September 2012

The Grand Tour

With the Texas Rangers’ win over the Los Angeles Angels tonight, the Yankees have officially clinched a spot in the postseason this year, but they will go in knowing full well it took almost all 162 games to get into the party.

This afternoon was an indication of that.

Tied with Baltimore for the AL East lead entering play today, the Bronx Bombers weren’t helping themselves when they trailed the Toronto Blue Jays 5-1 after five innings; Phil Hughes pitching about as poorly as it gets in a hugely important game.

Thankfully for him, the offense bailed him out.

The Yanks pieced together an epic rally, shredding away at the Jays’ four run lead, scoring one run in the sixth, three in the seventh, and two in the eighth and ninth innings for a necessary 9-6 victory.

Unfortunately for the Yanks, the Orioles also won their game this afternoon, beating the Red Sox 6-3 at home, and thus leaving the AL East in a stalemate going into the final three games of the 2012 regular season.

While the Yankees staged their comeback on the road, I spent the better part of my day at their home – Yankee Stadium. My friends and I were fortunate enough to take a tour of the ballpark, a trip I’ve wanted to go on for a long time.

We even took the tour with Ichiro’s brother!

Just kidding. But he looked almost exactly identical to him.

The first stop on the tour was the Yankee museum inside the Stadium. Our tour guide, a nice guy by the name of Tim, showed us the new Mickey Mantle exhibit. He then told some neat stories (most of which I already knew about) highlighting Mantle’s career.

For instance, during the 1951 World Series Mantle tore all the cartilage in his knee chasing down a fly ball struck by Willie Mays of the Giants – one of the multiple injuries Mantle suffered over the course of his legendary career.

I first learned of that story in the movie 61*

From the museum, we journeyed to Monument Park, behind the center field wall. I’ve been to Monument Park a number of times, and never knew the story behind the door.

According to Tim, there originally was no door linking the Yankee bullpen to Monument Park. Mariano Rivera made a special request for a door to be put in – all because of his pre-appearance ritual. Before every time Rivera runs in from the bullpen, he goes into Monument Park and rubs Babe Ruth’s monument.

Don’t ask me why. For luck, I suppose? Like he needs it…

At any rate, it was a nice little factoid; nothing I knew about before. I also bent over and picked up a rock from behind the Monument wall, and discreetly put it in my pocket for keeping. I’m not sure if was allowed to do that or not…

But I won’t tell if you don’t. I just wanted to keep a piece of the day – and Yankee Stadium – for myself.

After our tour of Monument Park concluded, we made our way to the Yankee dugout, which in my opinion was the best and most fun part of the tour. We were allowed to snap pictures and make all the funny poses we wanted. My friends and I actually came up with a small running joke for this picture:

I was told I could be “Ellen Page’s boyfriend.” Don’t ask.

We then decided to pretend we were in the middle of a heated game, and posed as if the Yankees crushed a walk-off home run. We made sure to take full advantage of the dugout photo-ops.

I’ve always dreamt what it was like to be in the Yankees’ dugout – and it was pretty cool knowing that, in only a matter of hours, the entire team would be back and buzzing; right in the same spot I was in, as the Yanks come home to host Boston tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday to close out the year.

Before we left, I sat down and slid my rear end across the entire bench, then declared,

“Derek Jeter always sits on this bench. And now I did, too.”

The two security guards laughed hysterically at my shenanigan.

We were then taken into the clubhouse, but with one small caveat: no pictures allowed. The organization feels the clubhouse is the Yankee players’ personal space, and snapping photos inside that personal space isn’t right.

I have to agree – if I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t want people coming in and taking pictures of my locker and my personal belongings which it holds.

Some things I did take notice of, albeit I don’t have pictures – and some clubhouse facts from Tim:

  • Boone Logan has a Yankee lawn gnome in his locker.
  • Jayson Nix had a bottle of what looked like prescription pills in his locker. And an iPhone charger.  
  • For most of the season, Derek Jeter has two lockers: one for his baseball equipment and one for fan mail and gifts from his sponsors. In fact, Tim said, “If they could fit a Ford truck into this clubhouse, they would, and it would be right in that locker with the rest of Jeter’s stuff.”
  • With all the September call-ups, Francisco Cervelli is using Jeter’s second locker, for now.
  • David Aardsma, who was just activated, didn’t have a name/number plate above his locker. That was to be expected, however. He hasn’t pitched at Yankee Stadium yet.
  • Ichiro’s locker is the same locker Hideki Matsui used.
  • The visiting clubhouse is “big and nice, but not as big and nice as the Yankees’ clubhouse.”
  • When leaving the new Stadium, the players don’t have to leave from the outside of the building – unlike the old Stadium.

The elevator from the clubhouse took us right up into the Great Hall where the tour started, and Tim gave everyone a little souvenir: a Yankee Stadium tour keychain. My friends and I then took a walk over to the Hard Rock Café for some lunch, which surprisingly was very affordable and not overly pricey. (My friend Alicia over at Ballparks on a Budget would appreciate it!)

We watched the Yanks take the win over the Jays as we ate, and before we left, we basically got a little bonus. It turns out part of the frieze from the old Stadium is now sitting outside Heritage Field. We went over and took some photos with it, and I placed my hand on it; kind of touched it with my heart, in a way.

As much as I like the new Stadium, I truly enjoyed the original House that Ruth built. And it felt only right to pay homage to a relic.

Overall, it was one of the best and most fun days of my life.

Was I the happiest kid in New York today?

Yes. But then again, I was probably the happiest kid alive.

Meeting the Hulk

It was almost laughable when the Yankees were a cool10 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East standings on July 18, but right now, there is nothing to laugh about. July 18 is practically a lifetime ago, and the Yanks are now only a slim 1.5 games up on the O’s with just nine games left in the 2012 regular season.

Now, the Yankees and Orioles in a nose-to-nose race, the AL East Division will more than likely come down to the last day of the season – the winner claiming the East and the short straw punching a ticket to a one-game Wild Card playoff.

On a positive note for New York, the Yankees have caught some late-season magic, never more evidenced than by Saturday afternoon’s thrilling 14-inning, 10-9 victory over the Oakland A’s at home.

Locked up at 5-5 in the 13th inning, Oakland managed to plate four runs to untie the game on the strength of three home runs. Trailing 9-5 in the bottom of the frame, defeat looked imminent for the Bombers.

But they made sure to make it interesting.

In a stroke of sheer resiliency, the Yankees scored four runs to knot the game up, highlighted by a huge two-run home run off the bat of Raul Ibanez. The next inning, Eduardo Nunez reached on an error allowing Ichiro to come home for the win.

It wasn’t the cleanest victory of 2012, but it was probably the most meaningful. All season long, the Yanks have fallen when they trailed after the eighth inning but on Saturday afternoon they proved they can win in the face of a sure loss; they gave us a taste of the old days of 2009.

While the Yankees were experiencing a radical win, I was experiencing something just as fun – meeting pro wrestling and pop culture icon, Hulk Hogan.

The Hulkster was signing autographs and making an appearance at a wrestling show at Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, N.Y. – the same Stadium I spent most of my summer nights this year, covering the Hudson Valley Renegades.

My cousin Joe and I patiently waited on line for several hours, but it was worth it. Once we got to the front, I shook Hulk’s hand, which is about as large as a tree trunk, and told him what an honor it was to meet him. Hulk was as nice as can be about it.

“Oh, the pleasure is all mine, brother! It’s good I got you protecting me now, you’re a young guy!”

Joe was mesmerized, being a huge “Hulkamaniac” (or in other words a fan of Hulk’s) since he was five years old. We each gave Hulk a “bro-hug,” if you will, after we took pictures with him. He joked for a minute with Joe, nearly hip-tossing him, and then we were on our way.

I have to say, meeting Hulk was pretty cool; a nice little memory I’ll hold onto. During the show he went face-to-face with one of his old foes from back in the day, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. It was pretty surreal; almost felt as if we were thrown into a time machine and sent back to 1985, the year Hogan and Piper headlined the first WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden.

On a side note, super heavyweight wrestler Vader also made an appearance. From the front row, I led the crowd in a Boy Meets World chant, as he held a recurring role as Frankie’s dad (for fans of the show who would know that). In fact, he wrestled Jake “the snake” Roberts in an episode, on the night of Topanga’s Sweet 16 party.

Vader saw me yelling Boy Meets World, smiled and shook his head. Then he looked at me from the ring and simply said,

“Ok, Ok. We got it, we got it…”

Back to the Minors

When the summer commenced and the high school sports season ended, my editor contacted me and asked if I wanted to cover some Hudson Valley Renegades games. Having interned for the Renegades over the summer of 2010, and needing to keep busy with work while school was out, I leaped at the opportunity, and spent many summer nights in the Dutchess Stadium press box.

Little did I know how far Hudson Valley was going to go, in terms of its season.

This past Thursday night, the Renegades captured the New York-Penn League title, beating the Tri-City Valley Cats 8-3. It marked the first time since 1999 Hudson Valley won a title and it was only the Renegades’ second championship in the team’s history.

Manager Jared Sandberg was nearly speechless after his team won it all, and was happy his squad was victorious for such a loyal fan base. His team pied him in the face while I was interviewing him, but he wiped it off and said,

“Hudson Valley has always meant a lot to me and my family, and to win a championship for these fans is amazing. The team had fun, but it was a focused fun; they came to play every single day and they came to work every single day. You really have to tip the cap to these players.”

What struck me about the Renegades from the first game I covered up until their champagne celebration after Thursday’s win was their resiliency. If they trailed late in the game, you could be almost certain they would find a way to come back and win it.

In fact, that resiliency was never more evident than in the playoffs. The New York-Penn League postseason is almost set up the way the MLB playoff system used to work. Four teams make it; three division winners and a Wild Card team. Elimination is best two-out-of-three – and twice the Renegades were down 1-0 after Game One, facing elimination in Game Two.

In the first round, Hudson Valley lost the first game to the Wild Card team, the Brooklyn Cyclones. With their backs to the ropes, the Renegades rebounded for two straight wins to advance to the League Championship Series.

Once it got there, Hudson Valley lost the first game to the Valley Cats. On the ropes again, and one win away from becoming a team who almost won, the Renegades came from behind and survived to win Game Two last Wednesday before reaching baseball nirvana on Thursday.

A big first inning highlighted the deciding game, as Hudson Valley wasted no time scoring runs.  First baseman Ryan Dunn rocketed a two-run single to center field to give the Renegades a quick 2-0 lead. Shortstop Leonardo Reginatto and catcher Jake DePew then followed with back-to-back RBI singles to give Hudson Valley a commanding 4-0 edge in the early going.

The Valley Cats chopped the lead in half by the sixth, but the Renegades fought back for more runs. Left fielder Marty Gantt drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, and later in the frame, Dunn came to the plate on an error.

Tri-City tacked on one in the seventh, but in the eighth Hudson Valley put it away, adding two more runs to its 6-3 lead. Gantt drove in a run with an RBI single to the right-center field gap, and eventually scored on a wild pitch to cap the night on offense.

Just as the Renegades’ bats were clicking, Hudson Valley’s pitching also held up. The Renegades used seven pitchers to piece together the clincher and were carried by a two-inning, four-strikeout performance from Brandon Henderson, who recorded the win.

Henderson also notched the win in the Renegades’ 2-0 victory over Brooklyn last Monday, setting down 13 consecutive Cyclone batters through 4.1 innings. He maintained the relaxed mentality throughout the playoffs.

“I just took it one pitch at a time, that was the mindset,” Henderson said. “I tried to dial in each pitch, and we got the job done. It was great energy, and all year we played really loose.”

Tampa Bay Rays’ first round draft pick this year, third baseman Richie Shaffer, finished the playoffs with five RBIs, three runs scored, and a triple.

Shaffer knocked in one of the Renegades’ two runs in the final game of the Brooklyn series, not to mention he crushed a go-ahead, three-run home run in the eighth inning of Game Two of the LCS to force a Game Three. The Renegades’ win overwhelmed Shaffer, and marked the first time he captured a team title.

“It’s incredible and this is why you play the game,” he said. “I could tell we had something special here and the chemistry among this team was unparalleled. This is one of the first times I ever won a championship in my career in baseball, since I was eight years old, and it’s just an awesome feeling.”

 Like the players, after it was all over, Sandberg felt a huge sense of satisfaction.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Both series we were down 1-0 and that’s how we played this entire season. We never gave up. It was a special season – they turned it into a special season.”

I’d like to thank the Renegades right now for allowing me to be a part of the team this season, albeit a small part. It was extremely fun to cover this group of players and I’m also happy manager Sandberg enjoyed my articles – he even went out of his way to compliment them several times.

I can only hope covering the Renegades this season served as just a prelude of what is to come for me in my career as a journalist. Perhaps a few years down the road, I’ll make the big press box at Yankee Stadium.

Let’s hope so.

Tribute to Uncle Mike

In October of 1999 my parents took a two week vacation to Hawaii. During their vacation I spent a few days with my cousins Joe (although he’ll always be Joey to me) and Kelly, my Aunt Terry and my Uncle Mike. One night Joey and I were bored, and Uncle Mike took us out to see “For Love of the Game,” a baseball movie that has become one of my all-time favorites.

This past year my Uncle Mike suffered from myelodysplastic syndromes, commonly known as MDS – a form of leukemia. Sadly this past Sunday evening, my Uncle Mike passed away.

What I’ll always remember about my Uncle Mike was how caring he was; how willing he always was to make others around him happy. As kids, every time Joey and I would be in the backyard of my grandpa’s house playing baseball, wiffle ball, or tossing the football back-and-forth, my Uncle Mike would always come and join us. We used to have to get down on our hands and knees and beg the other adults to come and pitch the wiffle ball to us, or pass the football.

With Uncle Mike it was never like that. We never had to beg him. When we were younger, he would always take time and hang out with us, and that’s what made him such a special person.

In the summer before I started fourth grade, my Aunt Terry and Uncle Mike invited me on vacation, to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. Joey and I had a blast, but the highlight of the trip came on the first night. We all went out to dinner to (if memory serves me correctly) TGI Friday’s. On the way, we passed a mini-golf course, and over dinner we thought it might be a cool idea to go mini-golfing after we ate.

By the time dinner was over, the golf course was closed. But Uncle Mike came up with a plan.

“I thought I saw a place across the street from the hotel called Caps City,” he said to us. “Maybe they have baseball caps there; maybe it’s got an arcade and batting cages or something.”

Thinking it couldn’t hurt, we took a ride there. But little did we know what Caps City really was.

“Aw man!” we heard Uncle Mike exclaim. “This isn’t an arcade, it’s a truck place!”

As it was, Caps City didn’t mean baseball caps, batting cages, or arcades. Just caps for pickup trucks.

For as long as I live, I will never forget that story – and it just proves what a great person my Uncle Mike was. He tried so hard to think of something fun for my cousin and I to do, and although it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, it was still fun.

I last saw Uncle Mike a couple of months ago. He asked me how I was doing and how work was going, to which I responded, “Fine” and “It’s going well.” It was difficult to see such a wonderful person and someone that I love so sick. But my uncle had a huge heart, and he used it to fight his illness for as long as he could.

Uncle Mike, I wish you peace. You will never be forgotten. Now that I am an uncle to my nephew Ryan, I can only hope I live up to what a fun-loving and caring uncle you were. You’ve set the bar pretty high!

“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where o’ death, are your plagues? Where, o’ grave, is your destruction?”  – Hosea 13:14

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