Scenes from Spring Training: A day with the Twins, Part 4

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La Russa closeup.jpgSeeing as though I spent some time in the Twins’ clubhouse that morning, I figured I’d spend the postgame with St. Louis.  Helping me make this decision was the fact that MLB.com’s Matthew Leach and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold are two of my favorite writers going, and I wanted to tag along and them do what they do.  Finally, given how much ink I’ve spilled over Tony La Russa in the past, I figured he might be fun to watch do the little postgame thing, so it was off to the visitors clubhouse.

La Russa was showering, so we were kept out of his office for a few minutes, and instead waited in the main area of the clubhouse. Same basic scene as the Nats the other day: boxes of pizza and lots of dudes in their underwear. A little less morose than the Nats’ clubhouse, probably because the Cardinals are a generally successful team and, unlike the Nats, realize that they will, in fact, win a game at some point soon.  Biggest takeaway while we waited: Colby Rasmus has the same laptop bag I have.

After a few minutes we were ushered into LaRussaLand. La Russa was asked what he thought about Adam Wainwright’s tough outing. He wasn’t worried, he said, stuff happens.  On a followup, one of the reporters informed La Russa that Wainwright had said earlier that his problems weren’t physical. Rather, he just wasn’t mentally prepared for the game. This got La Russa a bit pissed. He said that was “not acceptable,” and that “Adam knows better than that.”  I think he was really mad. And poor old Wainwright was gonna skate on it until the sporting press ratted him out.  Tough break.

More interesting than anything La Russa said, however, was how he said it. He’s a lawyer by training, and it shows.  He parses every word of every question to make narrow distinctions between what is being asked and what he wants to answer. If someone premises or qualifies a question, he pounces on the premise or qualification to, again, answer what he wants to answer instead of what was asked or, in some cases, to deflect the question entirely.

And it doesn’t matter if everyone knows what the reporter is truly wanting to know, which I’m sure a man as smart as La Russa can tell. It’s not some Socratic exercise in which he’s trying to get the reporter to ask the right question in as specific terms as possible. It’s a word game, not unlike the kind of stuff I used to see — and do — in depositions where the defending attorney will try anything he can to thwart the purpose of the exercise — the extraction of information — and instead just try to vamp until it’s over.

It’s not so clumsy and transparent in La Russa’s case as it is in some normal lawyer’s case. He’s a much more seasoned pro with much more experience in his particular arena — postgame interviews — than any lawyer has experience defending depositions. Indeed, his tactics are quite subtle and maybe even invisible to La Russa himself. After all, law school changes the way a person thinks, more so than he realizes, and I’m sure La Russa’s interview m.o. is so ingrained in him that, to the extent there was ever any calculation involved, it’s long been replaced by reflexes alone.

But this lawyer recognizes it. And though La Russa’s particular brand of circumlocution may ultimately have the same deflecting effect of “we just gotta take ’em one game at a time”-style cliches, it’s decidedly more hostile and, in my personal opinion, distasteful.  Though he’s probably the best manager in my lifetime, I’ve never thought that highly of Tony La Russa the man, and after observing what I observed today, I am less impressed with him than I ever was before.

The gang bang broke up and I left the clubhouse and sat by the dancing waters outside of Hammond Stadium for a spell. As I watched the traffic dissipate, I wondered about the whole process of reporters collecting ballplayer and manager quotes, whether they matter and whether there isn’t a better way to present the game of baseball to readers who thirst for information about their favorite sport, their favorite players and their favorite teams.

I have a few ideas along those lines, but they’re only half-baked at the moment.  It’s something I’m going to think about a lot in the near future, however.  By midseason the ideas will have either ceased to interest me or will have coalesced into a scathing manifesto.  I don’t think there will be any middle ground.

The 2017 Yankees are, somehow, plucky underdogs

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There’s a lot that has happened in the past year that I never, ever would’ve thought would or even could happen in America. Many of them are serious, some are not, some make me kinda happy and some make me terribly sad. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that way in this oddest of years.

There’s one thing in baseball, however, that still has me searching my feelings in a desperate effort to know what to feel: The New York Yankees are the postseason’s plucky underdogs.

This is not about them being lovable or likable — we touched on that last week — it’s more about the role they play in the grand postseason drama. A postseason they weren’t even supposed to be in.

None of the three writers of this website thought the Yankees would win the AL East or a Wild Card. ESPN had 35 “experts” make predictions back in March, and only one of them — Steve Wulf — thought the Yankees would make the postseason (he thought they’d win the division). I’m sure if you go over the plethora of professional prognosticator’s predictions a few would have the Yankees squeaking in to the postseason on the Wild Card, but that was nothing approaching a consensus view. Their 2017 regular season was a surprise to almost everyone, with the expectation of a solid, if unspectacular rebuilding year being greatly exceeded. To use a sports cliche, nobody believed in them.

Then came the playoffs. Most people figured the Yankees would beat the Twins in the Wild Card game and they did, but most figured they’d be cannon fodder for the Indians. And yep, they fell down early, losing the first two games of the series and shooting themselves in the foot in spectacular fashion in the process. Yet they came back, beating arguably the best team in baseball and certainly the best team in the American League in three straight games despite the fact that . . . nobody believed in them.

Now we’re in the ALCS. The Astros — the other choice for best team in the American League if you didn’t think the Indians were — jumped out to a 2-0 lead, quieting the Yankees’ powerful bats. While a lot of teams have come back from 0-2 holes in seven game series, the feel of this thing as late as Monday morning was that, even if the Yankees take a game at home, Houston was going to cruise into the World Series. Once again . . . nobody believed in them.

Yet, here we are on this late Wednesday morning, with the Yankees having tied things up 2-2. As I wrote this morning, you still have to like the Astros’ chances given that their aces, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, are set to go in Games 5 and 6. I’m sure a lot of people feel still like the Astros’ chances for that reason. So that leads us to this . . .

It’s one thing for no one to have, objectively, believed in the Yankees chances. It’s another thing, though, for the New York Yankees — the 27-time World Champions, the 40-time American League pennant winners, the richest team in the game, the house-at-the-casino, U.S. Steel and the Evil Empire all wrapped into one — to officially play the “nobody believed in us” card on their own account. That’s the stuff of underdogs. Of Davids facing Goliaths. Of The Little Guy, demanding respect that no one ever considered affording them. If you’re not one of those underdogs and you’re playing that card, you’re almost always doing it out of some weird self-motivational technique and no one else will ever take you seriously. And now you’re telling me the NEW YORK FRIGGIN’ YANKEES are playing that card?

Thing is: they’re right. They’ve totally earned the right to play it because, really, no one believed in them. Even tied 2-2, I presume most people still don’t, actually.

I don’t know how to process this. Nothing in my 40 years of baseball fandom has prepared me for the Yankees to be the David to someone else’s Goliath and to claim righteous entitlement to the whole “nobody believed in us” thing.

Which, as I said at the beginning, is nothing new in the year 2017. I just never thought it’d happen in baseball.