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Hey, Red Sox, Play to Win the Game!

With two on and and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of an eight run ball game against the Toronto Blue Jays this afternoon, a Red Sox legend strode to the plate, the powerful…Sandy Leon.

OK, maybe not a Red Sox legend. But a Red Sox legend was supposed to. David Ortiz was set to come to the plate before Red Sox manager John Farrell decided to pinch hit Leon, a backup catcher for the Sox. Big Papi has been swinging a hot bat of late and had smashed a ball into the bullpen in right in the fifth inning, but Farrell decided to take out the dude people come to the ballpark to see and sub in the guy nobody’s heard of.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

My brother Dan turned to me and said, “that makes me want to leave.” And I said, “me too,” and we stood up and headed for the exits on Yawkey Way.

From a purely baseball perspective, it was a pretty brutal day at Fenway–starting pitcher Eddy Rodriguez’s stuff was pretty on point for a while, but E-Rod (idk if people call him that) fell victim to a brutally suck out-y fourth inning in which a series of bloop singles and misplays in the field led to a six run frame, and Rodriguez left after struggling again in the fifth; Pedroia kept losing balls in the sun; the bullpen sucked (per usual); and the Red Sox never led.

But the one thing that really stuck in my craw was the decision to pull Ortiz in the ninth.

Sure, the Red Sox weren’t going to win. Only a miracle would have erased the eight run deficit the Red Sox were facing. But sports fans’ fandom, particularly good fans–the masochistic ones who root on their teams through thick and thin–hinges on the idea that sports games (and seasons) are not over ’til they’re over. That old Yogi Berra quote cuts straight to the core of sports fan (or player, for that matter) psychology. It’s why we wear rally caps. It’s why we love a fantastic comeback. Or a huge underdog. Games must be played to the end. It’s not over until the clock strikes zero. Or until the fat lady sings. Or whatever cliche floats your boat.

When a team says, “eh, we’re done with this game,” it’s a big F you to its fans. Sure, exceptions can be made. When you’re down 25 late in the fourth quarter of a basketball game, or 35 in a football game, sure, throw in the scrubs and run down the clock. But, as a general principle, the white flagged is best waved as late as possible in sports.

Of all teams, the Red Sox should know that. After all, it was the BoSox that came back from down 3-0 to the Yankees in ’04. In fact, the Red Sox have had enough late-game comebacks in the past decade to devote an entire blog post to them. And Ortiz is Mr. Clutch. There is nothing better than Ortiz in the box with runners on in the ninth. (Actually, that’s a lie: Ortiz in the box with runners on in extras might top it.) And what possible benefit could come from bringing in Sandy Leon? Did Ortiz need the rest? Had sitting on the bench all afternoon exhausted him? Was Ferrell worried about Ortiz pulling a hamstring on the walk to the plate? Had Ortiz already retired to the clubhouse for some fried chicken and beer, John Lackey style?

The Red Sox are not a very fun team right now. They’re a fielding disaster, their pitching is horrendous, and half their lineup is underperforming. But they’re still a pro baseball team. It’s one thing for Sox fans to be treated to bad baseball. It’s something else entirely to be treated to a team that quits on games.

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Ruminations on the Retirement of Alfonso Soriano

Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement this week.

Alfonso Soriano's career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Alfonso Soriano’s career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Looking back at Soriano’s career, it certainly had its contradictions. Soriano was famously overpaid and overrated, and yet somehow also underrated for much of his career. His longevity and (relative) consistency is striking–from 2002 to 2013 he hit at least 20 home runs every year. Sure, there were major ups and (often injury-induced) downs. During his time with the Cubs from 2007 to 2013, Soriano was often a lightening rod due to his huge contract and struggles to get on base. Yet, he still had plenty of good times in Chicago: enough to produce 181 home runs and a cumulative .812 OPS in 889 games.

Soriano will go down as a Yankee first, though, not a Cub. Sori broke onto the scene as one of the league’s best young players in the early 2000s, thrilling Bronx crowds with his combination of blazing speed and prodigious power. He nearly hit the 40 home run-40 stolen base mark in those early New York years…twice (’02 &’03)! He eventually joined the 40-40 club during his one year with the Washington Nationals in ’06, blasting 46 homers and pilfering 41 bases.

Soriano made it back to New York in 2013, and finished off his best late-career season by knocking out 17 home runs in 58 games after a mid-season trade from the Cubs.

In some strange way, Sori still feels like a product of the steroid era, even though he was always built like a stick and never tested positive for any PEDs. Yet, Soriano’s ‘cleanness’ is essential to his legacy. He’s the only 40-40 member who’s not linked to roids. His 412 home runs are not impugned by the shadow of roids. In the era of PEDs, Soriano was a pro’s pro. A star with a tree trunk for a bat and legendary swagger who (as far as we know) wasn’t sticking needles in his body.

And, even as Soriano became one of those guys who you felt like you’d been watching forever, watching the fleet-footed infielder-turned-outfielder always felt like rediscovering one of the game’s gems–his retirement feels both overdue and, simultaneously, abrupt and unexpected.

Alfonso Soriano now exits quietly, the polar opposite of the way his venerable Yankee teammate–Derek Jeter–went out. Much like Jeter, though, Soriano was a unique, often times polarizing player. And, like Jeter, Sori represented the type of eye-catching talent that seems to become rarer and rarer in today’s MLB.

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A Farewell to Jeets

Derek Jeter played his antepenultimate home game as a Yankee last night. Today he took the Yankee Stadium diamond for the second to last time ever. Between the two games, he went one for nine at the plate, striking out thrice. The Yankees, meanwhile, lost both contests.

Even as his career ends with a whimper, Derek Jeter continues to incite fierce debate in sports fans everywhere.

Even as his career ends with a whimper, Derek Jeter continues to incite fierce debate in sports fans everywhere.

The two games are fairly emblematic of the season as a whole for the 40 year old Captain and his Bronx Bombers. Jeter’s farewell tour has been, for the most part, a resounding disappointment on the field; Jeter has had a hellish season from a statistical perspective, far and away the worst full season of his career. He is the owner of just 23 extra base hits in 625 plate appearances and an embarrassing OPS of .611. His team has managed, to date, just 81 wins and will fall short of the playoffs. They have failed to take advantage of an unusually weak AL East or to send Jeter off with one last trip to October.

Jeter’s final season has, however, been a beautiful thing in other ways. While his numbers have faltered in his closing campaign, Jeter has still engendered the same love and worship, and loathing and criticism, that have characterized his fabulous career. Jeter does represent everything we love about sports. And I don’t mean that in the way so many do–in the tacky, cliched sense that he’s an unassailable teammate, leader, and person.  Those characteristics are subjective and hard to prove anyway, although I have little reason to think that the quiet Jeter lacks them.

Rather, Jeter represents the very things that create sports fans. He is an idol who has spurred endless debate. Was Derek Jeter a good defensive shortstop? I rest my case. So many fundamental baseball disputes are relevant to Jeter. It’s hard to have a conversation about the utility of defensive stats like dWAR or UZR without bringing up Jeter. Or the worth of Gold Gloves. Or even the importance of championships in ranking players.

Meanwhile, Jeter finds himself at the center of the debate between old school and new school. Everybody concedes that he’s been a great player over his two decades in pinstripes. But the new school guys will never agree with the old school folks about how great he was. After all, the dude’s individual accolades don’t look quite as good when they’re not paired with his team accomplishments. And those defensive stats are far from pretty.

The Jeter debates never seem to end. Now they surround whether he’s batting too high in the order (he is) and whether too much attention is being paid to his farewell tour. Just the other night, Keith Olbermann ripped through Jeter. At this point, Jeter almost personifies sports debate.

What I love most about Jeter, though, is that in the early 2000s he was the guy that every kid in America wanted to play like. We modeled our batting stances after him, practiced that jump throw he made so famous, and played video games that invariably had his face on the cover.

In so many respects, Jeter is post-2000 baseball.

Jeter has long been the face of America's past time. Who's next in line?

Jeter has long been the face of America’s past time. Who’s next in line?

Much of this comes down to visibility. But even more than that, it comes down to the fact that he’s Derek Jeter. He’s baseball’s Michael Jordan. He’s the face of an era of baseball. And yes, that era arguably ended more than half a decade ago. The MLB’s recent golden age with Jeter as front man evaporated long before Jeter’s proverbial baseball candle burned out. But Jeter’s coming retirement still feels too early. As I observed when Jeter first announced he’d be retiring, #2 has been manning that spat of dirt to the left of second at Yankee Stadium since before I was born.

Jeter will now move on. The MLB will be forced to find a new face. Kids playing in fields and sandlots will need to find a new player to emulate. And baseball fans everywhere will search for a new perpetual debate-creation machine.

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The Mets: Sputtering off the Tracks Like a Derailed 7 Line Car

Yesterday was a day of celebration at Citi Field. The weather was gorgeous. The ballpark was mostly full–an unusual and welcome sight. And 50 Cent closed the night with a 90 minute concert that rivaled Nas’ last year.

The Mets are 3-9 in June.

The Mets are 3-9 in June.

The only thing not worth celebrating: the hometown Mets. They put forth a putrid performance against the San Diego Padres, losing 5-0 and managing just two hits. Met starter Zack Wheeler saw his record fall to 2-7 while Jesse Hahn, starting just the second game of his career, embarrassed the Mets’ lineup in six innings of one-hit work. The loss, which came to a Padres team that entered the day 11 games under .500, left the Orange and Blue at 30-38 on the year.

While the Mets’ record is bad, their offense is worse. The two hit effort was a spectacular failure, but it also was hardly a shock given the Mets’ recent  track record. They currently hold the 29th best SLG% and the 28th best batting average in baseball. Their six through eight hole hitters are all dudes batting under .200. Even David Wright, the lone (healthy) star for the fledgling franchise, has been mediocre this year; to date he has a .327 OBP and .358 SLG%. The Mets’ best hitter this year has been none other than 40 year old Bobby Abreu, a late pickup who hasn’t played a full season since 2011. A few weeks ago, the Mets fired their hitting coach.

Let’s not mince words; the 2014 Mets are fairly pathetic. Caught somewhere in limbo, they are playing without their best player (injured pitcher Matt Harvey), with a joke of a starting lineup, and with a hodgepodge rotation that includes Bartolo Colon and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Mets’ pitching across the board actually isn’t horrible. Jon Niese and Dillon Gee are both solid starting pitchers in the midst of career years. (Although Gee is currently on the DL.) Nonetheless, this Mets team is depressingWith Harvey recovering from Tommy John surgery and Wright caught in a huge slump–and possibly the wrong side of his prime–the relatively good vibrations that were present during last summer’s 74 win campaign have faded.

The Mets recently sent 25 year oldTravid d'Arnaud, who was hitting .180 in 39 games, back to the minors.

25 year old Travid d’Arnaud, who was hitting .180 in 39 games, was recently sent back to the minors.

As was the case a year ago, the Mets’ struggles are packaged with a future that could hold some promise. Harvey, of course, is the center of that future. But, to borrow a quote from the endlessly quotable Yogi Berra, “the future ain’t what it used to be”. There’s no guarantee that  Harvey will return as the hard-throwing hero he was in ’13, and other supposed future stars like Wheeler and catcher Travis d’Arnaud have struggled in major ways this year. Meanwhile, the club’s financial issues remain an ever-present theme for the ball club.

Happy days still could be ahead for the team and their Flushing faithful. But on a day when the Mets got rolled by one of the league’s worst teams and, in the process, made a rookie pitcher look like Pedro in his prime, it’s hard to look at the franchise and see much to get excited about.

50 Cent once asked 21 Questions. It seems that New York Mets’ management might want to start asking some questions too.

 

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Manny Tracker: Manny Signed by Cubs

It’s five days before Manny Ramirez’s 42nd birthday, but the kid who grew up in Washington Heights and went on to become a baseball legend got an early birthday present. Man-Ram signed a deal to join the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate as a player-coach. Cue celebration.

Manny's back. Tell a friend.

Manny’s back. Tell a friend.

This is shocking to me in two ways. First, they signed him as a…player-coach? What? This isn’t the NBA in the 1960s. And Manny as a coach? We LOVVVVVVE Manuel, but do you trust this guy coaching up the kids that represent the Cubs’ future?

But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Manny’s back! Which is awesome. And the whole player-coach component makes it, well, awesome-er. Cubs GM Theo Epstein has brought the sport’s most entertaining character back. Epstein says he did not sign Manny with the intention of calling him up to the bigs–his main role will be in mentoring–but that’s good enough for now.

The news also keeps our dream of a Manny-to-the-Mets deal alive. After all, the Mets are batting .233 with a SLG of .352 this year. Manny couldn’t hurt…could he???

To complete the celebration, here’s a clip of the most casual baseball ejection ever, starring none other than Manny.

 

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Manny Tracker: Comeback Time?

It’s that time of year again! Manny Tracker is back! Yup, College Sports Town is ready to get back to providing intermittent updates on your favorite jovial juiced-up slugger of the early 2000’s.

More Manny PLEASEEEE!!!

More Manny PLEASEEEE!!!

Manny says he’s not ready to ride off into the sunset. The question remains, however, if any MLB team still has any interest in him, especially after his ugly, unsuccessful comeback attempt last year. It is tough to know if Manny has any shot at a return, but we’re hoping for it. If it can’t come in America, another visit overseas wouldn’t be a terrible alternative.

If he does ever sign with any team, a PIZZA PARTY would definitely be in order. After all, when Manny’s playing pro baseball, there’s always plenty of fun that goes along with it.

In the meantime, we’ll be keeping an eye out for more Manny news. (By the way, am I the only one wondering whether Manny filled out a bracket?)

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Dropping a Few Words After Derek Jeter Dropped Some Pretty Big News

When I got home from school today, the first thing I did was whip out my phone to see what was crack-a-lacking on Twitter, because that’s what I always do when I get home (shuddup). As I scrolled down my feed,  it took me about eight Derek Jeter tweets to realize that something was happening with regards to, ya know, Derek Jeter.

For almost two decades, Derek Jeter has been a fixture at short in the Bronx.

For almost two decades, Derek Jeter has been a fixture at short in the Bronx.

When I first realized that the reason the Captain was trending on Twitter was that he announced he’s retiring after the upcoming season, I almost felt stunned.

There’s no reason the news should  be surprising. Derek Jeter is coming up on his 40th birthday, played in a mere 17 games in 2013 due to injuries, and inked a one-year deal with the Yankees in the fall. So, the signs were there that ’14 might be the end of road for Derek. But for me, the news still took a little while to digest.

As someone born in 1995 and whose baseball memory doesn’t really extend too far back beyond 2000, Derek Jeter is, for me, baseball. Baseball is Derek Jeter. The two are as inextricable as Coney Island and hot dogs (keeping with the New York theme). I fell in love with baseball at a time when Derek Jeter was the face of the sport, much in the same way Jordan became the face of basketball a decade earlier. My first baseball video game was All Star Baseball 2000 for Game Boy Color (which remains the best baseball game ever made). It had Derek Jeter on the cover, of course. Jeter was branded relentlessly throughout my childhood. The guy was on everything–video games, batting gloves, shaving ads, you name it. 15 years later, he’s still on everything. His name is ubiquitous, his game universally exalted.

Even growing up a Red Sox fan, you had to respect #2. He was magic in the field, in the batter’s box, and on the basepaths. The Yankees were always good and Jeter was always playing and playing well.

When you slice through the years of Jeter’s career–a career that started in 1995, the year I was born– the numbers and accolades speak for themselves: five championships, 13 All Star appearances,  five gold gloves, and many, many hits (3,316). His career has been a categorically brilliant one.

But the biracial angel has always been as much a legend as a player. Jeter represented the MLB of the 2000’s. So what if his advanced stats didn’t live up to his reputation? Or that he wasn’t roided out of his mind? (Well, we don’t think he was.) The guy had it all from my perspective: a sexy batting stance, a charming smile, and dat backhand.

When I was younger, I did my duty as a Sox fan. If you asked me about Jeter, I’d inform you that his last name was actually ‘cheater’ and he was overrated (he probably was). But the guy always was, and still is, a winner, a baller, and an icon. When the 2015 baseball season begins, it will be weird knowing that Derek Jeter won’t be suiting up in pinstripes.

Baseball won’t be exactly the same without Jeter. This year, I’ll be sure to take advantage of my chances to watch the dude when I can. And maybe I’ll even give All Star Baseball 2000 a whirl. For old time’s sake.

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