I cried twice this week watching baseball games. Big blubbering tears that I didn’t even try to choke down. Neither time had anything to do with the team I support or much to do with an outcome of an actual game. The first was the culmination of a 67-year career, a beloved grandfather figure saying a heartfelt goodbye to a city and a stadium that has never seen baseball without him. And the second was because of a grieving friend circling the bases in tears after hitting his only home run of the year (an upper deck shot) and then subsequently being consoled by a dugout full of equally-bereaving teammates – a fitting tribute to a young superstar taken too soon by a tragic accident.
On Sunday, we all found out about the boating accident death of Jose Fernandez. But the life of Jose Fernandez made the news even harder to accept. Yes, he was the ace of the Marlins’ staff, an elite pitcher in the league. And yes, at 24, his future was unquestionably bright. But it was the passion and the childlike enthusiasm he exuded while playing and his overall love of the game for which he’ll be remembered.
My favorite Jose Fernandez moment. Dude just had so much fun on the field. pic.twitter.com/xb6pjN4Tyb
— Travis Waldron (@Travis_Waldron) September 25, 2016
Have you seen the GIF of Fernandez snagging Troy Tulowitzki’s lined shot up the middle from 2013? It almost perfectly encapsulates guy’s combination of dominance in performance and personality. Tulo looks on dumbfoundedly before mouthing, “Did you catch that?” And Fernandez (at that point a rookie, all Cheshire grins and swag) replies, “Yes. Yes, I did.” Baseball has seen its fair share of stoic, scowling aces over the years. There was only one Jose.
The Marlins understandably cancelled Sunday’s game against the Braves. But the tragic news had reverberated around the league. And tributes sprang up everywhere in dugouts around the country. On Monday, the visiting Mets players greeted the Marlins on the field (all of whom were wearing black ‘Fernandez 16’ jerseys) with hugs and watery eyes before the game. Not too long after, Dee Gordon led off the bottom of the 1st.
Some of you may recall the on-court death of Loyola Marymount All-American, Hank Gathers, in 1990. When the team played in that year’s NCAA Tournament, his good friend and teammate, Bo Kimble, who was right-handed, would shoot his first free-throws left-handed in memory of Gathers. Perhaps channeling his best Kimble, Dee Gordon (who bats left-handed) took the first pitch from Bartolo Colon right handed (a la Fernandez) before switching helmets and moving over to the left side of the plate. His first swing resulted in an upper deck shot to right. To that point, Gordon had 8 home runs in his career. He hadn’t hit one since October 4th of last year. And he said he’s never hit a ball that far in his life, even in batting practice.
The moment Gordon touched home, he pounded his chest and pointed to the sky, overcome with emotion. By the time he reached the dugout and was greeted with a bear hug from hitting coach, Barry Bonds, I was RUINED. It’s a moment that will go down in Marlins’ lore forever. And it was easily the moment of the year for the 2016 season.
Earlier this season, when talking about retired baseball numbers, I tagged the Marlins for having two World Series titles and absolutely no history. Jose Fernandez has changed all that. As a Cuban defector, his story already resonated with the fan base in Miami. His last outing against the Nationals was arguably his career best (8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 12 K) and his joy in life can serve as an inspiration to a city rich in Cuban-American culture and to a sport so often bogged down by old school thinking and unwritten rules. For one day we were all Marlins fans. And going forward, that means so much more than it ever did before.
The other time I cried was for Vin.
I was going to watch Sunday’s Dodgers-Rockies game anyway. It was Vin Scully’s final home game, in a career with the Dodgers that began in 1950. That’s a Bill Murray’s lifetime worth of games. The Dodgers were also looking to clinch the division. And so I knew the game would end in memorable fashion, regardless of the outcome. On top of all that, in lieu of the Fernandez news, I knew turning on the game would give me the audio comfort food I needed to hear.
Listening to the greatest announcer in history has been a taken-for-granted pleasure of my entire sports-watching life. And it’s been increasingly more appreciated and pleasurable since I moved to Los Angeles in 2007. That’s when I knew what we had. So watching Sunday’s home finale (the Corey Seager game-tying home run in the 9th, the walk-off division-clincher by Charlie Culberson in the 10th) was one last chance for me to soak it all in. I mean, of course the guy’s final game at home ended like that. Vin Scully’s entire career was surrounded by these types of moments. This guy called perfect games by Don Larsen and Sandy Koufax, the Kirk Gibson home run in the 1988 World Series, Game 6 of the ’86 World Series and almost everything else in between. You can’t just let him walk away with a snoozefest. And then he gave his public farewell to the stadium. And I LOST it.
Scully, who had been saluted by Dodger batters throughout the game, and who was now being saluted by the Dodgers as a team, played a rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” that he’d sung himself. And, holy shit, there was not a dry eye in my house. The team had just clinched the NL West title, mind you. And the team waited respectfully for the song to be over before they sprayed champagne. I mean, only the scummiest of dirtbag Dodger fans could call that corny. And hopefully they were already trying to beat traffic back to Scumville when that happened. The song was motherfucking beautiful. And so is Vin. I’m really gonna miss him.
Instead of doing a career retrospective or trying to put his impact on the game or the culture of Dodgers baseball into worlds, I’ll just give you this. Here’s my All-Vin Scully Dodgers Team, 1950-2016. I think it speaks to his tenure and legacy, loud and clear.
C 1997 Mike Piazza
Roy Campanella may be the greatest Dodgers catcher of all-time (and he has 3 MVP awards to show for it), but in ’97, Piazza had a 9.1 WAR, he led the league in OPS+, he hit a ball all the way out of Dodger Stadium and set multiple offensive records for a catcher. Pretty good for a 62nd round pick.
1B 1954 Gil Hodges
In 1954, Hodges set the Dodger record for home runs in a season (42), and was also excellent defensively. It’s part of the reason Hodges might have been the only Dodger to never get booed at Ebbets Field. He’s the greatest Dodger first baseman of all time. And, yes, I see you, Steve Garvey.
2B 1951 Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson is obviously an American icon and 1951 wasn’t even his best season with the Dodgers. But Vin didn’t start with Brooklyn until 1950, okay? Robinson was great in every aspect of the game in ’51 and his 9.0 WAR led the Majors. He also happens to be the greatest Dodger second baseman of all time.
3B 2004 Adrian Beltre
Shoutout to Ron Cey, but nobody is topping Beltre’s 9.7 WAR and Major-League-leading 48 bombs in his 2004 breakout season.
SS 2016 Corey Seager
Seriously. This kid is good. In all 67 years of Scully’s tenure, nobody at short had a 7.5 WAR like Seager has had in his rookie season. Not Pee Wee Reese. Not Maury Wills. Nobody.
LF 1985 Pedro Guerrero
For greatest moment, it would have to be Gibson in ’88. And for multiple seasons, it might actually go to Dusty Baker (1976-1983). But in 1985, Guerrero led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, WAR and wOBA. He finished 3rd in MVP voting, but he really should have won it.
CF 1953 Duke Snider
The greatest center fielder in Dodgers’ history had his greatest overall season in 1953, leading the league in SLG, OPS and WAR. He also finished 3rd in MVP voting. Like Guerrero, he also should have won it.
RF 2001 Shawn Green
He’d hit four home runs in a game the following year, but in 2001, Green set the single-season Dodger record with 49. You just might not remember it because some other dude hit 73. If you’re not the steroid-era type (and Green might not have actually done any), we could go with 2011 Matt Kemp. Or just whatever-year Andre Ethier. Just know that if I had to do a list like this for my Len Kasper Cubs, the right fielder would be 2009 Kosuke Fukudome, so stop complaining.
SP 1965 Sandy Koufax
It’s hard to pin down exactly which Sandy Koufax season to choose, but in 1965, he won the pitchers’ Triple Crown, was the unanimous Cy Young winner, threw a perfect game (his 4th no-hitter) and won the World Series. All while dealing with tremendous pain. And not pitching on Yom Kippur. I love saying that Clayton Kershaw is better than Koufax, but he’s certainly never done all those things. Well, maybe he’s pitched on Yom Kippur.
Honorable mention to 1963 Koufax, 1966 Koufax, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 Clayton Kershaw. Probably 2016 too, if he didn’t get hurt. 1999 Kevin Brown could be in there. 1971 Don Sutton. Shoutout to Don Drysdale. Shoutout to Fernando Valenzuela. Shoutout to Orel Hershiser. Jesus, Vin has seen some pitching. Of all the Dodger greats, I think he only missed Dazzy Vance (1922-1932). And Dazzy’s famous old-timey fastball probably topped out at 84.
RP 2003 Eric Gagne
In 2003, Gagne had 55 saves in 55 chances. That was good enough to tie the single-season NL record. Not that I care about saves. He also got more than half of his outs with K’s, with 100 more (137) than hits allowed (37). It won him the National League Cy Young. Even though I hate when relievers win and it should have gone to Mark Prior of the Cubs instead, that’s still pretty impressive.
Let’s go around the league.
The American League
The Rangers, Indians and Red Sox all won their divisions this week. But the Indians suffered another potentially fatal blow with the groin injury of Corey Kluber. They’re already down Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, not to mention Michael Brantley. And now their ace? You almost have to feel bad for them. There probably shouldn’t even be an almost in that last sentence.
Home field advantage in the American League is probably going to come down between the Rangers (94-65) and the Red Sox (92-66). And after the Red Sox won their 11th game in a row this week, how much do you think Fox and MLB were salivating over the possibilities of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series? Count me in for that one too.
The Wild Card is where stuff gets fun. The Blue Jays (89.9%, Magic Number: 3 ) look to be in great position. As long as nobody else gets hurt in their dumb brawls. Pffff, Canadians. The Orioles are next at 66.6% (the percentage of the Beast), and then the Tigers (35.4%) and Mariners (8.0%), with the Astros and Yankees assumed to be done. And with the Royals officially eliminated, that makes it four straight years that a team has won the World Series and then failed to make it in to the postseason the following year.
The best arguments this week are over the AL Rookie of the Year and whether or not Zach Britton should be the Cy Young. And you’re probably wondering if I have some opinions. To quote the late, great Jose Fernandez, Yes. Yes, I do.
First of all, Zach Britton should not be the AL Cy Young winner. I know his 0.55 ERA is amazing. But I don’t give a shit about saves and he’s only pitched 65.1 innings this season. If Clayton Kershaw isn’t eligible in the National League at 142 innings, then you just have to admit you worship the stupid save stat because you’ve been taught to worship Mariano Rivera. Ugh. Relievers are guys who aren’t good enough to start. They pitch one inning a game. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Kershaw’s WAR is 6.5. Britton’s is 2.4. Also, you can’t really prove to me that Britton (although he’s very good in his role) is better than Andrew Miller. Miller has a higher WAR (2.8), a lower FIP (1.74 to 1.99) and his 1.50 ERA is a full run higher than Britton’s, but it’s still a 1.50 ERA. There’s also a pretty decent-sized list of relievers over the years with a 2.4 WAR, 1.99 FIP and an ERA under 2. Nobody tried to award them with anything. The only reason you hear Britton’s name get brought up so much in the Cy conversation is because there’s no obvious leader amongst the starters and nobody wants to do any actual work (I do. I like it. And right now I’d actually give it to Rick Porcello).
Another reason I know that nobody wants to do any work is because absolutely nobody is putting Christopher Devenski of the Astros in to the AL Rookie of the Year conversation. If the arguments for Britton make him so awesome, then Devenski, as the third best reliever in the league after Miller and Britton (2.2 WAR, 2.13 FIP, 1.61 ERA), should be right up there with Gary Sanchez and Michael Fulmer. But he’s not. Sanchez has a 3.2 WAR. Fulmer has a 3.0 WAR. Devenski has a 2.9 WAR. I feel like people just pick a guy or a ‘story’ and then find stats to support their guy or their story, instead of doing the opposite. And that makes Baby grouchy.
The National League
I already told you that the Dodgers clinched this week, but so did the Nationals. And the Cubs secured home field advantage. And just like the Indians in the American League, the National League also has its fair share of injury-decimated teams heading in to October.
This week, the Nationals lost Wilson Ramos for the season with a torn ACL, which is a major loss. They also found out Stephen Strasburg will not be ready for the NLDS against the Dodgers. And any start he would potentially make after that would essentially be the playoff version of a rehab start, anyway. Bryce Harper, who was probably already playing hurt, also injured his thumb on a fake tag play by Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates. And Daniel Murphy has been out of the starting lineup with a strained left buttock. I should probably censor myself from posting any ironic glee that I feel about the last one. I mean, I could have just posted, “Nats’ injuries: Murphy’s butt and Harper’s thumb. You figure out how that sort of thing could happen.” But I would never do that.
Then there are the Mets, who just found out that Steven Matz is also done for the season. They may have the best shot at clinching a Wild Card (98.6%, Magic Number: 2), but who can say for sure whether or not Noah Syndergaard will be in line for the Wild Card game. Or if they’ll have to go with Bartolo Colon or someone from their entirely made-up pitching staff. Or if they should just pick somebody out of the stands in Queens who looks like they might not have elbow problems, bone spurs or thoracic outlet syndrome.
Assuming the Mets limp in the Wild Card, that leaves the Giants (67.6%) and Cardinals (33.7%) to battle it out for the second slot. The Cardinals have a game left with the Reds and then three with the Pirates. And the Giants have one more with the Rockies and then three with the Dodgers, who you have to assume would love to play spoiler against their arch nemesis. As a baseball fan, I should be rooting for a three-way tie and embracing the chaos. As a Cubs fan, I don’t know how thrilled I am about the possibilities of a Cardinals NLDS upset.
Finally, I want to mention the sendoff David Ross got on Sunday night. It could have been the third thing I cried about this week. I thought it was a classy move all the way around, by Joe Maddon, by Jon Lester, by the Cubs’ fans and even by Yadier Molina of the Cardinals who got Grandpa Rossy his own little moment at the plate. And then Grandpa Rossy, himself, for hitting that home run. Just in case the game of baseball didn’t have enough Hollywood-worthy moments this week.
Well, that’s it for this week. By the next time we talk, we’ll be in the playoffs. If you need more baseball from me, you can check out “Comedians Talking Sports” with Joe Kilgallon on iTunes or the podcast things. Go Cubs.