On the weekend that the 2007-08 football season has begun, it’s comforting to know that we’ve still got the best part of three more months of baseball to serve as a distraction. Not that I’m anti-football, far from it, but a combination of the relentlessly over-hyped Premiership and the likelihood that it will be another season of disappointment for Norwich (although like all fans, I’m naively optimistic) makes me glad to have America’s national past time to drift away to. As always, there’s been plenty to capture the imagination in MLB this past week.
The home run king is dead, long live the home run king – We can’t start anywhere else but with that man again. Barry Bonds hit number 756 on Tuesday to become the all-time home run leader and, with the burden lifted from his shoulders, has continued adding to his tally over the course of the week. Bonds’ reaction has unsurprisingly been one of relief: now he can simply concentrate on his baseball rather than the pressures of passing the Babe and Aaron. Elsewhere the landmark has prompted a variety of reactions. Hank Aaron lived up to his reputation by acknowledging Bonds’ achievement via a very dignified pre-recorded message (which Bonds seemed to be genuinely touched by). The Commissioner of MLB wasn’t in attendance, but considering the way he embarrassed himself when Bonds hit number 755, that was probably for the best. The American media has feasted on the story with the issue of steroids rarely far from the surface and sadly it is the latter, rather than the sporting achievement, that has prompted the most comment in the British press. Like most baseball fans, I’m just glad that we can now move on and talk about something else.
300 for Glavine – Tom Glavine joined the hallowed ranks of the 300 club on Sunday by helping his Mets to a 8-3 victory over the Cubs live on Five. He became only the twenty-third pitcher in Major League history to win 300 or more games. Of the other twenty-two, twenty are in the Hall of Fame and two (Clemens and Glavine’s former team mate Greg Maddux) are nailed-on certainties so crossing the threshold from 299 to 300 seems to stamp your ticket to Cooperstown. That should come as no surprise as the Hall of Fame is designed to honour and celebrate the elite and the mark of a truly great player is someone who performs at a consistently high level for a long period of time. Glavine has been a terrific pitcher over the last twenty years and is still keeping the best hitters off balance at forty-one years old. Fourteen of his 300 wins have come in October and his thirty-five career post-season starts are the most of any pitcher in MLB history. Glavine may only have one World Series ring (he was the MVP of that 1995 series as well), but he’s in with a fair chance of winning another with the Mets this season. Glavine has suggested that he might retire should the Mets be successful this year. Few would begrudge him from going out on such a note.
The battle goes on – One of the best parts of baseball is the game within the game: the battle between pitchers and hitters, with both sides looking to stamp their authority on each other. Brandon Webb blanked the Nationals last night, leading his team to a 1-0 victory and making it four consecutive starts without giving up a run. While Webb is on a streak of thirty-three scoreless innings in the NL, Bobby Jenks has retired thirty-eight straight hitters in the AL which is only three behind Jim Barr’s all-time MLB record. The length of these streaks suggests that it’s more a case of great pitching than poor hitting. When the A’s pitching staff managed to rack up twenty-one strikeouts against the Rangers on Monday, most observers apportioned the blame to the Texas offense. Still, the hitters are fighting back with the Cards putting ten runs on the board in a fifth inning onslaught against the Padres and the Rockies pounding nineteen runs in a game against the Brewers. Maybe the humidor was on the blink that night?
“It’s ‘Rick of the Rovers’ stuff” – One man who knows about the pressures on both sides of the pitching/hitting battle is Rick Ankiel. In previous weeks we have seen stories in MLB unfold as if they were following a script. Ankiel’s story is yet another that could easily be mistaken for the plot of a film. When he announced in March 2005 that he would be giving up pitching and taking to the outfield, most observers mourned the early end of a promising Major League career. Brian Gunn of the Hardball Times summed up the feelings of many when he stated that Ankiel “is not a real hitter by any conceivable stretch of the imagination” and that “for all intents and purposes it’s best to consider Rick Ankiel [as] retired from baseball”. Gunn, a big St Louis fan, was being cruel to be kind; hoping for an end to the very public suffering that Ankiel had endured since his control escaped him in freakish fashion against the Braves in the 2000 NLDS. Two years and five months after that initial announcement, Ankiel walked to the batters box at Busch Stadium on Thursday night to the sound of rapturous applause. When he hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning, an incredible wave of joy swept the stadium and it’s impossible to watch the footage without getting caught up in the moment. Ankiel followed this up by going deep twice last night, making it three homers in his first three games back in the big leagues. He’s not going to keep hitting .417/.417/.1.167 of course, but there’s every reason to think he can carve out a decent career as a hitter and it will be an incredible achievement if he does.
Where’s the strikezone? – Ankiel may have suffered flashbacks had he watched any of the Yankees/Blue Jays series this week. Several pitchers were missing the strikezone by a fair distance, although this wasn’t a case of erratic control. No, they were putting the ball exactly where they wanted it: straight in the direction of the batter. A feud has been building between the two clubs since A-Rod’s schoolboy shout caused the Jays to drop a pop-up in a game earlier this season. Josh Towers hit A-Rod in the leg on Tuesday (this followed a failed attempt from the day before) and Roger Clemens retaliated by nailing Alex Rios square in the back. You have to feel a bit sorry for Rios: there’s a bit of a difference between Josh “tough as tissue” Towers throwing at you and Roger “the Rocket” Clemens! The latter received a five-game suspension while Towers just received a fine, although I guess that’s a fair reflection on the potential damage the two could have caused.
Beware: a moose is loose (on an ATV) – Finally, if bad blood still exists between the two AL East rivals, let’s hope the events at Seattle haven’t given them any ideas for the next round of retaliation. Coco Crisp nearly became Coco Crushed on Sunday after failing to look both ways when taking the field at Safeco. To be fair, he probably didn’t expect the Mariner Moose to be hurtling past on an ATV! The Moose clipped Crisp as he went past and thankfully it didn’t cause any damage to the ATV (Crisp was okay as well). No doubt the lawsuit is in the post though.