Sunday, July 23, 2006


Put Me in Coach, I'm Ready to Play!

A refrain from the song, for all sports, for all ages. It’s a lot more fun to be playing, to contribute, to be part of the team.

Prior to last weekend, the Blue Jays’ Shea Hillenbrand took exception to the role that he had with the team. He is a two-time all Star, and is batting .300. But he complained about his playing time, and got into the manager’s dog house. He confronted the management, had words with teammates and with manager John Gibbons, and was subsequently banished to the West Coast with Vinny Chulk for a young reliever named Jeremy Accardo. Shea is now delighted to be a San Francisco Giant, and singled in his first at bat for the Giants.

The main buzz around the Rogers Centre had more to do with the weekend opposition---the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers were in town for a four game series, and usually play well in Hogtown.

Hillenbrand’s distracting behaviour was indeed unfortunate for him, for his family, and perhaps for the team. He was thrilled with the arrival of his second adopted child. He had been excused by the team to assist his wife with the arrival; however, upon his return (a little belated), he continued to battle with team management.

To their credit, the Jays ignored the trouble that Hillenbrand was having with the team, as best they could, and they focused on their series with the Yankees.

Both the Red Sox and the Yankees are positioned ahead of the Blue Jays at this time, and neither shows signs of fading. The Yankees arrived at Toronto International Airport with several new faces---their ranks decimated by injuries to key players.

In their initial confrontation Thursday night, the Jays exploded from the gate for four runs in the bottom of the first inning, and never looked back the entire weekend. Their dominance was capped off with a 13-5 shellacking on Sunday. The only minor blip came Saturday afternoon when the bullpen let a lead slip, and the team lost 5-4. The tying run was plated on a balk, and the winning run on a base on balls. Hardly emphatic!

Vernon Wells carried a hot bat throughout the series. He homered in the bottom of the eleventh inning to win the first game of four. (Note: you will never read the words “walk off home run” in this column. It is another truly meaningless expression) Gustavo Chacin cleared the way for Wells to touch the plate, and led the jubilant jumping after the round tripper. He chuckled when I mentioned that fact to him, in rusty Spanish, after the game.

Wells continues to “go and get ‘em” in the outfield, likely to win another Gold Glove this year. I do wish the fans at the Rogers Centre would refrain from chanting “MVP” for Vernon, at least until September.

Following Thursday night’s game, Wells was literally glowing at his locker. (Or perhaps it was because he had just cleaned off the cream from being “pied” by team mate A.J. Burnett. Retribution, no doubt. Vernon takes pride in his ability to “Cream Pie” his team mates when they are being interviewed following a game.) His comments reflected his state of mind: “It’s a special night for all of us. Hopefully, it’s one of many.” In other words, let us focus on the task at hand.

Over in the Yankees’ dugout, there were rumblings and mumblings. Mussina criticized Alex Rodriguez, in a backhanded manner. “A Rod” did belt a home run to reach the 2000 hit plateau. Only two other players have reached that level via the home run: Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez---pretty fair company. He also became the youngest player ever to hit 450 home runs, slightly younger than Griffey Junior.

But Rodriguez did look out of sorts in the field. He was charged with an error on a poor throw home, although Posada could have caught the ball had he not tried so vainly to block the plate. He had a ground ball elude him in the first inning, and he lost a ball in the lights later in the game. Just not typical baseball for Rodriguez.

The Jays are now headed on an extended road trip to the West Coast---Seattle then Oakland. (Late nights for us Easterners, better get an afternoon nap!). Then back to New York for a three game series against the Yankees.

The World Champion White Sox and then the Orioles will face the Jays at the Rogers, once they return home. Great seats available, although they did “pack ‘em in” against the Yankees.

Note: The Hillenbrand card is in a 2006 Blue Jays team set. There is not a huge demand for the card.

James Hurst

Monday, July 17, 2006


The "Cat" Saves the Dog Day

Seconds after Frank Catalanotto smacked a shot down the first base line, the entire Blue Jays dugout spewed forth onto the field to mob him for his hit. It was in the bottom of the eleventh, and it looked as though the Jays might squander an ideal opportunity to salt away another victory. Zaun and Molina had opened the inning with singles, and Aaron Hill had walked.

Fans were slightly impatient, as many had endured 14 innings, and more than four hours of baseball the day before. The Seattle Mariners were not going to go away quietly. John McDonald struck out, and Reed Johnson popped out to second. Catalanotto followed with his third hit of the day, driving in Chad Mottola who was pinch running for Zaun.

Sunday was “Dog Day” at the park---yet another promotional attempt to put bums (and Paws) in the seats. More than four hundred owners proudly displayed their canine companions. Some even auditioned for the pet trick portion of the David Letterman Show.

Twenty-eight thousand fans witnessed an exciting affair. Vernon Wells made an excellent catch in centre field, and Reed Johnson’s diving grab of a sinking liner was truly remarkable.

A.J. Burnett brought his entire package to the table. He began by throwing hard, between 96 and 100 miles per hour. I spoke with him briefly after the game, and commented on his good velocity. “I gotta come out of the gate like that. It sets things up for later on.” His curve was sharp as well, although he smiled, just a little, when commenting on the two batters he hit with curves. It happens.

Manger John Gibbons was pleased with the win, and his starting pitcher’s success. “That was huge for Burnett,” he commented after the game. He was also relieved with Catalanatto’s single down the line: “If we don’t score a run in that situation, it was going to be awfully tough.”

He also implied the defense was critical, referring to the splendid outfielders’ efforts. “Great defense wins games.” It certainly helped on Sunday.

The Mariners and the Jays both entered Major League Baseball the same year, 1977. Naturally, the Jays have bragging rights, having won the World Series twice. The Mariners have come close several times, but have never put away the whole enchilada.

On the cover of the Mariners’ media guide are the words “Many Nations-One Team”. As of the date of publication, the 2006 team consisted of forty players from eleven nations. Imagine the pre game pep talks! All those interpreters!

One player, Ichiro Suzuki, is worth the price of admission, all by himself. He is a hitting machine, and has broken several records in his brief major league career. He runs well, too, and stole second base for his twenty-second consecutive successful steal. He has been joined this year by a fellow Japanese, catcher Kenji Johjima. A perennial all star in Japan, he adds a spark to the Mariners. Occasionally, he will burst out from behind the plate to the pitcher’s mound, chatting feverishly. Only Ichiro, off in the depths of right field can understand a word that is uttered.

Seattle’s staring pitcher, Felix Hernandez, celebrated his twentieth birthday in April. He had a dozen quality starts last year, and has already won 8 games this year. With a little luck, he could be a 20 game winner, a hallmark as an outstanding season for a pitcher.

Another great day at the ball park. A couple of hours on the 401 from the Quinte area, plenty of seats available. Ignore the scalpers. Go to the ticket windows. Better still, buy your tickets on line ahead of time. There is an excellent place to park, underground, almost across from the Rogers Centre. It is on Front Street, past the Royal York, just beside the CBC building. Watch for the big parking “P”.

Grab a couple of hot dogs, and a soda. Nestle in for the game. You cannot get the same experience, nor the same emotional feelings at home, in front of the television.
Take your glove as well. That foul popup just might come your way! You would not want to misplay that one!

James Hurst

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