Sunday, July 31, 2011

Once Upon a Saturday Afternoon

If my arrival as Kid #6 in the Kenny Family batting order had not so thoroughly convinced Mom/Dad to get out of the baby-making business, then I might in fact have been given the chance to be a big brother. Sadly it did so I did not. Had I though been given that opportunity and had my younger sibling been a sister, then I think she would have been much like my pal Gracie. She and I have had an older brother/younger sister relationship since we first worked together and became friends more than a decade ago. Like any big brother, I cringed silently at some of the "choices" she made...right up until she met Joe. Today is her birthday and she and Joe are celebrating it in the home they just bought about a month ago. When good things happen to good people, it is of course good. When it happens to good people who you know and care about, it is better than good. To Gracie, I wish a Happy Birthday and countless years of better than good. A present she has more than earned.

You might have missed the item in the newspapers from earlier this week about the death at age 42 of former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu. According to published reports, the police in Los Angeles were investigating his death as a likely suicide. Sad and more than that - given the neutron bomb he detonated into a family already apparently dealing with its fair share of strife - selfish.

I have known in my lifetime people who have committed suicide - including at least one with whom I was good friends. I shall never be able to understand it. It is an act of desperation. Yet is also an act of abject selfishness. Not knowing what finally breaks in one's mind and in one's spirit to make one act upon an impulse of self-destruction I do not pretend to know whether if one contemplating it spent more time considering just how selfish an act it was he would be able to talk himself out of it.

Irabu was a member of two of Joe Torre's four World Series-winning teams. He was along for the ride in 1998 and 1999. He did not throw a single pitch in either Series, both of which (perhaps not coincidentally) the Yankees swept in four straight games. Irabu came to the Yankees from Japan (via a trade he forced from the San Diego Padres) heralded as the Japanese Nolan Ryan. He never came close to living up to his pre-arrival hype. Sadly, the thing his time in a Yankees uniform might be best remembered for is George Steinbrenner's reference to him as a, "Fat, pussy toad" because Irabu failed to cover first base during an exhibition game.

When I heard Irabu had died the first thing I thought of was not Steinbrenner's infamous line or all of the times that he did not pitch up to expectations while in the Bronx. I thought instead of the October Saturday afternoon in Boston in the 1999 ALCS. It was on that Saturday afternoon that the Yankees and the Red Sox played Game 3. It would turn out to be the only game the Sox would win. It was the game that pitted Red Sox Ace Present Pedro Martinez against Red Sox Ace Past Roger Clemens.

After the 1998 season the Yankees had traded Boomer Wells and a couple of other players to Toronto for Clemens. Clemens had revived his career in Toronto after the Sox had kicked him to the curb - allowing him to leave Boston as a free agent. In 1999 Clemens came to New York to win himself a World Series ring (the Yankees having demonstrated one hundred and twenty five times the previous season just how little help they needed from him to get one themselves). His Game 3 matchup against Pedro Martinez was easily the most-hyped, most anticipated game of the ALCS. Unfortunately, only one of them showed up to pitch. Worse yet for the Yankees, that one was not Clemens.

Thanks to Clemens' live, in-game BP the Red Sox were up 6-0 in the third inning. The Rocket's day was done. Since there is no mercy rule in Major League Baseball, Joe Torre needed someone to eat up innings in a game that was already a lost cause. No one likes to be the "mop up" guy. It is the job given to the pitcher in the bullpen in whom the manager has the least amount of trust. A man summoned to fill up the boxscore so that those in whom the manager places his trust can live to pitch another day.....like in Game 4, Game 5 and so son.

Torre turned to Irabu. Given the hype that carried him across the Pacific and to the United States, one might have expected Irabu to balk at the assignment. He did not. Instead on an afternoon when he knew that no one was coming to save him no matter how bad it got, he held his mud. He pitched five innings - some of which bordered on being brutal. It was the only game he pitched in the ALCS. His ERA? A gaudy 13.50. Only one member of the Yankee pitching staff had a worse one. His name? Roger Clemens.

Irabu took his medicine and the Yankees were able to save their bullpen for games in which their starter actually gave them a chance to win the game. Games such as Game 4 and Game 5, both of which they won to vanquish the Red Sox, win the AL Pennant and go on to the World Series. Irabu - for what have been the only time in his three-year Yankees career - did his job.

And it is for that reason that it is that October Saturday afternoon in Fenway Park for which I shall remember him.

-AK

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