Reviewing The Twins-Yankees Series

I missed college a great deal yesterday. I don’t miss it often; the South and I had a doomed relationship, I never found a subject that fired me up, and wearing a jacket and tie to a football game will never, ever make sense to me. Two out of those three could easily be classified as self-inflicted, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m at peace with my dispassion towards much of my college experience. But if there were ever a day to make me long for a time machine, yesterday would be it.

The magnitude of the day revealed itself slowly. I woke up eminently cognizant of the Yankees game at seven o’clock. I also knew the Giants were playing the Raiders at one. Then, as if the sports schedule were a coloring book and these games were the thick black lines, I slowly filled in the vacant spaces. The Angels were playing the Red Sox at noon. The Broncos and Rockies were playing at four and ten, respectively. I realized there would be twelve consecutive hours of meaningful sports, and that’s precisely when I started to miss my closest friends from college. If the year were 2007 instead of 2009, the five of us would have procured our adult beverages of choice, secured some terribly unhealthy provisions, and embedded ourselves in front of our too-large television for a day of witty banter, obnoxious proclamations, and the rare enlightening debate. That’s what I missed and will continue to miss the most about college: those endless, sports-filled Saturdays and Sundays that gave us a great excuse to do nothing but enjoy each other’s company.

On a less nostalgic note, yesterday also provided the faint but exhilarating possibility of the elusive fivefecta (I couldn’t find anything higher than a superfecta, so I made this up.) The fivefecta is the unassisted triple play of sports fandom, albeit less sudden in its occurence. If the Red Sox lost, the Giants won, the Broncos won (at the Patriots’ expense), the Yankees won, and the Rockies won, October 11th, 2009 would have to be considered one of the all-time great days in personal fan history. Naturally, I decided to monitor this situation very closely, only to see it fall short because of the uncharacteristically effective Brad Lidge. And so it goes.

As you can probably guess, the most important game of the day for me was the Yankees-Twins contest. Because it’s October and my doctor says it’s bad for me to be a statistically-inclined curmudgeon all the game, I decided to watch it the way most fans do: with youthful exuberance, relentless optimism, and with the belief in the unlikely. Valiantly, that approach lasted until the bottom of the eighth inning, when a perpetual pet peeve and occasional blog topic reared its ugly head. I simply could not resist the temptation. I regressed into curmudgeonhood, which I why I’m writing this right now.

Down 2-1, the Twins’ Nick Punto began the bottom of the eighth with an improbable double against Yankees reliever Phil Hughes. Denard Span followed by chopping the ball up the middle to a ranging Derek Jeter for an infield single. For the briefest of moments, it appeared as if the Twins would have runners on first and third with nobody out. Then Jeter looked towards third base, then towards home, and fired the ball to the latter. Punto had strayed too far from third in his flirtation with scoring. Catcher Jorge Posada quickly relayed Jeter’s throw to third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who promptly tagged out the retreating Punto. Now there was only a runner on first base with one out. It was an enormously important play that had major implications for the game’s outcome.

As is often the case, my problem isn’t with the play itself but with its coverage and context. Surprising no one, TBS’ coverage of this and all other series has been watered down and amateurish, with occasional forays into the incompetent. Because of the network’s apparent intent to appeal to the lowest common denominator, broadcasters Chip Caray and Ron Darling have hammered the Twins’ most prominent virtue into our heads since the first game of the series. That virtue is, of course, their inherent ability to “play the game the right way,” “do all the little things,” and “not beat themselves” (hours before ESPN’s Keith Law did the same thing, I compared this characterization to saying a woman “has a great personality”, in front of my horrified mother and girlfriend, no less). In announcer-speak, this means that the Twins hustle, bunt, sacrifice fly, throw strikes, play good defense, and run the bases well. The problem is that this isn’t entirely true. Yes, the Twins ranked 2nd in sacrifice flies and in walks surrendered, but they ranked 19th in sacrifice bunts and 21st in defensive efficiency. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, this unproductive replacement of fact with myth, and it shows no signs of going away. And if that series against the Yankees didn’t dispel that erroneous notion, I don’t know what will.

Consider all the mistakes the Twins made against the Yankees. In Game 1, left fielder Delmon Young and shortstop Orlando Cabrera made terrible relay throws in trying to cut down Robinson Cano at the plate. First baseman Michael Cuddyer made an error that allowed Jeter to reach second base, and to score later on an Alex Rodriguez single. In Game 2, Carlos Gomez was cut down at second with two outs before Young could score, depriving the Twins of an early 1-0 lead. Joe Nathan threw the ball away in an attempt to pick off pinch-runner Brett Gardner at second. The Twins loaded the bases with nobody out in the 11th, and failed to plate a single run. In Game 3, Punto committed his aforementioned baserunning error, in which he put his head down and blasted through his coach’s stop sign. The Twins played sloppy baseball for three games, and while that wasn’t the entire reason they lost the series, it certainly didn’t help their cause.

Chip Caray and Ron Darling, of course, were either unwilling or unable to connect the dots on a meaningful level. Whenever they were given the slightest bit of evidence that supported the Twins’ purported strengths (say, a stolen base or a successful hit-and-run), they took it and ran with it. Egregious blunders, on the other hand, were characterized as flukey and not representative of “Twins baseball.” Not once did it cross their minds that the Twins were making all these mistakes because they were an average team having a rough series. No, national broadcasts require the relentless continuation of unsubstantiated myths to satisfy the appetite of the casual fan. They require fables that are designed to resonate with the qualities we think we have in ourselves. The Twins play hard. They hustle, they care, and they do the right thing. We are supposed to empathize with these qualities instead of questioning them. Because if you dig a little deeper, you’ll learn that the Twins simply hit pretty well, pitch passably, play poor defense, and were required to do all three against a superior Yankees club. Perhaps this sort of analysis doesn’t sell as well, and it certainly doesn’t require much work to produce, but it does attempt to educate and enlighten. Which, crazy me, I think is the entire point of analysis in the first place.

* * * * * * *

A few links that I wanted to share, but couldn’t fit in without it being shoddy:

  • Alex Rodriguez’s postseason line now sits at .291/.381/.519, which is not far off from his career .305/.390/.576 line. Furthermore, his playoff statistics are now higher than October demigod Derek Jeter’s, almost exactly the same as the clutch artist formerly known as David Ortiz’s, and way better than the endearingly impatient Vladimir Guerrero’s. Can we finally put to rest the notion that Rodriguez is a choker? Please?
  • Did you know that Phil Cuzzi – the umpire that blew this important call – was once fired from the same position in the minor leagues? This story doesn’t make the reasons for his termination clear, but it sure isn’t an encouraging tidbit.
  • Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia has an excuse for you. It’s always something with the Red Sox. A couple years ago, Josh Beckett claimed his blister was caused by a defective baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka had trouble adjusting to the different size of American baseballs and the mattresses in American hotels. Give me a break. Sometimes, you play poorly. Sometimes, bad luck happens. And sometimes, those two things happen simultaneously.
  • Some enterprising soul has created a genuinely hilarious fake Twitter account for TBS’ genuinely terrible play-by-play man, Chip Caray. Caray’s signature qualities: a bizarre reliance on the verb “fist” when describing any un-resounding contact with the baseball, frequent factual errors, the belief that – much like him – no one follows baseball until October, and an inability to differentiate between a base hit and a line drive out.
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