The Seattle Mariners launched their odyssey through the nation'ês glam capitals by showing those who heart New York and Los Angeles that a beat-up ball club struggling to stay at .500 can win on the road, even with Jack Nicholson rooting against it.
'êWinning,'ê while out of town, paradoxically means breaking even. That'ês what the M'ês did through six games against the Yankees and Dodgers. Just one 'êW'ê against the intrepid Red Sox during Independence Day weekend would be considered within the organization as a 'êsuccessful'ê 4-5 bicoastal road trip. A sweep in Beantown would mean a sensational, perhaps season-changing 6-3 and a legitimate claim to contending against the Angels and Rangers for the American League West pennant.
New Yankee Stadium (it cost a billion-five and, yes, Joe Dimaggio, for all that it will also make your coffee for you) might have been a daunting spot to play for any Mariner aside from the veteran guys: Ken Griffey Jr., Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Sweeney, and a few of the pitchers. The July 2 guest appearance in the non-cheap seats (what'ês a thou-something for a field-side baseball ducat?) by Nicholson, usually an L.A. rather than a N.Y. sports partisan, reinforced the glamour aspect of big-time sports in the pre-eminent show-biz city.
The first two nights in Tall Town the M'ês stayed close to their opponent during early innings. Late in the games they played like rubes who couldn'êt wait to get back to their rooms at the Y on West 135th Street, losing 8-5 and 4-2.
On Wednesday (July 1) Russell Branyan was Russell Fan-yan. The M'ês first-baseman, a solid off-season acquisition and otherwise reliable hitter, struck out in each of four at-bats. In baseball parlance, four K'ês is known as The Golden Sombrero (no term exists for striking out seven-straight times, as Branyan eventually did during the July 1 and 2 games, though 'êPlatinum Sombrero'ê might apply).
But at Yankee Stadium no sombrero is broad enough to shield opposing players from the wrath of irreverent fans. Indeed, after Ichiro somehow flat-handed a fly ball for an error during the finale, the Bronx jeer erupted every time a ball was hit his way. Ichiro'ês answer: a two-strike, opposite-field, two-run double with two outs in the fourth: Jeer this, you bleacher bleeps. Ich'ês next at-bat was an intentional walk. By the then the jeers had died down.
Here again, most of the M'ês aren'êt exactly battle-tested veterans, let alone everyday players. Half of those reading this probably could hit at least as well as Ronny Cedeno, subbing for Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop while Chris Woodward stands in for Adrian Beltre at third base. Nor was new acquisition Ryan Langerhans (acquired in a trade for Mike Morse, never given a fair shake by the M'ês) a grizzled vet. But the left-fielder from the Washington Nationals had a hit in his first M'ês at-bat and another one later.
Overcoming injuries has been the main triumph during the road trip. The team misses two critical infielders and their nominal top left-handed starter, Erik Bedard, slated to play again July 8 when the M'ês are back home. The greatest gut-out by a pitcher this season may have been the case of Jason Vargas going out July 2 with pukey flu symptoms and delivering four innings before leaving with a 6-4 lead.
Oh, yeah, and there was that other gut job. Yes, Branyan fanned like an air-conditioner. He'ês said to be tired, but apparently not that tired. In the ninth, amid the jeering befitting a seven-K guy, he drove one over the fence with Ichiro aboard, punctuating the 8-4 victory and shutting up the locals.
The way the M'ês comported themselves, maybe the New York fans ought to forget about Bronx cheers or jeers and, when they contemplate the post-season, think about Seattle as their main challenger for A.L. wild-card playoff team. Call it their Bronx fears. Fans at Yankee Stadium should have asked Jack Nicholson whether HE now thinks the 'ê09 M'ês are the truth. Maybe he could have reprised his familiar line from 'êA Few Good Men,'ê which the M'ês seem to have become: 'êYou can'êt handle the truth.'ê