Scenes from Spring Training: Arrrrgh! The Pirates! Part 1

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McKechnie Field.jpgMy original plan didn’t have me going down to Bradenton to visit Pirates’ camp, but when the Yankees decided not to offer me media credentials some time freed up, allowing me to catch the Pirates-Rays game yesterday afternoon.  I would like to thank the Yankees for their decision, because it meant that I got to spend a day at McKechnie Field, which is a truly awesome old ballpark.  So awesome, that it led to an epiphany of sorts later in the day.  I’ll get to that later, though.  Let’s talk about McKechnie Field.

A ballpark under various names has been at this location since 1923. Sure, it’s been renovated several times, most recently in the early 90s, when most of the thing was actually rebuilt, but the place that stands there today represents everything good about older ballparks.  Simple design. great sightlines. A simple, democratic seating arrangement. An old-timey atmosphere that isn’t self-consciously retro.  There are some amenities — and some great ballpark food — but the point of McKechnie Field is the baseball game, not entertainment or a “fan experience.”

My routine each morning has been to pick up press credentials early — say, 7:30 or 8AM — find a place to set up and then just wander and talk to people.  This hasn’t been a problem anywhere inasmuch as every team has scads of employees on-site doing any number of things from the crack of dawn, and someone has always been available to get me credentials. Not so at McKechnie. When I arrived just before 8AM there were some ushers there and only a handful of team employees. When I asked if I could get my press pass, the young man at the will call window rifled through a box of documents and then told me that the day passes for yesterday must be “over at Pirate City,” and that one of his co-workers would be bringing them by later.  “You’re kinda early,” he said. “Try back after 9.”

Popi's Place.JPGIf this had happened at most spring training parks I probably would have had to go sit in my car or something, but since McKechnie Field is on a city block instead of a larger complex like some of the other places, I had options. The closest option was Popi’s Place, a greasy spoon diner next to the ballpark. The walls are covered with Pirates’ photos, poster, pennants and stuff. The clientele that morning was decidedly blue collar, with most of the people looking like they were on their way to work. I ordered some biscuits and gravy and eavesdropped. Maybe I was imagining things, but the accents and the subject matter sounded as if someone had taken a slice of western Pennsylvania and plopped it right down in Bradenton.

When I finished, I wandered back to the ticket office. The skies were dark, the wind was whipping and the odds of a ballagame taking place that afternoon seemed poor.  The guy operating the press elevator — 80 years-old if he was a day — was more optimistic: “Ah, this is Florida.  It might rain and then snow and then get up to a 100 degrees before noon. You never know.”

I found a seat in a press box I’ll call cozy — I have no idea what they do when the Red Sox and their sizable media entourage visit — and set up my stuff.  For the second day in a row I found myself sitting next to an old timer. This time it was a guy named Ed Bridges. He said he was a columnist, and his press pass indicated that he worked for a smallish Florida paper whose name escapes me right now. He said he was basically retired, but that he covered the Expos from the 1970s “all the way through to the end.”  I’m not sure what paper he worked for and I can’t find any references to him online. Didn’t matter though, because he told me some great stories — not too many of which are repeatable — and went on a wonderful anti-Tim McCarver jag that will get me through the playoffs this fall.  Ed’s good people.

Set up and ready to go, I hit the field and the clubhouses.

Playoff Reset: The Cards and Dodgers have their backs against the wall

Clayton Kershaw
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Historically speaking, the Cardinals and Dodgers are the class of the National League. A couple of organizations which have won a ton, have had a lot of classy alpha-types running their respective shows over the years, no shortage of glory, no shortage of history and enough evocative and grand footage in the can to make Ken Burns sepia with envy.

Meanwhile, the Cubs and Mets, while they’ve won some and have some wonderful history too, are far better known for their failures. For dubious achievements and fan bases which have, collectively, spent far more time smacking their own foreheads than high-fiving the guy in the seat next to them. Nevertheless, by the time we go to bed tonight it’s quite possible that the classy organizations with the long resumes of winning baseball will have been eliminated by the sad sacks and that we’re going to be treated to a Mets-Cubs NLCS.

In short: today’s NLDS contests are “the big game” sequences in any late-70s-mid-90s “slobs vs. snobs” comedy movie. Camp Mohawk vs. Camp Northstar. Lane Meyer vs. Roy Stalin skiing the K-12. Thornton Mellon vs. Chas in the diving meet. Once these things are over don’t be surprised to see someone on the Mets or Cubs kissing some girl way out of their league and to be asking yourself, “wait, why are there cheerleaders at a diving meet?”

Of course baseball isn’t as scripted as all of that and William Zabka is, according to IMDb, in pre-production on some Civil War project, so he can’t make it. I have no idea what that’s about. I can only assume he’s playing some stuck-up Confederate General who will lose to Curtis Armstrong’s disheveled Union general in The Big Battle, after which we cut to credits over some tossed-off Dave Edmunds song he wrote for the soundtrack just for the money.

Which is to say: we have to watch these games to see what happens:

The Game: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
The Time: 4:37 p.m. ET
The Place: Wrigley Field
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: John Lackey vs. Jason Hammel
The Upshot: Wow, those were a lot of dingers given up by Michael Wacha and his friends last night, huh? The god news is that they’re running Lackey out there this afternoon and Lackey has owned the Cubs of late, going 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in four starts against them, including his gem in Game 1 on Friday night. The bad news: even a half dozen recent starts aren’t great predictively speaking, and Lackey is on short rest. TBS will show highlights of Lackey pitching on short rest in the 2002 World Series today, but think about what you were doing in 2002 and whether you’d be just as good at it today as then. Hammel has the ball for the Cubs. He has not fared well against the Cardinals this season (5.37 ERA) but the same small sample stuff applies.

Injuries could be a key consideration here, as Addison Russell may be on the shelf for the Cubs following his hamstring tweak in last night’s game. Likewise Yadier Molina left early, apparently having aggravated his thumb injury. Otherwise: wear a helmet if you’re in the Bleachers at Wrigley this afternoon. Balls may be flying out your way.

The Game: Los Angels Dodgers vs. New York Mets
The Time: 8:07 p.m. ET
The Place: Citi Field
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Clayton Kershaw vs. Steven Matz
The Upshot: The Clayton Kershaw Legacy Game. It’s not fair to Kershaw that, after eight years of completely dominating Major League Baseball people will deem him worthy or unworthy of, well, whatever, based on his 10th postseason start, but they will. If he falters today on short rest, with no reliable bullpen to bail him out, people will call him some sort of choke artist. If he dominates he’ll be considered redeemed, though he’s never been a guy in need of redemption. I don’t care much for that game, but it’s inevitable it will be played so let’s just silently roll our eyes and go with it. The Mets may have a bigger question mark on the mound in Steven Matz, who hasn’t pitched in a couple of weeks thanks to a tweak in his back in the last week of the season.

This should feel like a totally different game. The Utley drama has to subside now, especially given that he’s unlikely to get the start against a tough lefty. And that tough lefty is, with all due respect, no Brett Anderson. You can bet against Clayton Kershaw and win, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d make a habit of.

In any event, the Cubs and Mets should play this on a loop in the Clubhouse before today’s games. Because . . . it just doesn’t matter!

Yoenis Cespedes and his bat flip say good morning

Yoenis Cespedes

It was a late night last night. Especially for old farts like me. I turned on my TV at 12:30 yesterday afternoon and there was baseball on it for just about 12 hours straight. Not too shabby unless you happen to root for the Astros, Rangers, Cardinals or Dodgers. Oh well, today is another day. Or tomorrow if today is a travel day.

In the meantime, we have Yoenis Cespedes to keep us happy, alert and occupied. Again, unless you’re a Dodgers fan. Of course, if you are a Dodgers fan you got absolutely no right to be upset at a bat flip following a homer. And if I catch you complaining, you’re getting a time out.

The Mets break out the whuppin’ sticks, rout the Dodgers 13-7

Cespedes d'Arnaud

So often in life the anticipation of something outpaces its reality. For Mets fans tonight, it was the exact opposite. They had a grand old time. The Mets broke out the lumber and overwhelmed the Dodgers 13-4 to take a 2-1 lead in NLDS.

So much of that anticipation was about revenge, really. Hitting Chase Utley if he was in the lineup, perhaps, or at the very least sending some sort of retaliatory message the Dodgers’ way in response to Utley breaking Ruben Tejada‘s leg on Saturday. But with Utley out of the lineup — and the notion that base runners matter a whole heck of a lot in a playoff game — Matt Harvey just set out to pitch, not plunk. And Mets hitters set out to beat the living heck out of Brett Anderson and a couple Dodgers relievers. Living well is the best revenge, and for a major league team, winning baseball games is living well.

It didn’t start out so well for Harvey, as Yasmani Grandal singled in two runs in the top of the second with a third run scoring on a Curtis Granderson error on the same play. It was 3-0 Dodgers early and Mets’ fans sphincters’ clenched. But only momentarily.

The Mets came right back in the bottom of the second with four runs with a Travis d'Arnaud single and a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double from Curtis Granderson. In the next inning d’Arnaud hit a two-run shot. In the fourth Daniel Murphy singled in a run and Yoenis Cespedes hit a three-run bomb to left to make it 10-3. The Dodgers got one back in the top of the seventh but New York scored three more of their own in the bottom half. It was never a ballgame after the third inning.

Brett Anderson was the author of the damage through three, Alex Wood gave up the four runs in the fourth and hung on in the fifth in what became mop-up duty. Harvey was done after five and took the win. He wasn’t necessarily sharp, but he did strike out seven and was good enough. Some late damage from the Dodgers, including a three-run homer in the ninth from Howie Kendrick, was too little, too late. Granderson and d’Arnaud did the damage for New York, driving in five and three runs, respectively.

Once the competitive portion of this game was over, the Mets’ crowd turned to more important matters. Chanting things like “We want Utley!” Don Mattingly didn’t give him to ’em, probably because there was no downside to smacking him after the game got out of hand. But no upside either. Because of that stuff about living well, remember?

Now it’s on Clayton Kershaw to save the Dodgers from elimination [looks at watch] tonight, technically. If he doesn’t, his detractors will write another page in their Big Book of Clayton Kershaw Playoff Failures. If he does, we get a Game 5 back in Los Angeles.

Maybe Chase Utley gets into one of those.