Heather Goes to the Playoffs

I love the Yankees. If you’ve spent more than five minutes with me, you have figured this out, either from the Yankee sticker on my car, my Yankee iPod cover or the fact that I speak about Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte like they are my close personal friends. My desk is covered with Yankee paraphernalia – my Bernie Williams cup holder, a post-it dispenser with a photo of the stadium, a Jason Giambi mouse pad, etc. I have traveled with the team on multiple occasions, planning my vacations to Seattle, Florida, Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore around when the Bronx Bombers are going to be in town. When I briefly considered getting a tattoo, one of the images I kept coming back to was the interlocking N-Y that makes up the Yankees logo (don’t worry, mom – I didn’t do it). It is absolutely no stretch to say that Yankee Stadium is one of my favorite places on Earth.

After a very dramatic end of the regular season, the New York Yankees finished as the American League East Champions and were going to the playoffs. I managed to score myself tickets to the first two rounds of games: Game 3 of the American League Division Series (against the Baltimore Orioles) and Game 1 of the American League Championship Series (against the Detroit Tigers). The way the schedule fell, that meant that I was going to two baseball games in four days. While that sounds like heaven to me, the fact that I live three hours from Yankee Stadium meant that I was going to be spending a lot of time riding the rails of Metro North.

Up until last year I had never been to a playoff game. I finally was able to get tickets to the 2011 ALDS series, but Mother Nature threw me a curve ball by postponing Game 1 after one inning because of rain. This meant that I had to go to the Bronx and back two nights in a row, which dampened (ha!) the experience a bit. It was still a lot of fun, but I was hoping that the games this year would be dry and without so much hassle.

What I love about playoff games is that there is just so much excitement in the atmosphere. Obviously there are big games in the regular season, but it is hard to live up to the drama that surrounds playing games with your season on the line. You can’t really slump in the post-season; lose the series and your season is done. The threat of elimination gives the games a significance that makes everything more electric. Teams are within sight of their ultimate goal – the World Series – but have to get through some of the best teams in the league to get there.

I also love going to night games; there is just something about the illuminated ballpark that adds to the majesty of the occasion. I don’t get to go to a lot of night games – most are during the week or Sunday nights, which are hard for me to do without taking a lot of time off work – so I relish in the opportunity to watch some baseball under the stars. Because playoff games are scheduled to try and get the biggest ratings, more often than not they are in the evening when people would be home from work/school and able to tune in.

Game 3, ALDS – Wednesday October 10, 2012 (Best of 5)

The first playoff game that I had tickets to was the first home game for the Yankees in their battle with the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees had already played two games in Baltimore and the series was split – each team had won one game. Whichever team won three games first would progress to the next round.

The night was off to a successful start when I finally accepted that I need to allot more time for the drive from Albany to the Poughkeepsie train station. All year I’ve had it in my head that I can get there easily in 90 minutes, which isn’t exactly true; while it is doable, any amount of traffic or construction or other minor inconvenience will throw the whole thing off. On more than one occasion this year, I have pulled into the station either just as the train I wanted was pulling away or have had to do a crazy mad dash with seconds to spare. Neither option is a very relaxing way to start the day. So I finally left earlier and not only got there without having to rush, but I even made an earlier train than the one I had planned to take. It’s amazing what happens when you work around the facts as they are, not what you wish they were.

It was a beautiful night when I arrived at the park; warm enough that I could get by without having to put my jacket on. I like to get to the stadium early so I can walk around, use the bathroom and get all my food. I generally don’t get up during games; once I’m seated, I tend to stay seated. If I’m in the middle of the row, I hate having to bother everyone else by getting up a lot. It’s a hassle for them and distracts everyone from what is going on during the game. But the real reason I don’t get up is because I don’t want to be seen eating on camera during the game; for this game I was sitting in the very front row of right field, so I the likelihood that I would be on camera was pretty high. And even though I know the chances of it are negligible, I live in fear of this happening to me:

The game in and of itself was kind of slow; neither team was scoring many runs, but for very different reasons – while Yankee pitcher Kuroda seemed to have trouble finding the strike zone, the Yankees were giving him good defense; The Orioles, on the other hand, were benefiting from the fact that almost the entire Yankee organization forgot how to hit a ball. Cano, A-Rod, Swisher, Granderson, Teixeira – everyone was coming up empty. Baltimore was ahead by one run going into the 9th inning and it didn’t look like the Yankees were going to pull it off. I’ll admit that I was very nervous – I thought my streak of seeing them win at home was about to be broken. I haven’t seen the Yankees lose at the Stadium since 2006 and I wasn’t looking forward to that coming to an end.

They say that legends are born in October; for some reason, there tends to be some player who rises to the occasion during the playoffs and does something to instantly make himself a legend. Reggie Jackson became “Mr. October” for his clutch hitting during the World Series; Derek Jeter became “Mr. November” in 2001 for his late inning home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Someone at some point steps up, throws the team on his back, and keeps them alive in the series through some key hits or effective defense.

I was about to see it happen in person.

In the bottom of the 9th, manager Joe Girardi decided to pull the struggling Alex Rodriguez from the game. This was a somewhat bold move, because to the best of my knowledge A-Rod has never been pinch hit for before in a post-season game. In doing this, Girardi was admitting that he didn’t have faith in A-Rod, who has a huge contract with the Yankees and who is supposed to be one of their big hitters. Instead, Raul Ibanez would be batting in A-Rod’s place. If this worked, Girardi would look like a genius; if it didn’t, he’d be raked over the coals.

Luckily for Girardi, it worked. Ibanez hit a home run that went flying into right field, two sections over from me. The Yankees had tied it up and we were headed into extra innings. I was pretty excited about all this, except for the fact I had to be at work at 8 am the next morning. While I was jumping up and down and cheering, I was mentally doing the math as to how late I was going to get home. As the game stretched into the 10th and 11th innings with no one scoring, the amount of sleep I was going to get continued to dwindle.

It was the bottom of 12th and I was beginning to think that if the game lasted much longer, I might as well just stay up and go to work rather than trying to get some sleep. There was no way I was going to leave the game early – when it comes to baseball, I’m a bitter-ender. Plus I had paid enough for these tickets that I wanted to make sure I got my money’s worth.

Once again, Raul Ibanez steps up to the plate. And all he needed was one pitch. He hammered his second homerun of the night, this time for the win.

And the stadium erupted.

I have been to a lot of games and I have NEVER seen the celebration like I saw Wednesday night. People were going out of their minds. Total strangers were hugging one another. Peanut shells and other debris rained down on us from the upper deck like confetti. It felt like the Stadium was actually shaking. Even the workers in the concession stands, who usually just look happy to be going home, joined in – they were banging pots and pans and twirling towels over their heads. It was absolutely everything I had hoped for in a playoff game and more.  I didn’t even care that I was only going to get 3 hours of sleep; it was totally worth it.

Game 1, ALDS – Saturday October 13, 2012 (Best of 7)

Unfortunately, my luck ran out with this game. Though Ibanez once again game through with heroics that sent the game into extra innings, the Yankees ultimately came up short in their opener against the Detroit Tigers. This game was really exceptionally fun for about 20 minutes; the Yankees were able to score 4 runs in the 9th to keep themselves alive and after the magic of previous games, you couldn’t help but hope that they were going to find a way to win again. Once again something dramatic would happen in the 12in inning, but not what we hoped. On what looked to be a fairly routine play, our beloved captain, Derek Jeter, broke his left ankle. While Wednesday I saw the Stadium at its most raucous, Saturday night it was eerily quiet as we watched in stunned disbelief as Jeter had to be carried off the field. All the air went out of the building, taking with it what faith we had that the team could pull it off. The Yankees’ anemic offense had no miracles this time and the Yankees lost, killing my streak and starting them off in the hole for the series. They would also lose the next game.

Some other thoughts:

  • Being a Paul O’Neill fan paid off on Wednesday – the people at Steiner Sports announced that anyone that came into their store at the Stadium with any O’Neill gear would receive a mystery gift card. I ran over there and showed them my O’Neill jersey and received a card that was worth $25. Not enough to put a dent in the item I have my eye on, but still a nice gesture.
  • I thought I knew just about everything about the Stadium, but Saturday night I discovered that they have deep fried Oreos and Twinkies. Of course, I had to have one. So this was my dinner:

  • The security guards at the Stadium are no joke – you will totally get yelled at for resting anything on the ledge in the front row – even if the game won’t start for another 30 minutes and batting practice is over.
  • Yankee Stadium has a small farmer’s market. I’m dying to know if anyone ever buys anything; I know when I think fresh produce, I’m thinking about a ball park.
  • If you plan on jumping up and down in celebration of a home run, you should probably not have a belly full of said deep fried Twinkie, a hot dog with sauerkraut and hot chocolate. I spent the 10th inning focusing on trying not to throw up.
  • I went all out for the playoffs – I even painted my nails Yankee blue.

  • Saturday was the latest I’ve ever been at the Stadium for a game or a concert – I didn’t wind up leaving until 1:10 am and didn’t get home until 4:40 am.
  • If you have been following the Nick Swisher controversy, I was sitting in the sections that were heckling him (though I didn’t participate – I’m not a big fan of booing your own players) and I didn’t hear anything that was that bad. Certainly nothing that mentioned his family or insinuated that he caused Jeter’s injury. I like Swisher, but he’s kind of being a baby. Jackie Robinson put up with some hateful stuff and you didn’t hear him complaining. You know what will shut people up? Hitting the ball or making some pretty routine catches.
  • One of the highlights of Wednesday’s game was seeing Mariano Rivera throw out the first pitch. I’m not going to lie, I teared up a little when I heard the opening chords of “Enter Sandman.” I miss him so much.

The series has now moved on to Detroit for three games and I’m not very confident that the team will make it necessary to play two more games in New York. I think they’re cooked. It’s too bad we can’t send our starting pitching – which has been outstanding – and Raul Ibanez to the World Series. They deserve to be there. So it looks like I’ll have to wait a little longer to cross that item off the bucket list. But it was a whirlwind few days of baseball and I’m so glad I got to experience it.

Old Timers Day – Yankee Stadium

There are many reasons I am a Yankees fan: I’m a New Yorker, after all, and it is definitely nice to root for a franchise that wins more often than not (I’m also a Buffalo Bills fan, so I’ve had the opposite experience too. Winning is definitely better.). But one of the things that really makes me love the organization is their sense of tradition and history. Most teams respect their past to some degree, but the Yankees are among the few who revel in it.  One example of how they pay tribute to their history is with the annual Old Timers’ Day game, where past players are invited back to the stadium to be cheered and applauded. While once a staple for most major league teams, the Yankees are the only team that holds the celebration every year. It is also one of the most popular games of the year, which says something about the fan base. I only started going to Old Timers’ Day last year, as it was always difficult to get good tickets for this game (I now get presales for Yankees tickets, so it’s gotten a lot easier).

I was particularly excited for Old Timers’ Day this year as it was the first time that I would get the chance to see Paul O’Neill, one of my all-time favorite players, participate. He hasn’t been part of Old Timers’ Day since the new stadium opened in 2009. O’Neill is a bit of a polarizing player – while fairly beloved within the organization, his penchant for destroying Gatorade coolers in the dugout when he is frustrated has earned him the label of being a crybaby with a temper. Where opposing fans see a whiner, I see someone with intensity and a passion for doing his best for his team. I always liked him when he was patrolling right field, but my affection for him has only increased in the years that he’s joined Michael Kay in the booth to call games for the YES network. He and Kay have a great rapport and he can bring a perspective that only a former player can give you. He is also endlessly amusing, as he talks about food all the time. The best is when the game is a blow out and not much is happening and he and Kay go off on some hilarious tangents. One of my prized possessions is O’Neill’s authentic jersey (#21, no name on the back) that I wear to every game; it really stands out in the sea of women wearing pink Jeter shirts and I’m proud to show my support for “The Warrior.” I normally sit in right field anyway, as I enjoy the antics and comedy stylings of Nick Swisher, but for Old Timers’ Day, I made sure I would have a good view of O’Neill during the exhibition game.

Welcome back, Paulie

Old Timers’ Day is always a lot of fun, but it is also a very long day. The ceremony starts around 11:30 and all the visiting alumni are announced one by one. The players who are able to play then participate in a three inning exhibition game. At 2 pm, the current Yankee roster takes the field to play their regularly scheduled game. All told, I was sitting in Yankee Stadium for close to 6 hours, which is a long time even when you are in comfy seats. Adding to the endurance challenge this year was the sweltering heat; it was 94 degrees this past Sunday and our seats had absolutely no shade. With the humidity, it actually felt like it was 96 degrees. I’ve finally accepted, after two painful sunburns, that I need to take precautions when I am going to be out in the sun for any prolonged period of time, so I slathered on some SPF 100+ sunblock (and faithfully reapplied it) and threw on a baseball hat and made the trek to the Bronx.

Despite how oppressive it was, it was a beautiful day to honor the former Yankees. The size of their uniforms may have changed a bit, but there is just something magical about seeing so many legends back in the pinstripes. You don’t have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate the history that was out on the field – two perfect game pitchers (David Cone and Don Larsen), the man who has a surgery named after him (Tommy John), and of course Yogi Berra, who has more World Series rings than any player in history and is possibly the cutest little old man to ever walk the planet. Yogi is always announced last at Old Timers’ Day, and rightfully so, and gets among the biggest ovations. I always get a list misty when he appears at events at the Stadium; at 87 years old, our time with Berra is limited and it makes me sad to think that one day he won’t be around to participate in something that clearly means so much to him.

Living Legend

Actually, I tear up quite a bit in general at Old Timers’ Day, though at least this year my tears were masked by sweat and the giant sunglasses that I was wearing. I well up whenever they show video of David Cone’s perfect game or when they announce any of the players who were a part of the late 90s Yankee dynasty, as these were the teams that I became a fan with and that I hold closest to my heart. I shed a tear or two when they announced Joe Torre, as well, and of course the biggest reaction came when I first saw Paul O’Neill take the field in his uniform. I am such a soft touch when it comes to this stuff. There is just something about the opportunity to thank these players who have given you so much enjoyment over the years and the chance to, however briefly, relieve those great moments. There is just something so comforting about looking out on the field and seeing O’Neill in right, Tino Martinez on first and Bernie in center field. As much as I love many of the current players, it is nice to take a stroll down memory lane. I am already dreading the day that Jeter and Rivera are a part of their first Old Timers’ Day. I’m going to be a wreck.

Old Timers Assemble!

Some other thoughts:

  • Quite by accident, our seat location but us right behind the Masters of Ceremonies (Michael Kay and John Sterling) so I got to see myself on the jumbotron, which was pretty cool. I’ve kind of always wanted to do that, so it was an added bonus to the day.

Kind of blurry because I zoomed in, but we’re under the O and D in Modell’s

  • For the second time this season, I made it on TV during the game thanks to a homerun that was hit to our section by Robinson Cano. This is becoming something of a trend.
  • The woman sitting next to us was a genius and brought in a small water gun that she sprayed our entire section with, much to the delight of the kids who were sitting nearby. It was a nice way to cool down a little.
  • The cameramen working the game missed getting some pretty amusing footage of me dumping bottles of water down the front of my tank top throughout the game. That would have made for some fun television and I wouldn’t have even cared. It got the job done and I was relatively comfortable the entire game.
  • If you are going to sell pints of ice cream, you need to give away stronger spoons to eat said ice cream with. The spoons we got were so flimsy that it took a lot of effort to get the ice cream out. And yes – eating a pint of ice cream while watching a Yankee game is pretty close to my definition of heaven.
  • I am now 3 for 3 in seeing the Yankees win this season. Clearly I am a good luck charm and someone should be getting me season tickets.
  • I really wish Mike Mussina would come to Old Timers’ Day again. It would be great to see Moose.
  • There had been rumors that Roger Clemens might show up this year. He had not been invited while under investigation, but with his recent court victory there was speculation that his ban had been lifted and that he would be present. That ultimately didn’t happen, though it would have been interesting to see what kind of reaction he would receive from fans.
  • O’Neill was apparently mic’d up during the exhibition game so he could still provide commentary from the field. I wish I had DVRed the game to hear what he had to say.
  • Swisher never fails to be fun – this is what he did in reaction to a fan yelling out “How many outs Swish?”

O’Neill would never do this

  • One of the Old Timers, I can’t recall who, made a diving catch and would up rolling around on the ground afterward. Good to see that the desire to win hasn’t left some of these guys and that they are still as competitive as ever.

It was a hot and sweaty day, but it was totally worth it. I’m already looking forward to the 67th Old Timers’ Day next year.

Exit Sandman

There will hopefully be a non-baseball post later today for those of you who aren’t interested in sports. But I had to write this in lieu of what happened last night.

People always guess that Mark Teixeira is my favorite New York Yankee. It’s not a bad guess, the way I carry on about him. Hell, I even partially named my cat after him. A few years ago they may have guessed Jason Giambi for similar reasons; I apparently have a thing for first basemen that wear the number 25. Some people assume it’s Derek Jeter because that is who most girls like, obviously forgetting that I am not like most girls. Nick Swisher might get a mention or two, since I try to sit in his section at every game. But while I love and respect all these players, none of them is my tried and true favorite.

That honor belongs to Mariano Rivera.

There is just something magical about hearing the first notes of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the door to the bullpen opening up and then seeing #42 jog out to the mound. It is honestly one of my favorite moments in the world. For Yankee fans, it means relief that the game is in his capable hands because for the last 18 years, Rivera has been able to baffle opposing players with just one pitch. Even though everyone knows that he will probably be throwing a cutter, he is somehow unhittable. He is just that damn good. While he generally enters games during high pressure situations, he is cool as a cucumber. When he does occasionally blow a save, a fairly rare occurrence, he is able to let it roll of his shoulders and doesn’t let it linger on his consciousness. Pitchers, more than any other position, seem to be head cases, so this talent is especially rare. He just goes out the next night and returns to his usual awesomeness.

I am the only Yankee fan in my family, but in 2004 we all went down to Yankee Stadium to see a game. It was an enjoyable day – everyone in my family is at least a sports fan – and while I am not particularly mouthy at games anyway, I was particularly mild mannered during this outing. That is, until Mariano came out in the 9th inning. To my parents’ utter shock and surprise, I jumped up and started hooting and hollering and cheering my little heart out, singing along loudly with Metallica. I wasn’t the only one – the stadium is electrified whenever he appears – but my family was especially surprised to see their relatively reserved and quiet daughter/sister get so riled up. It was their first real glimpse at the depth of my fandom in person. Mo can do that to a girl.

It isn’t just Yankees fans that tout the greatness of Rivera. Most fans of baseball, regardless of team loyalty, appreciate and respect Mo. Even dyed in the wool Red Sox fans, who have a tough time saying anything nice about the Yankees, concur that he is the best closer in baseball. That is high praise indeed. Part of his universal appeal is not just his conduct on the field, but the type of person that he is off the field. Rivera conducts himself with dignity and class. A very spiritual man, you get the distinct impression that none of this goes to his head. His comments after the game are always thoughtful and insightful and he is willing to take full responsibility when he has an off night. He does not showboat. He quietly goes about his job and does what he can to help the team. He makes baseball better.

And last night he suffered what is a season ending and potentially career ending injury.

During batting practice before the game in Kansas City, Mo was in the outfield shagging fly balls, as he is wont to do. This was not something out of the ordinary; it’s something I’ve seen him do many times. But last night something went very wrong. While going to catch a fly ball hit by newcomer (and possible covert assassin) Jayson Nix, Mo’s knee just buckled and he dropped to the ground. The pain on his face was actually more alarming than the fall. This was clearly not good. I think A-Rod’s reaction summed it up best: he blanched, said “oh my God” and called for manager Joe Girardi.

I thankfully did not see this happen. I missed the beginning of the game. But while I was on Twitter I saw a disturbing tweet:

Mariano Rivera carted off field during batting practice with knee injury

A knot instantly formed in my stomach.

I tried to remain optimistic, but in my heart I knew. And this morning the Yankees announced the extent of his injuries. Rivera had torn his ACL and meniscus in his right knee. He is certainly out for the season. But at 42, Rivera had been hinting that this might be his final season before retirement. So this injury was not only the end of his season, it could easily be the end of his career.

And Mo deserved better than that.

I’m not even that upset about the season. Sure, this is a big loss, but I have faith that David Robertson will rise to the occasion and be the closer that we need him to be. It’s not like we don’t have options. I don’t think this means the Yankees’ season is over. Winning the pennant has just become more difficult. But there is just something so undignified about Rivera’s storied career ending like this. It isn’t just a loss for the Yankees; it is a loss for all of baseball. He deserved a farewell tour and to be showered with the cheers and respect of the fans. He should have ended his career with fireworks and standing ovations. He should not have it ended in Kansas City, where good baseball goes to die.

If you’re not a sports fan, you probably don’t get all the hoopla. No one is dead. Injuries happen and are a part of the game. There are bigger issues in the world. Life is unfair. I concur on all points. But if you aren’t a fan, you don’t understand the bond that is developed with players. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life rooting for Mo. It may be one-sided, but I am emotionally invested in him. It doesn’t have to be logical. With his possible retirement looming, I was already preparing myself for baseball without Mo. But not this way.

This is all you need to know about Rivera: during his post injury interview, Mo was asked to describe his pain. “It’s more mental than physical right now. I let the team down.” Even in his agony, he was thinking about his teammates and how his absence would affect them. It doesn’t get much classier than that.

I still hold out some hope that if there is any way it is physically possible, Mo will return. This probably isn’t the ending he would have written for himself either. But if I never see him pitch again, I will be forever thankful for what he did for my team and for the sport of baseball. See you in Cooperstown.

Possibly the last time I’ll ever see this – Game One of the ALDS in 2011

UPDATE: In an interview this afternoon, Mariano said he will be back in 2013. “Write it down, in big letters. I’m not going out like this.” From his lips to God’s ears. Here’s to hoping!