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Baseball Notebook: One 'hairy and scary' week in September

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The final week of a playoff race can be an incredible ride. It can produce indelible images, unforgettable heroes and unbelievable reality TV. Sort of like "Survivor" without the bikini tops and Jenna Morasca.

Sunday morning, 14 teams -- nearly half the teams in the major leagues -- still had a mathematical chance of finding October. And that wasn't counting the Braves or Giants, who had already clinched division titles. Think about that. Half in a sport that is supposed to have the greatest chasm between classes since the Normans swept the English in a home-and-home.

As veteran Phillies reliever Dan Plesac told Told Zolecki of the Philadelphia Inquirer last week: "There's a lot more hairy and scary baseball in the next week. ... The ride is just starting. You can flush the first [155] games down the toilet. The last seven mean a lot."

A lot? This week brings everyone back to the same human truth. Millionaire superstar or minimum-salaried bench player. Because it is about single games and single moments. It is about success or failure and nothing in between.

A lot? Red Sox owner John Henry, a man who has obviously scored a few wins in his time en route to billionaire status, gushed Thursday that Boston's 13-4 win against the Orioles "is one of the greatest moments of my life." And all they'd won was the wild card.

A lot? Adam Melhuse is a 31-year-old journeyman with 168 career at-bats. Don't think the one Tuesday night that produced an RBI single in the bottom of the 10th to clinch the AL West title for the Athletics won't be spoken of a time or two in the years ahead.

Drama. Heroics. A playoff race has it all. Even, as the Boston Globe's Gordon Edes discovered, a sampling from the theater of the absurd.

Embedded in the Boston clubhouse before the Red Sox game with the Orioles Wednesday, he couldn't help but take note of the players' interest in the TV, where their wild-card rival, the Mariners, was losing to Anaheim. Edes recorded the sights, the sounds, the reactions. Except for catcher Jason Varitek.

"I wasn't watching the game," Varitek exclaimed. "I was watching a guy writing on his pad. I was watching you watching us."

So, to those of you reading us who were watching them watching us, The Guy In The Stands offers a look back at ...

The week that was

Sunday: After his bullpen was battered for eight runs by the punchless Indians in their final two at-bats the night before to turn a 4-1 win into a bowel-turning 13-4 loss at Jacobs Field, Red Sox manager Grady Little admits to getting up first thing and praying. While it won't make anyone forget Saint Paul, "I told the man upstairs, 'Don't give me any more help than you give the other team. But don't give me any less, either. Amen.' Then I got dressed and came over to the park." Pedro Martinez strikes out 11 later that day and beats the Indians, 2-0. The win allows the Red Sox to take a 2 1/2-game lead in the AL wild card over Seattle, which loses in Oakland. God apparently does not consider Pedro an undue advantage.

Monday: The Astros go into the top of the ninth vs. the Giants at Minute Maid Park with a half-game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central, Billy Wagner on the mound and the top of their order due up in the bottom of the inning. Looking good? Wagner has allowed just one run since the All-Star break. But in the span of four pitches, he gives up a go-ahead two-run homer to Pedro Feliz and a solo shot to Ray Durham. Suddenly, stunningly, it's 6-3. Game over. Sitting in his office after the game, Astros manager Jimy Williams, his team now tied with the Cubs, finds the wherewithal to play both offense and defense amid the usual pack of reporters: "He's human," Williams says of Wagner, "just like most of you." Ouch! Now that stings. Billy Wagner human? Say it ain't so, Jimy.

Tuesday: The Yankees clinch the AL East title. Somewhere in baseball's unwritten rules, it states quite clearly that upon event of any Yankees clinching, all New England is to dutifully sink into 72 hours of public mourning followed by an off-season of sado-masochistic phoning of talk shows. So explain: How does Todd Walker, with the Red Sox trailing, 5-2, in the bottom of the ninth and two outs and a 3-2 count, hit a three-run homer to tie the Orioles at Fenway? And how does David Ortiz follow an inning later with a walk-off home run for a 6-5 victory -- the Red Sox 23rd in their last at-bat, by the way -- and a 3 1/2-game lead in the wild card with five to play? Don't they know that this is Boston, where this sort of seductive come-hithering can only be appreciated once it is followed by the obligatory slam dance? Obviously, no one in Olde Towne appreciates tradition anymore.

Wednesday: Fate's strange twists (and breaks) creep into the race. For the second consecutive night at Pro Player Stadium, Jeff Conine homers to help beat the Phillies, 6-5, and give Florida an almost insurmountable three-game lead in the NL wild card. Even though he has hit just .230 in his second go-round with the Marlins after being acquired from the Orioles Sept. 1, he is 7 for 17 vs. the Phillies with three home runs -- all crucial, all in wins -- since Sept. 17. Makes you wonder if the race would turn out the same had Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell (32 HRs, 105 RBIs) not been sent to the bench Aug. 30 with a broken hand, forcing the Marlins to find another bat that turned out to be Conine's.

Thursday: There is nothing quite as valuable as a good scoreboard in a pennant race. But maybe a board operator can be a little too good. The Astros, a game down in the Central, are hosting the Brewers. The Cubs are in Cincinnati. The Astros are in the field when at 8 p.m. a yellow 2 goes up next to the Reds' score, then a 4 at 8:03 and by 8:05 a 6. The Reds have come back to take a 6-4 lead on the Cubs. The for-a-night Reds fans at Minute Maid let loose a roar. That's a good thing ... unless your own pitcher is in the middle of his windup. Each time. Thankfully, all ends well. The Astros beat the Brewers, 6-1; the Cubs lose to the Reds, 9-7. The despair of Monday has given way to hope. The teams are tied with three days to go. Someone asks Williams if he'd noticed the 4 go up for the Reds. "You mean the 6?" Williams queried. "Yeah, I guess you could say I was scoreboard watching." Some scoreboards are just too damn good ... or bad.

Friday: The Marlins beat the Mets, 4-3, to wrap up the NL wild card at Pro Player. There's nothing like a post-clinching, cork-popping, back-in-the-sandbox victory celebration to tear away the air of cool that surrounds a professional athlete. Particularly those who have never been here before. "We always went to the playoffs in high school," says 23-year-old Florida pitcher Josh Beckett. "This time I actually get to drink beer." And isn't that what a 162-game season is all about?

Saturday: In light of the Astros' 5-2 loss to the Brewers coupled with the Cubs' 4-2 Game 1 win vs. the Pirates, it seems the right time to offer a little insight into the pain threshold of Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker. The Astros' 1 1/2-game lead of last Sunday morning has become a 1 1/2-game deficit as he awaits the outcome of Cubs-Pirates II. While a three-game swing stings, even cuts, Hunsicker has actually experienced worse. He still bears the scars. You see, Hunsicker was 14 and a baseball fan growing up in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1964 -- the year the Phillies squandered a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to go. "I guess what happened to my '64 Phillies will forever be indelibly marked in my mind," he tells Mike Klis of the Denver Post. "Whatever pennant races we've been in, I always think of that year."

Retiring minds want to know

At 72, Jack McKeon couldn't have found a better spot to resuscitate his career than South Florida. Why, with what he has done with the Marlins, he's veritable beefcake to the Early Bird Special set. And it's paying off. After winning his 800th career game two weeks ago, McKeon joked that the American Association of Retired Persons should name him its man of the year.

Lou Franklin, vice president of the AARP chapter in Boca Raton, took note. Wednesday, Franklin's group honored McKeon before the Marlins-Phillies game at Pro Player Stadium. And he came bearing gifts -- a cane, Viagra and laxatives. Never let it be said those crazy AARPs don't know how to get jiggy with it.

Once and future Tiger

How's this for a bit of irony? When Detroit House Cats manager Alan Trammell had to miss games Tuesday and Wednesday to attend his mother's funeral, he handed the reins to Class AAA Toledo manager Larry Parrish. Parrish just also happened to be the big club's manager in 1999. Fired despite losing "only" 92 games that season (wouldn't that look pretty good this season?), Parrish won both his games, then, knowing the odds weren't with him, turned the club back over to Trammell. "I'm quitting while I'm hot," Parrish said. Or worse: They might ask him to stay.

Better losers than winners?

As The Guy looks ahead to the start of the playoffs Tuesday, he can't help but wonder: If the Red Sox or Cubs were to win the World Series, would winning it all actually detract from the charm and mystique built up by these two lovable, star-crossed losers over the past century? Thoughts? E-mail them to: sziants@post-gazette.com.

And finally ...

It's time for The Guy to own up to the predictions made on opening day. The yellowed preview section, please. The winners were supposed to be ... AL: Yankees (East), White Sox (Central), A's (West), Red Sox (wild card). Six games shy of perfection? No need to applaud. Gifts of money will do. But please send your donations now, as in before you read further. For the winners in the NL should have been ... Braves (East), Astros (Central), Dodgers (West) and -- oh, the embarrassment -- the New York "34 1/2 games back-and-counting" Mets as your NL wild card. The Guy's only excuse? His ability to see the future is tied to the national power grid, and the Great Blackout of 2003 prevented him from seeing New York when he looked way back in March.

Shot and a jeer

Shot: The Pirates gave away an autographed, game-used Pokey Reese bat as part of Fan Appreciation Day Sunday. We're guessing acquiring the bat from him was easy; finding a game he used it in proved more difficult.

Jeer: We can't end the last column of the regular season without one final item on they who made our season so memorable. So The Guy turns to comedy writer Jerry Perisho, who took note of one telling stat this week. "Minor-league baseball attendance passed 39 million fans this season," he writes, "and that doesn't even include people at Tigers games." Ba-da-bum.


Steve Ziants can be reached at sziants@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1474.

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