knockout punch.

Kinsler came to the plate, and impulsively decided to swing at the first pitch he saw. The result was a ground ball to third base, which Brandon Inge turned into an easy double play. Inning over, advantage Tigers. And they would then take full advantage of this momentum swing by scoring four runs in the bottom of the inning.

Would there be any harm in taking that first pitch, if you’re Ian Kinsler? If so, I can’t imagine what it might be. If Verlander threw a ball and fell behind in the count, the pressure on him would have increased considerably. The “take” sign should have been on in this situation, at least until Verlander threw a strike. This would have forced him to battle with Kinsler a little bit more than he did. As it was, a better result could not have happened for the Tigers, nor a worse result for the Rangers.

Detroit still has to win in the Rangers’ park to keep their season going. They are decidedly the underdogs in this series, and will remain so even if a seventh game should be necessary. But they have lived to fight another day, and those who had tickets for Game six in Texas–along with everyone else who just wants this series to continue–is thankful for that.

Process of elimination

On the last night of the regular season, which seems like much longer than eight days ago, we were treated to a sensational night of memorable moments. Perhaps I’m being greedy, but the next thirty-six hours could give us even more moments like this, because three teams will see their seasons end, one way or another. It should be fascinating to watch.

It starts tonight, when the Yankees try to finish off the Tigers  and earn a spot in the ALCS against the Rangers. Whether they win or lose tonight, they have Curtis Ganderson to thank for being able to play the game in the first place. The catches he made in Detroit should inspire kids everywhere to want to save the game with their glove, rather than win it with their bat. The walk-off homer is nice (ask Evan Longoria about that), but making a play that saves runs can have just as much impact on the game’s outcome. Perhaps such a play will be made tonight.

Tomorrow night will feature a tasty 1-2 punch of DBacks at Brewers, followed by the Cardinals in Philadelphia. Both games probably won’t end within minutes of each other, as happened in the AL games last week, but the teams in the second game will probably find out which team they’ll have to face before they take the field tomorrow night.

My interest in these games is high, since last week’s game set the table–so to speak–for the postseason. Will Pujols have a chance to play in St. Louis again? Will tomorrow be Prince Fielder’s last game in Milwaukee? Will the games be blowouts, or will Mariano Rivera and the other closers be needed to finish out the games? I suppose we’ll know soon enough. But I already know that you can’t beat October baseball.

Great catch! (x2)

The final score of the game last night was 10-1, Yankees over the Tigers. If you want to get technical about it, the Yankees’ nine-run margin of victory could have withstood either of the catches being missed by centerfielder Curtis Granderson instead. But for momentum swings, you’ll never see two finer rally-killing plays than were made at Comerica Park last night.

In the first inning, the Yankees didn’t score and the Tigers loaded the bases with two outs. A long fly to center field–which, trust me when I tell you this, has an enormous expanse of grass to cover in the outfield, particularly in centerfield–could have brought home three runs if Granderson had not hauled it in with a leaping catch. And I mean a leaping, up in the air, glove to the sky, catch it or you’ll fall to the ground in an awkward heap catch. The Tigers would have loved an early three-run lead to work with, in an elimination game in front of the home crowd. But it was not to be.

Again, in the  bottom of the sixth inning, Granderson drove a stake through the heart of the team that once paid him, in the park that he once called home. This time, he went to his right and dove. Laid out, as the term goes. He made the catch, saved two more runs, and preserved the Yankees’ lead, so that when they plated six runs in the eighth inning, it was all over.

I hate the Yankees. Always have, and always will. Anytime a team wins repeatedly, their own fans love it, but every other team’s fans hate them for their success. But, in a game that is typically over-stocked with offensive highlights, Granderson reminded us all of why defense is so very important. I have to tip my hat to that.

The Tigers don’t miss 2002

It was great to see Comerica Park in Detroit crowded and rocking for tonight’s playoff game. Whenever you have a chance to put the Yankees away on your home field, you’d better have the home crowd out in force. It doesn’t look too good for them in the eighth inning now, but this season has taught me–in case I had forgotten it–that nothing is over until the last out is made.

I’ve only been to Comerica Park one time, but it was a pretty eventful visit. Every trip to a ballpark should be eventful, really. I was in Ann Arbor on business in the Spring of 2002. One of the people I was working on a committee with was a guy in his forties, who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (or da Yoo Pee, as everyone calls it) and had never been to a big league stadium before. So I jumped at the chance to go to a Tigers game with him, because baseball’s the only thing I would ever evangelize about.

It was April, and the Tigers were off to a really bad start. In fact, they were 0-11 on the season, and on their way to 106 losses. They were already on their second manager, less than two weeks into the season. And so, for a Tuesday night game, tickets were definitely available. We drove into Detroit after the work day was done, and walked into a stadium that was still relatively new. Tiger Stadium had stood for eighty years before that, so the new park will continue to be “new” for some time to come.

When the crowd is announced at 13,000 in a stadium designed for 40,000+, it’s not hard to find seats wherever you want to sit. We started off in the bleachers, and then moved to the upper deck, then a very nice section down the third base line, and we wound up in a section of back deck-sort of chairs behind home plate. They probably fetched top dollar for tonight’s game, but once upon a time they were open to whoever wanted to sit there.

The Tigers did well that night, to the surprise of everyone, and the game went to the ninth inning with the Tigers holding a comfortable lead. I thought that there might be a little extra celebration ahead, since the home team was about to get win their first game of the season. But I thought wrong.  Apparently a desire to beat the traffic runs deep within the D, and a large number of fans started streaming towards the exits.

Although I didn’t care who won the game, I was sticking around until the last out. So we went down to the closest seats we could get to the field, 2 or 3 rows behind home plate, and yelled like the Tigers had just made it into the playoffs. It’s always better when the home crowd goes home happy, even if there’s just a few thousand fans left when the game’s over.

If the Yankees win tonight (and it’s 10-1 now, so it looks like that will happen), they will get the final game of the series back in New York. It’s very likely that baseball won’t come back to Detroit again this season. But the franchise is much better off now than they were nine years ago, and the ballpark itself is very nice, too. Things are looking good for the Tigers in the years ahead.