I often find myself wondering what makes us, as fans, care. There are probably a million other more practical things we could be doing with the three hours it takes for our favorite baseball team to play a game against their division rivals. Why do we care if a bunch of millionaires win a game? Does it personally affect our lives?
I don’t know why we care so much, but we do. And the fact that we do makes games like Saturday night’s against the Orioles so hard to swallow.
For the second time during the four game-set in Baltimore, the Yankees clawed their way back via a late-inning rally to no avail. But this time it wasn’t the bullpen that blew it.
It was umpire Jerry Meals.
Going into Saturday’s game, the Yankees were only one game ahead of Baltimore in the American League East. It’s not hyperbole to say that every game, every pitch, and every call are crucial from here on out. The Orioles took the first game on Thursday after the Yankees came all the way back from a 6-1 deficit with a five-run rally in the eighth. But the Yankees countered with an 8-5 victory on Friday behind a decent pitching performance by Phil Hughes.
On Saturday night, the Yankees jumped out to a 2-0 lead for ace CC Sabathia, thanks to a sacrifice fly from Alex Rodriguez in the first inning and an RBI double by Ichiro Suzuki in the second. However, Sabathia squandered the lead by surrendering back-to-back home runs to Yankee slaughterer Mark Reynolds and Lew Ford. Reynolds now has the most home runs against the Yanks this season with 7. Sabathia himself said his performance was less than ace-like, admitting, “We had a 2-0 lead and I come right back and give it up. That’s not me. Hopefully I can correct this thing and go out and pitch well next time.”
Sabathia gave up another run in the third and two more in the sixth to make the score 5-2. The workhorse did give his team 6 1/3 innings before Cody Eppley came in, giving the bullpen a much-needed break. A solo shot by A-Rod, who has contributed nicely since returning from the disabled list last week, narrowed the deficit to 5-3 in the eighth inning.
The ninth inning began auspiciously for the Yankees, with singles by Ichiro and Eric Chavez. Then Derek Jeter dropped a picture-perfect bunt down to third and reached base safely, loading the bases with nobody out and setting the stage for the Yankees to prove they could overcome their most prominent problem this season—clutch hitting.
Nick Swisher, riding a horrid 0-for-22 skid, hit a soft ground ball to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who flipped to second for the force out. The return throw to first came up short, allowing Swisher to reach base and Ichiro to score. The score was now 5-4, and the Yankees had runners on the corners with one out for Mark Teixeira.
On Friday, Teixeira returned from a calf injury that forced him to miss ten games, and was being extra cautious when running so as not to aggravate it. He chopped a 2-2 changeup from Orioles closer Jim Johnson to second and immediately hustled down the line. A flip to second recorded the first out of the double play, and Teixeira, who dove headfirst into first base, was called out by Meals, despite the fact that multiple replays clearly showed his hand on first before the ball was in first baseman Reynold’s glove.
Teixeira spiked his helmet in disgust and candidly lambasted the officials post-game. “Sometimes you wonder if the umpires are just trying to get out of there. They don’t want you to make a comeback. They want to go home, because those are terrible calls. I’m probably going to get fined, but I don’t care, really, because I’m out there fighting. When you’re battling like we’re battling, and I’m out there on one leg and they can’t get a call right, that [ticks] you off. It really does.”
Teixeira’s passion last night was refreshing because it truly felt like he was acting as a spokesman for us fans. We’re used to seeing subdued post-game interviews, with players giving uncontroversial, stilted responses after losses like, “It’s part of the game” or “Sometimes the calls don’t go your way.” Tex’s sentiments echoed mine upon seeing Meals make the out-call fist; there really wasn’t a question in my mind that he was safe, and I, too, was outraged at the call. At that point in time, he didn’t care about the money or the fame baseball has brought him; he was thinking purely of the game and how disappointed everyone was.
Saturday’s blown call debacle brings up a larger-picture debate—should baseball expand use of instant replay? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Currently, instant replay can only be used in home run disputes, but MLB commissioner Bud Selig has recently mentioned that it will expand in the future. Critics are concerned about it affecting the pace of the game, but that’s a weak argument for a simple reason: the pace is already slow, and if you care about the game, you shouldn’t care about how long it takes to get the call right. Especially during a September pennant race game.
Whatever the reason, I care about the game. I love the palpable passion of the players, the camaraderie of being around other fans, and the euphoria you feel when your team wins. I couldn’t live without it. Maybe it’s the way I was raised, or maybe true allegiance to a sports franchise is beyond our control. We don’t choose them, they choose us.
The Yankees must beat the Orioles on Sunday, both for themselves, and for us.