Saturday, July 4, 2009

Baseball on the Fourth of July

The spot is perfect.

Dangerous, sure, but we're humans. We sacrifice safety and comfort for bright lights and big noises, all in the name of celebration.

We are Americans, after all. We always find a way.


On the mound, starting for the Yankees today, is not an American but a Taiwanese. Chien Ming Wang.

It's no secret how he's struggled all season.

His first three starts were so horrendous the Yankees placed him on the disabled list, even though there were questions about whether or not he was really hurt.

He came off the disabled list again, but slowly, he has begun to look more and more respectable.

The last time he pitched, last Sunday, nearly halfway into the season and against a depleted Mets line up, Wang finally picked up a win.

It wasn't pretty, but the five-and-a-third innings and only two runs given up were a season best.

We're Americans. We like our progress.


It's the top of a hill made up of construction rubble; a block east of the West Side Highway it affords us a perfect view of the Hudson River and the sunset over New Jersey.

It's not safe.

Not even a little.

There is a steep climb, full of loosed rocks and sharp weeds, to get to the top, and then, once there, there is a steep drop off into a construction pit. Put simply: take too big a step forward, and you're dead.

Still, this is the best spot we can find, an hour before it's supposed to start.

The West Side Highway is completely blocked off and everything else is too low.

We marvel at our ingenuity in finding the spots.

We're not all Americans; we speak to each other not just in English but in Spanish and Polish and Hebrew; but we are all in America, and on today, that is all that matters.


Wang is not an American, but he plays for an American team.

Today, the Fourth of July, an American team is facing a Toronto team.

The Yankees have to win today, it's tempting to think, because there would be something inherently wrong about a Canadian team beating an American team on Independence Day.

Nothing personal against Canada, but today is America's day. It's not that I'm uppity or anything, but Canada had their celebration three days ago.

Today, it's our turn.


There are only a few of us on the hill at first, but then people see us, and they follow.

More and more people climb the hill.

Some climb it too fast; some sit all the way over the edge; one has sushi and a Blue Moon.


Before the game starts I tell Brent that I don't expect the Yankees to win, so I'll enjoy the game for the sake of enjoying the game.

Brent nods.

Again, it's nothing personal.

Roy Halladay is that good of a starter.

Chien Ming Wang has, this season, been that bad.

I never stop to consider how the two are on divergent paths.

Wang has been getting better. Stronger. More efficient. Halladay has only just come off the DL and struggled in his first game back.

As John Sterling would say, "You can't predict baseball."


While we wait we make friends with the others that have gathered on the hill.

We laugh about the danger, about the illegality of what we are doing.

We act like idiots and then proceed to admit that no, we have not actually been drinking.

Neither, we are somewhat shocked to hear, has anyone else.

It's like my brother told me via AIM two nights ago: Fireworks, then alcohol.


It's easy enough to tell it's the Fourth at the Stadium: an actual band performing the National Anthem; a reading of Lou Gehrig's farewell address that has lost none of its potency; Ronan Tynan singing "God Bless America"...

...You don't see these things every day.

Another thing you don't see every day: Alex Rodriguez knocking in a two-out base hit with a runner in scoring position to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first. It's not a knock on Alex Rodriguez. The entire team has struggled here this year.

The lead is short lived, but that doesn't matter so much.

The Yankees drew first blood.

The Yankees showed, in the very first inning, that they could hit and score off of Roy Halladay.

He would have to be that much better, if he wanted to win.


Five minutes before the fireworks are supposed to start, an undercover cop makes himself known.

"This is a Construction Site. Private property. If you don't want to be arrested, get off the hill now."

He is alone.

We move slowly. We drag it out like a 12-pitch at bat or a 22-inning baseball game.

We do not go quietly into that good night.


Somehow, some way, the Yankees get to the sixth inning with a 3-2 lead.

Wang is not just pitching well; he's pitching the best we've seen him this season.

It's the sixth inning and he's only thrown 58 pitches. Both Brent and I want to talk about it, but we won't. We're baseball fans, and superstition runs deep in our blood.

On this day, however, even thinking about it seems to be bad luck.

A single. Then a home run. A 3-2 lead is now a 4-3 deficit and it gets worse when Jorge Posada motions to the dugout, sending Dave Eiland back and bringing out Joe Girardi and the trainer.

It doesn't matter how badly Wang is hurt; that he's hurt is bad enough. It disrupts the flow of the team. Already the speculation begins: what about Wang's next start? Do you take Hughes out of the bullpen? Do you dare to disrupt a bullpen that since the 1st of June has a 2.35 ERA and a .179 BAA? You can't.


The undercover cop is soon backed up by a squad of uniformed cops.

I feel like I am in a Law and Order episode, in the very beginning, just minding my own business before all hell breaks loose.

It doesn't.

Not tonight.

We walk slowly downhill. Biding our time.

Then the fireworks start.

We stop. We stop, we turn, and we watch.

The police don't bother us any more.


The atmosphere that escapes the Stadium once Wang leaves with the injury is slow to build up again.

It will reach a certain point, and then, like clockwork, Robinson Cano comes up to bat and does something to record the final out of the inning.

This is how the game gets to extra innings.

Sure, scoreless innings from Brian Bruney, Mariano Rivera, Phil Coke and Brett Tomko all help, but it's the failure of Cano's bat that keeps the game going, even as the July sun beats down on us, as some decide they've had enough and leave, even as it comes down to one more pitcher left in the bullpen.


The fireworks dazzle.

It's a feast of light, of color and of sound.

"You know," Brent says, "This is what we should do with our firepower. Not blow up other people, but put on displays like this."

I wonder if, when the Ancient Chinese developed fireworks, if they had the same effect on those that saw them.

We are humans. We like bright sights and booming sounds.


It ends with Jorge Posada.

Jorge Posada, in the 12th inning, when it's gone from being high drama to please-for-the-love-of-America-end-this-game-because-I'm-hungry.

Is it fitting that Posada ends the game?

He doesn't have the mythical status of Derek Jeter, who doesn't come to bat in the evening; nor does it have the clutchy-mc-clutchness that Melky Cabrera's crafted for himself; nor the redemption that a Robinson Cano hit would bring; nor the long-overdue-ness that a walk-off Mark Teixeira blast would have; nor the grittyguttyness of Brett Gardner.

It is, instead, one of the guys just doing his thing.

Doing his job and doing it well.

That's American.

So's the pie that comes afterward--a fake-out from Joba Chamberlain and then BOOM! from AJ Burnett.

Triumph on the Fourth--that's America, too.*


"You know," Brent says, as we make our way east from the Hudson, "baseball, fireworks...we really are the luckiest people on the face of the earth."

"Yeah," I say, "We are."

*The Declaration wasn't actually signed on the fourth. It was made on the 2nd and most didn't sign it until the 19th. But, as in most all of history, such trivialities are minor details.