Peter White, one of the authors at the USS Mariner was in town this week and got together with Alex Ciepley and me last night for eats. Ciepley had us over his place on the Upper West Side and made a delicious Thai meal. We caught bits and pieces of the Yankee game thoughout the evening. White is a good-natured guy, originally from Tulsa, and a classic Yankee-hater. But he wasn't hostile and it was fun watching the game with him, seeing the Yanks from his perspective. Interestingly, the two Yankees he not only tolerates but admires happen to be my two favorites: Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. Of course, Alex Rodriguez is his least-favorite Yankee, a bonafide Judas if there ever was one. Peter likened him to Anakin Skywalker.
Given the company--Ciepley hates the Yankees too--it is fitting that the Bombers suffered an almost comic loss last night. Al Leiter was in fine, dramatic form--as if every inning, every batter, each pitch, was the last act of "Camille." (Or "Macbeth," or "The Iceman Cometh"...insert your favorite melodrama here.) At this point, Leiter looks more like an actor than he does a great athlete which makes him even more compelling. Like other great Yankee dramatists in recent years (Cone and El Duque come to mind), Leiter doesn't have much left in the tank in terms of pure stuff, but he's got career's worth of guile and expertise by his side. If he has to go to 3-2 on every hitter (which he often does), and load the bases before he gets an out (ditto), he'll do it. This kind of living-on-the-edge style of pitching can be infuriating to watch, but as uncomfortable as it is at times, I've always found it entertaining and admirable. It's hard for me not to appreciate the humanity in it. Leiter is probably smarter than he ever was, but there is a disconnect between his intelligence and his physical ability. Mistake pitches are not fouled off, they are crushed for home runs. Everything is so hard-earned. You become aware of just how hard it is to get major league hitter's out.
Anyhow, Leiter loaded the bases many times, and threw about 7,000 pitches by the fourth inning. He wasn't terrible and allowed one run over five innings (115 pitches). But the Twins scored six runs off the Yankee bullpen (Sturtze, Proctor, Graman) while Johan Santana pitched seven scoreless. The Yanks came close at moments, but not close enough. In the third, Alex Rodriguez narrowly missed hitting a three-run home run to left, flying out to the warning track instead; in the eighth, he would just get under another one and fly out to deep center.
The Yanks did manage to score three times in the eighth, then Bernie Williams hit what looked to be a game-tying three-run dinger to right field off Joe Nathan. I got out of my chair and yelled. But the ball hooked foul and for the third time in the game, I looked foolish. (I don't know what it was, but my home-run-call judgement was way off last night.) Williams, who, like Leiter is playing the final games of his career, struck out on the next pitch, a nasty splitter in the dirt.
Rodriguez capped a frustrating night by striking-out looking to end the game. Nathan threw two fastballs by him, wasted another up and away and then painted the outside corner with a heater, a perfect, unhittable pitch. Twins 6, Yanks 3. Happy Birthday indeed. Lots of humble pie to go around for the Bombers, who fell another game behind Boston who beat the Devil Rays yesterday.
Speaking of which, the final bit of comedy--or tragedy, depending on your viewpoint--is that the Yankees have signed Hideo Nomo. It says something about the state of affairs when the Yankees pick up a guy like Nomo who was cut by the last-place Devil Rays. Ciepley and White got a kick out of that. I could only laugh to keep from crying.