Tuesday, May 30, 2006

THESE ARE THE TRUEST OF POSSIBLE WORDS: HERNANDEZ TO JETER TO WRIGHT

David Wright is 23. Say that to yourself one more time. 23.

Damn. When I was 23, not only did I not lead a New York's baseball team to victory on a nightly basis, not only did I not hit 332/405/558, not only did I not push Derek Jeter from the mantle above the plaque reading, "Most Likely To Drive in the Winning Run at 10:30, Then Score Again at Midnight." None of the above. I was waiting tables at TGI Fridays. And while I occasionally delivered the game-winning quesadilla or fried zucchini sticks, I didn't handle the press like Young Mr. Wright.

I'd have told reporters, "Yeah, I knew those mozzerella sticks were dangerously close to getting cold & hard inside, but that's why Fridays looks to me. They know I'm the guy to bring edible happiness to the Fridays Faithful." Or some equally self-aggrandizing statement.

But Wright? Look what he told reporters last night about his feelings coming up to bat following Delgado's bases loaded out: "When Delgado struck out, I wasn't paying attention, because nine times out of 10, he comes through. On deck, I was think about who to rush out to congratulate."

Nine times out of ten. Unlike most guys, he didn't say 100% of the time, or god forbid the standard 110%. No, Young David's too slick for that. He wants credibility. So he acknowledges that his teammates will fail occasionally. And then, the piece de resistance: He wasn't paying attention . . . because he was thinking about who to congratulate. My oh my, this guy's good! Following last week's unbelievable five cliches-in-five phrases masterpiece, which I outlined here in full detail, we simply have to tip our hats to Wright's precocious development of his craft. Clutch hits, opposite field power, smart baserunning, and one of the two or three top bullshit shovelers in the game. At 23.

We may see yet see a left-handed batting, game-winning grand-slam, complemented with post-game allusions to the Gettysburg Address, as well as a reference to "all the players who came before" him. He has No Ceiling.

Anyhow, last night's game was yet another in an endless run of exciting, see-saw battles that see the Mets score gobs of runs and come out on top. (Notice who started up the 4-run second inning with a bat-tossing, running-to-first, lead-off walk, just a few pitches after pulling a foul ball into the loge deck? Or was it the mezzanine? Either way, I'm telling you, he Just Gets It.) They're now 15-6 in one-run games, including 13-2 at Shea! The 31-19 Mets have scored and yielded runs at a clip one would expect for a 28-22 or 29-21 club. Still, the Mets've exceeded their projection by only 2 1/2 games, while surpassing their expected one-game record by 4 1/2.

These games tend to even out, but every season one team continues to outrun Pythagoras and wins far more games than their runs for/against would suggest, often because they defy the odds and win a significant majority of the one-run games. What's behind all this? Luck? Skill? Momentum? Who knows? But it happens sometimes. The White Sox went 35-19 in those situations last year, more than supplying the margin of victory over the Indians in the division. And they carried that Mo' into the post-season.

In 2004, the Dodgers used a 32-16 record in one-run games to win their division by a mere 2 games over the Giants. The 2002 A's, those of twenty game win streaks and MVP shortstops, and all that flashy stuff, went 102-4 in one-run games. Ok, that's an exaggeration. They tallied only a 32-14 record in the close ones. Which more than gave them the margin over the Angels, who also did well in one-run tilts.

My point here? I'm not really sure. But you can see that sometimes teams manage to win all season long in those situations, and that wins the division. We're one third in at this point and the Mets are winning most of their one-run games. Literally most. Maybe they'll keep getting lucky, or maybe whatever mojo they have will continue.

Or maybe it won't. Who knows? On to a few Random Thoughts:

Rudolph Valentino: Regardless of how he hits, I've concluded that with that souped-up 'stache, we must call Jose Valentin, Valentino. Or Joey Long Ball. There's just no other way. Anyway, Willie's fascination with the fellow knows no bounds, and I fully expect the name Randolph Valentino on a line-up card before the season's up.

I'll admit to two things happen every time Willie plays Rudolph: I mutter and curse and begin writing the next morning's scathing comments about Willie's stubborness and 39 year-old infielders, and . . . and then Valentino hits a ton and the Mets win. This is making me crazy! I mean, I'm psyched to see the hits and I love the wins, but something tells me this isn't good for the long haul. He's 39, he's never played second before, his OBP is well under .300. What page of the Manager's Handbook prescribes this, exactly?

But one thing that Willie's done since he's been with the Mets is play the hot hand. Someone hets hot, pencil him in, let him rake. Gets cold? Sit down. And that makes one of the few things I unabashedly like about him. I think we can expect to see Delgado get a well-deserved day off soon, and Mr. Nady can expect to work on his sunflower seed spitting as May turns to June. The Fish named Kaz? Might wanna work in his pinch hitting stroke.

And Rudy Valentino is a streaky hitter! How streaky? Check this out: (a) started the season 0-15; (b) went 12-for-his-next-28, including one double, two homers, and two walks; (c) then 0-13, with 3 walks; (d) and has recently embarked on his latest journey into hot & tropical climes to the tune of 3-7 with a homer. He's due either for another 7 good at-bats or 21 more, depending on whether he's approaching this as a 14 or 28 at-bat cycle. Either way, get him in the line-up.

Or trade him. Or crank up the wah-wah peddle, grab a video camera, and get that second career off the ground already. No matter what, everyone wins.

Payback's a Bitch or, Beanball Karma: Early in last night's game, one of the D-Backs hit a dribbler along the first base line, resulting in a play you see often: pitcher scoops up the ball, and the runner politely slows down in anticipation of the tag. Always bugs me! Just like it always bugs me when an NHL goalie leaves the crease, and opposing forechekers break their ankles trying to avoid so much as the appearence of running the heavily-padded, mask-wearing man. I guess the situations are analogous, and the reason nothing happens in either situation is clear. Run the goalie, you will (a) get the shit beaten out of you before you end your shift and (b) you'll have to watch your own goalie peeled from the ice just before he attacks you later on in the locker room.

In baseball, I would guess a fellow running over the pitcher on a dribbler would (a) be on his ass his next at-bat and (b) taking a beating later on from his own pitcher, in appreciation of the ball he took in the ear when he came up.

I suppose I see how it goes, but with the whole season on the line, Slappy Rodriguez still should have sent Arroyo into the seats rather than do his little "Get that ball out of here, girl-friend" Routine in the 2004 playoffs.

The Art of Misdirection: I know Gary Cohen was waaaaaaaaaay too excited about it, but those "now you see it, now you don't" slides by LoDoca last night and Wright on Sunday are per-retty cool. (And, yes, that would once again be 23 year-old David Wright we're talking about. Seriously, if I told you he was running for Governor against Elliot Spitzer, would you be surprised? Who would you vote for? Wait, don't answer that.) For those who actually went out and enjoyed themselves this holiday weekend, let me briefly explain what this new-fangled slide entails (can something be old-fangled?). The slider dives head-first to the bag, only to pull back his lead hand as the tag comes, simultaneously rolling over to touch the bag with the other hand.

Or something like that. Watch the replay.

Wearing a "C" on His Lapel: Speaking of Gary Cohen, it's high time to discuss Met legend, and now Met announcer, Keith Hernandez. Keith is rapidly approaching self-parody territory, barely one third into his first full-time season as Met announcer. Just as he carried an impressive array of mannerisms and quirks as a player, so does he in the booth.

Just to clarify, I'm a fan. A big fan. I remember Keith coming into the batter's box, taking off his batting helmet in one hand as he measured his bat across the plate, looked out at the pitcher, placed the helmet back on with the same hand, whirled the bat around, and set it up high as he waited for the pitch. When he was in a groove, drawing walks, dinking 0-2 outside pitches over the third baseman's head, pointing at his infielders, he was The Man.

And he acted exactly the same way when he went through those slumps filled with 24 hoppers to 2nd base over and over again, and strike outs on pitches low and away. Then, there was always the game where he made two of the four errors he'd make all season in a three inning stretch.

But it was that unflappability, that arrogant look that said, "I'm always right, even when I'm in a 1-21 slump," that made him so special as a player. That's why he was The Captain. Of the Infield. Of the Team. Of the Groupies. With a footnote to Seinfeld & Bill Simmons here, he was Keith "I'm Keith Hernandez" Hernandez.

And he still is! In the announcer's booth, Keith is Keith. Just Keith being Keith. A few highlights and observations from yesterday's game, as well as the whole season:
Keith is obsessed with batter strike outs. Keith took pride in rarely striking out as a player.

Keith is obsessed with batters strike outs because they often result in a failure to use a "level swing." Keith is obsessed with level swings. Keith took pride in his own level swing as a player.

Keith is obsessed with high socks, because they're "old-fashioned." Keith wore high socks as a player (even higher than most in the 80's when the stirrups started coming down).
Those are the Three Obsessions, showing that even guys who appeared on sitcoms, famously partied with blow, and even more famously drank beer in the clubhouse during the greatest extra-inning rally in World Series history can be curmugeons too. (Ever notice that Rickey & Bobby Bo playing cards during Game 6 vs. the Braves in '99 was a high crime, but Keith smokin a butt & swiggin a brew in Game Six of the '86 Series was part of his "color"? Winning, There Is No Substitute). Ok, enough on the obsessions. On to the fun Keith stuff:
Keith said he threw 95 MPH in high school.

Keith described the girl in the stands wearing a "Hernandez" jersey as a "bright woman."

Keith claims that on the same day in 1987 that he went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a couple ribbies against the Pirates, he "did Cindy Crawford" in the Met locker room between innings . . . while smoking a cigarette and swigging a beer. Not to mention, he swore that the ump called him out on a pitch just outside the strike zone on the at-bat he failed to reach safely.
Ok, one of those isn't true (meaning it's untrue that he even said it; all three look pretty far short of "true" as far as I can tell). And I'm not exactly sure what to do with the other two pieces of information, come to think of it. But one can only imagine what words really ran through Mr. Hernandez's mind as he saw a young female fan sporting a jersey with his name on it: "she's mine," "why the hell did I get married?" or "where's the damn 'C' on that jersey?"

And finally, we can only guess what Keith was thinking as he tried, objectively, to "announce" the appearence by a very fetching Julia Stiles, wearing a low-cut Met t-shirt and a pair of nicely fitted jeans, as she jogged out to the mound to throw out the first pitch.

C'mon! Admit what you were thinking. And then remember . . . he's Keith Hernandez! I'm not gonna claim to know exactly what went through that black-haired (at 52!) head of his, but "high socks" and "level swings" were very likely in play. Strike Outs are not an option.

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