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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A Rivalry In Six Pitches

When you talk about baseball rivalries, it's always Yankees-Red Sox, especially at ESPN, which is just about equidistant from Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. Most fans of those teams have a genuine animosity for the other, kind of along the lines of how the star linebacker/homecoming king in high school and the president of the math club treated each other.

You know, the meathead always was bullying and taunting the geek, and even though everyone knew it was wrong, he still always came out of every altercation on top. Meanwhile, the geek would plot and scheme and put down the meathead to his friends, but when push came to shove, he really never was able to do anything about the situation.

Baseball's second rivalry, Cardinals-Cubs, is nothing like that at all. Instead of festering dislike, there's a gentlemanly respect about the rivalry, kind of like how you might imagine two Renaissance swordsmen would approach their sparring matches. Sure, they both want to win, but it's the sporting nature of the competition that is ultimately what counts.

Last night, I saw a game that turned that thinking on its head. Or at least tried to.

The game itself was terrific, a 5-4 Cards win in which the Cards took a 3-0 lead, the Cubbies came back and tied it soon after, then the Cards jumped ahead again only to have the Northsiders fall just short, in typical Cubs fashion.

It shaped up to be a good game, what with the rivalry and all, but even the pitching matchup - Chris Carpenter and Carlos Zambrano - was a good one. Here's two pitchers who were slotted as the fourth starters on their teams at the beginning of the season, but they've both been the best pitcher on their teams. Carpenter is making a very strong case for the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Zambrano is a young pitcher and already an All-Star, and he's quickly earning a reputation as an extremely arrogant pitcher. Think Pedro Martinez threatening to stick a fastball in Jorge Posada's ear - that's Zambrano's style. He certainly didn't disappoint last night.

The main event was Zambrano vs. Jim Edmonds, and the drama unfolded throughout the game. Start in the top of the first, when with two outs and a man on first and Edmonds at the plate, Zambrano plunks him with the first pitch.

The next time Edmonds comes up, in the top of the fourth, he's got a runner on first again, and this time he takes Zambrano's first pitch and hits it over the ivy, putting the Redbirds up 2-0. As Edmonds rounds the bases - after he had briefly hesitated to admire his blast - Zambrano has a few words for him. My guess is that they were not in English and that you wouldn't learn them from your middle school Spanish teacher. That exchange led to the benches emptying (as per usual baseball practice, no punches actually thrown) and warnings being issued to each dugout.

Edmonds comes to the plate again in the sixth inning, this time with the score tied 3-3. Like his other plate appearances, this one is a quick one, although it takes more than one pitch. This time it's strike one (looking), strike two (looking), strike three (swinging at a nasty breaking ball). Zambrano decides to emphasize that he is now rolling along, so he borrows a page out of Dikembe Mutombo's book and gives Edmonds the head-shaking, finger-wagging don't-bring-that-weak-stuff-in-my-house glare.

So what happens the next time up? Well, Edmonds is in the on-deck circle watching Scott Rolen bat in the eighth, and Rolen cracks a two-out, two-run homer to put the Cards up 5-3 (and give them the eventual win), and as Rolen rounds the bases, can Edmonds be thinking anything other than, "Thanks for spotting us the lead, but you put a bullseye on my arse?"

And true to the script, Zambrano fires the next pitch right into Edmonds's butt. Zambrano gets ejected; his manager, Dusty Baker, goes with him, and Trey Wingo and I and the rest of the crew in Studio A are cracking up, because there was no other way Edmonds's plate appearance was going to go.

Quick recap: Six pitches - first pitch plunking, first pitch homer, three-pitch strikeout, first pitch plunking. Great baseball.

Of course, if I'm Carlos Zambrano's teammate, you better believe I'm going to tell him to dial it back a couple notches. Antics like that are only going to end up with a few fastballs aimed in my direction.

It's just too bad MLB butchered the schedule and made today the last meeting between these two rivals this season.

Friday, July 16, 2004

The Best Seat In The House

When we last left our hero, he was being confused for a major league prospect by an actual major league prospect. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read the previous column.

This is Part 2 of my All-Star weekend experience. The deuce. The sequel. Anyway, moving on...

After not getting into the Stuff party, I woke up on Monday, which is the day of the Home Run Derby (The Century 21 Home Run Derby, I should say. The sponsor shells out mad cash for that, plus I sat next to a friendly Century 21 employee on the shuttle bus after the Derby).

Derby Day began with a 9:30 meeting that was good mostly for the free breakfast that accompanied it. Also, I got to meet Chris Berman and Joe Morgan, who seemed initially reluctant to work with a lowly researcher like myself, but really were cooperative once you gave them exactly what they were looking for and explained why the info was worthwhile.

The biggest question I had about the Derby was what exactly I was supposed to be doing during the event. While I was in the dark on that, I looked up various things for the evening's proceedings, and when that was accomplished, I wandered over to FanFest to see if I could pick up an All-Star hat - fitted, of course.

FanFest was a freakin' zoo. The merchandise section featured one style of All-Star hat, which wasn't particularly great, but nothing too hideous either. However, unless you had an incredibly tiny head or you planned to wear your hat over a batting helmet, they didn't have your size. Of course I fell in the gaping middle there, so I left hatless. I settled for the stretch-fit hat that they were selling in the hotel lobby, which was perhaps 85 percent satisfactory.

Finally, I figured I should find out where the Worldwide Leader wanted me during the event instead of waiting for the word. So around 5:00 I headed down to the shuttle bus and made my way over to the park, where I was told to head down to the field. And once I got there, I was given a field access armband. So when the media horde watching batting practice was chased away so the Derby could commence, I got to stay on the field.

Not only was I on the field, I was leaning on the AL dugout rail, right next to the ESPN set. So every AL All-Star walked within an arm's reach of me on their way from the clubhouse to the field. More than once I looked up and found myself eye to eye with Pudge Rodriguez, or Curt Schilling, or David Ortiz, or another All-Star.

Part of the Derby proceedings involved the gathering of every living member of the 500 home run club. I thought this was going to be kind of hokey and contrived, but when they brought out all those sluggers - 14 of them, with over 8,000 combined home runs - it was incredibly impressive. Aaron, McCovey, Mays, Jackson, Banks, among others, and of course Michael Jack Schmidt.

Awesome.

Once the Derby actually started, someone waved me into the actual dugout so I wouldn't be blocking anyone's view. Of course, that was fine with me.

"No, it's no problem. I don't mind watching the Home Run Derby from the freakin' dugout!"

I played it cooler than that, though. Gotta act like I've been there before. Besides, the players were all watching from the field, and the dugout was filled with other media types.

Sitting right behind me in the dugout was Rafael Palmeiro's wife, who was smoking hot and dressed very elegantly. I found it extremely ironic that Palmeiro is hawking Viagra if he's going home to her.

But anyway, the Derby was a great event. Maybe it was my vantage point, or the insider's view I had, or all the background info I had researched, but I thought it was the best Derby I had seen. Then again, Miguel Tejada (who has "Miggi" sewn on his batting gloves - I know because he put them down on my laptop case) set records for most homers in a round and most total homers. And Lance Berkman electrified the home crowd by reaching the finals and hitting several shots out of the stadium.

So while the Derby was great, it will probably one day be topped. I know the seat I had will be impossible to beat, though.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

I'm Not The Future Of Baseball, I Just Cover It For TV

Just got back from Houston, where ESPN sent me for my first (and probably last) remote assignment: the 2004 Futures Game and Home Run Derby. So how did it go?

Glad you asked. I got to Houston on Saturday afternoon. Houston on a weekend, even the weekend of the All-Star Game, is dead. The downtown area is strictly a financial center, so on Saturday and Sunday, there was little to no activity. On Saturday night, McDonald's was closed by 10 p.m. That's how dead it was.

Saturday night was a good time though, thanks to Main Street, a four or five-block stretch of bars and restaurants that were packed with people who come out of hiding once the sun goes down and the temperature drops from "boiling water" to "sauna." One of the nice things about Houston (this might be a Texas thing in general) is the lack of an open container law. So while we debated which bar to check out, we walked the street with beer already in hand.

The light rail, made infamous by Bill Simmons's columns, travels right down the center of Main Street, and miraculously didn't kill anybody in the few hours that we spent near it. But people + beer + intersections + street-level mass transit rail cars = likely disaster, eventually.

On Sunday night, the locals didn't make it out to Main Street, though, and the All-Star crowd hadn't yet made it to Houston, so the crowd at the bars was perhaps a fourth of the size it had been the night before. Solution: get a beer for the walk back to the hotel, then booze it up at the hotel bar while watching people go into the Stuff magazine party. No, the low-level PAs and researchers don't get into that kind of event.

We did see Derek Jeter, Sam Cassell, and Nick Van Exel go into the party, though. Cassell and Van Exel were more than happy to give a trio of girls at the table next to us passes to the party, but somehow overlooked us. Go figure.

The Futures Game featured some pretty impressive pitching - only one pitcher of the 17 in the seven-inning game allowed an earned run - but perhaps even more impressive were the batting-practice bombs that the hitters unloaded. Delmon Young ripped one off the All-Star Game sign high on the light tower in left-center. It probably would have gone 520 feet if the sign hadn't knocked the ball back on the field. The shot even impressed Tony Gwynn, who was watching BP in the booth with me at the time.

Following the Futures Game was the celebrity-legend softball game, which was reminiscent of a bunch of high school kids trying to organize something. It started off okay (although there was a nine-run inning in which batters were coming to the plate and ripping off hits with such quickness that the scoreboard operator, and consequently, Gary Thorne and the ESPN score bug, only counted eight runs). Then came a bizarre incident where Goose Gossage lobbed an inside pitch to Nick Lachey and Lachey charged the mound and actually tackled Gossage, who is 53 years old. Of course, this prompted the benches to clear, and next thing you know, pairs of players are rolling around on the field in front of the mound, throwing fake punches at each other. I didn't see the post-produced version of the game that aired after the Home Run Derby, but I hope that whole fiasco was cut.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend for me, though, came after I got back to the hotel from the All-Star Sunday events. The ESPN crew and the Futures Game players were both staying at the same hotel, and by the time I got back from Minute Maid Park, many of the Futures Game players were milling around the lobby. I got in the elevator, still wearing my press credential around my neck, and another guy who looked like a ballplayer gets in as well. He was speaking Spanish to his girlfriend (or groupie, who knows), and looked at me and said hello. So I said hi back, and asked him if he played today.

I think he took this to mean "I know you were in the game today, but did you actually play?" (There were three pitchers who didn't make an appearance in the game.) So he said yes, he played, and then asked if I played.

God bless you, Yusmeiro Petit.

I explained to him that I was with ESPN, but I don't think he understood me well, because he asked, "You pitch?"

I think what I said next is that when I last played over five years ago in high school, I was a catcher (I left out the part about only getting three at-bats my senior year), and that I just get to cover baseball now. I'm sure I left the elevator feeling as good about myself as he was confused, but who cares.

More about my All-Star weekend experience to come later this week...