Author: Matt Imbrogno Page 2 of 11

My Top Three Part 2: Playoff Games

Welcome to another edition of my “top three” series, which started last week when I detailed my three most cherished regular season games (LINK TO LAST WEEK’S POST). Today, I’m going to talk about the same thing with Yankee playoff games this time around. As Yankee fans, we have a lot of playoff games to choose from. You already know this and I don’t need to go into too much detail, but we’re lucky to root for a franchise that doesn’t raise banners for Wild Card games.Like last time, I’ll go in chronological order. 

2009 is my absolute favorite Yankee season ever, so let’s start there, specifically with Game 4 of the World Series. Sure, AJ Burnett’s clutch performance probably makes Game 2 more exciting. And who doesn’t love a clincher like Game 6? But Game 4 offered me such a unique experience that I’ll never forget. Back then, in the first year of Yankee Stadium III, the team tried to cater to fans a little bit more–or so it seemed. And because of that, I was able to “go” to Game 4, even though it was in Philadelphia. The Yankees opened the stadium to fans and for a cheap fee–I think it was $8 and parking was free!–you could get in and watch the game on the big screen in centerfield. A friend and I went, more or less on a whim, and it was a blast, not only because of the game, but because of the unique atmosphere.

Maybe it’s just because they only seated fans in the lower bowl–minus the Legends seats–but the crowd felt just as loud and into things as if the game were playing out for real in front of us rather than on a screen. It was like watching the game at a local bar, but with thousands of people, a comfortable seat, and the ability to talk to those around you.

As expected, the crowd got even louder as the Yankees mounted their comeback and go-ahead in the top of the ninth inning. One thing I’ll likely never forget is the collective “NO NO N–YES!” feeling that just about everyone in the stadium had when Johnny Damon stole second and third in one shot. 

The other thing I won’t forget is walking back to my car with throngs of fans outside, screaming our heads off with excitement while residents in the apartments shouted down the same feelings from high up, waving Yankee flags, banners, towels, jerseys, shirts, whatever out of their windows. My refrain, which many passing by picked up (I swear!), was, “TEN DOWN, ONE TO GO!” A few nights later in the Bronx, it was over and the Yankees were back on top. World Champions for the 27th time. 

I’ve only actually attended one real playoff game, and it was a good one: Game 3 of the 2012 ALDS. Earlier that day, I was day subbing in my hometown back in Connecticut, covering for a gym teacher at my high school. Around lunch time, my wife (then girlfriend) texted me saying, “We should go to the game tonight.” At work, she found tickets and bought them, and I was off to my first playoff game. 

Despite the excitement of that, the feeling I remember for most of the game was frustration. Hiroki Kuroda was pitching his ass off for the Yankees–he only threw two bad pitches all night, which, unfortunately, went for homers–and the offense just couldn’t push anything across. And when Joe Girardi pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez, my immediate reaction was that it was a bad idea. Of course, Raul Ibanez proved me wrong and tied the game with a home run.

I never experienced a playoff game at Yankee Stadium II and I know people like to compare the new one to it negatively in terms of atmosphere. However, after that Ibanez homer, the upper deck of YSIII was rocking. I could feel the feet of thousands across the hard ground, shaking the section to its core. And three innings later, the process was repeated when RAUJ did it again and sent us all home happy. If I never go to another playoff game again, it would be okay, considering the result of this one I did get to go to. 

The 2017 Yankees were an absolutely fantastic ride. Even at my most optimistic, I didn’t expect them to do more than to compete for the second wild card spot. Then, led by Aaron Judge (the should’ve been MVP even before the Astros cheating thing) and Gary Sanchez, they won the first wild card in convincing fashion, beating out the Twins by six games. And all that almost came to a screeching halt when Luis Severino couldn’t get out of the first inning and put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole during the AL Wild Card Game

And then Didi Gregorius came to the plate and the momentum didn’t stop from there. His three run homer to tie the game and swing things back the Yankees’ way is on the short list of ‘most pumped up I’ve ever been during a baseball game’ moments. If it weren’t for the sleeping baby upstairs, I would’ve screamed my head off. Instead, I just silently punched the air about a dozen or six times and knew, from that moment, that the Yankees were winning that game. 

The 2017 run ended in frustration and, given the circumstances, probably shouldn’t have. But that first game of their run was so spectacular that it offers at least a little comfort. The game itself seemed a microcosm of the Yankees and Twins’ many playoff matchups in this century. No matter what, the Twins just can’t seem to get over that hump from the Bronx. 

What are your top 3 playoff games and why? Head to the comments and let’s remember some playoff games. 

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My Top Three Part 1: Regular Season Games

In this time of quarantine, one of the things we’ve used to distract ourselves is that “you can only pick three” game going around on various social media sites. It’s a silly time waster and ultimately meaningless as none of us will ever have to “pick three” of our favorite forms of entertainment or whatever, but here’s one set of my top three, with others to follow: regular season games.

First up on the list, at least chronologically speaking, is September, 18, 1995. This random September game against the Blue Jays was the first Yankee game I ever attended. There is very little I remember from it, frankly, aside from about where our seats were–lower level, third base line–that I took the above picture with my dad, that there was some guy next to us yelling about how long and dull the game was (he wasn’t wrong, apparently, as there was no scoring till late) and that Willie Randolph, the third base coach at the time, should be the next Yankee manager.

In terms of on the field performance, I don’t remember David Cone pitching as well as he did. All that I remember is Don Mattingly hitting a ball that almost got out over the wall in right field but didn’t and he got thrown out at second because he had kinda started trotting already.

Regardless of what I do and don’t remember, I was a budding baseball fan at the time and my love for the game only increased from then on.

A side note: is it coincidence that the ‘314’ sign is very visible in this picture? Absolutely. But is it more fun to pretend it was a sign of things to come? Absolutely.

Next, again chronologically speaking, we move to August 4, 2007. This game stands out despite it being one of the few I left early. Why did I leave early? Because it was about 950 degrees in the upper deck that day and by the 7th, my friend and I were fried. But why does the game stand out? Because in the first inning, Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th career home run.

He had been stuck on the 499 mark for a while and even though we all knew it would come, I didn’t think it would during the game I attended. When the ball went into the air, my friend and I were both up on our feet, jumping, screaming in unison, “GO! GO! GO! GO!” We waved our arms frantically towards the left field fence, went still and silent for a second as the ball passed over the wall, then screamed again, jumping and hugging as it landed in the seats.

To this day, it’s the only milestone game I’ve been to and probably the only one I’ll ever go to (statistically speaking); luckily, it was a milestone for one of my favorite players ever. That I got to share it with a good friend, someone whom I’ve known since 10th grade and ended up in my wedding party, made it all the better.

Last, but not least, we have a record-setting game: August 25, 2011. In this game, the Yankees hit three grand slams, one each by Robinson Cano, Russell Martin, and Curtis Granderson. Though they won 22-8, they were, at one point, down 7-1 because, and I’m quoting my own recap here “Phil Hughes couldn’t get out of the third and Cory Wade gave up a two run homer.”

I remember driving home from work, turning the radio off because I was so frustrated by the game. As soon as I got home, though, things changed. The final grand slam, the one by Curtis Granderson, came as I was clearing the dinner table and I remember laughing in the kitchen, amused by the absurdity of the situation–another grand slam.

There might be other games I’m note recalling here, but these were the first three that came to mind when thinking of a ‘pick three’ scenario. What are your ‘pick three’ regular season games? Leave them in the comments and let’s Remember Some Games.

Playing Around with Realignment Ideas

Like Randy did yesterday, I’ll start by checking in with you. I hope, as everyone here does, that you’re doing well and staying safe and healthy–physically and mentally. With that said, we still have no real baseball to keep us warm, so let’s dive into some fantasy ideas about the game, shall we? Today, I’ll focus on realignment.

I’ll start off by saying that I doubt any of this ever really comes to fruition. MLB–and baseball in general, really–is inherently conservative and slow to change in big, structural ways, so these things are likely way too out there. One thing that does seem close, though, is the universal DH, so for this mental exercise, let’s just assume the DH is now universal (as it should be).

Back to the Future

This is the simplest, least disruptive one I can think of. It’s one I mentioned on the most recent episode of our podcast: eliminate divisions, and balance the schedule. The top four teams in each league then make the playoffs. If you want to also eliminate in-season interleague play (which I’m not sure many would want to with a universal DH), move one of Houston or Milwaukee back to their original league. This makes competition a little more fair and equitable, with everyone playing (as much as possible) the exact same schedule. This doesn’t allow, for example, the Yankees and Astros to pad their win totals against the Orioles and Mariners as much as they used to. It does curtail big division rivalries–Yankees/Red Sox, Dodgers/Giants, Cubs/Cardinals–since those teams would see each other less. However, wouldn’t those matchups be all the more special and important due to the rarity?

Geographically Speaking

Let’s say you want to change things up fundamentally, like eliminate the AL/NL divide and expand the playoffs, but still keep the division structure. Let’s break the league down into two conferences–east and west–with three divisions each, much like the NBA or NHL.

What would the divisions look like? Eastern is the first three, Western is the second.

Northeast: Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Blue Jays

Southeast: Rays, Atlanta, Orioles, Nationals, Marlins

North: Twins, Brewers, Tigers, Cubs, White Sox

Midwest: Cleveland, Cardinals, Royals, Reds, Pirates

Southwest: Astros, Rockies, Rangers, Padres, Diamondbacks

West: Angels, Dodgers, Mariners, Giants, A’s.

The playoffs could stay the same as they are now–three division winners, two wild cards–just with different matchups. In this fantasy scenario, I’d like to see the WC game expanded to a different format–a three game series (all in the stadium of the first WC winner), perhaps, or the ‘second wild card has to win two games, first wild card only has to win one’ plan.

The EPL Model, with an American Twist

Last but not least, let’s throw caution to the wind and eliminate the two league structure altogether. All 30 teams are in one league now–Major League Baseball!–and there’s a balanced schedule. The top eight teams make the playoffs and do the tournament that way. If that were the case, last year’s matchups (with a grain of salt for the schedule, obviously) would’ve been

Astros vs. Cleveland/Nationals

Dodgers vs. Cleveland/Nationals

Yankees vs. Rays

Twins vs. Atlanta

That would be pretty cool, no?

In any event, I don’t expect any of this to happen any time soon. But, MLB might want to consider shaking things up when baseball returns. They probably can’t do that for the 2002 season (if it even happens), but they can use this year as an excuse to reset things, to try new things, to alter the way they think and do things to try and get new fans or rekindle interest in the sport.

Another All-Time Team with a Twist

As always, I’ll start this off by saying we hope you guys are staying healthy and safe during these uncertain times. Additionally, we hope you’re staying sane in whatever state of quarantine, shelter-in, work from home, or whatever situation you’re in. It’s a shame, truly, that we don’t have baseball (or any other sport) to distract us.

With no Yankee baseball to distract us in the present–and the future as uncertain as it is–let’s look back to the past with another version of an all-time Yankees team…only this won’t be so all-time.

For the purposes of a team not repeating itself, I’m going to place a few caveats on this one.

  1. The player has to have been on the Yankees in my life time (1987 and on)
  2. The player has to have spent five or fewer years with the Yankees (going by Baseball Reference’s designation)
  3. The player must not currently be on the Yankees

Given those parameters, let’s see who we can come up with.

Catcher: My first thoughts here were Brian McCann and Russell Martin, as I was always fond of those players. But with 99 and 93 OPS+ marks each for their tenure with the Yankees–more than fine for catchers, sure–I was a bit underwhelmed. Thus, the choice falls to someone who’s not necessarily horribly familiar to fans my age: Mike Stanley. In five years with the Yankees–1992-1995 and part of 1997–Stanley raked as a (mostly) catcher, hitting .277/.377/.504/.882 for a 134 OPS+. He’s the clear choice and fits in my caveats perfectly.

First Base: This is probably the toughest spot because in my lifetime, the Yankees had a string of excellent first basemen, from Don Mattingly to Tino Martinez, to Jason Giambi, to Mark Teixeira, all of whom were with the team longer than my caveat allows. So the answer becomes: Nick Johnson! While constantly hurt, Johnson’s healthy times were pretty productive for the Yankees. He hit only .249 with a .414 slugging percentage, but he posted a .378 OBP in his time with the Yankees, tallying 149 walks in 1023 plate appearances.

Second Base: Without Robinson Cano and Alfonso Soriano to choose from, this one gets rather dicey. Chuck Knoblauch is a name that comes to mind, and he fits, having suited up in pinstripes for just four years. However, his last two years tanked and he had to be moved off the position. Let’s go with early 90’s stalwart Steve Sax, who OPS+’d 102 with the Yankees, and swiped 117 bags.

Third Base: Wade Boggs. Don’t even have to think. In five years with the Yanks, he OBP’d .396 and became an icon (not that he wasn’t one by the time e reached NY. Seriously, I did not appreciate how damn good he was until much later in life) by riding an NYPD horse around the warning track after winning the 1996 World Series.

Shortstop: Didi Gregorius. Hands down. With Derek Jeter taking up so much of this real estate, there’s really no other choice. Three 20 homer seasons, great defense, and a great personality. I’ll miss Didi on the Yankees, but he’d definitely fit right in on this caveat-laden team.

Outfield: Gary Sheffield, Nick Swisher, Bobby Abreu

Will this outfield play good defense? Absolutely not. Will this outfield absolutely freaking rake? Hell yes. Each of these players has a combination of patience and power that has been the cornerstone of winning baseball for the last 25 years and each put up great seasons in the Bronx. The lowest Yankee OBP among them is Abreu’s .364 and Swish and Sheff both had solid power or better with the Bombers.

Starter and Reliever: Hiroki Kuroda and Alfredo Aceves

Kuroda was a stud in his three years with the Yankees, as well as a fan favorite. Al Aceves played whatever bullpen role the Yankees needed him to and did it damn well. They’d make a great tandem for this squad.

Doing the Most with the Least

How are you all doing out there? Above all, we hope you and your loved ones are saying safe and healthy while we’re all hunkered down. Now onto (the lack of) baseball.

Earlier in the week, Randy and Derek discussed on episode 2 of the podcast some potential ways to deal with a shortened schedule, including playoff ramifications. Coincidentally, Mariano Rivera discussed similar things on the Michael Kay Show on Friday. His main takeaway?

“I don’t think you can play a 60-game season and you call yourself a champion…Anything can happen in 60 games. I don’t think it’s enough.”

Mo isn’t wrong. 60 games, or even 81, wouldn’t be enough for there to be a World Series champion that felt legitimate compared to other ones. But this season is not going to be completely legitimate, no matter when it begins. As Randy and Derek suggested, MLB should take advantage of this and experiment, do things differently. This is going to be a very different year, so why not make things different?

Randy and Derek suggested a geographic realignment, based on Grapefruit and Cactus League divisions and that would be pretty cool. It would foment new rivalries–even if just for a year–and would probably force a universal DH. Obviously this would eliminate traditional AL/NL alignment, but it’s worth it. MLB is the only league that still sticks to such division and, while charming and something I wouldn’t necessarily change, it is a touch antiquated and seeing it updated, even briefly, would be fun.

Another way to eliminate AL/NL and add a little bit of fun chaos could be to have the entire MLB play each other in a balanced schedule with the top-8 teams, regardless of league, making the playoffs, seeded 1 v 8, 2 v 7, etc. This could lead to some different, more exciting World Series matchups. Imagine a Yankees/Astros World Series? That would have a ton of juice.

Knowing MLB, they’ll likely play it straight. If they do, though, they’ll need to rework the schedule in some way. Given how late they’re going to start, given matchups, they’ll need to alter the original schedule to make it look like a normal season, even with fewer games.

It’s frustrating that there’ll be some form of chaos in a year in which the Yankees are poised to be so good. With a traditional schedule, they’d like win 95+ games and coast into the playoffs. An altered format adds some variability and unpredictability to the mix, but the Yankees are good enough to weather that.

If we get baseball this year, it’ll be unpredictable and that will be fun. Hopefully, a condensed season will get some attention and new viewers. There’s nothing wrong with hooking people in with a novelty for one time, then getting back to normalcy. I think that’s what everyone’s doing now anyway, right? We’re all trying out what works for our quarantined lives, waiting for normalcy to return.

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