Sometimes, I pinch myself. Figuratively though, never literally. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the ballpark across the street and called a Red Sox-Yankees game into my tape recorder. The game was sold out; I rested my scorebook and notes on my right thigh and the tape recorder on my left thigh all while trying not to invade the personal space of those sitting next to me. A good chunk of my play-by-play from that game – Luis Sojo hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of ninth off Rod Beck to win it for the Yankees – wound up on my first baseball demo tape. That tape landed me my first baseball play-by-play job. Fifteen years later, I’m on the opposite side of 161st Street at the new Yankee Stadium, eight subway stops from where I grew up, being paid to call a playoff game featuring my surprising Houston Astros squad against the New York Yankees. Sure, it’s “just” a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game but, in many ways, that raises the stakes. In a seven- or five-game series, losing the first game isn’t the end. However, losing the Wild Card Game is the end. Play six months to get into the postseason and it could be gone – Poof! – after one game, in which anything can happen; if you lose, it’s almost like you were never in the playoffs, the moment so fleeting.
The first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to Jose Altuve is a ball.
* * *
The 2015 season is my 14th year broadcasting baseball – seven years in the minors, seven in the Majors, a play-by-play guy in 10 of those seasons – and I’ve never been involved in a postseason game. As a matter of fact, in only one of the previous 13 seasons had a team I covered finished over .500; the 2004 Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. The Kings were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final week. The next year, the Kings won the league title, but I wasn’t there to see it; I’d moved on to the Binghamton Mets of the Double-A Eastern League by then. The B-Mets were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final day in 2006, but they split a doubleheader on that day to finish 70-70 & out of the playoffs.
What I learned this year was that, in the playoffs, the waiting is the hardest part. And the Astros had to wait longer than most to find out what was next for them. Going into the final day of the season on Sunday, there were four possible scenarios involving potential playoff or tiebreaker games in three different cities. After that day’s games concluded, the Astros were locked into the Wild Card Game in New York in two days, on Tuesday. Which meant a cross-country flight from Phoenix, arriving in New York – our third city on what was now at least a 9-day road trip – in the wee hours of Monday morning with a game scheduled for shortly after 8 pm local time on Tuesday. Being exhausted and sleeping through much of Monday morning did make the waiting any easier.
* * *
I was in the restroom when I heard it.
Colby Rasmus homered leading off the top of the second, a high, majestic shot to right; that appeared to be more than enough run support for Astros ace, and Yankees killer, Dallas Keuchel. I took my customary break when the top of the fourth inning began, turning the play-by-play over to Steve Sparks – my broadcast partner – which always mean a stop at the facilities. I’d just parked at a urinal when I heard the smooth, but booming, voice of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling over the restroom speakers announce that Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth for a home run. Astros 2, Yankees 0. I’ve been in baseball long enough to know the game isn’t won until the last out is recorded, but I was confident the Astros were going to advance.
* * *
I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. The off-day Monday was needed to get over the grogginess associated with a late cross-country flight from Phoenix and to recharge my batteries after a 162-game regular season which included tension-filled games for most of the season’s final month. Monday was a great day to relax, go for a long walk & visit some friends & relatives in my hometown. Tuesday, it was time to get down to business.
I huddled at the desk in front of my laptop & iPad much of the morning. I updated my notes on the Yankees & made sure I had all the information I needed & wanted. Notes on the Astros’ postseason history and regular-season history against the Yankees were typed. This was my first time preparing for a playoff game, so I was learning as I went. Sure, I’d prepared for plenty of regular-season games, but this was different. How much work should I do for just one game? What information do I absolutely need & what information can be put on the back burner? By the time I closed my laptop & iPad, I felt pretty good about my preparation. I never get nervous for a broadcast if I know I’m prepared. I wasn’t nervous.
* * *
A two-run lead with Dallas Keuchel on the mound against the Yankees felt like a 10-run lead. Keuchel – who hadn’t allowed a run to the Yankees in the regular season – didn’t even allow many hard-hit outs. Alex Rodriguez did punish a pitch that George Springer ran down in the rightfield corner. The three hits Keuchel allowed – all singles – were harmless. He walked Astros nemesis Chris Young in the first inning, but that was the only free pass Keuchel allowed. The Astros got Keuchel another run in the seventh, when Jose Altuve poked a low-and-away pitch – a pitcher’s pitch – from Yankees reliever Dellin Betances into leftfield, scoring Jonathan Villar from second base. Keuchel handed a 3-0 lead to the bullpen – good most of the year, but shaky in September – when he departed after six innings.
* * *
I really wanted Caribbean food.
Houston is a great city with fantastic restaurants & plenty of ethnic food options, but finding good Caribbean food has proven to be difficult. Since moving to Houston, I’d heard of one Puerto Rican restaurant, which I tried & found lacking. Another Jamaican restaurant I read about on the Internet wasn’t up to snuff, at least not to me. A second Jamaican restaurant recommended to me by a friend had proven to be the real deal. So, Houston was 1 for 3 in the Caribbean restaurant department – a great ratio for a hitter, but not for my taste buds.
Growing up in the Bronx in a neighborhood filled with people from all over the Caribbean, I developed an appreciation for their food & culture. And I was confident I’d be able to find a good Caribbean restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan hotel for lunch before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game. A search on Yelp turned up a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen across town. Probably a 15-minute cab ride. Google Maps said it was a 30-minute walk. I was confident I could walk there in 20 minutes.
* * *
I felt a sense of calm when I saw Tony Sipp enter the game from the bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. The southpaw finished the regular season strong & matched up well against a Yankees lineup laden with lefthanded hitters and switch hitters. My calm was justified when Sipp worked around a one-out walk to Chase Headley, retiring the other three Yankees he faced in the inning. I was thrilled to see Will Harris enter the game in the eighth. Harris would’ve probably started the year in the minor leagues if it hadn’t been for injuries to other pitchers, but he never saw the minors in 2015, pitching well all year & earning the right to be the eighth-inning setup man in a winner-take-all playoff game. The Yankees went down in order against Harris, the ball not leaving the infield.
One more inning.
* * *
I haven’t been a full-time resident of New York City in over 13 years. Yet, getting back into The City’s routine, the hustle & bustle, is never an adjustment for me. As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. The streets were packed, as they always are around lunchtime in Midtown Manhattan. Office workers flood outside in the afternoons, seeking food. Many use their afternoon lunch breaks to smoke a cigarette or two, either in front of their office building or on their way to & from lunch (New York City has the most stringent non-smoking laws in the country, & public sidewalks are just about the only place where it’s legal to smoke outside of one’s private residence. For now).
The City’s geography is always in my head as I traverse Manhattan. For a New Yorker, memorizing the north-south avenues in order is tantamount to knowing your multiplication tables. The Puerto Rican restaurant was on 51st Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. I left the Astros’ hotel, on 42nd Street, just east of Third Avenue, & quickly made my way to Lexington Avenue, before briskly walking uptown. I use the traffic lights to determine my moves. A red light at 44th Street meant making a left turn & walking west to Park Avenue, where I barely made the light before a red at Madison Avenue forced me back uptown. I made it through the pedestrian plaza that’s become Times Square before shooting up 8th Avenue for a few blocks. Construction on 9th Avenue forced me uptown again. I finally made it to 51st Street, a residential block with one storefront – the Puerto Rican restaurant. The beautiful fall weather meant my walk across town at light speed didn’t cause me to break a sweat or to be out of breath.
* * *
Yankees closer Andrew Miller was his usual dominant self in the top of the ninth, retiring the Astros on a harmless fly ball & two strikeouts. As Astros closer Luke Gregerson made his way from the visitor’s bullpen to the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd was trying to summon up the strength to cheer their team to a rally, but it was obvious their heart wasn’t in it. Sparks pulled out the t-shirt & shorts he wore when he covered the Astros’ Champagne-fueled celebration from the clubhouse in Phoenix just two days prior; it was his job to get post-game interviews with players & coaches during every Astros clinching celebration. I’d just gotten back on the air when Sparks motioned to me that he was heading downstairs to prepare for another postgame party.
* * *
I stood behind four other patrons waiting to place their order; there was barely enough room for the short line. The restaurant was dominated by the kitchen & food prep area on the right. On the left was a narrow area with three sets of tables & chairs. One table was occupied by two women who were finishing their lunch. It quickly became obvious I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I felt right at home.
I was in line for a few minutes when a restaurant employee approached me.
“You eat here?” He asked me in a thick accent.
“Yes, I’m going to have lunch here. Not to go.”
“Sit! Sit!” He implored, waving toward a table. “I take care of you. Gimme 5 minutes. You want soda?”
I answered in the affirmative as I followed his instructions. Five minutes later, he asked me what I wanted to eat. I never saw a menu, but I didn’t need one. I settled on baked chicken with yellow rice (arroz con pollo) with plantains. “Maduros,” I told him, meaning I wanted the soft, sweet plantains, rather than the hard, salty ones. The food came quickly & in the large portions typical of a Caribbean restaurant. When I finished, I walked to the counter, which separated me from a short, raven-haired woman. After glancing at the chicken bones & stray pieces of rice remaining on my plate, she asked me if I had a soda. I told her I had. “Eight dollars,” she said. An eight dollar lunch in Manhattan? It’s a miracle!
The walk back to the hotel was a little longer than the walk to the restaurant. A full stomach will do that to you.
* * *
When he was with the Astros in 2004, Carlos Beltran turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. However, he spurned the Astros for the Mets in free agency that winter & many Astros fans still boo him whenever he returns to Minute Maid Park. So, I’m sure many Astros fans took an extra bit of satisfaction in seeing him strike out swinging to begin the bottom of the ninth. The next hitter, Rodriguez, also struck out.
One out remaining.
* * *
I always try to take a 20-30 minute nap before I head to the ballpark. Even if I just close my eyes & don’t fall asleep, I feel refreshed & am less likely to get tired later in the day. Given how excited I was, it was a little surprising to me that I was able to doze off so easily after I slipped out of my shoes, packed my briefcase, fluffed up two pillows & laid face up on top of the bedspread.
Whenever I wake up from my early afternoon naps, I’m like a bucking bronco when the gate opens, & today was no exception. I bolted out of bed, quickly slipped on my shoes & grabbed my briefcase before storming out of the hotel room. After checking out at the front desk, I expertly wheeled my briefcase through the endless pedestrian traffic on my way to the subway station. I happened to arrive on the platform just as the 4 train was entering the station, which, to many New Yorkers, is tantamount to winning the lottery.
After arriving at my stop, I briskly walked to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t wait to unpack, get settled in & to start my day.
* * *
One of the things I love about doing play-by-play is the unpredictability & spontaneity; you never know what you’re going to see & you usually don’t know exactly how you’re going to call something until it happens. I rarely think about what I’m going to say before it comes out of my mouth. Even when I give speeches, I never write them down verbatim; maybe I’ll jot down some brief notes or bullet points if I write anything down at all. However, when the final out was recorded, I knew exactly what I was going to say long before I said it, a rarity for me.
I’d been thinking about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Theme from New York, New York,” which is played after every Yankees home game, win or lose. I used to work in Kansas City, where I covered the Royals; after their wins, they play Wilbert Harrison’s version of “Kansas City” at Kauffman Stadium. The winner of this game was going to play the Royals in the American League Division Series, with the first two games in Kansas City. If the Astros won, I knew what I wanted to say, & it would incorporate elements from both songs.
Brian McCann stood in for the Yankees, their final chance to extend the game. The drama was quickly extinguished when Gregerson got him to swing at the first pitch.
“Ground ball, right into the shift! Fielded by Correa to the left of second. Throws to first, in time! And that is the ball game! Start spreadin’ the news, the Houston Astros win the AL Wild Card Game, beating the New York Yankees three to nothing! Kansas City, here they come!”
A perfect ending to a perfect day.