Friday, November 4, 2011

Remember, Remember, the 4th of November (and Matty Alou)

November 4, 2001, 10 years ago today: It was supposed to be the triumph that New York City and the entire Tri-State Area needed so badly.

November 4, 2009, 2 years ago today: We finally got that triumph.

*

After the 9/11 attacks, the Yankees went on a postseason run heavy with mythical overtones.

* Dropping the first 2 games of the American League Division Series to the Oakland Athletics, at home, no less.

* A Mike Mussina shutout and Derek Jeter's "Flip Play" save them in Game 3 in Oakland, and they win the series at home in Game 5.

* Facing the Seattle Mariners, whose 116 wins had broken the AL regular-season record set by the 1998 Yankees and tied the major league record set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs, and exposing them for the competitive frauds that they were in the AL Championship Series, wrapping it up in 5 games at Yankee Stadium.

* Dropping the first 2 games of the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix.

* Winning Game 3, then being down to their last at-bat in Game 4, trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the 9th, when Tino Martinez hit a home run to tie it and send it to extra innings, where the first-ever major league game on October 31 -- Halloween, and with a Full Moon, no less -- moved past midnight to become the first-ever major league game in November, and in the 10th, Derek Jeter homered to win it.

* Being in a similar situation in Game 5, trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the 9th, and Scott Brosius, who had been an unlikely postseason hero so many times that he had become a likely postseason hero, tied it with a homer, and the Yankees won it in the 12th on an RBI single by Alfonso Soriano.

* Getting blown out 15-2 in Game 6, the worst postseason defeat in Yankee history, setting up a Game 7.

* Game 7 starting as a duel between 2 of the greatest and most controversial pitchers of the time, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, both of whom would become much more controversial as the years went on. Both lived up to the occasion and the matchup and pitched very well: Schilling held the Yankees to 1 run on 4 hits over the first 7 innings; Clemens held the Diamondbacks to 1 run on 7 hits before Yankee manager Joe Torre called on Mike Stanton to get the last 2 outs in the top of the 7th.

* Diamondback manager Bob Brenly stuck with Schilling for the top of the 8th, with the game tied 1-1, and Soriano hit a home run. 2-1 Yankees, and it looked like Soriano had become one of the biggest World Series heroes ever -- the man who had hit the 2nd-latest home run in World Series history, behind only Bill Mazeroski's bottom-of-the-9th homer to beat the Yankees for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960... and in the year that Mazeroski had finally been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, to boot. Brenly has Randy Johnson, who'd already beaten the Yankees in Games 2 and 6, to relieve.

* With the 1-run lead, Torre relieved Stanton by sending supercloser Mariano Rivera out for the 8th inning. He'd gotten away with that 5 times in this postseason. This was the 6th time he'd tried it.

* It was still 2-1 Yankees in the bottom of the 9th, and Mariano needed to get just 3 more outs to give the Yankees their 4th straight World Championship, their 5th in the last 6 years, their 27th overall.

It didn't happen. Mark Grace led off with a single to center. Brenly sent in David Dellucci to pinch-run for him.

Damian Miller grounded back to Mariano, who threw to 2nd to start a double play -- and threw it away. Tying run on 2nd. World Series-winning run on 1st.

Brenly sent Jay Bell up to pinch-hit for the Big Unit. He bunted, and Mariano threw to 3rd to get Dellucci on a force. Still tying run on 2nd. World Series-winning run on 1st, but now there's 1 out. Just need to get 2 more.

Mariano wouldn't get his next 2 outs until April 3, 2002 -- 5 months later, or 148 days.

Brenly sent Midre Cummings to pinch-run for Miller at 2nd. Tony Womack doubled down the right field line. Cummings scored. Bell reached 3rd with the run that could win the Series, and could score on a sacrifice fly.

Craig Counsell, who had been the man who drove in the tying run and scored the winning run for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, came up with the chance to be the hero again. Mariano hit him with a pitch. Not known as a purpose pitcher, Mariano was, for one of the very few times in his career, rattled.

Up stepped Luis Gonzalez. A classmate and teammate of Tino Martinez at Thomas Jefferson High School in Tampa, Florida. A man whose seasonal home run totals had been 13 at age 23, 10 at 24, 15 at 25 (okay, he was playing his home games in the Houston Astrodome), 8 at 26 (1994, strike-shortened season), 13 at 27, 15 at 28 (the last 2 as a Chicago Cub, and remember that the wind blows in at Wrigley Field half the time), 10 at 29 (back in Houston, still in the Astrodome), and then...

He hit 23 home runs at age 30. Yes, he was now playing for the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium, but this was also 1998. The year of Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy, and whatever it was that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were using to hit 70 and 66 home runs, respectively. Gonzalez hit 26 at 31, and 31 at 32. Very good, but no big deal -- until you realize that those last 2 years were with the Diamondbacks, playing their home games at Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field), which, like the Astrodome but unlike some other indoor stadiums, is a bad ballpark for hitters.

At age 34, Gonzalez hit 28 homers. At 35, 26. At 36, 17. At 37, 24. At 38 and 39, 15 both times. He closed his career with 8 homers at age 40 in 2006.

Respectable numbers, if they were achieved honestly.

In 2001, at age 33, the year of Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs, Luis Gonzalez hit 57 home runs. That's 26 more than he had ever hit before, and 29 more than he would ever hit again. People talk about Brady Anderson hitting 50 in 1996, when he'd only topped 16 once before, had never topped 21, and would never top 24 again nor 19 but once, and they suspected steroids.

What Luis Gonzalez did on the night of November 4, 2001 did not suggest steroids. Just as Bobby Thomson said that, 50 years earlier, he didn't need help to know that Ralph Branca was going to throw a meaty fastball. Doesn't mean Thomson didn't take advantage of the help that the Giants had been offering for the last few weeks. And it doesn't mean that Gonzalez hadn't been using steroids since 1998.

Gonzalez hit a looper into center field for a base hit. Bell scored the run that won the World Series for the Diamondbacks in only their 4th season.

*

At the time, I was terribly disappointed. But not crushed. There were a lot of really good players on that team who had played for a long time, some with awful teams, and had struggled to get to this point, and really deserved it.

Grace with the Cubs. Johnson with the Mariners. Schilling with the Philadelphia Phillies. Gonzalez with the Astros. Bell and Womack with the Pirates. Matt Williams with the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians -- in this Series, Williams became the first man, and remains the only one, to hit home runs in World Series play for 3 different teams.

For the Yankees, Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius retired, and Tino and Chuck Knoblauch were allowed to leave. So 4 starters needed to be replaced. This game began a period of 7 years that would prove very frustrating, despite making the Playoffs in all but the last.

So the game had a true "end of an era" feel, emphasized by Buster Olney when he titled his book about the 1996-2001 Yankees, and especially this game, The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.

But it was still a disappointment to me, nothing more. Some Yankee Fans were heartbroken. Not me. I was over it fairly quickly, and by Opening Day I was really optimistic again.

*

Over the next few years, things would change, and make this defeat something to get really angry about. Williams would be revealed as a caught steroid user. Gonzalez would call a press conference and angrily deny that he had used them, after a newspaper article danced around the question of whether he did. Although never publicly revealed to have been caught, people have often wondered about Johnson and Schilling, chosen the co-Most Valuable Players of this Series.

And, of course, accusations have also been leveled at some of the Yankees from this Series, including Clemens (the proof has still never been publicly revealed), Knoblauch (who admitted taking human-growth hormone, or HGH, but also said that it hurt more than it helped, which doesn't take him completely off the hook, but hardly makes him a cheater on the level of, say, David Ortiz), and Andy Pettitte (the one thing that can be proven was a brief moment the next season and it didn't help the Yankees win a Pennant).

Nevertheless, looking at losing the 1997 AL Eastern Division Title to Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro, and the Baltimore Orioles... looking at the 2001 World Series... looking at losing the 2003 World Series to Ivan Rodriguez and the Marlins... looking at losing the 2004 ALCS and the 2007 Division Title to the Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series both times...

It is obvious: Regardless of how much you might think that performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) such as steroids and HGH have helped the Yankees, only a damned liar would deny that no team has been hurt by steroid use more than the Yankees.

And I haven't even mentioned some of the other fallout from this Series. Schilling, whether he used PEDs or not, joined the Red Sox and became the most willing and vocal Yankee Hater in the history of that team (except maybe for Bill Lee), and emphasized what Lee Thomas, his former general manager with the Phillies, said about him: "One day out of five, he's a horse; the other four, he's a horse's ass." Johnson also deepened his reputation as an ass, all the while also deepening his reputation as one of the top 5 lefthanded pitchers of all time (along with Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton). And Johnson and Womack both later became Yankees, each playing a part in a postseason futzup (Womack in 2004, Johnson in both '05 and '06).

The 2001 loss is probably the only Yankee defeat that bothers me significantly more in retrospect than it did at the time. The '03, '04 and '07 losses bother me more now than they did then, now that we know what we know, and suspect what we suspect -- but not on the same level as 2001.

The Yankees, and the New York Tri-State Area, wanted to win in those other years. On November 4, 2001, just 55 days after 9/11, we had to have it. And the Diamondbacks took it from us -- by cheating.

*

On November 4, 2009, one year to the day after the election of President Barack Obama -- over John McCain, the Senator from Arizona who was sitting next to then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani that night in Phoenix, and don't think I wasn't happy for, among other things, his defeat -- the Yankees won Game 6 of the World Series, beating the Philadelphia Phillies, 7-3 at the new Yankee Stadium, and clinched their 27th World Championship, 8 years to the day after they should have.

Hideki Matsui, in what turned out to be his last game with the Yankees, drove in 6 runs, including hitting a home run, a blast, off a "blast from the past," Pedro Martinez. I don't think any Yankee homer -- not by Chris Chambliss, Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Don Mattingly, Jim Leyritz, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Derek Jeter, even Aaron Boone -- has ever made me feel better, because of what Pedro the Punk represents.

Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte and Jorge Posada, the holdovers from 2001, got their rings, Posada his 4th (his 5th title, though I don't think he got a ring for 1996), the others their 5th. For Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, their 1st.

The slates had been wiped clean. As Hank Steinbrenner requested, the universe had been restored to order.

Let's hope that no future baseball season will ever have to wait until November 4 to be resolved. We need scheduling reform.

*

Rest in peace, Mateo Rojas Alou. A native of Bajos de Haina, in the province of San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, "Matty" played in the major leagues from 1960 to 1974, including most of the 1973 season with the Yankees, before he was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals.

He's best known for his tenure with the Giants, from 1960 to 1965, where he was a teammate of his brothers Felipe and Jesus, along with future Hall-of-Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry; and also Jack Sanford, who, though not a Hall-of-Famer, won 24 games and the Cy Young Award in 1962.

On September 10, 1963, Jesus was called up to the majors, and all 3 brothers batted in the 8th inning against Mets righthander Carlton Willey. It was the first time 3 siblings had played for the same team at the same time, and it remains the only time 3 siblings hit in the same half-inning. Willey retired the Alous in order, a rare moment of glory for the inept early Mets, who won 4-2. Oddly, the game took place at the Polo Grounds, longtime home of the Giants, now of the Mets, in its last 8 days of active baseball life.

Five days later, on September 15, 1963, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the Alou brothers made history by playing together in the San Francisco outfield for the final two innings of a 13-5 rout of the Pirates. Matty played left field, Felipe was in center, and Jesus was in right. The brothers would fill the outfield once more before Felipe was traded to the Braves in the off-season. Having Mays, and putting McCovey in left until Cepeda was traded to restore McCovey to his natural position of first base, the Giants didn't need reserve outfielders all that often.

But in spite of all that talent, the Giants didn't win a World Series. They came close, losing the 1962 Series to the Yankees (after Matty's bunt single began a rally that won a Pennant Playoff against the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers) and missing the 1965 NL Pennant by 2 games and the '66 Pennant by a game and a half (both won by said rivals).

But Matty was no longer in San Francisco in 1966. He'd been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and led the National League in batting with a .342 average. In 1969 he led the NL in hits and doubles. But bad luck would follow him: Before the 1971 season, the Pirates would trade him, and then they won the World Series. He became Yankee, but was sold before the Bronx renaissance could happen, and went to the Cardinals in an era where they were a close-but-no-cigar team. He finished with the San Diego Padres in 1974, before they got good.

He played 3 seasons in Japan and then spent the rest of his baseball career managing in the Dominican Winter League in his homeland. Matty died yesterday, of complications of diabetes. He was 72.

Felipe, a 3-time All-Star, is 76, and has retired from an active role in baseball, after having managed the Montreal Expos and the Giants for a combined 17 seasons.

He is the father of Moises Alou, a 6-time All-Star who won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997, but is probably best remembered as the "victim" of the Steve Bartman play for the Cubs, against the Marlins, in 2003. He last played in 2008, for the Mets. He is currently out of baseball.

Jesus is 69, and is the director of scouting operations in the Dominican Republic for the Red Sox, having previously held that job with the Marlins. He was a member of 2 World Championship teams in Oakland, with the 1973 and '74 A's. He was a Met in 1975, and closed his playing career with the Astros in 1979.

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