Baseball BeatSeptember 11, 2004
"Must Be in the Front Row"
By Rich Lederer

I went to the Toronto Blue Jays-Anaheim Angels game Thursday night. My older brother, daughter, her boyfriend, and I sat in the first row behind the Angels' dugout. The tickets were courtesy of a longtime friend of mine who had sent me an instant message earlier that day, asking if I had an interest in going to the game. I jumped at the opportunity and immediately got on the horn to round up my foursome.

We left a few minutes later than I would have liked, ran into some minor traffic on the freeway, and walked into the stadium as the game was just getting underway. We hurried to our seats, just in time to catch Orlando Hudson, the second batter of the game, ground out to second baseman Adam Kennedy. As Keith Olberman used to say, "4-3 for those of you scoring at home. Or even if youre by yourself!"

With two outs and nobody on, Vernon Wells reached first on an infield single, then Carlos Delgado drew a walk on a pitch that was "juuuust a bit outside" to steal a line from Bob Uecker in the movie "Major League." Alexis Rios, a string bean if there ever was one, struck out swinging against Jarrod Washburn to end the inning.

Dallas McPherson, a candidate to be named Minor League Player of the Year, spent the evening on the top step of the dugout leaning on the railing next to fellow third basemen Troy Glaus and Shane Halter. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugerr, Unknown. Call me skeptical unless the 24-year-old, 230-pound McPherson cuts down on his strikeouts while maintaining or adding to his walks (57 BB/169 SO in 521 AB in "AA" and "AAA" action this year).

Having never seen Ted Lilly pitch in person before, I was anxious to check out the Toronto southpaw. He has a casual delivery that makes you think he is doing nothing more than tossing batting practice. Lilly throws over the top and lands on a very stiff front leg without bending his back. The lefthander relies on throwing an assortment of pitches at varying speeds with pinpoint control. You might even say he throws slop.

A junk baller, Lilly had several instances in which he threw slow, slower, and slowest. He topped out at 91 mph and threw as many pitches in the 60s as he did in the 90s. Lilly spent most of the evening working in the 70s and 80s, throwing more off-speed pitches than fastballs.

Lilly's confrontation with Glaus in the bottom of the seventh was a microcosm of his outing, throwing consecutive pitches of 67, 78, 91, and 81--the first time I can recall ever witnessing four straight offerings to the same batter with different first-digit speeds.

When Eric Hinske and Frank Menechino came up to bat in the top of the second, it got me thinking about J.P. Ricciardi and the Oakland connection. After Hinske went down swinging, I look up at the scoreboard to check out Menechino's batting average (.285), on-base percentage (.387), and slugging average (.468) because I had no idea how he was doing this year. Not too bad, I think to myself. My brother observes that Menechino has "a Ron Cey body," a thick, squatty torso that makes him look more like a fire hydrant than a baseball player.

Garret Anderson, whose mug on the giant scoreboard in right field resembles the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, grounded out to first base to open the second inning. Given the higher than normal humidity in the air, I turned to my brother and said, "Unusual weather were having here, aint it?"

Delgado tattooed a Washburn offering in the third that cleared the wall in right center with plenty of room to spare. Delgados homer, the 27th of the season and 331st of his career, gave the Blue Jays a 5-0 lead. The blast by the 32-year-old, soon to be free agent prompted a chorus of boos directed toward Washburn, a pitcher who has struggled since the team's championship season in 2002.

By the way, can someone please explain to me the purpose of chalking the third-base coach's box? If I didn't know better, I'd swear that designated area must be the only place in foul territory where the coaches are not allowed to stand. Anaheim's Ron Roenicke and Toronto's Brian Butterfield didn't disappoint me, meandering everywhere other than inside the box. Upon further reflection, can a box really be three sided?

Vladimir Guerrero took Lilly deep in the fourth inning, jumping all over a fastball that landed at least 15 rows up in the left-field seats between the foul pole and the bullpen. Vlad's helmet, with as much pine tar and gunk on it as a Kirk Gibson bat, is a sight to behold up close. An immediate fan favorite upon his arrival in Anaheim, Guerrero is putting up an MVP-type season (.330, 30, 107) despite gimpy knees that are reminiscent of a broken-down colt.

In between frames, the scoreboard shows a video clip of former Angel Alex Johnson hitting a groundball to third and beating the throw to first to gain the necessary hit that enabled the enigmatic outfielder to nip Carl Yastrzemski for the 1970 American League batting title by .00037. Watching that highlight reminded me that Johnson was the fastest righthanded batter in the game during his heyday. Unfortunately, he rarely busted his butt on the base paths or in the field and his career was shorter and less productive than it would have been otherwise.

In the fifth, Lilly set up Chone Figgins with 72 and 62-mph breaking balls before getting him to fly to center on an 89-mph fastball that must have looked like a Randy Johnson heater to the Angel third baseman. The Toronto lefty then left a pitch up and Adam Kennedy deposited it into the right-field stands with his patented, upper-cut swing. It was A.K.'s tenth home run of the season.

At this point, Toronto manager John Gibbons could be seen stomping his feet in the dugout, bellowing, "Darn. Darn. Darn. Darn. Lilly." However, he let his starter work his way through the seventh inning and allowed him to retire the first batter--the lefthanded-hitting Darin Erstad--in the eighth before turning the game over to Jason Frasor and Justin Speier, who combined to shut down the Angels over the final 1 2/3 innings.

The Angels have made guessing the attendance a late-inning, multiple-choice quiz for a number of years, and I am here to tell you that the correct answer is invariably the second highest total on the board. It's not necessarily letter A or B or C or D. You see, the folks in the press box are smarter than that. They like to mix it up a bit. However, it is never the two lowest totals as that would just be calling unwanted attention to what might be perceived as a disappointing crowd. Conversely, it is the rare exception when the right answer is the highest figure as that must be "too obvious".

The announced attendance was 37,514. The Angels, on pace to shatter the franchise's all-time attendance record set last year, are averaging more than 41,000 fans per game in 2004--the third-highest total in the majors after the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Angels and Dodgers, in fact, are on the verge of setting a record this year for the most combined attendance in one market. Who said Los Angeles wasn't a baseball town?

In the bottom of the ninth, the Angels had their sixth, seventh, and eighth hitters coming up. It was a matter of having the "wrong players in the wrong game at the wrong time" as they went down 1-2-3, giving the last-place Blue Jays its second consecutive one-run victory over the playoff-contending Angels.

The only bad thing about sitting in the front row is when it's time to leave the stadium after the game ends. Despite having to "hurry up and wait" for all the other fans to file out first, we were able to walk to my car and exit the parking lot within ten minutes.

We listened to the post-game radio show on our way home, intent on learning who had gone yard that evening and then enduring a few irate callers who were second-guessing Mike Scioscia's decisions not to start Jeff DaVanon (for whom may I ask?), pull Washburn earlier in the game (despite not giving up a hit after the third inning), or pinch run for Bengie Molina in the seventh (even though the slow-footed catcher scored the Angels' fourth and final run of the evening).

Ahh, there's nothing like being a manager unless, of course, you can sit directly behind him.