If you hang around baseball long enough, chances are you will see a lot of cool stuff. The Phillies' victory over the Mets on Tuesday night wasn't unique in a grand way, but it is one that will stand out in my memory banks for the oddities and the wacky foresight from Charlie Manuel.
Just how did he know that the right move was sending Carlos Ruiz to play third base so that Eric Bruntlett could drive in the tying run as a pinch hitter with two outs in the ninth? It's either incredible foresight or just dumb luck - or both.
Nevertheless, I've seen one no-hitter, two cycles, a play that went down in the book as a caught stealing by the catcher unassisted, and a game lost by the Phillies when pitcher Jose Santiago completely missed the return throw back to the mound from catcher Todd Pratt.
Those are just a few on-the-field peculiarities I've seen. I'm saving the off-the-field stuff for the book... you know, like the time I heard a former big-league manager use four curse words in a single, declarative sentence while sitting in the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards... I marked that one down. Yes, it was quite a display.
You don't get that type of linguistic prowess in the minors, kids.
But if you stick around the game long enough, the best part about it is all the different people you meet and how the paths crisscross over time. Time and baseball just keep steamrolling ahead without much of a thought about what gets lost in its wake. That's probably why we like telling and re-telling stories about past experiences so much. It's also probably why we're never in a hurry to see the season end... You know, in a metaphorical sense.
Anyway, my path crossed that of Andy Tracy's this past week. The truth is Tracy doesn't know me from a hole in the wall, and I wasn't sure of his significance until the Phillies called up Tracy from Triple-A Lehigh Valley to fill in for the injured Geoff Jenkins and I perused his professional record. That's when I remembered. Andy Tracy was in The Game.
Now before anyone gets confused, let me say that The Game is my nickname as well as that of the few handful of people that actually saw it occur. The fact is Classic Sports TV hasn't dug up a videotape - if one exists - nor is there much in the way of details about it out there on The Internets. The truth is, I haven't even written about it and I like to blather on about everything.
But when I approached Andy Tracy on Monday night in the Phillies' clubhouse to introduce myself and tell him I was there that rainy September night in 1999 at Harrisburg, Pa.'s City Island ballpark, he smiled. "You were there?" he said excitedly.
"Yes. Yes I was."
To this day, the deciding Game 5 of the 1999 Eastern League Championship series between the Montreal Expos-affiliated Harrisburg Senators and the Yankees' Norwich Navigators is still the greatest ending to a game I have witnessed.
Actually, I can't think of any game at any level that would rate as a close second. Anyone who was there that night will agree that there is no way possible to explain how that game ended. It perfectly fits the old cliché that if the game was pitched to a Hollywood producer as a possible movie, it would be rejected simply because it was so unbelievable.
And Andy Tracy, a long-time minor leaguer - a veritable Crash Davis, if you will - played an integral part in it.
"I started the last inning with a single," Tracy reminded me.
As a 25-year-old, four-year pro for Harrisburg in 1999, Tracy slugged a club-record 37 home runs - a mark that still stands. He also set the franchise record with 128 RBIs and 139 strikeouts. That season, Harrisburg won their fourth straight Eastern League title with future Major Leaguers, Jamey Carroll, Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider, Peter Bergeron, Jake Westbrook, Tony Armas, T.J. Tucker, Scott Strickland, and, of course, Milton Bradley.
Norwich, managed by Lee Mazzilli, had Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano -- players that went on to play in the World Series for the Yankees a few years later. Needless to say, there was a lot of talent on City Island that night, but through the most of the sloppy game filled with rain, errors, poor pitching and plenty of runs, not much of it was on display. By the time the ninth inning rolled around, Norwich had built a 10-6 lead (as I recall) and Senators' leadoff hitter Milton Bradley had struck out in all four of his plate appearances.
In the ninth Tracy singled to start it off and ended up scoring to put the Senators down by three runs. However, with two outs, the Senators' chances still didn't look very good. By that point, most of the crowd was finally chased away by the steady rain and the lopsided score, anyway, so it seemed as if Harrisburg's chance to become the first Eastern League team to win four titles in a row had ended.
But three walks/singles later, Bradley was due up for a fifth time; only it took some frantic searching to get him up there. Tracy told me that by the time the second out had been recorded, Bradley was back in the clubhouse with his uniform stripped off and on the floor ready to call it a season. Having whiffed four times in the deciding game of the league championship series, Bradley was understandably disgusted. It was certainly an auspicious way to end a season and the soon-to-be temperamental big-league star, was feeling sorry for himself and for his teammates. He was too busy brooding about his failure to realize that his teammates were busy rallying to give him one more chance.
So as the Senators put runners on base, someone had to go to the clubhouse to look for Bradley to tell him that he was on-deck.
By now you know where this is going. It's really quite obvious at this point. But, yes, it happened. Despite the Golden Sombrero, Bradley came up for a fifth time and lined a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth inning for a walk-off grand slam in the 11-10 victory. The only thing missing was an explosion from the light tower as Bradley circled the bases in the rain in slow-motion.
The remaining fans stood and screamed, cheered and jumped up and down having witnessed an ending that was unfathomable just moments ago. A grand slam on a 3-2 pitch with two outs to win the final game of the championship game by one run? Nah... it can't be true.
It happened. I saw it. I probably wasn't standing too far away from Andy Tracy when it went down. Oh, but get this: Beyond the right-field fence filled with billboards at the City Island ballpark, there was a bull's eye advertisement taunting players to drill it with a homer for a free something-or-other from a local business. You know, one of those conspicuously placed ads that takes a perfect shot from William Tell to hit.
Anyway, though I didn't see it through the rain drops while standing just off the first-base line, Tracy says Bradley's walk-off, championship slam might have nailed it. He isn't sure either, but it would be a nice touch to the legend if it did. So we'll just say it happened that way -- Bradley's walk-off, championship slam drilled the bull's eye in right field as the rain drops fell, the fans freaked out and his teammates danced on the field.
And boy did they dance. Tracy says he and his Senators' teammates stayed in the clubhouse all night celebrating that fourth straight title for Harrisburg. Needless to say, the on-the-field celebration was quite spirited, to say the least. But Bradley was so stunned by his feat that after he quickly circled the bases he broke free from the mob scene at home plate and strolled out to center field all by himself with his hands on his hips and head shaking in attempt to wrap his mind around what had just occurred. Afterwards, when he was finally able to talk about his goat-to-season-saving-hero night, Bradley's chest heaved as he answered questions in the rain near the pitchers' mound. He was so emotional about his big hit that it seemed as if he was going to hyperventilate.
Later, the celebration in the clubhouse was so raucous that everyone had a cigar in one hand and a bottle of champagne to spray and dump over the head of anyone in eyeshot. It kind of reminded me of a party I threw on South 15th Street a long time ago, only we built a bonfire for that one.
Nevertheless, Tracy got his cup-of-coffee with the Phillies this week and was designated for assignment on Wednesday when the team's bullpen became too taxed from a pair of extra-inning games. Chances are Tracy will clear waivers and head back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he leads the team with 21 homers, 84 RBIs, 32 doubles, 60 walks and 95 strikeouts. This year marks the eighth minor-league season in which Tracy has slugged at least 20 homers. Making this dubious feat even dubious-er is the fact that he's pulled the trick for five different big-league organizations.
With 230 career minor league homers (13 in the Majors), it's clear Tracy can hit. For one reason or another he just hasn't gotten a long enough look for a big-league team. Crash Davis, indeed. Anyway, one of these days I hope to cross paths with Milton Bradley and compare notes with him about that rainy September night in Harrisburg nearly a decade ago.
I wonder how that one ranks for him.
My original plan was to write about how Bob Costas has morphed into the Dick Clark of sports broadcasting as well as how NBC's Olympic coverage was xenophobic, shallow and insulting to one's intelligence.
I was going to do that, but I figured I've been there already. No sense retracing my steps. Besides, there are far smarter people who have written far more eloquently about matters than I could have. Jason Whitlock, writing for Fox Sports had a similar idea as me in that he believes NBC blew it by not offering the competition live. He also sends a warning - as I have - that all of the traditional media ought to wake up in regard to the changing media dynamic. Who knows, it might even be too late.
Additionally, Gary Kamiya of Salon.com, wrote about how much of a letdown it was not to see "traditional" Olympic sports on TV. NBC virtually ignored track and field, which are the essence of the games. Actually, NBC chose to ignore track and field - and most other events, too - because they did not fit into its broadcast plan devised way back when Beijing was awarded the games in 2001. According to a story in The New York Times, NBC and IOC chairman, Jacques Rogge, worked together to finagle the schedule of swimming events so that they could be aired during prime time in the United States.
But before doing so, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC sports, had to run the plan the network and IOC past one person: Michael Phelps.
When was the last time the commissioner of baseball asked a player what time he wanted the games to start? How about the president of ESPN or Fox checking with Jimmy Rollins to see what time would be best to put the game on TV? Answer: never. But NBC was so hungry for ratings and the IOC so complicit to make the network happy that they were OK with a TV network setting the agenda at the most prestigious athletic competition on the planet.
Nothing was going to interrupt NBC's vision for how the Olympics should look. That was the case when an American was killed at the Drum Tower and when political, envornmental and social questions came up regarding China. Instead, NBC dispatched its reporters out to sample some wacky food, like scorpions. Imagine that, they eat different food in China. Good story.
So when Usain Bolt sprinted onto the scene and suddenly, like lightning, became the face of the Olympics - the unadultered, non-sponsored International star - well, NBC wasn't having that. To NBC, Usain Bolt did not turn in the most otherworldly performances in Olympic history. He was a party crasher. Didn't he get the memo that Michael Phelps was the star? To knock him down a peg, NBC lapdog Jacques Rogge claimed Bolt's celebrations were unsportsmanlike (Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post nails it). Costas waded into the fray, too, echoing the IOC boss' complaints.
However, when Phelps pounded his chest, flexed, screamed and posed after several of his victories, they said nothing. Actually, Bob and the gang fawned all over their White Knight and wanted you to do the same. Please ignore that man running faster than anyone else in history of the world. That has nothing to do with us.
Interestingly, Costas and Rogge sat down for an wide-ranging interview that was divided into three segments where the IOC head was asked all the trenchant questions. But since Rogge's answers were so nuanced and in-depth, that NBC reasoned there was no way it could be shown to a prime-time audience. Instead, portions of the interview were shown during the gold-medal basketball game, which was one of the network's few non-Phelps live events. Tip off was 2:30 a.m.
Even some of the former Olympic greats in Beijing backed off when asked about Bolt's epic performances. In the instance of Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic medalist, it had nothing to do with TV, networks or overt agendas. But it had everything to do with corporations. When asked for his thoughts on Bolt becoming the first man to win the sprint double in the Olympics since he did it in 1984, Lewis demurred with a nod to his sugar daddy: "He's a Puma guy. I really can't say anything," Lewis said "I said something the other day and the Nike people saw it and they weren't happy."
Join the club.
Nevertheless, to the rest of the world and for those not influenced by NBC Chinese-government-esque agenda, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were one hell of a track meet. Bolt clearly stole the show and become - to most - the face of the games, but the Jamaican prodigy had some competition. After Bolt (and Phelps) here are the performances I will remember the most from the 2008 Games:
OK, he didn't sprint, per se. But the 21-year-old Wanjiru ran the first mile in 4:41 and didn't slow down until he shook off all challengers to set an Olympic-record (2:06:32) and to become the first Kenyan to win gold in the Olympic marathon.
The thing that makes Wanjiru's run so amazing wasn't exactly the time. After all, Wanjiru set the world record in the half marathon with a 58:53 in 2007 and ran 2:05:24 in April at the London Marathon - just his second attempt at the distance. No, what was amazing about Wanjiru's run was the fact that he kept his pace even though the temperature in Beijing rose to 80 degrees while the humidity held steady over 70 percent under sunny skies. Anyone who has ever run in the summertime when the humidity is over 50 percent knows it's pretty damn difficult. But to run routine 4:40 miles over and over again in such conditions coupled with the stress of the deepest field ever assembled for an Olympic Marathon is more than impressive.
Sitting at home and watching the spotty coverage on television, I shook my head in disbelief figuring Wanjiru had set off on a suicide mission at his pace. Apparently, I wasn't alone - Wanjiru's competitors thought the same thing.
"I was running three minutes per kilometer," said Ryan Hall, the U.S. champion who finished a minute behind Wanjiru in London last April, but 10th in 2:12:33 in the Olympics. "That was plenty fast.
"It was insane," said Hall of the pace in the heat. "You're just hoping the crowd will come back - hoping that guys will drop out or something."
Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished first amongst the three-man U.S. team in ninth place in 2:11:59, also impressed.
"To run 2:06 in this is incredible," Ritzenhein said. "He's a very young guy. He's going to be an incredible marathoner."
"I thought I had a chance at a medal, and tried to put myself in it early," he said. "But I looked at the clock at 5k and we were already out at, I think, 14:55. I knew if I kept that up, that I wouldn't be finishing."
The Redeem Team gets back the gold
I actually stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch the U.S. play Spain in basketball for the gold medal. The plan was to watch the game until it got out of hand and then I would trudge off to bed knowing that the U.S.A. was again the Olympic champion in basketball. It was a solid plan, I felt, because the U.S., led by one-name stars Kobe and LeBron as well as Dwyane Wade, had been chewing off the faces of every team it had faced in the tournament. Earlier in the week the Kobe, LeBron and the gang beat Spain by 37, which meant my plan was solid.
But instead of getting to bed by halftime, I was up until the team stepped on the podium to get the gold medal.
So much for my plan, huh?
Regardless, it was pretty cool to see a team of NBA players engaged in the Olympics for a change. Though Kobe had begged off in the past, he said all the correct things and filled an important team-centric role. It was very cool.
Even cooler was when the players slipped their medals around coach Mike Krzyzewski's neck. Coaches don't get medals in the Olympics and the tribute to the guy who kept the team together and motivated was quite touching.
On another note... how about that game against Spain? Every time it looked as if the U.S. was about to flip the switch and end it, Spain came back with some crazy rally spurred by some wild offense. In that regard, it was kind of worth it to stay up so late... or early.
Other moments of greatness:
The thing that made this race so significant wasn't the victory by Tomescu - she has won big races in the past. The neat part was that a 38-year-old runner is the Olympic champ. For those of us quickly approaching the latter part of our 30s, 38-year-old gold medal runners from Boulder are always cool.
Heck, Clay even appeared on NPR on Tuesday.
Fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba set the Olympic record with a blistering 10k for gold, but then showed some range in the 5,000 in a ridiculously tactical race. In fact, Dibaba's winning time for the gold in the 5,000 wouldn't have won a lot of local weekend road races. Still, it's doubtful Dibaba would have lost any race in Beijing regardless of the pacing. Disappointments
Anyway, that's it for now. Hopefully we can do this in London for the 2012 games from a closer vantage point.
Posted at 12:00 AM in Beijing, Bernard Lagat, Bob Costas, Bryan Clay, Constantina Diṭă-Tomescu, Dathan Ritzenhein, Dwyane Wade, Jacques Rogge, Kenenisa Bekele, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Mike Krzyzewski, NBC, Olympics, Ryan Hall, Sammy Wanjiru, Shalane Flanagan, Tirunesh Dibaba, Tyson Gay, Usain Bolt | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)