The Big Hit | The Coming Battle of the Titans

by Ken Napzok

If you look to the horizon you can see the Major League Baseball post-season rolling into town like a traveling circus ready to dazzle and delight us.

The audience favorites are preparing to enter the three-ring circus and add to the history books of this great game.

In a season of astounding offense, second-generation future stars, and the general baseball audience learning more and more about statistics they don’t quite have the math degree to understand, the main event is here.

With apologies to time-honored traditions of feel-good stories like the upstart Tampa Bay (not yet Montreal) Rays, the small market kings in Oakland, and the Cubs-Brewers-Mets battle for the final invitation to the party, this post-season is all about the Battle of the Titans.

The Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers

Those are the names all eyes are on. The biggest names, the most powerful line-ups, and the richest histories (Admittedly the Astros’ history books started bulging more recently).

These are the current titans about to clash and that just might be the best for baseball this season. 

Again, the Oakland A’s are a tremendously fun team to watch. The Minnesota Twins have the kind of power that would make Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Tom Brunansky jealous.

Jack Flaherty will be an important factor in the Cardinals run. The best part about the post-season is that if you’re in, you have a chance.

If the Mets get in and win the World Series — we will deal with (and enjoy) that story when it breaks.

But the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves going all out in a slugfest for immortality carries some weight this time around.

The goal of the game is to win and to put it all on the field in an effort to do so. These teams have done just that. The Yankees are long used to collecting the best tools to win and dumping them all out of the bag to win.

Often it doesn’t work. (That Kevin Brown – Randy Johnson – Carl Pavano pitching rotation didn’t exactly deliver) However, when it does work — it’s impressive.

The Yankee roster is deep — deep enough to not need Manny Machado back in the off-season and deep enough now to almost make one forget Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t even logged 50 at-bats this season — and full of those inspiring stories that the post-season baseball gods love like DJ LeMahieu playing like his contract was the one that got all the press in the off-season, Brett Gardner not going quietly into the night, and CC Sabathia gutting out one final run.

On top of all that, this is the New York Yankees. Hate ‘em or love ‘em, they are one of the prestige franchises in any sport and having them headlining your fall baseball programming all the way to the last pitch has its own value. 

The same could be said for the Los Angeles Dodgers. History is built into this franchise and now, perhaps more than any recent season, the appeal of Yankee-Dodger World Series is very intriguing as well as profitable. (Oh, baseball is a business, too.

We can’t forget that. Never forget that.) The Dodgers have to get to the World Series this season. They have to.

Seven straight division titles have only built up this pressure. Getting to the party is no longer just enough for the fans, players, and organization.

Now you have to go home with the centerpiece door prize… and they have played like that from the word go in 2019. The twenty-game lead seemed to be in place before they had even played twenty games.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have a sense of purpose behind the energy they’ve played with and they seem up to the challenge of answering the question: Are we as great as it seems? 

The same question is floating around the atmosphere out in Houston.

The Astros have grown from that secondary market darling to a legendary example of how to rebuild your franchise and become a top of the charts hit.

And they have never sat back and relied on their impressive core after adding Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and, this season, Zack Greinke while also developing future stars like Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker.

They are locked, loaded, and motivated. One World Series win is not enough. To be honest, one would be hard-pressed to answer the question of what is worse.

Only getting one title in a run like the Astros are at now or the big zero like the current Dodgers? Oh, sure, it seems like an easy answer — give us that one title. But what carries a bigger sting to it?

“They were good, but never got the big one?” or “I can’t believe they only won a title once?” Have trouble believing that — then ask the Atlanta Braves.

Atlanta is on this list over some other choices this season for two reasons. First, their roster is a collection of present-day superstars building their resumes (Acuna Jr, Albies, Soroka, and Riley) and veteran pieces the organization took risks on when others wouldn’t (Dallas Keuchel and Josh Donaldson).

Second, it’s easy to not include Atlanta in the list of prestige franchises because to many of us older fans out there the 1990s are ten years ago and not the nearly thirty years ago they actually are. (Damn, age sucks.)

Meaning, it might seem like just yesterday Atlanta was the floundering home of Dale Murphy, Gerald Perry, and wonderful announcers like Skip Carey, Ernie Johson, and Pete Van Wieren trying to make another loss interesting.

However, that worst-to-first transition of the 1991 season is ancient baseball history to many fans today. The Braves as a successful franchise is not a new thing. This means that ONE World Series win in 1995 hangs over this franchise like a ghost poking at Zak Bagans and his Travel Channel Ghost Adventures crew. 

All four of these teams are set to battle it out. 

That’s exciting. That is what the game needs right now. Especially in the aftermath of two major injuries bringing an early end to the seasons of two of the brightest stars in the game’s universe.

Mike Trout and Christian Yelich are done. While Trout wasn’t going to be in the post-season and Yelich’s Brewers are still fighting hard to get in, losing these two puts a damper on a historic home run race and takes two marquee names out of the daily news cycle of baseball.

Injuries are certainly part of the game they say, but that doesn’t make them any less — well — depressing. 

Yet the elixir to that pain is coming. The traveling circus is on the way. 

Ten great teams. Four titans. One goal. 

Let’s dance. 

With apologies — again — to Washington National fans. 


Power Rankings

The baseball week that was

5 – Getting Along

There is a point in your life as a baseball fan when you realize that playing professional ball is not just a lifelong dream, but a very real job. And every job has its workplace dramas and not every player gets along.

As a daydreaming kid, you envision every major league clubhouse as a fantasy land of team dinners, high fives, and celebrations around the pitching mound and that’s not wrong.

That’s clearly part of the game. But then along the way you start reading and hearing about problems.

Maybe it was Billy Martin in the face of Reggie Jackson or the business-like demeanor of the Barry Bonds-Jeff Kent days in San Francisco?

No matter when it happens you will at some point learn that — like you at your job — not all major league players get along. 

This week the long-simmering heat in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse finally exploded into a physical confrontation between Kyle Crick and Felipe Vazquez.

Apparently over that time-honored fight starting tradition of locker room music choices. Crick, a top set-up man for Vazquez, is out for the season with an injury sustained in the incident.

Look, none of us were there — and won’t be — so this isn’t on the list to dig into that. It’s a just a reminder of the power and importance of getting along. 

4 – Braun. Ryan Braun

The Brewers are oh so close to taking their magic into the post-season and losing star Christian Yelich to a foul ball gone awry is a potentially devasting blow.

Yet Ryan Braun stepped up to the forefront during the week as if to remind everybody that he still knows how to swat the ball around.

On Sunday, his grand slam was not just a winner but broke the franchise season home run record he helped set in 2007. He was a fresh-faced rookie then with success, headlines, and controversy still out ahead of him, but now he is a veteran leader on a team that needed one this week.

3 – The Underdog Slugger

Pete Alonso has all the rookie buzz. Clay Bellinger has had the glitzy headlines. Yelich had the star power. However, the historic home run race we celebrated just like week is having its spotlight forcibly turned onto the underdog in the race — Eugenio Suarez.

With two blasts on Sunday, the Reds third baseman has 47 home runs and is tied with Pete Alonzo. 

There are great conversations going on around Most Valuable Players in both leagues. We’ll have those as well, but in this year of record-setting home runs the pursuit of the top spot on the leaderboard continues to dazzle. Suarez is a bright spot on the Reds’ otherwise troubling season.

Others will get the headlines, but he just might get the crown. 

2 – Double Digits

Two Sundays ago, the baseball week began with the Astros dropping 21 runs on the A’s. They added 15 the next day.

THEN the Athletics came roaring back with 21 runs of their own. That same day the Tigers took the Yankees in a 12-11 contest. On Friday the 13th, the Cubs scared the Pirates by crossing the plate 17 times and then tallied 14 the next game. The Yankees scored 13, the Braves 10. The Astros closed the week with 12 more.

Yes, this is a Year of Offense, but this week alone highlighted how absurd — correction — wonderfully absurd this is. Great pitching and pitchers will also emerge and the thrill of 2 – 1 is undeniable, but, for now, we have to learn to live in the era where offense isn’t such king — it’s the entire kingdom. 

 1- Charlie Culberson’s Thumbs Up

In a week of high-profile injuries to Mike Trout and Christian Yelich, there was nothing harder to watch than Altanta Braves utility guy Charlie Culberson taking a Fernando Rodney pitch in the face on Saturday, September 14th. From long before Carl May’s pitch killed Ray Chapman in 1920 and on up until now, you can never truly overlook the danger that round piece of bundled rawhide and cork presents. 

Culberson crumbled to the ground after missing on a bunt attempt and the result, we now know, is a collection of fractures to his face and cheek bone. Time stops in these moments and the humanity of the game emerges. These unearthly sports stars are just mere mortals after all, and nobody wants to see something like this. Culberson was able to get up and was helped to a cart. He gave a thumbs up to us all — a tell-tale sign that this game is fast and hard, full of pain inside and out, but beneath it all is the hope of the next at-bat, inning, game, and comeback. See ya soon, Charlie. 


In the Bullpen…

Quick thoughts on the week ahead.

As we go to press, Cleveland and Tampa Bay are in a tight battle for the final American League wild card spot and have Oakland in their collective sights as well.  The Rays have the challenge of the Dodgers on their plate this week while Cleveland gets to host Detroit and Philadelphia. Big weeks for two teams with a lot left to say about this season’s post-season push.

Over in the senior circuit, the Cubs and Brewers are taking this down to the wire. One game currently separates them in the wild card race. Rizzo is hurt, but early MRI results report no fractures to a tender right ankle and the Brewers are trying to rally around each other with the absence of Yelich. Poor a beer and grab a deep-dish pizza — this is shaping up to a fun week in the N.L. Central.

Injured Yankees are starting to return. Uh oh. As if they needed any more help. Betances return went well, Jordan Montgomery’s didn’t, but the point is the gas tank is about to get topped off. Pay attention to how the return pieces help — or hinder — this team. 


This week in baseball history…

Last week was the 18th anniversary of 9/11, a human tragedy of giant proportions that undeniably has a bit of baseball tied into its entire story.

The games, of course, were almost immediately stopped as all aspects of our normal lives were pushed aside on that horrible day. But life has to go on and the path ahead, though hard to forge, is often built around those little things we love and need.

Laughter is often one of the first “normal” things to return following any tragedy, big or small and that leads to joy – a simple yet powerfully healing emotion. Baseball was part of that road back to joy for many and this coming week, Tuesday, September 17th, 2001, Major League Baseball returned to help heal the soul of the nation.

The New York ballclubs would have important returns to the wounded city a bit later — the Yankees returned from the road to play with the very dust and ashes of Ground Zero on them and the near spiritual experience that was Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run took place on the 21st.

However, Jack Buck’s emotional “Should we be here?” speech in St. Louis was the opening statement on the national pastime’s important return.

It’s just a game. A simple, silly game of ball, but it is built into the very fabric — good and bad — of this land.

America needed baseball in those dark days following the unbelievable reality that played out in front of us and this week in baseball history the game came back with the message that we were still standing. 


Remember when… 

… on the playgrounds and fields of our youths when we would spend way too much time practicing the fine art of mimicking the swings and pitching wind-ups of our favorite players?

It was a time-honored tradition, a shared inside experience and joke, and a way of communicating your love of the inherent beauty of the game. 

No matter the generation of baseball fan, there is always a plethora of swings and wind-ups to choose from. Despite the motions of baseball being a matter of mastering the exact science and discipline of movement, each swing is an individualized signature performance. A snowflake falling on the summer dirt of the diamond. 

For the kids of the 1980s, my generation, the choices were varied and the moments grand.

The sweeping swings of Darryl Strawberry and Will Clark were favorites. Who didn’t have Darryl’s coiled bat wiggle and powerful leg kick down pat? It didn’t stop there.

Eric Davis stood upright with a casual, tight swirl of the bat that exploded with line drives all around Riverfront Stadium. Willie McGee seemed to slap at the ball from a hunched over stance while Wade Boggs’ twirling hands led his compact swing to so many doubles off the monster.

You knew every part of these swings just as you knew Hershiser’s bulldog stare and the high knee of his leg kick or Dennis Eckersley’s side arm sling. 

You knew them all but had your favorites. I would try to match the herky-jerky beauty of the late Dan Quisenberry’s submarine-style and was an expert in reenacting the swing of Mark McGwire’s game-winning blast in game three of the 1988 World Series. (Sorry, Jay Howell fans.) 

If you’re from the previous generation, you probably have your list of favorites and if you are a fan who grew a bit later you don’t just have more to talk about — you have more video clips to watch and study!

(Yeah, I’m complaining that I had to memorize McGwire’s swing by just watching highlights when I could and not just bringing up a YouTube clip.) 

Fandoms have changed now. They consume their passions differently now. Toy collecting — once a staple of movie franchise fandoms — is not as powerful a tradition for young fans now and I wonder if that’s the same with baseball.

Are young fans running out to the park to play whiffle ball with their friends and demonstrating their best takes on Bryce Harper’s swing or Justin Verlander’s pitching motion? I’m not sure. I hope so. It would a shame to waste just great beauty in the box on display in each game.


Beyond The Book Price 

A quick glance at your favorite baseball cards

The 1987 Topps Vince Coleman is not a remarkable baseball card. The immediately classic wood grain border is there, sure, but it’s not even an action shot. Vince Coleman was the king of stolen bases then.

Both a current and future star that seemed to be running his way toward the Hall of Fame; no injuries or firecrackers would get in his way. Yet here he was on the ‘87 Topps card just staring over his shoulder… and it was hot commodity in my friend group.

One of my best friends at the time was a huge mark for Vince Coleman — and understandably.

Coleman was entering his third season and had already stolen 217 bases. He was our Lou Brock… but BETTER. (Time sorts things out, no?)

When I pulled the card out of a wax pack, it was like having a Wonka Golden Ticket fall into my lap. My friend had yet to get ahold of this card. I know had bartering power. 

For weeks, after church we’d gather at his house or mine or even just gather around our parent’s cars and pull out our cards. A trade was in the works. He wanted that Coleman, but what was it really worth? Priceless at the time, of course, but WHAT could I get for it? 

I had my eye on some prizes like an ‘86 Donruss Don Mattingly or a gold cup ‘87 Topps Wally Joyner. (A GREAT action shot!) but certainly that shouldn’t be all I get back for this coveted Coleman, right?

We bartered and negotiated like some playground Gordon Gekkos. The Mattingly was in play, but not the Joyner. This was Southern California after all, and that California Angels star was already a legend to many around me.

Could I squeeze out the cards of some lower tier names I coveted?

I was always partial to Expos backstop Mike Fitzgerald. Maybe Mike Pagliarulo was a good pairing with that Mattingly for a young Yankee fan like me? (Cut adrift in Dodger and Angele territory.) We went back and forth until the deal was finally completed.

And you know what? 

There is not even the faintest of memory floating around my brain about what I got back in return.

But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that 1987 Topps Vince Coleman inspired weeks and weeks of intense baseball joy and while that card currently sells online for about one dollar, the memory remains — like that card once was — priceless.


Walk Off Quote

“A baseball swing is a very finely tuned instrument. It is repetition, and more repetition, then a little more after that.” – Reggie Jackson

***


Ken Napzok once grew his hair out to match Dennis Eckersley’s mullet but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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