67 years ago yesterday, Jackie Robinson played in his first MLB game, officially breaking the color barrier and changing the landscape of baseball forever. Recently, MLB has seen a recent downturn in black players on starting rosters and have hosted diversity seminars to brainstorm ways to increase the diversity in the league. There is definitely a presence of Hispanic players in the league, and of course the increase of Asian players seems dripping with a ridiculous amount of international press coverage. But with college scholarships, larger signing bonuses, and societal expectations leading African-American potential players toward other professional sports (football and basketball jump to mind), there has been a steady decline in baseball, which is a shame because we all know baseball is so much better than every other sport.
Now, last year, on Jackie Robinson Day (and heightened by the release of his Hollywood biopic 42), I thought about how so many players wouldn’t have a career without that day almost seven decades ago, not just the black players but also those of Hispanic, Asian, or mixed heritage. And that got me thinking about the current roster for the Yankees. In fact, their entire starting rotation has benefited from this anniversary — Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Tanaka, and Pineda, arguably one of the best starting rotations in the entire league. Also on the Yankees are players of all sorts of backgrounds and ethnicities to back up their amazing starters. And to me, that reminds me of the very city they play in — New York is a ridiculous melting pot of ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity.
So, in the very city (or rather neighboring borough) that broke the barrier that prevented anyone from playing the greatest sport in the world, we have a wonderfully diverse team that is set on continuing the tradition for excellence in athletics, something Robinson himself certainly sought during his time in New York (albeit in Brooklyn).
In addition to celebrating Robinson tonight before the second game of the doubleheader, the Yankees honored the late Nelson Mandela, who visited New York and Yankee Stadium in 1990, shortly after he was released from serving 27 years in a South African prison for fighting for his country’s civil rights. Tonight, the Yankees unveiled a plaque to celebrate his life and work to help break the barrier in his country and support those around the world who sought to do the same. Robinson’s widow and daughter and Mandela’s grandson were present for the pre-game ceremony.
But today in the Bronx, it was quite chilly for the doubleheader against the Cubs (I’m thinking the players are more than a little anxious to leave the 40-something degree weather for the weekend series in sunny Florida). Because of the storm front yesterday that brought some late spring ice and snow to the area and the chilly temperatures, yesterday’s postponed game was played this afternoon. And it was Masahiro Tanaka‘s turn to dazzle the crowd once again with 107 pitches, 8 innings, just 2 hits (wimpy little bunts), and a walk. But what was spectacular was the 10 solid strikeouts, which set a record for Yankee pitchers at 28 in his first 3 games. No, he was something to watch again, and it just stunned the Cubs. Shawn Kelley came in for the save in the 9th, getting his 4th.
Carlos Beltran got the offense going with his fourth home run of the year right in the 1st inning. In the 4th, with bases loaded, Dean Anna hit a nice sacrifice fly to score a sliding McCann, who got in just under the tag. Gardner, on base with a ground-rule double in the 5th, scored on Ellsbury’s groundout, which came with its own bit of drama. Apparently, it should have been called a “catcher’s interference“, but because a run scored, the Yankees opted to take the out to allow the run to score (and only former catcher Girardi seemed to know and understand this part of the rule); had they gone with the interference call, Ellsbury would be on 1st, but Gardner couldn’t score on that play. It was more important for the run to score than an out to be called.
And so the Yankees sat at 3-0 for the first game.
Of course, the game was not without a little drama. The Cubs challenged two calls. The first one was a bunt in the 2nd inning that was initially called out, but replays and the umpires did confirm the Cubs challenge and overturned it. (It became one of the hits Tanaka “allowed”.) Then in the 7th, a short hopper deflected off Tanaka, which Anna grabbed on the infield grass and tossed to 1st to get the out. The Cubs challenged it, but replays and the umpires denied the challenge, and the out stood as called.
Game over, stadium cleaned, dinner break, pre-game ceremonies to honor Robinson and Mandela, and it was play ball part 2.
This time, Michael Pineda took the mound for his 6 innings, giving up 4 hits and a walk to the Cubs. Phelps, Thornton, and Warren (who would get the save) finished the last 3 innings to keep the Cubs scoreless. Unlike last time, there was no drama with Pineda, but the nail-biting 9th certainly threatened the Yankees lead and made the entire crowd (or whoever was left in tonight’s windy cold stands) groan, then cheer, then groan, then finally cheer.
Now, for the evening game, the Yankees racked up the hits with a total of 12 against the Cubs’ pitchers. But out of that, they only cobbled together 2 runs — a Gardner RBI single in the 4th and a Sizemore RBI single in the 5th. And that put the Yankees solidly at 2-0 for the second shutout of the day, and sweep of the Cubs during their 2-game stint in the Bronx.
Two amusing plays tonight: Alfonso Soriano made a long run into the side wall to catch a fly ball in the 6th that some grabby fans tried to reach over and take out of play, but Soriano grabbed it first and made the out with flair and panache that can only be described as “Sori-style”. And in the 3rd, Derek Jeter hit what should have easily been a groundout, but the 2nd baseman literally let the ball pass between his legs and slowly roll into the shallow infield; Jeter jogs his way all the way to 2nd, before anyone even laid hands (or glove) on the ball.
Okay, Scott Sizemore is looking more and more like a great grab for the Yankees, who went 2-for-3 at bat and made some very good defensive plays at 3rd. But with all the newer talent on the roster, it certainly seems like quite an upgrade (Solarte, Sizemore, Tanaka, Pineda, Johnson, and Beltran, just to name a few). Everyone (even those just “filling in”) seems to be contributing far and above expectations, and that gives me an early (and fairly solid) hope for October.
And on Jackie Robinson Day, it’s good to see a tradition of excellence continue in such full force.