Wednesday, June 29, 2011

El Caballero del Santiago

Last night, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes played in the 1,000th game of his career. The 28-year-old from Santiago in the Dominican notched four hits in a single game for the fourth time this season. He also scored three times and stole a base as the Mets routed the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Such a stat line is turning into a pedestrian night at the ballpark for this player whose churning legs propel him around the bases like one of those thin, streamlined Top Fuel dragsters that needs a parachute to stop before it bursts into flames.

Just outside Detroit's picturesque ballpark is a statue Tigers Hall of Famer Ty Cobb sliding, presumably into third. Widely considered the greatest ballplayer in the Deadball Era and arguably the most devastating non-power hitter that the game has ever seen, Cobb is a big enough deal that the one and only Tommy Lee jones portrayed him in a biopic. Such honors are not accorded to just any Texas Ranger sharing a house and learning life lessons with collegiate cheerleaders person.

Among Reyes' four hits was a triple in the fourth. It was his 98th career triple. The swipe was the 360th of his career. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other player with as many triples and stolen bases in his first 1,000 career games — since 1898, when the modern stolen base rule was enacted — was that very same Cobb, who had 106 triples and 391 steals.

Let's just take a moment to consider this fact: Jose Reyes, the very same player who becomes a free agent at the conclusion of this, thus-far, entertaining campaign, has begun his career with statistics that had previously only been achieved by Ty Fucking Cobb, the guy who earned the most Hall of Fame induction votes among the inaugural class to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

The signature image of Cobb - nicknamed the "Georgia Peach" in honor of his home and talent - is one of him recklessly tearing into third base with dirt flying and his spikes sharpened. According to Wikipedia, the Detroit Free Press (or the FREEP for those in the know) once referred to Cobb as "daring to the point of dementia." And, I'm pretty sure that the New York tabloids have said mostly the same about Reyes over the years. Fittingly, the increasingly recognizable freeze frame of Reyes is also one of him taking third like a flash flood. Except Reyes is coming, dirt still flying, arms extended and head first. Unlike the cantankerous Cobb, Reyes is joyful and effervescent in his play. He isn't trying to spike the third baseman to clear his path. Rather, he's going to pop up and throw his claw or whatever his celebratory hand gesture de jour is back to his wide-eyed teammates in the dugout. Cobb's critics didn't like him because they claimed he was a sonufabitch whereas Reyes' claim that he reminds them to much of their own overzealous and overconfident sons. Given the choice of head first or spikes first, I'd rather root for the smile.


For all his irrepressible athleticism and the deluge of base hits that got him to this point, I was particularly impressed by the patience Reyes showed in the final at-bat of his 1,000th game. I hope it points towards the player that Reyes will continue to become for whomever he plays the next 1,000 games of his career. With the Mets staked to a 13-2 lead in the 7th inning, Mets manager Terry Collins let Reyes take one last at-bat before pulling him from the game. With two singles, a double and a triple already scratched into our scorecards, he was one home run from the cycle. Collins only let him come to bat to try for that longball.

Reyes showed a modicum of patience by taking three balls that weren't particularly close to open the at-bat. Sitting 3-0 and sitting on the cycle, I'd have to think that he had the greenlight, or, at the very least, would be forgiven for running the red. But Reyes stood, bat on shoulder, and watched a strike come right down the middle. The count was 3-1 and it was clear that he was never, not even for a second, tempted to impulsively hack at that pitch. The next offering was another ball. Reyes took it, contentedly. He trotted down to first base with a wide smile on his face, where Ruben Tejada came in to pinch-run for him. That walk was Reyes' 26th of the season to go with the same number of strikeouts. In 2010, he notched just 31 in 133 games. I'd like to think that Mets' OBP-oriented brass took note of that at-bat.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Balancing the Books

After looking like an overmatched Minor League nine as they scuffled to a start the 2011 Major League season and then being stricken by injuries to middle-of-the-order bats Ike Davis and David Wright, the New York Metropolitans have scrambled their way back to mediocrity.

Once Gary Cohen officially put last night's 4-0 win over the Atlanta Braves in the books, the team's record was level at 34 wins and 34 losses. With a lineup stocked with players who began the season plying their trade for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, the Metsies have rebounded from that 5-13 start to post a winning record in May and a winning record so far into June. All told, they're 29-21 since that dismal start.


After years of strained relations between the fanbase and the team, these 2011 Mets have quietly become an easy team to root for because somewhere, somehow, the excitable Terry Collins has struck a chord in the Mets' own excitable boy: Jose Reyes. The team has taken on the demeanor of this unlikely pair and the result is an up-beat and relentless approach.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No Slowing Speed Rey-cer

During the balmy, bright summers of yesteryear, when the sun showered a warm Technicolor-glow over every Big League diamond, baseball had a rough-hewn romance about it. Players were wide-eyed innocents who worked offseason jobs as carpenters and drank on the road with the newspapermen. Those sportswriters in turn treated ballplayers like heroes and had little interest in belittling or embarrassing them in the eyes of fans, who blissfully ignorant of advanced statistics treasure the RBI and the bunt. It was a simple time when the spitball was remembered fondly and the unruly, anything goes version of the game seems much closer at hand than the sterile, instant-replay iteration that exists today.

Back in the 1960s, as that era began to give way to this one, the Dodgers' Maury Wills was a terror on the basepaths, two-leggedly returning the stolen base to a place of prominence in the game. His 50 swipes in 1960 were the most by a player in season since the 1920s. Two seasons later, Wills stole an eye-popping 102 bags to break Ty Cobb's record of 96 set back in 1915. Those 102 stolen bases were more than any other entire team had to their credit in 1962.

Playing on a Los Angeles Dodgers team led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Wills' speed often made the difference in low-scoring games. He was so feared that, opponents would do anything they could to slow him down. And I read (I believe in some coffee table book about the "greatest" ballplayers) that the rival San Francisco Giants had a particularly effective means of halting Wills progress between bases at Candlestick Park. As best I remember from whatever it was I read (ed note: that's a disclaimer in case it wasn't the Giants and was actually the Reds or some other NL club), they would soak down the infield dirt with water until it was just a muddy bog. While this bit of gamesmanship seems quaint in the context of a James Bond-era rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants it would likely seem out of place in today's game when a fleet of groundskeepers patrol the infield of each field at regular intervals throughout each contest. At least, that's what I used to think.

Entering last night's game in Atlanta, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes has been playing at a level that has sent the opposition scrambling to the scrapbook for answers. To counter the effervescent, dreadlocked speedster, who has been indomitable at the plate and relentless on the basepaths, the Braves allegedly soaked down the infield just like teams used to do when Wills was coming to town.

After leading off the game with a single, Reyes slipped rounding first. He would struggle with his footing as Braves starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens repeatedly attempted to pick him off. Perhaps out of spite or perhaps because he can't help himself, Reyes took off for second base all the same. He would slide in safely and soon come around to score on a Carlos Beltran single to center. The hit, steal and run that sprung from that first at-bat was the opening salvo in a 3-hit, 2-steal, 2-run and 1-RBI night. With his Major League–best 34th multi-hit game on the ledger, Reyes continues to rate near the top of the game in nearly every offensive category other than home runs.

While the wet track bothered the umpire and was the subject of an official complaint by the Mets' front office, Reyes took the challenge in stride. "It was a little wet," he told reporters after the game. "I don't know if they did that on purpose. ... I don't care if it's wet or not, I'm going to try to steal anyway."

Golaazzzzo!

During the pregame coverage of last night's opening round Gold Cup match between the United States and Guadeloupe, it seemed an inconvenience that DirecTV does not include Fox Soccer Channel in whatever basic cable package they beam onto my home via satellite. One the game kicked off, though, I hardly noticed the difference. My latent Spanish-speaking skills, honed over four years of high school and two of college, kept me vaguely aware of the commentary while the excellent HD picture and camera work of Telefutura really impressed.

When US forward Jozy Altidore launched a right-footed rocket in the top-corner of the Guadeloupe goal from distance there was no doubting that this Spanish-language station would be my Gold Cup channel of choice from here on out.



Altidore's second stellar score of the tournament provided the the only positive takeaway from a 1-0 victory that managed to be dispiriting while still sending the US Men's National team through into the second round.

Putting aside the point blank chance that US goalkeeper Tim Howard and virtually every member of the team yielded on an early corner kick, this game was marked by indefensible (and therefore easily defensed) misses by US players in front of goal, notably Clint Dempsey's lackadaisical squandering of a silver platter chance that could have killed off the game deep into the second half.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Promises in Flesh and Bravado

Just a few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of basketball superstar LeBron James announcing that he would be taking his wealth of physical talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the 2011 NBA Finals concluded on the floor of American Airlines Arena in Miami. An impromptu stage was quickly erected by arena employees and NBA staff amidst the on-court celebration that erupted as the final whistle ended the championship series after six games. Delighted fans remained in the building, some crowding down into the lower bowl, to watch the trophy presentation. They cheered exuberantly as a team was awarded the Larry O'Brien Trophy by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

It was just the sort of scene that LBJ, Wade and Bosh had promised to a crowd of fans, many of whom were wearing freshly purchased Heat gear, when the trio was introduced in that arena shortly after all the contracts were signed last summer.



In his first public performance in a Heat jersey, James informed that crowd that he and his teammates would win several championships.

Well, one season down, one celebration on that same floor in Miami. Yes They Did?

False. It was, of course, the visiting Dallas Mavericks winning the championship in Miami. It was the Mavs' players, coaches and front office personnel being herded onto that makeshift stage on that floor in Miami. It was the vocal and shockingly large contingent of visiting Mavs fans that cheered from the stands (and likely found their seats in time for tip off) at American Airlines Arena, like so many road fans before them during the regular season. And it was Mark Cuban's team from Texas being presented with that championship trophy by his longtime foil, Commissioner Stern.

Back at that July 2010 pep rally turned title celebration, which occurred well before the new teammates had even soaked any of those jerseys the league was selling with a drop of sweat, the tag line was "Yes We Did." Past tense. James talked of the coming Heat dynasty like he'd traveled forward in time to 2015 and nabbed a copy of Gray's Sports Almanac. He reeled off the teams accomplishments as if they had already occurred. Past tense.

While the narcissistic Decision soured the public on James and his near-sighted retinue of overmatched courtiers, it was the self-congratulatory nature of the "Yes We Did" party that transferred all the LBJ hostility to the team as a whole. Who did they think they were? And did they really think that they could go take a shortcut to the championship that had eluded all-time greats like Patrick Ewing, Elgin Baylor and Charles Barkley?

Perhaps the sporting public was so offended by the pompous predictions because it actually seemed possible that this team - one that featured two of the top five players in the game (and a Bosh) - could laugh and backslap and fastbreak ally-oop its way to the top without the pain and turbulence that writers and fans want in their sporting dramas. And, to hear James explain it, the formation of the South Beach SuperFriends was going to remove the drama from the season altogether.

Now, I presume that the oligarchs of the Heat weren't the only NBA players confident that they were going to win a championship. I have no doubt that Kobe Bryant thought his Lakers were going to send Phil Jackson off into retirement with another three-peat. In Boston, Kevin Garnett likely believed that he'd scowl and curse and crotch punch his way to a second ring. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may have been convinced that the Oklahoma City Thunder were ready to ascend to the top of the heap as well.

But none of these men were counting off the titles that they claimed to be poised to win with a jovial self assurance that made their successes sound imminent and inevitable. Or, at least, if any other All-Stars were claiming that their winning the title was a fait accompli then they were doing it behind closed doors.

Behind several sets of closed doors, there was one player who did something that was in its own way every bit as brash as the Heat's Premature Title Elation. Shortly before the 2010-11 season began, during a preseason team-only gathering at teammate Deshawn Stevenson's house, Mavericks' sixth man Jason Terry had the Larry O'Brien Trophy tattooed on his arm.


While James chose to televise seemingly every aspect of his transition to Heat and the subsequent fanfare, most basketball fans managed not to learn about the ink on Terry's shooting arm until just the other day. And the first time that we heard about that tat was quickly followed by the time we heard the news that he'd admitted he would likely have it removed if Dallas didn't win it all.

The news that Terry could be subjecting himself to the pain of tattoo removal (in which they essentially "remove" it by burning it off and covering it with scar tissue) reminded me of the time when my brothers and I all got our first tattoos together. As we were discussing how the two older siblings would be paying for the youngest, I cautioned, "It's one thing to have tattoo money, but it's something else entirely to have tattoo removal money."

Of all the differences between the Mavericks and the Heat, the ways in which they went about stating their goals for the season may be the most representative. While LBJ boasted publicly and arrogantly about NBA titles as if they were appointments to be kept rather than accomplishments, Terry's tattoo pain was aspirational and came with consequences. He wanted that title so badly, having come up short in 2006. That tattoo was also inspirational to his collected teammates, most of whom know how painful and permanent a tattoo is.

Yeah, Terry's move was over the top, too. Pretty crazy, actually. But it was altogether different. Because it was private. And because the risks were always part of it. Regret and embarrassment loomed larger for Terry than they likely ever have for the self-anointed King James. He admitted that he was going to have that tattoo removed if his team lost, while LeBron's postgame comments about not hanging his head and that shot he took at the lives of the folks rooting against him made it pretty clear that he's not reevaluating much or accepting any consequences from his actions.

Terry's tattoo was a challenge to himself and to everyone in his locker room that they would experience every day. In the present tense. While the Heat were left wondering why that they had already "YES WE DID" never happened in the first place.