In a variety of ways, I returned to baseball with a fervor because of what transpired in the 2017 MLB campaign.
Before the New York Yankees carved out an unexpected postseason run, I had already deemed 2017 a year to cherish, recall, and preserve for a dark day.
Thirty years after the band’s release of The Joshua Tree, U2 put on a tour to commemorate the release of one of the greatest albums of all-time, a record upon which my childhood and adolescence were largely shaped and predicated. For the first time, I was privy to seeing them live on a resplendent summer evening at Foxborough in June. The verdict? Bono’s still got it.
A week later, I took a group of students on an educational tour of China. The trip accumulated memory after memory, from a wondrous jaunt atop the Great Wall, to a bicycle tour on the ancient city wall of Xi’an, a nighttime river cruise around the Bund in Shanghai, and a gripping inspection of the Terracotta Army. Given the disposition of my students—every last one of whom was attentive, appreciative, and adventurous (not even a relative monsoon on the Great Wall dampened their jubilant spirits)—the tour quickly became one of the most enduring experiences in my time as an educator.
To cap off a most indelible summer was my return to Yankee Stadium in August, my first time there since its inaugural season in 2009. To celebrate my mother and son’s birthdays (theirs are exactly a week apart), I purchased grandstand tickets between home plate and first base for the middle game of a Player’s Weekend series against the Seattle Mariners. In what was Mom and Eric’s first time at the new Stadium, the Yankees won 6-3 behind a two-run shot from Jacoby Ellsbury and a gem from Sonny Gray, who pitched what was arguably his finest start in pinstripes.
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My son, who had recently turned 10, proudly sported his Aaron Judge tee that day. The joy I fathomed in partaking in his first Yankee Stadium experience was among the highest points of my young fatherhood thus far. It helps that Judge, now Eric’s hero, fashioned an MVP-caliber campaign from a season mired in slumps and a bevy of strikeouts. After his torrid month of September, Judge ultimately served as an exemplar for my son in the proper ways to manage adversity.
On that unseasonably cool Saturday in August, I rekindled my lifelong love affair with baseball, one that blossomed right up to the bitter end of the Yankees’ magical season, which, against all odds, continued to burgeon in defeat as the Los Angeles Dodgers returned to the Fall Classic for the first time in 29 seasons to face the Houston Astros, the Yankees’ immensely worthy conquerors. For what it’s worth, Game 2 of this year’s Series was already an instant classic before it reached extra frames.
Three years ago, my home church convened in the local high school’s auditorium—my place of employment—every Sunday for about a year. My pastor began the sermon with a video from the I am Second series, featuring Dodgers’ southpaw Clayton Kershaw.
The video demonstrates Kershaw’s pledge to his faith, showing how the game falls a distant second to his desire to serve the needy in Africa and his respective, inveterate commitments to his wife and Christ. I was already a fan of Kershaw’s, but his testimony made me believe in something larger than baseball and ultimately made Kershaw my favorite ballplayer outside of the Yankees’ organization. In the way that video altered my perspective on how I desire to lead my life, the many bright moments of the 2017 season served to revitalize my interest in the national pastime, in much the same fashion Terrence Mann monologued about the sport to an awe-inspired Ray Kinsella and made him a believer in the game’s hard-to-define allure.
In Game 1 of the World Series, Kershaw rebounded from an Alex Bregman solo shot to compile 11 strikeouts over seven innings of a dazzling effort on the mound that was a far cry from his previous October self, willing the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory in what is unquestionably his best postseason start, outlasting Houston ace Dallas Keuchel in the process. His magnificent turn in the most frenzied crucible of professional sports, the Fall Classic, demonstrated what this October has become: a postseason founded upon stellar pitching.
Exhibit A: Stephen Strasburg, reportedly ill before taking the mound, gave the Nationals hope in his splendid Game 4 start in the NLDS, a convincing addition to his sterling postseason portfolio as he punched out 12 batters over seven innings in a win against the defending champs, eventual victors of the series, at Wrigley Field.
In the American League, the Yankees do not advance without the collective efforts of Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka, who played his way into an opt-out at season’s end (update: he is staying on for three more years!), in the ALDS and ALCS. Then again, the Astros do not best New York without Keuchel’s Game 1 masterpiece and Justin Verlander‘s resurgence as ALCS MVP (in 11 starts in an Astros uniform, he only lost one. One).
But before October, the lengthy, vacillating, pulsating-with-life season churned out its share of stories and moments that would fascinate, if not wholly attract, even the most casual breed of fan.
Lost in the Yoan Moncada hype in Chicago was the story of outfielder Nicky Delmonico, an Aug. 1 call-up who defeated Adderall addiction, a 50-game suspension, and a desire to quit the game on his way to posting nine homers and a 129 OPS+ in the season’s final two months.
In what was otherwise a lost season for the Philadelphia Phillies, the team welcomed Rhys Hoskins to the majors after his dominance at the Triple-A level. The hot-shot prospect became just the fourth player in MLB history to hit seven homers in his first fourteen games, crafting a narrative that equaled Gary Sanchez‘s Herculean feats in the twilight of the 2016 season. Hoskins’s effort, for a time, kept pace with Giancarlo Stanton‘s assault on NL pitching, a tear that fell just short of 60 homers, all but effacing the turmoil and aftermath of Jose Fernandez‘s death last season.
Chris Taylor, a co-NLCS MVP with Justin Turner, ended his season with a higher WAR (4.8 to 4.3) than Cody Bellinger, who is a lock for the NL Rookie of the Year, given his power metrics (39 homers for 2nd most in the NL and a .933 OPS) and counting numbers (97 RBI). Taylor, a fifth-round selection of the Seattle Mariners, came to Los Angeles in a quiet, run-of-the-mill trade last year without the hype and pedigree of Bellinger, and yet, he was instrumental in stabilizing the Dodgers, who had an abysmal finish to the season, leading them to the best record in baseball.
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Chad Bettis of the Colorado Rockies returned on August 14 against the Atlanta Braves after a battle with cancer, throwing seven innings of shutout ball in a thrilling 3-0 win. Despite a 5.05 ERA on the season, Bettis ended the campaign with another brilliant start, pitching seven innings of one-run, four-hit ball for his second win of 2017 to best the Dodgers, urging Colorado into a one-game playoff with the Arizona Diamondbacks as the league’s second Wild Card (alas, they would ultimately lose that game, 11-8).
The Cleveland Indians, clearly unsatiated after their heart-rending World Series loss to the Cubs last year, rode AL Cy Young hopeful Corey Kluber to a 22-game win streak, the second best in the game’s history. Remarkably, they completed the feat with the likes of Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, and Danny Salazar missing large chunks of time. With the Yankees having beaten Cleveland in the ALDS in convincing, come-from-behind fashion, outlasting Kluber twice in the process, New York demonstrated a mettle and fortitude unbecoming of a tenderfoot starting lineup that averaged 28 years of age, the Yankees’ youngest club since 1992.
While Gary Sanchez continued mashing in 2017—he reached 33 home runs in 122 games, notching 12 in the month of August alone and 20 in all in the season’s second half—Judge and his gargantuan shots developed into the story in baseball, where, by the All-Star Break’s Home Run Derby, the right fielder became, as Commissioner Rob Manfred noted, “the face of the sport.”
According to Statcast, six of Judge’s hits this year were in the top ten in individual exit velocity, the fastest of which, a blast that left his bat at 121.1 MPH on a pitch from Chris Tillman, was second best in the majors, behind only Giancarlo Stanton. His average exit velocity (95.3 MPH) was tops in the majors, and his 495-foot shot against the Orioles on June 11, his second on the day, was the longest hit in a game this season. Just as impressive for Judge was his work with the glove, whether he was robbing Francisco Lindor of a homer in Game 3 of the ALDS or making not one, but two magnificent catches in Game 3 of the ALCS to hold the Astros at bay and reclaim momentum in the series.
But for every moment he wrangled from the highlight reel, Judge was quick to credit teammates for their play or pine for a World Series over any individual accolade, MVP award included. Win or lose, during the nadir of his slump or after a two-homer game, Judge answered the call before the press each and every night, his deference to others a trademark of his time spent responding to questions in the locker room. While the mounting comparisons to Derek Jeter were unfair from the start, Judge has equaled the former Yankee captain through his grace, poise, and overall likability amongst fans and in the clubhouse. His jerseys are everywhere in sight at a typical home game in the Bronx, while the Judge’s Chambers and #AllRise hashtag became a bonafide sensation, unlike any craze the sport has realized in the social media era.
Although the Yankees’ recent October stretch could not save manager Joe Girardi from what seems a non-confluent dismissal (for 10 years, the skipper never had a losing season, even despite replacing an immortal manager in Joe Torre and guiding the organization through the end of its dynasty, when the club’s farm system was woefully depleted and the old guard comprised a number of key positions), the group he helmed was lively, unclasped, and perceptibly thrilled to play the game, evinced in the way they rallied around Girardi despite his failure to request a replay after a wayward Chad Green pitch struck the knob of Lonnie Chisenhall‘s bat in an 8-3 game whose tally grew to 8-7, the result of a Francisco Lindor grand slam, in an eventual Cleveland win in Game 2 of the ALDS. With every dominant Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and David Robertson outing, one had to credit Girardi’s ability to handle his bullpen to gain an advantage over what seemed like every matchup until the lightning escaped the bottle in the ALCS’s Game 7. A nod to Girardi, too, for knowing when to avoid a Dellin Betances implosion or how to manage Aroldis Chapman‘s loss of the closer’s role to grooming him to win it back, wonderfully so, by September.
One night, the unassuming Didi Gregorius, who has resoundingly aced his shortstop audition, stands on the top step of the dugout, marveling over another “high, far, and gone” knock over the wall from Aaron Judge, his saluting hand shielding out the sun from his eyes. As Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blares from the Stadium’s public address system, Didi hurries to his phone to tweet about the result, emojis and all. The next day, Ronald Torreyes, a fan favorite on the level of Mariano Duncan, a diminutive utility man who was forced to replace Starlin Castro for an extended spell in July and August, rises the ladder to slap the almost-out-of-reach paw of the greatest slugger in the American League, who towers over him by what seems two feet. Likely in that same game, Torreyes hosts a staged exhibition of “The Toe-night Show,” as players clutch makeshift props and assemble around the infielder to “interview” a teammate entering the dugout, fresh off a tiebreaking home run trot. Very rarely were such displays performed to show up the opposition; rather, they demonstrated the genuine affinity one teammate had for the other, refreshing displays running parallel to the antics that poured from the dugout in the old Stadium, when bench coach Don Zimmer fraternized alongside Jeter and Torre like a kid waiting for his ups on the sandlot.
And despite what the 2017 iteration of the Bronx Bombers amassed, the seasons ahead could yield far more. Gleyber Torres, the prize of last season’s Aroldis Chapman trade and the top prospect in the Yankees’ system, posts regularly on his promising rehab from Tommy John surgery, the consequence of sliding aggressively into home plate. His ascension ought to give Starlin Castro, who faded down the stretch in 2017, reason to fret about his immediate job security. Estevan Florial, galvanized in his stints in Tampa, Trenton, and the Arizona Fall League, looks to be the centerfielder of the future, commanding a disposition that reportedly puts Judge and Jeter collectively to shame. Miguel Andujar, likely to man the hot corner while Chase Headley and, hopefully, Todd Frazier keep the position warm for him (is there any player more thrilled to be a Yankee in the club’s history?), very well might force upper management to reconsider Manny Machado as a free agent option in 2019. And with Albert Abreu, Chance Adams, and Justus Sheffield, the minors boast a collection of arms yearning to join Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery with the big club. American League teams will be left shuddering should Brian Cashman add Japanese phenom Shohei Otani to a batch of unrealized promise.
By so many standards, there is not much to belabor about the club as it is currently constituted. Hence, the love affair that will blossom between my son and me the way it had on those late college nights when I called my mom after every Yankee win in October, when we bid farewell to the twentieth century, one of undisputed Yankee dominance, the franchise’s latest dynasty cementing my adoration for the pinstripes that my mother and father introduced to me when Mattingly and Winfield were titans of New York.
But as I care to stress, this season was not merely about the Yankees. The 113th edition of the World Series, the Dodgers’ first appearance in 29 years and Houston’s second in thirteen years, demonstrated the sport’s penchant for drama.
While I cursed every Astros rally in the ALCS, I shyly marveled at manager A.J. Hinch‘s ability to convince his players to sacrifice in the vein of moving runners over, with speedster Jose Altuve wreaking havoc on the base paths and either Carlos Correa or Yulieski Gurriel, a 33-year-old, mop-topped rookie from Cuba, knocking him in after a single and stolen base moved the AL MVP hopeful into scoring position, just the way Hinch orchestrated it. For every Houston rally initiated by Altuve or George Springer, every subsequent Yankee effort was stymied by the filthy breaking stuff of Dallas Keuchel or the nasty doses of heat doled out by Justin Verlander, who collectively gave the Astros, winners of their first ever World Series contest in Game 2, and ultimately the city’s first World Series about a week later, a tremendous advantage against the Dodgers’ combination of Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish, the latter of whom was dreadful in Games 3 and 7.
Speaking of Game 2: is there any better theater than what L.A. and Houston managed on a balmy, West Coast night in October? From Vin Scully and Fernando Valenzuela‘s “call to the bullpen,” ceremonial first pitch to George Springer’s game-winning, two-run shot in the eleventh inning, the game’s eighth home run, most ever in a World Series contest, the game had everything, be it Yasiel Puig‘s frustration in failing to snag his glove around a long fly ball from Alex Bregman to his homer in the tenth to bring the Dodgers within one run. Honestly, before the seventh inning, the game was all about pitching, as Rich Hill and Verlander swapped out for out through the game’s first five innings, combining for 12 strikeouts. Alas, Dave Roberts grew too enamored with his bullpen, in the midst of a 28 inning scoreless streak, undefeated when leading after eight innings this year; all he could do was watch and wallow as Kenley Jansen failed to record the six outs his team needed to take a 2-0 lead in the Series.
Not to be outdone, Game 5, a thrilling 13-12 Astros victory that provided them a 3-2 advantage in the Series, provided even more thrills, thanks in part to a taxed Dodger bullpen—Brandon Morrow yielded four runs himself on only six pitches (he pitched in 15 of the Dodgers’ 17 games this postseason, including every game in the World Series)—and Kershaw’s failure to hold a 4-0 lead. In what was their last home game of the Series, the Houston faithful willed their club to victory, a wave the Astros rode all the way to a split in Los Angeles, cemented by a win in the only contest that mattered in the end: Game 7, one that was not even close after Darvish imploded—he was unable to last past the second inning for the second time in the Series, effectively sullying his free agent bid—as his Dodgers left a litany of runners on base. Ultimately, with no shutdown reliever to call on (Ken Giles was demoted as closer), the Astros, who survived despite so-so efforts from Keuchel and Verlander, leaned mightily on unsung heroes in the rotation, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton, to deliver a championship to a city still reeling from the mounting relief efforts related to Hurricane Harvey.
Throughout October, FOX Sports forged an analyst team of Kevin Burkhardt, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz (who replaced the troubling and enigmatic Pete Rose, fired for connections to sexual misconduct with a minor from his playing days), Keith Hernandez, and Frank Thomas, an assemblage of talent and insight that, quite frankly, viewing audiences have never witnessed before.
A-Rod, still paid by the Yankees in the final year of his contract, has developed a niche that allows him to illustrate his expertise and savant-like mind in gripping discussions about hitting mechanics that are supplemented by Big Papi’s hybrid of hijinks (his exchanges with Rodriguez about the Red Sox were goofy, yet fantastic) and careful analysis. A pariah in the latter portion of his playing days, Alex Rodriguez redeemed himself to such a degree that his newfound calling for baseball scrutiny and analytics might very well soften the stance of voters hellbent on keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Eight years removed from his World Series heroics against the Philadelphia Phillies, Alex Rodriguez was vital in saving my waning interest in the game, a preoccupation that now borders on a fever-pitch obsession I personally have not experienced since my college years.
And then there is Twitter, a vehicle for information and dissemination that ultimately saved professional sports—most notably, baseball and basketball—while subsequently obliterating print media, for better or for worse.
Twitter is a tremendous form of social media that enhances the sports-viewing experience with the nuance of watching the sport in-person from the sideline, bench, dugout, or press box. Something special happens, like Verlander’s Bob Gibson-esque performance in Game 2 of the ALCS? Hundreds of inquiring, reflective voices are sounding off in unison about what that feat means to the overall fabric of Houston’s run and October baseball, past and present. The Indians’ most prolific run producer, Edwin Encarnacion, rolls his ankle trying to get back to second base in Game 2 of the ALDS? Within minutes, tweeters, especially AP-badge carrying journalists who just so happen to be there, are disseminating what they know before the television broadcast booth can report on the nature of the injury. The response to these events and incidents is instantaneous, deafening, and, at times, difficult to process. But a more focused Twitter approach, one that is carefully tailored toward specific teams, their fans and beat writers alike, envelops a Yankee junkie such as myself with a passion and perspective that borders on a long-standing marriage, with followers corroborating in the ebbs and flows, ups and downs of a marathon season predicated on equal parts disappointment and joy. It is because of my Twitter engagement these last two seasons, amongst the many who write for this very site, with the Yankees in the process of revolutionizing their approach toward constructing a championship club, that my love for the game has eclipsed anything else I have ever before experienced, an exuberance I plan to instill in my oldest boy, Eric.
Given what the Yankees’ future holds, I anticipate my affinity only blossoming further. As Humphrey Bogart famously quipped at the end of Casablanca, I sign off on what has been a magnificent season in Major League Baseball, echoing the sentiment: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”