Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Service of Youth

17 year-old Melanie Oudin from Marietta Georgia has had one hell of a late summer's vacation in New York City.....and she is still not quite ready to head home. Oudin is competing in the women's draw at the U.S. Open. On Saturday afternoon, in front of 37,000 people (give or take a few) who were packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium at the National Tennis Center, she rallied to defeat former world #1 player Maria Sharapova in three sets to advance to Round #4 of the Open.

Oudin, who was coming off an upset of the #4 seed Elena Dementieva in the second round, dropped her first set against Sharapova before rallying to win the final two sets and the match. It struck me as odd how quickly time passes in professional sports - especially women's tennis. Maria Sharapova seems to have been in my mind's eye forever as one of top players in the world. She is, herself, but 22 years old.

Saturday afternoon all of the glory and all of of the crowd's love belonged to the plucky Peach from Marietta. How easy a kid is she to root for? Well, at the end of the match, during her post-match interview at court side she thanked the fans for cheering for her. While I am only a casual tennis fan at best and had never heard her name prior to her second round upset of Dementieva, her grace under pressure and her maturity beyond her years are already becoming well known to those who know the game.

Young Ms. Oudin will turn eighteen later this month. In fact she shares her birthday with quite a famous cover boy whose music I have enjoyed for roughly twice as long as she has been alive. Man, does that make Springsteen old or what? I know not whether this year's edition of the Open shall last only one round longer for Melanie Oudin or if she still has miles to go before she sleeps. It matters not as this year's length of stay shall not detract from the brightness of her future.

Several hundred miles north of Flushing, Queens on Saturday afternoon, the Yankees played the Toronto Blue Jays. In a season that has shifted from chaos to calmness for the Bombers, one of the players who has undergone a most profound metamorphosis is Phil Hughes. A few seasons back, Hughes burst onto the season for the Yankees as a starting pitcher and was one of the "young guns" around whom they were going to build their rotation. Great things were projected for Hughes and his two compadres Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain - especially after the Yankees declined to trade any combination of the three of them to Minnesota to acquire Johan Santana from the Twins prior to the '08 season.

A funny thing happened to Hughes on his way to Cooperstown. He had an abysmal '08 season. He did not win a single game - making only eight starts in an injury-interrupted season and finishing with an 0-4 record and an ERA of slightly more than a touchdown per game (extra point not included). When the '09 season began, the former "can't miss" kid was dazzling fans of the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He got called up to fill in for Chien Ming-Wang when Wang went on the disabled list for the first time earlier this season. His performance as a starter was average - at best - and when Wang came off of the DL, Hughes was slated to return to Triple-A.

A funny thing happened on his way back to the farm. Hughes petitioned his manager and his pitching coach for the chance to stay - saying he would rather pitch in a supporting role coming out of the bullpen than go back down to the minors. Apparently intrigued by his tenacity, Girardi took him up on the offer and instead of giving him bus fare to northeastern Pennsylvania, the Yankees made him a reliever.

An even funnier thing happened once Hughes became a relief pitcher. He took to the role as if he was born to it. As a Yankees fan, I have been spoiled for more than a dozen years by the fixture at the back of their bullpen. While not even Mariano Rivera is enough to make me plunk down my hard-earned money on any piece of music with the name METALLICA stamped upon it, I have long been comforted by the opening strains of "Enter Sandman".

But not even Mo can keep running out of the Yankees bullpen forever. And as he inches closer and closer to 40 the need for the Yankees to eventually find someone to whom they might be able to hand the ball at game's end grows more and more pressing. And with Mo taking a few days off to nurse a sore groin (a luxury afforded by an eight game divisional lead), on Saturday afternoon twenty-three year-old Phil Hughes was that guy.

With the game in the balance in the bottom of the eighth inning and Brian Bruney doing what he has a propensity to do, which is put base runners on base and add anxiety where it is otherwise unwelcome and unwanted, Hughes got the call to step into Mo's shoes and save the day. Hughes struck out the only hitter he faced in the eighth and then blew the Jays away in the ninth for a four-out save that took him a total of fifteen pitches to achieve.

There is not a Yankees fan I know who looks forward to the day when the bullpen door opens and Mo does not walk through it to begin that all-too-familiar trot to the mound. Yet again on Saturday, Hughes gave us a reason to hope that perhaps life will go on once Mo is collecting pension checks and not pay checks.

Everyday is a revolution. Welcome to the future. Pack your Ray-Bans......

Just in case.

-AK

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