July 23, 2018

Who’s the Alpha?

September 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The battle over who’s the alpha dog of the American League East has commenced, and the Tampa Bay Rays drew first blood.

Late Monday night, the Yankees endured a brutal loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays.  The game lasted three hours and twenty-nine minutes, spanned eleven innings, and showcased two of the best pitchers in the American League dominating the opposition.  For eight innings, C.C. Sabathia (8 IP, 2H, 9 K, 2 BB) and David Price (8 IP, 3 H, 4 K, 2 BB) dueled to a standstill.  Both bullpens held for a little more than three innings, until Reid Brignac launched a Sergio Mitre offering over the right field wall to end the game.

I don’t quite have the words to describe how I feel right now.  Upset doesn’t do it justice.  Anxious isn’t quite right.  Apoplectic’s getting there.

I just can’t shake the feeling that that game meant more than a simple tally in the loss column.

People often describe the Major League Baseball season as a marathon, but I’ve never felt that to be an apt description.  While a marathoner has to have extreme endurance and courage to run a distance that most of us wouldn’t hesitate to drive, marathons are much more of an individual internal struggle.  I always saw the grueling 162-game season as an old school heavyweight fight.

Tight pennant races always remind me more of two fighters rising from their stools in the fifteenth round, fueled only by adrenaline and will, than of some lanky Kenyan crossing a finish line in Central Park.  In boxing, like in baseball, the fight always goes to whoever wants it more.  Muhammad Ali said that champions “have to have the skill and the will.  But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Nobody had more will than Ali.  It’s what allowed him to lay up against the ropes and endure a brutal beating at the hands of George Foreman for almost 7 rounds in Zaire, only to drop Foreman in the eighth.  It’s what pushed him to stand right back up after taking a Joe Frazier left hook to the jaw in their first meeting.  Nobody did that.

In baseball, there are some games over the course of the season that just seem resonate more than others.  Bill Simmons believes very strongly that when the Red Sox lost a 15-inning affair to the Yankees in early August of 2009, it was akin to taking a devastating right to the solar plexus that sucked the will right out of them.

On May 19, 1998, when the Yankees rallied to defeat the Baltimore Orioles and rose from the dugout to defend first baseman, Tino Martinez, who had been beaned by reliever Armando Benitez, it was the equivalent of hitting their opponent with a staggering uppercut early in the fight.  At that moment, they knew that they couldn’t fail.

In Monday’s game, the Tampa Bay Rays smacked the Yankees in the mouth, staggering and bloodying the champs.  The Rays threw down the gauntlet and officially challenged the Yankees’ status as the alpha dog of the American League.

Late in the lifespan of The Sopranos, Tony worried that he was losing control of his guys.  While recovering from being shot by his dementia-stricken Uncle Junior, Tony had casually mentioned that he was not quite physically ready to lie with a woman in the Biblical sense, and could no longer bench as much as he once had.  He felt that his entourage no longer laughed as heartily at his jokes, and could see his position in the pack slipping away.  In response, The Sopranos provided us with a great scene where Tony sizes up each of his lieutenants and hangers-on, and ultimately decides to pick a fight with the youngest one who also happens to be built like a professional wrestler.

In front of everyone, Tony brutally beats the kid down, rises up off of his victim’s limp body, says something that’s equal parts vicious, tough, and witty, stumbles to the bathroom, and vomits blood.  Then, behind closed doors, Tony stares at himself in the mirror, maniacally self-satisfied. The message had been sent: Nobody challenges Tony Soprano.

Conversely, during the Christmas day fight held in the Soviet Union at the end of Rocky IV, there’s a moment where Rocky breaks through the guard and cuts the bigger, stronger, and supposedly unbeatable Ivan Drago.  The announcers go crazy, Rocky’s corner eats it up, and the “invincible” Drago acts like he’s just been shot.  In that moment, his vulnerability and the chink in his armor are revealed.  Drago never sufficiently responds, and instead utters admiring facts about his opponent, describing Rocky as not human and “like iron.”  Ultimately, Drago gets knocked out in the final round, Rocky gives his “if I can change and you can change speech,” and the USSR falls a few short years later.  The message: Your alpha’s now an omega.  Oh, and Communism doesn’t work.

I can’t shake the feeling that, on Monday night, I saw more Ivan Drago in the 2010 Yankees than Tony Soprano.

The supposedly experienced veterans and hardened champions were faced with the challenge of the upstart Rays.  And the champions blinked.

With two outs in the tenth, Brett Gardner stood on second, representing the go-ahead run.  He ended the inning trying to steal third, which I’m pretty sure is a crime punishable by death in Cooperstown.

Similarly, with Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and Joba Chamberlain sitting in the bullpen and the game on the line, manager Joe Girardi opted to pitch Boone Logan, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre in the 10th and 11th innings.

When asked after the game why he would choose Gaudin and Mitre, whose stuff is far from electric, to pitch such critical innings, Girardi replied, “I’ve got an early tee time at the Tampa Palms tomorrow, and really wanted one of them to give up a walk-off homer and end the game.  A man’s gotta sleep.”

OK, he didn’t really say that, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

So, right now, the Yankees are on their backs, looking up as the referee begins counting to ten.  Will they stand back up and fight, or is an early exit at the hands of Texas or Tampa an October inevitability?

To paraphrase Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, GET UP, YA’ BUMS!

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