The Babe Ruth specter wafted seemingly everywhere in New York the past few days, not the least of it enshrouding Seattle Mariners star righty Felix Hernandez, who also may have suffered something like a corollary version of the storied Curse of the Bambino.
Those of us making the obligatory 2008 pilgrimage to the soon-to-be-former House That Ruth Built might have considered the weekend a successful sentimental journey if only for seeing the Babe's daughter and grandson as part of Yankee Stadium festivities Saturday, June 21, while the Bronx Bummers were losing 6-0 to the Cincinnati Reds.
The true Ruthian display, abbreviated as it was, came two days later, but at Shea Stadium, where, as at the Yankee ballpark, a new adjacent facility is fleshing out for season openers next year. With three on in the second inning, King Felix already looked potentially more monarchical than ever. He had shut down the Mets, in order, to start the game. Then, in the second, he hammered a grand slam to right field. It was the first four-run shot by an American League pitcher since 1971.
That all you got, Felix? Not really. He retired the next six Mets, flirting with all kinds of statistical immortality until he gave up a hit to start the fourth. Through it all, one seemed to recall that the other Babe Ruth also could pitch and hit a little (though one doesn't remember whether George Herman Ruth ever got the bunt down as expertly as did Felix Hernandez Ruth during the fifth inning).
Then, in the bottom of the fifth, the versatile Hernandez dutifully covered home for a play at the plate. Replays looked like ugly football highlights. Felix, as I file this, may have only sprained an ankle, but, with this club, it could always be worse. It's as if this outfit simply can't make incremental progress without also taking the proverbial two limps back.
With a 5-2 win, the M's started yet another new-manager era by going 2-2 for former bench coach Jim Riggleman, a potentially ineffectual, short-term field boss team execs selected to replace ineffectual, short-term field boss John McLaren, who had replaced ineffectual field boss Mike Hargrove, who inherited the honors from ineffectual field boss Bob Melvin.
At the very least, the M's at Chez Shea had the marquee inter-league game of many a Monday evening. Starters Hernandez and the Mets' splendid lefty, Johan Santana, each had Cy Young-like numbers their most recent few starts. Every TV set in their natal Venezuela (and maybe even a few back in Seattle) must've been tuned in.
It had been a week that already seemed like half a season, since M's brass had dispatched general manager Bill Bavasi, replacing him with an interim decision-maker, 29-year company man Lee Pelekoudas. Ichiro Suzuki had been moved back to his apparently beloved right-field position. Starter Carlos Silva, tossed for potty-mouthing an ump June 16, lost again June 22. He hasn't won in his past 12 performances, yet another reason many will refrain from lamenting the departure of Bavasi, who signed Silva to a $48 million, four-year deal in December.
That takes us back to Bavasics. During his nearly five-season tenure, Bilked Bill seemed to have bought everything but the Ballard Bridge. The club's 2008 payroll of $117 million is about 20 percent greater than what it was in 2001, when the M's won 116 games. The way it's going, they could lose that many this year. As for losing, Bavasi oversaw the departures of Jamie Moyer, Carlos Guillen, Randy Winn, Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and at least a half-dozen others who have been productive elsewhere. In fairness, many who left were worthless as ballplayers. Unfortunately, many of them had been Bavasi acquisitions: Carl Everett, Jeff Weaver, Scott Spiezio, Horacio Ramirez, Pokey Reese, etc.
It would be terrific if fans could imagine that a change at the critical G.M. position would result in an immediate turnaround. It won't happen. For one, M's brass noted during their June 16 press conference that there's no point signing a permanent Bavasi successor until after post-season play is completed in late October.
As for the remainder of what many (this observer included) believed would be a pennant-chase year, team CEO Howard Lincoln said: "Everything is on the table." Well, not quite. One imagines Ichiro, the team's best attendance bait, Hernandez, and young gun Brandon Morrow are among the few untouchables on the roster. Possibly middle-infielders Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt are safe.
The problem with moving certain other players is that the team would have to absorb significant losses. Richie Sexson, who actually has raised his batting average modestly, would be owed about half of his $15.5 million salary if he were released today. If there were any interest by potential pennant-contenders in, say, Adrian Beltre or Raul Ibanez (or, less likely, Kenji Johjima), it no doubt would leave the M's having to pick up parts of the salaries. Arthur Rhodes, who earned the save against the Mets June 23, could draw some attention, but his departure would leave the team with little left-handed relief out of an already beat-up bullpen.
Bavasi, then, leaves the team impoverished, with little hope for an immediate turnaround. Yet, in fairness, bad luck had a lot to do with Bavasi's failures. During the first week of the current season, many of us were rhapsodic about the team's chances. The front-three starters, including Silva, Hernandez, and Erik Bedard, seemed capable of becoming the envy of the American League. The infield was said to be water-tight, defensively; expectations were that Sexson and Beltre would have bounce-back seasons at the plate. Ichiro, as always, would hit .320 or better. Closer J.J. Putz would be at least as dependable as he was during his 2007 career-year.
None of the above proved true.
A few of the scribes who attended the televised Bill-is-toast press conference later said they admire Bavasi for showing up at Safeco to speak to them before he left the park unemployed. I might have shared that admiration amid the otherwise somber atmosphere of the press box later that day were it not for the shot Bavasi took at Bedard. It isn't so much that the lefty pitcher hasn't been the savior imagined when he arrived from the Orioles in trade for Jones and Sherrill. I can't abide it because it doesn't even seem to occur to Bavasi that it was his job to vet this major acquisition before signing him. If anybody should have known Bedard could be gutless on the mound (he doesn't like to work more than 100 pitches) and a jerk with fans, media, and teammates, it should have been the guy who hired him, Bill Bavasi.
Players and even the execs who plotted the Bavasi and McLaren expulsions repeatedly claimed that the team's current worthlessness isn't the fault of either. Then again, they said the same a week earlier about batting mentor Jeff Pentland, who had just walked the plank of the Bad Ship Mariner.
The Mets, by June 23, had finally cut ties with field leader Willie Randolph after a protracted bad-mouthing by front-office managers of the one-time Yankee hero. Many drew parallels between the M's and the Mets, some missing the critical difference: At 37-37 coming into Monday, June 23, the Mets were just 3-1/2 games back and merely disappointing. Seattle was 26-49 and genuinely pathetic.
They still were, even after beating the Mets 5-2. The hope was that Felix had only sustained a sprained ankle. If true, the wish was that he'd emerge from the setback as quickly as the other Babe Ruth, who, as the myth goes, used to self-medicate such injuries with doses of rich food and strong water and be back on the field in a few days.